How a variety of early players have emerged in the footsteps of Alibaba

Zoé Kahn

Following in the footsteps of Alibaba, several marketplaces came into existence. Some of them building on an already solid network of both sellers and buyers, some of them starting from scratch...

ThomasNet is the best example of the first kind, they leveraged their extensive knowledge of American manufacturing suppliers. Indeed the firm dates back to the early 20th century, at a time when its core business was publishing a registry of all American manufacturers.

Others tried to surf on the potential of newly opened markets, like EC21 in South Korea, or India Mart and Trade India for the eponymous market... Most of them managed to make it to today, some others didn’t. And the spectacular failure of PEP market and Commerce One are here to remind us that B2B marketplaces are a very competitive playing field.

However diverse they may seem, first generation B2B marketplaces followed a rather simple pattern; they focused on a specific geography and/or on a specific product.

Indeed, the B2B universe has more constraints embedded; sales cycles are longer, quantities are larger, expectations are higher. This makes it difficult for a single player to emerge as dominant, unlike in B2C marketplaces where the duopoly Alibaba Amazon crushes down competition. In the B2B world, there is room for various actors.

If we were to further divide first generation B2B marketplaces, we could differentiate between generalist B2B marketplaces, vertical marketplaces (industry specific) and service marketplaces.

Generalist B2B marketplaces

Their product assortment and their customer base is really broad. You can find pretty much everything you want, and since the onboarding process is not tightly monitored, you don’t need to be a pro to join the marketplace. The lack of confidentiality and industry specific features explains why price is a key differentiation element on those platforms. Proven leaders are:

  • China: Alibaba - 18M buyers
  • USA: ThomasNet - 1.8M buyers
  • India: TradeIndia - 1.6M buyers
  • South-Korea: EC21 - 1M buyers

Vertical marketplaces

These marketplaces are more recent. They have been created later (after 2010) because their level of complexity is much higher than in generalist marketplaces. Indeed they adapt to the specificities of each sector, and enforce a stricter onboarding process. Companies willing to join need registration and approval from the operator before accessing products and prices. Most of the time, suppliers can adapt their price and product categories to each client browsing their shop. Emerging leaders are:

  • Fashion / USA: Joor
  • Sourcing / USA: Makers Row
  • Craft / USA: Etsy, wholesale section - 20k buyers
  • Beauty / USA : Salon Centric
  • Spirits/ USA: SevenFifty
  • Industrial supplies: Systemax

Service Marketplaces

Services B2B marketplaces are most of the time global and public. The buying process is very different from physical goods marketplaces. Most of the time you do not choose a supplier or an offer, but send a request for quotation through the system, and receive offers from all the service providers. Hence buyers generally can not browse seller profiles.

  • Freelances / World : Upwork
  • Micro Services / World : Fiverr
  • Music / World : AudioNetwork
  • Outsourcing / USA: Blur


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