There are few off-the-shelf platforms that have a useful setup with many features. Yet there are certain scenarios in which these are a perfect solution. If your business is a small local marketplace and you intend to keep it that way, and your business requirements fit the default functionalities offered on these platforms, then this is a good way to go.

For example, say you have an urban farm community for exchanging goods and have no aspirations to go national (let alone global) and are just looking to maintain a nice small steady income, then an off-the-shelf solution could be a option.

When is an off-the-shelf solution not a solution?

1. I eventually want to fundraise

There are a few key elements investors in any tech company will want. #1 above all is owning unique IP nobody else has. When you use an off-the-shelf solution you are copying what anyone else could also copy.

2. When you have a secret sauce

Your secret sauce is what makes your company unique: your secret algorithms, custom user interface, deep domain knowledge, unique features. However, if you are on a shared off-the-shelf platform, you lose that special uniqueness.

When off-the-shelf platforms speak of “customization,” they are talking within their strict parameters. You can change colors, fonts, images but not much (if anything) in terms of functionality. And there’s a good reason for that. The solution can be leased to you relatively cheaply because there is one code base for everyone. So maintenance is centralized. If they allowed for true customization, they would have many derivatives of the code base and need to support all of them thus driving their costs (and yours) through the roof. That would kill their main value proposition. So they cannot do that nor will they down the road.

3. The features, oh the features!

Off-the-shelf solutions tend to be full of general features most of which you will not use because they are not specific to your needs. Much like all those great apps on your phone, they seem great but you never use them. So you look and think “wow, this does everything” until you start using it and realize that key features that are unique to your business are not there and you have to see if you can cobble together a work around, forcing square pegs through round holes or just doing the missing part manually. Clearly not a strategy for growth.

4. Speaking of growth

The off-the-shelf solutions are not designed for major growth with multi-server platforms handling large spikes in traffic. You might need partner integration, API, or other unique workflow. So you will have to rebuild your marketplace ideally with a specialized developer team who can build you a site for growth in which you will own the IP and for which you will have every feature you need to be successful.

Show me the money

To date there are no real successful cases that we are aware of that got funding or acquired while having their marketplace on a off-the-shelf solution. If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it: peter@campusonfire.com.

This will be my MVP

There was a time when that was a viable strategy. Here’s the problem. You know all those apps on your phone we were just referencing? Well, you’re a sophisticated consumer and guess what? Everyone else is now, too. Thanks to Facebook, Google, and Youtube, the bar has been raised significantly. Users expect not just an ok experience, they expect an excellent experience. And what’s worse, they don’t even realize they are expecting a lot. We’ve declared the MVP dead and it has been replaced by MLP, Most Lovable Product (we didn’t coin the phrase). The name says it all.

Our recommended strategy is go deep and do it really well rather than wide and shallow. To go deep you need a custom build. There are countless stories of founders having a great idea, dropping the ball on execution, and someone else comes in, sees the mistake, does the build right, and wins. While a great idea may be great, it is simply not enough to have a successful marketplace. You must build an experience at the outset that can live up to your great idea.

Conclusion

If this is a hobby or just a mom-and-pop set up, then an off-the-shelf solution is the way to go. If you have big projections in your business plan, will want funding or will want to sell someday, this is not your solution.

Peter Burnes
Peter has been building marketplace websites for 10 years. He is a co-founder of Campus On Fire and founder of Brooklyn-based design firm Lúgh Studio.