I never used to be a reader. I read the odd book when necessary for school, and I absolutely devoured the Harry Potter series as a kid, but the shadow of that franchise loomed large. How could I ever read anything better? Fortunately, I met my wife, an avid reader, who not only (and wisely) decided we would not have a television in our bedroom (a request that a younger me would have immediately said no to—I guess love makes you do crazy things), but also reintroduced me to reading. I set out to read more, giving myself the challenge of reading at least twenty-four books this year, twelve of which would be about product marketing, marketing, or business in an attempt to use reading and books as a form of professional development.
I am writing this article with pride, because not only did I end up reading twenty-eight books this year, but twelve of them were professional development-focused (yay me). After taking a look back at those books, I realized that many of them told stories, taught lessons, or uncovered insights that became extremely helpful in my role as a Product Marketing Manager at Voices.com, an online marketplace connecting voice over actors to the businesses and individuals looking to hire them). In the hopes of encouraging others to read more and to help point them in the right direction, I’ve put together a list of books that I feel are must-reads for any Product Marketer working for an online marketplace (often referred to as multi-sided platforms).
So without further adieu, here is my list, complete with a brief overview of each book, one (of many) key insights found within, and a link to buy it on Amazon. Read on!
Books about understanding online marketplaces
The Lean Marketplace: A Practical Guide to Building a Successful Online Marketplace Business - Juho Makkonen and Cristóbal Gracia
For any Product Marketer that finds themselves on the ride of a lifetime as part of a marketplace start-up, this book is essential reading. In it, Makkonen and Gracia provide a step-by-step guide to building a marketplace platform from the ground up, including a genuinely impressive number of linked articles, resources, frameworks, and tools, which can be leveraged to provide additional detail and guidance. It’s an informative yet easy read that doesn’t get too bogged down in technicalities or dense language. Throughout the book, the authors connect concepts and theory to practice, using the example of a hypothetical marketplace that connects personal trainers to people looking for one. I can’t recommend this one enough.
Key Insight: Establishing trust between your marketplace and its customers, and between buyers and sellers, is fundamental to your platform’s growth and success.
Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms - David S. Evans and Richard Schmalensee
Leaning on the story of OpenTable (one of the earliest and most pioneering marketplace platforms), the authors break down the online marketplace into its purest form, a place where buyers and sellers are matched to one another, either physically or virtually, to exchange value. Using examples like OpenTable, nightclubs, YouTube, Ali, and many others, Evans and Schmalensee outline the things marketplaces need to consider and focus on in order to reach critical mass—the optimal number of buyers and sellers needed to achieve a sustainable volume of exchanges (i.e. transfer of goods or services) that produces enough value for buyers, sellers, and the marketplace itself. While some of the topics discussed in this book are a bit more dense and technical, the authors balance them well by connecting them to real-world examples. This is a perfect read for people who prefer to see how theories play out in the real world and what separates good execution from poor execution.
Key Insight: There is no silver bullet for achieving critical mass; however, there are lessons to be learned from successful (and unsuccessful) marketplaces to help you understand what to do, and what not to do.
Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work for You - by Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, and Sangeet Paul Choudary
If you’re a fan of economic theory, this is the book for you. Of all three books listed in this section, this one is by far the most academic. I don’t say that to put you off reading it; instead, I think it’s fair that you know what you’re getting yourself into before you pick this book up. If you’re not scared off by the concept of network effects, then this book is a goldmine of information. In it, the three authors provide a technical approach to designing and building a marketplace, focusing on network effects, value creation, governance, and the age old problem of the chicken and the egg—in other words, where a marketplace should focus its efforts first, the buyers or suppliers. A significant amount of research and analysis went into this one, so you can rest assured that the recommendations are objective and analytical, rather than built upon opinions or a subjective approach.
Key Insight: Governance (i.e. the rules and codes of conduct that outline how buyers, sellers, and the marketplace interact with one another) is not only fundamental to the creation of a marketplace, but can also be directly tied to the overall success and longevity of that marketplace.
Books about Successful Online Marketplaces
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon - by Brad Stone
This is the book that ignited my fascination with marketplaces (well, that and getting a job at one of course). There is a lot that has been written about Amazon, arguably way too much to unpack here, so don’t take this recommendation as a form of support or critique of Amazon’s business practices. I’d be remiss if I let Amazon’s well-documented missteps (to put it extremely lightly) deter me from including this fantastic book on my list. In it, Stone tells the story of Bezos and Amazon—from the plucky basement start-up that sold books online to the monolithic brand and company it is today. Where this book becomes essential reading for Product Marketers is when it dives into Amazon’s strategy of category expansion. When a marketplace looks to grow, Amazon and Bezos provide a blueprint of how to look to complementary categories for growth opportunities. I highly recommend this book for those looking to better understand the who and how of Bezos and Amazon.
Key Insight: Once you’ve mastered a category (e.g. books), look to complementary or related ones (e.g. movies and DVDs) that balance logistical similarities (i.e. books, movies, and DVDs are all similar in shape, which makes going from shipping one to the other an easy transition) and market interests (i.e. both are forms of entertainment that are purchased in a similar fashion).
The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World - by Brad Stone
This book, the second by Stone on this list, is what put me on to his work and ultimately led me to read The Everything Store. In The Upstarts, Stone takes a similar approach by focusing on two of the most well-known marketplace disruptors, Airbnb and Uber, and the young entrepreneurs who started them. Stone tells the stories of both of these now massive companies and their similar growing pains. Specifically, he lays out their approach against the backdrop of bureaucratic, regulatory, and market pressure each faced as they spread into new markets and began their explosive growth. This is a great book for those who enjoy a good story while learning about the do’s and don'ts of building, running, and growing an online marketplace.
Key Insight: When launching an online marketplace in an industry or space where one doesn’t already exist, expect and plan for some kind of significant pushback, either from incumbents who don’t appreciate your disruption or the regulators and bureaucrats said incumbents will inevitably look to for help.
Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future - by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson
Who doesn’t love a good trend? Trends are often well-summarized and translate overarching and complex patterns and observations into easy-to-understand ideas. If you’re a fan of trends like I am, you’ll enjoy this one from McAfee and Brynjolfsson. In their book, the authors identify three key trends, which they feel represent ‘The Triple Revolution’ to the business landscape and pose serious challenges and opportunities for established and new companies alike:
- Machine: the exponential growth in processing and computational power of modern computers (or, more simply, machines) which has greatly improved what they are capable of doing, or problems they can solve;
- Platform: the emergence of marketplaces and their disrupting effects on traditional markets and their incumbents;
- Crowd: the ease with which people and businesses can tap global knowledge and human capital to collaboratively address and solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.
Key Insight: Businesses that fail to recognize, address, adapt to, and leverage one or all of these trends are doomed to irrelevance in the not-too-distant future.
Books about relevant product marketing skills
There are a lot of books I could include in this section, but if someone’s already done the work, why bother repeating it? With that in mind, let me point you in the direction of this fantastic article, and highlight three books in particular from that list that I feel are relevant for Product Marketers who find themselves working for online marketplaces:
- Building a Story Brand - Donald Miller
Buyers and sellers on online marketplaces are not unlike other consumers in that they understand best when told a story. This book provides a fantastic framework for crafting your marketplace’s story for both buyers and sellers and ensuring they are the focus and the heroes of said story.
2. Obviously Awesome - April Dunford
Every business, including marketplace platforms, needs to be master of their own positioning. Dunford (who is a friend to PMA) provides a practical and immensely helpful guide to uncover your marketplace’s position.
3. Buyer Personas - Adele Revella
Understanding your buyers and sellers is key to your marketplace’s success—simple but true. In her fantastic book, Revella provides the tools necessary to conduct buyer persona interviews that will help you establish your marketplace buyer and seller personas, something that is fundamental to properly positioning, messaging, and ultimately selling to them.
The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience Into Your Competitive Advantage - Roland Smart
This book is a bit less specific to online marketplaces, but is still very helpful.
Since most developers of online marketplaces use ‘Agile Development’ to build the marketplace itself, logic would argue that those working for online marketplaces should consider taking what works from that approach and applying it to their own practices. In his book, Smart provides an easy-to-understand definition of Agile Development and outlines how Markets (and by extension Product Marketers) can adopt certain agile practices to get ideas out the door faster. Being agile is key to a marketplace’s success—as with anything online, things move fast. If you and your marketplace can’t keep up, your buyers and sellers will look elsewhere for the value they are seeking.
Key Insight: Agile is not a term that should be confined to a marketplace’s IT, Product, and Development Teams. Instead, Product Marketers (and the Marketing Team as a whole) should consider adopting certain agile practices to test ideas and bring them to market faster.
Books about creativity and inspiration
While I recognize I’m a bit biased, I would argue that Product Marketers are some of the most creative individuals within any organization. The ability to dynamically create positioning, messaging, storytelling, and sales enablement material based on the everchanging competitor and market landscape is a skill that is deeply rooted in creativity. I’ve added this bonus section to highlight books that provide guidance on how to be more creative, or tell inspiring stories and uncover helpful insights about creativity and business that Product Marketers can leverage in their own careers.
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration - Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
Who doesn’t love Pixar? While some may be ashamed to admit it (although I’m honestly not sure why), Pixar movies are fantastic, even if you take them at face value as movies for kids (which I would argue is a very poor take). They represent some of the most creative displays of technology and storytelling, and their box office success, critical acclaim, merchandising profits, and multi-billion dollar acquisition by Disney are proof of that claim. In this book, Ed Catmull, with help from Amy Wallace, tells the story of Pixar from inception to modern day success story, focusing largely on Ed Catmull’s career and the production and release of Toy Story. Throughout the story, Catmull and Wallace identify the policies, practices, and protections Pixar’s leadership put in place to foster an environment of creativity, all of which can be translated and borrowed by businesses and marketplaces alike. For any Pixar fan and Product Marketer, this is a must read. (It was good enough to make the PMA list, so that should count for something too).
Key Insight: A business can and should establish a set of either explicit or implicit policies, and build a culture around fostering and preserving creativity in a way that can directly lead to personal, professional, and financial successes.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company - Robert Iger and Joel Lovell
There has only ever been one business-related book to ever move me to tears (and I’m not ashamed to admit that), and that is this one. In this book, Robert Iger walks us through his truly remarkable career at Disney, opening with his handling of the tragic and accidental death of a child at one of Disney’s theme parks (as a father, this part of the book had me reeling). Tragedy aside, this book is chock full of anecdotes and insights into the inner workings of Disney, from its theme parks to acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm (Star Wars), and 21st Century Fox. If you’re a fan of Disney (which, based on my previous pick, you can probably guess that I am), this book is unskippable. Not only does it give you a look inside one of the world’s most beloved and valuable brands, it also provides a treasure trove of lessons from a man who worked his way up through the ranks to become the eventual leader of Disney.
Key Insight: Creativity and risk go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to the growth of a business or marketplace. If you’re not willing to take risks, your creativity and your marketplace’s potential will be limited.
That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea - Marc Randolph
For those of you who only discovered Netflix during its current Netflix and chill era, you may be shocked to learn that it actually started as a rent-by-mail DVD service. Hard to believe there was a time we actually owned entertainment in physical form, right? Millennial disbelief aside, this book tells the story of Netflix from its fledgling days as a DVD rental company to its shift to the powerhouse content streaming platform that changed the face of movie and television entertainment. In it, Randolph tells the inglorious story of the hard work and perseverance that helped propel Netflix through some really challenging times, periods during which, as the title suggests, people thought it would never work. That phrase is one that some Product Marketers have likely heard, especially when working for a start-up marketplace, and have had to persevere through. This book demonstrates just how big that perseverance can pay off.
Key Insight: In the early days of any marketplace, there will be countless doubters. What differentiates successful marketplaces from unsuccessful ones, is an unwillingness to give up, perseverance to power through, and the unwavering desire to help create the value a marketplace can offer by matching buyers to sellers.