Since the early days of the Internet, b2b purchasing has seemed like an area ripe for the efficiency and transparency improvements the web could bring. The theory has been that b2b buying processes are labor-intensive and inefficient, with heavy reliance on phone calls, emails and even face to face meetings. Large purchases, and often even small ones, involved negotiations conducted with imperfect and limited information, leaving both sides wondering if they really got the best deal. Web-based systems could improve transparency and efficiency, significantly and simultaneously reducing both procurement costs for buyers and selling costs for vendors.
However, problems with this theory quickly became apparent. While online marketplaces worked well for commodity purchases like office and maintenance supplies, they were viewed skeptically by buyers and sellers alike for more strategic purchases. Vendors didn’t want to reveal pricing and specifications to their competitors, and in many cases buyers didn’t want their own competitors to be aware of what they were buying (as it could tip off competitors to new product designs or process improvements) or even the terms they were getting.
As a result, the dramatic forecasts for b2b ecommerce revenue growth from Gartner and other analyst groups never materialized. Some of the market pioneers flamed out: Commerce One, founded in 1994, went public in 1999 and saw it’s stock price soar from $20 to more than $600 per share before the dot-com bust. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004, and the remains of the company were sold off in 2006. VerticalNet, founded just a year after Commerce One, was another classic dot-com-boom-to-bust story. Though the company was never profitable, revenue grew rapidly and the company’s market cap topped $12 billion in early 2000 on revenues of just over $100 million. The company was acquired by an Italian cement maker in 2007 for $15 million.
Ariba is one of the few b2b ecommerce survivors from the dot-com era. Though the company has fallen a long way from its dot-com era $40 billion market capitalization, it’s still in business, posting respectable revenue and modest profits.
But today, a new breed of vendors is determined to leave behind the hype-to-bust path of early b2b ecommerce and online marketplace trailblazers and improve b2b purchasing practices through social media and other Web 2.0 technologies. Here are five companies that exemplify these new approaches.
TradeKey b2b marketplace: sort of a web-based version of a bazaar or street market, TradeKey is an online, global b2b marketplace which connects traders to wholesalers, buyers, importers & exporters, manufacturers and distributors in over 220 countries. With 27 categories from agricultural to transportation products and nearly 10 12 million visitors per month, TradeKey connects an incredible range of buyers and sellers. Looking to buy commercial carpeting or USB drives? Want to offload some extra fishing lures or folding doors? This is the place to do it. TradeKey is sort of the b2b version of eBay or craigslist, with the closest analogues on the b2b side being sites like Alibaba or VertMarkets. But the site’s busy though highly visual design sets it apart, and TradeKey was the first online b2b marketplace to earn ISO 9001 Quality Management System and ISO 27001 Information Security System certifications.
FYIndOut.com b2b social media hub: billing itself as “the central place to find and promote business information, applications, and services,” FYIndOut.com provides an environment where b2b vendors can list their products and services for free (they pay only for interested leads) and interact with prospects, while buyers can research sellers and post their own reviews. The site covers a broad array of products and services from accounting software to web conferencing services, and was among the first b2b sites to introduce social review elements similar to Angie’s List or Yelp on the consumer side.
ChoiceVendor business-to-business vendor reviews: similar to FYIndOut.com but with a different business model—rather than generating revenue from providers, ChoiceVendor’s revenue plan is to “offer certain features by subscription to users who are seeking vendors.” Both sites enable b2b vendors to register and list their products for free, and buyers to review at least some of this information at no charge. So whether you’re a b2b seller or a buyer researching vendors through social signals, the best site to use between FYIndOut.com and ChoiceVendor is…both!
GetApp.com business software portal: unlike broad-based b2b market sites, GetApp.com is focused on a specific niche—business software, SaaS and cloud-based applications. The company’s goal is to become a global online channel for SaaS and PaaS (platform as a service) b2b application providers. GetApp.com is more like (though more broadly based than) SaleForce.com’s AppXchange or the recently launched Google App Marketplace than a general b2b marketplace. The site got some nice coverage from TechCrunch earlier this year, which stated that buyers can “find, compare and select from a wide range of business applications, organized into categories by IT and business need and by industry. The search functionality is pretty powerful and allows visitors to filter results down to a single vendor or enterprise-grade application. To assist buyers from a neutral point of view, GetApp offers user-generated reviews and a free personalized assessment tool as well as a number of guides on the subject.”
Resource Nation business resource marketplace: this site connects business buyers with providers of a wide range of common b2b products and services, from email maketing and payroll outsourcing to phone systems, laser printers and steel buildings. Rather than relying on social signals, all vendors are pre-screened by credit reporting agency Experian. The website also includes useful articles and guides for buyers. Approved vendors receive qualified leads for a fee. Resource Nation is somewhat similar to BuyerZone, but with less of a focus on price as the sole purchase criteria. This works well for commodity-type procurement (e.g. CD/DVD duplication or mailing services) but shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole source for more involved, strategic purchases like enterprise software or a PR agency.
Despite the challenges of online b2b commerce (e.g. will customers really share honest opinions in an open forum?) and past failures, a new breed of online b2b marketplace sites is determined to make it work. They bring to the task unique approaches and mindfulness of what worked, and what didn’t, for the groundbreakers in this space. The key will be to provide value to b2b purchasers. Vendors will flock to any site that is embraced by buyers.
Disclosure: I’m an unpaid advisor to FYIndOut.com and a (so far) unpaid affiliate of Resource Nation (just recently signed on). As for the other vendors highlighted here, I just think they are doing very interesting things in this space.