Just because a matchmaker has an established presence in its market doesn’t mean that the challenges are over.
Even with over 15 years under its belt, matchmaker Trainline continues to fight the good fight when it comes to bringing the traditionally paper-based ticket rail industry to the same digital standing as its airline transportation counterparts.
In this week’s installment of the The Matchmaker Is In series, hosts Karen Webster and David Evans, economist and author of “Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms,” dive into the challenges that face even the most seasoned of matchmakers.
Alidad Moghaddam, European Managing Director of Trainline for Business, a matchmaker that connects railway travelers with train operators across Europe, explained that, even though the business has been around since 1999, that doesn’t mean all of its challenges have been overcome.
The company provides an aggregation service, transparency and liquidity in the rail travel market and looks to eliminate friction from booking rail across borders in Europe.
For Trainline, which, in its early days, served as an eCommerce platform linking a single train operator with customers within the U.K., its business has evolved to now sell railway tickets on behalf of 37 train operators in 22 European countries.
But as Moghaddam explained, the journey to disruption hasn’t always been a smooth one.
Changing The Rails
The rail industry within Europe is what Moghaddam describes as both highly competitive and quite deregulated. The result is a marketplace with so many options and fare complexities that it became difficult for riders to simply get from Point A to Point B.
On top of that, the fulfillment of rail tickets is still largely and historically paper-based. Moghaddam noted that the rail travel segment overall has somewhat lagged behind other forms of transportation in adopting the digital revolution.
This left the matchmaker with two huge challenges: driving changes in the ecosystem itself by trying to further the adoption of online and digital fulfillment with rail operators, as well as driving a behavioral change for rail travelers with the awareness of the new, easier way to pay for their travel.
“Driving ecosystem-wide changes as a single actor in a fairly complex environment with multiple actors is, at times, slow and challenging, but we feel like we are making some really good headway,” Moghaddam said.
Even with 10 million app downloads and approximately £2 billion in sales, he explained that many markets Trainline operates in still have a way to go in realizing the value add that can come from going digital.
Hitting The Right Ignition Points
Moghaddam said that one of the biggest ignition points in Trainline’s history was the company’s decision early on to expand its inventory beyond just a single train operator in the U.K.
But this move was only made after Trainline had an established anchor supplier.
“In platform business terms, in order to solve a real friction in the market, it needed to be more than a single supplier-driven platform,” he said. “That decision was really what provided the impetus for accelerating the growth of the business significantly.”
The next ignition point was when Trainline launched its mobile app, which Moghaddam noted really kicked off a shift toward mobile transactions.
He said that the mobile app also helped to solve another friction point for riders, which is being able to book travel on-the-go and handle last-minute changes, catering to business travelers who need flexibility for their travel arrangements.
“All of those things lend themselves really well to being a mobile-first business, and that shift again led to another big pivotal point in our business. Now, we are seeing a huge portion of our transaction volume and our visitors come through the mobile app,” Moghaddam noted.
Though Trainline’s focus started quite narrow, another ignition point for the company was investing in a European expansion outside of solely serving the U.K.
“We decided to develop our knowledge within that market, and once we felt that we really owned the space in terms of retailing rail and had knowledge that we could extend to other markets, then we went broad,” he said.
The Path To Disruption
Through Moghaddam’s own experience working with matchmakers over the years, his biggest insight into what differentiates matchmakers that fail from those that succeed is making sure the platform is solving a meaningful friction for customers.
Years ago, he launched a matchmaker startup that connected private chefs with people throwing dinner parties. Though the platform was a fun idea that was popular among some users, the friction that it addressed was so niche that Moghaddam said the company ultimately failed.
While it’s very easy to want to build the next Uber or Airbnb, he made it clear that not every business out there is actually suited to become a platform business.
Moghaddam said it’s about “alleviating something that’s meaningful enough to drive a change in behavior and compel people to come to the platform you’re creating.”
Solving a problem that’s big enough for a lot of people is something that even big and experienced matchmakers can overlook.
One successful matchmaker that Moghaddam noted was Apple, which, despite the ways it has excelled, has experienced that its mobile pay option has yet to catch fire. Apple Pay just hasn’t revolutionized payments in the way many people expected.
On the flip side of the same coin, he explained that Apple had revolutionized the ecosystem that it’s created in terms of apps.
Though Apple’s app ecosystem started as a closed network, it has quickly grown to the point where thousands of businesses are thriving by using the platform to develop very granular apps that are changing the way we do everything in our daily lives, Moghaddam explained.
He pointed out that, without this app ecosystem, revolutionary apps, like Uber, wouldn’t even be possible.
“If you think about all the big success story matchmakers, a lot of them are really riding on the back of this big shift in the way we do things,” he added.