Predatory pricing in multi-sided platforms

Over the last few days, living and commuting in Nuremberg, I realised that I was not missing Uber. While just about a month ago, commuting for a week in suburban Paris, I was completely dependent on Uber for even the shortest of distances. The penetration of public transport and my familiarity with the city of Nuremberg aside, I began wondering how would Uber price its services in a city like Nuremberg (when it enters here, which I doubt very much would happen in the next few years), where public transport is omni-present, efficient, and affordable. It surely should adopt predatory pricing.

In this post, I will elaborate on the concept of predatory pricing in the context of multi-sided platforms.

Theory alert! If you are uncomfortable with theory, skip directly to the illustration and come back to read the theory.

What is predatory pricing?

Economists and policy makers concerned about market efficiencies and fair competition have been obsessed with the concept of predatory pricing for a long time. The most common definition of predatory pricing is through the application of the conventional Areeda-Turner test. Published way back in 1975, in spite of its limitations, most countries and courts have used it consistently, due to, in some ways, lack of any credible alternative.

The Areeda-Turner test is based on two basic premises. The recoupment premise states that the firm indulging in predatory pricing should be able to predict and be confident of its ability to recoup the losses through higher profits as competition exits the market. The assumption is that the firm could reasonably anticipate the (opportunity) costs of predatory pricing, as well as have an estimate of the future value of monopoly profits; and the net present value of such predatory pricing to push competition out of the market should be positive and attractive. In plain English, the firm should be able to project the effect of lower prices in terms of lower competition and higher profits in the future.

How low can this predatory price be? That is the subject of the second premise – the AVC premise. The firm’s prices (at business as usual volumes) should be below its average variable costs (AVC), or marginal costs in the short run. If the prices were indeed above the AVC, the firm would argue that they are indeed more efficient than competition, due to any of their resources, processes, or organisational arrangements. It is when the price falls below the AVC that the question of unfair competition arises – the firm might be subsidising its losses.

Take for instance, a start-up that is piloting an innovative technology. It may price its products/ services at a price below the AVC to gain valuable feedback from its lead users, but in the absence of a recoupment premise such pricing might not qualify as predatory pricing. On the other hand, imagine a new entrant with superior technology who can bring costs down to a level where the prices fall below the marginal costs of the competitors but stay well above the firm’s AVC, it is just disrupting the market.

Only when both the conditions are met, i.e., when the predator’s prices are below the AVC and the firm could project the extent of recoupment due to monopoly profits as competition exits the market, that we call it predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing in MSPs

There has been a lot of discussion about how ecommerce firms in India have been indulging in predatory pricing and how various platforms have been going under. I had written about subsidies and freebies from a consumer perspective a few months ago (Free… continue hoyenga). Let us discuss how and why it is difficult to assess if a lower-than-competition price is indeed predatory in the context of multi-sided platforms (MSPs).

  1. Multi-sided platforms have a unique problem to solve in their early days, that of network mobilisation. A situation that is like a chicken-egg problem, or a Penguin problem, where “nobody joins unless everyone joins” is prevalent in establishing a two-sided or multi-sided platform (for more details about the Penguin problem and network mobilisation strategies, read my earlier post here). In order to build a sufficient user base on one side, a common strategy is to subsidise, even provide the services free.
  2. Another common feature of MSPs is the existence of subsidy-sides and money-sides of users. The platform might subsidise one side of users and make money from the other side, while incurring costs of providing services to both sides, depending on the relative price elasticities and willingness to affiliate with the other side of the platform. And the prices for the subsidy side would surely below costs for that side. It is imperative that the overall costs and prices are considered while analysing these pricing strategies.
  3. These cross-side network effects will surely force the platforms to price their services most efficiently across both the sides. Even for the money side, the platform might not be able to charge extraordinary prices as such prices would themselves act against the sustenance of these cross-side network effects. It is likely that these extra-normal profits would evaporate through subsidies on the other side to keep the network effects active. Imagine a situation where a B2B marketplace charged the sellers higher than normal prices, only large (and desperate) sellers would affiliate with the marketplace, leading to buyers (the subsidy side) leaving the platform. In order to keep the buyers interested, the marketplace might either have to broaden the base of sellers by optimising the prices, or provide extraordinary subsidies to the buyers to keep them interested. So in order to maintain the equilibrium, the platform would have to price the sides efficiently.
  4. Finally, in a competitive situation, not all competitors might follow the same price structure. So, a reduction of prices by one competitor for one side of the market may not force all other competitors to reduce prices; they may just encourage multi-homing (allowing users to use competitive products simultaneously) or manipulate the price on the other side of users.

So, a direct application of the Areeda-Turner test might not be appropriate while studying predatory pricing in the context of MSPs.

An illustration

Let us imagine a market for home tutors supporting school students. The market is inherently geographically constrained; it is very unlikely that either the teacher or the student would travel across cities for this purpose. For the time being, let us assume that there is no technology (like video conferencing) being used.

This market is apt for the entry of a multi-sided platform, like LocalTutor. This firm provides a platform for the discovery and matching of freelance tutors with students. LocalTutor monetises the student side by charging a monthly fee (that includes a platform commission), and passes on the fees to the tutor. We need to make two assumptions before we proceed with competitive entry and predatory pricing: the market is fully penetrated (all the students who are looking for tutors and tutors looking for students are all in the market) and there are no new students and tutors entering the market; and there are no special preferences between student-tutor matches, i.e., the student-tutor pair does not form a bond like a sportsperson-coach, where they begin working like a team. In other words, the tutor is seamlessly (with no loss of efficiency) replaceable.

Now imagine a new competitor enters the market and engages in predatory pricing to kick-in network effects. The new entrant, let’s call it GlobalTutor (a fictitious name), drops the student-side prices to half. In order to attract the right number and quality of tutors, GlobalTutor has to sustain the same fees that LocalTutor provides its tutors, if not more. So, it starts dipping into its capital reserves and begins paying the tutors the market rates while reducing the student fees. Anticipating a larger surge in student numbers, more tutors sign up to GlobalTutor, and seeing the number and quality of tutors on GlobalTutor (at least if it is not inferior to LocalTutor), students first start multi-homing (use both services for their different needs, like LocalTutor for mathematics and GlobalTutor for music classes), and some of them begin switching.

In a fully penetrated market, the only way for LocalTutor to compete is to respond with its price structure. It has two options – reduce the student-side prices to restrain switching and multi-homing behaviour; and tweak the tutor-side prices and incentives. The first option is straightforward; it is cost-enhancing and profit-reducing. The second option (which is not available for pipeline businesses) is interesting in the context of platform businesses.

There are various ways of responding to this threat. The intent is to arrest switching and multi-homing behaviour of tutors and students from LocalTutor to GlobalTutor.

  1. Increasing multi-homing costs of tutors by providing them with incentives based on exclusivity/ volume: Like what Uber/ Ola provides its drivers – the incentives kick-in at what the company believes is the most a driver can do when they do not multi-home. In other words, if you multi-homed, drove your car with both Ola and Uber, you would never reach those volumes required to earn your incentives in either of your platforms.
  2. Contractual exclusion: This might not be tenable in most courts of law, if these freelance tutors were not your ‘employees’. Given the tone of most courts on Uber’s relations with its driver-partners (drivers’ lack of control in most of the transaction decisions including choice of destination, pricing, and passenger choice), any such contracting would imply that the tutors would be employees, and that would significantly increase the platform’s costs (paying for employee benefits are always more expensive than outsourcing to independent service providers).
  3. Increase contract tenure: LocalTutor may increase multi-homing and switching costs by increasing the tenure of the contracting from monthly to annual. Annual contracting will reduce the flexibility that students and tutors have, and might result in reduction in volume.
  4. The next options for LocalTutor are to work at the two restraining assumptions we made at the beginning – penetration and perpetual matching. LocalTutor might want to add in more and more students and tutors and expand the market, providing unique and differentiated services like art & craft classes, preparation for science Olympiads, or other competitive tests. LocalTutor might also communicate the value of teaming of student-tutor pairs in its success stories, in a bid to dis-incentivise switching and multi-homing.

To predate or not to predate is not the question

Given the differences between pipeline and platform businesses new entrants seeking to mobilize network effects have very little option but to resort to predatory pricing. The choice is not if, but how. And as an incumbent, should you be prepared for a new entrant who would resort to predatory pricing? Surely, yes! And how? By being ready to expand the market and increasing switching and multi-homing costs. Unlike in the tutoring business that is inherently geographically constrained, a lot of businesses could span across markets. Even tutoring could leverage technology to reach a global audience.

Just one comforting thought, predatory pricing as a strategy to eliminate competition is inefficient in the long run. The new entrant might adopt predatory pricing to eliminate competition in the short run, but the act of predatory pricing breaks down most barriers to entry, and sends signals to others that there is a market that is easy to enter. It might attract a more highly capitalised competitor to enter the market with the same strategies … making the market a ‘contestable market’. And no one wants to make a fortune in a contestable market, right? More on competing in contestable markets, subsequently.

Cheers

© 2017. R Srinivasan

 

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App-in-app?

I recently got an email from my airline app that I could book my car ride within the same app. It was a way of providing end-to-end services. Much like the home pickup and drop service provided for business class customers by the Emirates. What are the implications of these for the customer, the airline, and the cab-hailing firm? Let’s explore.

It is an app-redirect

First, read the terms of how it works in the case of Jet Airways and Uber here. The substantive part of the T&C is hidden in the paragraphs quoted below:

“PLEASE NOTE, YOU ARE MAKING THE PAYMENT TO UBER DIRECTLY. JET AIRWAYS IS NOT RESPONSIBLE / INVOLVED IN THIS FULFILMENT PROCESS. JET AIRWAYS WILL NOT BE LIABLE AND/OR RESPONSIBLE FOR REFUNDS, DELAYS, REJECTIONS, PAYMENT AND FULFILLMENT OR OTHERWISE OF THE SERVICES OR IN RESPECT OF ANY DISPUTES IN RELATION THERETO, IN ANY MANNER WHATSOEVER.” (emphasis original)

Then, what is the value of this app-in-app integration?

Customer perspective

For the customer, it has the potential to work as a seamless end-to-end service. I imagine a future, where you would find a partner using Tinder or TrulyMadly, plan your evening to a game/ movie using BookMyShow, find a restaurant & book your table using Zomato, and take Uber whenever you are ready to move on, or better still, have an Ola Rentals car waiting for you through the evening. All in one app. Wouldn’t you love it, if all of it were integrated in one App? Just imagine the convenience if your restaurant-finder knew that you are in a particular concert at a specific place and you are likely to head out for dinner at a particular time. This specific knowledge could immensely help your restaurant-finder app to customize the experience for you – for instance, it could not only provide you those restaurant options that are open late in the evening after the concert was over, in a location that is close to the venue; it could possibly alert the restaurant that you were arriving in 15 minutes, based on your Uber location. And through the evening, post your pictures on Instagram and SnapChat, check-in to all those locations in Facebook, and Tweet the experience live.

Yes, you would leave a perfect trail for the entire evening in a single place, and if you were to be involved in an investigation, it would be so easy for the officer to trace you! No need for Sherlock Holmes and Watson here – the integrator app would take care of all the snooping for you!

Convenience or scary? What are the safeguards related to such data sharing across different entities? How will the data be regulated?

The Integrator perspective

Why would a Jet Airways provide an Uber link inside its App? Surely cab-hailing and air travel are complementary services. Plus, Jet Airways believes that its customers would find it convenient to book an Uber ride from within the Jet Airways app, as they trust the app to provide Uber with all the relevant details – like the estimated landing/ boarding time of the flight, drop/ pickup addresses, etc. Jet Airways also needs to believe that its customers would rather choose an Uber cab, rather than its competitor OLA Cabs, or any other airport taxi service. The brands should have compatible positioning. Given that Jet Airways is a full service carrier, and differentiates based on its service quality, Uber might be a good fit. But the same might not hold good for a low-cost/ regional carrier like TruJet connecting cities like Tirupati, where Uber does not operate.

Does integrating complementary services affect customer satisfaction, brand loyalty, customer switching costs, and/or multi-homing costs? In contexts where these services and brands are compatible, and there is a convenience involved in sharing of data between these services, there is likely to be some value added. Like airlines and hotels (hotels would like to know your travel schedule); currency exchanges and international travel (the currency exchange would love to know which countries you are visiting); or international mobile services. If there was no data to be shared between the complementary services, the user would rather have them unbundled. Think travel and stock brokerage.

That said, platforms find innovative complementarities. For instance, airlines (primarily the full-service carriers) have launched co-branded credit cards. In a recent visit to Chennai, there were more American Express staff at the Jet Airways lounge than the airline or lounge staff! And they were obviously signing up customers. What are the complementarities between credit cards and air travel, apart from paying from that card? A lot of business travellers have their business travel desks do the payments; consultants have their clients booking the tickets; and even for individuals and entrepreneurs, the credit card market is so fragmented that everyone holds multiple cards. And the payment gateways accept all possible payment options, including “paying cash at the airport counter”. They why co-brand credit cards – sharing of reward points/ airline miles. Either customers do not earn sufficient airline miles and using these co-branded credit cards help them earn more miles and retain/ upgrade their airline status (remember the 2009 movie, Up in the Air?); or they do not earn enough reward points in using their credit cards that they can redeem their airline miles as credit card reward points. Either ways, each one is covering up for the other.

In this covering up, or more diplomatically consolidation of rewards, the partners increase customer switching and multi-homing costs. Surely, redeemable airline miles might be more valuable to a frequent traveller than credit card reward points that have limited redemption/ cash back opportunities. But for loyalty to increase, it is imperative that both brands stand on their own – providing compatible services.

Mother of all apps

All this looks futuristic to you? A lot of you have been using an ubiquitous desktop app known as the browser for a long time, which has been doing exactly this! In a subtle form, though. However, there are firms that own multiple such apps, and they use a single sign-on – like all of Google services. Plus, even third-party sites like Quora allow for using your Google credentials to sign-in. The trade-offs are not always explicitly specified – it is always the case of caveat emptor – consumer beware.

Quora homepage

So, the next time you experience some cross-marketing across platforms/ apps, think what data might be shared across both the apps; and if you would really value the integration.

Cheers!

(c) 2017. R Srinivasan

 

Will you look for jobs in Facebook?

It has been a wonderful week so far with my lectures on Platform Business Models at the University of Rome Tor Vergata over the past two days. In one of the discussions, there was a discussion about network mobilisation, and a perceptive participant quipped about how successful Facebook can be in a variety of businesses. I have been maintaining that Facebook and LinkedIn are in independent markets, with their own unique needs, and therefore would never end up competing. However, this discussion on what Facebook can do with the big, small and thick data it has about users – ads, shopping, or even jobs set me thinking.

Winner takes all markets

One of the most common discussions on platform and networked businesses is the prevalence of monopolies, in what we call as “winner-takes-all” markets. There are three conditions for these markets to satisfy to qualify as “winner-takes-all” markets – multi-homing costs should be very high; network effects should be strong and positive; and users usually do not have any special preferences (read more about it here). Social networking (with peers, friends, and family) is a winner-takes-all business by all counts – it is difficult to affiliate yourself with multiple platforms; network effects are strong and positive; and Facebook is used for pretty much everything – no special preferences.

Professional networking space, on the other hand, would have different economics. Multi-homing costs are sure high, but not so high. Especially when people have multiple identities … for instance a CEO by the day and a triathlon by the evening; or a professor of law and counsel at the same time. And they could possibly have separate professional networks, right for each of their interests, right. On top of this, online media provide us with our own masks, that enable us to insulate the two worlds when we choose to or integrate when it suits us. A sort of maskenfrieheit, a German word that translates to “masks provided to us by the power of anonymity”. Most of us surely live in multiple worlds, leveraging our own maskenfreiheits. Network effects are sure strong and positive, and in addition to social networking, professional networking business also has a significant extent of cross-side network effects (from potential employers and followers). There are special preferences in professional networking – there are those wo write for others to follow; some others just read and follow and minimally engage (a occasional like here and a share there); and there are few INfluencers (as LinkedIn calls them). So, it makes logical sense that a professional networking business is not a winner-takes-all business, and should be prepared to be attacked by a variety of competitors.

LinkedIn, for its part has done it bit, I would say. It has significantly expanded its reach to college students; allowed for writing (competing with blogs); jobs (competing with focused recruitment sites); shares, likes, and comments (competing with social networking, including micro-blogging). And its merger with Microsoft recently would hopefully provide it more teeth to bite in.

Facebook enters the jobs market

But, how does LinkedIn compete when the ubiquitous Facebook decides to enter the jobs market? I recently read this report on TechCrunch (read it here) on how Facebook is entering the jobs market. With its size of members’ network at more than thrice that of LinkedIn, Facebook can unearth more and more passive job seekers. Those of you who are not actively seeking a job, but would be interested in testing something out, if is offers great roles, salaries, titles, locations, or just more fun that your current role. In fact, the value proposition of LinkedIn was just that – one keeps building a stack of endorsements and a network that will then actively seek you out, rather than the job seeker reaching out. Facebook seems to have imitated just that – its profile tags is much the same as LinkedIn endorsements. Everyone sees the similarity … read the Fortune Business report of July 2015 here.

Is the professional networking space contestable?

Firms competing across business lines can also be explained using the theory of contestable markets. The simplest definition and explanation of contestable markets I could find online is on this page. These markets are characterised by low barriers to entry (like no economies of scale) and low barriers to exit (like no sunk costs), and therefore allow for new entrants to adopt a hit and run strategy. Incumbents typically protect their turf using asymmetric information (some specific information/ competence) that the new entrants do not possess. If we were to look at professional networking space as a contestable market, then LinkedIn had it all covered as an incumbent. Facebook anyway had a variety of small and medium businesses maintaining pages to connect with its customers; and all it had to do was to extend the same feature to job applicants connecting with the firms. Much like how a firm would announce a new product or a discount offer, it could advertise jobs on its Facebook page. Just that Facebook is trying to overcome the asymmetric information bit with its Profile Tags feature to quickly imitate LinkedIn’s endorsements (it is not available in all countries, yet). Without that Facebook would not be able to customise the feed to its readers – you would get only “relevant” job offers on your Facebook timeline, now that it would have your Profile Tags.

Facebook jobs, anyone?

So, would you apply for jobs using Facebook? I for one know a lot of active seekers and college students invest in building their LinkedIn profiles, rather than “wasting time” on Facebook. Facebook is for casual chit-chat with friends and family, sharing selfies, religious views, political statements, and even late-night party stories. Not the place where I would imagine a lot of people would apply for jobs. Will you let your maskenfreiheit down?

But hang on, what about those who do not have a LinkedIn profile? What about those who are logged on to Facebook for ever on their smart phones? What about those who use Facebook to gather information about jobs and then apply for the same using traditional job sites, just email, or through their LinkedIn profiles? Small and Medium businesses might be able to attract a lot of undifferentiated talent (I’m not talking about blue collared workers only) through Facebook, if this succeeds. And what do dedicated job sites like Monster.com do?

Facebook surely has big data, small data (or thick data) and even the right data (after my posts of the last two weeks, this HBR post on right data appeared online!). Exciting times ahead.

Cheers.

(c) 2016. Srinivasan R.

Stages of Digital Transformation

A lot of people confound digital transformation with information technology and automation. Automation of processes would lead to increase in efficiency, quality, and additionally, transparency, and fairness in the case of services. Industries have been transformed in the last few decades in such a manner that what is visible to the outside world is the information technology. What is not so much visible is the painstaking work that goes on in the back-end to support this transformation. In this blog post, I will highlight the stages of digital transformation, building on my previous blog post on digital transformation (read it here).

Four stages of Digital Transformation

23-2-process

The transformation for digital transformation at any organization begins with the definition of a perspective plan. It is absolutely critical that the entire journey is considered an intrapreneurial action – a new business project/ plan. Within the confines of the existing business model, constrained by the extant resources and capabilities, it is highly unlikely that mature organizations can question their status quo. I would therefore suggest that organizations set up independent empowered venturing teams to take the digital transformation journey forward. With appropriate leadership commitment to change and a vision of the future, this venturing team should draw up the perspective plan.

A key component of this perspective plan is the definition of the value that you provide in your ‘transformed’ state. Value is an over-used word in this context, but I will risk using that again. What is that additional/ different value that the transformed organization intends to provide? Take the example of Airbnb.com, that competes with traditional hotel chains. Without owning a single hotel room, Airbnb.com transformed the entire travel/ hospitality industry through the provisioning of basic rooms. While traditional hotel chains behaved like legacy airline carriers, continuously improving “the experience”, Airbnb.com began providing just bed-and-breakfast, but with a different “experience”. The customers might meet more like-minded travelers and hosts at Airbnb.com than at traditional hotels. In just as much the same way low-cost carriers disrupted the legacy airlines industry, Airbnb.com changed the way people looked at travel – it was no longer luxury that one looked for, but something new and exciting. And with their business model, Airbnb.com had the ability to scale up capacity seamlessly in any city, town, village in any country (legal troubles notwithstanding).

Superior customer value cannot be provided unless the organization focuses on re-engineering its back-end processes. What may be visible to the outside world are the rejigs on the front-end, but the back-end process reengineering is the core to successful digital transformation. It is how efficient the back-end processes are, and how the front- and back-end processes talk to each other that matter the most. Imagine the world before the airline ticketing portals. One would have to call in to a travel agent, who would access the reservation systems of different airlines and provide the consumers with limited choices (and in most cases those choices that made him the most margins), and very little flexibility. What these online portals did was to provide consumers with unlimited choice and flexibility, including crazy organizations like https://skiplagged.com. The customer experience changed significantly, primarily because these airline ticketing aggregators could create back-end processes that would extract the schedules and fares, including connections and code-share agreements. It is the based on the strength of the back-end that supports the transformation of this industry. Same is the case with Uber (or any of its competitors or partners) – the back-end that seamlessly connects drivers and riders based on the geo-spatial data captured from their devices. Traditional taxis focused on automation of billing and other front-end services, whereas Uber disrupted the market with back-end re-engineering.

The importance of customer centricity could not be missed in this process reengineering. The customer experience has to be the center of any such reengineering. Good reengineering imagines the customer journey throughout her experience with the organization and its product/ service as it happens chronologically. Like a relay race, the customer “baton” has to be passed on from one organization unit to another seamlessly that the customer should not experience the passing of the baton at all. Organization design that promotes concepts like the key account management (KAM) or single point of contact (SPOC) facilitates such experiences, and it is critically important to keep these customer journeys in mind while redesigning the processes. For instance, take the case of how loyalty programmes work. You rake up your points/ airmiles from one product/ service and struggle to spend those points, as the options for redemption are highly limited. Yes, these days my credit card company and my airline frequent flier miles are merged, as I use an airline-co branded credit card. Even then, my credit card spends get added to my airmiles that I cannot redeem for anything else other than the limited choice provided. Here is where disruptions like WorldSwipe can help (read more about WorldSwipe here), where the platform has partnered with a variety of organizations from where consumers can earn their points, and a much larger variety of outlets where they can redeem their points. For instance, an electrician buying cables and earning points from his favorite electric cables brand can redeem his points by buying cellphone minutes from his favorite telco. [Disclaimer: I advise them]. Imagine the processes reengineering required from the cable company, as well as the telco in order for this loyalty to work; and the extent of consumer insights that could be captured as this platform grows and matures.

In the process of defining and reengineering the processes, it is important to keep the employee experience as well in mind. When customer experience dominates process redesign without regard for the employee experience, the whole system collapses. Take the case of your ecommerce grocer’s last mile delivery persons. These employees, are possibly the lowest paid in the entire chain, and yet, they represent the face of the company to the consumers. The consumer interacts with the company only through her mobile phone or tablet, and then these delivery persons land up at her door. Fullstop. Consumer experienced your product/ service. How critical is it to understand and design the processes that traces the employee experience journey! I have heard horror stories of how these employees in cities like Bangalore are provided with unrealistic delivery targets, without proper consideration of traffic situations, parking issues, and consumer non-availability at home situations. Add cash-on-delivery complications where these employees have to not just deliver goods, but collect cash for the same as well. Complicate this a little further with card-on-delivery and associated network connectivity issues. Once you live through the employee experience journey, you would realise how important it is to balance the process reengineering effort between the customer experience and employee experience. A lot of time, basic training and skill-development may be sufficient, but training on customer service orientation, attitude, and service quality would go a long way in enhancing the employee experience and engagement. Just make sure that your organization does not go towards employing two monkeys (as below).

23-1-automation-dilbert

On Tuesday this week (06 September 2016), The Mint newspaper carried a special issue on the digital future. One of the articles in that edition was by Jaspreet Bindra from the Indian automotive major Mahindra & Mahindra, titled “The 10 Commandments of Digital Transformation (read it here). Coming from someone with a varied experience like him, it is worth reading through. His 10 commandments does touch upon what I have elaborated plus much more.

Enjoy your digital transformation journey!

 

Flipkart Ads – Is there a shift in online advertising economics?

Yesterday, I read an interview with Sanjay Ramakrishnan, Senior Director & Head – Business development & Marketing, Flipkart Ads in Advertising Age India (read it here). It set me thinking, why is Flipkart into advertisements? Is it competing with Amazon or with Google, Facebook, and Apple as well?

Though I am tempted to label this development as the advertising market becoming a contestable market, I will refrain from doing so. Let me first explain what is a contestable market (in simple terms, of course, let me try; and in the context of platform business models), and then proceed to analyze if the success of Flipkart Ads is a source of worry for other platforms whose principal business model is based on advertising revenue.

The theory of contestable markets originated from the works of Baumol as early as 1982 in this seminal paper (available through JSTOR here). He (and his co-authors in subsequent papers) defined a contestable market as one with absolutely free entry and costless exit. Which implies that such a market would be vulnerable for a hit-and-run entry, i.e., by any competitor with no need for any specific assets, process capabilities, or differentiation.

A key characteristic of these markets is that the new entrant takes the prices prevailing in the market (of the incumbents) as given, and enters with the same price. In a perfect competition, any new entrant will increase the supply in the market, and should lead to a reduction in prices. Even when the market shares of incumbents and new entrants change, the industry price levels should ideally fall with increase in supply. In contrast, in a contestable market, the new entrant could enter the market with the same price as the incumbents. The justification for this assertion could be based on two arguments, that the new entrant enters the market at such a small scale compared to the incumbents that there is no visible change in the total market supply to warrant a price correction. The second argument is founded on the thesis that the incumbents cannot retaliate with sufficient speed to counter the threat posed by the new entrant, due to their systems and processes that bind them to a particular cost structure and a positioning in the market. In such a case, the new entrant could enter the market with a prior contract, preferably a long-term contract, at least as long-term as it takes for the incumbent to respond. In perfect competition or monopolistic competition, incumbent firms will adopt limit pricing strategies (if profitable for them) to keep new entrants at bay, i.e., as the incumbents sense the threat of new entry, they would reduce the prices to a level where it would be profitable for the incumbents and not for the new entrant. Take for example, when cola firms entered the bottled water market in India, the incumbent, Bisleri International embarked on a strategy of keeping market prices so low that it took a long time for Coca Cola Company, and Pepsico to break even.

The second aspect of contestable markets is the absence of any sunk costs whatsoever for both the incumbent and the new entrant. If any upfront fixed costs were to be incurred by a competitor either prior to entry (including in studying the feasibility of making money in that market) or at entry (like setting up manufacturing and distribution capabilities), the costs of entry will prevent this market from becoming contestable. Let me provide an example. In today’s world, setting up an online store entails no sunk costs for any retailer. The domain registration and hosting, website design, payment gateways, and fulfillment are all functions that are unbundled and offered as independent services (as SaaS) by different vendors, which makes all of them variable costs, rather than fixed costs. Such costs are neither fixed nor specific – one could use the payment gateway for any other online transaction, should this venture fail. Such markets with no sunk costs result in no barriers to entry and exit and therefore, are contestable. Contrast this with our previous example of Coca Cola Company and Pepsico entering the Indian bottled water market – this is a market that requires significant bottling and distribution capabilities. Though the cola firms enter this market with significant synergies from their core business, there were certain unique capabilities that the bottled water market required – sourcing of good quality water and plastic bottles, bottling lines that were specific to water, unique branding, and wider distribution networks.

The third characteristic of contestable markets is that the products are absolutely non-differentiable. That means, the new entrants can enter the market and imitate the products/ services offered by the incumbents at the same costs or even lower, and therefore maintain the same price levels. It is also possible that the new entrants enter with lower prices, and offer the same ‘standard’ products or provide additional features at the same or lower prices. Such standardization is highly visible in the context of platform services, like a C2C marketplace. In the absence of any product differentiation between competitors (any new feature is imitable quickly and is almost costless to do so), Quickr.com and OLX.in entered the market and took market share from incumbents like Sulekha.com or asklaila.com.

In summary, a market can be (or become) contestable when either of these conditions are met – no changes in prices (no limit pricing by incumbents), no fixed sunk costs, and no differentiation in products and services offered.

Is digital advertising becoming a contestable market?

For digital advertising market to become (and be) a contestable market, it has to allow for costless entry and exit, no sunk costs, and no differentiation. In the case of Flipkart Ads, I would argue that it would have cost Flipkart next to nothing to build the platform. The ecommerce store was in any case dealing with sellers, and all that they had to do was to extend the relationship to brands. And remember, in the Indian market, a lot of the brands had their own ecommerce retail operations and some of them were already on Flipkart as sellers. For instance, when I searched for the Prestige brand of pressure cookers on Flipkart, I found about 40-odd sellers including TTK Prestige, the brand owner.

And when Flipkart entered the digital advertising space, did Google and Facebook respond with limit pricing? I am not sure they did. A Feb 2015 LiveMint article that announced Flipkart and SnapDeal’s entry into online advertising space gave Google ad revenues as US$55bn compared to Amazon’s US$1bn (read it here). Given these sizes, it is unlikely Google and Facebook would have felt the need to respond to their entry by lowering prices.

Developing the advertising platform would possibly not involve any sunk costs for Flipkart. There is sufficient traction in terms of relationships with sellers and brands, the technology platform costs next to nothing to build, transaction costs are variable (including cloud storage and payment gateways), and even brand building is costless (as they are extending the same brand – Flipkart Ads).

It is the third condition of contestable markets that protects the online advertising market from becoming a contestable market, i.e., lack of differentiation. In the case of online advertising market, differentiation is created and sustained by superior targeting of advertisements to the right users. Measuring and monitoring engagement of the audience is the key in data collection; deep understanding of the consumer behavior and decision-making process is critical in analyzing this large volume of data; and close relationships with a wide variety of advertisers is imperative to ensure narrowcasting of advertisements to specific audience profiles. Here is where the product differentiation kicks in – the kind of browsing habit data that Google has access to is very different from the ‘buying intent’ that Flipkart can derive out of its customers’ behaviors. And especially in the context of mobile apps, the Flipkart app has access to other information like the person’s location, WiFi/ data connection information, and even his contacts; all of which could be useful to provide targeted narrowcasting (or even unicasting) of advertisements. Such shrinking of segments and the ability to serve what the marketers call ‘the segment of one’ customer can differentiate the new entrant, Flipkart’s services from the incumbent ‘Google’ and ‘Facebook’.

So, what are the implications for entrepreneurs?

First, evaluate if your market is indeed contestable, or is likely to become contestable. If there is a likelihood of your primary market being or becoming contestable, consider one of the following options:

  1. Change your business/ business model (pivoting is a fancy word these days in the startup ecosystem)
  2. Erect barriers to entry and exit – use regulation if you must (see how Airport Taxis in Bangalore are competing with OLA and Uber)
  3. Differentiate – even if it is not the most significant of your product offerings, focus on those value creation opportunities that involve sunk costs
  4. Wait for a new entrant and bleed him to death with limit pricing (you better have easier access to capital than the new entrant)!
  5. Wind up, sell out, and take your family (if you have one) on a holiday to Seychelles! And don’t forget to thank me!

 

 

Digital disruption – drivers, symptoms and scenarios

My students, colleagues, and leaders in firms who I mentor have been asking me to share my views on digital disruption of businesses. In this post, I try to define the contours of digital disruption and what it holds for the future of businesses, in my opinion.

What is digital disruption?

Disruption refers to a fundamental change in the value proposition of the business. When digital technologies form the basis of such a change, I call it a digital disruption.

Drivers of digital disruption

There are three primary drivers of digital disruption (adapted from this article). First, is the maturity of digital tools and technologies that uncover inefficiencies in traditional business models. Take for instance the sharing economy characterized by business models like Airbnb.com and Uber. These business models highlighted the underutilization of fixed assets in residences and cars, and shifted the consumer behavior from traditional business models of exclusive hotels and owned cars to shared residences and cars. A recent example of this sharing economy is www.flightcar.com, that allows for individual car owners to rent their cars parked idle in airports to other visitors to that city as self-driving cars!

The second driver of digital disruption is the increasing evaluability of performance parameters. In a traditional business like car hiring services, it was difficult to evaluate the quality of cars. In the sharing economy, ratings/ reviews/ recommendations from other users can help evaluate various parameters of the products and services. Uber allows for mutual rating of drivers and riders, alike. Such improvements in technology that increase the evaluability of parameters, hitherto not evaluable can significantly contribute to unique customer value addition.

The third driver of disruption is the increased dominance of mobile apps. What the transition from traditional PC-based software applications to mobile apps contributes is lower costs of customer adoption, richer data collection by the apps leading to better customization of experience, and mobility. Imagine using Uber through only a PC-based or a browser-based communication!

When do you know your business is being digitally disrupted?

The following table describes the characteristics and symptoms of digital disruption with some examples (adapted from this article).

Symptoms Examples
A proliferation of free or nearly free digital technologies in the value creation process Digital photography eliminating paper photography
Such technologies are provided by multi-sided platform firms Products like Gmail eliminating the need for organizations investing in their own email servers
Conscious shifting of value creating activities outside the firm, including open and user innovation processes Evolution of 3D printing enabling democratization of design and prototyping
Rapid prototyping and product development/ market entry made possible as a result of user/ open innovation Proliferation of platforms and forums like tech-shops that enable businesses and consumers to rapidly prototype and customize their products in low volume production contexts
Use of direct and indirect network effects to leverage economies of scale and scope Evolution of aggregators and marketplaces like Alibaba.com that leverage network effects for economies of scale and scope

Most digital disruptions are visible when the industry/ market is characterized by one of more of the above symptoms. If any of these symptoms are visible in your business context, organizations beware. Begin preparing to face/ counter these forces.

Planning for the digitally disrupted future

Prof. Mike Wade from IMD, Lausanne describes four scenarios of digital disruption (read the full report here).

  1. The global bazaar – industry and geographic boundaries blurring due to internet and mobile
  2. Cautious capitalism – data security concerns limit firms’ ability to monetize consumer data
  3. Territorial dominance – regional industry boundaries persist, with tight regulation
  4. Regional marketplaces – world divided into regional clusters with their own rules and governance, innovation fostered in regions with little or no international competition

The following figure summarizes the four scenarios with examples of firms that will dominate their respective markets. 13.1 Digital disruption scenarios

As you can see, these are just my preliminary thoughts, and I would strive to develop on them subsequently.

Comments, feedback, and experiences welcome.