Free … continue hoyenga?

Well, writing here after a really long time. Finished teaching three courses, two mentoring assignments, and two cycles of a customised executive education programme for a client in the interim. A bad throat induced rest (well-deserved, that’s what I would like to believe for myself) gets me to write this short post.

Let them eat FREE

The title is inspired by the advertising tagline of India’s latest entry into the already crowded (dozens of competitors) in a highly penetrated market, Relinace Jio (see here).

Today morning’s story from Rohin Dharmakumar at The Ken is titled Let them eat free! His basic argument is that as regulators and governments are discouraging service and convenience fees, consumers are getting used to free services; which will eventually kill the free markets by taking away the pricing power of enterprises (especially in a highly competitive market).

Over the past few years, I have been studying platform business firms where one of the first concepts one learns in multi-sided platforms is that at least one of the sides of the platform (either the demand side or the supply side) needs to be subsidised to leverage network effects (or mobilise the network from scratch). Is subsidy therefore any different from free? I would say no. There are free lunches, for at least some people in a business. The business may therefore decided to charge someone else for giving these free lunches.

Think free food in temples and gurdwaras… prasads or langars. In fact the mess food at most military establishments in India is called a langar. In a society where there are a lot of people struggling to earn two meals a day, a free lunch provider was a celebrity. The village elder, the temple management, the birthday girl, or just about a casual visitor. Oh, this is religion and philanthropy, you argue. Business is different. Business is for-profit.


Businesses subsidise one side and make money from another side (think Internet search, where search is free, listing is free, and SEO/ Ad is paid); subsidise one product and make money from another product (think Gillette’s razors and blades, HP’s printers and cartridges); subsidise today and charge you tomorrow (think airline dynamic pricing); and/ or subsidise one segment of customers to charge from another segment (Aravind eye hospitals, Robin Hood). Remember, Skype is free (well almost); this WordPress blog is hosted on a free plan; so does your email (well almost all of it).

Is subsidy bad? No, as long as the “customer” who receives the subsidy knows where it comes from. If the business model is clear, and the subsidy receiver knows that she is receiving the “free lunch” because someone values giving it to her for free, it should not be a problem.

Subsidy is bad when someone receives a subsidy in return for particularly nothing. It is inefficient for the entire market when the customers do not know where the free is coming from, what the firm is going to do with all those intangibles (information about me, my behaviour, my preferences, and my network) I provided with them when I signed up.

Government subsidies

What happens when the government gives you something for free? Like the social security? Do you know why it is free? And how is it financed? In countries like India, the annual presentation of the government book of accounts is a celebrated ritual. See the official website here, and the Bloomberg “live” reporting here.

For long, successive governments in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been providing freebies to the citizens both as an electoral gift as well as a welfare measure. Most of these have been funded by the state monopoly liquor retail shops, the TASMAC (read here). But when these shops close/ scale down, the state government has to find new sources of funds and/ or scale down welfare spends.

Enjoy it till it lasts

A lot of my friends enjoy these subsidies (for instance a discount from ecommerce companies) knowing very well that the provider is giving it to them from their investors’ wallet. Like the Reliance Jio offer, like the cheap OLA ride to the Bangalore airport, or just the discounted products on the Flipkart’s sale day! They say, enjoy it till it lasts! The assumption is that they would attrition out when the prices rise, or the firms begin charging for whatever was hitherto free. Don’t the firms know this … they are trying to build and leverage multi-homing costs for your products/ services.

Be aware

I would therefore say, be aware; enjoy it till it lasts; use it as a trial; choose whether you want to multi-home and retain the flexibility to signout, and have fun.


(C) 2017. R Srinivasan.

Collecting small data in the world of big data

It is a chilly morning in late October in Bangalore, India. As I return back home after a short walk to the bus stop to drop my daughter off to her school, my colleague walking with me begins collecting bird feathers on our way back, of all hues and sizes. We start debating which birds have what kind of feathers, and when she is done collecting four different kinds of feathers, she stops. Another colleague urges her to collect more, but she says “four is good for today”. And she sets me thinking on what is the power of small data. While the world is raving about leveraging big data and the power of mass customization, I argue in this post about why successful firms must also invest in small data.

What is small data?

The best definition of small data comes from none other than Martin Lindstrom, who wrote a book titled “Small Data: The tiny clues that uncover huge trends”. He distinguishes big data from small data thus: “Where big data is all about drawing correlations, small data is about identifying causation” (read more here). Big data is typically collected through a variety of sources, from your credit card spends, loyalty card behavior, search algorithms, and mining of transaction data. What big data analytics can do is pretty visible and known to all of us – patterns that can aid prediction. In his book and other writings, Lindstrom write about the need to uncover the causation behind these patterns. One of the examples he often cites is how a US bank found customer churn using big data, and with the help of small data, discovered that they were moving their assets and mortgages around, and possibly leaving the bank not because of poor customer service, but they were going through divorce!

Small data for listening to customers

A couple of days back, I read an interesting article on why Amazon is opening physical stores by IMD Professor Howard Yu (read it here). In that article, Yu labels Amazon’s book stores as not so much distribution channels, but “research laboratories”. Laboratories where customer journeys are observed, what they like and how they spend their time browsing; simple things like which aisles do they reach first, do they pick up the books first or read the reviews pasted below, do customers get influenced by recommendations, and the like. Small samples, but rich inputs on causation. Retail stores have long been using small data – have you not read about why bread and staples are placed at the end of the alleys and chocolates at the check-out counters? Small data like this helps identify why certain shoppers behave the way they do, whereas big data will be good to classify shoppers into dashers, economists, the pros, and the candy store kids. [Dashers know what they want and dash in and out of the store, picking up her favorite brands/ products/ pack sizes and rushes out. Economists, on the other hand, rummages through deals and offers, and typically shops at warehouse clubs and wholesale shops. The pros are those who do considerable research on the deals and offers, analyze value for money, wait for the right time to buy (like festive seasons), and typically get the best deals. The candy-store-kid is the retailer’s delight; she behaves as the name suggests – impulsive, compulsive, and extensive shopper. Read more about it here.] On the other hand, small data will help analyze when does a typical dasher behave like a candy-store-kid. I was in Barcelona recently, and typical to my urban foreign travels, I was shopping in supermarkets. I noticed that a lot of these stores had “male zones”, where typical electronics, electrical goods, FC Barcelona memorabilia, and beer are stocked. Small data, could suggest that men would hang around the ‘zone’ till the women shop for all the essentials, and just as they reach the counter, these items are added to the cart and billed. Given the festival season, maybe even the textile showrooms of the famed Chennai’s T. Nagar might have implemented this!

Small data for innovation

There is no better use of small data, unless you listen to customers. And better still, if you could listen to your customers at the prototyping stage, well before product design and introduction. User innovation spaces provide opportunities for firms and innovators to collect valuable small data well before the product design. In fact, such small data could help innovators listen not just to the prosumers (innovative proactive consumers, who engage with the firm and are typically early adopters), but a wide variety of consumers as well. One such experiment on early-stage user innovation platform is a physical store-like service manufactory at the Nuremberg city center – JOSEPHS®.

JOSEPHS® – the service manufactory

JOSEPHS® is a unique concept, where user and open innovators could come together with real consumers, consumers who could walk-in to the store as if they shop for goods and services in the city center. The ambience and feel is designed to look like a retail store with spots housing different innovators and a coffee shop at the entrance.

Set up by the Fraunhofer IIS in collaboration with the Freidrich Alexender University at Erlangen-Nuremberg in the city center of Nuremberg city, Germany; JOSEPHS® is envisaged to be a platform for bringing University researchers, Fraunhofer scientists, innovative entrepreneurs, and retail consumers to co-create services. Much like the prototyping TechShops, MakerSpaces, HackerSpaces, or FabLabs for designing products, JOSEPHS® aims at integrating users (randomly walking in) with innovators; a micro-factory for services.

In order to attract walk-in customers, JOSEPHS® has a coffee shop at the entrance. In order to sustain the innovation and create spaces for co-creation, there is denkfabrik, a workshop space, and meeting areas.

Please visit the website of JOSEPHS® at For more information on how the concept works, you could watch the YouTube video at [If you would rather watch it in German, please visit and]. If you are an academic and want to learn more about JOSEPHS® and teach about it in your class, you can download a copy of my case on JOSEPHS® from the Harvard Business Publishing for educators at

[Disclaimer: I am a visiting professor at FAU, Nuremberg and have been involved in the conceptualization of JOSEPHS®, as well as the author of the case mentioned above. Read about my journey to FAU here. And about my course at FAU here.]

Summing up

So, why does Amazon open retail stores? How does manage its online and offline ventures? Think small data. Time to integrate small data with big data to get real deep insights. In the next post, I will delve deep into the business model of FirstCry and elucidate the synergies between online and offline stores.

(C) 2016. R Srinivasan.

Regulating Platforms

Over the past few months, there have been a lot of disputes between platform businesses, governments, and a lot of these have gone to courts as well. Last Friday (26 August 2016) issue of the Mint newspaper carried an opinion piece titled “the tricky business of regulating disruptors” (read it here). The editorial while labeling almost all platform businesses as disruptors, just stopped short of calling all of them disruptors. In this blog post, I dig deep into the issue of if and how platform businesses need to be regulated with respect to consumer protection, without impeding innovation and thence providing fair business opportunities to businesses (and returns to investors).

Defining the industry boundaries

One of the key determinants of “competitive” behavior is the definition of the relevant industry. What is competitive and what is anti-competitive can depend on how narrow or broad you cast your net while defining the industry. For instance, the Mint editorial explains in detail how in a 1953 verdict on DuPont’s monopoly on the cellophane as a result of “result, business skill, and competitive activity”, despite having over 75% market share in the cellophane market, because the courts defined the “relevant” market as flexible packaging material, and not cellophane, the product. However, in most cases against platform businesses like Uber, the competition commissions and other regulators have defined the market as app-based taxi services, and therefore looked at the market being usurped by monopolies (Didi-Uber combine in China) or a duopoly comprising of Uber and a local operator (like Grab in SE Asia, OLA in India, Lyft in the USA).

Is Uber a competitor or substitute to Taxi?

In a detailed response to Prof. Aswath Damodaran’s 2014 article on Uber’s valuation (read it here), Bill Gurley (a series A investor and board member of Uber) defined three things (read Bill Gurley’s blog post here).

  1. He argues that Uber has since transformed the industry so much that one’s market size estimates based on current taxi market sizes is flawed. In other words, Uber was providing customers with far more value and a very different set of value propositions than a traditional taxi service – quick discovery, easy payment, predictability of service, quality (dual rating of riders and drivers), and trust/ safety. He talked about how Uber’s customers are using it to transport young adults/ children or older parents in the “comfort and safety” of an Uber, rather than a taxi.
  2. He argued that given the economies of scale that arose due to the positive cross-side network effects, more and more drivers and riders adopted Uber, and Uber expanded to more and more geographies, and the prices fell. And the price elasticity contributed to more demand and therefore more network effects. The economics of Uber (and therefore other ride-hailing app-based services) are very different from the city Taxi services.
  3. Uber is not a taxi alternative – it is a car-ownership (or a car-rental) alternative. When the liquidity (availability + density) of Uber vehicles is so high in every geography you want to travel to, you would rather not rent/ buy a car, but use Uber. The convenience and reduced cost of Uber as an alternative to ownership is something that he substantiates with data and analysis.

In other words, Uber was indeed a disruptor, and therefore was entitled to be treated as a separate industry. It is not a competitor to the for-hire taxi, it is an alternative; much the same way Kodak was bankrupted by digital photography (and not by competitors like Fuji).

Creative destruction and Schumpeterian waves of technology innovation

The Mint editorial called for Honorable Judges to not set taxi fares, simply because these disruptors would transform the industry through their technology innovation, and any restraining regulation would hinder these Schumpeterian waves. It is therefore an indirect call for letting these disruptors alone, let the waves of Schumpeterian technology innovation hit the markets, before we arrive at a stability of sorts. Regulation can wait.

Can regulation wait, and allow for a disruptor, in the excuse that the market is a “winner-takes-all” market monopolize the market? The popular arguments against monopolies is that of consumer protection, and that when monopolies rule, consumers suffer – prices rise, service levels fall, and there may be no alternatives. This is exactly the case for another wave of creative destruction.

My primary thesis is that when such disruptions happen on the basis of network effects, leading to economies and scale, and the disruption is based on parameters like improved customer service, lower prices, and transparent/ fair transactions (trust/ safety and the like), monopolies are not necessarily bad. When such monopolies emerge and the customer experiences deteriorate, as dictated by traditional industrial economics theory, the market will be ripe for another wave of Schumpeterian technology innovation. The waves of market entry in the Indian airlines market is testimony to these (1990s – privatization and shake-up leaving two state-owned and two private competitors; 2000s – entry of low-cost carriers leading to the demise/ consolidation of all stuck-in-the middle competitors; 2010s – entry and strengthening of regional airlines, is it?) waves of creative destruction.

Yes, there is space for other competitors, but not so much for Uber replicas. The market is indeed a winner-takes-all market (as I have argued in the past), and therefore there is just enough room for small, losing replicators. Look around the markets for Uber competitors, you do not find any market fragmented. While differentiation and creating niches is the prescription for firms competing with Uber, I request the regulators to begin treating such platform businesses as an independent market and let the inefficient product-markets fail, if required. No one cried when the offline ticket counters of Indian Railways are declining sales, thanks to the volumes garnered by IRCTC (some claim that this is the world’s largest ecommerce platform, is that true?). No one complains about garnering huge market shares in the app-based movie seat booking market, claiming that the livelihoods of the ticket clerks are under threat. Why cry about Uber, or for that matter, OLA, Grab, or Lyft?

There is already sufficient discrimination against these disruptors. In a recent visit to San Francisco, I made an extra effort (okay, walked down a flight of escalators) to click a picture at the SFO airport that read, “app-based taxis to pick-up from departures level”. Honorable Judges, please leave them alone, enjoy your ride/ movies/ every other service, contribute to the economies of scale, and let the market be disrupted.



Breaking the Uber-Ola duopoly?


Okay, after a week’s break for personal reasons, the blog is back up. Writing from Berkeley, CA today.

The Karnataka Government (of whom Bangalore is the capital city) recently announced that it would like to have more private players in the ride-hailing app market, not just an Uber-Ola duopoly. Read the Transport Minister’s interview here. Which got me thinking, will this market sustain multiple competitors, if at all?

A classic winner-takes-all market is defined by three conditions – presence of strong network effects, high multi-homing costs, and the absence of any special needs. Let us first analyse if ride-hailing is a WTA market, and then talk about what kind of resources would another player require to compete in that market (remember Taxi-for-sure sold out some years back).

The ride-hailing app market enjoys strong cross-side network effects from both sides – more the drivers on the road, more the riders adopt; and vice versa. Simple. What are the multi-homing costs for the riders – just the real-estate on her phone for installing multiple-apps; and possibly any loyalty rewards, including maintaining her rider-rating. The multi-homing costs for the drivers are higher, though. He needs to affiliate with multiple firms; maintain multiple devices and payment/ banking information; and more importantly ensure sufficient rides taken on each of the platforms to sustain his incentives. Given the way Uber India and OlaCabs provide incentives (based on the number of rides per day), it would become increasingly difficult for him to multi-home. There are only two segments of customers in the ride-hailing app market: those who take them regularly (say 15-16 rides a week), and those who use them sporadically (say 2-3 rides a week). And both of these segments have the same preferences – low prices, high convenience, quick access to cars, and good customer service. So, this market seems like a WTA market, in the absence of a strong differentiation.


So, how does a new competitor differentiate? There are four options – long rides (say for instance, airport drops in a city like Bangalore); more variety of cars (larger vehicles for the big Indian family/ friends network); short/ weekend holiday trips; and rental cars (for self-driving by the riders).

Not that these needs are not being served – specialised competitors like Meru Cabs and Mega Cabs serve the airport market. In fact the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) has not authorised either OlaCabs or Uber to pick up passengers from the airport. Even in San Francisco, I saw a sign today morning, that said “all app-based cabs can only pick up from the departure level”! Some agreements need to be signed between the airports and the aggregators to ensure seamless experience for the riders. And this is true of a variety of airports across the world. Here is where, entrenched competitors like Meru can make a difference.

The large vehicle/ variety of vehicles was the forte of the neighbourhood taxi operator. The operator (or sometimes a local aggregator) would have on his list a variety of cabs ranging from the smallest hatchback to the large 15 seater van. You signed up on a hour-km base rate and a topup rate for exceeding either (time or distance, or both). Here is where a new ride-hailing app can begin differentiating. Take the example of Lithium cabs in Bangalore, which is appealing to the environmentally conscious consumer, by deploying only electric vehicles in the fleet (read here). Similarly, there could be specific apps for off-roading, mountainous trails (think the Manali-Leh highway – don’t forget to see the map in Earth mode), or for biking/ trekking/ hiking trips.

The short weekend holiday trips are possibly the most underserved market in India. A lot of small families would drive out their own cars, leaving at least one member of the family super-tired and unable to enjoy the holiday as much as the others. Especially if the road is not very good, and the car is not in the best of the condition, it can be treacherous ride rather than a enjoyable holiday. Some may argue that the drive itself was the enjoyment, but that is a different discussion. Here is an opportunity for ride-hailing apps to easily extend their services. The daily office-going commuter is not on the roads during the weekends, and the cabs are being under-utilised. Here is a win-win for both the drivers and the riders. OlaCabs has just began the Ola Outstation service for serving just this need – it is early enough to get more drivers (and bigger cars) to get on the roads on weekends, but I am sure they will get there sooner.

The car rentals (driven by the riders, as in Hertz in the USA) has its share of competitors – Zoomcar is a good example. For someone on a day trip to a familiar city, such rentals would be a great service, providing flexibility, control, and convenience. However, these rentals have not attained sufficient scale for the network effects to kick-in as these are asset intensive (the cab aggregator has to own all the cars); caught in regulatory conundrums (is it a private vehicle or a taxi – white number plate or a yellow number plate, or black/ yellow); how is insurance managed; and the coordination costs are very high (see how the airport pickup from Bangalore airport works, including the limited number of drop-off locations – serious limitations on the last mile to home).

Address the special preferences

In summary, in order to fulfil the Karnataka Government’s wish to break the monopoly, we need competitors to differentiate. We need the airport taxis to become cheaper, more efficient, and provide better customer service; we need the taxi/ cab aggregators to not just include more and more variety in their cars – from electric vehicles to sedans to SUVs, but differentiate on the value proposition; expand the capacity utilisation of their cars during the weekend by serving the weekend holiday trips market; and car rentals to expand their network significantly (four drop-off locations in Bangalore when you take a car from the airport, seriously?).

Cheers and happy weekend.

Startups out there: What instant gratification do you offer to your customers?


Last week, Tim Romero of ContractBeast published an article on LinkedIn on why he turned down $500K, pissed off his investors, and shut down his startup (read here). Easily one of the best articles I have read in the recent past. A quick summary on the story – Tim and his co-founders had set up the enterprise, done beta testing and received good reviews from their customers. However, what was bothering Tim was that his customers were using their product only for a small proportion of their total requirements. Deeper analysis of early adopters of the product revealed that they did not get any value from the product that provided them with something of an “instant gratification”. In the absence of a short-term value add, it was difficult to turn these free users into paying users, once the trial was over. And they decided to pull the plug on the product and the enterprise.

Scaling your startup

A lot of entrepreneurs and founders keep discussing about how to ‘scale’ their business, either to achieve traditional economies of scale or to kick-in network effects. In their attempt at scaling, a recurring theme is the provision of subsidies, at least for one set of users. Some of them provide these subsidies for a limited time period; some offer differentiated products/ services under a ‘freemium’ model; and some others provide their services ‘cheaper than free’.

Providing subsidies is a time-tested model of scaling up a business. Traditionally such subsidies were provided as a trial period, during which the customer experienced the product as the product provided the customers with some functionalities, if not all of the full version. When the trial period ended, the product reminded the customer to pay and upgrade/ renew, but pretty much stopped there. Some smart products could have collected valuable data on how and what the customers used the product for; and therefore provided them with partially customized offers. Take the example of Dropbox. It began providing me with free storage space and allowed me with more and more storage as I invited friends; and began collaborating with others (sharing files and folders). It allowed me enough storage on the cloud so that I could store files that I needed to access from ‘anywhere’, allowing me to work seamlessly from home/ during my travels (on my MacBook). The upgrade reminder kept popping up whenever I came close to using up my storage space, but it was always easy to move out those files that belonged to finished projects off the cloud and free-up space for newer projects. Eventually, it took a long time to convince me to pay up for the upgrade (I paid up when I had to share large number of files with a variety of collaborators across the globe). What Dropbox provided me was the seamless integration of my desktop folder with cloud storage without the hassle of actively uploading a document using a browser. I saved it in ‘the folder’ on my office desktop, and it was available in ‘a folder’ on my home desktop/ MacBook.

Some products provide customers with so much subsidies that it could become ‘cheaper than free’. For instance, Indian taxi aggregation market has become so competitive between Uber and OlaCabs that they are raising large sums of capital, and pumping them into the market as lower fares for riders and subsidies for drivers. These drivers get their incentives once they complete a certain number of rides per day, get to keep pretty much what they earn, and have the flexibility to sign up with other operators (or in platform-business terminology, multi-home with other operators). The story is wonderful and sustainable until the incentives last and keeps the drivers motivated. However, a caveat in the Indian market is that driver is not ‘the entrepreneur’ as what Uber and OlaCabs would like to believe. The company refers to them as driver-partners, and treats them as if they were independent. The truth in many cases is that, most of these drivers are paid employees of car-owners and their incentives are not the same as that of the car-owners. So when we introduce a third party in the transaction, a lot of traditional incentive schemes fail – does ride incentives benefit the car-owner or the driver? That depends on the terms of employment of the driver with the car-owner. Some owners lease the car for a fixed fee per day, some others pay monthly compensations to the drivers, and some others a combination of a fee and revenue/ profit shares. In this context, it would be difficult for Uber and OlaCabs to design an incentive system to shift these driver-partners from enjoying these freebies to a more (economically) sustainable model of revenue/ profit sharing. However, Uber’s ability to lock-in the driver by secularly increasing the number of rides required to earn incentives has increased the switching costs of these partners (car-driver-owner combine).

Instant gratification

In order to scale (either linearly or through network effects), firms would need to provide some form of instant gratification to its customers/ partners. However, it is imperative that the value provided should lead to increasing the switching and multi-homing costs for the customers. Take the case of Romero’s product, ContractBeast. What Tim observed during the trial period was that the customers were indeed multi-homing with other competing products and services to manage their contracts, and were not using ContractBeast for managing a majority (if not all) of their contracts. Had ContractBeast provided a value that did not allow for its SMB customers to multi-home, the story could have been different.

Increasing multi-homing costs

I perceive three levers for increasing the multi-homing costs of customers in a platform business model – asset specificity, not absorbing sunk costs, and integration with other systems and processes. Asset specificity refers to the requirements of the customers to invest in certain specific assets to adopt your product/ service. For instance, the B2B supplier platform IndiaMART requires SMB sellers to invest time and energy in uploading their product details, photographs, technical specifications, contact information and all details about their firm as part of the registration process. Such an intensive registration process ensures that the seller will focus all his energies on a single platform rather than multi-home. Quick reference, see the registration process in the dating platform eHarmony (the relationship questionnaire)! If you have filled that long a questionnaire once, you do not want to do that again and again in multiple platforms, right?

The second and the easiest lever for increasing multi-homing costs is the absorption of partner sunk costs. For instance, OlaCabs subsidizes/ absorbs the cost of the phone that is used by the drivers. This subsidy ensures that the drivers are free to multi-home with other taxi aggregators, as they have incurred no or little sunk costs. On the other hand, firms like Tally require you to invest in the license (albeit very inexpensive) to be able to use the full functionalities of the product/ service offerings.

The third lever for increasing multi-homing costs is to integrate your product/ service with other systems and processes of the customers. Take the example of Practo. Practo has ensured that clinics need to invest in Practo Ray, the practice management software that manages a lot of processes in the clinics, including managing electronic medical records and integration with pathological laboratories. Such tight integration with the processes ensures that their customers – the clinics – do not multi-home, and increasingly use (the doctor-patient discovery platform) exclusively for all their appointments.

Startups out there: Can you tell me how you do it?

That thing Tim Romero missed with his product! High multi-homing costs. So my dear entrepreneur friends, define (a) what is that instant gratification you offer for your customers? (b) does that value-add require temporary or permanent subsidizing, and (c) what is your strategy for increasing your customers’ multi-homing costs – increasing asset specificity? Not subsidizing their sunk costs? Or tight integration with their processes? Or a combination of these?

Would love to hear from my startup friends and followers.

Surge Pricing: The importance of focusing on the supply side

The Delhi Government, Karnataka Government, and even the Union Transport Ministry in India has been sieged with this issue of surge pricing by taxi aggregators. While there has been a lot written about surge pricing (see my earlier post, more than a month back), a lot of what I read is incomplete, misleading, and sometimes even biased. Here is adding to the debate, by clarifying what surge pricing and how it differs from other models of price setting. And I draw policy implications for dealing with the phenomenon by focusing on the supply side, rather than focus on just the price.

What is surge pricing?

Surge pricing is an economic incentive provided to the suppliers of goods and services to enhance the supply of products/ services available in times of higher demand in the market by (a) incentivising those suppliers who provide them, (b) ensuring that these suppliers do not go off the market in such times, and (c) rationalise demand through fulfilling only price inelastic demand. As a driver in a taxi aggregator system, it makes economic sense for the driver not to take his breaks during the peak demand times, and ensuring that only those riders who desperately need the service, and are price inelastic avail the service. A price sensitive customer should ideally move off the aggregator to a road-side hailing service (if available, as in Mumbai) or simply take public transport.

Who is a typical surge pricing customer?

A recent study talked about riders being more willing to accept surge pricing when their phone batteries are about to die, and they need to conserve the same (read here) before they reach home. A city with good public transportation infrastructure that is designed for peak hour loads should ideally witness the least surge pricing (please don’t ask me about Bangalore, or should I say Bengaluru?). In most Indian cities, the typical cab aggregator rider is someone who is a regular user of cabs and autorikshaws (three wheel vehicles) to commute short and medium distances. Typically either the origin or destination of the ride is in the city centre or a high-traffic area (like a train station or airport). It is when the public transportation infrastructure fails that these riders are forced to use cabs for their regular (predictable) transport needs.

Let us take an example of an entrepreneur (call her Lakshmi, named after the Hindu Goddess of Wealth) whose work place is in the city centre and she commutes about 15km every day. She should ideally use public transport, or if her route is not well connected she should have her own SUV or a sedan (remember her name!). She would possibly have a driver if her work involves driving around the city to meet customers/ partners, or her daily work start and close time are not predictable. The only time she would use a cab aggregator is when she is riding to places with poor parking infrastructure, for leisure, or say a place of worship. She is price inelastic.

Take another example of a front office executive at a hotel. Let us call him Shravan. His work times are predictable, he works on a fixed remuneration, and is most likely struggling to make ends meet. He is most often taking public transport to work, or self-driving his own budget car/ 2-wheeler. He would only take a cab aggregator for his leisure trips with his young family during the weekends; and when the entire weekend out with family is an experience in itself, he is unlikely to be price sensitive to a limit. However, when surge pricing kicks in beyond a limit, he would baulk out of the market, and take public transport or other options.

As a policy maker, the demand side (riders’) welfare should be higher on priority than that of the supply side (drivers and aggregators). The demand side is large in numbers, is fragmented, and has very few options (especially in times of high demand). Price ceilings are justified when riders who are desperate to reach are price elastic. In other words, those who need the safety, security and comfort of the taxi services cannot afford it. Like the sick desperate to reach a hospital or children reaching school/ back home on time. These are segments best served by other modes of transport, rather than taxi aggregators – the Governments of the day should invest in and/ or ensure availability of good quality healthcare transport services (ambulances) and public/ private school related transport infrastructure.

Surge pricing is dynamic pricing

Dynamic pricing is not new to the Indian economy. Almost the entire informal economy or the unorganized sector works with dynamic pricing. What the rate per hour of plumbing work in your city? Depending on the criticality of the issue, the ability of the customer to pay (as defined by the location/ quality of construction and fixtures), and the availability of plumbers, the price varies. So is the case with domestic helps, and every other service provided by the informal sector. Why even professional service firms like lawyers and accountants use dynamic pricing based on ability to pay and criticality of the issue.

What surge pricing by taxi aggregators do is to take the entire control of dynamic pricing out of the suppliers’ hands and places it with the platform. The drivers may be beneficiaries of the surge price, but they do not determine the time as well as the multiple. Plus, given that the surge price is announced at the time of cab booking, the riders have a choice to wait, change the class of service (micro, sedans, or luxury cars in the system), choose an alternative aggregator, or choose another mode of transport. A fallout of the transparency and choice argument is that the “bargaining” for price is done before the service provision, and not after the ride. This transparency and choice empowers the riders, and as long as the multiple is “reasonable”, we could trust the riders with rational economic decisions. What is reasonable may vary across riders and the criticality of the context. While Lakshmi may be willing to pay a 4x multiple on her way back from work at 9pm in Hyderabad, Shravan may only a 4x multiple at 9pm when he has to reach the hospital on time to visit his ailing mother.

Data is king

The amount of data collected by the cab companies about individual behaviour and choices can enable the aggregator design appropriate pricing structures, customised to each customer, a segment of one. For instance, Uber can run micro-experiments with surge pricing and tease Shravan with different multiples at different points of time/ origin-destination combinations, and learn about Shravan’s willingness to pay, far more than what he can articulate it himself. Powered with the data, Uber should be able to define something like ‘Shravan will accept a surge price of at most 2.2x, as he is trying to return home from his workplace at 10.30pm on a Friday evening.’ Over long periods of time and large number of transactions, this prediction should mature and get close to accurate.

Given that the aggregator platform would be armed with this data, it is for the policy maker to ensure that such data is not abused to further its own gains. How does policy ensure this? By capping the multiple through a policy decree, no! Rather ensuring a market mechanism that caps the surge pricing multiple would generate significant welfare to all the parties. In order to ensure a market mechanism that makes profiteering out of surge pricing unviable, the Governments must focus on developing robust public transportation infrastructure. As attributed to a variety of leaders on the Internet/ social media, ‘a rich economy is where the rich use public transport’. These investments would provide significant alternatives to attack supply shortages in the market, and make them more efficient. This supply side intervention would do the market a lot of sustainable good, by ensuring that the Shravans of the city need not use the taxi aggregators more frequently, and thereby increasing the price inelasticity.

Policy recommendation

In conclusion, the entire analysis of the demand-supply situation leads me to recommend one simple thing to the policy makers – focus on the supply side. Get more and more public transport (greener the better) on the road; provide better and efficient alternatives to all segments; and in the short run, just ensure that there are enough ‘vehicles available for hire’ on the road.

Comments welcome.

Network Mobilization in Platform Businesses

Network mobilization is a critical issue for building a platform business. In one of my earlier posts on how to build a platform business, I talked about firms having to solve the penguin problem. In this post, I would talk about the various ways of solving the penguin problem. Penguin problems manifest themselves when users on one side postpone adoption of the platform unless there are enough members on the other side of the platform. No one joins unless everyone else joins in. The metaphor arises from the behavior of penguins who wait at the edge of the ice file waiting to jump into the water to fish, but hesitate to do so for the fear of a lurking shark. Unless they are assured that there is no shark by a pioneering penguin who possibly was the hungriest and was willing to take the risk, no other penguin would jump in. Understanding of this behavior is key to network mobilization.

Closed group invites others

The story of how Facebook began with building a network of Harvard alumni and then branching out to others is well known. The same method was used by LinkedIn to build its network. The founder Reid Hoffman was a serial entrepreneur who did not have to depend on others to invest in LinkedIn. When he started, the site began with 13 people associated with the company, who were provided with invites. They invited 112 people. This set of people were successful and had strong profiles that when they invited others to join in, there was a viral growth in the next two years. Until after two years of launch, LinkedIn hadn’t even thought of revenue streams! (Read the story here). This is a luxury most entrepreneurs starting today would give one hand a leg for, right?

Find a crowd puller

When eBay stated in 1995 as AuctionWeb in San Jose, it was intended as a marketplace for collectibles. (Read the story here). It began by inviting sellers to auction a wide range of collectibles to other retail customers. However, rapid growth began when it contracted with Electronic Travel Auction to use SmartMarket technology to sell plane tickets and other travel products. This third party licensing deal helped AuctionWeb in their rapid growth of eyeballs. From 200,000 auctions in the whole of 1996, the contract signed in November 1996 provided it with enough traffic to grow to hosting 2m auctions in January 1997. Though unrelated to the business of C2C auctions, this technology brought in the traffic to the core auction business.

Time it right

No other enterprise start-up story can match the timing of how Airbnb, the bed-and-breakfast renting firm started. (Read more). Struggling to pay their rent, the founders capitalized on a design conference that was happening in San Francisco to launch their venture. When they rented their own apartment and found that they could sell three beds for about $80 per night, they realized that this could be a great business idea fueled by shortage/ high prices of hotel rooms during festivals and conferences in the USA. They built a basic website that allowed local people to list their rooms and travelers to book them. They got their initial traffic through large conferences in big cities.

Build the money side through marquee users on the other side

Coursera built its money side (students) first by offering courses from reputed universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Michigan and U. Penn for free (read more). Once they built enough number of students taking these courses, they began offering Signature track courses for which students had to pay for receiving a verified certificate. What helped them was the fact the founders were Professors themselves at Stanford University. They began by partnering with a few reputed universities, built sufficient number of student traffic on the other side, which attracted more and more universities and professors to join the educator side, which in turn attracted much more students. And the cross-side network effects exploded.

Port users from another platform

The Indian local business listing website started as a tele-discovery platform. Yes, that is the reason, they are called Just-Dial (read more). The printed yellow-pages was clumsy, cumbersome, and people were finding it difficult to find what they wanted quickly, especially when they were traveling outside their own cities. JustDial invested in creating a repository of all businesses in a local market, and then providing it to search users on the telephone for free. Given that most businesses in a local market would be competing with each other directly, same-side network effects existed. Which meant, a business’ motivation to list on the JustDial platform was higher when every other competing business was listed. JustDial leveraged this network effect and created a subscription scheme. And used a simple to remember phone number (88888888 – or all eights) in every city/ town to reach JustDial. Coupled with extensive consumer promotion, JustDial was a market leader in local search. When internet arrived and local search shifted online, JustDial simply ported their database of vendors from the tele-directory to create an online directory, much before anyone else could even spell the word directory! Appreciate the fact that for most of these local businesses, presence on the JustDial platform was the only online presence – they did not need to build their own websites!

Vertically integrate

India’s ecommerce vendors like had vertically integrated to build the network effects. Its subsidiary WS Retail was (till regulation hit them) Flipkart’s largest seller. It built its buyer base by listing products through WS Retail, and once the buyer traffic was there, it attracted more and more sellers. Same is the case with Cloudtail for Read an earlier piece on how this will play out here.

Solve an existential problem for a class of users

PayTM started as a platform for mobile recharges/ payments and paying DTH and utility bills. The offline mode of recharge was pretty cumbersome for the principals, who had to contract with a wide network of distributors and last-mile retailers and collect cash from all of them. This problem was solved when PayTM offered mobile/ DTH/ utility service providers with an option of having the customer recharge/ pay through their own mobile phones. Coupled with a wallet, transactions could be tracked immediately and were absolutely cashless. In order to grow the network, PayTM did not even need to advertise, the utility service firms themselves advertised to their customers to use PayTM! Once you solved a critical problem for one side of the users, it is in their interest to grow the number of users on the other side.

Just subsidize!

OLA Cabs began its operations with huge subsidies for both its drivers and its riders. And a lot of people believe that OLA continues to subsidize! Once the network effects are set in, and the switching costs for the drivers have risen significantly, it would be easy for OLA to begin its monetization. Till such time, keep the subsidy flowing.

More ideas welcome. Cheers.