Building a platform business is hard work, not for lazy people: A response to Prof. Ajay Shah’s column in the Business Standard

I read with interest what Professor Ajay Shah had to say about young men and women entrepreneurs of today wanting to become rich quick, with dreams of laziness in the Business Standard (see here). This note is a response to his observations/ allusions that businesses that run on network effects (a) are not-so-innovative, (b) operate in monopolies, and (c) are built around inferior products.

Building a platform is hard work, not for lazy people

Let me begin with the title – lazy businesses. The implication of laziness is that while there is opportunity and capability to do the hard work, these businesses (and by implication, its founders) are unwilling to work hard. I disagree to the notion that anything develops fast is not hard work. The implication that a business that grows slow is “steady” and the one that grows fast is cutting corners. True capitalism favours entrepreneurs who chase and capitalise on big opportunities, and that too pretty fast. Building network effects is not as easy as he alludes. He quotes the example of Google monopolising cloud-based email due to the network effects it has generated. Google was not the first entrant in the cloud-based email space, there were two large competitors operating when it entered – Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Gmail entered with a disruption – it offered almost unlimited storage on the cloud, and two, it began with invitation only. It took a while for Gmail before it became open for signup, but given that innovative positioning of “never having to delete your email”, it was quick enough. Behind this innovation at the customer end was the hard work, the painstaking task of building server farms across the world with sufficient security and redundancy built into them. This is exactly the hard work Prof. Shah talks about, innovating around products – the Google innovation was riding on the falling storage costs and leveraging the power of global network connectivity to build a network of server farms, thus driving costs down. The fact that Gmail was able to unseat Hotmail and Yahoo Mail from their leadership positions is sufficient evidence that competition is working, and capitalism is safe too.

Platforms are innovative

One of the key tenets of capitalism is that factor endowments (like capital) flow freely from inefficient uses to the most efficient uses. The fact that the venture capital market is amply fragmented is the first signal that capitalism is working there. Let us turn to the platform business firms that seek these capital resources. As capitalism would have it, money should only flow to the most efficient uses of capital – ask any entrepreneur about raising money, and you would hear enough of how difficult it has been. Raising money has never been so difficult, as each of the business models have been unique. Yes, there have been replication business models that get funded, like I want to be build the Uber of Indian hospitals, but they are few and far between. Each of the business models that are flush with funds from the venture capital firms and angel investors are indeed innovative. May not be in the traditional sense of the product innovation like Google’s server farms, but a lot of them offer unparalleled service innovations. Take the example of Quickr, the C2C used goods marketplace. Though such used goods marketplaces had existed in the past, Quickr has managed to bridge the information asymetry between buyers and sellers in a variety of ways (photographs of products, contact details of sellers, premium services, and enabling within-platform communication through QuickrChat) as an insurance against the platform becoming a “market for lemons.” These innovations have not happened in one day, it has taken them years of competing with similar and local marketplaces and keenly listening to their customers on both sides – buyers and sellers.

Not all platform businesses operate in winner-takes-all markets

Prof. Shah alludes to the suggestion that most, if not all, platforms create and operate as monopolies, once they reach a threshold of network effects. Research in economics shows that there are three conditions for a platform market to become a winner-takes-all market – network effects are strong and positive, multi-homing costs are high for the users, and there are no special preferences for users. He has clearly defined the network effects in his article, and I would skip that part. Let me turn to multi-homing costs. Unlike switching costs which measure user costs of switching from one competing product/ brand to another; multi-homing costs measure the user costs of staying affiliated to multiple product/ brands. A good example of multi-homing costs is the number of emails accounts a user can efficiently own and operate. Even though most of cloud-based email is free to use, and a user can create any number of email ids for herself, what restricts her choices to a few is the costs of logging in to each email id, and making sure you do not miss out on important communication. This multi-homing costs ensure that the market has one social networking site, where people connect with friends, family, co-workers, as well as their business partners. However, not all markets have high multi-homing costs. Users (bargain hunters) do shop on multiple ecommerce sites and maintain their login/ passwords for each of these sites. The third condition for a market to demonstrate winner-takes-all economies is the absence of special preferences amongst the users. In the peer-to-peer networking space, where Facebook dominates the social networking market, professional networking (finding jobs and customers for one’s skills as a special need) has another player, LinkedIn. Passive job seekers would populate LinkedIn, while active job seekers would register with one of the many job sites like Naukri.com. The point I want to drive home here is that having network effects by itself does not guarantee a winner-takes-all economy. Firms expend time and effort in building multi-homing costs and enveloping any special needs to create a winner-takes-all market.

Successful platforms have a superior product/ service core

Though network effects make switching costs high, the history of platform business evolution is strewn with a lot of products/ services that have fallen by the wayside due to poor quality of its core product/ service. We did talk about Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, that did not innovate at the right time and lost out to Gmail. On the other hand, Friendster and MySpace failed due to Facebook’s superior quality and constant innovation. Google+ with the backing of the Internet giant, is an also ran in the peer-to-peer social networking space. Yes, switching costs exists and are non-zero, but given the right kind of strategy adopted by the challenger, that is apart from the superior product/ service, users can, and will shift.

Network effects are hard to build

Prof. Shah’s piece asserts that network effects are easy to build and can be done quickly too. Building cross-side network effects are difficult. How would Prof. Shah like to be the first contributor of a new newspaper, not as established as the Business Standard? He writes a column for the BS because of the existence of network effects – he knows that his columns would be read by the “right audience.” Traditional businesses like newspapers have long known to subsidize one side of its user base, its readers, while making money from advertisers (and in some cases, even benefactors and sponsors). So is the case with the media industry. This is a classic “chicken-ane-egg” problem that network industries have to resolve. There are many ways to solve them, and subsidising one side is just one of them. For instance, Practo has invested heavily in building its practice management software, Practo Ray for its clinics side of the business, so that it could build cross-side network effects. Now that the clinics use Practo Ray, Practo can afford to subsidise patients discovering doctors/ clinics through Practo.com. Tough, hard work buidling and selling practice management solutions to clinics, before the subsidising began. Subsidising one side of users to build network effects is not in itself any bad, but such subsidising should not be at the cost of overall economic well-being. Founders/ VC investors (shareholders) and managers make money because the customers, at least one side of the platform, are willing to pay. And they are willing to pay in return for the value they receive.

In sum, building a platform business with network effects is not lazy work, it takes a lot of patience, investments, and creative solutions to succeed. Yes, they are unlike traditional “pipeline” businesses where value flows from one direction to another linearly. They are different, and in some kinds of ways, fun. They have multiple sides of customers to deal with, and are on the toes all the time to keep the fine balance intact. These are exciting times when traditional pipeline businesses compete with platform businesses.

Comments welcome.

How to build a platform business?

In his recent convocation address at our institute (Indian Institute of Management Bangalore), Mr. Nandan Nilekani stressed on how platform firms have come to dominate the Indian (and global) markets, and the need for our graduating students to understand them well (see http://www.iimb.ernet.in/convocation-2016). In this post, I would focus on categorizing different types of platforms, and some key issues in building a platform business.

Platforms are firms that operate in multi-sided markets. Unlike firms where products and services flow in one direction (remember, Porter’s value chain?) in a pipeline fashion, and money flows in the opposite direction, platform business models connect multiple sets of users. In the traditional sense of the word, a railway platform helps passengers find their trains and vice versa. The train station manager sets the rules, provides the infrastructure, and enables a smooth discovery and transaction between the different sides (trains and passengers). Imagine trying to find and board trains like you would board a taxi in the streets of Mumbai or New York! Generalizing this, the firm that provides the infrastructure is the “platform provider” and the one that sets the rules and norms is called the “platform sponsor”. In some cases, the platform provider and sponsor could be the same firm (like in the case of a railway platform); and in some other contexts, the platform provider could be different than the sponsor (like in the case of Uber or OYO rooms, where the cabs/ rooms are owned by independent entrepreneurs and the rules of the exchange/ transaction is set by the aggregator).

Platforms match different sides of users. In their role as matchmakers, they provide different value propositions – discovery, quality assessment, norms for interaction, setting expectations, and provide feedback – for each of the sides. Let me discuss how to build each of these value propositions (when you are setting up a platform business model) in detail, with examples from established platforms.

Discovery

This is in fact the first thing to focus on when you set up the platform. Setting up the infrastructure to facilitate interactions is the easiest thing to do. The most difficult part of process is the populating the sides with users. Here is where new platforms encounter the classic “penguin” problem, where users on one side postpone adoption till such time there are enough users on the other side. How would you like to be the “first” person to be listed on a dating site, seeking to find a date? You would affiliate with a dating site only when you are sure that there are already enough members on the other side. Platforms need to overcome this inertia by incentivizing one side to affiliate, in anticipation of affiliation by a large number of right kind of members on the other side. Various platforms have solved the penguin problem differently. For instance, Facebook solved the penguin problem by starting small and being focused on Harvard University students and alumni. Practo  solved it by building and selling their practice management software (Practo Ray) to clinics before opening the patient interaction platform.

Having solved the penguin problem, i.e., having built enough members on both sides, platforms have to ensure that the discovery engine is powered to ensure quality, current, and relevant results. For an interesting take on how Indian ecommerce firms stack up on search results, see this post by Aditya Malik.

Quality

In a platform where products/ services/ information are provided by independent parties on one side, it is imperative that the platform ensures quality. It would require verifying the genuineness of the information provider as well as the veracity of the information. For instance, Quickr.com (an Indian C2C marketplace for used goods) positively discriminates posts with pictures of the items being offered for sale than those posts without pictures while sorting the search results. IndiaMART (the B2B marketplace for industrial goods) certifies the sellers with a TrustSEAL, by verifying the antecedents of the seller’s businesses, including their legal compliance, manufacturing facilities, and product range. Verification of quality comes with a cost, and provides the platform with high credibility and enables loyalty of users.

Some platforms use user-ratings and reviews as indicators of quality (like zomato.com, the restaurant discovery platform). Crowd-sourcing of ratings and reviews might provide higher credibility to the platform, but has to be used cautiously. These could be gamed by users. More on this later.

Norms and rules

As a platform sponsor, it is important to set the norms for communication and interaction among users across the different sides. These norms should set the boundary conditions for interactions, like the terms of sale (delivery charges, delivery times, returns policy) in ecommerce marketplaces.

In pure discovery platforms like JustDIal.com (an online yellow pages) or Quickr.com (marketplace for used goods), indiscrimately providing mobile numbers could be abused. Quickr.com has in the past few months introduced a secure chat service whereby sellers and buyers could chat with each other within the platform without having to provide each other’s mobile number. Even when the agreement is reached and the transaction has to be completed, Quickr allows for an anonymous delivery service (Quickr doorstep), where the users need not know each others’ personal contact details.

BharatMatrimony (the online matrimony match maker) allows only paid members to initiate communication with others. What this does is to ensure that brides and grooms who are actively seeking matrimony to become paid members, as the other side is unlikely to respect someone who is “not even willing” to pay for discovering his potential partner!

Setting expectations

The platform should allow for users on both sides to clearly set expectations apriori, to ensure that there are no surprises during the transaction. More the information sought and shared during the discovery phase ensures smooth transition to the transaction and fulfilment phases in the platform. Here is where the platform should ensure that there is a mimimum amount of high quality information available about the entity/ prodcut/ service being matched. Imagine trying to book a hotel room on a travel website without information on the hotel location, types of rooms available on that particular night(s), and the rates! It is therefore an important consideration that platform designers need to keep in mind when designing the infrastructure and rules. For instance, dating sites like trulymadly.com ensure that users provide their facebook pages during the registration process. While actual verification of each users claims on the dating sites might be difficult, linking their facebook account to the trulymadly account ensures that they do not lie (too much!) with respect to critical information about themselves (like marital status). Now you know why the job search portal you just signed in wanted you fill in pages of information, and links to your LinkedIN profile.

Providing feedback

Even after ensuring quality, defining the norms, and setting expectations, there could be some errors. The platform architecture should therefore provide for immediate feedback on all four parameters – quality of the entity/ product/ service/ information; relevance/ adequacy of information; currency of information; and the quality of the discovery, transaction, and fulfilment processes. Cab aggregators like OLACabs request for feedback on the quality of the cab and driver as soon as the ride is completed. However, there is no provision (not that I could find) to provide feedback on all the discovery stage of the platform – the time it took for the app to find me a cab/ auto, or the accuracy of the location services within the app.