FirstCry.com: Leveraging the power of offline

In my blog post last week, I wrote about how a hybrid online and offline strategy is useful for collecting small data. As a couple of my readers pointed out, what marketers and strategists call small data, ethnographers and sociologists call as thick data. Honestly, I had not heard of thick data. @fernandogaldino introduced thick data to me. I dug through the online references on thick data, and realized we are talking the same thing. Exactly the same thing. Thank you Fernando! So, I am going to continue using the term small data (that is what I have read academic articles about) with the caveat that small data is also thick data. Last week, I promised to delve deep into FirstCry.com and its online-offline strategy. Here it goes.

FirstCry.com

The firm was founded by Supam Maheshwari and Amitava Saha in 2010 as a pure online venture. By 2011, FirstCry.com opened its first offline stores. In an interview to TechCircle, co-founder Supam Maheshwari elucidated how a vertically focused ecommerce firm could survive and make money in a market dominated by horizontally spread competitors (you can read the interview here). He talked about replicating Quidsi’s business model in the Indian market, by owning a set of vertical markets like diapers.com and soap.com. In replication, firstcry.com has a sister website goodlife.com. The key difference, he said, between the Indian and the US market for baby care products was that, more than 95% of the products were imported. In fact, that was the seed for the enterprise – his own difficulty in finding good quality products for his child in India, whereas he could buy a lot of them during his international travels. That effectively makes this business inherently inventory-heavy. One needs to leverage economies of scale and scope in sourcing, hold inventory and invest in logistics to be able to service customers across the length and breadth of the country (read about firstcry.com inventory model here).

Omni-channel strategy

Here is where the omni-channel strategy helps. Instead of keeping inventory in dark warehouses, ready to be shipped, it was possible for firstcry.com to open retail outlets in tier II and tier III cities (where real estate was also likely to be cheaper), where ecommerce penetration was not as much as the tier I cities and the metros like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore. The inventory holding was thus distributed across the various franchised retail outlets. The outlets also provided customers with the look and feel of the products before they bought them – you need to appreciate that baby apparel and shoes dominate the market, only to be followed by toys and diapers. Clothes and shoes … when was the last time you bought your own shoe purely online? Inventory provided increased footfalls to the store, created brand awareness, and inventory off-take. The decision to have the same prices between online and offline stores, coupled with large touch screen interfaces to shop online from within the offline store could have provided exponential growth in traffic and sales.

Promotion: The FirstCry Box

Firstcry.com began promoting using traditional mass media – television and online ads. They invested in Bollywood’s longest serving (possibly) celebrity, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan as their brand ambassador and launched a few television advertisements (see some of their ads on YouTube here). However, they soon realized that mass media advertising was highly expensive and yielded low returns for a niche range like baby care products. That is when the idea of the FirstCry Box was born. The FirstCry Box is a bundle of some essential products that the mother would need during the first few days of the baby and mother reaching home from the hospital. Firstcry.com has agreements with over 6000 hospitals, through which these FirstCry Boxes are gifted to the new mothers, congratulating them on the birth. These boxes also contained gift and discount coupons from major brands of baby products, that the parents could redeem at either online at firstcry.com or any of their retail outlets. This ‘welcome kit’ to parenting provided firstcry.com a significant opportunity to build brand equity and recall amongst the over 70000 mothers receiving these kits every month. Some marketers call this permission marketing (read about it here), or direct-to-parents strategy. For me, it is a wonderful platform, a two-sided platform mediated by firstcry.com. Parents, especially first-time mothers, are initiated into parenting with the help of these grooming products (basic diapers and lotions) and the gift coupons for free. The new mothers as a subsidy side is being financed by the brands that provide the products and coupons to be included in the box and act as the money side in the platform. For the brands, this is highly targeted sampling of their products, and most mothers would stay loyal to quality brands/ retail stores in baby products. In the entire transaction between the mothers and the brands, firstcry.com benefits significantly in three ways: (a) store loyalty resulting in increased sales, (b) small data about how these mothers use these products, the basket, frequency of purchase, and willingness-to-pay for quality; and (c) good quality prediction of demand in specific geographies, leading to efficiencies in inventory and supply chain management practices.

By the way, such welcome kits are not entirely new – a lot of employers have been on-boarding their employees with such welcome kits. I first heard/ saw such welcome kits when I was part of a team that delivered a customized training programme for the ITES service provider ADP India, a few years back. It was fascinating to see how the entire family was on-boarded into the firm! Not just ADP, a variety of other new age firms, I see have adopted this practice (read this article on how some Indian organizations welcome their employees). I wish I was welcomed like this by my employers!

Are hybrid models here to stay?

I would say, yes. We saw how Amazon was opening stores in our blog last week. We also discussed how Amazon.in was using firms like StoreKing to reach the Indian retail hinterland. I read last week that their Indian competitor, Flipkart.com was also opening offline store to reach users in small cities (Flipkart to open offline stores as well). And in vertical markets like baby products, it has become all the more important to target your promotion very narrowly, and focus on the backend (inventory, supply chain, and logistics) efficiencies, while at the same time achieve scale.

Is vertical ecommerce a winner-takes-all market?

Three industry conditions define a platform market as a winner-takes-all market: presence of strong cross-side network effects, high multi-homing costs for the users, and the absence of special requirements. The baby products retail market is dominated by imported brands, is a highly fragmented industry, and the brand owners are dependent on their retail partners to promote their brands. The demand for these products are relative price inelastic, and consumers would be willing to pay premiums for sustained quality and reliability. An aggregator platform like firstcry.com would significantly aid in establishing and reinforcing the cross-side network effects between the brands and consumers. Second condition – the quality and reliability concerns of the parents would ensure significant store loyalty and brand loyalty. As long as there are no serious concerns, consumers would be loath to switch; and when the fill rates are high (there are no stock-outs of items that they want to buy) in their preferred stores, would not multi-home. In other words, consumer switching costs for brands are high, and as long as these brands are available with their favorite retailer, they would not shop from multiple outlets. And most infants have the same needs – diapers, creams, lotions, oils, and basic toys. Special preferences begin showing up only when they ‘grow up’. Some of them don’t ever grow up, but that is a different matter!

Firstcry.com and BabyOye merger and further consolidation

Given the industry conditions of geographically distributed year-round demand, operational efficiency and leveraging economies of scale and scope become key success factors. Consolidation is inevitable to achieve both backend (sourcing, inventory, and supply chain/ logistics) efficiencies as well as frontend scale (online and offline stores distributed across the country). That is why we would see waves of consolidation in such strong vertical markets. Like how firstcry.com and BabyOye merged their operations, I agree with Supam that this market will see more and more such mergers (read his interview here).

Lessons for enterprises focused on vertical markets

Based on what we have discussed over the past few weeks, I would urge enterprises focused on vertical markets (like firstcry.com) to (a) seriously consider your business model to include online and offline consumer touchpoints … for instance, online furniture store, Urban ladder is ‘pivoting’ to offline stores (read the news here) and are positioning their offline stores as customer experience centers; (b) invest in collecting and analyzing small (or thick) data through these omni-channel (or hybrid) business models; and (c) critically evaluate if the market conditions favour winner-takes-all dynamics.

Hope my readers from India and the diaspora had a great deepavali festival! Greetings from Bangalore.

Disclaimer: I am in no way related to FirstCry.com, Goodlife.com, its investors, or its founders.

(C) 2016, R. Srinivasan

Social Buffering – Is it lonely at the top?

 

Yesterday (24th August), I connected three dots. First dot: I met with a couple of my friends from 20 years back (we were batchmates) – one of them celebrated his tenth year of entrepreneurship this week, and another was taking baby steps into entrepreneurship in the last three months. Second dot: I read a piece on LinkedIn on why Samsung cannot be Apple. Third dot: I read an article in the Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) on executive anxiety. And tossing and turning on my bed, late in the night, the three dots connected. Voila.

Dot #1: The entrepreneurial fetish with fund raising

When two entrepreneurs meet with a business school professor, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to veer from business models to fund raising. So it did happen yesterday. The conversation was going towards evaluating if angel investing is better than crowdfunding, and we agreed that the money raised is much less valuable than the insight/ knowledge/ resources/ network the angel investor(s) would bring in. Isn’t that why those investors are called “angels”, as they have some magic wands in their hands? Slowly, bit by bit, I evaluated their business plans and broke the entire fund requirements to an amount that was so small that they would not take money from anyone other than one with an enormous network or experience in that domain. As entrepreneurs, it was extremely important that they realize that money from the right source is far more valuable than the denomination of the currency (or the balance in the bank). The value of the advice and mentoring the angel investors bring in is severely under-rated in today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here’s calling all entrepreneurs to evaluate your list of mentors – what specific insight, learning & knowledge, experience, resources, network do each one of them bring in. Prune/ add ruthlessly.

Dot #2: Singularity

The drive back home from North Bangalore to South Bangalore in the evening traffic is not something I enjoy, unless I have some company or reading to do. Yesterday, I had both. The reading was this LinkedIn post by Anish Behera on Why Samsung will never be Apple? (read it here). If you have returned back to this blog after reading his piece, you know where I got the three dots idea from, right!

His primary argument is that it was important for Steve Jobs and the American culture to be autocratic and not suitable for Korea and Samsung. He argues that American culture of Singularity is more suitable for innovation than the Korean (in fact, he extends his argument to most of Asia as well) culture of Conformity. Though I am glad that he included Mahindra under the singularity dimension, I think it is a slight stretch. But that is a different debate and discussion.

The substance of his argument was that Apple ha(s)d both singularity (one person) and an opinionated (non-conformist) culture that fostered innovation. What it means for entrepreneurs of today is not so much to create a person who is as charismatic (and possibly maverick) as the leaders he quotes, but to have a singularity of purpose that guides decision making. Strong vision, broader search for alternatives, speed of decision making, and discipline in execution arise out of singularity and non-conformity. Both, together; not a preponderance of one over the other. Pure singularity without a culture of non-conformity would result in a narrow search of alternatives and may lead to phenomena like groupthink. Non-conformity without a strong purpose and direction would result in slow decision making and lack of discipline in execution, and may to phenomena like predictable irrationality.

Dot #3: Social buffering

A couple of weeks ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook asked, “Hey Siri, why am I so alone?”. In an insightful interview with The Washington Post (read it here), he talked about a variety of things including not being able to replace Steve Jobs. But what caught my attention yesterday was the statement that “running Apple is sort of a lonely job”. And when I read an academic article on the Strategic Management Journal (yes, that is my primary job) by Michael J Mannor, Aadam J Wowak, Viva Ona Bartkus, and Uuis R Gomez-Mejia titled, “Heavy lies the crown? How job anxiety affects top executive decision making in gain and loss contexts”, (SMJ, 37,9, Sep 2016) the dot #3 emerged. The heavy crown of leadership can lead to significant anxiety in top executives (so beautifully articulated by Tim Cook when he talked about how he prepared for a congressional hearing – have you not read the interview, yet?). An effective insurance against such anxiety is to surround oneself with a team that is supportive of one’s decisions, effectively buffering the executive from threats from the environment. Building such a supportive team, that shields the top executive from the external world without a risk of opportunistic behavior from the buffer themselves is what the authors label as social buffering.

The implications of social buffering (according to the authors) are three-fold. Higher the perceived threat from the external world (and therefore the anxiety of the top executive), more likely the social buffering behavior. Secondly, in spite of the social buffer, it is likely that anxious executives might be more risk-averse than others. And finally, in contexts that represent losses (rather than gains), executives would be more likely to build strong social buffers. For instance, executives leading firms in declining product-markets may build stronger social buffers than those in high growth contexts. To put this in simple terms, the more vulnerable the top executive feels about the environment, the more she will surround herself with supporting team members (who share the same thought processes); it will make her more risk-averse; and more so, when faced with losses (than gains). Given that loss aversion is more pronounced (executives worry more about losses than celebrate equal quantum of gains), this social buffering can become more and more pronounced in malevolent environments.

Connecting the dots

Find an investor who “has been there, done that” + Build a culture of singularity & non-conformity + Beware of social buffering

While it is important that you seek angel investments from someone who brings in a lot of experience, insights, expertise, and a network, it is also imperative that you build a culture of singularity and non-conformity in your organizations. If you do not pay active attention to these details, you may end up surrounding yourself with a social buffer, promoting and highlighting only those in your network who conform to your thoughts and beliefs while letting others go, you run the risk of running your enterprise to the ground with high anxiety, low risk appetite, and conformist thinking. Without an active innovation programme, replication and possibly fast following strategies are likely to dominate the organizational discourse.

Prescriptions

  • Seek out investments carefully. Do a proper due diligence of your investors’ resources and networks
  • Keep checks on how your advisors and investors encourage/ dissuade innovation and risk-taking
  • Make sure that you surround yourself with a variety of perspectives, and ensuring that your social buffer is not counterproductive to your innovation and external orientations

Cheers.

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.

Differentiate

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.

Pelf: Is venture capital money for startups evil?

A common discourse these days in the print and social media is the persistent rant by “old school” economists and businessmen about how easy access to venture capital and private equity for startups have spoilt the ecosystem. And any failure is attributed to this easy access, any news in fact. In this post, I throw open three challenges for the startup ecosystem.

First things first, definition of pelf. The word has disappeared from a lot of English-speaking countries, but still survives in India, at least in my mind. It refers to money and wealth, which is ill-gotten, or through a dishonorable way. For the more lexicologically inclined, here is a link with more details.

As the startup economy generates any news, like Jabong being on sale; or ANI Technologies (the firm that runs OLA Cabs) reports losses, I scroll down to read the comments. And a large majority of them are rants about how these young twenty-something entrepreneurs have so much access to easy capital, that they do not care about business failures. I would imagine it is very fashionable to say – yes, failure is good and you should encourage failures, but fail with your own money (bootstrapping is okay; VC money is not). On the other hand, entrepreneurs would argue for the need for sufficient capital to invest in developing the ecosystem (low internet penetration, poor logistics and last-mile connectivity, inadequate payment infrastructure, and heightened competition from MNC subsidiaries like Amazon.in). Platform-businesses need capital to kick-in network effects, including subsidizing users (like Uber); so do a lot of infrastructure-dependent businesses that need patient capital before all pieces of the ecosystem fit with each other (PayTM).

The first challenge I pose to the entrepreneurs is to communicate the nature of your business model to your stakeholders very well. What is the source of your network effects? In just the last week, I heard at least four entrepreneurs pitching to investors, using the platform word in their first slides of the presentation, without ever talking about when and wherefrom network effects would kick-in. If you need capital to kick-in network effects, elucidate. Over the last few years, enough has been written about platform business models and network effects, a simple Internet search would educate you enough. Please put up at least a pictorial representation on your website (most of the websites have pages titled, how it works, which are craving for such content). For an example, please visit the homepage of Tarnea Technology Solutions (disclaimer: I advise them).

The second challenge is about pivoting. Entrepreneurs (ab)use this term a lot, that quite a lot of times, I am left wondering if the business had any specific plan in mind at all. When one thing does not work, it is natural to seek another business. When a large plan does not yield great results, it is important to seek business results from whatever succeeds in the overall scheme. But to use the word pivoting with a sense of pride is unnerving. I would urge entrepreneurs to take pride in whatever you do, fail, bounce back. But to pivot with pride, I am not sure. You may have used entrepreneurial bricolage (making do with whatever is at hand) to build your business, nothing wrong. The classic (okay, my favorite) academic paper on entrepreneurial bricolage is here. Bricolage explains how entrepreneurs recombine their limited resources at hand and create unique products/ provide unique services that challenge institutional norms. For examples of digital bricolage and what it entails for new age entrepreneurs, read this latest article at HBR.org.

The third challenge (may be a request) I pose to entrepreneurs is to provide credible estimates of performance. The old age firms, especially the ones listed in the stock market need to provide the (Wall or Dalal) street and analysts with performance expectations. Yes, forward looking statements. The stock market penalizes firms who do not provide reasonable estimates of performance, or fail to perform in line with estimates. Entrepreneurs, even though you do not have the retail investors and analysts chasing you with quarter-on-quarter performance expectations, it makes for good governance to keep stakeholders informed. Please provide us with credible forward looking statements. It is actually good time-pass these days to initiate conversations with OLA and Uber drivers about when and if at all these firms will ever become profitable. Neither the drivers, nor the riders have a clue to the way forward, and it is good fun listening to various viewpoints. I am very impressed with Snapdeal founder Kunal Behl’s collaboration with Ashvin Vellody of KPMG to publish this report on the Impact of e-commerce on SMEs in India. Not so much the report (it is definitely well written and contains insightful analysis), but the act of writing itself is commendable for me.

To summarize, entrepreneurs in the startup world, if you want to change the perception that all your startup capital was easily obtained, is pelf, and therefore not justified, I challenge you to

  1. Explicitly communicate the source of your network effects
  2. Don’t pivot; use entrepreneurial bricolage
  3. Provide credible estimates of performance

Cheers.

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.

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 Practo.com (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.

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 JustDial.com 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 Flipkart.com 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 Amazon.in. 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.

About this blog

Hi: I have been wanting to write a blog for a long time. Thanks to my students and collaborators who have pushed me to write regularly, I start.

There are three things I would write about:

  1. Strategy, in general; Indian firms in specific
  2. Digital strategy, and what it means for the Indian firms, especially start-ups
  3. Platform business models, with a focus on Indian firms

Suggestions and comments welcome.

Reach me at srini108@gmail.com