Why companies don’t grow – The idea of the platform company
The effects of Moore’s law on the growth of the ICT industry and computing are well known. A lesser-known but potentially more weighty law is starting to replace Moore’s law in strategic influence. Metcalfe’s law is named after Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet. The law states that the cost of a network expands linearly with increases in the size of the network, but the value of the network increases exponentially. When this is combined with Moore’s law, we are in a world where at the same time as the value of the network goes up with its size, the average costs of technology are falling. This is one of the most important business drivers today. The implication is that there is an ever-widening gap between network-economy companies and those driven by traditional asset leverage models. Traditional business economics focus on economies of scale derived from the capital base of the company, which tends to scale linearly
In practice this means that digital services can attain the level of customer reach and network size, required to capture almost any market, even as the size of the company stays relatively small. This is why network-economy based start-ups have such a huge advantage over asset leverage based incumbents.
The principles behind this are not totally new.
It used to be argued that goods for which the marginal costs, the cost of producing one more unit of customer value, were close to zero were inherently public goods and should be made publicly available. Before the digital era, roads and bridges were commonly used as examples. Maximum benefit from the initial investment is gained only if the use is as unrestricted as possible. People should have free, or almost free access. Once the capital costs have been incurred, the more people there are sharing the benefits, the better it is for the whole value system in the future. This was the economic explanation for why roads were, and still are, under public ownership. The same logic applied to public libraries: a book can be read repeatedly at almost no extra cost.
What used to be called “public goods” is today called “platforms”. A new form of a company is being born!
Once the up-front costs have been incurred and the platform is established, the more people there are who are sharing the benefits, the greater the net present value of the whole value system becomes. A platform company should therefore be as open, as accessible and as supportive as possible, to as many users as possible. This is unequivocally the route to optimum value creation. Moreover, the higher the value of the system, the costlier it becomes to all its members to replace it – creating a major barrier to entry.
Restructuring a firm for the new world would require concurrent relative downsizing of legacy systems and upsizing of the new open platforms. As both are explicitly costly things to do and the financial rewards of the latter are typically deferred, the exercise becomes challenging for incumbents to implement within the constraints of the existing financial frameworks. But it is happening!
Internet scale economies can create almost boundless returns without the company growing at all. The goal of Supercell is to be “as small as possible” as Ilkka Paananen has said. At the beginning of 2013 Tumblr had only 145 employees and 100 million visitors. That meant it had 700.000 visitors per employee. The sheer size of an enterprise will tend to mean less in the digital network business than in the world of physical goods. Companies don’t grow any more in the way they used to! It is the networks that grow!
But something else needs to change too: customer focus has been the dominant mantra in business. Everybody knows that everything should focus on the customer. However this is not enough any more. Up to now, business has focused on the customer as an audience for products, services and marketing communications. In the world of digital networks, the customer will be transformed from being an audience to an actor. The activity of the customer focuses corporate effort.
The central aggregator of enterprise value will no longer be a value chain, but a network space, where these platform companies are fully market-facing and the customer experience is defined by applications connecting to the platform.
The basis of executive power is shifting from being in charge to being connected. New leaders understand that power with people is much more effective than power over people. It is about integrating the best of networked thinking and leveraging the new platforms for value creation.
Thank you Sasu Ristimäki for the iterations and thank you for developing my thinking.
More on the subject: Jeremy Rifkin.