The brand “value chain”

The brand “value chain”

Consumers need for brands and their meaning is evolving. It will change where in the value chain most value accrues.

Established consumer brands have a good run for decades, servicing the majority share of increasing consumer demand. It’s no news to anyone that first the emergence of Amazon and then the emergence of DTC brands has completely disrupted the playbook of established brands.

The need for brands and the value they create is both changing. In a decade, the landscape of brands will look completely different, both in terms of the spread of brands that resonate with consumers and what they mean for them. Established brands in some categories will be replaced by no-name brands and in some other categories by DTC brands. This will change where the brand value accrues.

Evolving brand landscape and representative players in the value chain

Many no-name brands will be either Amazon’s private label brands or new Chinese brands selling on Amazon, and Amazon obviously will capture most of the value in these cases. Also, by being the virtual equivalent of a physical retailer’s shelf-space, it will capture most of the value for established brands as well, probably outside luxury brands.

In this post, I will NOT talk about Amazon’s value capture but instead focus on other entities that can expect to see significant value accruing to them as part of the changing brand landscape. These entities are:

  1. Platforms enabling DTC brands
  2. Secondary goods marketplaces
  3. “Social brand-network” focused on building communities around brands

1. Platforms enabling DTC brands

There is a lot that DTC brands have to get right when they are starting off. Mostly, there isn’t a lot of value in trying to recreate the technology (commerce) stack for selling to the customer. Platforms such as Shopify have made that commerce stack easily accessible. Below a excerpt from a recent article on Shopify.

What Shopify does is power all of that ability — from selling to payments to marketing. “We run the gamut of a retail operating system.” Like any platform, Shopify is building an ecosystem of developers, startups and ad agencies.

This evolution of Shopify from helping small businesses get online to helping venture funded DTC brands disrupt their markets is fascinating. It reminds me of how Nvidia found that its GPUs built for gaming are perfect for AI applications. As DTC brands increase in number and scale, Shopify (and other similar platforms) will accrue a lot of brand value. They are helping brands create their own virtual shelf space, not dependent on any retailer. As the needs of DTC brands grow, so will the tools that Shopify or other platforms offer to meet them, becoming the infrastructure layer for a part of the consumer brand economy.

2. Secondary goods marketplaces

Before the internet, brands were a proxy for trust. Buying from a known brand meant that you could trust what you were buying, short-circuiting the complexity of the buying process. So, it was enough for brands to just stand for trust. Today, Amazon has centralized trust, changing what it means to be a brand; this tweet captures it beautifully. Larger brands need to do more than just build trust. They need to stand for something to make consumers choose them over a no-name or a DTC brand.

This means adopting strategies that these brands would have scarcely used historically. Two come to mind, both centered around creating spikes of activity around the brand.

  • Taking a stance on social/political issue: An example of this is Nike’s ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick which led to significant increase in sales.
  • Engaging in product drops: Drops have emerged as a great way to create buzz. Streetwear brand Supreme pioneered it many years back and now more and more brand are adopting it. It creates scarcity for marquee products released in limited volume, giving the brand an opportunity to make itself aspirational and amplify what it stands for. Couple of examples of this are Adidas’ Alexander Wang drop and LV x Supreme drop.

In acknowledgement of these trends, Shopify has launched an app “Frenzy” to make it easier for consumers to know about upcoming drops and “buy at retail, not resale”. In my opinion, this only furthers the hype that these brands are trying to create, increasing the value of the products in the resale i.e. secondary market. eBay’s new ad campaign “It’s happening” speaks to this evolving strategy of brands. Below is an excerpt from the campaign.

Designed as more than just a brand campaign, we’re aiming to express to shoppers around the world what we’ve known all along: Everything that’s current, relevant and interesting is on eBay — and your audience can buy it now

The question then, as posed in this article around Supreme, is why would a brand let secondary goods marketplaces capture a significant part of the value it is creating. The answer is that secondary goods marketplaces help brands extend the buzz around them, increasing the brand value. They help more people feel part of the community that the brand is trying to create. They create a virtuous cycle in which both they and the brands benefit.

Secondary goods marketplaces have historically struggled at capturing the most value that brands create because of concerns around trust of the authenticity of the products. However, marketplace-provided authentication services (e.g. eBay Authenticate) are increasingly becoming a standard part of their commerce stack, resolving most of the trust issues.

With trust as a barrier mostly addressed, there is an opportunity for secondary goods marketplaces to more proactively participate in this trend. An example is eBay recently organizing it’s first-ever community sneaker drop, creating an artificial incentive for its sneaker-crazy buyers and sellers to trade on marquee sneakers, in the process increasing the brand value of the sneaker brands and accruing a lot of value to eBay.

3. “Social brand-network” focused on building communities around brands

As mentioned above, one of the biggest elements that makes brands valuable is the is sense that the customers of the brand get around belonging to the community. Historically one’s membership to the community could only come from one owning a product of the brand. That has its limitations; it can work well if you are a luxury brand but when millions of people own the brand, its hard to feel like you are a part of the community. There is a need for non-luxury brands to explore ways to build a network/community in a scalable way; this article articulates this very well.

As you would expect, internet has unique potential to help brands do that. Till date, social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest have been primarily helping DTC brands get off the ground by getting them in front of people. They haven’t built tools to continuously engage people around conversations with a brand. Glossier, a DTC beauty company that I highly admire, has been taking a community first approach to building its brand and its products, thanks to its origins from the blog Into The Gloss. It now plans to take the next step in its evolution by building a social network centered around beauty. Excerpt below from this article:

Weiss wants to build her own version of a social media and shopping mashup, something that will allow shoppers to get feedback from other users to find beauty products that are right for them. This is not a social network that sells ads for revenue: Instead, Glossier will sell its own beauty items on the platform.

While Glossier might be able to afford building a social media and shopping mashup to help it build a network of brand enthusiasts, most of the DTC brands won’t either have the resources or the category need to build a network of their own. That is where the opportunity lies for a NEW social network to think of shopping beyond lead generation and ads, and repurpose the concepts of forums, chat rooms, news feed, etc. to build a destination where consumers can truly connect with brands on an ongoing basis.

Instagram is the most likely candidate to build something like that with their new Shopping app but I am skeptical if they will be able to move beyond ads. Whoever ends up building such a destination, which I call a social brand-network, will accrue a lot of value that DTC brands are building. It won’t be a bad addition to Shopify’s commerce stack btw if they can pull it off.

 

As with any fundamental shift in any industry, there are winners and losers. Winners understand how the value chain is changing and how they are positioned to capture a large part of the value. The landscape of consumer brands is changing faster than expected. Amazon is without doubt the key driver of the change and capturing a lot of value. However, there is a lot of value to be captured elsewhere and I am excited about seeing how the different players rise up to the opportunities that exist.

The “bundled” internet

The “bundled” internet

The perfect storm of expensive subscriptions, bad ads, and the need for growth is pushing Google and Apple to break the internet into bundles, changing it forever.

Back in the early days of the internet, people paid for newspapers to get delivered to their home, they bought music CDs, and Blockbuster was thing. There were set rules for how content creation, payment and distribution worked. Internet disrupted that. Yahoo, Google and then Facebook emerged and created an internet economy, supported by ads. Consumers started expecting most written content, if not music/videos, to be freely accessible. Newspaper publishers saw their fortunes dip.

Meanwhile, companies such as Netflix and Spotify emerged, creating large subscription businesses, and laying down a template for how to monetize video and music content. Believing that their journalism was worth paying for, newspaper publishers such as NYTimes committed to building a subscription business and saw reasonable success. Now other publishers such as Bloomberg, Business Insider, etc. have followed suit, putting a lot of their content behind paywalls. They are hoping to create a future where they will no longer be slaves of the ad dollars of Google and Facebook.

The net result is that we are in subscription hell 😈 and are only getting deeper into it. A lot of good content is now behind separate paywalls. The experience of navigating the internet in search of knowledge is no longer seamless, and the “good internet” has started to become very expensive 💰.

The “bundle” opportunity

The state of the internet as a subscription hell is not sustainable; consumers deserve better. It needs to be easier and more affordable to access good content.

Imagine most of the content available behind separate paywalls becoming accessible as part of subscription bundles sold by Google and Apple, bundles that serve all your content needs —written content (news, analyses), audio (music, podcasts) and video (TV series, movies, etc.).

Evolution of content monetization

When this happens, the market for separate paywalls will shrink (at least in number of paywalls, if not the $ value), and only the richest consumers with very specific needs till buy into subscriptions outside of these bundles. The product experience of accessing content through these bundles will be much superior to the fragmented experience of browsing through good content on the internet today, and Google and Apple will be able to price these bundles low because of their large user base. It will be irrational to pay for separate paywalls unless one really has to.

What about ads?

The question, especially in the case of Google, is why would it create subscription bundles when its entire strategy is predicated on making the content freely accessible and monetizing through ads. There are two main reasons why Google would do that.

Ads have peaked

Selling ads seemed like a good strategy for Yahoo and Google to monetize the large user base that they had built by organizing the information on the internet. However, ads are mostly a nuisance and, as a result, ad blockers have increased in popularity. Google recently launched its own ad blocker on Chrome in its attempt to discipline sites showing disruptive ads and to prevent consumers from installing more aggressive ad blockers that block all ads across all sites.

Google (and also Facebook) are also trying to make ads more relevant to consumers, so that they don’t seem disruptive and can also help these companies make more money per user because of improved targeting. It’s a precarious strategy because the better the targeting, the creepier the ads can seem. Consumers now have a greater awareness of the privacy (data) they might be giving up to access the so called free services (Google search and Facebook newsfeed). According to a recent survey, 30% of respondents distrust Facebook with their personal information, not a good sign for a company that is built on having access to that information. This is a big red flag.

Ads aren’t the best way to monetize the best customers

Eric Feng put across a great argument in this article that monetizing via ads is sub-optimal because you can’t make more money off your best customers (i.e. users who use your products the most). He attributed that to two fundamental aspects of ads monetization: frequency capping and ad load.

Then he went on to argue that what makes Amazon so powerful is its ability to monetize its best customers significantly more than its average customers, calling its strategy shared-value transaction. Its best customers enable Amazon to invest in building a compelling value proposition (cost of access and user experience) for the average customer, getting more and more of them onto the platform. Google and Facebook understand that ads might not be the best business model after all, and Google specifically has been actively trying to diversify its business.

Winners and losers

The large tech companies best positioned to capitalize on this bundling opportunity are Google and Apple, and the large tech company that is set to lose the most is Facebook. The other big tech company most likely to be effected negatively is Spotify.

Google and Apple have all the raw ingredients to offer great content bundles

  • Customer touchpoint: They have dedicated user bases for written content (Google News, Apple News), audio (Google Play Music, Apple Music, Apple Podcasts), and video (YouTube, Apple TV).
  • Supply of content: They have good relationships with content publishers and are increasingly getting aggressive about creating original content.
  • User experience: They have invested in defining great product experiences for the future, Google with its focus on web based experiences (AMP and PWA), and Apple with its focus on good native experience (e.g. Apple News allows customers to add their existing subscriptions to it).

Launching bundles is probably easier for Apple than Google because Apple doesn’t have a big ad supported business that it would need to cannibalize. There is news that Apple is already gearing up to do that.

The biggest losers in the “bundled” internet economy will be

  • Subscription businesses that only offer a subset of content today that is not differentiated e.g. Spotify. These companies will lose some of their pricing power to the bundle creators, Google and Apple.
  • Facebook (it deserves to called out separately)! It will lose because while it serves a lot of ad-supported free text and video content, it is not an app that customers of bundles will see as the entry point for paid good content. It will also lose because it has failed to build good relationships with publishers; Instant Articles was a dud.

What could further extend the lead of Google’s and Apple’s bundles will be the non-content offerings (specifically storage) they are capable of adding to their content bundles. That will hurt companies such as Dropbox. Google One is a potential start in that direction.

Google and Apple need bundles as much as consumers need them. These companies have become very large and there is a need for them to find additional sources of growth. Making more money from their best customers while solving an important customer need is a win-win.

iOS and Android are the nerve centers of the biggest ecosystems in tech. If Google and Apple are able to create attractive bundles, these ecosystems will become even more entrenched. Content will play the role that apps played in building the App Store (and consequently Apple), and the internet will never be the same again.

Uber Mobility Cloud

Uber Mobility Cloud
 

Uber’s strategy has a new home — “mobility data infrastructure for YOUR city”. Blame it on competition and regulation.

There was this recent article by Eugene Wei around invisible asymptotes, defining them as the ceiling that a company’s growth curve would bump its head against if it continued down its current path. There has been a lot happening lately in the urban mobility market and it’s helpful to make a sense of the changes by thinking about the invisible asymptote of one of the key players: Uber.

Uber’s invisible asymptote has been the price of its service. Ubers are not a cheap mode of transport for vast number of use cases and a vast number of people, especially if you compare them with say the subway in New York. Uber has been aware of this invisible asymptote and has been continuously innovating to bring cheaper solutions such as Uber Pool and Uber Express Pool to market, and those have largely helped it grow at a healthy pace till date. Significant percent (though likely not majority) of Uber rides are now Pool.

While this is great, the mobility market has evolved and Uber’s invisible asymptote now seems to be more clearly visible. Uber doesn’t have many more tricks up its sleeve to continue to lower the price of its service. The result is a new strategy that is becoming the north star sooner that I had expected. Uber wants to be the mobility cloud for cities — the data infrastructure layer sitting between all the modes of transport and the apps/channels we use to access them.

Uber as the data infrastructure layer for mobility options in a city

Uber recently articulated this strategy by saying that it wants to take consumers from Point A to Point B even if it involves covering multiple modes of transport. There are multiple factors that have led Uber to this point and that make this strategy so compelling.

First, Uber has internalized the deeply geographical nature of the price competition. It found itself surrounded by deep pocketed competitors in international markets and figured that bleeding money through discounting wasn’t sustainable. It has ceded ground to Didi in China and Grab in Southeast Asia. This meant that some of the assumptions around the size of its user base supporting its valuation turned out to to be untrue, putting more pressure on it to penetrate its existing markets deeper to capture demand beyond taxis.

Second, the entry of bikes and scooters promised to substantially lower the price of short distance commute and shut Uber out. The users that scooters are going after are precisely the users that Uber is finding hard to win over because Uber is not cheap and, in this case, also not convenient. The only logical way to react to this was to acquire one of the companies and gain an entry into the market, which it did with its acquisition of Jump.

Third, it became clear that self-driving, which was Uber’s silver bullet to lowering the price of its service, won’t deliver for it. Self-driving won’t come soon enough (assuming a 2019 IPO for Uber) and Uber won’t be the one to get the self-driving technology right. In addition, there is an increasing threat that some players in the market might be able to cobble up a partnership to offer much cheaper rides to consumers w/o having to rely on Uber’s distribution. An example would be Waymo partnering with one of the big car manufacturers to have the capital muscle and expertise to deploy a fleet of self-driving cars in a city and enable consumers to hail them using Goole Maps which already has a large captive user base.

Lastly, Lyft, Uber’s primary competitor with a nicer brand image is becoming more aggressive with partnerships with cities (example Lyft’s partnership with the City of Phoenix), offering a path to lowering the price of service through subsidies. The entry of Uber/Lyft taught cities a lot about regulation and cities have realized that these new age transportation options are here to stay. They are finding that over-regulation (not allowing Uber/Lyft because of taxi unions) won’t work and so won’t under-regulation (letting city streets become scooter graveyards). Cities are increasingly trying to leverage their position in the mobility equation and are thinking of using Uber/Lyft as means to solving the urban mobility issues that the cities have always wanted to solve. If cities can subsidize Uber/Lyft rides to public transportation centers to incentivize higher usage of public transport, then its a win-win situation for Uber/Lyft and the cities, allowing them to offer a real alternate to car ownership.

This perfect storm of factors shaping the mobility market has resulted in Uber seeing itself more as the infrastructure layer for mobility, probably sooner than it might have imagined. This last point above around partnerships is the most important one because, going forward, cities will play an outsized role in defining the future of mobility. Bikes and scooters are not the last innovations in the space of urban mobility and Uber’s ability to capitalize on the future innovations will depend on whether it can be the data infrastructure connecting all the mobility options in a city which in turn will depend on whether or not cities allow it to do that.

If Uber can have all the mobility data and can offer cities a solution that optimizes the mobility options for price, convenience and utilization, then it surely will have a deeper moat than just offering a ride sharing solution. It is for this reason precisely that Uber is spending $500 Mn in ads to clean up its image and apologize for its past deeds. This campaign is not for consumers; it is to give city governments the cover to partner with Uber without the fear of a public backlash because governments don’t want to be seen partnering with evil entities.

Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s new positioning of Uber as a softer (less brash) is a pre-requisite for its push to be the mobility cloud. How open will this mobility cloud be is still a question but it’s now in Uber’s interest to push for a world where each city has at least one mobility cloud and it hopes that is can own the mobility clouds for most cities. In that sense, the change of guard at the top for Uber has been very timely and maybe one day, Uber will be able to tax all mobility the way AWS taxes all storage and computation.

Creating efficient markets

Creating efficient markets

Markets for goods & services are constantly evolving and are never efficient. Thinking of market efficiency as a milestone is delusional.

Efficient markets are defined as markets where buyers are 100% clear about what they are buying, how much of it is available for buying and how much they should be paying for it. Being clear about what one should be paying implies a complete understanding of the true value of the asset one is buying.

Though markets for goods & services might have seemed efficient at multiple points of time in the history, thinking of market efficiency as a one and done thing is delusional. Market efficiency is a moving target and the only way to create and sustain a great business is to keep chasing that target.

I have been fascinated by the small and big changes that companies make in their push for market efficiency, with the goal of being the “market makers” of their industries. Abstracting away, I have found three ways of thinking to be the most impactful in moving the needle on market efficiency.

  • Build a distribution channel that can drive fundamental change in supply practices
  • Leverage the distribution channel to bring in completely new supply into the market
  • Think about the “Job to be done” to find opportunities to compete

Build a distribution channel that can drive fundamental change in supply practices

Building a new distribution channel or rethinking an existing one can help create/shape demand, enabling one to push fundamental changes in supply practices, thereby setting the industry on the road of steadily improving market efficiency.

For example, let’s look at what Amazon has gradually done in the last couple of decades

  • When Amazon started selling books over the internet, it massively improved the access and convenience of buying books, primarily for titles that were not the hot selling ones. This activated the latent demand for these titles and gave Amazon a reason to procure these titles in bulk for lower price per book than one would pay for to buy the same title at a mom and pop store (if the title was to be found there!). Amazon was then able to pass some of the price benefit to its buyer base. These not-so-hot titles started to be priced closer to their true value, the sign of a more efficient market.
  • As online commerce grew, Amazon opened up into a marketplace, allowing sellers (most of them with warehouses) to be the conduits between the manufacturers and Amazon’s buyers. Not saddled with high real estate costs (unlike mom and pop stores), these sellers were able to sell the goods for cheaper and Amazon was able to push market efficiency in many more categories at once.
  • As the share of online commerce has increased, both Amazon and manufacturers (Nike for example)are finding it better to deal with each other directly , allowing both of them to capture higher margins while also offering better experience and lower prices to customers.
  • Now with online commerce becoming the preferred way of shopping for a large number of people, Amazon and manufacturers are finding that there is no longer a need to waste money on fancy packaging to draw attention of customers to products sitting on retail shelves. Fancy packaging had also made it hard to optimize shipping package sizes. With its Frustration-Free packaging, Amazon is truly demonstrating how a different distribution channel (here online commerce) can change supply practices and really drive prices down.

The net result of all of this is ever decreasing prices. Turns out what might have seemed like an efficient market with Walmart’s “Everyday Low Prices” promise was not efficient after all.

Leverage the distribution channel to bring in completely new supply

Differentiated distribution channels can also allow one to tap into a completely new source of supply that can change the market dynamics.

Take the case of Uber and Lyft. By making it so easy to start driving for money, they were able to tap into the private car market for drivers. These new drivers owned their cars anyways and didn’t have the huge loans/contracts (from medallions for example), allowing them to experiment with the new channel. The fact that the rides were subsidized, further helped in creating additional demand and supply. As a result, Uber and Lyft were able to reset the baseline on cab price in all the geographies, some of which might have seemed individually efficient prior to them entering those cities.

Think about the “Job to be done” to find opportunities to compete

Abstracting away from the product/service and thinking about the Job to be done can help one see new opportunities to bend the curve on market efficiency.

Take the case of Uber and Lyft again. The Job to be done is to get from Point A to Point B and there are multiple ways to do that, Uber and Lyft being one of them. While Uber and Lyft are great for medium/long rides, it is questionable if they are the best solution for rides shorter than 5 min (as long as you are not carrying grocery bags!). There should be a way to pay lesser for short rides. While Uber is trying to bring efficiency into this market with Express Pool, there is an opportunity to reimagine the solution for short rides. LimeBike and Bird are trying to do exactly that. By introducing a completely different product targeted towards a specific use case, they are driving further efficiency into the mobility market which might have seemed to already be very efficient with Uber and Lyft.

Another interesting example of finding opportunities based on the Job to be done is eBay’s new product page (iPhone example). Its an attempt to show buyers the spectrum of value (i.e. products in different conditions) for them to make a better decision on what to buy. While eBay can’t always compete with Amazon on offering lower prices for new items, by understanding that buyers have different Jobs to be done, they are still able to push the curve on pricing. eBay has been selling phones in different conditions for years but by simply showing its best pick for each item condition, it has simplified the buying decision like never before. While transparent pricing across conditions might not matter to some of us who are set on buying a new phone, it is definitely making the market more efficient for folks who want a good phone and are open to discovering what works the best for them.


In summary, the idea here is to drive home the point that markets are never efficient. Its wrong for established players to rest on their laurels and think that they can milk money since they are the “market makers” of their industries. Similarly, its wrong for startups to give up on markets thinking that they are already efficient and there isn’t an opportunity. Thinking deeply about the nature of the distribution channel and Job to be done is a good way to find an opening to move the needle on market efficiency.

Why are so many upstart brands in love with subscriptions

Why are so many upstart brands in love with subscriptions
Digitally native vertical brands are betting that subscription led bundling can counter Amazon led unbundling

New York Subway is a strange world, there are many things that one might be amazed by and ads are probably last on the list. But one can’t escape noticing them and recently I have seen so many DNVB (Digitally Native Vertical Brand — sorry, this is a doozy, but here is a good article on them) ads that I had to take time to make sense of them.

The one ad that really got me thinking was quip; they sell toothbrush on subscription, adopting the razor blade model, with the toothbrush head replacing the razor blade. My first instinct was why would anyone need this and why are so many upstarts foolishly trying to replicate Dollar Shave Club’s success. No doubt that CPG brands have been selling us overpriced products with very limited innovation for decades and they need to get disrupted, but why would I want to subscribe to a toothbrush!

Though I picked on quip, quick research will tell you that subscription model is all rage with DNVBs (MeUndies, Harry’s, Ritual, etc.) The interesting thing is that these brands don’t sell on Amazon! Contrast this to my recent post where I posited that Amazon marketplace is the AWS of brands which will (and has) led to an explosion of new brands, born on Amazon and selling to Amazon customers. However, these DNVBs are going for something else. They have an alternate vision of retail, one where they can co-exist with Amazon, owning categories and customers. They are betting on a brand led future of retail.

This vision is audacious and true success can only be guaranteed if these new brands can build (retain) pricing power over a large enough base of customers over a long period of time.

Building a brand led future of retail with subscriptions

The most important thing to appreciate around pricing power is that a brand can have it only if customers are coming to it directly and it has built defensibility against the hundreds of competitors that can challenge its portfolio of products, one by one. Selling on Amazon is inherently unbundled, it is search based and customers go about filling their cart one product type (detergent, deodorant, etc.) at a time. This exposes every individual product to head-on competition with tens of similar products, leading to an unsustainable race.

Alternate models of online retail: Bundling driven by DNVBs owning categories and unbundling driven by Amazon

DNVBs will build pricing power only if they manage to create a future where the bundled model on the left (above) can exist i.e. customers visit A.com (instead of Amazon.com) for buying all the products that they need for that category. DNVBs are hoping that subscription is the silver bullet help them get to that world. Let’s see how.

Subscription is a good test of customer need

Buying a subscription by definition means that a customer is agreeing to have a continued relationship with the brand; it is a privilege that the customer gives the brand. This gives subscription brands a better customer touchpoint than brands which model themselves around a one-time purchase. For sure, it’s harder to get a customer to buy into a subscription but simple trial plans (e.g. Harry’s) can help with that. Not all categories are suited for subscription but it is a model worth exploring for categories where product use is more frequent or a behavior around frequency can be shaped but no fundamental R&D is required to create great products.

Thinking “subscription first” pushes brands to design products and marketing that fits into the subscription model and see if customers are willing to give them that privilege to have the continued touchpoint. It’s a leading signal of a category’s readiness for disruption.

Subscription buys time

Customers get bored easily, novelty of products fades quickly, and there is always something that comes along that promises to change their lives. This means that customers are constantly prone to churning. So, one anchor product is good but brands need to keep it exciting for customers by making tweaks to the anchor product and introducing more ancillary products that make it worth it for the customer to continue the relationship with the brand. Doing this is not easy. With subscription, brands buy time to get to the point when they have more to offer to customers without having to reacquire them. This time window might be a few months, but it is still better than not having any.

Once DNVBs have solved enough jobs to be done for customers in a given category, they have likely given customers a reason to come to them directly, thereby proving success in the bundled model of retail.

Subscription enables building a product portfolio in a cost effective way

It’s well known that CAC has been rising steadily, requiring new brands to need more and more VC money to build a sustainable business. Given that CPG is not a winner takes all market generally (unlike tech), it is important for brands to figure out how to grow with less cash for the endeavor to make sense both for the founder and the VCs.

The secret sauce for CPGs historically has been that they have been able to cross-promote new products to their large customer base to ensure that CAC for any new product is under check. These products then sell on Amazon in mass (though at decreasing margins). Owing to an established touchpoint with the customer, subscription gives DNVBs a similar cross-promotion channel, allowing them to build a portfolio of products without spending exorbitant amounts of money and then selling them to a smaller set of customers but at better margins.

Subscription makes distribution more cash efficient

The need for high levels of working capital is one of the biggest issues faced by startups selling physical products. Inventory management costs and buyer/ supplier payment terms are a big part of that. By allowing better demand prediction and shorter payment terms, subscription allows them to be more cash efficient. Any cash conserved can then be put into product innovation or branding.


Overall, subscription is a great selling (distribution) model to explore and comes with many inherent advantages. Expect to see more of it with upstart DNVBs in commoditized categories with frequent product use. Online commerce is especially suited for experimentation around this model and, given the right incentives, there is always scope to shape customer behavior.

Marketplaces and trust

Marketplaces and trust

Trust is one of the most important aspects of building a liquid marketplace, but trust is hard to quantify. Lately, I have been wondering if there is a playbook around building trust or does the answer depend on what type of marketplace one is building. I have landed on the conclusion that there is playbook as long as marketplaces can confidently answer the following question:

How likely is it that trust in a seller would influence the decision making of a buyer during a transaction?

This question is important because it helps bring clarity on how big a part of the trust equation should sellers be, resulting in a strategic decision on which of the two paths to take to build trust:

  • PATH 1: Deeply focus on building trust around individual sellers. Prominent examples are eBay, AirBnB, Thumbtack, etc.
  • PATH 2: Commoditize seller trust and build trust around the platform. Prominent examples are Amazon, Uber, etc.

To answer the question above, marketplaces need to have a good understanding of the uniqueness of the inventory on the marketplace as the buyers perceive it. PATH 1 is the natural choice if the perceived uniqueness of the inventory is high whereas PATH 2 is the natural choice if there are many sellers selling almost indistinguishable goods/ service. Below are some examples to illustrate the point.

eBay: Pioneer of PATH 1

eBay started as a P2P marketplace for selling unique items. Even if the item on sale was a Motorola Razr phone, there were many of them in many different conditions (on the spectrum of new and used). These conditions increased the perceived uniqueness of the inventory, effectively resulting in buyers treating them as different SKUs. In the absence of objective criteria for decision making, trust on the person who is selling (i.e. seller) became much more important. Buyers defaulted to sellers with higher positive feedback under the assumption that those sellers were honest about describing their products with details such as “the phone has a scratch on its back” as opposed to newer sellers who might be selling the phone for lower price but might be hiding something.

The figure below shows how eBay likely viewed its inventory. It considered that only a small minority of exact same items would be sold by multiple sellers. Given this view of its inventory, eBay defaulted to building a trust machinery centered around the seller and the platform receded in the background.

eBay: Only a small minority of exact same items would be sold by multiple sellers

Amazon: Pioneer of PATH 2

From early on, Amazon behaved like a retailer. It figured that by almost always selling new products, it can push seller trust to the sidelines and still kickstart a liquid marketplace. This made sense because if all the sellers on the platform were selling brand new Motorola Razr phone, the buyer decision making would simply be around price and possibly shipping. There would be no subjectivity around the SKU since it is brand new. That would put the platform in a position to commoditize seller trust as long as it was able to get enough sellers to create perfect competition among them.

The figure below shows how Amazon likely viewed its inventory. It considered that a large majority of the exact same items would be sold by multiple sellers. Given this view of its inventory, Amazon defaulted to building a trust machinery centered around the platform and the seller receded in the background. It built products such as Amazon Buy Box to truly commoditize seller trust.

Amazon: Large majority of the exact same items would be sold by multiple sellers

AirBnB: Best adopter of PATH 1

AirBnB almost replicated eBay’s model of building trust because the perceived uniqueness of inventory on AirBnB is as high as it gets. There is no SKU (room) that is listed by two or more sellers (hosts). Host has an information advantage and therefore, having trust in the host is important.

The figure below shows how AirBnB likely views its inventory. It considers that no exact same item (room) would be sold by multiple sellers. Given this view of its inventory, AirBnB adopted PATH 1, leading to it launching trust programs such as AirBnB Superhost.

AirBnB: No exact same item (room) would be sold by multiple sellers

The important question is that if AirBnB’s trust model is exactly like eBay’s trust model, then why do we trust AirBnB more in its category (travel accommodation) that we trust eBay in its category (goods)? The answer is that AirBnB is in a category that is hard to standardize; there isn’t an Amazon play possible at scale. And with features like Trips, AirBnB is trying its best to further deepen the uniqueness of inventory and make decision even more subjective. That is the reason I call AirBnB as the best adopter of PATH 1.


Now, how does this thinking about trust translate to services marketplaces like Thumbtack? Does it matter if the buyer is getting interior design from Service Provider A or Service Provider B? Yes, it does. How about plumbing? Maybe not, depending on how complicated a plumbing job it is. So, it is likely that some services might lend themselves to the Amazon model of commoditizing Service Provider trust while others won’t. Thumbtack has taken the approach of building trust via PATH 1. No surprise that Amazon Home & Business Services has defined the services (SKUs) very specifically and has adopted PATH 2, leveraging the trust it has already built as a platform.

For context, eBay has seen its focus shift towards selling new items and is experimenting with PATH 2 as evidenced by these fancy new product pages, applying the Amazon Buy Box concept.

eBay tweet.png

Overall, the decision of how to build trust comes down to the perceived uniqueness of the inventory of the marketplace. Being thoughtful about it, with an eye on how the category and the competition are evolving can make all the difference.

Marketplaces and pricing

Marketplaces and pricing

An approach to building for growth through pricing

Marketplaces help demand and supply connect and transact, and in return, they extract some value from the transaction. One of the biggest levers that marketplaces have to acquire and retain demand is pricing. When the supply is still scaling and the low price — high demand flywheel hasn’t yet kicked in, pricing is typically hacked and has no correlation with reality. However, to build a sustainable business, marketplaces need to invest in understanding the pricing dynamics of their marketplace sooner rather than later and they need to be methodical about it. “Pricing products” can help them build this understanding and in the process, they can make pricing a differentiator.

I define “Pricing products” as products built in the service of using pricing as a lever to drive GMV growth

“Pricing products” manifest themselves in three levels:

The pyramid of “pricing products”
  • Level 1: These are products focused on removing lack of pricing transparency as a barrier to decision making for customers
  • Level 2: These are products designed to opportunistically deploy pricing tactics and influence customer decision
  • Level 3: These are products designed to offer guaranteed pricing consistently on certain goods/ services, thereby locking-in customers

Level 1: Removing lack of price transparency

Bringing price transparency is the first step for marketplaces to start adding value beyond the obvious “allowing demand and supply sides to connect”. By doing this, they abstract away the noise in pricing inherent in a fragmented supplier base, and present the supply-side goods/ services to customers in a more consumable form. The idea is to make sure that pricing noise doesn’t become a barrier in customers choosing to use the marketplace.

The earliest scalable implementation of this was Amazon Buy Box which allowed ‘n’ sellers, all selling the same product ‘a’ to offer low price in result of their listing showing up as the default buying option whenever product ‘a’ showed up in search results. It was simple but it took off the burden on part of the customers to find the best price for the product ‘a’ they wanted to buy. eBay, on the other hand, still requires customers to figure out the best deal, thereby, earning the reputation of a flea market.

A more nuanced example is Amazon removing lack of price transparency across thousands of SKUs of CPG goods by distilling all pricing down to one specific unit of comparison — ounces. This is powerful because it has not only allowed Amazon to minimize decision remorse among buyers, but has also enabled it to successfully demonstrate to buyers the value of opting for CPG subscriptions as opposed to one-time purchases. Subscriptions, as anyone can guess, is a great business, leading to a much more stable revenue stream.

Amazon showing “per ounce” price for all toothpaste SKUs

Level 2: Deploying pricing tactics opportunistically

Pricing tactics are a collection of opportunities where marketplaces consider that by inserting themselves into the supplier pricing, they can fundamentally influence the customer decision. These are opportunistic insertions meant to drive goals on customer acquisition and retention, while maximizing the value they can extract from customers.

Uber/ Lyft, with their approach to surge pricing, have long been the visible leaders in pricing tactics. Their switch to upfront pricing is an extension of that tactic, giving them even more leverage. Not only does it address the problem of price transparency referred to above, but it also acts as the foundation for loyalty programs such as algorithmic push of promo codes that can make a customer’s ride to destination ‘x’ on Uber cheaper than that on Lyft, resulting in him/ her choosing Uber for that ride. Underlying that pushed promo code is the understanding that converting the customer to choose Uber for that ride is net positive (higher LTV) for Uber.

Level 3: Acting as a price guarantor

Pricing guarantee is the act of marketplace offering fixed pricing for certain goods/ services. It differs from the pricing tactics above in that these price guarantees persist for days or months and are intended to lock-in customers for those goods/ services, and possibly beyond.

While Amazon Prime has been one of the earlier implementations of a price guarantee (in this case shipping price), Uber/ Lyft are more interesting examples. Uber launched a monthly pass while Lyft caps the price of rides in SF. These are initiatives designed to build/ retain the demand base with the hope that supply base will scale to meet the demand, in process reducing inefficiencies and creating an incentive for suppliers to fund the discounts inherent in guarantees themselves.

Lyft’s fare fencing in SF

The ability of a marketplace to execute on the three levels of pricing products mentioned above would typically increase as it matures and captures more data. However, if done the right way, these products should be built in a particular sequence. It is hard to become a price guarantor without having experimented with pricing tactics to understand customer response. Similarly, it is hard to experiment with pricing tactics without removing price ambiguity in decision making. The first step in removing price ambiguity is to understand what the marketplace is selling and how suppliers are pricing it. The earlier marketplaces get started on that, the better.