This post is part of a series on business model analysis for entrepreneurs. The first post in the series presents a comprehensive list of issues (available as a downloadable PDF) entrepreneurs should consider when designing a business model. Others delve into specific issues; this one provides an overview of factors that motivate a startup to race for scale.
"Should we step on the gas pedal?" Based on my work with startups, this is the strategy question that entrepreneurs raise most often. It's crucial to understand whether accelerated growth is a priority, given the attributes of your business model. A flawed plan to "Get Big Fast" can be fatal for a resource-constrained startup.
A new venture has incentives to race to acquire customers if it enjoys: 1) increasing returns to scale due network effects or strong scale economies in production; 2) high customer switching costs; or 3) other first mover advantages, such as opportunities to preempt scarce assets or patents. Potentially offsetting these incentives are scalability constraints and late mover advantages. In this post, I won't address the complex question of whether to adjust a startup's growth strategy in response to a valuation bubble.
Addendum, July 26, 2011: My friend Joel West, a scholar/entrepreneur at San Jose State, makes the very important point that growth is often a choice for entrepreneurs that hinges on their personal preferences as much as on economics. I've written below with the tacit assumption that a founder will always want to grow a business if she can. Of course, there are many lifestyle companies with business models that could be profitably expanded, but also can be operated successfully at a more modest scale, consistent with the owner's goals.
Most businesses exhibit constant returns to scale, that is, their margins do not vary much over the range of sales volume that a firm might reasonably achieve. In such businesses, as output expands, scale economies may be offset by diseconomies of scale, including the additional cost of coordinating more complex operations and cost escalation for increasingly scarce inputs (e.g., skilled labor, attractive locations for facilities).
A business that enjoys significant scale economies—either due to strong, proprietary network effects or the ability to leverage high fixed costs—may exhibit increasing returns to scale: its profit margin may continue to improve as the business grows. Firms are strongly motivated to race to acquire customers when they can exploit increasing returns.When customers’ willingness to pay increases with network size or when unit costs decline with greater production volume, acquiring a new customer yields two streams of benefits: 1) profits earned over time directly from that new customer; and 2) profits earned over time from all other customers. For example, with proprietary network effects, as long as a new customer remains affiliated with a platform, all other customers should be willing to pay slightly more for access to the platform. Although this increase in willingness to pay may be infinitesimally small for any given customer, these tiny amounts add up when aggregated across the entire customer base.
Consequently, when acquiring customers in a business with increasing returns, startups can afford to spend up to the present value of future profits earned directly from the new customer (i.e., benefit #1 above) plus the present value of incremental profits from other customers (i.e., benefit #2). By contrast, in businesses with constant returns to scale, companies should spend no more on customer acquisition than the present value of future profits earned directly from a new customer (i.e., benefit #1). In short, when they enjoy increasing returns, firms have a stronger motivation to race for scale. However, when several firms simultaneously enter a new market with increasing returns, they all may pursue an aggressive growth strategy, dissipating any above-normal profits available from the market.
Additional First Mover Advantages
- Preemption of Scarce Assets. Through purchases or long-term contracts, first movers can lock up valuable assets, for example, component supply contracts, skilled labor, or attractive geographic locations for factories. Scarce assets become more costly to acquire after rivals enter. In some cases, entry may be impossible once a crucial asset is locked up, as with government-licensed spectrum for telecommunications services.
- Preemption of Key Patents. By exploiting a head start in research and development, first movers may be able to secure patent protection for key technologies. If the pioneer decides not to license its intellectual property, prospective rivals may find it costly to “invent around” the patents and, at the extreme, may be unable to enter the market.
- Preemption of Capacity. If the minimum efficient scale of production facilities is high in relation to the expected size of the mature market, the first firm to build such facilities may be able to deter prospective rivals from ever entering the market. In the early 2000s, for example, Teledesic and SkyBridge both proposed to spend billions of dollars to launch scores of low Earth orbit satellites that could provide high-speed Internet access anywhere in the world. However, it was unclear whether the market was large enough to support even one competitor, so each firm had to decide whether to offer its service at all if its rival managed to launch first.
When operations are kept in-house, capacity can be scaled more readily if general-purpose equipment is employed. Rapid growth is more challenging when companies rely on specialized production and distribution facilities (e.g., proprietary equipment for packaging Keurig’s coffee capsules; Webvan’s use of highly-automated warehouses for its online grocery service). Such companies must build capacity well ahead of sales if they plan to pursue accelerated growth—a risky proposition when demand in a new market is still uncertain. Webvan took this gamble and failed after investing $800 million.
Likewise, when customer service interactions are complex, a startup’s growth may be constrained by the pace at which it can attract and train skilled personnel. This constraint is relevant for online stock brokerages, whose call center reps must respond to customers’ questions about a wide variety of transactions, including “stop loss” instructions, options trades, and margin calls.
Late Mover Advantages
- Reduce R&D Costs Through Reverse Engineering. While some pioneers enjoy strong patent protection, others are unable to prevent rivals from copying their products. Reverse engineering usually results in significant R&D cost savings compared with amounts spent by the pioneer on the original product.
- Leapfrog Leaders with Newly Invented, Superior Production Technology. Late movers may also gain an edge in terms of cost or product performance by leveraging new technology that was not available when the pioneer launched. For example, Qualcomm was a successful late mover in establishing standards for cellular telephone equipment. Qualcomm’s CDMA standard leveraged leading-edge spread-spectrum technologies that deliver superior capacity and reliability relative to competing digital standards.
- Free Ride on Pioneers’ Investments in Educating Customers. In the earliest stages of a new market’s development, a large investment in “missionary” marketing may be required to educate prospective customers. The pioneer may bear 100% of the investment in education, only to find that late movers reap a return on that investment without sharing its cost.
- Avoid Pioneers’ Positioning Errors. Pioneers often face great uncertainty about customer needs, so they are more likely than later entrants to need to pivot, that is, change their business model. When a company dramatically changes its value proposition, it may destroy goodwill by confusing partners and alienating existing customers who were sold on the original brand promise. If a pioneer pivots and customer attrition rates rise in response, then the value of earlier investments in accelerated growth may be negated. Late movers can avoid such positioning errors by learning from the leader’s mistakes.