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Network effects

What’s the number-one attribute Warren Buffett, arguably one of the most successful investors in the world, looks for in a company? “Sustainable competitive advantage,” he told an interviewer.

Competitive Advantage is a set of factors or capabilities that allows firms to consistently outperform their rivals. (adapted from Roberts, 2002)

If competitive advantage is so valuable, how does a business acquire it? Competitive advantage can be found at many levels. It can come from a variety of competitive differentiators. At the business model level some companies, such as Ebay, have sustainable competitive advantage from network effects. The low-cost airlines have a business-model advantage – they actively avoid the additional costs associated with serving high-demand, package travel and long-distance customers. Some very lucky businesses have monopolies. Some have a cost advantage, perhaps from scale or some technological or process advantage, which allows them to make excess profits while competing on price. Some businesses focus on having the best customer service.

For it to be a competitive advantage only one company can be best at whatever it is. For it to be a sustainable competitive advantage there must be some structural reason that another business could not emulate or beat it.

At the individual level, competitive advantage should be a key focus of every salesperson – if the salesperson can help the customer quantify how their particular solution benefits the customer, or by changing the proposition move the advantage away from a key competitor, then price becomes far less of an issue in the sales process.

What tools are available to help create competitive advantage? Michael Porter’s revolutionary approach to competitive advantage is now over 30 years old. Developed around the same time as the personal computer and before the mobile phone, the internet and worldwide web, it is an industrial-era theory. It focuses on creating competitive advantage within value chains within a business- the processes that make the product. However, the internet and globalisation has fragmented value chains into value systems.

It takes not one, but hundreds of collaborating and competing companies to manufacture a smartphone, for instance. So competitive advantage has firstly to be understood in the context of complex and dynamic value systems.

Network effects were not a consideration 30 years ago, and are not even mentioned in Michael Porters Competitive Advantage, but are a major source of competitive advantage in the modern world for companies like Ebay, Amazon, Facebook and Skype. Network effects have created businesses with the fastest growth rates ever seen.

The theory of disruptive innovation was developed in the 1990’s. It is not a new phenomenon – the huge ice transportation industry which provided ice for icehouses built for the homes of the wealthy was disrupted by the development of the refrigerator in 1844, and Schumpeter published his ideas on creative destruction in capitalism in 1942 – but Christensens’ theory was the first that analysed the circumstances in which disruption happens and why market incumbents are powerless to protect themselves despite their resources. Disruption in markets is growing and the rate at which companies enter and leave the list of Fortune 1000 companies is constantly increasing as a result. The theory of disruptive innovation has some very useful tools for understanding all types of competitive strategy.

Using Porter’s ideas, these tools and others, I’ve developed an analytical methodology for identifying and creating competitive advantage which I call The New Competitive Advantage – follow this link for a presentation of the key ideas. It updates Michael Porters approach for the information age. It introduces ideas and concepts that were not developed 30 years ago and moulds them into an approach that can take a technology, a product or a business model and create competitive advantage.

When applied to a technology (in the example I apply it to a new fundamental technology, the recently-discovered room temperature maser), the process helps understand when the technology will be good enough for particular markets. It can be used to discover early new market or potentially disruptive uses of the new technology. When applied to products it helps create differentiated propositions. I have used it to help several startups to create a business model that creates a clear competitive advantage in their market. I hope it is of similar use to you.