What Twitter knows that Blackberry didn’t: Successful firms connect with customers via social platforms

Oct. 10, 2013, 6:01 a.m. EDT

What Twitter knows that Blackberry didn’t

Commentary: Successful firms connect with customers via social platforms

By Sangeet Paul Choudary , Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne

Google’s Android grows stronger and is moving beyond smartphones to power cars, home electronics and wearable accessories. A thriving Amazon.com and Kindle are transforming publishing. In the hotel industry, AirBnB is disrupting the market.

Now Twitter (PRE-IPO:TWTR)  , with an ecosystem of more than one million apps, has filed its IPO to raise $1 billion. We used to live in a world where commerce flowed linearly. Firms added value to products, shipped them out and sold them to consumers. Producers and consumers held distinct roles. Value was created upstream and flowed downstream.No longer. Now, market upstarts are displacing market leaders faster than ever before as entire industries transform. Today, three of the top five U.S. firms by market cap — Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)  andGoogle (NASDAQ:GOOG)  — run business platforms. We are seeing a seismic shift in business models, powered by the Internet and a generation of connected users.

Platform firms are networked ecosystems that connect multiple players, providing tools for them to contribute and interact, and rules that govern participation. Facebook , Uber, and eBay typify such network platforms. They aid in the creation of new markets by connecting producers and consumers with each other. In such markets, consumers can become producers.

Three factors will speed further disruption:

Platforms displace high-cost gatekeepers with merit-based crowds. YouTube and eBay flip the gatekeeping process used in media and retail. In lieu of professional editors and buyers, anyone can produce; the market itself decides what the market wants.

Platforms aggregate disconnected players in fragmented industries. OpenTable (NASDAQ:OPEN)  , an online reservation system, is rolling up unaffiliated restaurants and boosting their revenue. RedBus, the world’s largest bus reservation platform, is gathering India’s fragmented bus schedules and reshaping the travel landscape.

Value creators

Platforms unlock new value from spare resources and user-generated content. AirBnB’s hosts and RelayRides’ cars are the spare rooms and idle rides of thousands of people. Much of Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB)  appeal is the newsfeed produced from constant user activity. Instagram’s $1 billion sale was a consequence of the work, not of 13 employees, but of more than 30 million contributors.

Each of these is enabled by ubiquitous network access with mobile penetration, reputation systems that enable trust among strangers, and access to low-cost, shared infrastructure with tools and data to capture and coordinate interactions.

Ultimately, this transformation redefines competition. Firms that once sought advantage based on the strength of their internal resources and channel access now face competitors that harness armies of connected users and ecosystems of resources. Apple’s App Store, hosting nearly a million applications, offers a compelling testimony to the power of ecosystems. More buyers on eBay attract more sellers, which in turn attracts more buyers. More freelancers on oDesk attract more job postings, and vice-versa. Such feedback loops enable these businesses to grow into massive juggernauts. Businesses win based on their ability to captivate third parties and connect them to each other through creative interactions.

The rise of ecosystems also means that old linear rules no longer work. In operations, just-in-time inventory gets trumped by “just-not-mine” inventory. The IT function transforms from client server support to cloud service solution. In marketing, the profit-maximizing price is often at or below zero. Charging every user can destroy network effects, yet data and network effects create critical competitive advantage.

Up on the platform

Platforms aren’t merely a Silicon Valley obsession. WalMart continues to invest in big data and is leading a retail evolution to the store-as-platform model. Nike is showing how the shoe can become a connected platform. Car manufacturers are building connected cars. And General Electric is forging ahead with its smart grid platform.

But, for every GE moving forward, there is an incumbent resisting change, often relying on regulators to stave off emerging platforms. Uber’s disruption of public transportation has had to contend with many regulatory hurdles. AirBnb has run afoul of housing laws. And Kickstarter crowdfunding has been caught by public securities laws. Since regulation often lags innovation, these obstacles can be effective — but only for a short time.

What investment options do these changes present? To act on platform opportunities, consider the three factors transforming industry:

Firms that leverage user capabilities outside their business to complement their experts, are poised to scale faster than those which don’t. They typically build social curation and reputation systems to employ the collective intelligence and judgment of your users.

Firms that connect consumers to their best product options through data-driven matchmaking generate more transaction revenue. The firm that builds an OpenTable for consumer finance, for example, would help people make sense of the dizzying array of complex products — adding enormous value.

Finally, firms that can leverage external capacity are poised for tremendous return on assets. In transportation, a firm that utilizes other people’s trucks before expanding its own fleet will increase ROA.

Platform opportunities are all around us. Industries including education, health care, insurance, and legal services are ripe for disruption. In an increasingly connected future, platforms will only grow in importance. We need to construct the frameworks and rules to allow everyone a fair shot at success in this new world.

In 2011, former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop sent a “Burning Platform” manifesto to his employees. But it was too late. The rules had already changed. Nokia and Blackberry are examples of the decline that can happen to any business which doesn’t leverage the power of platforms. But for those willing to open their ecosystems and aid their consumers, the future looks bright indeed.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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