Despite the slowdown in venture investing during most of last year, it seems like venture activity picked up significantly in Q4. The data is consistent with my own experience during the quarter, where I saw a huge increase in companies seeking financing, the return of multiple competitors for every investment opportunity and incredibly compressed fundraising processes. I fear that we’re returning to an investing and startup environment much like the one prior to October 2008. One impact of this behavior is that we’ll likely see, as before, the funding of many companies in the same market or with similar offerings (many people point to location-based social networking companies such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Booyah, etc. as a good example). That’s led me to try to outline what I think are the only ways for web technology companies to truly have long term differentiation. Clearly, with time and money, talented people render most software and user experiences alone indefensible. So how do Internet and digital media companies create sustainable competitive advantage?
Network effects: Businesses with network effects have products or services that increase in value as more customers use them. When a network effects business achieves scale, it can have incredibly lasting differentiation because recreating that network poses significant challenges to competitors. Microsoft Office, eBay and Yelp are good examples of these types of products and services. Some network effects businesses can have both positive and negative network effects. For example, as many social media businesses grow in use, the volume of content to filter and absorb can become overwhelming.
Switching costs: Products or services that make it difficult or expensive to use an alternative product or service have switching costs. Creating this kind of lock-in is a true barrier for competition. DoubleClick’s DFA product is a great example of a product that had tremendous value because it was embedded in the agency online media buying process and was used by many people within agencies.
Scale: For a product or service, differentiation can be derived from scale in customer usage, capital expenditure or data. As an example, Google enjoys incredible differentiation and competitive advantage from all three sources. Hundreds of millions of people conduct billions of searches on Google each day, leading websites that want to integrate search to turn to the de facto standard in the industry. Google has spent untold sums of money on hundreds of thousands of machines in datacenters around the world to deliver the fastest, freshest and most relevant search results to its users. The hundreds of millions of clicks generated each day on search results provide Google with a vast quantity of data and insights that help improve search quality. Any new search competitor not only has to deliver a superior consumer search experience, but it also has to spend enormous amounts of money recreating the underlying infrastructure and data that makes Google such a powerful competitive force.
Culture/People: Given that web technology itself is largely indefensible, the greatest source of differentiation and competitive advantage is often execution, and that is predicated on people and the culture in which they operate. Whether it’s the culture of innovation at Google, the culture of customer happiness at Zappos or the culture of freedom and responsibility at Netflix, I’m certain that the management teams from those companies would point to the employees and the DNA of the organizations as the primary reasons for their success. I find that when the culture of a company is well-defined, it is usually a direct reflection of the founder(s) and their conscious decision to establish a well-defined company culture from the start. I only know of a few instances where the culture of an organization was either instilled in the organization at a later point in the company’s development or successfully recast by new leadership.
When choosing what investments to make, I try to keep these sources of differentiation top of mind. It’s easy to get caught up in the appeal of a sexy new consumer application or a seemingly novel approach to a business problem. But lasting, significant equity value is often only created when one or more of these differentiating factors are at play. Are there other sources of differentiation that you would add to the list?