Businesses can achieve global scale faster than ever in the Networked Age, argues LinkedIn-founder Reid Hoffman in his new book, but must grow fast or die slow in a brutal market where the winner takes all.
Blitzscaling — The lightning-fast path to building massively valuable companies. Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh, 336 pages, Penguin Random House, 2018
Reid Hoffman may be the closest Silicon Valley has to a philosopher king. Stanford- and Oxford-educated Settlers from Catan enthusiast. Original Communist, who has dedicated his formidable brain capacity to “playing monopoly” on the Internet. Member of the “PayPal Mafia”, the eccentric group of nerds — including Elon Musk and Peter Thiel — who founded the pioneering payment service before moving on to building some of the most powerful businesses in the Internet age. In Hoffman’s case, the professional network LinkedIn. Since Linkedin was acquired by Microsoft for $26,2 billion in 2016, Hoffman has served as a board member of the software giant along with his numerous other investing and philanthropic endeavours.
Precisely because of his somewhat paradoxical background, Hoffman brings illuminating perspectives on the 21st century Internet economy, in his new book — Blitzscaling: The lightning-fast path to building massively valuable companies — and explains why he believes the ability to act fast is the key to competitive advantage in the modern economy.
The title, Blitzscaling, derives from Blitzkrieg. The German concept of attacking warfare perfected by Heinz Guderian during the invasion of France in 1940. French forces were completely outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed by the surprise element of the Germans’ lightning-fast and densely concentrated combined tank and air attacks. Hoffman is fully aware of the nomenclature’s burdened history but has chosen analytical precision over political correctness — also considering that the German word (which in fact was popularised by the British tabloids and never officially used by the Wehrmacht. Guderian himself referred to the doctrine as Bewegungskrieg in his book Achtung — Panzer!) or its shortened form Blitz has become a common metaphor in sports and elsewhere. As Hoffman makes clear, Blitzscaling accurately captures the strategic essence of how technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber and AirBnB have rapidly subjected huge markets to their rule.
Dawn of the Networked Age
At the end of 1996, the world’s five most valuable companies were General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell, The Coca-Cola Company, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone and ExxonMobil. The common denominator is that they all were traditional industrial or consumer goods companies. Fast forward to the end of 2017, and the the Top 5 list looks very different: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. All technology companies, of which Google and Facebook were not even born in 1996, while Amazon was a two-year-old toddler.
What happened? The Networked Age happened — Hoffman’s preferred term for the era he dates from the stock market listing of Netscape, the pioneering web browser provider, in 1995. Today, over two billion people are connected to the internet through smartphones that have become an extended limb of the human body. At the same time, more and more industries and businesses are being run on software and delivered as online services, as Netscape founder Marc Andreessen wrote in a well-known essay in 2011, “Software is eating the world”. Binge watching on Netflix has replaced the drive to the video rental shop. Amazon has delivered mass death for physical bookstores. IBM produced its last PC in 2005, and today is essentially a software and services provider. Even industries that produce physical products (the economy of atoms), like cars or refrigerators, are becoming ever more integrated with software (the economy of bits). Such as when a Tesla’s acceleration is upgraded by an automatic software update while the car sits untouched in the garage overnight.
Hoffman’s central thesis is that in this hyperconnected world it is possible to build global monopolies faster than ever in history. This has fundamentally changed the market economy. While the world economy previously consisted of geographically fragmented “Galapagos Islands”, where many businesses such as newspapers and bookstores were relatively sheltered from external competition, the networked age has tied these islands together in a hyper-competitive global market.
The Networked Ages opens up enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs with wet dreams of monopoly. The flip side is a merciless market where “the winner takes all”. Hoffman illustrates with an analogy from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, where Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, tells a sales team: “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture?” Or in the social network category: First prize to Facebook, second to MySpace, and third prize to Friendster, who hardly anyone remember.
Why did Facebook win? Mark Zuckerberg was not the market’s first mover — Both Friendster and MySpace got off the ground before Facebook. But Facebook was the first scaler. Being the first to achieve critical mass is decisive in a market with network effects. If all your friends choose Facebook, it is pointless to sign up with another social network that no one uses. This creates a positive feedback loop, eventually ending in an equilibrium where Facebook more or less monopolises the market while all the other players go the way of Friendster. De facto the consumer does not really have much of a free choice whether he wants to use Facebook or a competing social network. Like a political prisoner in a remote Siberian labour camp a Facebook user in theory is quite free to go anywhere, but in practice has nowhere else to go. The degree of customer lock -in Mark Zuckerberg has cunningly engineered would be admired by the designers of the Gulag.
The Magic of Network Effects
Hoffman prefers the layman’s definition of network effects: A product or service is subject to positive network effects when increased usage by one user increases the value of the product or service for other users. Network effects occur in several forms: Increasing numbers of passengers or guests attracts more drivers and landlords to marketplaces such as Uber and AirBnB, and vice versa, (two-sided network effects); The dominance of operating systems such as Windows, iOS or Android, encourage third-party application developers to adapt their apps to these platforms, (indirect network effects); Microsoft Word’s dominance meant that its document file format became the industry standard and swept all non-compatible competitors off the pitch, (network effects driven by compatibility and industry standards). Similarly, that Internet Explorer came pre-installed on all Windows PCs was the “pincer movement” that broke Netscape.
A feature in markets with network effects is increasing returns to scale, which often results in a monopolistic/oligopolistic equilibrium where one single or a few dominant players eat all of an industry’s profits — as demonstrated today by for instance Facebook. Facebook enjoys a gross margin of a whopping 82 percent. Yet, as Hoffman reminds, many failed to see the potential value of Facebook in the company’s early days, when Zuckerberg turned down repeated takeover offers. Perhaps the doubters were not without reason; as late as 2012 Facebook struggled with the transition from desktop to mobile.
Move Fast and Break Things
Facebook’s problem with finding the right product/market fit was nevertheless a luxury problem. Thanks to the record-breaking user growth, Facebook accumulated enormous amounts of data on billions of people — a digital gold mine. It was just a question of time to figure out the profit-maximising business model. MySpace or Friendster didn’t have this privilege. Without users, no business model. With users, one can find a business model later.
In this market landscape, speed is as vital as it was for Guderian’s Panzerkorps in World War II. The only difference is that while Guderian had to capture land, business have to capture data. To achieve scale quickly, businesses must be willing to sacrifice efficiency for speed. Companies must grow fast or die slow. Summarised in Mark Zuckerberg’s previous motto: Move fast and break things. The classic approach to business strategy, carefully gathering information and making decisions with a fairly high confidence level, is dead. Blitzscaling forces businesses to make much faster decisions in the face of much higher levels of uncertainty, and they must commit to making big investments being half-blinded in the dark.
In a market where the winner takes all (or most), it becomes more important to cement market share before focusing on profitability. For Jeff Bezos in Amazon, profit has been secondary to growth for a quarter of a century — expressed by his bon mot that: “your margin is my opportunity”. Uber has subsidised both drivers and passengers when they have launched in new markets, in order to take the pole position before their competitors. Naturally, it would not have been possible without investors who have been willing to pump in nine billion dollars to fund Uber’s growth — an investment they can be far from sure to recoup. The growth imperative in the networked age also explains the popularity of Freemium business models, which companies from Spotify to Dropbox employ, luring new customers with a free version in the hope that they will upgrade to a paying premium subscription later on.
Can Software Digest the World?
It is a small paradox that technological developments are taking place so quickly, at the same time as productivity growth in the economy overall is stagnating. This must probably be seen in light of the fact that only a very small number of companies achieve lightning-fast growth and monopoly profit, while many others are lagging behind. Information technology also appear to be a contributing factor to the rising market concentration seen in many industries, raising the productivity gap between market leading and average firms.
As Peter Thiel, among others, have highlighted there is a dichotomy between the economy of bits and the economy of atoms, with rapid technological development in the former and far slower in the latter.
Thiel’s bifurcation can be illustrated by Tesla, a company at the intersection of new technology and old industry. Due to physical bottlenecks in the value chain, Tesla has not managed to increase car production in line with rising demand — hampering the company’s growth and exposing its fragile finances. One big reason why fast-growing online businesses like Dropbox have been able to navigate around such infrastructure limitations is Amazon’s cloud services offering, Amazon Web Services (AWS) — which almost by accident thus has become Amazon’s primary cash cow. However, so far nobody, not even Elon Musk, has found a way to manufacture Teslas in the cloud. Unfortunately, it must still be done in the physical world. This is the Achilles heel of Hoffman’s thesis: Companies can grow exponentially in the internet age, as long as they confine their business to the realm of bits. Confronted with the sticky realities of the world of atoms, things tend to slow down. Perhaps software is eating the world, but there are still some chunky pieces of the physical economy left that may prove tricky to chew and digest.