True competitive advantage is a “Mesh”

Today, I was remembering my strategy professor from ISB Prof. Prashant Kale. All my batch-mates will agree that he was probably one of the best, if not the best, professors that year for Class of 2010. In particular, one of his classes where he taught the legendary Southwest Airlines strategy case is imprinted in my consciousness — I even remember exact drawings he created in the class.

The key takeaway from that class was that the competitive advantage of Southwest Airlines wasn’t a single linear element; rather, it was a “Mesh of inter-connected, inter-dependent, self-reinforcing activities” that was almost impossible to replicate by competition. Eg., turning around a plane in 15 mins (fastest in the industry), which required the gate staff to operate at a certain cadence, which in-turn, required the check-in staff to do certain activities at a certain speed etc. Essentially, executing any precedent element well made the next dependent element even stronger; conversely, if one of the elements was poorly executed on, the entire mesh advantage ceased to exist. This Mesh model has been a transformative strategy concept for me, and has been a key foundational element of my thinking.

Illustrating the proverbial “Mesh of Competitive Advantage”

I recently got reminded of this concept again after a decade, this time in an entirely different context of public market investing. I was reading the Q1 2019 Quarterly Investor Letter by O’Shaughnessy Asset Management (OSAM), a top quant asset management firm founded by the legendary public markets investor Jim O’Shaughnessy. This letter is particularly fascinating, as it talks about how to cultivate real edge as an investment firm.

OSAM defines the following framework for real investing edge (quoting the letter):

  1. “Real investing edge should (instead) be cultivated at the organizational level.”
  2. “Properly built, an edge should be very difficult or impossible for others to replicate.”
  3. “Ideally, the edge naturally increases over time — something venture capital investor Keith Rabois calls an “accumulating advantage.”

Specifically, OSAM does 2 things that drive the edge — 1) consciously building a Research Graveyard, which essentially means doing lot of research, data analysis and number crunching projects that don’t necessarily lead to immediately improved investing outcomes but increase the overall ideation & knowledge of the firm in a compounded way over the long term; and 2) building tools (data-sets, software and combos thereof) and then deliberately opening them up publicly for other researchers to use (like the way Amazon opened up its cloud infra to developers, creating AWS), whose usage, in turn, has generated some of the best research insights for OSAM.

As a finance and investing person, while both these elements are individually interesting to me, the real deal was this sentence (again quoting the letter):

“These things — software, data, research partners, our graveyard, even the podcast and our twitter activity — all link into and depend on each other, which makes each more valuable and harder to copy.”

“Think back to the ownership data project. Without other connected tools, that would have just been a dead idea — time wasted. But now the ownership data set has become a critical piece of another software tool we use for clients called Portfolio X-Ray. It is now also a new data set available to research partners, who may find something interesting that we did not.”

This is the “Mesh of Competitive Advantage” all over again. A set of activities that, while look replicable in isolation, are almost impossible to replicate by competition as an inter-dependent, inter-connected, self-reinforcing system. This, my friends, is where true competitive advantage comes from!

This is the same reason why, despite having an incredibly transparent investing strategy, framework, terms, processes & activities, other venture firms are unable to replicate the Y Combinator model. This is the same reason why I saw Alibaba winning in China eCommerce (a rhythmic mesh of commerce, payments, logistics, cloud and advertising that is perhaps, impossible to replicate even with infinite capital). It’s the same reason why, as Prof. Kale told us in 2009, Southwest won in the US airline market.

As I think more about this concept in the context of tech startups & Silicon Valley, I believe the following execution elements are important drivers of on-ground success:

  1. Mesh creation has to be deliberate — it’s really hard to defend individual, linear advantage elements in the long run (eg. just having more capital than competition).
  2. Constituent elements of the Mesh need to flow from an authentic place residing inside founders/ leadership teams — what we call as DNA, else it’s hard to sustain.
  3. The Mesh strength compounds over time — demands consistent execution over a long-enough period of time.
  4. This is why true diversity in the team is important — underlying this Mesh of Competitive Advantage, is really, a Mesh of diverse people, each contributing a uniqueness that, combined as a whole, is a super-power. Like the YC Founders or Paypal Mafia.

Would love to hear how you have created competitive advantage for yourself/ your companies.

Side-note: the “Mesh of Competitive Advantage” can also be used to differentiate yourself as an individual professional. Instead of being linear in your career, try to create your own cross-functional, cross-sector, cross-cultural & cross-market Mesh of skills & experiences that, while individually might not look compelling enough, combine together to give you a truly differentiated world-view and approach to life. In today’s age of automation & tech-driven leverage, having this type of Mesh is worth its weight in gold as it can’t be replicated by software; rather, software & tech tools can be used to leverage it up & further magnify its impact.

Related note for parents raising kids in Silicon Valley: given we live in an echo-chamber, with template approaches to pretty much everything (from hiking at the same spots, wearing similar Patagonia vests, to starting up and listening to the same podcasts), it’s important we consciously expose our kids to the non-Silicon Valley world. We would do well to nurture their authentic qualities and original habits, whether they fit with the Valley way of doing things or not. In fact, I would argue that the more contrarian or differentiated these intrinsic personal qualities are, the more we as parents, should encourage them. This will set them up as adults to create their own, authentic “Mesh of Competitive Advantage” that stands the test of time and disruption.