Disruptive Models

Beware of Airbnb entering the hyperlocal travel guide business

 

by Frédéric Filloux 

Airbnb has every reason to enter the news services sector – and to threaten a broad range of media/services such as Trip Advisor or Yelp. 

Seen through the eyes of travel information publishers, Airbnb holds a dream position: a huge base of 25 million potential readers/users, spread over 34,000 cities in 190 countries, well in tune with the brand’s core product and attributes.

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For a start, should Airbnb develop a publishing arm, this unparalleled notoriety would spare it tens of millions dollars otherwise required to promote its content services: In the travel industry, advertising and marketing demand high spending. To put things in perspective, this year, according to the trade site Skift.com, HomeAway, one of Airbnb’s key competitors, plans to spend $100m (after shelling out $60m in 2014) “To show it’s not Airbnb“. HomeAway was created in 2005 and received $504m in funding before going public in 2011 — the stock lost 18% since. Airbnb has yet to go public after raising more than $800m. Its latest confirmed round closed in October was for $50M with a $13bn valuation. Airbnb is now rumored to be raising a $1bn “war chest” at an even higher price: $20bn.

Today, Airbnb’s expansion is a matter of concern not only for its direct competitors but also for large players in the travel information segment.

Last November, Airbnb fired the first shot: Pineapple, a 128 page, ad-free, glossy quarterly magazine, mostly written by hosts and guests gently discussing their experiences. With a tiny print run of 20,000 copies, it was distributed for free in some Airbnb hotspots and sold at selected bookstores such as WH Smith in Paris, where I got my copy for €12. According to Pineapple publisher Christopher Lunekzic (interview on the FIPP site), “The idea came from a desire to capture the unique nature of traveling through Airbnb. We wanted to bring that sense of creativity, culture and connection to life”. All the talking points of an elegant PR campaign are checked, part of Airbnb recent rebranding. Nothing to freak out travel press behemoths.

Except… Now, a sizable part of Airbnb community is aware of the company’s recent push into the magazine business. Which could make a serious difference.

That said, print is certainly not a key part of Airbnb’s media future. Mobile apps are. Last year, only 20% of Airbnb traffic came from mobile. That was before last December’s app redesign. Today, the Airbnb ranks in the top 5 apps in 7 countries, and in the top 100 in… 152 countries. That’s where the real potential is. And the San Francisco-based icon of the sharing economy is betting heavily on mobile: it recently announced a partnership with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile to pre-install its app on Android smartphone across 13 markets in Europe (TechCrunch story here). A decisive move for Airbnb’s mobile expansion.

Now let’s indulge in a little bit of fiction — from the perspective of an Airbnb guest.

I’m booking a flat in, say in London’s Marylebone district. I’m not familiar with the best places to go out. In the dedicated section of the new Airbnb app, I enter the host’s postal code, which is precise down to the building (likewise, the American “Zip+4″ code provides a city block location; in other cities, the Lat-Long associated to a street address does the job). My host has listed her preferred spots: organic groceries, wine bars, galleries, shopping places, movie theaters… Every place shows up on a Google map. The practical details I might need appear over my host’s comments: business hours, booking information, etc. I can also check the reviews on third party sites, but given my host’s profile, I assume our tastes will match; plus, I don’t want to get drowned into a tedious (and too often dubious) series of five-stars searches.

On my phone, I now enjoy a mini-guide of the neighborhood where I’m going to spend the next few days, filled with trusted, non-commercially-induced recommendations. Right from the app, I can make reservation via Open Table, and even call a Uber car. That’s what API’s are for: connecting applications together, in a mutually beneficial way. The third-party service provider expands its reach and the app publisher offers a wider range of services while keeping the customer “inside”. Similarly, a gallery or museum can make its program available within the app.
APIs will be a major development engine for the apps ecosystem as the number of features and services that can be added is boundless. For example, Uber has recently made its API system much more accessible and now partners with 11 companies, including Hyatt, OpenTable, Starbucks, Time Out, TripAdvisor, TripCase — curiously, not Airbnb nor Yelp.

Why would such integration threaten large travel business publishers?

Beyond developing its gigantic global footprint, Airbnb wants to build a community of users, itself structured in homogenous layers (e.g. young families looking for budget rentals, yuppies aiming at trendy places…) There’s even the growing crowd of professionals who prefer an Airbnb apartment free of the check-in/out hassles of hotels, and who will gladly trade unexciting room service for a super-fast DSL connection. (I’m told a growing number of Googlers do so for their business trips, with their employer’s blessing.) Each of these sub-communities will be far more likely to trust their peers than the usual travel guides where it’s always difficult to sort actual user opinions from bogus reviews and paid-for insertions, disguised advertorials, etc.

The beauty of this powerful combination lies in its scalability. Airbnb listings contain a broad range of properties, including high-end, luxury items. Those who might be willing to cough up €2,000 a night for a two-bedroom unit with a stunning view of the Hong Kong harbor might also want a special cicerone, a much more sophisticated one than the peer-to-peer guide described above.

Sometime ago, Louis Vuitton — the main brand of LVMH luxury conglomerate — had the idea of creating a dedicated app aimed at its rich Chinese clientèle, at those able to spend €20,000 or more in a single afternoon shopping stroll through Avenue Montaigne in Paris. This special application was to offer the services of a personal shopper, but also a personal city guide (Louis Vuitton already publishes its own collection of high-end guides) to be used from planning the trip to the actual journey. Even better, the app was to rely on the Chinese-made WeChat application (500 millions users, roughly 85% from mainland China) connected to an actual human able to guide the wealthy tourist on a real-time basis, either with messages or voice contact. In such case, relying on peer recommendations made no sense, but a highly personalized service did. A couple of selected partners were in the loop.

Regardless of the market segment, a notorious brand coupled to a set of mobile services is a potent combination. In the case of Airbnb, the “full stack” company — a concept coined by Andreesen Horowitz’ Chris Dixon —  is likely to be a master tool for securing the position of a brand in its market.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

NYT vs Buzzfeed: Valuations Discrepancies – Part II

 

by Frédéric Filloux

My last column about new valuations in digital media triggered an abundance of comments. Here are my responses and additions to the discussion. 

The most revealing part of argument used by those who tweeted (800 of them), commented or emailed me, is how many wished things to remain simple and segregated: legacy vs. native media, content producers vs. service providers, ancestral performances indicators and, of course, the self-granted permission to a certain category of people to decide what is worthy. Too bad for cartesian minds and simplifiers, the digital world is blurring known boundaries, mixing company purposes of and overhauling the competitive landscape.

Let’s start with one point of contention:

Why throw LinkedIn, Facebook and old companies such as the NYTimes or the Guardian into the equation? That’s the old apples and oranges point some commenters have real trouble seeing past. Here is why, precisely, the mix is relevant.

Last Tuesday February 17, LinkedIn announced it had hired a Fortune reporter as its business editor. Caroline Fairchild is the archetypal modern, young journalist: reporter, blogger with a cause (The Broadsheet is her newsletter on powerful women), mastering all necessary tools (video editing, SEO tactics, partnerships) as she went from Bloomberg to the HuffPo, among other gigs. Here is what she says about her new job:

 LinkedIn’s been around for 11 years and today publishes more than 50,000 posts a week (that’s roughly 10 NYTs per day) — but the publishing platform is still an infant, debuting widely less than a year ago. The rules and roles are being defined and redefined daily; experimenting is a constant.

Here we are: LinkedIn intends to morph into a major business news provider and a frontal competitor to established business media. Already, scores of guest columnists publish on a regular basis on LinkedIn, enjoying audiences many times larger than their DeLuxe appearances in legacy media. (For the record, I was invited to blend the Monday Note into LinkedIn, but the conditions didn’t quite make sense to us. Jean-Louis Gassée and I preferred preserving our independent franchise.)

For a $2.2bn revenue company such as LinkedIn, creating a newsroom aimed at the business community definitely makes sense and I simply wonder why it took them so long to go full throttle in that direction — not only with an avalanche of posts but with a more selective, quality-oriented approach. If it shows an ability to display properly value-added editorial, LinkedIn could be poised to become a potent publishing platform eventually competing with The Economist, Quartz, FT.com or Les Echos. All of it with a huge data analytics staff led by world-class engineers.

That’s why I think the comparison with established media makes sense.

As for Facebook, the argument is even more straightforward. Last October, I published a column titled How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution; it exposed our growing dependence on social media, and the need to look more closely at the virtues of direct access as a generator of quality traffic. (A visit coming from social generates less than one page view versus 4 to 6 page views for direct access.) Facebook has become a dominant channel for accessing the news. Take a look at this table from Reuters Institute Report on Digital News Report (PDF here.)

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There’s no doubt that these figures are now outdated as media’s quest to tap into the social reservoir has never been greater. (In passing, note the small delta between News Lovers and Casual Users.) It varies widely from one country to another, but about 40% of the age segment below 35 relies on social as its primary source for news… and when we say “social”, we mostly mean Facebook. Should we really ignore this behemoth when it comes to assess news economics? I don’t think so.

More than ever, Facebook deserves close monitoring. No one is eager to criticize their dope dealer, but Mark Zuckerberg’s construction is probably the most pernicious and the most unpredictable distributors the news industry ever faced.

For instance, even if you picked a given media for your FB newsfeed, the algorithm will decide how much you’ll see from it, based on your past navigation and profile. And numbers are terrible: as an example, only 16% of what the FT.com pushes on Facebook actually reaches its users, and that’s not a bad number when compared to the rest of the industry.

And still, the media sector continues to increase its dependence on social. Consider the recent change in the home page of NowThis,  a clever video provider specialized in  rapid-fire news clips:

356-NowThisHome

No more home page! Implementing a rather bold idea floated years ago by BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, NowThis recently decided to get rid of the traditional web access to, instead, propagate its content only via, from left to right: Tumbler, Kik, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. We can assume that this strategy is based on careful analytics (more on this in a future Monday Note.)

Among other questions raised by Monday Note readers: Why focus solely on the New York Times and why not include the Gannetts or McClatchys? It’s simply because, along with The Guardian or the FT.com, the NYT is substantially more likely to become predominantly a digital brand than many others in the (old) league.

To be sure, as one reader rightly pointed out, recent history shows how printed media that chose to go full digital end up losing on both vectors. Indeed, given the size of its print advertising revenue, the Times would be foolish to switch to 100% online — at least for now. However, the trends is there: a shrinking print readership, fewer points of copy sale, consequently higher cost of delivery… Giving up the idea of a daily newspaper (while preserving a revamped end-of-the-week offering) its just a matter of time — I’ll give it five years, not more. And the more decisive the shift, the better the results will be: Keep in mind that only 7 (seven!) full-time positions are assigned to the making of the Financial Times’ print edition; how many in the vast herd of money-losing, newspaper-obsessed companies?

Again, this is not a matter of advocating the disappearance of print; it is about market relevancy such as addressing niches and the most solvent readerships. The narrower the better: if your target group is perfectly identified, affluent, geographically bound — e.g. the financial or administrative district in big capital — a print product still makes sense. (And of course, some magazines will continue to thrive.)

Finally, when it comes to assessing valuations, the biggest divide lies between the static and the dynamic appreciation of the future. Wall Street analysts see prospects for the NYT Co. in a rather static manner: readership evolution, in volumes and structures, ability to reduce production expenditures, cost of goods — all of the above feeding the usual Discounted Cash Flow model and its derivatives… But they don’t consider drastic changes in the environment, nor signs of disruption.

Venture Capital people see the context in a much more dynamic, chaotic perspective. For instance: the unabated rise of the smartphone; massive shifts in consumer behaviors and time allocation; the impact of Moore’s or Metcalfe’s Laws (tech improvements and network effects); or a new breed of corporations such as the Full Stack Startup concept exposed by Andreessen Horowitz’ Chris Dixon (the man behind BuzzFeed valuation):

Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry. The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.
Prominent examples of this “full stack” approach include Tesla, Warby Parker, Uber, Harry’s, Nest, Buzzfeed, and Netflix.

All of it is far more enthralling than promising investors a new print section for 2016, two more tabs on the website all manned by a smaller but more productive staff.

One analysis looks at a continuously evolving environment, the other places bets on an uncertain, discontinuous future.

The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn — The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde — we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline.

By contrast, native digital players propose a much brighter (although riskier) future wrapped in high octane concepts, such as: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone (Uber), or Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google), or Redefining online advertising with social, content-driven publishing technology, [and providing] the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web (BuzzFeed).

No wonder why some are big money attractors while others aren’t.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Legacy Media: The Missing Gene

 

Legacy media is at great risk of losing against tech culture. This is because incumbents miss a key driver: an obsession with their own mortality. Such missing paranoia gene negatively impacts every aspect of their business. 

At the last Code conference (the tech gathering hosted by Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher), Google co-founder Sergey Brin made a surprising statement (at least to me): Asked by Swisher how Google sees itself, Brin responded in his usual terse manner: “There is the external and the internal view. For the outside, we are Goliath and the rest are Davids. From the inside, we are the Davids”. From someone who co-founded a $378bn market cap company that commands more than 80% of the global internet search, this is indeed an unexpected acknowledgement.

Sergey Brin’s statement echoes Bill Gates’ own view when, about fifteen years ago, he was asked about his biggest concern: Was it a decisive move or product by another big tech company? No, says, Gates, it is the fact that somewhere, somehow, a small group of people is inventing something that will change everything… With the rise of Google and Facebook, his fears came true on a scale he couldn’t even imagine. Roughly at the same time, Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel, published a book with a straightforward title: “Only the Paranoid Survives“. Among my favorites Grove quotes:

“Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction. The more successful you are, the more people want a chunk of your business and then another chunk and then another until there is nothing.”

Still, Intel wasn’t paranoid enough and completely missed the mobile revolution, leaving to ARM licensees the entire market of microprocessors for smartphones and tablets.

This deep-rooted sense of fragility is a potent engine of modern tech culture. It spurs companies to grow as fast as they can by raising lots of capital in the shortest possible time. It also drives them to capture market share by all means necessary (including the worst ones), and to develop a culture of excellence by hiring the best people at any cost while trimming the workforce as needed while obsessively maintaining a culture of agility to quickly learn form mistakes and to adapt to market conditions. Lastly, the ever-present sense of mortality drives rising tech companies to quickly erect barriers-to-entry and to generate network effects needed to keep incumbents at bay.

For a large part, these drives stem from these companies’ early history and culture. Most started combining a great idea with clever execution – as opposed to being born within an expensive infrastructure. Take Uber or AirBnB. Both started with a simple concept: harness digital tools to achieve swift and friction-free connections between customers and service providers. Gigantic infrastructure or utterly complicated applications weren’t required. Instead, the future of these companies was secured by a combination of flawless execution and fast growth (read this New York Times story about the Uber network effect challenge). Hence the rapid-fire rounds of financing that will boost Uber’s valuation to $17bn, allowing it to accelerate its worldwide expansion – and also combat a possible price war, as stated by its founder himself at the aforementioned Code Conference.

Unfortunately, paranoia-driven growth sometimes comes with ugly business practices. Examples abound: Amazon’s retaliation against publishers who fight its pricing conditions; Uber bullying tactics against its rival – followed by an apology; Google offering for free what others were used to sell, or distorting search results, etc.

Such behaviors leave the analog world completely flummoxed. Historical players had experienced nothing but a cosy competitive gentlemen-like environment, with a well-defined map of players. This left incumbents without the genes, the culture required to fight digital barbarians. Whether they are media dealing with Google, publishers negotiating with Amazon, hotels fighting Booking.com or AirBnB, or taxi confronting Uber, legacy players look like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. In some instances, they created their own dependency to new powerful distributors (like websites whose traffic relies largely on Google), before realizing that it was time to sue the dope dealer. (This is exactly what the European press is doing by assigning Google before the European Court of Justice invoking antitrust violations — a subject for a future Monday Note). The appeal to legislators underlines the growing feeling of impotence vis-a-vis the take-no-prisoners approach of new digital players: Unable to respond on the business side, the old guard turns to political power to develop a legal (but short-lasting) containment strategy.

In the media industry, historic players never developed a sense of urgency. The situation varies from one market to another but, in many instances, the “too important to fail” was the dominant belief. It always amazed me: As I witnessed the rise of the digital sector – its obsession with fast growth, and its inevitable collision course with legacy media – incumbents were frozen in the quiet certitude that their role in society was in fact irreplaceable, and that under no circumstances they would be left to succumb to a distasteful Darwinian rule. This deep-rooted complacency is, for a large part, responsible for the current state of the media industry.

Back in 1997, Andy Grove’s book explained how to deal with change :

“The implication was that either the people in the room needed to change their areas of knowledge and expertise or people themselves needed to be changed” 

Instead, our industry made too few changes, too late. Since the first digital tremors hit business models ten years ago, we have been through one or two generations of managers in traditional media company. It is amazing to see how the same DNA is being replicated over and over. Some layers are moving faster than others, though. The higher you go in the food chain, the more people are penetrated by a sense of vital urgency. But the rank-and-file and middle management are holding back, unable to exit their comfort zone.

Earlier this year, the French newspaper Liberation chose the outdated slogan: “We are a Newspaper” in reaction to its new owners ideas (read this story in the NYT). Last week, Liberation opted to appoint as it editor-in-chief one of the strongest opponent to digital media (he is just out from the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur which he gently led into a quiet nursing home, leaving it worth next to nothing).

The gap between the managers of pure digital players and those who still lead legacy media has never been greater. Keenly aware of their own mortality, the former rely more than ever on brutal street-fight tactics, while the incumbents evolve at a different pace, still hoping that older models will resist longer than feared. For old media, it is time for a radical genetic alteration — if performed down to every layer of the media industry.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

The Ripple Effects of Disruptive Models

 

Last week, we discussed the impact of services such as Uber or Airbnb. More broadly, no sectors is immune to major overhauls. Today, we’ll have a look at the impact of Disruptors. 

Nested in Paris’ Le Marais neighborhood, a clever incubator/think-thank called TheFamily, made its mission to chronicle the digital transformation of our society. Largely inspired by the iconic Ycombinator incubator, TheFamily funds and provides all sorts of services to a hundred plus startups. But it also wants to rattle the establishment with an activist posture. Paraphrasing the “Barbarians at the Gate” book title, the incubator hosts a conference series titled Les Barbares Attaquent (Barbarians On The Attack) that examines all the sectors to be impacted by the digital tidal wave.

The latest event (#18) featured the book industry. Prior to that, human resources, retail, luxury, housing & construction, health, transportation, education, garment industry, consulting, insurance, finance and other sectors were dissected by TheFamily partners and guest speakers. Each time with a larger attendance.

One of the founders, Nicolas Colin, recently made headlines when his blog post (fr) denounced the notoriously archaic parisian taxi lobby (see previous Monday Note), triggering a lawsuit from Nicolas Rousselet, the owner of the main French taxi company G7. (Nicolas is the son of André Rousselet, himself one of former president François Mitterrand’s favorite oligarchs, anointed TV mogul in the late Eighties). By suing the blogger, Rousselet Jr. wanted to shut down any criticism of his company’s unrelenting conservatism. In fact, he completely underestimated the reaction of the French digital multitude that rallied en masse to support the blogger (and the media La Tribune, that republished the infamous post.)

This little Gallic tale illustrates the split between the old and the new economy. It could have happened in Brussels, Berlin or San Francisco where lobbies furiously oppose the rise of Disruptors that threaten transportation or short-term rental housing — among other things.

Before we go further, let’s look at the engine of the Disruptors’ phenomenal growth. It can be summed up to one phrase: unprecedented access to capital.

When it comes to technology, Uber or Airbnb are not rocket science. The platform and the algorithm needed to efficiently match supply & demand have been indeed brilliantly implemented, but there is no need beyond off-the-shelf technologies to set up the whole thing. By contrast, when Google started in 1998, it did stretch the limits of the technology of the day (networking and computing power); as for Facebook, despite the relative crudeness of the original concept, it had to deal very early with scalability issues. Actually on its very first day, Mark Zuckerberg’s hottest girl matching system (how nice) crashed Harvard’s network. No such headache for Uber or Airbnb who rely on proven technologies: cellular network, mapping, databases, LAMP-based softwares. As shown in the following three graphs, funding has been equally abundant for these areas:

319-google 319 facebook 319 uber 319 Airbnb

Not only have investors poured big money in Uber and Airbnb but they did so extremely fast, boosting the valuation of these two companies to staggering levels. Since there is very little technology involved, where did the money go? Mostly to market share acquisitions, the only way to leave the competition in the dust for good. Take Airbnb: in just one year, its number of listed spaces grew more than doubled to 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. Its $10bn valuation puts it head-to-head with the giant group Accor that operates 3500 brick-and-mortar hotels and 450,000 rooms.

In these new models, the American venture capital ecosystem is acting as a weapon of mass domination. When Uber collects more than $300 million in VC money to expand in 100 cities worldwide, its London-based competitor HailO got “only” $77m and when it comes to the French LeCab, it only raised €11m ($15m). It shows how anemic the French system is when it comes to funding its startups; instead of patting the registered cabs sector in the back with demagogic promises, the successive digital economy ministers would have been better advised to act decisively to stimulate access to capital.

Still, the European way of resisting these new models won’t last for long. To be sure, in Brussels, the ill-named “ministry of mobility” decided to simply forbid Uber-like system; in France, the resistance is more messy when hundreds of yelling taxi divers blocked main streets and airport accesses. But grass-root movements are likely to morph into a more anglo-saxon-like lobbying, with highly paid professional hired to defend special interests.

Consider this: between 1998 and 2013, the amount spent in Washington DC alone by various lobbies has grown x16 in constant dollars to a staggering $3.23bn. Today, tech firms are the fourth contributor after pharmaceuticals, insurance and oil & gas: when a big pharma spend $1.00 to influence lawmakers, tech companies now spend $0.63 and the gap is closing.

Why am I mentioning this? It’s because the capital raised by Disruptors will inevitably find its way to effective lobbyism in Brussels (at the European Commission), and eventually in Paris or Berlin.

Disruptors’ lobbyists will argue that new urban transportations system and peer-to-peer housing rental do more good than harm in the community. And for the most part, they might be right. Sharing cars in congested cities via system such as RelayRides definitely makes sense from a environment standpoint when any individual car stays idle 95% of the time. A survey conducted by UC Berkeley (pdf here) on a 6,000 San Francisco residents participating on car-sharing system revealed a drop of 50% in the personal car ownership (the auto industry might not like it, but our lungs will.)

On the economic side, there is no shortage or arguments either. Terminating the paid-for license system (the so-called Medallion) would free €3 billion in Paris, and $10 billion in New York, sums now immobilized and promised to an inexorable deflation. In times of raising inequality, maybe it is not such a bad idea to let people make extra money by renting their apartment or their car — with limitations, of course. To put some figures on the idea: an Airbnb host in San Francisco is making $9,300 per year on average by renting his/er property 58 nights. As for those who makes their personal car available for sharing though RelayRides, they make on average $250 a month.

As for the hotel industry, evidence shows Airbnb’s growth to have very little impact. According to the Boston University School of Management, in the state of Texas, a growth of 1% in Airbnb supply translated into only a 0,05% decrease in the revenue of 4,000 hotels surveyed, while a single percentage point of increase in the supply of regular hotels rooms translated into a 0.29% decrease — 20 times more — in Texas hotel revenues. Of course, cheap hotels are more impacted than the local Hyatt.

Between consumers who are voting with their smartphones, enjoying Uber or Airbnb, and the fact that Disruptors are undoubtedly beneficial to the community, regulators and lawmakers will have hard time defending the status quo.

In fact, they are left with two levers: making sure that the consumer is properly protected form any abuse (that’s already the case, basically) and dealing smartly with the tax issue. The digital economy has a long track-record of linking success to hubris — in practical terms, it means a strong disregard for local tax systems. Here in Europe, the first thing Uber and Airbnb did was setting most of their operations in tax-friendly places such as Luxembourg or Ireland — like Apple or Google before them. On the long run, that’s obviously a mistake as politicians will seize on the opportunity to further single out these new models. In fact, Disruptors would be well-advised to play by the rules in order to insure the sustainability of their services.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Uber, Airbnb vs Cartels and Regulators

 

Disruptive models for transportation or accommodations are perfect illustrations for the gap between friction-free, agile new models and the cohort of status quo defenders. For their part, regulators, lost as they are in digital translation, are worse than powerless. (Part of an series on Disruptors)  

Last week, a member of the French Parliament released a long-awaited report addressing the fight between taxi-cabs and digital-era car services such as Uber. In the meantime, the new socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is training her guns on Airbnb, the acclaimed lodging system that is making a killing in the capital.

Not all the disruptors are Ugly Americans, though. Local startups take advantage of an unfortunate side of French culture – bad service at high prices – to put a dent in established markets. To name but a few: Drivy, a car rental system between individual, offers a inexpensive service available 24/7 (most French car rental agencies in Paris downtown are closed on Sundays) and, thanks to the backing of the German insurer Allianz, the company has the resources to grow; similarly, TripnDrive offers free airport parking if you make your car available for rental (of course you get paid if the car is actually rented), again with the backing of a major insurer.

What’s going on in Europe is interesting. Let’s focus on Uber (a serious knee injury made me an assiduous customer of Uber and drivers gave me lots of details about their economics). The office of the Prime Minister commissioned a report after last January’s violent protests by registered cabs who blocked airports accesses and attacked some Uber cars. In France, every government from right to left, has a solid track record of yielding to street protests, which explains why the country is so immune to structural reforms such as the ones implemented in Canada or Sweden. To the PM’s credit, hearings where thorough and the report (PDF here in French) provides a detailed view of the situation. To make it short, city cabs are artificially limited to 17,636 cars for the Greater Paris, thanks to a license system that cost around €200,000 in Paris (€300,000 in Nice or Cannes; in New York a medallion can fetch $1 million). Such malthusian, lobby-driven policies lead to poor supply: Only 3 cabs for 1000 inhabitants in Paris, vs. 13,5 in NYC, 11 in London, 8 in San Francisco, 7 in Seoul, etc.

Practically, a Paris cab driver willing to work as an independent (as many do) must cough up close to €300,000 ($415,000) — that will include the mandatory license, the car, equipment, affiliation to a dispatching system, insurance —  before earning a single euro. Should h/she should choose to lease a taxi, the cost will be €4500 per month for the whole setup. No wonder why taxi drivers are jealously defending their expensive turf.

On the service side, it’s not a pretty sight: filthy cars, credit cards not accepted, beware if you don’t tip, rough manners (like in a bistro, clients are always a pain), endless tales of foreigners overcharged, no cars in sight when it rains, if you book it, expect an “approach fee” of €10-15 (plus €7 minimum fee, plus $35 per hour of waiting time or traffic jam), you’re expected have change on you, etc.  I feel bad conveying such a picture, but that is exactly the situation.

Needless to say, this left a wide open field to Uber-like systems that offer all the agility of modern digital services. Based on multiple interviews I made during my daily trips:
– Drivers are much younger than regular taxi drivers; the oldest ones are former cab drivers who hastily sold their beloved license before it depreciates.
– Above all, they enjoy the freedom of working whenever they want (especially when the demand is high) and the simplicity of the whole process.
– Most want to develop a business around it (some share a sedan with an associate and develop their own clientèle).
– The entry price is much lower. No license needed to operate, and if the driver cannot or will not invest, rental is much cheaper: €2,000/month max, versus €4,500 for a registered cab.
– A swift and friction-free system for booking and paying (no-money exchange with the driver).
– Greater security for the driver who doesn’t carry cash and whose customers are duly identified in the system.

The French government’s response? Restriction and demagoguery. After the cabs’ violent outburst, the administration decided to freeze car service registrations. Today, the report’s authors are willing to constrain Uber’s development.

For instance, it recommends to forbid what it calls “digital hailing”, i.e, the ability to visualize on the app the nearest cab and hiring it, like here:

uber-geol

This possibility of visual geolocation would be left exclusively to registered cabs (although none of them use any app). Uber and its likes would be restricted to advanced reservation — which turns to be a fine line: Uber’s geolocation system is powered by FourSquare’s database of various places. Practically it means booking a Uber car from the Café de Flore  by name is fine, but I can’t use the street address of the place. The parliamentary report is filled with such nonsense and betrays a deliberate disregard for the user perspective (a notion not even mentioned in the opus.)

Legislators and lobbies are missing a key point here. What users enjoy the most with services like Uber or Airbnb are two things:

(a) The lightness and the reliability of the intermediation : an app acts as a trusted third party that, in addition, will smartly address the supply and demand issue. As an example, next month, Uber is going to dispatch more than 100 of its best limo drivers for the Cannes Film Festival to address the surge in demand (apparently, there is so much work on the Croisette that local cabs are willing to tolerate the newcomers.)

(b) The frictionless and robust transaction system: The cell phone is the sole payment vector in the case of Uber, and Airbnb is acting as an escrow agent that guarantees the transaction for both parties.

By and large, the European resistance to the digital modernization of commercial services is driven by two concurrent ideological postures: defense of well-established, well-identified leagues — and strong anti-americanism.

In Brussels, on April 15th, a court order issued a straightforward ban of application-powered car services such as Uber, triggering the anger of the European commissioner for digital policies Neelie Kroes (see also her adamant blog post):

As for the socialist French MP, while his report leans only softly in favor of the old-fashion cab system that no French government wants to upset, its own website clearly expresses his personal bias again what he calls “Uber’s Cow-boy behavior” (always the long-standing cliché) and the fact that Google is behind the service.

Disruptive models are growing like weeds. Everywhere.

Next week, we’ll explore four critical issues:

1. The long term macroeconomic impact of disruptors, once they’ll have percolated in almost every sectors; how to deal with heavily funded players (Uber and Airbnb are valued at $3.5bn and $10bn respectively, and the fact they are not willing to pay taxes in their local markets).

2. The social impact for the new breed of workers who enthusiastically — sometimes naively — embrace such newcomers.

3.  The cascading effects of disruptors that will call for a modernization of many connected sectors (e.g. all sorts insurances, funding systems) and the underlying factors that pave the way for earthquake-like disruptions.

4. The upcoming transformation of industry lobbies and its political impact.

This is just the beginning of the story.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com