airbnb

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