The Mutual Company

I remember a time when I was growing up when many of the savings banks and insurance companies were mutual companies. A mutual company is one where the customers own the company, more or less. It seems like the concept lost favor and many of these banks and insurance mutual companies were “demutualized” in the 80s and 90s. I don’t really profess to understand all the reasons and history behind mutualization and demutualization. I suspect some of you may know a lot more than me about this stuff.

I started thinking about mutual companies after reading Joe Nocera’s column in the New York Times which was based on his read of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?

Joe asks in the title “Will Digital Networks Ruin Us?” and here is the money quote:

the value of these new companies comes from us. “Instagram isn’t worth a billion dollars just because those 13 employees are extraordinary,” he writes. “Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it.” He adds, “Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they have them, only a small number of people get paid. This has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth.” Thus, in Lanier’s view, is income inequality also partly a consequence of the digital economy.

At USV we invest in digital networks, so this is a fundamental question that we think about a lot. We would not want to be investing in something that “will ruin us” and we don’t think we are investing in something ruinous. But we do talk about this issue all the time.

I will come back to the mutual company thing in a bit, but first I want to say that Joe and Jaron are leaving out the notion of consumer surplus in their analysis. The newspaper costs money. Twitter is free. In a world where “we” create the newspaper instead of the NY Times Company creating it, the newspaper can and will be free. That is happening all over the place, because of the efficiency of digital networks, and the result is a large amout of consumer surplus that is landing in all of our laps.

But maybe that is not enough. Maybe the creators of these networks ought to mutualize so that their users, who are creating the value, can participate in the upside. We have not seen anyone do this to date. We have talked to a number of startups and networks about the idea. We have not seen any takers yet. But we will continue to have the conversation because this is worth trying and seeing how it would turn out. The result could be a much more sustainable and lasting network. Something for everyone to think about this morning.

UPDATE: My partner Brad wrote a long and thoughtful comment on usv.com about Joe’s column. You can read it here.