Platform Monopolies

There’s an article in the NY Times Sunday Business Section today that lays out a very important question we have all been dancing around but will increasingly be dealing with. The article is nominally about Amazon’s fight with Hachette but it is really about internet platforms and monopolies.

The author of the NY Times piece tells the story of Vincent Zandri, an author of mystery and suspense novels, who has moved all of his publishing activities over to Amazon’s platform and is enjoying the benefits of doing that.

This could easily have been the story of the journalist who moves her writing from The Wall Street Journal to her own blog, or the story of the filmmaker who moves from the Hollywood studio system to Kickstarter and VHX. It could be the story of the band that leaves their record label and does direct deals with SoundCloud and Spotify. It could be the story of the yellow cab driver who moves his driving business to Uber or Sidecar.

The story of Vincent Zandri is the story of our times.

The Internet, at its core, is a marketplace that, over time, removes the need for the middleman. That is very good news for the talent that has been giving up a fairly large part of its value to all of the toll takers in between them and their end customers.

Take Etsy for example. Before Etsy, if you made knit hats, you would sell them to a boutique for $10, and that boutique would turn around and sell them to your customers for $25. Now you sell them to your customers on Etsy for $25 and pay a 20cents listing fee and 3.5% of the transaction and a payment processing fee. In the old model the knitter made $10 per hat. In the new model, the knitter makes about $23 per hat. That’s a big deal. And you see it all over the place in the Internet marketplace economy.

But there is another aspect to the Internet that is not so comforting. And that is that the Internet is a network and the dominant platforms enjoy network effects that, over time, lead to dominant monopolies.

We see that with Google today. Google’s global search market share is around 70%. It would be larger if not for China and Russia, where the governments have given benefits to local players. But even with its current market share, Google is pretty close to a monopoly in search. It is a benign monopoly for the most part and, as such, has largely stayed out of the sights of regulators. I, for one, am happy with that game of chicken between Google and the regulators.

Amazon is increasingly looking like a monopoly in publishing. This part of the NY Times piece is how all of these Internet stories have played out:

At first, those in the publishing business considered Amazon a cute toy (you could see a book’s exact sales ranking!) and a useful counterweight to Barnes & Noble and Borders, chains willing to throw their weight around. Now Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble is weak and Amazon owns the publishing platform of the digital era.

The same could be said of Google, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, Uber, and all of the dominant networks that are emerging around us. From laughable toys to dominant monopolies in less than a decade.

It’s strange for me to write this post because this is our playbook at USV. We invest in networks that can emerge as dominant platforms by virtue of network effects. We like things that are laughed at. The more they are derided, the more we want to invest.

But here’s the rub. When a platform like Amazon emerges as the dominant monopoly in publishing, who will keep them honest? When every author has left the publishing house system and has gone direct with Amazon, what does that world look like?

That is the question the NY Times is asking in their story this morning. And that is an issue that we at USV have been confronting for a while now and we are investing against it.

We have invested in Wattpad, which is a bottoms up competitor to Amazon, as opposed to Hachette which is a top down competitor to Amazon. We think its easier for a more open, less commercial platform like Wattpad to keep Amazon honest than it is for a legacy publishing house.

We have invested in Sidecar, which has built a true open marketplace for ridesharing. We think its more likely that true peer marketplace will keep Uber honest than the legacy fleets of limos and taxis that are fighting for their life against Uber right now.

But maybe most importantly, we are investing in bitcoin and the blockchain, which is the foundation for truly distributed peer to peer marketplaces without the Internet middleman.

For this is the truth that we are now facing. For all of its democratizing power, the Internet, in its current form, has simply replaced the old boss with a new boss. And these new bosses have market power that, in time, will be vastly larger than that of the old boss.

So, as an investor, when you see a dominant market power emerge, you should start asking yourself “what will undo that market power?” And you should start investing in that. We’ve begun doing that, but are not anywhere near done with this effort.