Al Roth wins the Nobel: Put Theory to Action

Al Roth on a Busy Day

Alvin E. Roth is a Professor of Economics and Business Administration, currently at Harvard and soon at Stanford. He is one of the kindest people I know. As of yesterday, he is a Nobel laureate.

Dr. Roth’s interests include “game theory, experimental economics, and market design” says the Harvard website. But Dr. Roth became famous for putting economic theory to work – in the real world. He has designed and redesigned markets and institutions for better performance. Dr. Roth has changed how doctors and hospitals find each other, how students are assigned to high schools, and how kidney patients are matched with a donor.

Putting theory to work is risky. Most of us, me included, describe reality and hypothesize about causes and effects: what makes people cooperative or why some companies are successful, for example. We find it plenty difficult to convince peers, reviewers and editors of our ideas. Implementation is a whole different realm. We can advise, but usually let others practice: executives, government officials, leaders.

But Dr. Roth is different. Acting as both a scholar and an entrepreneur, he embarked on a difficult and perilous journey to reshape institutions. He had to convince laymen that economic theories are useful. He had to bear the risk of failure for organizational and political reasons. He could have failed even if right. Changing the way students are assigned to schools can disturb powerful education official and supervisors; reallocating kidneys to patients can upset hospitals and doctors.

Somehow, Roth triumphed. In his success, he made markets better and society – more prosperous. He also set a challenge for the rest of us. Coming up with a good idea and convincing your colleagues may be just the beginning of a journey. Putting it to action may be the ultimate goal.

For all of his accomplishments, Al remains friendly, humble and approachable. He seems excited by ideas, not glory. A day after the Nobel committee bestowed his prize, he wrote to me “it’s been a busy day…”. Probably nothing out of the ordinary for him.

“Patents as Swords”? — More like Patents as Bombs

A great New York Times article this morning (link below) details ways in which the patent system gets used as both an offensive and defensive weapon, with billions of dollars of collateral damage to start-ups, consumers (see the “patent tax”), and innovation in general. The victim in the opening Vignette (Vlingo, a voice-recognition software start-up) might have been saved by a simple change in the rules: make the losers of patent lawsuits pay the legal costs of the winner. It turns out that it’s rather easy to kill small firms (or force them to sell to you) by launching a patent lawsuit against them that bleeds them dry with legal fees. You don’t have to win — you just have to force them to fight until they no longer have any money.  Vlingo ultimately won the patent lawsuit that had been filed by a much larger rival, but had to loot its own meager coffers to pay the legal fees of doing so. Vlingo slumped home with its patent lawsuit victory and shut its doors for good. If losers of such battles paid the legal fees of winners, such fights might both be less common, and less likely to be fatal.

The article also points out that software patents have proven particularly dangerous because they are prone to protecting vague claims like “a software algorithm for calculating online prices,” thereby granting the patent holder vast tracks of technological real estate. An interesting talk by Tilo Peters at the Strategic Management Society conference yesterday points to another useful tool for rationalizing some of this misuse of the patent system: Strategic disclosure. If, for example, you decided to publish a manifesto about all of the things you might do with software in the reasonable future (remember patents have a “usefulness” condition so you’re not allowed to claim something deemed non-feasible), you might be able to essentially proclaim that technological territory as unpatentable. It wouldn’t prevent competitors from developing in those areas, but it could keep them from patenting in those areas. In essence, it transforms a space in which property rights may be allocated into one in which property rights may not. I’ve left out some details but you get the idea.

Now it occurs to me that a fair amount of strategic disclosure in the smart phone space took place in the form of Star Trek episodes. I’m going to go look for references to prior art…

-Melissa Schilling

Why Small is Not Always Beautiful

We love small businesses. We love entrepreneurs. Do we love them too much? The Economist thinks that this may be the case, reminding us that our liking may have more to do with ideology (or self-adulation) than with economic reality.

Small is not Beautiful: Why small firms are less wonderful than you think

Uber innovation: say goodbye to bricks and mortar taxi service

My colleague Josh Gans recently turned me on to UBER, a smartphone-based taxi service. I used it for the first time yesterday to get to the Toronto Airport. I’ll be surprised if this technology doesn’t eventually kill the taxi business as we know it. 

From the user’s perspective, you simply download an app and sign up for the service online. When you want a cab, you open the app. It shows you all the Uber vehicles around you on a google map. It tells you how many minutes it will take for one to get to you (in my case 8). You hit a button and, if you are so inclined, you can watch your car approaching on the map. A few minutes later, viola!, you receive a message telling you your cab has arrived. Our car was a spotless black limo-style sedan. The transaction is handled through your account with them via your credit card. No money changes hands with the driver (tip is included) and a detailed receipt is immediately emailed to you (great for expense reports). The cost in our case was identical to the standard fare + tip.

As far as I’m concerned, the experience dominated that of the status quo by a significant margin. It got me to thinking about the business model. As an investor, I would always be wary of any business 3 computer science grads from MIT could replicate in a basement. I can’t imagine there is anything in the Uber technology that creates a meaningful entry barrier. Moreover, unlike a Facebook type business, there don’t seem to be any network externalities working to the advantage of the first-mover. 

On the other hand, there are non-technology features of the business that are central to its success and, perhaps, not so easy to replicate. The most obvious is setting up a base of independent drivers. I was chatting with our driver and learned that substantial resources are devoted to vetting drivers and, once they are on board, regularly checking up on them to make sure the standard of service (car cleanliness and so on) remain high. That requires some infrastructure and know-how. 

Then, there are the reputation effects. Strong reputation is going to be a substantial benefit on the supply side – i.e., recruiting and maintaining good drivers. Plus, for the first time, a supplier of taxi services can build up not just a national but international retail brand. That’s a big deal. Apparently, Uber does not have to contend with local medallion laws — the cars are not marked and cannot be hailed from the street. This will help them a lot in expanding their business.

Still, the service only works for people with smartphones — a big limit to growth, at least for now. Also, it is hard to imagine that one or two competitors won’t take a run at them, especially if (as I suspect) this business really takes off. When that happens, who is going to appropriate the value? What is scarce in this situation? There appears to be no shortage of taxi drivers, though being able to find and maintain top-quality ones should confer some advantage. Also, my intuition is that the market will support two or three such businesses, not tens or hundreds. So, oligopoly prices under constrained capacity, at least for the high-end, high-quality version of the service, are likely to obtain.

Yet, the arrival of competition will surely send some additional value the consumer’s way in the form of lower prices. And this is not exactly a high-margin business to begin with. Therefore, at some point in the future, expect to see an established Uber lobbying local governments to regulate its segment of the business — waxing poetic on why it is in the public’s interest for cities to issue them some form of competition-inhibiting, medallion-like licenses of their own.

Entrepreneurship: Exploring (or Building) Adjacencies

Because I write and teach about innovation and strategy, friends and students often ask me to evaluate their new business ideas. A relatively large percentage of these business ideas are about a product the individual somehow identifies with, but in an area in which the individual has no work experience. The mythology of entrepreneurship is that it’s all about great ideas. The reality is that great ideas are a dime a dozen; successful entrepreneurship is much more closely linked to the ability to execute. How do people learn to execute? In general, it’s through having deep experience somewhere in the value chain. In other words, most successful entrepreneurship is accomplished through exploring (or building) something adjacent to where you already are or have been. If, for example, you have worked for an interior design firm for several years, and you travel to South Africa and see beautiful and unusual textiles you would like to be able to use in your practice, but no one is importing these textiles, you are in a much better position to create such an import business (and to know what it’s worth, and how to reach the target market) than another tourist who sees the beautiful textiles and wonders why the interior designer she has hired hasn’t shown her anything so unique.

Adjacent positions give you insight into the value chain of your target area (Who are the likely suppliers? What is their cost structure like? Who are the buyers? How are they used to being presented with goods to choose from? How big is the market? How are the logistics typically handled?). Adjacent positions can also help you identify valuable problems to solve (What aspects of the currently available products or business model are inefficient or irritating? What new innovation would exceed customer expectations, and how much more would they pay for it?). Perhaps most importantly, occupying an adjacent position means you are more likely to have valuable network contacts to lubricate your entry – for example, already having a relationship and credibility with distributors will usually have a big impact on the rate at which you can enter a market.

What if you love an idea, and are motivated to execute on it, but aren’t in an adjacent position? Build one. Consider working (or interning) for a firm that is either upstream or downstream in the value chain you will be entering. If you can offer up your effort at a low cost (preferably free) for at least a few hours a day, you can usually edge your way into just about any business. You could also consider working for someone who will ultimately be your competitor, but working for someone who will be your supplier or your customer is more likely to engender goodwill in the value chain, and help you accrue valuable contacts that you will use in your new business.

A case in point: My good friend, Rick Alden, founded a company called Skullcandy in 2003 that makes, primarily, headphones with an edgy, extreme sports aesthetic.  I was initially skeptical of his idea to enter headphones – to me it was a commoditized product category dominated by companies that operate in countries with significantly lower production costs. Rick, however, was deeply embedded in an adjacent industry – snowboarding. He had founded National Snowboarding Incorporated in the 1980s (which promoted the sport of snowboarding and offered lessons and competitions), and had designed and patented the first ever step-in snowboard boot and binding system. His brother Dave was a pro-snowboarder for Burton, and his father Paul Alden had been one of the founders of the North American Snowboard Association which helped to create guidelines for teaching snowboarding and developed the snowboarding World Cup. In short, Rick knew snowboarders – he knew their aesthetic, and he knew their habits. He knew most of the major snowboarding manufacturers, snowboard shops, and snowboard pro-riders. So when Rick launched Skullcandy, he was not only in a great position to evaluate what design features snowboarders would respond to, he was also able to get endorsements from the most famous snowboarders, and get on the shelves of the best snowboard shops. Once he had captured that market, the mass market (Best Buy, college bookstores, etc.) eagerly demanded product. Within two years Skullcandy had surpassed a million in sales, and by 201 1 Skullcandy’s sales had reached $231 million.

Had Rick started by developing a mass market product and approached Best Buy, it is unlikely the story would have turned out the same. It is equally unlikely that someone outside of the extreme sports industry could have replicated what Rick did. It was Rick’s adjacent position that gave him the knowledge, the contacts, and the credibility to enter and succeed in this market.

Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal

Despite only being six years old, it looks like the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal (SEJ) is off to a flying start.  I don’t really read entrepreneurship journals, though have read some good work in SEJ.  And, for anyone interested: it looks like there are several special issue call for papers (links are to the pdfs):

Crowd-sourcing Strategy Formulation

The current issue of McKinsey Quarterly features an interesting article on firms crowd-sourcing strategy formulation. This is another way that technology may shake up the strategy field (See also Mike’s discussion of the MBA bubble). The article describes examples in a variety of companies. Some, like Wikimedia and Redhat aren’t much of a surprise given their open innovation focus. However, we should probably take notice when more traditional companies (like 3M, HCL Technologies, and Rite-Solutions) use social media in this way.  For example, Rite-Solutions, a software provider for the US Navy, defense contractors and fire departments, created an internal market for strategic initiatives:

Would-be entrepreneurs at Rite-Solutions can launch “IPOs” by preparing an Expect-Us (rather than a prospectus)—a document that outlines the value creation potential of the new idea … Each new stock debuts at $10, and every employee gets $10,000 in play money to invest in the virtual idea market and thereby establish a personal intellectual portfolio Read the rest of this entry »