Disintermediation is Eating the World

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen coined the term “Software is eating the world” nearly 10 years ago. His argument that software would be at the heart of every business moving forward could not have been more astute. For example, Amazon’s not a retailer; their primary capability is their software technology enabling sellers around the world to get their products to consumers. The same could be said for their AWS cloud business; again a software play. Uber, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and to some extent Apple’s app store business, are all examples of companies that are fundamentally software first. Interestingly, this same software has empowered a foundational shift in business model. It has enabled disintermediation. The complex network of intermediaries that have existed historically have been circumvented which has led to the world of everything being direct-to-consumer (D2C) or direct to source. Many think of D2C as mainly having an impact on consumer goods, but the theme permeates into numerous industries.  Here are some examples:

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Paying the Toll

As tech companies descended on Capitol Hill this week, the ongoing debate around antitrust continues. Startups have long lamented about the anticompetitive business practices adopted by the big 4:  Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. If you build a business that relies on the Apple or Google app stores then you automatically know you’re going to pay a ~30% toll to access consumers. The debate has further been heightened as some startups like Classpass have been hit with this toll as they roll out virtual classes due to COVID. The founders argue that they are forgoing their normal take rate from providers (gym’s, etc) they work with during COVID so why is Apple charging them 30%. Apple is in an interesting situation, because if they make exceptions for one business, they need to make for others. They also would face potential legal battles from previous customers that did have to pay. 

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Facebook & Twitter – A Move to Subscription Makes Sense

A recent report claims $TWTR is considering a subscription model to augment a significant decline in advertising revenue. This would be among the first of the big social media companies to consider this approach and I believe could lead to a reckoning in the industry. $FB is currently facing a backlash among advertisers who claim the social media company isn’t doing enough to control controversial rhetoric on its platform and will inevitably see a decline in advertising revenue. A few years ago, the idea of paying to access online “news” content wasn’t a thing. Publishers were primarily in the business of selling ads in offline media and as they built their online presence they carried this business model over. As consumers got irritated with intrusive ads, it became clear they had to change their offering. Newspapers such as the NYTimes piloted new paywall programs to test consumers’ appetite for subscription based products. The result was mostly favorable, and as a result, many publishers today have pivoted their business models to favor subscription over advertising revenue especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to get ad dollars from brands in a world in which the big tech companies ($GOOG, $FB, etc) dwarf smaller publishers in traffic.

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Alibaba – An Alternative to Amazon

As Amazon took off here in the US, another similar startup business took its sights on the Far East.  Alibaba may look similar to AMZN but under the hood they are very different. While AMZN handily beats BABA on top-line, BABA  wins by a large measure on opex margins. This is inherent in their business model which is more similar to Ebay than to AMZN. Whereas AMZN primarily owns warehouses and inventory, BABA is lighter and collects a merchant fee as a middleman between buyers and sellers.

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