Archive: bust

Labor Costs and Service Prices in the US economy: hidden flexibility?

Travelling through the US once again and hearing comments about the recession every day, I was struck by the elasticity of US business once again. As much as the business climate is intoxicating to the point of being hectic in boom times, as seen in 1999/2000 and once again in 2007, in bear times everything gets very gloomy.

I was riding in a cab in Las Vegas headed to CES and for once in the habit of European cab fares I forgot to tip the cab driver. He commented “You Europeans never tip, do you?”. After paying the due tip, I reflected on how dependent employees in all services industries were on tips for their regular income. I also noticed that tipping behavior on the part of Americans differed strongly from what I had experienced just 6 months ago on my last extended trip to California. People now, out of need or out of fashion, were downright stingy. Given that such large portions of the US economy are service based, I could not help but wonder how that had the same effect as a wage cut in many of these industries. At the very least, it shows that employers, who deflect part of the necessity of paying market wages to the culture of tipping and its encouragement in the policies of their businesses, thereby have an instrument to reduce and flexibilize their labor cost. In boom times employees earn more from tips and in bust times they earn less without the employer having to enforce wage cuts. This benefits the employer because he remains at his (low) wage cost basis, keeps his prices stable and lets the customer reduce tips if he feels he needs to. Since tips are part of the price structure of using a service, this means that lower tipping amounts to a deflation of service prices from the point of the customer. Thus, in a way, the business owner is leaving part of the pricing to the customer who can deflate the price he pays at will if his pockets are tied – as is the case in a recession.

Now while this, from a European perspective, could be perceived as an unfair advantage the business owner has in his relation to employees and customers, it could also be described as an “entrepreneurial risk” of the employee. Employees that commit particularly well to the service they are a part of and endear themselves to customers will invariably in good or bad times reap better tips from the customers. An employee who does well will probably convince a business owner to give him the responsibilities (assigned tables, assigned services) that will have the highest likelihood of earning him tips. One can already observe that some businesses compete on a labor market by installing policies that encourage tips.

A hamburger chain called Fat Burger places a small tip box next to a big tip box at the cash register and each time a larger tip is paid into the so called “fat tip box” the cashier yells out “FAT TIP!” and all other employees chime in yelling “FAT TIP!” as well.

As ludicrous as a discussion of the macroeconomic effect of tipping might seem at first glance, the impact on the US economy must be sizable. Considering the service industry is a 10s of billions of dollars segment of the economy and that average tipping is between 10 and 20 % of a purchase, tipping could well amount to several billion dollars in the economy. Adding or subtracting billions of dollars of volume to the price structure of the service industry could in turn have stronger than imagined effects on inflation and deflation, as well as on purchasing power in low income segments of the population.

As I am not an economist, I will leave the discussion at that, but I sure would find it interesting to know if this has ever been explored academically.

When do I Invest? – Video Interview [German]

Recently I had the nice experience of being interviewed by the blogger / founder of http://www.easn.de or Everything A Startup Needs. He asked me to relate:

- how dw capital grew out of denkwerk

- what makes our positioning unique

- what are my criteria for investment

- and how much idealism a Founder can sustain

Of course, an [edited] video interview cannot convey all the things and remarkable people that shaped the rich history of 10 years of denkwerk, but maybe the interview gives anyone interested an impression of the philosophy behind our seed venture unit, dw capital. So, here goes:

Video Interview of Axel Schmiegelow

For the record, and because I also have an agency background:

I do believe in Branding, but I don’t believe Branding should be an excuse for bad conversion of a media campaign.

Viral Social Commerce

These past months have, in a way that I would not have thought possible, created a start-up market situation closely resembling a certain period in time that we had in 1999. A number of new start-ups have sprung up that stem from what I call “feature-itis”, that is: their main business idea is not the creation of a value that addresses a particular market in a way that is commercially feasible, but much more the “hey- wouldn’t it be cool if it were possible to do this or that on the web” impulse.

If you sift through the business history of the first and second wave of the internet and try to analyze which companies ended up being successful, which companies were moped up as additional features to Yahoo! and bought out, and which companies simply failed, you find out that at the end of the day it’s not at all about a new economy, it’s about very old principles of

– servicing viable markets
- with a viable market proposition/value proposition
- and at an affordable price

in the widest sense of price, that is: convenience, access, time, budget and eventually price in dollars.

If we now look at what I like to call Web 3.0, that is, the commercial maturity of the social phenomena that we are observing with Web 2.0, then remembering that business history and applying the method of identifying customers for a market that are prepared to pay a given price, is a healthy mental exercise.

You’ll allow me to refer to myself and my earlier Blog entry about the distinction between Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 and briefly describe Web 2.0 as the discovery that the internet is not only a repository for information and data, and a network through which e-mail and chat communication can happen, but has become a medium where

the human source of information

and human source of opinion and entertainment becomes as accessible as the data that he/she has created, that is at the core of the Web 2.0 social revolution. And as any revolution, it creates a whole new set of social behavioural changes, business opportunities, political implications and essentially an entirely new medium- which incidentally is not only confined to the Blog or Social Network phenomenon.

Stating these now commonplace insights into Web 2.0 leads me to reflect upon the Web 3.0 phenomenon, that is the commercial viability of all of these changes. As described in my Blog entry, I believe strongly that this will be the era where the source of data and information, and essentially this means the

human individual as a source of expertise,

can more and more market that expertise in many different ways- either

- by being accessible as an expert or
- by offering more in depth information or
- services related to the information
- transactions / products related to the information

for any kind of currency (this may be a social reward or a commercial reward/payment) in a variety of models that can range from subscription to micro-payments or even other forms of transaction that we may not yet even imagine (my informed hunch is “subscription” will mean many different rental models that are being imagined right now). As of now, the main focus of business endeavour in the Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 transition era, is to create and monetize exactly these kinds of platforms- much in the way that sevenload is doing for the video world.

In the future, business focus will be to harness the technologies, communication methods and social behaviour of Web 3.0 to create new value and new markets, thereby disrupting existing business structures. Increasingly, this will be achieved by individuals and small companies rather than larger companies.

The challenge is to identify these markets beyond advertising. If we look at what is happening right now in the Web 2.0 sphere, it is essentially one giant cannibalization of the editorial market, trying to supplement old media and replace them with “Facebook-”, “MySpace-”, and “YouTube-” (new) models of broad- and selfcasting and interaction with the user. That will, of course, be successful, but it is hardly imaginable that more than a productivity or effiency increase of more than 25-35% (maybe even 40% or 50% through better targeting) with relation to the advertising market can be sustained.

Even more market volume may be created by opening the advertising market to new segments that, until now, had a high cost barrier towards advertising, for example in the Long Tail of smaller and mid-sized companies, or in niche markets which had to rely on direct marketing because there was no medium for them to address at sales efficient cost on a large scale.

This disruption of the advertising marjet is of course fueled by the radically changed cost-dynamics of Web 2.0 platforms and the possibility to address the long-tail of content and offering highly specific audiences to as specific advertisers.

This opening of niche markets for advertising may one day – probably soon to come – come as far as user groups and communities centered around exotic topics such as the nuts and bolts of drilling joints (or something similar).

But by and all, if advertising is the only focus of what is happening right now, there will inevitably be a crunch at the moment of realization that there is just not enough money in these markets to create hundreds of new billion dollar companies. Even though a return to the Nuclear Winter of The Internet of 2001-2003 seems unlikely, it is highly probable that we will have a structurally similar shake-down and that just one or two more Yahoo!(s) or Google(s) will crop up, having found the holy grail of

on-demand fully trackable horizontal niche long tail CPA advertising

By the way, addressing that advertising market will also have to overcome a formidable opponent which is very well positioned to address the long-tail of advertising, and that is Google.

My point in this Blog post is that there have to be, and there will be business models beyond advertising and they are starting to emerge. Essentially these will be transaction based and will be centered either around the handling of goods in an e-commerce sense (that is already being seen in a number of start-ups) for example, by itravel, but there will also more and more be transaction platforms centered around services, much in the sourcing logic mentioned above.

The sum of these developments is what I call “viral social commerce”. It is viral in the sense that its dynamics of growth/expansion are very much word-of-mouth and very much based on the social phenomena of Web 2.0.

*I might add, that these phenomena are not new, word-of-mouth has always been the most powerful marketing instrument, it’s just that technology has enabled it to travel at light-speed, where before it was at a horse carriage pace.

It is social in the sense that, not only communication, but also increasingly parts of the production process and the definition of the product/service offered will be defined not by an entity that is producing it, but rather by a group of people or a community that adds a significant part of the value that is being created. An example for that is again itravel, where the travel community creates a lot of the product knowledge and even product sourcing that is necessary to create its catalogue of once-in-a-lifetime-experiences. Another example is ChariTees, where the community sources not only the designs, but also decides which designs will appear on t-shirts and also decides which institution would benefit from that part of the proceeds of ChariTees that is being spent on charity.

The commerce part of the “viral social commerce” idiom, reflects on what I was describing at the beginning of my post, namely that this is more than a social communication phenomenon and it is also more than pure interaction, it is in essence a whole new commercial dimension to what happens in our increasingly web-enabled society.

Viral social commerce is, for me, the essence of what will happen with Web 3.0. In my next post, I will describe how companies can confront this development and attain competitive advantages by harnessing them.

Is the Tide turning?

Exit phantasies, commercialisation discussion, is blogging worth the trouble – there are many signs that euphoria and passion, the web 2.0 sense of mission etc.. are giving way to the same kind of frenetic and less frenetic division of the spoils that we had in 2000.

That holds an important lesson for all entrepreneurs, especially since this time around, there will be no big bust – just failures and successes distributed along the bell curve.

Lesson #1:
Even if everyone is focussing on other metrics, make sure you’re earning money. It’s better to be smaller and profitable, i.e. independent, than growing and growing and going nowhere in terms of being a viable business.

MIT’s secret formula for success is CFIMITYM (Cash Flow is More Important Than Your Mother) – brutal, but to the point.

Lesson #2:
Focus on proving the business model, or, more likely, finding it in the first place. chances are, that gets you more and stickier users than pure play community building. Business Models tend to evolve where there is long term value.

Lesson #3:
Try to identify the basic need you are adressing – the more basic it is, the more chances you have. Poeple have eaten, slept, mated, vyed for attention and recognition, thirsted for knowledge etc.. for centuries… that’s where the money is.

Lesson #4
Look for the right people. Rotten Ideas have made it because of world class teams. And be honest to yourself about your won ability. Your abilities do not expand as you grow older, they diminish and gnarl like old roots. That makes you experienced and savvy in your field of expertise – and less and less of a generalist in others. Get Good people. Kennedy did (“A good manager hires better staff than he is”).

When the going gets tough, the tough get going…

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