Digital capitalism is the most Darwinian capitalism: The economics of building a platform

Pricing is at the heart of every business, and pricing decisions are far more complicated than merely covering expenses. In the price of a good there are connotations of quality, the volume sold and even the perception of the brand. But when it come to digital goods — where the cost of goods sold is measured in AWS instances and engineers — setting prices can become almost pure strategy.

Bill Gurley, a general partner with Benchmark Capital, takes a look at this strategy when it comes to setting what he calls the rake, or commission, between a platform owner and those using the platform. Examples of the rake include Apple’s 30 percent fee on apps in its App store as well as the service fees associated with oDesk or OpenTable.

Gurley’s article, which is well worth a read, explores the relationship between the rake and the spread of the platform through a series of anecdotes. I just wish he had some documented research; not because I think his conclusions are wrong, but because I think we’d learn even more about how the cost of doing business on a platform affects volume in more subtle ways.

For example, Gurley makes much of the benefits of having a low rake, which encourages developers/end users/merchants to use the platform and also prevents a newcomer from coming in and undercutting you on price. What he doesn’t dig into is how the benefits of scale in the digital world mean that undercutting people on price is a race to the bottom. This is one reason people are concerned that no one but Google can compete with Amazon Web Services when it comes to cloud computing, despite Microsoft saying it will match AWS pricing on its own Azure cloud.

Here’s Gurley’s take on competition and the set rake:

If your objective is to build a winner-take-all marketplace over a very long term, you want to build a platform that has the least amount of friction (both product and pricing). High rakes are a form of friction precisely because your rake becomes part of the landed price for the consumer. If you charge an excessive rake, the pricing of items in your marketplace are now unnaturally high (relative to anything outside your marketplace). In order for your platform to be the “definitive” place to transact, you want industry leading pricing – which is impossible if your rake is the de facto cause of excessive pricing. High rakes also create a natural impetus for suppliers to look elsewhere, which endangers sustainability.

And here he is discussing a favorite business model for digital platforms — a low rake with a mechanism for people who want to spend more to do so in exchange for better placement or the opportunity to get favorable placement on the platform:

You start with a low rake to get broad-based supplier adoption, and you add in a market-driven pricing dynamic that allows those suppliers who want more volume or exposure to pay more on an opt-in basis. This way no one leaves the network due to excessive fees, yet you end up with a higher average rake over time due to the competitive dynamic. And when prices go up due to bidding and competition, the suppliers blame their competition not the platform (part of the genius of the Google AdWords business model). This also allows you to extract more dollars from those suppliers who desire to spend more to promote themselves (without raising the tax on those that don’t).

The article is worth reading, and I hope that some MBA professor takes it into his head to start some rigorous research on the best commission structures across digital verticals, or perhaps the biggest factors that should influence your rake rates. Because while generally low is good, if one could manage to be an area where high or medium works — at least for a while — then why not start there and see what happens?

Or better yet, invest in tools that allow for dynamic pricing based on the user’s need or demographics. That’s something more easily done online and is utterly neglected in Gurley’s article. In a digital world, the cost of goods is lower, so the risk of playing with pricing is lower as well. I think we’re going to see a lot more of it.