Give away the diagnostic, sell the remedy

Companies that employ the “freemium” business model give away a product or service for free and then charge for additional features. The freemium model has gotten more popular as the cost to deliver free services has dropped but the cost of employing sales and marketing people hasn’t. One of the hardest questions around freemium models is deciding how to divide free from paid features.

One particularly effective version of freemium is: “give away the diagnostic, sell the remedy.” The best known example of this is anti-virus companies that give away free virus scans but charge for virus removers. In fact, this tactic works so well for anti-virus that it almost seems coercive (and has indeed been abused, for example, by “anti-spyware” software that deliberately conflates cookies and viruses). But, in general, giving away a diagnostic seems like a reasonable way to demonstrate the effectiveness of a product while still being able to sell valuable additional features.

Selling the remedy has become increasingly popular with B2B companies. For example, a friend recently wanted to ensure that his company’s (non-spam) e-mails weren’t getting blocked by spam filters, so he contacted an “email delivery optimization” company. They ran a free test and reported that his emails weren’t getting filtered. Two months later they called back and said “uh oh, your emails are getting filtered.” Sure enough his open rates had dropped and his anecdotal tests confirmed that his emails were being inaccurately labelled as spam. Because of the free diagnostic, he had confidence in the company’s technology, and was willing to pay them to fix his problem. And the email optimization company had spent almost nothing to acquire a new customer.

 

Maximizing capacity utilization as a startup premise

In stark contrast to other major airlines, Southwest has been profitable for 40 years. If Southwest had one core “startup premise” it was this: for every second the planes sat on the ground, their airplanes and people were costing them money but not generating revenue. So Southwest designed an airline from the ground up that maximized capacity utilization. They avoided the hub-and-spoke system that led to cascading delays. They removed meals to reduce ground crew times, along with assigned seating so passengers would hurry onto the plane to get good seats. They used only one aircraft type to reduce maintenance times.

Some of the most interesting startups today are founded on the same premise of maximizing capacity utilization. Being information technology startups, their method for doing so is generally by matching demand for capacity with supply of un-utilized capacity. AirBnB lets people rent out unused space, increasing the utilization of their homes. Uber lets drivers rent out their unused time, increasing the utilization of their cars and labor. Services like TaskRabbit are trying let people fully utilize their “labor capacity”. Over time, services that increase capacity utilization tend to drive prices down (even if, at first, they sometimes have higher prices).

Whenever Southwest would begin servicing a new city, it drove prices down so dramatically that economists began referring to it as the “Southwest Effect“. One particularly remarkable aspect of the Southwest Effect: when Southwest began servicing a city, it would stimulate new business activity – and thus air travel – to such an extent that even Southwest’s less efficient competitors ended up benefiting.

Building products from improvised user behaviors

For a long time, there were niche communities of “lo-fi” camera enthusiasts: people who shared photos taken on old cameras that had interesting ways of filtering shots. The iPhone app Hipstamatic popularized lo-fi filters, selling over 1M copies. Because Hipstamatic lacked sharing features, many users took pictures with Hipstamatic and then shared them using other apps. Then came Instagram, which combined lo-fi filters and easy sharing. Instagram has been downloaded 15M times and has apparently crossed over to mainstream users.

Instagram built a product devoted to a job that users were previously performing improvisationally using multiple products. This is a common pattern for popular software and services. Before Twitter, people shared interesting links through email or “link round-up” blog posts. Tumblr’s short-form blogging/re-blogging was inspired by an “unintended” use of long-form blogging platforms like WordPress. Before Foursquare, power socializers sent out mass text messages with their locations (in fact, Foursquare’s predecessor Dodgeball did exactly that).

New startup ideas are all around you, in the improvised behaviors of people you know. It takes a keen product eye, however, to notice these improvisational behaviors and recognize which ones are worthy of being developed into standalone products.

Trusting platforms

In response to my post yesterday about how an internet of people has enabled a new wave of web-based marketplaces, Nick Mango commented:

There’s actually 2 levels of trust here. The first is knowing and trusting the person you’re buying from. And if you don’t know who they are, then you must move on to the second level of trust, which is do you know and trust the platform the person is using.

The ability to have “second order trust” is one of many reasons the internet has made so many institutions obsolete. Take the SEC’s role in policing private companies that market themselves to potential investors. This was sensible consumer protection back when the government was arguably the only organization that had the means and incentives to identify fraudulent investment schemes. But today we have many examples of websites that’ve built mechanisms for reliably tracking the reputations of individuals and organizations. This means the SEC could – in theory – make the unit of regulation platforms instead of investors and startups (something the crowdfunding bill being considered by Congress seems to do at least in part), which in turn could unleash a new wave of innovation among crowdfunding platforms and crowdfunded startups.

An internet of people

Over the past few years, a bunch of web-based marketplaces have gotten popular – Etsy, Kickstarter, AirBnb, to name a few. Many of these business ideas had been tried before but are succeeding only now.

When a trend like this emerges, it’s always interesting to ask “why now?” For example, for almost a decade, entrepreneurs tried to create video sharing services like YouTube, but only succeeded when certain key dependencies – broadband, digital video cameras, a version of Flash that “just worked” – became widespread.

I asked Roelof Botha the “why now” question regarding web-based marketplaces. He said something I thought was really interesting: marketplaces depend on trust, and trust requires knowing the reputation of a prospective counterparty. Today, for the first time, you can get background information on almost any prospective counterparty by searching Google, Facebook etc. Or put more simply: we finally have an internet of people.