We usually associate an industry’s transformation with the adoption of a new technology. But although new technologies are often major factors, they have never transformed an industry on their own. What does achieve such a transformation is a business model that can link a new technology to an emerging market need.
How Business Models Work
Definitions of “business model” vary, but most people would agree that it describes how a company creates and captures value. The features of the model define the customer value proposition and the pricing mechanism, indicate how the company will organize itself and whom it will partner with to produce value, and specify how it will structure its supply chain. Basically, a business model is a system whose various features interact, often in complex ways, to determine the company’s success.
In any given industry, a dominant business model tends to emerge over time. In the absence of market distortions, the model will reflect the most efficient way to allocate and organise resources. Most attempts to introduce a new model fail—but occasionally one succeeds in overturning the dominant model, usually by leveraging a new technology. If new entrants use the model to displace incumbents, or if competitors adopt it, then the industry has been transformed.
Consider Airbnb, which upended the hotel industry. Founded in 2008, the company has experienced phenomenal growth: It now has more rooms than either InterContinental Hotels or Hilton Worldwide. As of this writing, Airbnb represents 19.5 per cent of the hotel room supply in New York and operates in 192 countries, in which it accounts for 5.4 per cent of room supply (up from 3.6 per cent in 2015).
The founders of Airbnb realized that platform technology made it feasible to craft an entirely new business model that would challenge the traditional economics of the hotel business. Unlike conventional hotel chains, Airbnb does not own or manage property—it allows users to rent any livable space (from a sofa to a mansion) through an online platform that matches individuals looking for accommodations with home owners willing to share a room or a house. Airbnb manages the platform and takes a percentage of the rent.
Because its income does not depend on owning or managing physical assets, Airbnb needs no large investments to scale up and thus can charge lower prices (usually 30 per cent lower than hotels charge).
Moreover, since the home owners are responsible for managing and maintaining the property and any services they may offer, Airbnb’s risks (not to mention operational costs) are much lower than those of traditional hotels. On the customer side, Airbnb’s model redefines the value proposition by offering a more personal service—and a cheaper one.
Before platform technology existed, there was no reason to change the hotel business in any meaningful way. But after its introduction, the dominant business model became vulnerable to attack from anyone who could leverage that technology to create a more compelling value proposition for customers. The new business model serves as the interface between what technology enables and what the marketplace wants.
Let’s look now at what features make a business model transformative.
The Six Keys to Success
We selected the 40 new business models we analyzed on the basis of how many mentions they received in the high-quality, high-circulation business press. All of them seemed to have the potential to transform their industries, but only a subset had succeeded in doing so. We looked for recurring features in the models and found six. No company displayed all of them, but as we shall see, a higher number of these features usually correlated with a higher chance of success at transformation.
1. A more personalised product or service.
Many new models offer products or services that are better tailored than the dominant models to customers’ individual and immediate needs. Companies often leverage technology to achieve this at competitive prices.
2. A closed-loop process.
Many models replace a linear consumption process (in which products are made, used, and then disposed of) with a closed loop, in which used products are recycled. This shift reduces overall resource costs.
3. Asset sharing.
Some innovations succeed because they enable the sharing of costly assets—Airbnb allows home owners to share them with travelers, and Uber shares assets with car owners. Sometimes assets may be shared across a supply chain. The sharing typically happens by means of two-sided online marketplaces that unlock value for both sides: I get money from renting my spare room, and you get a cheaper and perhaps nicer place to stay. Sharing also reduces entry barriers to many industries, because an entrant need not own the assets in question; it can merely act as an intermediary.
4. Usage-based pricing.
Some models charge customers when they use the product or service, rather than requiring them to buy something outright. The