Saturday, March 21, 2015

Brokerage vs Fulfillment

A few weeks ago a marketing consultant named Tom Goodwin wrote the following opening line in a post called The Battle Is For The Customer Interface:
[In 2015] Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
The thing is, this isn't quite true. What Uber, Airbnb, et al have shown is that you can separate the brokerage layer from the fulfillment layer, and that even though legacy brokerages have lower margins, if you automate 99% of the brokerage layer with software it becomes so much more capital efficient that that's where the money's going (so capital efficient btw, that for accounting purposes most people consider the money collected by companies like Uber and AirBNB to be merely passthroughs, which is why they talk about bookings instead of revenue).

Excepting customer and driver acquisition costs, which will decline dramatically once the current venture boom stops injecting capital to money-losing companies, there are virtually no marginal costs to running Uber or Airbnb. Whether you like Uber or not, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that in 10 years you will be using your phone (or wearable device) to order your rides from an Uber-like service, which will dispatch a driver who will receive your request via a phone (or wearable device). Or to paraphrase Chris Dixon, the idea that taxis once drove around aimlessly, hoping to randomly encounter people who wanted a ride, will seem quaint, like going to the payphone to make a call.

I wonder if a new technology revolution will come along that will enable the fulfillment layer to be so valuable again.


  1. ''separated the brokerage layer from the fulfillment layer'.

    But Tom Goodwin's original statement is true as well.
    At the end of the day the said ownerships don't exist, right.

  2. Shiv - you are correct. And thank you for pushing me to clarify my point. What I was trying to say - and perhaps could have been clearer about - is that Uber is not a taxi company; they are a taxi brokerage (aka a dispatcher). Airbnb is not an accommodation provider any more than Expedia or Priceline are; they are an accommodation booking site (aka a brokerage or Online Travel Agency). Etc. down the list.