The common trend among startups nowadays is to give away their product for a low price (or no price), and often below what it costs them to make it. The reasoning is that this helps them build traction, and marketshare, quickly. And that once the market has taken to the product, and the product has become a significant part of the customer’s life, prices can be raised and money can be made.
The problem with this approach is the beast known as elasticity. Elasticity means that when you increase your price, quantity demanded falls. Some products are highly elastic – a small increase in price can result in a large drop in quantity. Others are less so. Yet, it is extremely rare to find a product whose elasticity is zero, that is, whose quantity demanded does not vary with price. And even if such products exist, it is extremely unlikely that a product produced by a startup will fall in that category.
A good example of elasticity hitting is the shutting down of this American company called HomeJoy. As this piece in Forbes explains, the chief reason for HomeJoy shutting down is that it couldn’t hold on to its customers when it started charging market rates:
Not only did that kind of discounting make Homejoy lose significant money, it also brought in the wrong kind of customer. Many never booked again because they weren’t willing or able to pay the full price, which ranged from $25 to $35 an hour. Homejoy changed its pricing last year to make recurring cleanings cheaper and encourage repeat business. In response, some customers simply booked at the cheaper price and cancelled future appointments.
Based on the above explanation, it seems like subsidising customers to gain traction is a bad idea, and that a business should not be willing to make losses in the initial days in order to gain market. Yet, that would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, for subsidising at the “right level” can help ramp up significantly without elasticity hitting later. The question is what the right level is.
A feature of many businesses, and especially marketplace kind of businesses that startups nowadays are getting into, is economies of scale. This means that as the number of units “sold” increases, the cost per unit falls drastically. In other words, such businesses work well when they have built up sufficient scale, but collapse at lower levels. For such businesses, the thinking goes, it is impossible to bootstrap, and the solution is to subsidise customers until the requisite scale can be built up, at which point in time you can start making money.
The question is regarding the “sweet spot” of subsidy that should be given to the customer in order to build up the business. If you subsidise the customer too much in the initial days, there is the risk of elasticity hitting you at steady state, and things rapidly unravelling. If you subsidise too little, you may never build the scale.
The answer is rather straightforward, and possibly intuitive – start out by charging the price to the customer at which the business will be profitable and sustainable in the steady state. This will imply losses in the initial days, since your unit costs will be significantly higher (due to lack of scale). Yet, as you ramp up and hit steady state, you don’t have the problem of raising the price which might result in elasticity hitting your business.
What if, on the other hand, the subsidy you are giving out is not enough, and you are not willing to build traction? That is answered with the “Queen of Hearts” paradigm. The paradigm says that if the only way you can make your contract is if West holds the Queen of Hearts (talking about contract bridge here), you simply assume that West holds the card and play on. If he held the card, you would win. If not, you would have never won anyway!
Similarly, the only way your business might be long-run-sustainable is if you can generate sufficient traction at your long-run-sustainable price. If you need to drop the price below this in order to gain initial traction, it means that you will have the risk of losing customers when you eventually raise the price to the long-run-sustainable-price, which means that your business is perhaps not long-run-sustainable, and it is best for you to cut your losses and move on.
Now think of all the heavily-discounted startups out there and tabulate who are the ones who are charging what you think is a long-run-sustainable price, and who runs the risk of getting hit by elasticity.