Platform as a platform

This afternoon, as I was getting off the tube, I looked at the railway platform, and wondered how it compared to “platforms” as we now know in the context of “platform economics“. For those of you under a rock, platform economics talks about the economics of “platforms” that bring together two sides of a market to interact.

In that sense, Uber is a platform connecting drivers to passengers. Ebay is a platform connecting buyers and sellers of used goods. Paypal is a platform connecting people who want to pay and those who want to receive payment. And so forth (these are all textbook examples nowadays).

So is the railway platform a platform? And if not, is it correct that we refer to entities that run two-sided markets as platforms (arguably, the most intuitive meaning of the word “platform” in the last hundred or so years has been in the railway context)? These were some of the questions I grappled with as I walked along the length of the platform at Ealing Broadway.

For those of you who’re not in the know, I’ve written a book on market design. The Takshashila Institution is publishing it, and the book should be out fairly soon (manuscript is complete, but there’s still plenty to do). In that book, I have a chapter on taxi marketplaces such as Uber/Lyft/Ola, and how they’ve transformed the efficiency of the taxi market. Before I introduce these characters, though, I draw the history of the taxi market.

In that, I talk about taxi stands. Taxi stands work in the way of Thomas Schelling’s focal points. Passengers go there because they know empty taxis will go there. Taxi drivers looking for passengers go there because they know passengers looking for taxis will go there. This way, rather than waiting at a random place looking for either a passenger or a ride, going to the taxi stand is rational. And in that sense, taxi stands are a platforms.

In a way, railway platforms are platform in the same sense. Think of a train that wants to pick up passengers, and passengers who want to travel on a train. If there were no designated pick up points, trains would stop at random places, which passengers would have to guess. While engine drivers could see passengers waiting by the side, stopping at random places might have meant that the train would have had to go empty.

From this perspective, railway platforms act as platforms – they are focal points where trains and passengers come together. Passengers wait there because they know trains stop there, and vice versa. And helpfully, there is an actual physical platform that elevates passengers to the height of the train door so they can get on and off easily!

Isn’t this a wonderful way to have complicated a rather simple concept?

Upside down pricing in payment services

Some Indian banks charge for services that are cheap to execute, and offer for free expensive services 

Last week I enddd up spending some time waiting at a teller counter at a bank. This was due to some mess up with a cheque I had received. During my time at the teller counter I had the opportunity to observe other people at the same counter. 

There were a few people depositing cash into their business accounts. A few others were depositing cheques. What caught my attention, however, was this guy from a nearby business who came to deposit a large number of cheques. 

He had an entire book of challan leaves (banks regularly issue those to business customers), to each of which was stapled a cheque. As I watched, the teller would put a seal on a cheque, its corresponding challan and another seal on the counter foil. This process was repeated for each challan in the book. 

And this process was only to accept the cheques. Later on there would’ve been further effort on behalf of the bank to cash the cheque and actually execute the fund transfer. And then add in the effort of writing out all those cheques, writing out all those challans (they’re hard to print) and then take them to the bank. 

It was a rather laborious process all round, on behalf of all parties involved. Yet, banks mostly execute this function for free for most customers. 

On the other hand, they charge for account to account transfers, and the amount isn’t particularly small. Like this morning I was moving money from one account  to another, a process that took me a minute and that wouldn’t have cost the bank any human minutes. And icici bank decided to charge me for it. 

It seems like banks have their pricing and the valuation of their own effort all wrong. For electronic payments the cost is direct – what the banks have to pay the payments systems and any per use software costs. And this makes it easier to value and charge for such services. 

The effort in transacting through cheques, on the other hand, is not directly measurable (though by no means an impossible exercise). There are back offices that do the job whose cost is easy to measure, but several employees who also do other things spend time processing cheques. And this difficulty in measurement means that most banks just don’t charge for cheques. 

Around 2000 when foreign banks expanded their branch networks in india there was an attempt to charge customers for walking into the branch – customers were encouraged to do their business at ATMs or over the phone, instead. This was in recognition of the costs of customer walkins into branches.  

Banks would do well now to do something similar for cheques as well – despite the cheque truncation system (CTS), the effort involved in organising payments through cheques is massive for the bank. 

There is only one upside to cheques – and this is a downside for customers. Cheques result in money going into limbo. The payer doesn’t know when the funds will leave his account and can’t use the funds. The recipient can’t use it either until he has got it. So for the duration that the amount is “in transit” (and this duration can vary significantly) banks can happily use these funds without them being called. 

It’s possible that the benefit to the banks from this float more than compensates for the pain of processing cheques. If not, cheques have no business existing any more! 

Incredible stupidity in taxi marketplaces

So it’s nearly a week since Uber and Ola drivers in Bangalore went on strike, and there’s no sign of it (the strike) ending. The longer the strike goes on for, the more incredibly stupid all parties involve look.

The blame for the strike should first fall on Uber and Ola, who in some hare-brained madness, forgot that running a platform means that both sides of the market are customers and need to be taken care of. They took good care of passengers, providing discounts and growing their market, but rather quickly pulled the plug on drivers, and there is no surprise that drivers are a rather pissed off lot.

The root cause of driver dissatisfaction has been falling bonus payments, and consequently, incomes. This is a result of Uber and Ola providing too great a subsidy during the time they built up the market.

I don’t fault them for providing those bonuses – when you are building a two-sided market, you need to subsidise one side to solve the chicken-and-egg problem. Where I have the problem is with the extent of bonuses, which gave drivers an income far in excess of what they could make in steady state. This meant that as the market approached steady state and incentives were withdrawn, once side of the market started getting pissed off, undermining the market (Disclosure: I’d once proposed to Ola that they hire me to help them with pricing and incentive structuring. the conversation didn’t go too far).

With Uber and Ola having done their stupid things, the next round has gone to the drivers. In a misguided attempt that a long strike will help them get better deals from the platforms, they are prolonging the strike. They’ve even ransacked Uber’s offices, and gone to the government for help.

What they don’t realise is that having invested what they have in their cars to drive on these marketplaces, their success is inextricably tied to the success of the marketplaces. And the more the jeopardise the marketplaces, the less their incomes in future.

A long strike reduces market size on two counts – it gives people time to adjust to the absence of service and get adjusted to alternate arrangements, and it decreases the reliability of the marketplaces in the eyes of the passengers. Thus, the longer and more frequent the strikers by the drivers, the less that passengers will look to use these services in the future.

A strike can work when the striking employees are protected by some form of labour laws, and there is no way ahead for their employers apart from a negotiated settlement. In case of a marketplace, the platform has absolutely no obligation to the drivers, and Uber and Ola can simply do what Uber and Lyft did in Austin, TX – pack up and move on. And if they do that in Bangalore, the drivers with their shiny new cars will be significantly worse off than they were before the strike.

The other act of stupidity on the drivers’ part has been to involve the government, which, as expected, has responded in a nandelliDLi (“where do I keep mine?”) fashion. The recent ban on shared rides (UberPool/OlaShare) came after a regulator read the rulebook after the last strike by the drivers. Given the complex economics of platform markets, any further regulation can only hurt the drivers.

All in all, the drivers’ stupidity can be traced back to not understanding platform markets, and protesting the way protests used to be done in highly unionised industries. Drivers, whose main skill is in driving cars, cannot be faulted so much for not understanding platform markets. Uber and Ola, on the other hand, have no such excuse!

Who do you subsidise?

One basic rule of pricing is that it is impossible for all buyers to have the same consumer surplus (the difference between what a buyer values the item at and what he paid). This is because each buyer values the item differently, and is thus willing to pay a different price for it. People who value the item more end up having a higher consumer surplus than those who value it less (and are still able to afford it).

Dynamic pricing systems (such as what we commonly see for air travel and hotels) try to price such that such a surplus is the same for all consumers, and equal to zero, but they never reach this ideal. While the variation in consumer surplus under such systems is lower, it is impossible for it to come to zero for all, or even a reasonable share of, customers.

So what effectively happens is that customers with a lower consumer surplus end up subsidising those with a higher consumer surplus. If the former customers didn’t exist, for example, the clearing price would’ve been higher, resulting in a lower consumer surplus for those who currently have a higher consumer surplus.

Sometimes the high surplus customer and the low surplus customer need not be different people – it could be the same person at different times. When I’m pressed for time, for example, my willingness to pay for a taxi is really high, and I’m highly likely to gain a significant consumer surplus by taking a standard taxi or ride-hailing marketplace ride then. At a more leisurely time, travelling on a route with plenty of bus service, I’d be willing to pay less, resulting in a lower consumer surplus. It is important to note, however, that my low surplus journey resulted in a further subsidy to my higher surplus journey.

When it comes to markets with network effects (whether direct, such as telecommunications, or indirect, like any two-sided marketplace), this surplus transfer effect is further exacerbated – not only do low-surplus customers subsidise high-surplus customers by keeping clearing price low, but network effects mean that by becoming customers they also add direct value to the high surplus customers.

So when you are pleasantly surprised to find that Uber is priced low, the low price is partly because of other customers who are paying close to their willingness to pay for the service. When you pay an amount close to the value you place on the service, you are in turn subsidising another customer whose willingness to pay is much higher.

This transfer of consumer surplus can be seen as an instance of bundling, but from the seller’s side. Since a seller cannot discriminate effectively among customers (even with dynamic pricing algorithms such as Uber’s surge pricing), the high-surplus customers come bundled with the low-surplus customers. And from the seller’s perspective, this bundling is optimal (see this post by Chris Dixon on why bundling works, and invert it).

So the reason I thought up this post is that there has been some uncertainty about ride-hailing marketplaces in Bangalore recently. First, drivers went on strike alleging that they weren’t being paid fairly by the marketplaces. Then, a regulator decided to take the rulebook too literally and banned pooled rides. As i write this, a bunch of young women I know are having a party, and it’s likely that they’ll need these ride-hailing services for getting home.

Given late night transport options in Bangalore, and the fact that the city sleeps early, their willingness to pay for a safe ride home will be high. If markets work normally, they’re guaranteed a high consumer surplus. And this will be made possible by someone, somewhere else, who stretched their budget to be able to afford an Uber ride.

Think about it!

Cross-posted at RQ

Truly Madly: Review

So the wife and I both decided to sign up on the dating app TrulyMadly, she to conduct research for her matchmaking service, and me as part of my research for the book that I’m currently revising. Based on our collective usage of our respective apps for about an hour, here are some pertinent observations.

  • Sexism: The wife can see salaries of men she is getting matched with, while I don’t get to see salaries of women being recommended to me. Moreover, women are allowed to “lurk” (and not have a public profile) on the platform, but no such thing for men. I’m surprised no one has called out TrulyMadly on their sexism
  • Job board: To list on the app you need to indicate your profession and job, and how much you are making. So if you are a woman on this site, apart from getting to check out men, you get to check out what jobs pay how much, and it’s not inconceivable that you use the app to find yourself a job.
  • Judgments: This should possibly go down under sexism again. Anyway, the wife has mentioned her qualifications as “MBA”, and she is only being shown men who are graduates of top B-schools in India. No such thing for me – women shown to me had all kinds of qualifications. It’s like TrulyMadly has decided that women should only date men who are at least as well qualified as them. Moreover, the app also decides that men can only date women who are shorter than them, though there’s a setting somewhere to change this.
  • Age bar: Based on my age (which I entered as 34), the app decided that I should only be allowed to check out women between the ages of 26 and 34. These can be moved around, in case I have fetishes outside this age range, but I’m shocked that they are not aware of the N/2+7 rule – based on which the lower limit should’ve been set at 24 (34/2+7) and not 26.
  • Gender imbalance: The app gave up on me after I rejected some half a dozen women, after which I deactivated my account and deleted the app. The wife’s app, however, continues to go strong, as she might have rejected some two or three dozen men by now (apart from having done research on what jobs pay how much). Just goes to show the gender imbalance on the app. I can imagine this leading to a lot of frustrated people, of both genders.

Ok that’s it for now. Any more insights you can read in my book (I hope to get it out in the next month or two)!

Moral of the story: Product management pays better than category leader.

Why PayTM is winning the payments “battle” in India

For the last one year or so, ever since I started using IMPS at scale, and read up the UPI protocol, I’ve been bullish about Indian banks winning the so-called “payments battle”. If and when the adoption of electronic payments in India takes off, I’ve been expecting banks to cash in ahead of the “prepaid payments instruments” operators.

The events of the last one week, however, have made me revise this prediction. While the disruption of the cash economy by withdrawal of 85% of all notes in circulation has no doubt given a major boost to the electronic payments industry, only some are in a position to do anything about this.

The major problem for banks in the last one week has been that they’ve been tasked with the unenviable task of exchanging the now invalid currency, taking deposits and issuing new currency. With stringent know-your-customer (KYC) norms, the process hasn’t been an easy one, and banks have been working overtime (along with customers working overtime standing in line) to make sure hard currency is in the market again.

While by all accounts banks have been undertaking this task rather well, the problem has been that they’ve had little bandwidth to do anything else. This was a wonderful opportunity for banks, for example, to acquire small merchants to accept payments using UPI. It was an opportune time to push the adoption of credit card payment terminals to merchants who so far didn’t possess them. Banks could’ve also used the opportunity to open savings accounts for the hitherto unbanked, so they had a place to park their cash.

As it stands, the demands of cash management have been so overwhelming that the above are literally last priorities for the bank. Leave alone expand their networks, banks are even unable to service the existing point of sale machines on their network, as one distraught shopkeeper mentioned to me on Saturday.

This is where the opportunity for the likes of PayTM lies. Freed of the responsibilities of branch banking and currency exchange, they’ve been far better placed to acquire customers and merchants and improve their volume of sales. Of course, their big problem is that they’re not interoperable – I can’t pay using Mobikwik wallet to a merchant who can accept using PayTM. Nevertheless, they’ve had the sales and operational bandwidth to press on with their network expansion, and by the time the banks can get back to focussing on this, it might be too late.

And among the Prepaid Payment Instrument (PPI) operators again, PayTM is better poised to exploit the opportunity than its peers, mainly thanks to recall. Thanks to the Uber deal, they have a foothold in the premium market unlike the likes of Freecharge which are only in the low-end mobile recharge market. And PayTM has also had cash to burn to create recall – with deals such as sponsorship of Indian cricket matches.

It’s no surprise that soon after the announcement of withdrawal of large currency was made, PayTM took out full page ads in all major newspapers. They correctly guessed that this was an opportunity they could not afford to miss.

PS: PayTM has a payments bank license, so once they start those operations, they’ll become interoperable with the banking system, with IMPS and UPI and all that.

Moving towards a cashless economy

In any transaction, the process of payment is a pain. It is a necessary step, of course, in that payment is what completes the transaction, but the process of payment is not something that adds any value to the transaction. If money could be magically be transferred from buyer to seller at the end of a transaction, both transacting parties would be happy.

In this context, any chosen method of payment, be it cash or credit card or cheque or bank transfer, involves some degree of pain for the transacting parties.

In case of cash, there’s the problem of counting out the money, cross checking it, finding exact change, being able to handle currency without the fear of being robbed, and making sure the currency is not counterfeit. Cheques have a credit risk, since they can bounce, not to speak of the time it takes to write one, and the time it takes for the money to get transferred.

Bank transfer requires parties to have bank accounts, and the ability of transacting parties to tell each other their account details. Credit cards have the most explicit pain of transaction – the transaction fees the merchants need to pay the acquiring bank – apart from the time and pain of swiping, entering the PIN, etc.

The reason India has so far been a primarily cash economy is that the pain of transacting through cash has been far lower than the pain through other means. Apart from the pains mentioned above, cash also has the advantage of anonymity, speed of transaction and ability to hide from the tax authorities.

So if we have to turn India closer to a cashless economy, as the current union government plans to do, we need to either increase the pain of transacting in cash, or reduce the pain of transacting through another means. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which was launched with much fanfare earlier this year but has spectacularly failed to take off, seeks to reduce pain of cashless transactions. The government’s efforts to get people open bank accounts through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) also seeks to reduce pain in non-cash transactions.

The government’s recent effort to withdraw legal tender of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes, on the other hand, seeks to increase the cost of transacting in cash – 85% of the current stock of cash in India needs to get banked in the next 50 days. This, however, is not a repeatable exercise – it can simply remove confidence in the rupee and drive people to alternate (formal or informal) currencies.

So what can be done to move India to a more cashless economy? The problem with small change has already played its part, with most auto rickshaw and taxi drivers in Mumbai supposedly willing to accept payment in digital wallets such as PayTM. If the stock for the new Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 notes released is low, and most people have to transact using Rs. 100 notes, that will again increase the pain of transacting in cash, since the cost of handling cash might go up.

Perversely, if crime and robberies increase, that will again make people wary of handling cash. In fact, as this excellent piece in the New Yorker claims, the reason Sweden has moved largely cashless is that people got scared of handling cash after a series of cash robberies a few years ago. The cost of higher crime, however, means this is not a desirable way to go cashless.

It’s been barely three days since the new Rs. 500 and Rs. 2000 notes have been released, and there are already reports of counterfeiting in these notes. Given the framework I’ve proposed in this blogpost, it is not inconceivable that these rumours have been planted – when people become more wary of receiving large currency (thanks to the fear of counterfeiting), they want to reduce the use of such physical currency.

It’s perverse, I know, but nothing can be ruled out! As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, increased use of cash has a fiscal cost (in terms of printing and maintaining currency, apart from people not paying taxes), so the government has an incentive to stamp it out.