Pertinent observations on liquidity in startup markets

“Liquidity” was one of those words Wall Street people threw around when they wanted the conversation to end, and for brains to go dead, and for all questioning to cease

– Michael Lewis in Flash Boys

The quote that begins this blog post is also the quote that begins my book, which was released exactly a year ago. Despite its utility in everyday markets and economics, the concept of liquidity has not been explored too much outside of financial markets. In fact, one reason I wrote my book was that it appeared as if there was a gap in the market for material using the concept of liquidity to analyse everyday markets.

From this perspective, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a bunch of blog posts written by investors and tech analysts and startup fellows about the concept of “liquidity”. Most of these posts I came across by way of this excellent blog post by Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz. It is always good to see others analysing topics in the same way as you are, so I thought I’ll share some insights from these posts here – some quotes, some pertinent observations. This is best done in bullet points. If you want to know more, I urge you to click through and read the blog posts in full. They’re all excellent.

  • You wonder why some startups make a big deal of how many cities they are in. This is because they usually function as within-city marketplaces, and so they need to be launched one city at a time. Uber famously started operations in San Francisco and remained there for a while.
  • “The best way to measure liquidity in the marketplace is to track the % of items or services that get sold/booked, and within what period of time. The higher the % and shorter period of time, the more sellers are making money and buyers are becoming loyal customers” – from here
  • “Where absolute pricing management makes most sense (i.e., where the marketplace operator sets prices) is where there isn’t a proper barometer for what the supply side should be charging and when the software can leverage systems should to optimize for liquidity” – from this excellent post
  • “In a zero sum game there, it’s most likely the marketplace with the most demand wins”. This was in the context of delivery marketplaces, and why Uber was likely to win that game (though it’s not clear if they’ve “won” it yet)
  • Trust is critical in building marketplaces. Both sides of the market need to trust the intermediary, and this can make marketplaces fragile. I had a recent incident where I appreciated the value of AirBnB landlord insurance (a lamp at a property I stayed at broke just after my stay, and the landlord wanted compensation). This post talks about how this insurance was critical to AirBnB’s growth
  • The same post talks about why even early stage businesses often make acquisitions – usually earlier stage businesses. “Marketplaces are normally winner-take-all markets. If we had lost ground to European competitors in 2012, we may have never gotten it back”
  • Ratings are a critical measure to build trust in a marketplace. And two-way ratings can help establish trust on both sides of the market
  • During the book launch function last year, there was a question on how marketplaces should build liquidity. I had given an example of the Practo/OpenTable model where you first sell a standalone service to one side of the market and then develop a marketplace. Another method (something I helped put in place for one of my current clients) is for the marketplace itself to become a “proprietary supplier”. The third, as this blog post describes, is about building markets where buyers are also sellers and the other way round (classic financial markets, for example).

For more on liquidity, and how it affects just about every market that you participate in on a daily basis, read my book!

We’ll miss sushi

One food item that my daughter and I will really miss when we move back to India is sushi. It is not that it is not available in Bangalore – restaurants such as Matsuri and Harima make excellent quality sushi, just that the transaction cost of procuring it will be far higher.

I grew up vegetarian, and didn’t eat meat until I was twenty eight. The decision to try meat was ad hoc – at a restaurant in Monastiraki square in Athens, the meat looked fantastic and the vegetables looked sad. And I decided that if I were losing my religion, I would lose it all the way and started my meat-eating career by eating beef souvlaki.

It wasn’t until a year later that I tasted fish, though – from childhood the smell of fish had put me off. As it happened, I first ate fish at a restaurant in Karwar, en route to Goa. Then, a consulting project in Mumbai happened, with a fish-loving client who took me to the best fish restaurants in that city (sometime during this time, I discovered I’m allergic to prawns).

It would take another year or two before I would have raw fish, though, in the form of sushi and sashimi. The first time was a trip to Matsuri, where my wife was treating me. I quickly grew fond of it, and would have a Japanese meal (at either Harima or Matsuri) at least once in six months (these are easily the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants in Bangalore. Edo is good but overpriced).

My love for sushi really took off during the three months I spent in Barcelona in 2016. That city has loads of sushi shops (it helped we were living in a dense district), mostly run by Korean immigrants. it is not too expensive either, which meant I would have it once a week at least (I might have eaten more often, but the wife was pregnant then, and hence off raw fish).

London doesn’t have the same density of sushi shops as Barcelona, but there are some chains that make pretty good sushi (Wasabi and Itsu, though I prefer the latter). Like other things London, it is not cheap, but we end up eating it reasonably often (it helps that the daughter loves sushi as well, though she only eats salmon nigiri – which also happens to be my favourite kind of sushi).

While craving sushi and planning a sushi run for dinner earlier this evening (finally we ended up eating at a Korean restaurant), it hit me that I won’t be able to have sushi so regularly in Bangalore. I started wondering what it would take for the likes of Freshmenu to be offering sushi on their menu. And I remembered a chapter in my book on specialty food.

The problem with low demand products is that the volatility of demand is high relative to the average demand. This means that for a retailer to stock items with low demand, either the margin needs to be high, or the inventory levels will be so low that customers might be disappointed rather often – neither of which is sustainable.

Making matters worse is the fact that fresh fish is an integral part of sushi, and it has an incredibly short shelf life. So unless demand can be aggregated to a high level (which Harima and Matsuri do, by being located in the middle of town and especially catering to the Japanese population in the city. In fact, I’m told the Chancery (where Matsuri is located) is the hotel of choice for Japanese visitors to Bangalore), it is not feasible to run a sushi restaurant in Bangalore.

Oh, and in the same chapter in the book, I discuss why people like to live with other people like themselves – others demanding the same thing you demand is the only way you can ensure that there is supply to meet your demand.

Information Technology and Large Cities

In my book Between the buyer and the seller, officially released exactly a year ago, I have a chapter on cities. In that I explain why industry clusters form, and certain cities or regions become hubs for certain types of industries.

In that, I spoke about the software industry in California’s Silicon Valley, and in Bangalore. I also mentioned how the Industrial Revolution wasn’t evenly distributed around England, and how it was clustered around textile hubs such as Birmingham and Manchester. I also used that chapter to talk about the problem with government-mandated special economic zones (this podcast with Amit Varma can help you understand the last point).

Back when Silicon Valley was still silicon valley (basically a semiconductor and hardware hub), it wasn’t as concentrated a hub as it is today. It was still fairly common for semiconductor companies to base themselves away from the valley. With the “new silicon valley” and the tech startup scene, though, there is no escaping the valley. It is almost an unwritten rule in US Tech startup circles that if you want to be successful with a tech startup, you better be in the valley.

And this is for good reason, as I explain in the book – Silicon Valley is where the ecosystem for successfully running a tech startup already exists, including access to skilled employees, subcontractors and investors, not to speak of a captive market. This, however, has meant that Silicon Valley is now overcrowded in many respects, with rents being sky high (reflected in high salaries), freeways jammed and other infrastructure under stress.

In fact, it is not just the silicon valley that has got crushed under the weight of being a tech hub – other “secondary hubs” such as Seattle (which also have a few tech majors, and where startups put off by the cost of the valley set up) are seeing their quality of life go down. The traffic and infrastructure woes in Bangalore are also rather similar.

So why is it that information technology has led to hubs that are much larger than historical hubs (based on other industries)? The simple answer lies in investment, or the lack of it.

Setting up an information technology company is “cheap” in terms of the investment in capital expenditure. No land needs to be bought, no plants need to be constructed and no machinery needs to be bought. All one needs is an office space (for which rent is paid monthly), and a set of employees (who again get paid a monthly salary). Even IT infrastructure (such as computing power and storage and communication) can be leased, and paid for periodically.

This implies that there is nothing that stops a startup company from locating itself in one of the existing hubs. This way, the company can avail all the benefits of being in the hub (supplier and customer infrastructure, employee pool, quality of life for employees and investors) without a high upfront cost.

Contrast this to “hard” industries that require manufacturing, where the benefits of being located in hubs is similar but the costs are far higher. As a hub develops, land gets expensive, which puts off further investors from locating themselves in the hub. This puts a natural limit on the size of the hubs, and if you think about it, large cities from earlier era were all “multi-purpose cities”, serving as hubs for several unrelated industries.

With information technology, though, the only impediment to the growth of a hub is the decreasing quality of life, information regarding which gets transmitted in indirect means such as higher rentals and commute times, and poor health. This indirect transmission of costs to investors results in friction, which means information technology hubs will grow larger before they stop growing. And as they go through this process, the quality of life of the hub’s residents suffers!

Revenue management and transaction costs

So I just sent off a letter to India. To be precise, it is a document I had to sign and send to my accountant there – who sends regular “letters” any more?

The process at the post office (which, in my suburb, is located inside a large bookstore) was simple. In the first screen of the touch screen kiosk, there was an option for “worldwide < 20 grams”. A conveniently placed scale told me my letter weighed 18 grams, and one touch and one touch of my debit card later, I had my stamp. Within a minute, my letter was in the letterbox.

The story of how we pay the same amount for sending mail over large areas (“worldwide” in my case today) is interesting. Earlier, mail rates were based on distance, but as new roads kept being built in the 19th century America, and distances kept changing, figuring out how much to charge for a letter became “expensive”. A bright fellow figured out that the cost (in terms of time) of figuring out how much to charge for mail was of the same order of magnitude as the cost of the mail itself. And so the flat rate scheme for mail, that is prevalent worldwide today, was born.

Putting it in technical terms, transaction costs trumped price discrimination in this case. Price discrimination is the art (yes, it’s an art) of charging different amounts to different people based on their differential willingness to pay. Uber surge pricing is one example (I have a chapter in my book on this). Airline fares are another common example.

Until the late 18th century (well after mail prices had gone “flat”), price discrimination was rather common everywhere, a concept I have devoted a chapter to in the book. In fact, the initial motivation for fixed price retail was religious – Quakers, who owned many departmental stores in the US North-East, thought “all men are created equal before God” and so it was incorrect to charge different amounts to different people.

Soon other benefits of fixed prices became apparent (faster billing; less training for staff; in fact it was fixed prices that permitted the now prevalent supermarket format), and it took off. The concept is the same as stamps – the transaction cost of figuring out how much to charge whom is higher than the additional revenue you can make with such price differentiation (not counting possible loss of reputation, and fairness issues). Price discrimination at the shop is now confined to high value high margin businesses such as cars.

And it works in other high gross margin businesses such as airlines, hotels and telecom. These are all businesses with high fixed costs and low marginal costs for the suppliers. Low marginal costs has meant that price discrimination ha been termed as “revenue management” in the airline industry.

During the launch function of my book last year, I got asked if Uber’s practice of personalising fares for passengers is fair (I had given a long lecture on how Uber’s surge pricing is a necessary component of keeping average prices low and boosting liquidity in the taxi market). I had answered that a marketplace needs to ensure that its pricing is perceived as being “fair”, else they might lose customers to competitors. But what if all players in a market practice extreme price discrimination?

Thinking about it, transaction costs will take care of price discrimination before businesses and marketplaces start thinking of fairness. Beyond a point (the point varies by industry), the marginal revenues from price discrimination will fall below the transaction cost of executing this discrimination. And that poses a natural limit to how much price discrimination a business can practice.