Ratings revisited

Sometimes I get a bit narcissistic, and check how my book is doing. I log on to the seller portal to see how many copies have been sold. I go to the Amazon page and see what are the other books that people who have bought my book are buying (on the US store it’s Ray Dalio’s Principles, as of now. On the UK and India stores, Sidin’s Bombay Fever is the beer to my book’s diapers).

And then I check if there are new reviews of my book. When friends write them, they notify me, so it’s easy to track. What I discover when I visit my Amazon page are the reviews written by people I don’t know. And so far, most of them have been good.

So today was one of those narcissistic days, and I was initially a bit disappointed to see a new four-star review. I started wondering what this person found wrong with my book. And then I read through the review and found it to be wholly positive.

A quick conversation with the wife followed, and she pointed out that this reviewer perhaps reserves five stars for the exceptional. And then my mind went back to this topic that I’d blogged about way back in 2015 – about rating systems.

The “4.8” score that Amazon gives as an average of all the ratings on my book so far is a rather crude measure – since one reviewer’s 4* rating might differ significantly from another reviewer’s.

For example, my “default rating” for a book might be 5/5, with 4/5 reserved for books I don’t like and 3/5 for atrocious books. On the other hand, you might use the “full scale” and use 3/5 as your average rating, giving 4 for books you really like and very rarely giving a 5.

By simply taking an arithmetic average of ratings, it is possible to overstate the quality of a product that has for whatever reason been rated mostly by people with high default ratings (such a correlation is plausible). Similarly a low average rating for a product might mask the fact that it was rated by people who inherently give low ratings.

As I argue in the penultimate chapter of my book (or maybe the chapter before that – it’s been a while since I finished it), one way that platforms foster transactions is by increasing information flow between the buyer and the seller (this is one thing I’ve gotten good at – plugging my book’s name in random sentences), and one way to do this is by sharing reviews and ratings.

From this perspective, for a platform’s judgment on a product or seller (usually it’s the seller, but for products such as AirBnb, information about buyers also matters) to be credible, it is important that they be aggregated in the right manner.

One way to do this is to use some kind of a Z-score (relative to other ratings that the rater has given) and then come up with a normalised rating. But then this needs to be readjusted for the quality of the other items that this rater has rated. So you can think of some kind of a Singular Value Decomposition you can perform on ratings to find out the “true value” of a product (ok this is an achievement – using a linear algebra reference given how badly I suck in the topic).

I mean – it need not be THAT complicated, but the basic point is that it is important that platforms aggregate ratings in the right manner in order to convey accurate information about counterparties.

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?

Market depth, pricing and subsidies

A few days back I had written about how startups should determine how much to subsidise their customers during the growth phase – subsidise to the extent of the long-term price. If you subsidise too much initially, elasticity might hit you when you eventually have to raise prices, and that can set you back.

The problem is in determining what this long-term sustainable price will be. In “one-sided markets” where the company manufactures or assembles stuff and sells it on, it is relatively easy, since the costs are well known. The problem lies in two-sided markets, where the long-term sustainable price is a function of the long-term sustainable volume.

A “bug” of any market is transaction costs, and this is especially the case in a two-sided market. If you are a taxi driver on Ola or Uber platform, the time you need to wait for the next ride or distance you travel to pick up your next customer are transaction costs. And the more “liquid” the market (more customers and more drivers), the lesser these transaction costs, and the more the money you make.

In other words, the denser a market, the lower the price required to match demand and supply, with the savings coming out of savings in transaction costs.

So if you are a two-sided market, the long-term sustainable price on your platform is a function of how big your market will be, and so in order to determine how much to subsidise (which is a function of long-term sustainable price), you need to be able to forecast how big the market will be. And subsidise accordingly.

It is well possible that overly optimistic founders might be too bullish about the eventual size of their platform, and this can lead to subsidising to an extent greater than the extent dictated by the long term market size. And some data points from the Indian “marketplace industry” show that this has possibly happened in India.

Having remained credit card only for a long time now, Uber has started accepting cash payments – in order to attract customers who are not comfortable transacting money online. This belated opening shows that Uber perhaps didn’t hit the numbers they had hoped to, using their traditional credit card / wallet model.

Uber has problems on the driver side, too, with an increasing number of its drivers turning out to be rather rude (this is anecdata from several sources, I must confess), refusing rides, fighting with passengers, etc. Competitor Ola has started buying cars and loaning them to drivers, perhaps indicating that the driver side of the market hasn’t grown to their expectations. They are all indicative of overestimation of market size, and an attempt to somehow hit that size rather than operating at the lower equilibrium.

So an additional risk in running marketplaces is that if you overestimate market size, you might end up overdoing the subsidies that you provide to build up the market. And at some point in time you have to roll back those subsidies, which might lead to shrinkage of the market and a possible death spiral.

Now apply this model to your favourite marketplace, and tell me what you think of them.

Barriers to entry in cab aggregation

The news that Reliance might be getting into the cab aggregation game got me thinking about the barriers to entry in this business. Considering that it is fundamentally an unregulated industry, or rather an industry where players actively flout regulations, the regulatory barrier is not there.

Consequently, anyone who is able and willing to make the investment and set up the infrastructure will be able to enter the industry. The more important barrier to entry, however, is scale.

Recently I was talking to an Uber driver who had recently switched from TaxiForSure. The latter, he said had lost “liquidity” over the last couple of months (after the Ola takeover), with customers and drivers deserting the service successively in a vicious cycle. Given that cab aggregation is a two-sided market, with prominent cross-sided network effects (number of customers depends on number of cabs and vice versa), it is not possible to do business if you are small, and it takes scale.

For this reason, for a new player to enter the cab aggregation business, it takes significant investments. The cost of acquisition for drivers and passengers is still quite high, and this has to be borne by the new player. Given that a significant number of drivers have to be initially attracted, it takes deep pockets to be able to come in.

Industry players were probably banking on the fact that with the industry already seeing consolidation (when Ola bought TaxiForSure), Venture Capitalists might stop funding newer businesses in this segment, and for that reason Uber and Ola might have a free rein. Ola had even stopped subsidising passengers in the meantime, reasoning (correctly for the time) that with their only competition being Uber they might charge market rates.

From this perspective it is significant that the new player who is entering is an industrial powerhouse with both deep pockets and with a reputation of getting their way around in terms of regulation. The first ensures that they can make the requisite investment (without resorting to VC money) and the second gives the hope that the industry might get around the regulatory troubles it’s been facing so far.

I once again go back to this excellent blog post by Deepak Shenoy on the cab aggregation industry. He had mentioned that what Uber and Ola are doing is to lay down the groundwork for a new sector and more efficient urban transport services. That they may not survive but the ecosystem they create will continue to thrive and add value to urban transport. Reliance’s entry into this sector is a step in making this sector more sustainable.

Will I switch once they launch? Depends upon the quality of service. Currently I’m loyal to Uber primarily because of that factor, but if their service drops and Reliance can offer better service I will have no hesitation in switching.

The ET article linked above talks about drivers cribbing about falling incentives by Uber and Ola. It will be interesting to see how the market plays out once the market stabilises and incentives hit long-run market rates (at which aggregators need to make a profit). A number of drivers have invested in cabs now looking at the short-term profits at hand, but these will surely drop with incentives as the industry stabilises.

Reliance’s entry into cab aggregation is also ominous to other “new” sectors that have shown a semblance of settling down after exuberant VC activity – in the hope that VCs will stop funding that sector and hence competition won’t grow. After the entry into cab aggregation, I won’t be surprised if Reliance Retail were to move into online retail and do a good job of it. The likes of Flipkart beware.

Pipes, Platforms, the Internet and Zero Rating

My friend Sangeet Paul Chaudary, who runs Platform Thinking Labs, likes to describe the world in terms of “pipes” and “platforms”. One of the themes of his work is that we are moving away from a situation of “dumb pipes”, which simply connect things without intelligence, to that of “smart platforms”. Read the entire Wired piece (liked above) to appreciate it fully.

So I was reading this excellent paper on Two-Sided Markets by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole (both associated with the Toulouse School of Economics) earlier today, and I found their definition of two-sided markets (the same as platform business) striking. This is something I’d struggled with in the past (I admit to saying things like “every market is two-sided. There’s a buyer and a seller”), especially given the buzzword status accorded to the phrase, but it is unlikely I’ll struggle again. The paper says:

A necessary condition for a market to be two-sided is that the Coase theorem does not apply to the relation between the two sides of the markets: The gain from trade between the two parties generated by the interaction depends only on the total charge levied by the platform, and so in a Coase (1960) world the price structure is neutral.

This is an absolutely brilliant way to define two-sided markets. The paper elaborates:

Definition 1: Consider a platform charging per-interaction charges a^B and a^S to the buyer and seller sides. The market for interactions between the two sides is one-sided if the volume V of transactions realized on the platform depends only on the aggregate price level

a=a^B +a^S

i.e., is insensitive to reallocations of this total price a between the buyer and the seller. If by contrast V varies with a^B while a is kept constant, the market is said to be two-sided.

So for a market to be two-sided, i.e. for it to be intermediated by an “intelligent platform” rather than a “dumb pipe”, the volume of transactions should depend not only on the sum of prices paid by the buyer and seller, but on each price independently.

The “traditional” neutral internet, by this definition, is a platform. The amount of content I consume on Youtube, for example, is a function of my internet plan – the agreement between my internet service provider and me on how much I get charged as a function of what I consume. It doesn’t depend on the total cost of transmitting that content from Youtube to me. In other words, I don’t care what Youtube pays its internet service provider for the content it streams. Transaction costs (large number of small transactions) also mean that it is not practically possible for Youtube to subsidise my use of their service in this model.

Note that if buyers and sellers on a platform can make deals “on the side”, it ceases to be a platform, for now only the total price charged to the two matters (side deals can take care of any “adjustments”). The reason this can’t take place for a Youtube like scenario is that you have a large number of small transactions, accounting for which imposes massive transaction costs.

The example that Rochet and Tirole take while explaining this concept in their paper is very interesting (note that the paper was written in 2004):

…As the variable charge for outgoing traffic increases, websites would like to pass this cost increase through to the users who request content downloads…

..an increase in their cost of Internet traffic could induce websites that post content for the convenience of other users or that are cash-strapped, to not produce or else reduce the amount of content posted on the web, as they are unable to pass the cost increase onto the other side.

Note how nicely this argument mirrors what Indian telecom companies are saying on the Zero Rating issue. That a general increase in cost of internet access for consumers can result in small “poor” consumers to not consume on the internet at all, as they are unable to pass on the cost to the other side!

Fascinating stuff!

On Sony Six telecasting Pacquiao-Mayweather

Summarising the blog post:

1. Having paid for the rights to the fight, the incremental cost of showing the fight to a customer is negligible, making this a great case for “revenue management”.
2. Each television market is independent, and in each the holder of the rights indulges in “monopoly pricing”. The monopoly price for the US is $~100. For India, it is close to zero. 
3. Television is a two sided market, and by offering the content at Zero rupees in India, the rights holders are maximising the sum total of what they can earn from viewers (subscription fees) and what they can earn from advertisers. 

Now for the harikathe:

So the much-awaited bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather is going to be telecast on Sony Six tomorrow, as per this tweet:

Some people are surprised that this fight is being telecast on a “normal” sports channel in India, considering that elsewhere in the world it is being mostly telecast on pay-per-view channels, with the payment for one connection running close to a hundred dollars. Yet, in India, we will get to see this without shelling out any incremental cost over what we have already shelled out to receive Sony Six (and most people who are interested in the fight are likely to have already subscribed to the channel since it telecasts the ongoing IPL. The difference between {people who want to watch Pacquiao-Mayweather} and {people who want to watch IPL} is infinitesimal and can be ignored).

So why is it that a fight that is being sold at an exorbitant premium in most places in the world, and billed as the most sought after boxing bout in over twenty years, is being shown at a throwaway price (close to zero) in India? The answer is simple – revenue management.

For the holder of the telecast rights of this fight, having paid for global telecast rights, any further costs of telecasting to an additional television set are marginal. In that sense, any marginal revenue that they make from the further sale of these rights goes directly to their bottom line. Hence, this is a classic case for “revenue management”, where they will try to maximise the revenues from the rights they hold.

Given that they hold monopoly rights over telecast of the bout, we can expect them to follow “monopoly pricing” to price their product. Monopoly pricing, as the name says, is how a monopoly would price a product, which is literally true in this case. For every price point, there is a certain demand, and monopoly pricing prices the product at a level that maximises revenue (price x quantity). And considering that television rights are usually at a national (or even sub-national) level, monopoly pricing can mean that there are different prices in different markets.

The US, for example, is a market that has an established model of pay-per-view, and the price they’ve arrived at there (of USD 90 per connection, or whatever) is a function of this history. Based on historical responses to such events, and what people have indicated as their willingness to pay, this rate has been arrived, and from what I notice on social media, it has probably been successful in terms of raising revenues.

In a market like India, however, firstly there is no established pay per view model, and no “channels” for exhibitors to show pay per view content (Tata Sky Showcase might be an exception but it’s too niche). Moreover, boxing is also not that big in India – while Indians (like me) might be interested in big fights like this one, it is not as big for us to actually pay money to watch. In that sense, even if the channels had offered this fight at a low (but non-zero) price, the uptake would have been small.

In other words, for an event like this one, the “monopoly price” that the owner of the content could charge in India would be extremely small, and even at that price, the number of people watching would have been small, leading to small revenues.

But then television is a “two-sided market”. The content is simply a platform to bring together the advertiser and the viewer, and the amount that an advertiser will be willing to pay for an advertisement can be considered to be proportional to the viewership. In India, where the volumes for a non-zero price will be low, the price that the broadcaster can command from the advertiser will also be similarly low, leading to low revenues all along.

Instead, by offering the rights to Sony Six, which will offer the content for “free” for all its currently existing viewers, the owners of the rights are ensuring that a significantly positive section of the population is going to watch the fight. Which in turn means that a significant premium can be extracted from advertisers, which will form strictly positive revenues for Sony Six, a part of which will go to the global rights holders. And these revenues are significantly greater than what the rights holders would have achieved in case the content had not been offered at all in India.

 

Why Google, Facebook, etc. are against Net Neutrality in India

I’ve been out of country for close to a month now, so haven’t really been following India news too closely (apart from via social media). But from my (biased 🙂 ) sources I understand that TRAI has put out a discussion paper in which they want to permit telecom companies to charge you based on the service that you use, thus violating Net Neutrality.

Now I’m yet to take a stand on this (this argument by Tim Harford against Net Neutrality is rather compelling, making me believe that well implemented competition regulations can mean we can make do without Net Neutrality, but I haven’t given it too much thought yet), but I have an idea as to why the likes of Google and Facebook, which in the past and in other geographies have come out strongly in favour of Net Neutrality, are okay with Net Neutrality violation in India.

The basic issue in India is with “over the top” services such as WhatsApp and Viber which the likes of Airtel and Vodafone see as a threat for it competes with their rather lucrative voice and SMS business. I’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a quality issue here which the telecom companies can differentiate on (packet switching doesn’t work that well for voice), but given costs it is hard to make a compelling case for using circuit switching for international calls.

So the likes of Airtel and Vodafone are threatened by such services and want to charge users more for using WhatsApp and Viber compared to other applications. Net Neutrality supporters, who argue that internet infrastructure should just be a set of neutral pipes (rather than a “two-sided platform”, as Harford argues), argue that this is unfair, and that Airtel and Vodafone are exploiting their positions as gatekeepers (literally) to defend their own related business.

Coming to the point of this post, entities such as Google and Facebook are coming out on the “wrong” side of the net neutrality debate here in India, arguing that internet companies should be looked at as two-sided platform markets rather than neutral pipes (resisted the urge to use the phrase “information superhighway” there!). Considering that they’re proponents of Net Neutrality elsewhere, why are they taking this stance in India?

Assuming that final regulations come out in favour of net neutrality (treating internet as infrastructure, and not a platform), how should the likes of Airtel and Vodafone react? Clearly their data business is cannibalising their voice business, so they should logically increase their prices for data plans (no brainer). Given that they will not be allowed (in this situation) to charge differential rates based on the service, they will have to uniformly jack up data rates.

This can be troublesome for Google and Facebook on two counts. Firstly, the telecom providers may not get their pricing right, and rather than having a ramp (charging heavy users heavily, since only such people will be using WhatsApp or Viber), they might increase data rates across the board. This will result in a drop in mobile internet penetration (one reason it’s so high now is that it’s cheap), and considering that Google and Facebook are services that pretty much every who uses the internet in India uses, it will result in loss of user base, traffic and revenue (possibly) for them.

The second problem is that even if telecom operators get their pricing right (maintain current pricing for basic plans, but jack up rates for high data usage) it spells trouble for Google and Facebook. One of Google’s widely used services is the video streaming application Youtube, and Youtube consumes high bandwidth. Facebook is getting into native video in a big way, and it is estimated that it might be more successful than Youtube in terms of advertising. And with correct internet pricing under net neutrality, demand for services such as Youtube and Facebook Video will go down significantly, which is not good for those services.

So the simple answer is that the reason Google and Facebook are coming out against Net Neutrality is that they are coming out on the right side of the new proposed (anti neutrality) regulations. Like WhatsApp and Viber, they too are high bandwidth applications, but unlike WhatsApp or Viber they don’t compete directly with the owners of the pipes. Thus, they want providers to have the ability to impose differential pricing, since that will mean that subscribers can access their content for cheaper, and this allows them to make more advertising revenues.

In my view (again note that I’m yet to take a stand on this net neutrality business), this move by Google and Facebook to support the anti-neutrality regulations is extremely short-sighted since it can hit them back at a later point in time. There is no guarantee that in the long term their services will not compete with that of telecom providers (Hangouts? Facebook voice calling?) and the regulations that they are currently supporting can come back to hit them at a later point in time.

It seems that Google and Facebook are working on an assumption that there will not be other high-bandwidth applications that will compete less with pipe-owners (telecom operators) than them (Google & Facebook). They are very likely to be in for a surprise, and end up as the cranes in this Panchatantra story.