Making uncommon knowledge common
Part of the reason was that companies benefited from this credibility through obscurity. Real estate brokers have access to significantly more data about the specific houses and the general market via a set of data sources called the MLS. Historically, only brokers had access to MLS data, which gave them leverage over their customers and entrenched their importance as market makers. Similarly, lack of visibility into companies allowed bad ones to put on a good face until prospective employees had already joined. And only large companies could pay for data from compensation research providers, giving them advantage over the potential hires they negotiated with. Many incumbents are able to intermediate their markets and unfairly gain an edge from people’s lack of knowledge. And it’s scary to be the first to buck this trend on your own.
Before Zillow and Glassdoor, if you wanted to look up information about a specific home or company, there wasn’t a webpage for it. Barton’s companies created the definitive page for each house and company. Using a combination of data from authoritative sources (like all the various MLS systems) and user-generated data, they created high quality content unique to each company or listing. Being among the first to do this let them do a huge SEO land grab, which has been hard to displace since.
Barton’s companies take industries that are low frequency and use their Data Content Loops and SEO to acquire users for free and engage them more frequently. While most companies in real estate have super high customer acquisition costs, Zillow is able to get potential sellers even before they are ready to sell, so Zillow is already there when the sellers are ready.
Owning demand ultimately becomes its own compounding loop since becoming a trusted brand builds its own network effects. Consistently building this reputation increases people’s trust in them and makes them a go to destination.
Nobody had yet indexed all the homes in the US and brought them online. While sites like Apartments.com had started to do so for rentals, it wasn’t until Zillow (and Trulia) that this was done for homes. There was fertile search real estate to grab and Zillow rushed out to claim it all using the Zestimate as its spearhead.
Zooplus vs Amazon in battle for the European pet supply market
Many e-commerce companies go through this cycle where their customer acquisition costs look fantastic because early adopters are cheaper to acquire, but then marketing expenses later go through the roof. Ironically, many direct-to-consumer companies in the US have started opening physical stores because that is cheaper marketing than online ads.
Zooplus discussed this on their Q3 2018 call. They said online ad pricing has increased because their competitors are shifting more ad budget to online. Facebook and Google ads are auctions, so more competition means more demand and thus higher prices. Today, 80% of Zooplus’s marketing spend is online ads and Google Shopping. That makes them very susceptible to competitor pressure.
My concern isn’t so much that Zooplus loses share to Amazon, but that Amazon has the scale to price pet food at a lower margin (or loss) if they want to. This could cap Zooplus’s ability to ever earn a profit. Amazon doesn’t need to overtake Zooplus in market share to negatively affect them because Amazon already has enough market share that lowering prices would harm Zooplus. In this scenario, it’s possible that Zooplus keeps their market share, continues to grow along with the online pet supply market, and still never reaches their profitability goal.
Why I don’t think Amazon needs more market share to harm Zooplus is because of the lack of switching costs in Zooplus’s business. Even though Zooplus has a 95% retention rate with its customers, if Amazon lowered their prices 10%, there’s not much that keeps most of Zooplus’s customers using their website. Zooplus seems well aware of this issue and it has tied their hands when it comes to price increases. On the Q2 2018 call, management said they “don’t want to be the first [pet retailer] sticking their head out passing on manufacturer prices increases.”
Amazon 2018 letter to shareholders
As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.