Importance of owning a market segment – Monopoly, market leader, and innovator’s dilemma

I am having a great time listening to lectures for Stanford CS183B – How to start a startup online. All lectures have been extremely good, and it allowed me to get a sense of how Y Combinator accepted companies into its batches and what made them successful. I am learning so many things, and I see some common underlying themes I want to write about, but two lectures really struck a chord with me.

Before the Startup by Paul Graham and Business Strategy and Monopoly Theory by Peter Thiel, in my opinion, were dead on. Many startups were able to thrive on because many of their ideas seemed bad at the time. If you have an obviously good idea, then many people will go for the same idea. That leads to competitions. For consumers, competition is good, but for business not so. And in a sense, overarching goal of a business is to become a monopoly in its market.

I find Peter and Paul’s main points similar to those of Crossing the Chasm and Innovator’s Dilemma.

In Crossing the Chasm, the author, Geoffrey Moore, argues that in order for disruptive technology company to survive, it needs to reach beyond technology pioneers and early adapters and move to early majority market. The gap between them is so great that many technology companies fail, and he named it “chasm”. What’s the strategy for crossing the chasm successfully? He coined the first market segment in early majority “beach-head market”. This is where company has to put all its resources and try to conquer. Company can get it wrong, of course, and it’s imperative that company finds this sooner than later so that it can correct its course, and hopefully new one is the right one.

One thing he emphasizes in conquering the beach-head market is to be the market leader. Who is market leader? I believe it’s synonymous to monopoly. You need to have at least 60% of the market share in the segment. Market leader has several advantages over #2 and #3 in the market. Because of its reach in the market, there will be auxiliary companies supporting the market leader, thus creating the whole eco-system. Often times, cost of changing product from leader to another is so great that it gives the leader leeway with its customers. After taking the leadership, it can expand to adjacent markets with money and time it earned being the market leader of beach-head market (he compared to going to adjacent markets as using the top pin in bowling to knock down other pins). If I remember correctly, Geoffrey Moore suggested the beach-head market be adequate enough for a startup to tackle.

Similarly, in Innovator’s Dilemma, the author, Clayton Christensen provides examples after examples, time and time again, a startup seems to come out of nowhere and take over the 900-lbs. gorilla of the market. What’s interesting is that companies in Clayton’s examples represent diverse markets – consumer, enterprise, and even to steel mills. They all had a few things in common.

They all started by attacking the market segment with much lower margin so market leader is happy to let them take it. Market leader is usually larger in size, and thus require much higher margin to operate and make profits. While market leader grows nominally by producing products for handful of larger customers, startup becomes leader in its segment and advances its products at faster rate. When the market leader notices startups’ progress, it’s often too late and even its larger customers are ready to become startup’s customers.

Those two books definitely shaped my views of startups, and Paul and Peter’s lectures seem to validate the books’ main points. There are, of course, many other things that contribute to a startup’s success or failure – co-founder dynamics, team, culture, executions, and any external events. However, I believe, one thing is sure to attribute to startup’s success.

It could be that it’s a market segment on one cares or that the idea you are working on seems to be bad to everyone else. Whatever it is, startup needs to become a leader in market segment to survive and succeed.

Become a leader or monopoly in a market segment

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