The Lepore-Christensen Debate: A repeatable pattern for Platforms and Disruptive Innovation

| July 27, 2014 | 8 Comments

Airbnb was recently valued at an eleven figure sum, which overshadows all, except the largest hotel chains. The usual criticisms to tech valuations aside, the impact of Airbnb on the traditional hotel industry is definitely being felt. But why did the industry fail to spot this threat for so long? How does something like Airbnb come out of the ordinary and change the rules of an entire industry? And how could something like this be repeated in another industry?

Getting Blindsided By Platform Thinking

Airbnb is the latest in a series of disruptions brought about by internet businesses over the last 10 years. The likes of YouTube, Wikipedia, the iPhone App Store, Amazon, Uber, oDesk, and even Twitter, restructure the value chain of traditional industries and threaten to put their traditional counterparts out of business.

The recent Jill Lepore – Clay Christensen debate notwithstanding, one has to admit that disruption is a reality, and Christensen’s theory serves well to explain why incumbents, in general, get blindsided.

Long one of the most bastardized words in startup circles, disruption ironically has very little to do with the adoption of a radically new technology. Instead, a disruptive offering gives up some attributes that appeal to a core market, in order to gain advantages in a low-end market. The offering takes hold in this low-end market, continuously moves up-market through improving quality, and eventually disrupts established competitors.

AirBnB serves as an example of how today’s networked platforms compete with traditional industry behemothswithout appearing to do so, at all. Platforms connect producers and consumers – hosts and travelers in the case of Airbnb – and facilitate their interactions and exchange. Platforms often solve a problem that would traditionally have been solved by a manufacturer or a service provider, e.g. a hotel or a staffing agency, with one key difference: These platforms do not “own” inventory, and are, hence, seemingly incapable of controlling quality.

When a new platform comes up, it rethinks the four fundamental assumptions that govern business:

  1. How is value created?
  2. How is value consumed?
  3. How is quality controlled for the value creation?
  4. How does value creation scale?

Any business must answer these four fundamental questions. Most sustaining innovation, in fact, is an improvement along one or more of these parameters.

Platforms like Airbnb rethink these assumptions and restructure the traditional value chain and operating model for the industry.

  1. Rethinking value creation: Airbnb allows anyone with a spare mattress or room to run their own BnB, by giving them access and tools to market themselves to a potentially global market.
  2. Rethinking value consumption: It wasn’t common for travelers to stay at strangers‘ apartments in a new city. AirBnB created a new behavior and changed the very design of the traditional trip.
  3. Rethinking quality control: Hotels are known for their service quality and the reliability of the customer experience. AirBnB, on the other hand relies on a peer curation mechanism to ensure quality and reliability.
  4. Rethinking scale: Traditional hotels would scale by adding more rooms through new properties. Airbnb doesn’t own inventory. Instead, it scales by improving its ability to match users, leveraging better data.

At launch, platforms like Airbnb are dismissed as error-ridden experiments at best. They offer a new alternative by rethinking value creation and often create new behavior by rethinking value consumption. However, they fail to offer the quality and reliability that is offered by their traditional competitors. Apartments on Airbnb get raided, self-published books lead to a dip in quality and Wikipedia pages are vandalized. Eventually, platforms succeed when they create a strong curation system to separate the best from the rest. Over time, the platform scales by improving on its ability to match the right goods or services created on the platform with the right consumers. With strong curation and scalable matchmaking in place, the platform rapidly gains traction and develops the reliability needed to spill over to a mainstream market, blindsiding its traditional competitors in this process.

This pattern in platform-enabled disruption isn’t specific to AirBnB. Platforms like YouTube, Wikipedia, KickStarter, oDesk and the Android app store, all exhibit these characteristics to varying extent. We discuss this in further detail below.

Rethinking Value Creation

Amazon allows anyone who has a story to tell to publish much like Airbnb allows anyone with a spare mattress to run a B&B. Wikipedia built a massive repository of knowledge without relying on experts. Kickstarter re-imagines an alternate model of venture funding, especially for creative projects.

By democratizing the tools of production and delivering access to a global market of consumers, these platforms unlock sources of supply that would otherwise not have existed.

Such supply explosion is usually accompanied by two key shifts:

  1. Reduction of friction in tools of production: Every time friction is removed in the production process by making it easier or cheaper, it affords the possibility of an explosion in supply. Twitter’s 140-character limit brought down the effort in creating content and opened up the market of content creators as compared to traditional blogging. Platforms like Behance, Dribbble, Threadless and 99Designs enable independent designers to serve a global market, benefiting from the fact that the tools of design and printing have been democratized over time. One expects a similar shift in industrial design as 3D printers become more popular.
  2. Access to a global market for the first time: Word processing software had always been around but only a small minority was self-publishing books. Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform offered not just the tools but also access to a global market for the first time.

However, easier production and global access alone aren’t sufficient to enable creation of these new markets. Craigslist allowed anyone to run a B&B before Airbnb came along but it never quite powered the revolution in travel that Airbnb did. This brings us to our second point.


Rethinking Value Consumption

The second step in disruption involves creation of new consumption behavior.

Staying at a stranger’s apartment in a new city would have been considered crazy a few years back. AirBnB didn’t just reimagine the supply side of the market, it also created an entirely new user behavior by providing newer and cheaper alternatives. It isn’t mere coincidence that much of Airbnb’s initial traction was driven by conferences and events which forced users to look for cheaper accommodation alternatives. Over time, this usage spilled over form conferences and backpacking to leisure and family travel, and eventually even to business travel.

Creation of new user behavior is often seen with new platforms. made car pooling with strangers acceptable. Zaarly is trying to make domestic help from strangers acceptable, while Kickstarter encourages people to look for funding among their Twitter followers.

Having unlocked new supply and created new user behaviors, the platform now needs to get its third and most important element right.

Rethinking Quality Control

As anyone who’s ever organized a party knows, more isn’t always merrier. Platforms reconfigure supply and demand but they end up with a problem of quality control. As the case study of AirBnB suggests, the average listing, initially, doesn’t compare with established hotels in service quality. If the barriers to participation drop, the quality of participation suffers as well. Unchecked, poor supply leads to a poor consumption experience setting a cycle of abandonment in motion, as in the case of MySpace and ChatRoulette. To avoid this fate, platforms need to get the third part right: Curation.

Curation separates the best from the rest by relying on social signals of quality. The Android app store, Reddit and Quora have a community voting or rating system that bubbles up the best content. Wikipedia’s collaboration tools allow moderators to correct entries and resolve disputes on an article. SitterCity combines expert screening with social curation to differentiate the best babysitters from the rest.

AirBnB has invested heavily in its curation mechanism because of the high risks involved, one of the factors that enabled it to disrupt Craigslist and build a highly liquid, global travel market. In some cases, photographers certify listings. Travelers rate hosts and hosts rate travelers. Additionally, a central insurance encourages both sides to participate further.

Curation keeps the cycle of growth in supply and demand going. As the platform gets better at curation, it finds greater adoption among consumers andconsequently attracts mainstream producers as well, setting a virtuous self-reinforcing cycle in motion.

The single most important reason platforms fail after getting traction is through an inability to effectively curate the production and consumption on the platform. But for platforms to truly disrupt traditional competitors, they need a final key element to operate at scale.

Rethinking Scale

Platforms like Airbnb and Uber threaten their traditional competitors only at scale. To operate at scale, a platform needs to ensure that its ability to match suppliers and services with consumers keeps improving over time. It achieves this by gathering better data on its users and improving the algorithms that match the two sides. Often, on platforms like Airbnb and YouTube, users start off as pure consumers and start producing as well at some point. This further improves the platform’s ability to scale.

The reason disruptive platforms take incumbents by surprise is that they often reach reliability and scale almost simultaneously. By that time, a strong network effect has already set in attracting more of the market around the platform. More and better producers attract higher consumer activity and vice versa. By this time, it’s usually too late for the incumbents.

Getting Blindsided — Understanding Disruption

The reason incumbents get blindsided is because they continue doing everything right but fail to assess a relatively inferior offering as competition. The disruptor isn’t your typical competitor.

The hotel industry dismissed Airbnb when it launched. The new sources of supply didn’t match up to the hotel industry’s standards, which has traditionally innovated by constantly improving the quality of its rooms and its service. Leveraging a strong curation system and improving on its ability to scale using data, Airbnb has successfully booked more than 10 million nights and eaten a noticeable chunk of global travel.

While the past isn’t a great predictor of the future, we can understand specific patterns in disruption in the past to better identify potential markets where such patterns play out in the future. In summary, there are four symptoms that we often see in this pattern of disruption:

  1. A rapid democratization in the tools of production and market access leading to unlocking of new, often inferior, supply.
  2. Improvement of supply over time as curation sets in.
  3. Spillover from a niche initial market to mainstream consumer adoption as the curation becomes more reliable.
  4. An inflection point in growth as the network effect sets in and adoption takes off.

For a resource-constrained startup, a platform approach is particularly appealing, especially when locking horns with incumbents in an industry dominated by service or product quality. This allows a startup to gain traction without attracting the attention of its traditional competitors.

Platforms rewrite the rules of the industries they enter. Contrary to conventional Silicon Valley wisdom, platforms don’t win because of superior features or technology, they win on their ability to create entirely new markets and create new consumer behavior through curation and scalable matchmaking.


Tweetable Takeaways

Platforms like Airbnb disrupt traditional industries by creating new sources of value. Tweet

Platforms like YouTube disrupt traditional industries by designing and driving adoption of new behaviors. Tweet

Platforms like Wikipedia rethink the traditional rules of  quality control to create faster scale. Tweet


Image Source: Flickr/Creative Commons

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  • Rohit Majumdar

    This is a great post and blog Sangeet. Highly thought provoking and a good lesson for start-ups that are on their way to becoming platforms.

  • Andreas Krohn

    Great post. How would one kickstart the process where consumers become producers? What would you say are the critical components to manage to get this process started?

  • Ngoc Anh

    Relax with the entertainment you here okay.

    Thank you. Wish you a very effective working days.

    Friv 2

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    THanks Rohan! Appreciate the kind words.

    I haven’t met Ben but I know Andrei very well. You might see some co-authored work from us on HBR in the days ahead. I also know Tom Eisenmann really well and was one of the contributing authors to his last book “Managing Startups”. Separately, I work very closely with Marshall Van Alstyne and Geoffrey Parker at MIT who have themselves done a ton of work on this.

    Hope to keep discussing this in the days ahead.

  • Rohan Pradhan

    Thanks for the response – totally agree about curation being the channel for platforms to go mainstream and truly disrupt incumbents. I only recently stumbled upon your blog, and this stuff is amazing! I saw that you spoke at HBS a few weeks back, would have totally stopped by if I had subscribed to this while I was still at school!! On a related note, if you haven’t already, you must connect with Prof. Ben Edelman and Prof. Andrei Hagiu when you are there next – they do a lot of work on platforms and are amazing.

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Great points, Rohan!

    I agree with the gray areas, My point is not necessarily to find a playbook application of Christensen’s principles but to leverage those principles to find patterns in how platforms emerge. Curation is pretty much what makes or breaks a platform and the key point in the whole analysis is to show how platforms underperform either on quality and trust till a scalable mechanism of curation kicks in.

    Your point on Wikipedia is very valid. Again, Wikipedia’s lack of monetization is as much about willfully avoiding that path as about not finding a profit model. Hence, I want to avoid that discussion (owing to the willful avoidance bit) and look more at the pattern that we see emerging than about a voluntary interest in being an outlier.

    I do not bring in Uber later. My point in mentioning Uber was just that it too has restructured the traditional value chain, not neccessarily that it did so in the Christensen route. Trust could be a metric on which it underperformed but I don’t think it serves as a great example and hence I use it only for illustration/framing.

    Overall, the point is less to show that this is exactly how Christensen’s model works here and more to show that when you open up supply, the metric you will always suffer on is quality/trust. This is a natural consequence of openness. But you win if you can scale curation from there. To the extent that quality/trust suffer, this alludes to Christensen. The rest of it is fair and square application of emergence and openness to platforms.

    Thanks again for the great comment. Your points were spot on and made for great discussion.

  • Rohan Pradhan

    This is a great post overall, but I do think there are two gray areas that don’t necessarily make a few of the companies you list true disruptions the way Clay Christensen defines them – (1) (in a few cases) the lack of a performance metric where the new business is worse off compared to the incumbent, and (2) the ability of the disruptor to find a new profit formula that allows it to operate even at a lower cost. Applying this lens leads to a few of the examples you mention falling in this gray area.

    Airbnb meets both criteria, although even Airbnb as I understand struggled with its profit formula in keeping its ‘curation’ costs (namely photography and validation) in control as it scaled.

    Wikipedia, as of today, does not meet the second criteria. e.g. while it definitely creates amazing value for users, Wikipedia has never tested a profit formula! Online publishing is notoriously difficult to monetize, with even high quality curated content sites not managing to stay profitable. Wikipedia’s success may be more driven by the fact that it is mission driven and manages to attract free content suppliers and curators, rather than its ability to find a profit formula.

    Lastly, you mentioned Uber in your starting paragraph and am curious what you think was the ‘performance metric’ where Uber is worse off on. I see it as a better service to cabs, that too at a cheaper price. Maybe you are alluding to ‘trust’ as the compromise consumers make there?

  • ssaikia

    Nice set of arguments, though it is interesting how writers are able to “explain the problem after the solution has been found”. Another writer may find a different set of reasons for the success of Airbnb, Twitter etc. Someone once (or perhaps many people said this many times) said:

    Those who can, do
    Those who can’t, teach
    Those who really can’t, write

    I’ll add one more to implicate me:

    Those who really really can’t, read :) :)