Why Winner-Take-AII Is Winning

Is the building supply industry going to turn into a winner-take-all market? Do you have a strategy if technology disrupts the distribution of goods and service? The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Why Winner-Take-AII Is WinningSecond Machine Age.jpg

Why are winner-take-all markets more common now? Shifts in the technology for production and distribution, particularly these three changes:

  1. the digitization of more and more information, goods, and services,
  2. the vast improvements in telecommunications and, to a lesser extent, transportation, and
  3. the increased importance of networks and standards.

Albert Einstein once said that black holes are where God divided by zero, and that created some strange physics. While the marginal costs of digital goods do not quite approach zero, they are close enough to create some pretty strange economics. As discussed in chapter 3, digital goods have much lower marginal costs of production than physical goods. Bits are cheaper than atoms, not to mention human labor.

Digitization creates winner-take-all markets because, as noted above, with digital goods capacity constraints become increasingly irrelevant. A single producer with a website can, in principle, fill the demand from millions or even billions of customers. Jenna Marbles’s homemade YouTube video “How to trick people into thinking you’re good looking,” to take one wildly successful example, garnered 5.3 million views the week she posted it in July 2010.13 She’s now earned millions of dollars from over one billion viewings of her videos around the world. Every digital app developer, no matter how humble its offices or how small its staff, almost automatically becomes a micro-multinational, reaching global audiences with a speed that would have been inconceivable in the first machine age.

In contrast, the economics of personal services (nursing) or physical work (gardening) are very different, since each provider, no matter how skilled or hard-working, can only fulfill a tiny fraction of the overall market demand. When an activity transitions from the second category to the first the way tax preparation did, the economics shift toward winner-take-all outcomes. What’s more, lowering prices, the traditional refuge for second-tier products, is of little benefit for anyone whose quality is not already at or near the world’s best. Digital goods have enormous economies of scale, giving the market leader a huge cost advantage and room to beat the price of any competitor while still making a good profit.” Once their fixed costs are covered, each marginal unit produced costs very little to deliver.

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