The end of ownership: the zero-marginal-cost economy
Society is undergoing tremendous change right now — those of us who enjoy services like Uber and Kickstarter are experiencing it firsthand. The sharing and collaboration practices of the internet are extending to transportation (Uber), hotels (Airbnb), financing (Kickstarter, LendingClub), music services (Spotify) and even software development (Linux, Drupal). While the consumer "sharing economy" gives us a taste of what it's like to live in a world where we own less, perhaps there is an equally powerful message for the business community. Using collaboration, companies are dramatically reducing the production cost of their goods or services.
Welcome to the zero-marginal-cost economy, a way of doing business where ownership of a core process is surrendered to community collaboration. In economic terms, the cost of a product or a "good" can be divided into two parts. The first part is a "setup cost", which is the cost of assembling the team and tools needed to make the first unit. The second part is called the "marginal cost", or the cost of producing a single, additional unit.
For decades, competitive markets have focused on driving productivity up and marginal costs down, enabling businesses to reduce the price of their goods and services to compete against each other and win customers. A good example of this approach is Toyota, which completely reinvented how cars were made through lean manufacturing, changing the entire automotive industry. Japanese cars were produced much more quickly than their American counterparts, created via traditional assembly lines in Detroit, ultimately driving down the final cost for consumers and shrinking margins for companies like Ford. Software development methodologies like the lean startup methodology and Kanban are modeled after the Toyota production line and have made software development more efficient.
Today, the focus is changing. Within service industries like hospitality and transportation, new entrants are succeeding not by optimizing production, but by eliminating production cost altogether. Consider Uber versus traditional taxi companies. For a traditional taxi company to add another taxi to its fleet, a car and license need to be acquired at significant cost. Instead of shouldering that setup cost, Uber can add another taxi to its inventory at almost no cost by enabling people to share their existing cars, all coordinated via the internet. Airbnb does the same for renting properties vs. acquiring more physical space. The fact that both these companies have near zero-marginal-cost production is threatening longstanding business and regulatory models alike.
In the software industry, the low marginal cost of producing Open Source Software threatens to our equivalent of longstanding business models: proprietary software companies. Free Open Source Software essentially can undermine the way proprietary software companies make money — by selling software licenses. By sharing the cost to develop software, organizations can increase their productivity, accelerate innovation and bring down their setup costs.
The open source ideology extends even further beyond software. Last month, Elon Musk open sourced the patents for Tesla. His main reason? Pushing the automotive industry to create more electric cars. If Elon Musk is an indicator for industries across the board, it's further proof that capitalism is starting to become more collaborative rather than centered around individual ownership.
Great businesses can be built by adding value on top of a low-marginal-cost community that is owned by many. For example, my company, Acquia, creates value on top of the open-source Drupal software by providing support and software-as-a-service tools. Similarly, Uber adds value by providing consumer-friendly, on-demand services beyond just increasing the supply of available cars on the road. In both cases, the companies' products grow stronger as their communities grow, even as the acceleration of those same communities brings down marginal costs. The power of the community vastly improves previously inefficient base process (such as waterfall software development or taxi regulations) and creates a forcing function for business to generate profit based on products and services that appeal directly to users.
Within the next decade, businesses will need to become much more open and collaborative to survive in an increasingly zero-marginal-cost economy. Those who develop proprietary software are finding it harder and harder to sustain "business as usual". The sharing economy and collaborative development will further streamline capitalism, and organizations that figure out how to master this dynamic will succeed. A community model can work in any number of industries — we just have to challenge ourselves to as entrepreneurs to discover how.
(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for The Next Web.)
— Dries Buytaert
Dries Buytaert is an Open Source advocate and technology executive. More than 10,000 people are subscribed to his blog. Sign up to have new posts emailed to you or subscribe using RSS. Write to Dries Buytaert at email@example.com.