By Nicholas G. Carr
In early November of 1999, at the start of the Christmas shopping season, Toys R Us launched a big promotion for its web site. For a limited time, it announced, it was offering $10 off all on-line purchases, along with free shipping. A sucker for a bargain, I decided to click over and pick up some gifts. A few hundred thousand other people apparently had the same idea. For three days, I was unable to access the site. The best I could get was an image of Geoffrey the Giraffe thanking me for my patience
Toys R Us had whats known as a scalability problem. Like many of its big-company brethren, it had underestimated the popularity of the web, and its servers and software were unable to handle the traffic its marketers had produced. It wasnt pretty, but within a week the problem had been sorted out, and the company was back in e-business.
On the Internet, if you cant scale - if you cant get really big really fast - youre nowhere. And its not enough for just your technology to be scalable. Your entire business model has to have scalability as well. You need to be able to quickly extend your business into new markets, either horizontally or vertically. Will it scale? is one of the first questions venture capitalists ask.
But what remains unknown about scale on the Net is whether or not it provides much protection against competitors. In the industrial economy, scale not only gave you higher profit margins - by enabling you to spread your overhead costs over a larger pile of revenues - it also gave you a great defense. The bigger you got, the more expensive it became for a competitor to enter your markets. A scale advantage was one of the best barriers to new entrants you could have.
Does Size Matter?
Whether or not size will create similar advantages on the web is a critical question right now. Were entering a phase of consolidation in many Internet businesses, with competitors rapidly buying up one other in hopes of building scale and bolstering margins. The high valuations given to many Internet companies make such consolidation extraordinarily expensive, however. If bigness does not provide a barrier to competitors, a heck of a lot of money is going to be wasted
While its still too early to know for sure what benefits scale will or wont bring, some distinctions can be drawn. Certain Internet businesses - those that require lots of physical assets - resemble their industrial-era counterparts. A company like Exodus, for example, has to spend heavily to lease and outfit physical space around the country in order to host its clients servers. And last-mile delivery outfits like Webvan and Streamline have to buy trucks and build warehouses. For such companies, scale will likely provide a deterrent to competitors, and consolidation will ultimately pay off.
Most Internet companies, though, are built on knowledge assets rather than physical assets. For them, the benefits of size seem much less certain. It is, after all, less expensive to expand a knowledge business than an industrial business. You dont need to build factories and warehouses or buy tons of machinery or carry loads of inventory. But if its relatively cheap for you to get big, its equally cheap for competitors to get big. Newcomers with good ideas will therefore find it much easier to get funding than they would have in the industrial age. The barriers to entry will remain relatively low no matter how big the incumbents get.
Theres another, even more fundamental problem with bigness. In "Unbundling the Corporation," the article that won the McKinsey Prize as the best to appear in the Harvard Business Review during 1999, management consultants John Hagel and Marc Singer point out that the success of creative businesses hinges on their ability to keep their talent happy. But as a company gets bigger, it inevitably becomes more bureaucratic - with more corporate functionaries, more processes and procedures, more mediocrity. In other words, it becomes everything that creative types hate. And unlike warehouses, which stay put once you build them, talent is mobile - it walks out the door when it doesnt like the way things are going.
While scalability will continue to be critical for e-businesses, I doubt that scale itself will provide much of an advantage. Companies will need to be able to expand their businesses fast, but their bigness wont ensure lasting success. Rather, once theyve scaled up in one market, theyll need to immediately look for new markets in which to replicate their growth. Defense was the name of the game in the old economy. In the new one, offense is everything.
Copyright 2000 by Nicholas G. Carr. All rights reserved. Originally published 1/10/00.
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