Why Do So Many People Freak Out When They See 'Free' As Part Of A Business Model?

from the divide-by-zero dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in a blog post by entrepreneur Hank Williams apparently attacking the concept of "free" and blaming venture capitalists, saying that they're overfunding a bunch of startups allowing them to give away stuff for free and distort the natural market. There's a lot of things that are incorrect in his analysis. Let's go through a few of them. He kicks it off by suggesting that it's "inherently impossible to start a small self-sustaining business," though there are numerous small online business owners who would disagree with him. It's not inherently impossible at all. In fact, I'd say it's rather common.

He then claims "in the digital world, advertising, the only real revenue stream, cannot support a small digital business." This appears to be wrong on two counts. First, there are numerous small online businesses that are supported by advertising revenue. But, more importantly, the idea that advertising is "the only real revenue stream" is inherently wrong. Advertising certainly is one revenue stream -- and an important one at that -- but there are many business models where you can make money by leveraging "free" to make scarce goods more valuable. Advertising is one such business model (using "free" content to make someone's scarce attention more valuable), but it's hardly the only one.

Williams then yanks out the old line that "it is very hard to charge when your competition is free." That, of course, is ridiculous. It's the same thing as saying you can't compete. In a competitive market, prices will get pushed down to marginal cost, no matter what (driving out all profit), so businesses that survive innovate, in order to get an advantage above the marginal cost in order to profit. That doesn't change if the marginal cost is $0 or $10,000. The trick is merely in knowing what scarcity you can sell that can't easily be copied. If you're trying to sell something that is easily copied, then you're selling the wrong thing. You have no competitive advantage. That's not anyone's fault but the business owner. In fact, the only fault I'd pin on VC's is if they pushed their portfolio companies to go against these basic economics.

Finally, he says that a bunch of these companies embracing "free" need to die and then "with less "free" floating around, a more regular supply and demand dynamic can take hold." But that, too, is incorrect. The supply and demand curve includes a price of $0, and when the supply is infinite, the supply curve is flat at the $0 line. So, the proper supply and demand dynamic has taken hold: and it says the price should be free.

This isn't to pick on Williams, as others have made similar arguments in the past, and I'm always interested in understanding why people are so confused by this. In the end, I can only assume that it's a "divide by zero" problem. For most of history, it's been shown that people naturally have trouble understanding the concept of zero. We may think we do, but as soon as a zero enters an equation, people tend to freak out and assume a model is broken. Yet, if we trust the model and realize it's not broken -- good things start to happen. Many businesses have learned that they can embrace "free" not because of a bunch of VC funding, but because that's the natural economic state of the market, and it allows them to make many, many other things more valuable. The real business trick is in making sure those things that are made valuable are what you're selling.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Shohat, 5 Apr 2008 @ 11:04am

    Here is why

    Because many people come from firms that actually handle big money, and I don't mean small exist-on-advertising companies like NYTimes or MySpace or other microscopic enterprises, but actual big-revenue companies.
    And when you shove "free" you usuall imply "advertising", and advertising is just advertising for something that is not free, meaning something that generates more money than the cost of advertising.
    So why bottom feed off advertising (which is capped at what ? around 6~ billion ?), when products are the real money ? To remind you, HP generates many times more money that all the Internet advertising combined. And so does Cisco. And Ford. And Sony.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.