Asset-lite in an Asset-Heavy Business

Jun 25, 2022

In 2015, there was a widely circulated meme that explored the dynamics of the new generation of Gig economy startups –

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

The article, The Battle Is For The Customer Interface, concluded with the idea that the value was in the software interface, not the product. Then, in 2018, the author recanted his prediction with a follow-up article, The Battle For Consumers Gets Physical. There's a strong disdain for these companies that flows through the article. Remember, Travis Kalanick was fired from Uber in 2017.

These companies eventually expanded past their initial markets — Facebook spends billions on manufacturing VR Headsets, Microsoft opened up retail stores, and Amazon sells its own products.

In hindsight, neither conclusion is satisfying. Asset-lite demand aggregators continued to prosper. Some allowed individuals to extract more rent from their existing assets (DoorDash), while others didn't (Shein). Companies expanded to more traditional markets to compete on their platforms (Amazon Basics). They usually did so as a response to the larger markets created by the thin layer they created (Amazon Third-Party Sellers).

In the long term, I believe things trend towards the age of ownership. More platforms for people to extract rent out of the assets they already own. New methods to create even more assets derived from a person's creativity or specialized knowledge (social media properties, digital securities). Finally, a way for individuals to have stewardship over these assets (self-custody) to buy, sell and build derivatives off.

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