Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down

Edelman, Benjamin G. “Uber Can’t Be Fixed — It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down.” Harvard Business Review (digital) (June 21, 2017). (Translations: Japanese, Russian.)

From many passengers’ perspective, Uber is a godsend — lower fares than taxis, clean vehicles, courteous drivers, easy electronic payments. Yet the company’s mounting scandals reveal something seriously amiss, culminating in last week’s stern report from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some people attribute the company’s missteps to the personal failings of founder-CEO Travis Kalanick. These have certainly contributed to the company’s problems, and his resignation is probably appropriate. Kalanick and other top executives signal by example what is and is not acceptable behavior, and they are clearly responsible for the company’s ethically and legally questionable decisions and practices.

But I suggest that the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership. The company’s cultural dysfunction, it seems to me, stems from the very nature of the company’s competitive advantage: Uber’s business model is predicated on lawbreaking. And having grown through intentional illegality, Uber can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.

Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules

Edelman, Benjamin, and Damien Geradin. “Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules.” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 4 (April 2016): 80-87.

Many successful platform businesses–think Airbnb, Uber, and YouTube–ignore laws and regulations that appear to preclude their approach. The rule-flouting phenomenon is something we call “spontaneous private deregulation,” and it is not new. Benign or otherwise, spontaneous deregulation is happening increasingly rapidly and in ever more industries. This article surveys incumbents’ vulnerabilities and identifies possible responses.

When Your Competitors Ignore the Law

Last fall I flagged the problem of transportation network companies (Uber and kin) claiming a cost advantage by ignoring legal requirements they considered ill-advised or inconvenient. But the problem stretches well beyond TNCs. Consider Airbnb declining to enforce (or, often, even tell hosts about) the insurance, permitting, tax, zoning, and other requirements they must satisfy in order to operate lawfully. Or Zenefits using selling insurance via staff not trained or certified to do so (and, infamously, helping some staff circumvent state-mandated training requirements). Or Theranos offering a novel form of blood tests without required certification, yielding results that federal regulators found “deficient” and worse. The applicable requirements may be clear — get commercial insurance before driving commercially; be zoned for commercial activities if you want to rent out a room; be trained and licensed to sell insurance if you intend to do so. Yet a growing crop of startups decline to do so, finding it faster and more expedient to seek forgiveness rather than permission. And the approach spreads through competition: once one firm in a sector embraces this method, others have to follow lest they be left behind.

A first question is how violations should be sanctioned. I’ve long thought that penalties could appropriately be severe. Consider the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s $49 million civil penalty against Uber for its intentional operation in violation of a PUC order. The PUC discussed the purpose of this penalty: “not just to deter Uber, but also [to deter] other entities who may wish to launch … without Commission approval.” Their rationale is compelling: If the legal system requires a permit for Uber’s activity, and if we are to retain that requirement, sizable penalties are required to reestablish the expectation that following the law is indeed compulsory. Now suppose every state and municipality were to impose a penalty comparable in size. Despite Uber’s wealth, the numbers add up — 100 such penalties would take $4.9 billion from Uber’s investors, a sizable share of Uber’s valuation and plausibly more than the company’s cash on hand.

Meanwhile, competitors are compelled to respond. For a typical taxi fleet owner or driver, or anyone else trying to compete with a law-breaking entrant, it’s little answer to hope that regulators may some day impose penalties. (And indeed there’s scant evidence that Pennsylvania’s approach will prevail more broadly.) What to do? Damien Geradin and I offer a menu of suggestions in two recent articles:

Spontaneous Deregulation: How to compete with platforms that ignore the rules – Harvard Business Review

Competing with Platforms that Ignore the Law – HBR Online

To Groupon or Not to Groupon: The Profitability of Deep Discounts

Edelman, Benjamin, Sonia Jaffe, and Scott Duke Kominers. “To Groupon or Not to Groupon: The Profitability of Deep Discounts.” Marketing Letters 27, no. 1 (March 2016): 39-53. (First circulated in June 2011. Featured in Working Knowledge: Is Groupon Good for Retailers? Excerpted in HBR Blogs: To Groupon or Not To Groupon: New Research on Voucher Profitability.)

We examine the profitability and implications of online discount vouchers, a relatively new marketing tool that offers consumers large discounts when they prepay for participating firms’ goods and services. Within a model of repeat experience good purchase, we examine two mechanisms by which a discount voucher service can benefit affiliated firms: price discrimination and advertising. For vouchers to provide successful price discrimination, the valuations of consumers who have access to vouchers must generally be lower than those of consumers who do not have access to vouchers. Offering vouchers tends to be more profitable for firms which are patient or relatively unknown, and for firms with low marginal costs. Extensions to our model accommodate the possibilities of multiple voucher purchases and firm price re-optimization. Despite the potential benefits of online discount vouchers to certain firms in certain circumstances, our analysis reveals the narrow conditions in which vouchers are likely to increase firm profits.

The Online Ad Scams Every Marketer Should Watch Out For

The Online Ad Scams Every Marketer Should Watch Out For. HBR Online. October 13, 2015.

Imagine you run a retail store and hire a leafleteer to distribute handbills to attract new customers. You might assess her effectiveness by counting the number of customers who arrived carrying her handbill and, perhaps, presenting it for a discount. But suppose you realized the leafleteer was standing just outside your store’s front door, giving handbills to everyone on their way in. The measured “effectiveness” would be a ruse, merely counting customers who would have come in anyway. You’d be furious and would fire her in an instant. Fortunately, that wouldn’t actually be needed: anticipating being found out, few leafleteers would attempt such a scheme.

In online advertising, a variety of equally brazen ruses drain advertisers’ budgets — but usually it’s more difficult for advertisers to notice them. I’ve been writing about this problem since 2004, and doing my best to help advertisers avoid it.

In this piece for HBR Online, I survey these problems in a variety of types of online advertising — then try to offer solutions.

How to Launch Your Digital Platform: A Playbook for Strategists

Edelman, Benjamin. “How to Launch Your Digital Platform: A Playbook for Strategists.” Harvard Business Review 93, no. 4 (April 2015): 90-97. (Reprinted in Launch a Start-Up That Lasts, Harvard Business Review OnPoint, Winter 2016.)

Official abstract:

The ubiquity of Internet access has caused a sharp rise in the number of businesses offering platforms that connect users for communication or commerce. Entrepreneurs are particularly drawn to these platforms because they create significant value and have modest operating costs, and network effects protect their position once established–users rarely leave a vibrant platform. But these businesses also raise significant start-up challenges. Every platform starts out empty. Platforms need to immediately attract not only many users but also multiple types of users. For example, it’s not enough that many customers want to book taxis by smartphone. Drivers must also be willing to accept smartphone bookings. Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman has been studying the dynamics of platform businesses and the strategies for launching them for 10 years. In this article he draws on research on dozens of platform sites and products to offer a framework for building a successful platform business. It involves asking five basic questions: (1) Can I attract a large group of users at once? (2) Can I offer stand-alone value to users? (3) How can I build credibility with customers? (4) How should I charge users? (5) Should my platform be compatible with legacy systems?

Informal introduction:

For online platform businesses, customer mobilization challenges loom large. The most successful platforms connect two or more types of users—buyers and sellers on a shopping portal, travelers and hotel operators on a booking service—and a strong launch usually requires convincing early users to join even before the platform reaches scale. Customers find Skype worth installing only if there are people on the platform to talk to. Who would join PayPal if there were no one to pay? Every platform starts out empty, making these worries particularly acute. For multisided platforms, which need not only many users, but many users of different types, the risk is even greater. It’s not enough for a car-dispatch platform to have a large base of customers who want to book rides by smartphone. It also needs drivers willing to accept those bookings.

Often, a platform’s designer has a workable plan once it achieves an early critical mass of users. If a service had drivers, it could attract passengers, or vice versa. And when we look at the myriad platforms that have overcome these hurdles, it can be easy to assume solutions will present themselves. In fact success is far from guaranteed, and many startups fail at this crucial stage. In an article in next month’s Harvard Business Review, I offer strategies to guide entrepreneurs through this challenge.

Whither Uber? Competitive Dynamics in Transportation Networks

Edelman, Benjamin. “Whither Uber? Competitive Dynamics in Transportation Networks.” Competition Policy International 11, no. 1 (Spring-Fall 2015).

Transportation Network Companies offer notable service advances–but do they comply with the law? I offer evidence of some important shortfalls, then consider how the legal system might appropriately respond. Though it is tempting to forgive many violations in light of the companies’ benefits, I offer a cautionary assessment. For one, I note the incentives that might result, including a race-to-the-bottom as a series of companies forego all manner of requirements. Furthermore, the firms that best compete in such an environment are likely to be those that build a corporate culture of ignoring laws, a diagnosis that finds support in numerous controversial Uber practices. On the whole, I suggest evenhanded enforcement of applicable laws, with thoughtful changes implemented with appropriate formality, but no automatic free pass for the platforms that have recently framed laws and regulations as suggestions rather than requirements.

Risk, Information, and Incentives in Online Affiliate Marketing

Edelman, Benjamin, and Wesley Brandi. “Risk, Information, and Incentives in Online Affiliate Marketing.” Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) 52, no. 1 (February 2015): 1-12. (Lead Article.)

We examine online affiliate marketing programs in which merchants oversee thousands of affiliates they have never met. Some merchants hire outside specialists to set and enforce policies for affiliates, while other merchants ask their ordinary marketing staff to perform these functions. For clear violations of applicable rules, we find that outside specialists are most effective at excluding the responsible affiliates, which we interpret as a benefit of specialization. However, in-house staff are more successful at identifying and excluding affiliates whose practices are viewed as “borderline” (albeit still contrary to merchants’ interests), foregoing the efficiencies of specialization in favor of the better incentives of a company’s staff. We consider the implications for marketing of online affiliate programs and for online marketing more generally.

Accountable? The Problems and Solutions of Online Ad Optimization

Edelman, Benjamin. “Accountable? The Problems and Solutions of Online Ad Optimization.” IEEE Security & Privacy 12, no. 6 (November-December 2014): 102-107.

Online advertising might seem to be the most measurable form of marketing ever invented. Comprehensive records can track who clicked what ad–and often who saw what ad–to compare those clicks with users’ subsequent purchases. Ever-cheaper IT makes this tracking cost-effective and routine. In addition, a web of interlocking ad networks trades inventory and offers to show the right ad to the right person at the right time. It could be a marketer’s dream. However, these benefits are at most partially realized. The same institutions and practices that facilitate efficient ad placement can also facilitate fraud. The networks that should be serving advertisers have decidedly mixed incentives, such as cost savings from cutting corners, constrained in part by long-run reputation concerns, but only if advertisers ultimately figure out when they’re getting a bad deal. Legal, administrative, and logistical factors make it difficult to sue even the worst offenders. And sometimes an advertiser’s own staff members prefer to look the other way. The result is an advertising system in which a certain amount of waste and fraud has become the norm, despite the system’s fundamental capability to offer unprecedented accountability.

Mastering the Intermediaries: Strategies for Dealing with the Likes of Google, Amazon, and Kayak

Edelman, Benjamin. “Mastering the Intermediaries: Strategies for Dealing with the Likes of Google, Amazon, and Kayak.” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 6 (June 2014): 86-92.

Many companies depend on powerful platforms which distinctively influence buyers’ purchasing. (Consider, Google, Amazon, and myriad others in their respective spheres.) I consider implications of these platforms’ market power, then suggest strategies to help companies recapture value or at least protect themselves from abuse.