Almost two years ago, I predicted that the future of the internet may look more like mobile than vice versa.
I was referring specifically to the growing influence of platforms — i.e., large traffic aggregation points with API’s and/or application eco-systems. It seemed inevitable that these platforms would end up playing a similar role in the internet to the role of the carrier in mobile. That role is something of a double-edged sword for the smaller companies in the eco-system: on the one hand, a phenomenally efficient means of customer acquisition; but on the other, a powerful and potentially capricious master, who controls the flow of money, owns the customers, and can snuff your business out like a candle if need be.
The precipitating event for me back then was Myspace’s power move on Photobucket, where the social network blocked the photo sharing site for violating terms of service relating to advertising. Myspace was probably a third of Photobucket’s business at the time. Thirty days later, Photobucket was acquired by Myspace’s parent, News Corp. That felt to me like the kind of thing a mobile carrier would do to a vendor. Show ’em who’s the boss.
Since then, my prediction has largely come true. I was talking to the CEO of a company the other day who makes applications for a large social network, and I had an uncanny sense of deja vu. He was losing sleep over whether or not the social network would change its terms of service, alter the economics of customer acquisition, or choose an incompatible monetization strategy and effectively kill his business. I remember having those same fears when we were launching services on the US carriers in 2002-3.
So, what did we learn from being in this position and growing a valuable, public company under this Sword of Damocles?
- Brands Matter. First, when we were jockeying for position with our largely undifferentiated peer group in the early days, having recognizable and desirable brands under license really helped us. Having exclusive rights to branded content cemented our distribution — while other companies were offering generic, easily replaceable card or puzzle games, or original intellectual properties that nobody had ever heard of, we brought Tiger Woods Golf (interestingly, it mattered way more to the carriers than to customers — JAMDAT Bowling consistently outsold Tiger). Later, the power of our own publishing brand, which had become increasingly recognizable and synonymous with quality and value, gave us a similar kind of brand leverage to what MTV or HBO had vis a vis the cable companies. If you were launching a new games service, you had to have us in the mix.
- Grab Market Share. Immediately after the launch of BREW on Verizon, we had >70% market share of the games category. In the US broadly, by the end of 2005 when we sold the company, we had close to 30% market share (this is huge share; my rule of thumb in media businesses is that the winner in every category — music, video games, TV, theatrical box office — aggregates roughly 15-20% market share). By 2005, mobile games were no longer experimental; our partners at the carriers had P&L’s and were being compensated on the basis of financial performance. Therefore, with our huge share it became harder for them to mess with us too much and their relationship with us became more symbiotic (the proverbial “win-win”). Had we been a <5% player, they could have eliminated us without significant consequence.
- Understand Their Strategic Needs. The carriers had their own businesses to run, of which we were a very small part. But the mobile games category fit into a larger story they were telling their shareholders about the future, and it was imperative for us to understand their strategy for mobile data broadly and help facilitate its execution. For example, they needed to be able to show that they could attract world-class content, so our investment in globally recognizable brands played into their strategy. We tried to help anticipate and solve their problems. We always tried to see ourselves from their perspective.
- Don’t Be Piggy. Our peers constantly complained about the revenue splits that the carriers were taking (in our case, 20-40% of revenues). We watched those splits closely, and argued fiercely to maintain them, but we were always cognizant of what we were getting in return: relatively frictionless customer acquisition, billing and collection, the benefit of handset subsidies, etc. If we did the math realistically, the toll we paid to the carriers was a relative bargain. As many of the iPhone companies are soon going to find out, trying to run a nationwide marketing campaign — even a viral one — to attract people to your content is very, very costly. Our better carrier partners would embed demos of our games with a link to buy on tens of millions of handsets every year — reach that would have cost us millions of dollars in marketing if we had to pay for it directly.
- Plan for End Times. We understood the fragility our our place in the eco-system. Even when we had 30% market share, 4 of the top 10 games, including the clear #1, Tetris, a highly profitable $120MM a year business, etc., we were paranoid. About everything. We constantly talked about threats to our business — direct or indirect, internal or external or orthogonal. In fact, we had a “threat map” to help us visualize our paranoia. And in every area that mattered to our business — content innovation, distribution, brands, business model — we tried to develop defensibility and a fall back position in case of disaster. When you are not in control of the platform, you need a resilient business and a Plan B. The rug could be pulled out from under you at any time.