Cloudy With a Chance of Free Business Model

There is a children book called Cloudy With A  Chance of Meatballs which is  a great story about a town where food was in abundance, because it rained food three times a day. It rained breakfast, lunch and dinner. In this scenario, there is such thing called free lunch. In fact the town hired sanitation crew just to cleanup the excess food from the streets and keep them clear. I bet no one in the town went hungry and there was no need to save food for the rainy day (pun intended). There is a page in the book that shows a restaurant with people eating inside. One notable aspect about that restaurant is there was no roof. Waiters simply caught “the rain” and served their customers. The marginal cost of food is zero for the restaurant.

That brings us to free as a business model that Mr. Chris Anderson talks about. Mr. Anderson says how free is the future for digital goods and services because their marginal cost approaches $0.  The meatballs book  applies Mr. Anderson’s argument about marginal cost to physical goods. Abundance of one component simply makes it irrelevant in pricing because a marketer cannot make a value proposition based on that component. The business model shifts to other components that deliver value.

  1. Since the marginal cost of food is zero, should the restaurant serve its customers for free?: No. The marginal cost is irrelevant. The restaurant should charge the customers for the convenience  (someone else catching the raining and serving) and experience. The fact that marginal cost is $0 for food only changes the product/service that is being sold.
  2. If the restaurant simply serves the rain that people can do it for themselves, why would anyone go to any restaurant?: Same answer as above.
  3. How would one restaurant differentiate itself from others?: Better service, live entertainment,  complements like wine that is not part of the rain.
  4. What role do chefs have to play in such a town? If the food from the rain is bland or flavorless then chefs role could be to improve its flavor. They could also specialize in plating the dishes in an attractive manner.

Pricing is about capturing a share of that delivered value. Since  “free” does not capture value it cannot be a business model.

It does not matter to customers what your costs are

The arguments on paying for online newspapers focus on the cost of running the news operation including the news desks reporters, editors, web site etc. Proponents of pay to read say readers must start paying because of these costs. On the other hand those who argue that information must be free focus also on the costs, the marginal cost, and a make the case that it costs you nothing to serve one more reader and hence it must be free.

The cost arguments are irrelevant. One can charge for a product only because of the value it delivers to the customers and not because it costs the marketer to produce. Similarly, free argument based on marginal cost does not hold either. If the readers can get the same content elsewhere for free, the content becomes commodity and its price will spiral down to $0.00. It does not matter that there are fixed costs to producing and distributing commodity content. Content can only be charged if it has differentiated value.

There is an Ad in today’s WSJ on their news sports coverage. It says

“When we report on sports, we focus less on what you’ve already seen happen and more on what will happen next”

That is differentiation.

My Willingness to Pay for web services: $0

The concept of Willingness To Pay (WTP) is meant to convey what price a consumer is willing to pay to buy a product and still be left with a positive value. The idea of profit maximization is to price a product in such a way to extract every bit of value from the customer that they will be indifferent between choosing and not choosing the product.

I have not paid any for any of the web services I have been using. Search, blog, group collaboration, my own social network, surveys, documents, spreadsheets, etc.

Now when a new service that is marginally effective aims to charge me for using it, the choice is easy. Unfortunately the price of web services is now their marginal cost, $0 , not because it has to be priced at MC but because my reference price is $0.

Anyone who attempts to charge a non zero price without managing the customer reference price (that is improving it from $0) has a wrong business model. You cannot simply move from free to fee without first focusing on customer reference price.