Whether you’re building a company or thinking about investing, it’s important to understand your strategic advantage. In order to determine one, you should ask fundamental questions like: What’s the long-term, sustainable reason that the company will stay in business?
The most important elements for founders to consider when figuring out their strategic advantage(s) include one-sided or “direct” network effects (e.g. with social media sites like Facebook), marketplace network effects (e.g. with two-sided marketplaces like Uber), data moats, first mover and switching costs.
Let’s take a quick look at an example of one-sided network effects. At the very earliest stages of Facebook’s existence, it was just Mark Zuckerberg, a few friends, and their basic profiles. The nascent social media platform wasn’t useful beyond a few dorm rooms. They needed a strategic advantage or the company would not make it beyond the edge of campus.
A successful startup without a strategic advantage is just a validated business model vulnerable to copycat companies looking for a market entry point.
In fact, Facebook only truly became a useful platform — and accelerated as a business — when more users came into the fold and more types of email addresses were accepted. Add to that the introduction of an ad marketplace revenue model and you have a clear strategic advantage — based on one-sided network effects — that gave Facebook a strategic edge over other early social media sites like MySpace.
These one-sided network effects are different from two-sided network effects.
Two-sided network effects are most common in marketplace business models. In a two-sided network, supply and demand are matched, like Uber riders (demand) being matched with Uber drivers (supply). The Uber product is not necessarily more valuable just because more users (riders) join, the way Facebook is more valuable when more users join.
In fact, when more users (riders) join the demand side of the Uber network, it might actually be worse for the user experience — it’s harder to find a driver and wait times get longer. The demand side (riders) gets value from more supply (drivers) joining the platform and vice-versa. That’s why it’s called a two-sided network, or a marketplace.
Regardless of industry, a successful startup without a strategic advantage is just a validated business model vulnerable to copycat companies looking for a market entry point. Copycats can range in size from startups with similar grit to large companies like Facebook or Google that have limitless resources to drive competition into the market, and potentially run the startup with the original idea out of business. This vulnerability can prove fatal unless a startup’s founding team explores and embraces one or more strategic advantages.