## Ronald Coase, Scott Adams and Intrapersonal Vertical Integration

I have a new HR policy. I call it “intrapersonal vertical integration”. Read on.

I

Back in the 193os, economist Ronald Coase wrote an article on “the nature of the firm” (the link is to Wikipedia, not to the actual paper). It was a description of why people form companies and partnerships and so on, rather than all being gig workers negotiating each piece of work.

The key concept here was one of transaction costs – if everyone were to be a freelancer, like I was between 2012 and 2020 (both included), then for every little piece of work there would need to be a piece of negotiation.

“Can you build this dashboard for me?”
“Yes. That would be \$10000”
“No, I’ll only pay \$2000”
“9000”
“3000 final”
“get lost”

During my long period of freelancing, I internalised this, and came up with a “minimum order value” – a reasonable amount which could account for transaction costs like the above (just as I write this, I’m changing videos on Youtube for my wife, and she’s asking me to put 30 second videos. And I’m refusing saying “too much transaction cost. I need my hands for something else (blogging)” ).

This worked out fine for the projects that I actually got, but transaction costs meant that a lot of the smaller deals never worked out. I lost out on potential revenue from those, and my potential clients lost out on work getting done.

So, instead, if I were to be part of a company, like I am now, transaction costs are far lower. Yes, we might negotiate on exact specifications, or deadlines, but price was a single negotiation at the time I joined the firm. And so a lot more work gets done – better for me and better for the company. And this is why companies exist. It might sound obvious, but Coase put it in a nice and elegant theoretical framework.

II

I’ve written about this several times on my blog – Scott Adams’s theory that there are two ways in which you can be really successful.

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

This is advice that I have taken seriously, and I’ve followed the second path. Being the best at one specific thing is too hard, and too random as well – “the best” is a sort of a zero sum game. Instead, being very good in a few things is easier to do, and as I’d said in one of my other posts on this, being very good in uncorrelated things is a clear winner.

I will leave this here and come back later on in the post, like how Dasharatha gave some part of the mango to Sumitra (second in line), and then decided to come back to her later on in the distribution.

III

I came up with this random theory the other day on the purpose of product managers. This theory is really random and ill-formed, and I haven’t bothered discussing it with any real product managers.

The need for product managers comes from software engineers’ insistence on specific “system requirement specifications”.

I learnt software engineering in a formal course back in 2002. Back then, the default workflow for software engineering was the so-called “waterfall model”. It was a linear sequential thing where the first part of the process goes in clearly defining system requirement specifications. Then there would be an unambiguous “design document”. And only then would coding begin.

In that same decade (2000s), “agile” programming became a thing. This meant fast iterations and continuous improvements. Software would be built layer by layer. However, software engineers had traditionally worked only with precise specifications, and “ambiguous business rules” would throw them off. And so the role of the product manager was created – who would manage the software product in a way that they would interface with ambiguous business on one side, and precise software engineers on the other.

Their role was to turn ambiguity to certainty, and get work done. They would never be hands on – instead their job would be to give precise instructions to people who would be hands on.

I have never worked as either a software engineer or a product manager, but I don’t think I’d enjoy either job. On the one hand, I don’t like being given precise instructions, and instead prefer ambiguity. On the other, if I were to give precise instructions, I would rather use C++ or Python to give those instructions than English or Kannada. In other words, if I were to be precise in my communication, I would rather talk to a computer than to another human.

It possibly has to do with my work history. I spent a little over two years as a quant at a top tier investment bank. As part of the job, I was asked to write production code. I used to protest, saying writing C++ code wasn’t the best use of my time or effort. “But think about the effort involved in explaining your model to someone else”, the higher ups in the company would tell me. “Wouldn’t it be far easier to just code it yourself?”

IV

Coase reasoned that transaction costs are the reason why we need a firm. We don’t need frequent negotiations and transaction costs, so if people were to get together in the form of a firm, they could coordinate much better and get a lot more work done, with more value accruing to every party involve.

However, I don’t think Coase went far enough. Just putting people in one firm only eliminates one level of transaction costs – of negotiating conditions and prices. Even when you are in the same firm, coordinating with colleagues implies communication, and unless precise, the communication links can end up being the weak links in how much the firm can achieve.

Henry Ford’s genius was to recognise the assembly line (a literal conveyor belt) as a precise form of communication. The workers in his factories were pretty much automatons, doing their precise job, in the knowledge that everyone else was doing their own. The assembly line made communication simpler, and that allowed greater specialisation to unlock value in the firm – to the extent that each worker could get at least five dollars a day and the firm would still be profitable.

It doesn’t work so neatly in what can be classified as “knowledge industries”. Like with the product manager and the software engineer, there is a communication layer which, if it fails, can bring down the entire process.

And there are other transaction costs implied in this communication – let’s say you are building stuff that I need to build on to make the final product. Every time I think you need to build something slightly different, it involves a process of communication and negotiation. It involves the product manager to write a new section in the document. And when working on complex problems, this can increase the complexity multifold.

So we are back to Scott Adams (finally). Building on what I’d said before – you need to be “very good” at two or more things, and it helps if these things are uncorrelated (in terms of being able to add unique value). However, it is EVEN MORE USEFUL if the supposedly uncorrelated skills you have can be stacked, in a form of vertical integration.

In other words, if you are good at several things that are uncorrelated, where the output of one thing can be the input into another, you are a clear winner.

Adams, for example, is good at understanding business, he is funny and he can draw. The combination of the first two means that he can write funny business stories, and that he can also draw means he has created a masterpiece in the form of Dilbert.

Don’t get me wrong – you can have a genius storyteller and a genius artist come together to make great art (Goscinny and Uderzo, for example). However, it takes a lot of luck for a Goscinny to find his Uderzo, or vice versa. I haven’t read much Asterix but what I’m old by friends is that the quality dropped after Uderzo was forced to be his own Goscinny (after the latter died).

At a completely different level – I have possibly uncorrelated skills in understanding business and getting insight out of data. One dovetails into the other and so I THINK I’m doing well in business intelligence. If I were only good at business, and needed to keep asking someone to churn the data on each iteration, my output would be far far slower and poorer.

So I extend this idea into “intrapersonal vertical integration”. If you are good at two or more things, and one can lead into another, you have a truly special set of skills and can be really successful.

Putting it another way – in knowledge jobs, communication can be so expensive that if you can vertically integrate yourself across multiple jobs, you can add significant value even if you are not the best at each of the individual skills.

Finish

In knowledge work, communication is the weakest link, so the fewer levels of communication you have, the better and faster you can do your job. Even if you get the best for every level in your chain, the strength (or lack of it) of communication between them can mean that they produce suboptimal output.

Instead if you can get people who are just good at two or more things in the chain (rather than being the best at any one), you can add significantly better value.

Putting it another way, yes, I’m batting for bits-and-pieces players rather than genuine batsmen or bowlers. However, the difference between what I’m saying and cricket is that in cricket batting and bowling are not vertically integrated. If they were, bits and pieces players would work far far better.

The Downside

I’ve written about this before. While being good at uncorrelated things that dovetail into one another can be a great winning strategy, liquidity can be your enemy. That you are unique means that there aren’t too many like you. And so organisations may not want to bet too much on you – since you will be hard to replace. And decide to take the slack in communication and get specialists for each position instead.

PS:

I have written a book on transaction costs and liquidity. As it happens, today it is on display at the Bangalore Literature Festival.

## Pipes, Platforms, the Internet and Zero Rating

My friend Sangeet Paul Chaudary, who runs Platform Thinking Labs, likes to describe the world in terms of “pipes” and “platforms”. One of the themes of his work is that we are moving away from a situation of “dumb pipes”, which simply connect things without intelligence, to that of “smart platforms”. Read the entire Wired piece (liked above) to appreciate it fully.

So I was reading this excellent paper on Two-Sided Markets by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole (both associated with the Toulouse School of Economics) earlier today, and I found their definition of two-sided markets (the same as platform business) striking. This is something I’d struggled with in the past (I admit to saying things like “every market is two-sided. There’s a buyer and a seller”), especially given the buzzword status accorded to the phrase, but it is unlikely I’ll struggle again. The paper says:

A necessary condition for a market to be two-sided is that the Coase theorem does not apply to the relation between the two sides of the markets: The gain from trade between the two parties generated by the interaction depends only on the total charge levied by the platform, and so in a Coase (1960) world the price structure is neutral.

This is an absolutely brilliant way to define two-sided markets. The paper elaborates:

Definition 1: Consider a platform charging per-interaction charges $a^B$ and $a^S$ to the buyer and seller sides. The market for interactions between the two sides is one-sided if the volume V of transactions realized on the platform depends only on the aggregate price level

$a=a^B +a^S$

i.e., is insensitive to reallocations of this total price a between the buyer and the seller. If by contrast V varies with $a^B$ while a is kept constant, the market is said to be two-sided.

So for a market to be two-sided, i.e. for it to be intermediated by an “intelligent platform” rather than a “dumb pipe”, the volume of transactions should depend not only on the sum of prices paid by the buyer and seller, but on each price independently.

The “traditional” neutral internet, by this definition, is a platform. The amount of content I consume on Youtube, for example, is a function of my internet plan – the agreement between my internet service provider and me on how much I get charged as a function of what I consume. It doesn’t depend on the total cost of transmitting that content from Youtube to me. In other words, I don’t care what Youtube pays its internet service provider for the content it streams. Transaction costs (large number of small transactions) also mean that it is not practically possible for Youtube to subsidise my use of their service in this model.

Note that if buyers and sellers on a platform can make deals “on the side”, it ceases to be a platform, for now only the total price charged to the two matters (side deals can take care of any “adjustments”). The reason this can’t take place for a Youtube like scenario is that you have a large number of small transactions, accounting for which imposes massive transaction costs.

The example that Rochet and Tirole take while explaining this concept in their paper is very interesting (note that the paper was written in 2004):

…As the variable charge for outgoing traffic increases, websites would like to pass this cost increase through to the users who request content downloads…

..an increase in their cost of Internet traffic could induce websites that post content for the convenience of other users or that are cash-strapped, to not produce or else reduce the amount of content posted on the web, as they are unable to pass the cost increase onto the other side.

Note how nicely this argument mirrors what Indian telecom companies are saying on the Zero Rating issue. That a general increase in cost of internet access for consumers can result in small “poor” consumers to not consume on the internet at all, as they are unable to pass on the cost to the other side!

Fascinating stuff!

## Coase

In the wake of the passing of Ronald Coase, two incidents, both professional. The first was with an established company to whom I suggested a partnership – they are in a space where I don’t have much skill, but have access to companies who I would love to sell to, and they don’t have my skill and our skills are complementary. So I reached out to them (through common contacts) suggesting that we could work together. They came back to me saying they would love to work with me, but would want me to join them as an employee.

The second was an incoming lead. This was a rather small company doing something similar to what I’m doing but with bigger ideas. They want me to join this “innovation hub” they are trying to create. This is a loose federation they are creating including professionals from various fields. Nobody is obliged to work full time for the hub, but this gives people an opportunity to get together and work together on projects where their respective expertise can combine well.

As the more perceptive of you who would have read every Coase obituary in the last two weeks would have figured out, the piece of work that Coase is most well known for is about the theory of the firm. The question is rather simple – why should you and I get together and form a firm if we have to work together, if we can remain independent and just come together for projects. The answer lies in transaction costs.

The advantage of coming together as a firm is that you negotiate only once. Let us suppose you are a graphic designer and I’m a data scientist. If we decide to work together on a visualization project, how do we decide how much you get and how much I get? We will need to negotiate. Let’s say we negotiate and agree on a price. And complete a project and split the spoils. What would happen the next time we were to bid for a project? We will need to negotiate again on how we will share the spoils.

If on the other hand we were to form a partnership firm, then for every project that we do, our respective share is fixed! Thus we don’t have to negotiate before every single projects. Thus, firms exist so that you don’t have to repeatedly negotiate.

However, there is a downside to this. What if I form a firm with a graphic designer, and then we see a significant opportunity in projects that involve a lot of analysis but little visualization? In that case, I have no use of my partner, and would loathe to pay him his share of the profits. Or consider if I were to somehow become much better at my job, while my partner stagnates. There is little I can do, for we’ve been locked in into the financial arrangement.

These are only some of the complications that arise when you need to decide whether you want to become a firm. I just thought it is pertinent that I’m having some of these dilemmas (employee versus consultant versus partner versus member of federation) in the few weeks after Coase’s passing.