Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Up the Stack or Forward in the Value Chain?

Sometimes, moving up the stack is a business strategy, as hard as it is to achieve. More often, horizontal acquisitions for scale have driven telecom service provider acquisitions.

Sometimes, moving forward into the ecosystem supply chain also can work. Paradoxically, moving forward in the video entertainment subscription business (often understand as integrating lower inputs into a finished product or service) also means moving up the stack.

Either approach--up the stack or forward integration--is risky, in part because such moves represent moves outside the present understood core competence, but also because other firms will tend to resist buying horizontal functions and services from a key competitor.

Moving up the stack sometimes can mean acquiring assets that are a foundation for today’s core offerings. That paradoxical move is not, strictly speaking, a move “down the stack,” but is an example of vertically integrating a “cost of goods” input.

The best examples likely are video content producers. Owners of networks provide the core value behind the purchase of streaming video services. Strictly speaking, they operate up the stack.

Functionally, they are the basis for service provider video entertainment offers, a cost of goods that is almost a “down the stack” input, in a business sense. In other words, a video service cannot be created without access to the content consumers want to buy. In that sense, content is a raw material needed to build a video entertainment service.

Most telecom acquisitions have been of the horizontal variety, where a company buys additional assets in its existing place within the ecosystem (more access assets). That is an example of growing scale within the same business, instead of growing scope by occupying new roles within any ecosystem.

You might argue that acquiring such assets, that are required horizontally for all suppliers in a market, are a logical way for access providers to move up the stack. It never is easy, for simple reasons.

When making a horizontal acquisition, the acquiring firm simply gets bigger, doing what it already does. That means the acquiring firm already understands the business, and can hope to take out costs.

Moving into a different role within the ecosystem means moving outside the area of believed core competence. That always carries more business risk.
Also, when a function, or set of assets, is required by all service providers in a particular market, those competitors will logically try and avoid using a set of horizontal assets owned by a key competitor. So it is harder to occupy a new horizontal role. New business competencies are required, but competitors also will try and escape using the horizontal platform, if they can.

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