Freeconomics: Should Everything Be Free on the Internet?

 |  Includes: NWS, TWC
by: Fred Wilson

This week we saw the release of Chris Anderson's book Free and reviews from the New Yorker (Malcolm Gladwell) and the Financial Times. I'd like to talk a bit about the firestorm that freeconomics (fed by Chris's book) has unleashed but first we need to clarify something.

The FT piece says:

The most plausible contender for an "entirely new economic model" made possible by the internet is what Fred Wilson, the New York venture capitalist, has dubbed "freemium".

There was no dubbing by me. In March 2006, I wrote a post called My Favorite Business Model in which I outlined the freemium concept and I asked the readers to help me give it an easy handle. The word Freemium was not coined by me. It came from Jarid Lukin, who at the time was working for Alacra, a company I am on the board of. Fortunately, we've got Wikipedia which has got the story straight.

Now let's talk about freeconomics. I don't believe everything will be free on the Internet. There will be plenty of paid business models. For example, if you want to watch Major League Baseball games live over the Internet, you'll pay for that. If you want to use services like the FT and the WSJ (NASDAQ:NWS) frequently (more than 10x per month), you'll pay for that. If you want to watch HBO (NYSE:TWC) over the Internet, you'll pay for that. If you want a Twitter desktop or mobile client, you might pay for that too.

But we also must recognize that the cost of delivering many services over the Internet has decreased significantly from what it cost to deliver them in the analog world. The marginal cost of delivering a piece of content is approaching zero. But the total cost of delivering content on the Internet is far from zero. My partner Albert wrote a great post about this last week. He said:

The price of watching a stream on Youtube is zero. With marginal cost zero and marginal benefit zero, from a perspective of maximizing total social (net) benefit, free is the right price because it does not preclude any video that could possibly have benefit from being viewed. That does not mean that free is sustainable because it obviously doesn’t help cover the total cost.

And, as Albert recognizes at the end of his post, this debate is not entirely about economics. It is about the value of various participants in the content ecosystem.

Gladwell got pretty negative on Anderson and his book in the New Yorker piece. He said:

It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.” Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels? Anderson’s reference to people who “prefer to buy their music online” carries the faint suggestion that refraining from theft should be considered a mere preference. And then there is his insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power.

These are the anti-freeconomics arguments we hear from the likes of Andrew Keen and his ilk. Lambasting file sharers and entrepreneurs who rightly recognize that free is the right way to build market share on the Internet might be fun and make certain people feel good. But it's ignorance of a fundamental fact. And that fact is that free, ad supported media works best on the Internet. We have seen it again and again. I'm not going to even give examples.

Once you have built that audience, you can deliver upsells via freemium models, you can monetize it via advertising and you can branch out into other services which are easier to monetize. This post by Silicon Alley Insider on Facebook's revenues this year is instructive:

Earlier this week, we spoke to several sources who each have some insight into Facebook's financials (none of them know precisely). Taking the sources' input together, we'd estimate the company's expected 2009 revenue this way:

  • $125 million from brand ads
  • $150 million from Facebook's ad deal with Microsoft
  • $75 million from virtual goods
  • $200 million from self-service ads.

These numbers are similar enough to others that I have heard that I feel comfortable republishing them here. Facebook has 200mm+ monthly active users worldwide. Let's say they are doing $50mm per month in revenue. That's a revenue per monthly active user of $0.25. Low for sure, but enough to operate at breakeven. And I expect the self service ads and the virtual goods revenues to grow strongly in the next year, more than making up for the likely loss of some of the $150mm from the ad deal with Microsoft.

And the next move for Facebook is to generate transaction revenues with its payment service and off site ad and transaction revenues from its Facebook Connect service. I'm pretty confident that Facebook can take its revenue per monthly active user to at least $0.50 and maybe higher in the coming years.

Facebook is a perfect example of freeconomics at work. A woman who works for a major media company was in my office recently. She quoted her CEO as saying "why doesn't Facebook just charge a monthly subscription fee, they'd be making money hand over fist?". Well I believe that if Facebook did that, they'd be vulnerable to other networks offering a free service. And certainly not every one of those 200mm+ users are going to cough up a monthly subscription. But by offering a friction free service, they have built a powerful and growing network that they are now starting to monetize in various ways and that they will monetize even further in additional ways. And they are super hard to compete with because they are free.

I like to keep my posts short, so I'll end here with the observation that the Internet allows an entrepreneur to enter a market with a free offering because the costs of doing so are not astronomical. And most entrpreneurs who take this approach will maintain an attractive free offering of their basic service forever. But that doesn't mean that everything they offer will be free. That's the whole point of freemium. Free gets you to a place where you can ask to get paid. But if you don't start with free on the Internet, most companies will never get paid.