What is Decoupling? In an insightful working paper, Thales Teixeira and Peter Jamieson described Decoupling as “the separation of two or more activities ordinarily done in conjunction by consumers”. The separation’s purpose is to increase value for consumers by focusing on the value-creating activity while reducing exposure to the value-capturing or value-destroying one.
Breaking down a business’ success or failure is not a straightforward exercise. There are so many factors at play. The same goes for disruption. However, I believe Decoupling offers a simply yet powerful tool to analyze business strategies and disruption.
Below are a few examples of how I use Decoupling to look at companies:
- Uber: consumers have a transportation need to go from A to B. That’s the value-creating piece. However, before Uber, there were several non-value-creating activities. If someone wanted to drive themselves, they had to physically and mentally stay alert for some time and look for a parking slot. If riders used a taxi, they had to somehow manage to get a cab and in some cases, suffer from an unhygienic car/driver. Uber decoupled the act of going from A to B in a comfortable manner from all other noises by providing consumers a way to book a decent car with just a few taps on a phone and a driver that is already vetted.
- Aldi: at grocery stores, consumers want to buy groceries that they deem worth their money & time. That’s the value consumers need. Some stores; however, sell many more items, stack different variations for one item (cereal, milk or ground coffee, for example) and, as a consequence, have bigger stores that take time for consumers to navigate. Aldi competes and, dare I say, wins over consumers by focusing on selling good groceries on the cheap by 1/ leveraging private labels which are cheaper than national brands; 2/ eliminating activities like market research, advertising or unnecessary expenses; 3/ keeping their stores small and just acceptably decorated. They decouple affordable groceries from everything that threatens to increase costs.
- Venmo/CashApp/PayPal: Consumers always need to send money to and receive money from other folks as quickly, cheaply and seamlessly as possible. Before the likes of Venmo, CashApp or PayPal, it was either cash on hand which necessitated an actual time-consuming meet or a check which took some time to settle. These apps decoupled the money exchange activity from the time wasters. Consumers can exchange money in almost real time.
- AWS: every company needs IT infrastructure to operate and compete in this day and age. What they don’t need is to go out, scrap all the components, stand up an IT stack and maintain it over time, including hardware replacement and software update. AWS decouples the use of IT resources from the act of acquiring and maintaining it. Because of AWS, startups can get going quickly without saddling themselves in high expenses while big companies can leverage the cloud and scale down IT workforce.
- AirBnb: ordinary hosts that don’t operate a resort or hotel have three essential activities: hosting, finding guests and verifying that such guests are trustworthy enough to let into their homes. Guests, on the other hand, have to travel and find a place where they can feel safe. AirBnb functions as the decoupler that allows hosts to focus on hosting and guests to focus on traveling. The brand name of AirBnb and the network effect bring one party to the other. Their review mechanism fosters the trust in the ecosystem.
- TSMC: the production of computer chips involves design, manufacturing and assembly of chips. Each step requires different expertise and cost structure. Semiconductor shops in the past used to do everything. Then, companies like TSMC decoupled from the value chain. The Taiwan-based firm focuses on building the best fabs in the world and manufacturing chips, leaving the design and assembly to somebody else. The result is that TSMC is now the market leader in the chip manufacturing market and the indispensable player in this industry.
Decoupling works because it reduces costs for both the decouplers and consumers. From the consumer perspective, the more activities, the more costs. And I am not merely talking about monetary costs. Time spent on non-creating activities is also a significant cost. From the decoupler perspective, focusing on one link in the value chain deepens expertise, reaches economies of scale and lowers unit economics. Aldi is still one of the most affordable and best grocers out there. Remember when Uber and AirBnb used to be cheap when they had their breakthrough?
Decoupling, in my opinion, is a useful concept and powerful tool to look at businesses. Thales’ book will have more details. If you are interested in learning more, I’d recommend that you read it.