In a competitive environment, it’s important to know how to out-value your competition. I’ve discovered that one of the best ways is to reduce your transactional costs. While producing motherboards at Mitsubishi Electric, we went through a phase when customers wanted, more than ever, the latest technology possible. Mitsubishi knew that in order to be competitive, it had to either keep up with the latest technology or find another niche. We also found that if we did it right, we could reduce our costs and undermine the competition.
At the time, specialty equipment such as medical devices, gaming machines and ATMs faced a problem with the motherboards used in their machines. Federal regulations mandated that an entire machine be approved through an often 12- or 18-month process before it could be used. In the sector that Mitsubishi and its competitors dealt with, keeping up with the latest technology meant a constant swapping in and out of motherboard components. (Obviously, that made us money.)
But these sectors—medicine, gaming, and banking— could not simply swap out a motherboard. For example, any changes at all in an X-ray machine required that the whole product be re-approved. Twelve-month delays for every innovation obviously would not work. As a result, these industries had taken to hiring their own teams of engineers to build motherboards that were more stable. They did not meet the performance of outside motherboards, but there seemed to be no other way to meet the need for stability.
This is where we came in with Mitsubishi. Seeing an opportunity, we began producing a line of motherboards that would outperform the ones these industries had created while still providing the needed stability that kept the approval process from having to be repeated.
Suddenly, these industries were able to cut their transactional costs by laying off engineers and opting for better-performing motherboards in their equipment. At the same time, Mitsubishi could optimize its profit by entering an arena where we could undercut the cost of a 10-person engineer team but make a massive profit relative to the other motherboard sectors we were engaged in. By reducing transactional costs and improving the product and product environment, this one sector opened up a profitable new market.
An even clearer example comes from my 2001 trek through the Himalayas. While hiking in Nepal, I met a young man from the village of Namche Bazaar. Some time before, he had decided to try breaking into the Internet market in his village. Nestled high in the beautiful, snow-capped Himalayas, Namche Bazaar is a frequent traveling stop for trekkers. As hikers pass through this village, it is their last chance to check email, make a quick call home, or get in touch with business contacts.
For a long time, the only telephone option was through expensive satellite communications. So, while trekkers could touch base with home, it was at a cost of several dollars a minute. Doing so took a small fortune, but given that this was the only option, nobody questioned the price—until this young man set up his Internet café.
His desire to break into the Internet market had led him to the United States, where he quickly landed a job at McDonald’s. Saving as much money as he could, he eventually bought four used desktop computers that he brought back to Nepal. Once there, he had to hike up the Himalayas to Namche Bazaar with his computers strapped to his back.
I met him after he had set up shop. His resolve and tenacity had given him a toehold in the Internet café business, but it had also whetted his appetite for something more. You see, while in the U.S., he had learned about Voice-Over IP technology. This piqued his interest as a cheaper option than satellite phone calls (and he knew would expand the potential of his business plan), but he did not know how to set it up. He asked if I did—and I did.
I helped this young man set up his VOIP phone call business and, suddenly, he had not just a toe, but his whole foot, leg, arm, and body thrown right into the middle of the market. The high cost of satellite communication meant that his competitors could not drop their prices without losing their profit margin; for him, though, VOIP cost mere cents each minute. By charging little more than a dollar a minute to the trekkers, his profit margin was insanely higher than his competitors’, and the price tag to the trekkers was insanely lower. Considering the low average daily wage in Nepal, this was almost like me renting out my restroom for five hundred dollars an hour!
I am certain it was harder for him to reduce costs and thereby increase margins than it will be for you. Still, if you do your prep work to cut your transactional costs, you will be able to reduce, improve, and profit.
There are thousands of ways to reduce. Whether through applying technology, finding your niche, or just behaving small (see chapter 14), you can find a way to reduce your transactional costs without traveling the world and hiking the Himalayas. If you can do it cheaper than the competition and protect that price-enabling innovation, you will have flexibility with pricing, marketing strategies, and customer relationships. You simply need to be aware of the competition, the customer’s wants and needs, and the best use of your imagination.
When you do all of this, you will be far more profitable, acquire more customers, and outpace your competition. Dance with the devil for the judges and the audience, yes; but, most important, dance with the devil for yourself and your business.
Porter’s Points – Reduce and Improve
- In order to respond to your competition, examine product innovation, longevity, and quality, as well as associated services, legal and technical requirements, and market trends for places where you can start cutting. Reduce your transactional costs by cutting out the middleman.
- Don’t just cut costs. When you scale something back, take the opportunity to improve the product, the marketing, and all other aspects of your reduction. When you can hit a market niche with lower costs to you, be sure to hit it with the highest profit margin that you can.