Offer something for free, at a lower price, or make it much more convenient to use.
Welcome to issue #22 of next big thing.
I find myself often thinking about how incredible the Internet has been in broadening access to information. From Google to Wikipedia to Twitter to blogs and newsletters, it’s hard not to find something I’m looking to learn more about, much of the time for free. And it’s hard for me to sometimes remember life before it.
Of course, the Internet, smartphones, and cloud computing have not just enabled more access to information, but to all sorts of other products and services that were previously harder to get, across industries such as consumer goods, communication, entertainment, transportation, financial services, healthcare, and education.
While democratizing access is perhaps an overused phrase in today’s technology ecosystem, I think it will continue to be a theme in some of the most important companies of tomorrow.
There are three types of companies that democratize access to a product or service:
those that make something that was previously paid now free.
those that make something expensive cheaper.
those that make something hard to use much more convenient.
Today’s essay dives deeper into these three buckets with examples of companies that are democratizing access in each.
An investment thesis around democratizing access is nothing new. A few years ago, USV, a thesis-driven venture capital firm, published the third iteration of its thesis:
USV backs trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, capital, and well-being by leveraging networks, platforms, and protocols. We think of knowledge, capital, and well-being as each encompassing multiple components. Knowledge includes education and learning, but also data driven insights and access to new ideas. With capital, we include financial capital from financial services innovation, whether in the current system or emerging financial platforms like crypto, but also human capital and technology infrastructure. And with well-being, we think about health and wellness, but also entertainment, connection, community, and fun.
USV has gone on to invest in companies in education technology, financial services, healthcare technology, and other industries that fit this thesis. The companies are consumer or enterprise or both. Rex Woodbury wrote a piece that gave more examples of companies (outside the USV portfolio) within the financial services, education, and healthcare sectors that broaden access.
What I find interesting to study, however, is not just the industries in which these companies focus, but the ways in which they have innovated to democratize access. Below are three ways in which companies are democratizing access — by offering a product that’s free, cheaper, or more convenient — with five examples of companies across industries in each bucket.
Taking a product or service that people have had to pay for and making it free is perhaps the most powerful way to democratize access to it. “Free” is also a very powerful go-to-market strategy, and can maximize the potential for word-of-mouth growth. Of course, the businesses that offer up a service for free must still have a business model to be viable.
Robinhood democratizes access to investing by offering a commission-free platform. Free stock trading was a simple yet very powerful innovation, and led to word-of-mouth growth for Robinhood, much more active investors than on other platforms, and ultimately the industry having to lower its fees to compete. The company monetizes by capturing a small margin on each trade, and through lending and subscription premium up-sells.
Another financial technology (fintech) company, Credit Karma, shows that premium subscription isn’t the only way to monetize a free product. The company democratizes access to financial products and advice by offering a free credit score. Its primary revenue source is credit card companies and other financial products which pay Credit Karma lead generation fees for acquiring new customers through its platform.
Canva* democratizes access to design by offering free design software on web and mobile. ClassDojo* democratizes access to quality education by offering free communication and behavior management products for teachers, students, and parents. Both companies are zero-marginal cost software businesses that have grown through word-of-mouth by offering a free product, and leverage premium subscription as their business model.
Pill Club* democratizes access to women’s healthcare by offering free birth control prescription and delivery. This is a healthcare company with a unique business model: insurance. The majority of its revenue comes from customers using their insurance plans, and therefore enabling the service to be free to consumers.
The above examples show that across industries such as healthcare, education, productivity software, and financial services, free can be a powerful way to democratize access, with several potential business models to enable these companies to be viable.
The next best thing to being able to offer something for free is offering it at a cheaper price point than the alternatives.
SpaceX is democratizing access to space exploration by lowering the cost. One of the key innovations that makes this possible is the reuse of rockets, which have historically only been used for one launch before being retired.
Image from Forbes article — Why SpaceX Is A Game Changer For NASA.
Chime and Tally* are fintech companies that are democratizing access to banking and overcoming credit card debt, respectively, by offering lower fees to customers than traditional financial services. By being digital-first companies, with lower fixed costs than incumbents and a data-driven understanding of their customers, they are able to offer cheaper products.
GoodRx and Color* are companies I touched on last week, along with Pill Club, in my essay about the consumerization of healthcare. GoodRx democratizes access to prescription medication by helping consumers get discounts and find the best price. Color democratizes access to diagnostic testing, by offering genomic testing, and more recently, covid-19 testing, at a lower price than alternatives. Enabling customers to save money is at the core of both of these companies’ value proposition.
Finally, there are several great companies that democratize access to products and services by making access much more convenient than alternatives, but not necessarily by lowering the price.
Shopify* is a company I’ve written about a number of times in this newsletter (issues #2, #3, #4, and #7). The company democratizes access to entrepreneurship by making it easier to start, run, and grow a business online. The initial adoption of the Shopify product by merchants was primarily due to it being easier-to-use than alternatives, and being the most convenient way to setup an eCommerce store. Take a look at Bessemer’s investment memo on Shopify from 2010 and you’ll see that product convenience was at the core of the thesis.
Uber* democratizes access to transportation and to flexible work. Indeed its original vision was to be everyone’s private driver, and to make transportation as reliable as running water. While UberX and other options ultimately made Uber a cheaper alternative to taxis, its original product UberBlack was simply more convenient than hailing a cab.
Stripe, Plaid, and Coinbase are fintech companies that democratize access to payments, financial infrastructure, and an open financial system, respectively. None anchored on price as a reason for customers to choose them over alternatives. All offered a more convenient product, and leveraged that to win market share.
Of course, several of the free and cheaper companies also offer more convenience to their customers than other products in the market. It’s only by executing on multiple dimensions, after all, that they have scaled to be large private and public companies (as an aside, the combined enterprise value of the 15 companies mentioned above is north of a quarter of a trillion dollars!). In the process, they’ve expanded market opportunities beyond what could have been predicted in the early days, precisely by democratizing access.
So the three categorizations — free, cheaper, and more convenient — are not entirely distinct or mutually exclusive. But if you’re building or evaluating a company that democratizes access to a product or service, be sure that it fits at least one or more of these three buckets.
If so, it has a chance to be the next big thing.
I plan to take next week off because of… well… democracy. Please exercise your right to vote.
I started next big thing to share unfiltered thoughts. I’d love your feedback, questions, and comments!
*for a list of companies I'm affiliated with as an investor, see my Substack about page.
I loved the newsletter. However, what also needs to be reflected upon is the sustainability of the first two buckets. A lot of businesses, start with the motto of democratising access by providing a free service but run into sustainability challenges because their monetisation models are absent or unsustainable to say the least. A lot of these businesses rely either on advertising or charging the supply end of the marketplace but these models invariably have their challenges. So, in my mind democratising is a great idea but it stands more firmly on 3rd pillar ie Convenience ( = greater value) and delivers more sustainability & competitive advantage compared to Free / Cheaper services.
Democratizing implies making available to a larger or universal audience. However, just like in this country, having the opportunity to make every decision is not always better, and so for government, we have representatives (this may qualify as "easier" in your essay).
It will be interesting to watch the long term performance (assuming they don't dive into each others market) of Robinhood and Wealthfront. Both democratizing in different ways, but one has far less cognitive overhead than the other (personally, I would like Wealthfront to have a radar map where I could adjust the sectors to my liking over time, so it could be in between).
For SMBs, all the new choices have become overload. Keeping open/closing times accurate across Yelp and Google, making sure you are on the map for Google and Apple, that your advertising is where your customers are, etc, etc.
Sometimes, you would like to just designate an agent to deal with the new complexities of choices on your behalf.