Risky Business

It’s hardly newsworthy that the Internet has been enormously disruptive to both well established businesses and business models. It’s also not news that the Internet enables disintermediation by making it easier to both buy direct and do-it-yourself. We’ve also seen that the Internet has enabled “electronic commons” through social networking and user-generated content.

What happens when you combine all these combustible characteristics in one package and apply them to our global financial crisis? You get start-ups like freerisk.org.

Freerisk wants to challenge, if not replace, the major credit ratings agencies (e.g. Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and Fitch) by letting users build and run their own financial risk models. As I understand the plan (and the venture is still very much a work in progress), Freerisk will aggregate public company financial data and provide an interface that lets users pull the data into their own risk models with the hope they will publish their findings on the Freerisk site.

Freerisk is explicitly gunning for the major rating agencies. It’s unlikely they’ll make a short-term dent in the revenues of the big three players, each of which operates with governmental imprimatur, but the risk is that Freerisk over time calls the credibility of these entities into question, a potentially more damaging outcome, and one not outside the realm of possibility. Ratings agencies aren’t the most popular folks these days, and if this young upstart embarrasses them with a series of prescient calls, it could be enough to topple this highly profitable oligarchy.

The lesson for content providers: there’s no room for complacency. New competitors spring out of nowhere, and the web provides them with near-equal footing with you. Further, the economics of the web not only reduce barriers to entry, but they enable even failing businesses to hang in for extended periods of time, causing you pain all the while. Indeed, it’s not unusual for a website to launch with no revenue model (some plan to figure one out down the road; some don’t ever intend to generate revenue).

The solution? The best offense is a good defense. You can’t anticipate these new competitors, and you can’t (and generally shouldn’t try to) fight them. All you can do is stay close to your customers, deeply understand their needs, give them tools that they come to depend on to operate their businesses, and oh yes … always sleep with one eye open.