Markets tend to favor unequal distributions of market share and profits, with a few leaders emerging in any industry. Winner-take-all markets are hard to disrupt and suppress the entry of new players by locking in market share for leading players.
In almost any market, crowds of competitors fight for business within their niche. But over time, with few exceptions, a small number of companies come to dominate the industry.
These are the names we all know. The logos we see every day. The brands which shape the world with every decision they make. Even those which are not household names have a great influence on our lives. Operating behind the scenes, they quietly grow more powerful each year, often sowing the seeds of their own destruction in the process.
A winner-take-all market doesn’t mean there is only one company in the market. Rather, when we say a winner takes all, what we mean is that a single company receives the majority of available profits. A few others have at best a modest share. The rest fight over a miniscule remnant, and tend not to survive long.
In a winner-take-all market, the winners have tremendous power to dictate outcomes. Winner-take-all markets occur in many different areas. We can apply the concept to all situations which involve unequal distributions.
As a general rule, resources are never distributed evenly among people. In almost every situation, a small number of people or organizations are the winners.
Most of the books sold each year are written by a handful of authors. Most internet traffic is to a few websites. The top 100 websites get more traffic than ranks 100-999 combined (welcome to power laws). Most citations in any field refer to the same few papers and researchers. Most clicks on Google searches are on the first result. Each of these is an instance of a winner-take-all market.
Wealth is a prime example of this type of market. The Pareto Principle states that in a given nation, 20% of the people own 80% of the wealth (the actual figures are 15% and 85%.) However, the Pareto Principle goes deeper than that. We can look at the richest 20%, then calculate the wealth of the richest 20% of that group. Once again, the Pareto principle applies. So roughly 4% own 64% of the wealth. Keep repeating that calculation and we end up with about 9 people. By some estimates, this tiny group has as much as wealth as the poorest half of the world.
“With limited time or opportunity to experiment, we intentionally narrow our choices to those at the top.”
— Seth Godin
The Perks of Being the Best
There are tremendous benefits to being the best in any particular area. Top performers might be only slightly more skilled than the people one level below them, yet they receive an exponential payoff. A small difference in relative performance—an athlete who can run 100 meters a few microseconds faster, a leader who can make better decisions, an opera singer who can go a little higher—can mean the difference between a lucrative career and relative obscurity. The people at the tops of their fields get it all. They are the winners in that particular market. And once someone is regarded as the best, they tend to retain that status. It takes a monumental effort for a newcomer to rise to such a position. Every day new people do make it to the top, but it’s a lot easier to stay there than to get there.
Top performers don’t just earn the most. They also tend to receive the majority of media coverage and win most awards. They have the most leverage when it comes to choosing their work. These benefits are exponential, following a power law distribution. A silver medalist might get 10 times the benefits the bronze medalist does. But the gold medalist will receive 10 times the benefits of the silver. If a company is risking millions over a lawsuit, they will want the best possible lawyer no matter the cost. And a surgeon who is 10% better than average can charge more than 10% higher fees. When someone or something is the best, we hear about it. The winners take all the attention. It’s one reason why the careers of Nobel Prize winners tend to go downhill after receiving the award. It becomes too lucrative for them to devote their time to the media, giving talks or writing books. Producing more original research falls by the wayside.
One reason the best are rewarded more now than ever is leverage. Up until recently, if you were a nanosecond faster than someone else, there was no real advantage. Now there is. Small differences in performance translate into large differences in real-world benefits. A gold medallist in the Olympics, even one that wins by a nanosecond, is disproportionately rewarded for a very small edge.
Now we all live in a world of leverage, through capital, technology, and productivity. Leveraged workers can outperform unleveraged ones by orders of magnitude. When you’re leveraged, judgment becomes far more important. That small difference in ability can be put to better use. Software engineers can create billions of dollars of value through code. Ten coders working 10 times harder but slightly less effective in their thinking will have nothing to show for it. Just as with winner-take-all markets, the inputs don’t match the outputs.
Economist Sherwin Rosen looked at unequal distribution in The Economics of Superstars. Rosen found that the demand for classical music and live comedy is high and continues to grow. Yet each area only employs about two hundred full-time performers. These top-performing comedians and musicians take most of the market. Meanwhile, thousands of others struggle for any recognition. Performers regarded as second best within a field earn considerably less than the top performers, even though the average person cannot discern any difference.
In Success and Luck, Robert H. Frank explains the self-perpetuating nature of winner take all markets:
Is the Mona Lisa special? Is Kim Kardashian? They’re both famous, but sometimes things are famous just for being famous. Although we often try to explain their success by scrutinising their objective qualities, they are in fact often no more special than many of their less renowned counterparts…Success often results from positive feedback loops that amplify tiny initial variations into enormous differences in final outcomes.
Winner-take-all markets are increasingly dictated by feedback loops. Feedback loops develop when the output becomes the input. Consider books. More people will buy a best-selling book because it’s a best-selling book. More people will listen to a song that tops charts. More people will go to see an Oscar winning film. These feedback loops serve to magnify initial luck or manipulation. Some writers will purchase thousands of copies of their own book to push it onto best seller lists. Once it makes it onto the list, the feedback loop will begin and possibly keep it there longer than it merits.1
It’s hard to establish what sets off these feedback loops. In many cases, the answer is simple: luck. Although many people and organizations create narratives to explain their achievements, luck plays a large role. This is a combination of hindsight bias and the narrative fallacy. In retrospect, becoming the winner in the market seems inevitable. In truth, luck plays a substantial role in the creation of winner-take-all markets. A combination of timing, location and connections serves to create winners. Their status is never inevitable, no matter what they might tell those who ask.
In some cases, governments deliberately strive to create positive feedback loops. Drug patents are one example. These create a powerful incentive for companies to invest in research and development. Releasing a new, copyrighted drug is a lucrative enterprise. As the only company in that particular market, a company can set the price to whatever it wishes. Until the patent runs out, that company is the winner. This is exactly how the market plays out. In 2016, the highest grossing drug company earned $71 billion. The three runners up each earned around $50 billion. From there on, the other drug companies have a comparatively small share of the market.
Profit enables companies to invest in more research and development, pay employees more, and invest in their communities. A positive feedback loop forms. Talented researchers join successful teams. They gather valuable data. Developing new drugs becomes easier. Drug companies gain greater and greater market power over time. A few winners end up with almost total control. They become the names we trust and hold their position, absorbing any risks or scandals. New effective drugs benefit society on the whole, improving our well-being. This winner-take-all market has its upsides. Issues emerge when patent holders set prices above the means of the people who need the drugs most.
Once the patent runs out on a drug (generally after 12 years) any other firm can produce an identical product. Prices soon fall as other companies enter the market. The feedback loop breaks, and the winner no longer takes all. Even so, the former winner will retain a large share of the market. People tend to be unwilling to switch to a new brand of drug, even if it has the same effects.
Ironically, winner-take-all markets tend to perpetuate themselves by attracting more losers. When we look at founders in Silicon Valley or actors in LA, we don’t see the failures. Survivorship bias means we only see those who succeed. Attracted by the thought of winning, growing numbers of people flock to try their luck in the market. Most fail, overconfident and misled. The rewards become even more concentrated. More people are attracted and the cycle continues.
In the market for diamonds, there is one main winner: DeBeers. This international corporation controls most of the global diamond market, including mining, trading and retail. For around a century, DeBeers had a complete monopoly. Diamonds are a scarce Veblen good with minimal practical use. The value depends on our perception.
Prior to the late 19th century, the global production of diamonds totaled a couple of pounds a year. Demand barely existed, so no one had much interest in supplying it. However, the discovery of several large mines increased production from pounds to tons. Those who stood to profit recognized that diamonds have no intrinsic value. They needed to create a perception of scarcity. DeBeers began taking control of the market in 1888, quickly forming a monopoly. It had an ambitious vision for the diamond market. DeBeers wanted to promote the stones as irreplaceable. Other gemstones have basically the same properties—hard, shiny rocks which make nice jewelry. As Edward Jay Epstein wrote in 1982:
The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance. To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life.
Their ensuing role as winners in the diamond market is all down to clever marketing. Slogans such as “diamonds are forever” have cemented the monopoly. Note that the slogan applies to all diamonds, not their particular brand. Imagine if Apple made adverts declaring “phones are forever”. Or if McDonald’s made adverts saying ”fast food is forever.” That’s how powerful DeBeers is. It can promote the entire market, knowing it will be the one to benefit. Throughout the twentieth century, DeBeer gave famous actresses diamond rings, pitched stories featuring the stones to magazines and incorporated their products into images of the British royal family. As their advertising agency, N. W. Ayer, explained, “There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea—the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond…. The substantial diamond gift can be made a more widely sought symbol of personal and family success—an expression of socioeconomic achievement.”
The Impact of Technology
In our interconnected, globalized world, a few large firms continue to grow in power. Modern technology enables firms like Walmart to open branches all over the world. Without the barriers once associated with communication and supply networks, large firms can take over the local market anywhere they open. Small businesses have a very hard time competing.
When a new market appears, entrepreneurs rush to create products, services or technology. There is a flurry of activity for a few months or year. With time, customers gravitate toward the two or three companies they prefer. Starved of revenue, the other competitors shut down. Technology has exacerbated the growth of winner-take-all markets.
We are seeing this at the moment with ride-hailing services. In a once-crowded marketplace, two giant winners remain to take all the profits. It’s hard to say exactly why Uber and Lyft triumphed over numerous similar services. But it’s unlikely they will lose their market share anytime soon.
The same occurred with search engines. Google has now eliminated any meaningful competition. As their profits soar each year, even their nearest competitors—Yahoo, Bing—struggle. We can see from the example of Google how winner-take-all markets can self-perpetuate. Google is on top, so it gets the best employees, and has high research and development budgets. Google can afford to take risks and accumulate growing mountains of user data. Any losses or failures get absorbed. Consistent growth holds the trust of shareholders. Google essentially uses a form of Nassim Taleb’s barbell strategy. As Taleb writes in The Black Swan:
True, the Web produces acute concentration. A large number of users visit just a few sites, such as Google, which, at the time of this writing, has total market dominance. At no time in history has a company grown so dominant so quickly—Google can service people from Nicaragua to southwestern Mongolia to the American West Coast, without having to worry about phone operators, shipping, delivery, and manufacturing. This is the ultimate winner-take-all case study. People forget, though, that before Google, Alta Vista dominated the search-engine market. I am prepared to revise the Google metaphor by replacing it with a new name for future editions of this book.
The role of data is particularly important. The more data a company has on its customers, the better equipped it is to release new products and market existing ones. Facebook has a terrifying amount of information about its users, so it can keep updating the social network to make it addictive and to lock people in. Newer or less popular social networks are working with less data and cannot compete for attention. A positive feedback loop forms for the entrenched companies. Facebook has a lot of data, and it can use that data to make the site more appealing. In turn, this more attractive Facebook leads people to spend more time clicking and generates even more data.2
Winner-take-all markets can be the result of lock-in. When the costs of switching between one supplier and another are too high to be worthwhile, consumers become locked in. Microsoft is a winner in the software market because most of the world is locked in to their products. As it stands, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to erode the market share Windows possesses. As Windows is copyrighted, no one can replicate it. Threatened by inconvenience, we become loyal to avoid incurring switching costs.
Marc Andreessen described the emergence of winner-take-all technology markets in 2013:
In normal markets, you can have Pepsi and Coke. In technology markets, in the long run, you tend to only have one…. The big companies, though, in technology tend to have 90 percent market share. So we think that generally, these are winner-take-all markets. Generally, number one is going to get like 90 percent of the profits. Number two is going to get like 10 percent of the profits, and numbers three through 10 are going to get nothing.
Leaders in certain areas are becoming winners and taking all because they can leverage small advantages, thanks to technology. In the past, an amazing teacher, singer, accountant, artist or stock broker could only reach a small number of people in their community. As their status grew, they would often charge more and choose to see fewer people, meaning their expertise became even more scarce. Now, however, those same top performers can reach a limitless audience through blogs, podcasts, videos, online courses and so on.
Think of it another way. For most of history we were limited to learning from the people in our community. Say you wanted to learn how to draw. You had access to your community art teacher. The odds they were the best art teacher in the world were extremely slim. Now, however, you can go on the internet and access the best teacher in the world.
For most of history, comedians (or rather, their predecessors such as vaudeville performers) and musicians performed live. There was a distinct limit to how many shows they could do a year and how many people could attend each. So, there were many people at the top of each field, as many as needed to meet audience demand for performers. Now that we are no longer confined to live performances, we gravitate towards a few exceptional entertainers. Or consider the example of sports. Athletes were paid far more modest wages until TV allowed them to leverage their skills and reach millions of homes.
Having more information available offers us further incentives to pay attention only to the winners. Online, we can filter by popularity, look at aggregate reviews, select the first search option, or go with other people’s preferences. With too many options, we google ‘best Chinese restaurant near me’ or ‘best horror film 2016.’ Sorting through all the options is too time-consuming, so the best stay as the best.
“In order to win, you must first survive.”
— Warren Buffett
The Downsides of Winner-Take-All Markets
There are some serious downsides to winner-take-all markets. Economic growth and innovation rely on the emergence of new startups and entrepreneurs with disruptive ideas. When the gale of creative destruction stops blowing, industries stagnate. When a handful of winners control a market, they may discourage newcomers who cannot compete with established giants’ budgets and power over the industry. According to some estimates, startups are failing faster and more frequently than in the past. Investors prefer established companies with secure short-term returns. Even when a startup succeeds, it tends to get acquired by a larger company. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and others acquire hundreds of companies each year.
Winner-take-all markets tend to discourage collaboration and cooperation. The winners have incentive to keep their knowledge and new data to themselves. Patents and copyright are liberally used to suppress any serious competition. Skilled workers are snapped up the second they leave education, and have powerful inducements to stay working for the winners. The result is a prisoner’s dilemma-style situation. Although collaboration may be best for everyone, each individual organization benefits from being selfish. As a result, no one collaborates, they just compete.
The result is what Warren Buffett calls a “moat’—a substantial barrier against competition. Business moats come in many forms. Apple’s superior brand identity is a moat, for example. It has taken enormous investments of resources to build and newer companies cannot compete. No number of Facebook adverts or billboards could replicate the kind of importance Apple has in our cultural consciousness. For other winners, the moat could be the ability to provide a product or service at a lower price than competitors, as with Amazon and Alibaba. Each of these has a great deal of market power and can influence prices. If Amazon drops their prices, competitors have no choice but to do the same and make less profit. If Apple decides to raise their prices, we are unlikely to buy our phones and laptops elsewhere and will pay a premium. As Greg Mankiw writes in Principles of Microeconomics, “Market power can cause markets to be inefficient because it keeps the price and quantity away from the equilibrium of supply and demand.”
Luckily for us, winners tend to sow the seeds of their own destruction—but we’ll save that for another article.