Friday, March 19, 2021

Why Do Entrepreneurs Keep Entering Highly Unprofitable Industries?

Source: New York Times

During the early days of my strategy courses, we often learn about Porter's five forces as a tool for evaluating industry structure.  We often examine industriest at the extreme - either highly profitable (such as pharma) or highly unprofitable (such as airlines or fitness centers).  We use the framework to try to explain the level of profitability in these markets.  Of course, one examine barriers to entry quite closely.  Low barriers to entry tend to depress profits in an industry, because new players can easily come in and compete on a relatively even playing field with incumbent firms.  

Students often ask me a question:  "Why do entrepreneurs keep entering these industries with consistently low profits? Don't they understand how hard it is to make money in these markets?"   What a terrific question!  As I read a New York Times story this morning about two new upstart airlines, the question really hit home again.  Why enter the airline business when it has been so unprofitable for decades?  After all, Richard Branson has told a great joke about the business.  He says that people always ask him how to become a millionaire.  He says it's quite easy.  You just start as a billionaire and then open an airline.  

What is happening in these industries?  For me, three factors explain the continued entry into unprofitable markets. 

1.  The low barriers to entry make it quite enticing for entrepreneurs.  They don't see the major obstacles that often obstruct entry into other industries.   They would love to be an entrepreneur, and they are looking for "easy targets" - i.e. markets that they can access more readily than some others.  

2.  They enter because, to them, it's a lifestyle business. They aren't think simply in terms of profit maximization. Fitness centers is a good example.  People open gyms because they have a passion for fitness and wellness.  They also would love to be their own boss.  A similar phenomenon has emerged in the wine industry. Many people enter the business because of their passion for the art and craft of making wine.  It's also a status symbol to enter the industry. Witness the celebrities who enter, including athletes, movie producers, and actors and actresses.  

3.  Entrepreneurs think to themselves, "I'm different. I'll be the exception to the rule."  In fact, some of the most compelling business stories are those of firms that have made strong profits in very unattractive industries. People know the remarkable story of Southwest Airlines, or Ryanair in Europe.  Or, they have observed the success of Planet Fitness and Trader Joe's (both companies about which I have written case studies - Planet Fitness case and Trader Joe's case).   Therefore, entrepreneurs think to themselves, "I can do that!"  Or, they look at the many failures in the industry and think, "That won't be me. I'm smarter than that!"  Unfortunately, they often don't understand quite what that it takes to position a firm to survive and thrive in a very challenging industry.   Hubris clouds their judgement as well.   

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