Non-Linear Competition

I read an interesting article about the sudden move of Wall Street Quant Traders from banks to creating tech startups. 

In short, as the story goes, to prevent breaking non-compete agreements, many brilliant minds were moving in – what seemed – completely unrelated fields, like self-driving or robotics. 

In other words, a built-in disincentive by Wall Street is creating whole new industries, which might be completely unrelated in the short term but that might become competitors in the long run.

It struck me how the system’s built-in disincentives trying to stiff competition – in the short-term – actually create whole new markets in the long term. In this case, intelligent people move to new industries to prevent legal issues.

And when assessing long-term competition, it’s vital to look at the sudden moves of very skilled and intelligent people.

In other words, competition in the tech industry is linear in short but pretty much non-linear in the long.

New industries that might seem unrelated might swallow old industries in the long.

Another example I like a lot is when innovative players (those who see the market as a whole without clear boundaries) enter new spaces. 

Take the case of Tesla, entering into the insurance business.

Would you even put Tesla on the competitor’s map if you were Geico? 

Chances are, you won’t, and probably you won’t do that because competition seems linear in the short term.

Thus, your competition might look like the following graph:
10 Largest Auto Insurance Companies (2022) - ValuePenguin
There is also another interesting point to make.

When you look at Tesla’s insurance business, you know that, for now, it’s part of the service business, but you’re not sure how much it generates for the company. 

A real-time insurance business model enables Tesla to build its own insurance arm, by dynamically adjusting the premiums, based on real-time driving behavior. Reduced insurance premiums hooked with the leasing arm, enable Tesla to scale its demand side of the business.

Indeed, in 2021, the service business generated $3.8 billion in revenues for Tesla, and we can assume that the insurance arm drove a good chunk of its growth!

In 2021, Tesla generated over $53.8 billion in revenues, compared to the $31.5 billion in 2020. The largest segment in the automotive sales (comprising regulatory credits revenues), followed by leasing (as part of the automotive), generated $1.6 billion in 2021. Outside the automotive sales, services (non-warranty after-sales vehicle services, sales of used vehicles, retail merchandise, and more) accounted for $3.8 billion. And energy generation and storage accounted for $2.8 billion. US and China are the primary markets, with almost $24 billion and nearly $14 billion respectively, in 2021. In 2021, Tesla generated $5.6 billion in Net Income, a net margin of over 10%.

Thus, it might be too late when we finally have accurate data about the Tesla insurance business revenues and, most importantly, margins. 

Take another case, that of Amazon, which left everyone flabbergasted, when it showed its AWS numbers, in 2016: 

When Amazon opened up its AWS numbers (as they had to comply with SEC’s requirements), AWS was the fastest growing segment, speeding up at a double-digit rate of growth per year. 

For instance, when Amazon finally shared the data for AWS, it had already become a giant in the cloud space, and companies like Google and Microsoft had to rush and ramp up their cloud operations to keep up!

It was also becoming more profitable than Amazon’s core business!

Keep in mind that executives in the industry, who were well positioned to see this coming, didn’t see it! 

Interviewed by Charlie Rose in October 2014 (when AWS was already generating over $4 billion in revenues), asked about what he thought of Amazon AWS, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said: 

“They make no money, Charlie! In my world, you’re not a real business until you make some money!” 

It’s, of course, too easy to pick on Steve Ballmer, but you get the point.

He completely missed the fact that not only AWS was making money, but it was also making it at wide margins, actually, higher margins than the core Amazon business!

Therefore, good businesses are often hidden and hard to predict, and when you realize it might be too late, the time window to catch up might be very, very tight!

To sum things up:

 1. Competition seems linear only in the short term.

Indeed, while you might be able as a dominant player to stiff competition in the short term, your future competitor might come from an unexpected place.

Take the case of Tesla entering the insurance business.

If you were a traditional insurance player, like Geico, operating since 1936, would you even place Tesla on your competitors’ map? 

When looking at the business world, you want to keep an open eye on what niches are developing, which might, non-linearly, develop as take-all industries!

2. One way is to look at where highly skilled people are moving to.

3. Another way is to look at built-in disincentives in large, existing industries and what other sectors these incentives are making emerge.

4. The last and critical point. In the long-term – what in the short term seemed an utterly unrelated industry – might end up becoming larger and eat you up!

How do you prevent that?

Keep an open eye on the few data points that matter.

If you were Steve Ballmer in 2014, instead of laughing at Amazon AWS, you would have sent around some of your key people to ask what startups were building their business on top of Amazon AWS.

You would have figured out that upstarts – at the time – like Netflix had been migrating their whole infrastructures on AWS.

Netflix completed the full migration to the AWS cloud in 2016 when it became way more expensive for Microsoft to pick up (even though it did manage to gain traction through Microsoft Azure, it might have been way cheaper if it had acted before). 

Keep these things in mind!


With ♥️ Gennaro, FourWeekMBA

Read Next: Business Model.

Related Business Concepts

Non-Linear Competition

Direct competition is a linear way to look at the business world, and compare a company with other similar companies, in the same industry. An example is comparing Netflix with other streaming services. On the opposite hand, the indirect competition looks at the core asset, and potential long-term overlaps. For instance, Netflix’s main asset is attention, and if you look at attention you might compare Netlfix with other services, beyond streaming, like perhaps TikTok.


Coopetition describes a recently modern phenomenon where organizations both compete and cooperate, which is also known as cooperative competition. A recent example is how the Netflix streaming platform has been among the major customers of Amazon AWS cloud infrastructure, while Amazon Prime has been among the competitors of the Netflix Prime content platform.

Comparable Analysis

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

Market Expansion

In a tech-driven business world, companies can move toward market expansion by creating options to scale via niches. Thus leveraging transitional business models to scale further and take advantage of non-linear competition, where today’s niches become tomorrow’s legacy players.

Business Scaling

Business scaling is the process of transformation of a business as the product is validated by wider and wider market segments. Business scaling is about creating traction for a product that fits a small market segment. As the product is validated it becomes critical to build a viable business model. And as the product is offered at wider and wider market segments, it’s important to align product, business model, and organizational design, to enable wider and wider scale.

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