In business, vertical integration means a whole supply chain of the company is controlled and owned by the organization. Thus, making it possible to control each step through customers. in the digital world, vertical integration happens when a company can control the primary access points to acquire data from consumers.
Vertical integration in the physical world
On FourWeekMBA, I discussed Luxottica business model, which is a great example of vertical integration:
Luxottica controls the whole supply chain, that goes from product development, to manufacturing, and logistic.
This helps it gain control over the quality of the final product, and connect its product development processes with the distribution and customer experience.
While this strategy is more expensive in the short-run, over the years can turn into a competitive advantage.
As the Luxottica case shows, the company grew and it integrated more brands within its portfolio (iconic brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley are part of the Luxottica Group), by both having Luxottica owned brands and by producing sunglasses for other major luxury brands.
By controlling the supply chain, and taking a step further to its retail strategy, Luxottica can connect the dots between product development and final customers to make sure quality and customer demand are aligned.
This process is used also in the digital world, by players like Google or other tech giants, that over the years have developed products and distributed directly to customers to gain control over the whole supply chain.
Google vertical integration explained
In early 2018, Sundar Pichai, Google‘s CEO, highlighted how AI for humanity is more important and profound than what fire was. To keep using an analogy, the real fuel that keeps the AI fire going is data. Indeed when we go from atoms to bits, the strategic thinking behind an organization changes.
For instance, in for a traditional company, one of the long-term success of the organization is based on keeping control of its processes and being able to control the whole supply chain.
While this strategy is expensive, it is also what drives sustainable growth. For instance, traditional companies operating in “slower” sectors (think of Luxottica in the eyewear industry) managed to gain control over the supply chain also became world’s leaders in their markets.
In short, the idea is that the closer you get to the customer (in case you’re a manufacturer) or the closer you get to producer of a good or service (if you’re a retailer) the more control you have over the whole experience.
This, in turn, might allow you to dominate your industry over time and keep tight control over processes, quality, and operations:
While this is intuitive in the atoms world. It gets a bit trickier in the bits world.
For the sake of understanding how vertical integration and supply chain work in the bits world we’ll look at how Google is going up – or down (depending from where you look) the supply chain of data.
Atoms vs. bits
As the web has become so ingrained in the way we interact with the world and with each other, it is easy to forget between companies that operate purely in the atom world, compared to that opearting in the bits world.
Just to keep a clear distinction a business based on bits is mostly a software business or any organization that makes money primarily by selling digital goods or services, compared to a traditional atoms business.
It is important to remark that bits businesses are not entirely so, as they rely on massive physical infrastructure (think of Google data centers) which allow the company to operate.
However, a bits company mission is to provide goods or services, often at scale. Where in the atoms world, a key ingredient for an organization success is made of raw materials. In the bits world, that raw material is even more critical.
That is the crucial ingredient for their success, and the raw material in the bits world is data.
Google and the supply chain of data
Before understanding vertical integration in the bits world, made primarily of data it is critical to understand how it flows to realize how tech companies are trying to gain control of it.
Often the supply chain of data needs to rely on the physical supply chain and vice versa.
Google business of collecting data
Google learns a great deal about a user’s personal interests during even a single day of typical internet usage. In an example “day in the life” scenario, where a real user with a new Google account and an Android phone (with new SIM card) goes through her daily routine, Google collected data at numerous activity touchpoints, such as user location, routes taken, items purchased, and music listened to. Surprisingly, Google collected or inferred over two-thirds of the information through passive means. At the end of the day, Google identified user interests with remarkable accuracy.
This ability to identify users’ interests with “remarkable accuracy” comes from Google investments over the years in creating the proper infrastructure that could support its supply chain of data.
As voice search is approaching Google needs to be on top of the data game, and that explains the next run to dominate the voice assistants devices market.
From the search page to the voice assistant
When you type something on Google’s search box, you’re making its search engine better and better. That is the power of network effects. In short, the more users keep using Google, the better its search engine can capture users’ commercial intent.
However, even though Google has a high gross margin, people still have to keep going back to its search pages. As I pointed out in Google TAC strategy, the company managed to keep having billion of users each day going back to it thanks to a massive distribution network, both driven by distribution agreements and its networks (like AdWords and AdSense).
Yet that data is precious it is still coming from third parties. Therefore, Google is investing massive resources to make sure that data can get acquired via its devices so that it can finally have control of the overall chain.
As I pointed out in Google’s hardware plans in January 2018, Google completed the agreement with HTC with the acquisition of the team of engineers and a non-exclusive license of intellectual property from HTC for $1.1 billion in cash.
Another example, is how Google invested in KaiOS, an operating system, that transforms feature (dumb) phones in smartphones, providing them also of a default voice assistant (KaiOS phones use by default the Google Assistant).
That works as a window into the Indian market, where Google can access voice data, directly from those devices, thus bringing it closer to over a billion consumer base, that in the future might turn into a great business opportunity.
That move is toward creating a vertically integrated supply chain of data!
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