Software vs. Hardware Business Models
Much of my consulting practice centers on working with early stage software companies. But I have substantial hardware market experience in my background, and I do take on consulting assignments with hardware companies.
So what are the differences and similarities between successful software and hardware businesses?
One of the larger differences is that software companies generally require much lower capital to reach profitability and continued growth. This is primarily because of the lack of need to invest in expensive semiconductor development tools, semiconductor masks, manufacturing plants/equipment, manufacturing engineering personnel, unfinished goods inventory, higher cost of finished goods inventory, etc. So except for startups backed by substantial institutional capital, it’s much easier to startup software companies compared to their hardware counterparts.
Another important area where software companies have an advantage is in margins—both in the area of typical gross margins, as well as the potential for higher net margins. This is primarily due to the negligible cost-of-goods-sold for most software companies.As a result, it easier for software companies to get to profitability, and if a large market is found, sustain profitability. Remember, throughout this article I am talking “on average”. There are hardware businesses with excellent gross margins (dominant semiconductor companies come to mind) as well. But in general, this is an area where the advantage goes to software.
The big difference here also is related to product cost. The major difference comes down to product cost, which in the long run creates a floor for anyone who would actually like to make a profit. While optimal pricing of hardware or software should be based upon a value-based approach—with market segmentation as the key However, I rarely find this to be the case in my consulting practice—whether the company markets a software or hardware product.
In the hardware business, you tend to see a lot of simple pricing models that are cost-based. For software businesses, the negligible product cost can be the other end of the proverbial double-edge sward when it comes to pricing. In a competitive market, you may see competitors in software markets literally “give away” the initial product, and rely on the upgrade stream to make a profit downstream. This can strain the profitability of the entire segment, and in severe circumstances, can suck all the profit from the market. You see this scenario most often started by weaker competitors, or in markets where switching costs are high. While hardware pricing can be even more competitive generally, it is less likely for a weaker competitor in a hardware market to introduce a “zero-margin” program. This is because it is often tougher to hang onto a customer in the second generation (if the market has commoditized), and the market leader often has a gross margin advantage—making it an ill advised maneuver other than as an attention-getting, short-term promotion.
The advent of the Internet has created a major difference in distribution between software and hardware companies, where there was very little difference in the past. It has made direct distribution much more practical for small software companies, in markets where a simple download is practical. For those companies which aren’t direct-only, distribution is similar for hardware and software companies. Traditional distribution through third parties tends to be very similar, although higher inventory costs are still a burden that hardware companies need to manage more closely, both for in-house finished goods and those held by the channel.
DEFENSIBLE STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE
This is an area in which software and hardware markets have both similarities and large differences. Both hardware and software companies value patents as a form of providing a sustainable competitive advantage. But in my opinion, the inherent malleability of software makes patent protection less useful in software than in hardware. It is easier to “find another way” of accomplishing the same end result when you are dealing strictly in software code. It’s also easier to segment in software markets, creating a targeted, niche version of a software product for a specific segment, nipping at a market leader without drawing their fire. It’s much harder for a small hardware company to differentiate itself this way. On the other hand, the market leader that establishes itself and creates a large volume business, creates the important competitive advantages—cost efficiencies and brand recognition are the huge, defensible advantages. So I believe this point comes down to scale—in software markets, it’s easier for a small competitor to overcome the scale of larger competitors, and develop a niche strategic advantage. While in hardware, the large competitors can use scale to create the ultimate competitive advantage.
This is an area in which hardware companies normally have an advantage. They usually have simpler user interfaces, and sometimes utilize symbols extensively in their interfaces, greatly reducing translation requirements into local languages. Hardware companies do have to deal with some physical differences in standards, such as electrical—but these have stabilized over time, and are often handled in the standard product.
Conversely, software user interfaces are usually language intensive and more complex, with thicker user manuals. This requires software companies to live with higher localization costs and longer lead times to market worldwide. The exception to this is complex software sold to highly technical users, where English is often used as the standard language.
POTENTIAL FOR DOMINANCE
I’m going by mostly by empirical evidence here. It seems that there have been a lot more hardware companies who have dominated there respective businesses, for a longer period of time than in software. For every Microsoft (and there’s really only one of those!) it seems there are many more examples like Intel, Cisco, IBM, HP, Dell, etc. Hardware markets tend to commoditize more easily, but with standardization on a couple of leading brands. It’s hard to make money in the long run in hardware unless you are one of the top two or three players. Large hardware markets are also relatively larger in revenue than large software markets, allowing market leaders to more fully utilize their profit and cost advantages over competitors, by spreading marketing costs over large product volumes. So if you’re looking to build a truly dominant company, the odds are greater in hardware—although you probably are still better off heading to Las Vegas, and putting your life savings on roulette red!
There are many more ways to contrast and compare hardware and software companies, but I will end it here. What other points would you add?