Iterations: The Spectre Of Inorganic Distribution

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Distribution is a hell of a drug. In a product-obsessed town, it’s distribution that often proves most elusive, and when a person or platform can tap into it, they oftentimes move quickly to lock-in those advantages.

However, not all distribution is created equal. In today’s technology landscape, while thousands of startups pursue the dream of massive distribution, a few platforms and companies hold tremendous advantages in their own special, elite tier: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, to cite the big ones.

These platforms confer great benefits to their owners and the ecosystem, and all is rosy until they decide to distribute and play favorites with their own goods at the expense of others. In the startup world, those moves can be frowned upon. The most recent example of this is a narrow but vocal strain of backlash in the Valley against Vine mini-movies blowing up in their Twitter feeds. Vine is a quick short-form video mobile app acquired pre-launch by Twitter and, given their new owner’s platform strength, was quickly distributed to a large audience worldwide (if they had an iPhone).

I personally enjoy Vine and, recently, a small set of my non-tech friends who have seen and tried the app enjoy the product and find it slightly more fun than a picture, in most cases. The chorus of backlash in the Valley, I believe, has less to do with the product, and more to do with the fact that Vine did not naturally grow (like Instagram), but rather benefited from “inorganic distribution.”

There are other examples of “inorganic distribution” under slightly different conditions. As Snapchat gained steam late in 2012, Facebook launched their own similar app, Poke, seeking to use their massive distribution and concentration of eyeballs to douse water on the Snapchat flame. As any iOS developer painfully knows, getting noticed by users in the iOS App Store is getting more and more difficult, and it’s not easier when Apple restricts which of its own native apps remain as defaults, especially when considering interoperability between apps. Google is slowly incorporating more editorial data (and sometimes, Google owns this data) as it returns searches for authors or restaurants, for instance (see: Zagat). And, Amazon recently made its dive into publishing after years of selling books, backing Tim Ferris’ new cookbook, much to the chagrin of big publishers.

In a textbook or business school case study, a platform’s incentive to inorganically distribute their goods makes perfect sense. It is a seemingly rational move. Right or wrong, in the world of startups, many believe that distribution should be earned without the PEDs of platform advantages. Up until it was acquired, Instagram was the poster child for organic distribution, an independent startup leveraging all the major platforms for its benefit and rising to the top by itself. Then, once it became a private entity owned by Facebook, different strains of power-user backlash have emerged, perhaps the result of the fact that now, as a property, Instagram has unfettered access to the drug that is Facebook’s distribution channels and can therefor play by different rules.

While there are no hard and fast rules for platforms to follow, the most recent backlash around Vine has less to do with the product itself, and more to do with the fact it was given an outsized advantage under Twitter’s wings while many other startups trying to crack the mobile video nut on their own.

“Inorganic distribution” may seem unfair, but it’s also a reality, and everyone building new products and hoping for distribution on other platforms should probably think twice about what the big platform owners could do. They could acquire an app in your category to distribute. They could copy and rebuild an app in your category to distribute. Or, they could limit the data access for apps in your category, making the thought of distribution moot. While it may seem unfair, all is fair game when startups rely on platforms for growth. As a result, and as always, product-builders seeking distribution should plan accordingly.