Business-model-canvas -cost structure

© Entrepreneurial Insights based on the concept of Alex Osterwalder

In this post we explore the ninth and final building block in the business model canvas series which is called the Cost Structure. We briefly look at what we mean by the cost structure of an organization before delving into the key question every entrepreneur must answer if he/ she is to do a thorough and unflinching analysis of their business models. We also look at what kind of characteristics most cost structures display; cost structure have fixed and variable costs and they can have benefits of economies of scale or economies of scope.

Read on to learn about 1) cost structure, 2) types of businesses, 3) characteristics of cost structures, and a 4) case study of Google.

COST STRUCTURE

This building block represents all the costs that a business can or will incur if it opts for a particular business model. 90% of new businesses fail in the first 3 years because they fail to understand their costs or what it will take to create the goods and services they have promised in their value propositions. At least three other building blocks are contributors to the cost structure block. One must evaluate the cost of creating and delivering the value proposition, creating revenue streams and focus on long-term customer relationships. All three of these blocks represent a financial investment into the business. However, when an entrepreneur has effectively figured out their key resources, key activities and key partnerships the aforementioned costs become easier to calculate. If you have a major cost stream which cannot be matched to a Key Activity, it needs to be given a closer examination. Either your Key Activities block is missing a vital activity or your costs are being inflated by an activity which is unimportant and yet has still been included in the business model. It is important to note that cost can be a fundamental concern for some business model. One example is ‘no frills’ airlines like SouthWest which are completely focused on reducing costs.

Key questions to ask

When doing a thorough analysis of your business model, it is imperative to ask the following questions when filling in the Cost Structure building block of the business model canvas;

  1. What are the fundamental costs derived from my business model?
  2. Which Key Resources represent a significant expense to the business?
  3. Which Key Activities represent a significant expense to the business?
  4. How do your Key activities drive costs?
  5. Are the above mentioned activities matched to the Value Propositions for your business?
  6. By exploring different permutations of your business model, do the costs remain fixed or become variable?
  7. Is your business more values driven or cost driven?

TYPES OF BUSINESSES BY COST STRUCTURE

Costs will always remain a major concern for all businesses. It is in fact the universal concern. However, some businesses make it an organizational mission to minimize costs as much as possible and all their strategies and tactics are derived from this one goal. Hence businesses can be categorized into two extremes based on the volume of goods produced; both ends of the spectrum are either cost driven or values driven. Realistically though, companies usually fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Cost-driven

As the name suggests, such a business model is utterly focused on reducing costs. This is essentially a race to the bottom. This obviously impacts the other building blocks. A business which is cost-driven focuses on creating a lean cost structure through offering cheaply priced value propositions, a high degree of automation, and outsourcing of costly functions. It is important to lower your prices based on internal costs and expenses rather than in response to what the competition is doing. Industries prone to price wars experience this tragedy all the time. During the price war competitors will steadily undercut each other’s prices to attract the price sensitive customer. However, if your competition is able to manage its costs and create operational efficiencies, they will be able to sustain their business on the lower price and continue to attract customers. If your business fails to do so, you may end up arriving at a price you are stuck with, which is unrealistic considering your expenses.

Ryanair is another example of a ‘no frills’ airline which provides a cheap solution to its customer segment for air travel by reducing costs incurred by in-flight meals or other amenities traditionally offered by major airlines. Such airlines have increased seats in their planes and have a limit on luggage size. However, the swift takeover of the market airlines like Ryanair have accomplished clearly show an unmet need that these airlines have fulfilled. Conversely, more expensive airlines have aircrafts which now spend more time on the ground than they do in the air.

Values-driven

Not all companies drive their business based on costs. Some focus completely on the value they are providing to their customers, hence taking the value-driven approach. This strategy is characterized by complete focus on the creation and delivery of a high value, value proposition which is highly customized to the customer segment’s preferences. Luxury hotels opt for a values driven approach. The Hyatt prides itself on its customer services and amenities. They put a lot of effort into creating an experience which customers are willing to pay top dollar for. Employees of the hotel are encouraged to anticipate individual customer’s needs right down to greeting a repeat customer by name and providing them with a room with their preferences already in place.

Another volume specific example is of the transistors used to amplify or switch electronics signals called metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors or MOSFETs. This is one of the most commonly used transistors in analog and digital circuits. The price per unit is 21 cents. If you buy 10, the price per unit becomes 19 cents and if you buy a hundred the price per unit falls even further to 17 cents. Hence this is a variable cost dependent entirely on the volume you are trying to produce which requires the MOSFETs. There is a price difference depending on how much you buy, leading to economies of scale.

CHARACTERISTICS OF COST STRUCTURES

Cost structures have multiple characteristics. These are highlighted below;

Fixed costs

Fixed costs are business expenses that remain the same regardless of the volume produced by the business. These costs are usually time bound such as monthly salaries or rent for office space and can also be referred to as overhead costs. Manufacturing businesses are typically characterized by high fixed costs due to the investments required in renting the facilities and the equipment. However, it is important to note that fixed costs will not remain the same forever. Instead, they may change with time but will remain stable over a period of time. Hence these costs are also known as sunk costs for the relevant period of time.

Decisions for costs are often related to management. Capital Expenditure or CAPEX are investments in the long-term, things that are bought and go on the balance sheet of the company and will be depreciated over the years.

Variable costs

Variable costs are costs which are heavily dependent on the volume of output a company produces. These are costs incurred when you produce a product. If you do not produce, you will have no variable costs. Similarly you may have delivery costs but if customers aren’t asking for delivery then this is a possible variable cost which you can avoid. These costs are therefore sensitive to changes in demand and supply and cannot be easily predicted. They increase directly proportional to increases in labor and capital. Variable costs are represented by utility bills and raw materials used for production of the end product. The organization and execution of a music festival will typically be characterized by high variable costs.

Another cost close to the management’s hearts and minds are Operational costs or OPEX. These are the costs associated with the day to day running of the company or the used up expenses. Hence a 3D printer is an example of an expense that falls in OPEX. Other OPEX related expenditures are purchase of raw materials, electricity bills and expenditure on maintenance of buildings and machinery. Companies often have different budgets for CAPEX and OPEX.

Economies of scale

The higher the volume, the lower the overall cost per unit. Economies of scale are a benefit enjoyed by most big companies with a high output quota. Essentially this is a cost advantage which big companies can enjoy due to their size, sheer quantity of output or scale of operation. The reason costs fall with higher volumes is because higher volumes spread fixed costs more thinly making the cost per unit fall dramatically; hence the average cost per unit is reduced. Hence a bigger company will have a lower cost per unit output than a smaller company or a company with more facilities will have more of an advantage than one with fewer facilities. Not only do economies of scale help lower fixed costs, they may also help reduce variable costs by creating synergies and increasing efficiency.

Bulk buying is a common indicator of mass production and automatically leads to economies of scale. Bulk buying often leads to lower prices. When you are buying in volume, you often have a stronger negotiating position and can create lower prices for your raw material. This is a tactic used most successfully by Walmart which uses bulk buying to negotiate much lower prices for the items in its stores. It is then able to transfer these savings to its customers, providing them with lower than market prices for regular items.

Economies of scope

Economies of scope refer to the reduction of costs when a business invests in multiple markets or a larger scope of operations. The average cost of production is therefore expected to decrease if a company opts to increase the number of goods it produces. A company will have a structure in place already along with all the departments such as Marketing, Finance or HR operating, so the company can increase their scope and hence economize the entire structure.

Economies of scope based on product diversification are only achieved if the different products have common processes or share the use of some resource. Hence spending on marketing the products or distribution channels may lessen per unit if both products require similar marketing efforts or use the same distribution channel. The uses of product bundling and family branding are also an example of firms trying to achieve economies of scale. However, where economies of scale are easy to achieve and measure, economies of scope present a bigger challenge when trying to measure them

Economies of scope have multiple advantages for the business. These are listed below;

  1. A great deal of flexibility in the design and mix of the product
  2. Increased response rate and decreased response time to market driven changes
  3. Processes are repeatable with a higher degree of control over their execution
  4. Costs are reduced because wastage is minimized in this particular business model
  5. Organizations can more accurately predict changes and cycles
  6. Software and hardware utilized more efficiently
  7. There is less risk associated with a company which sells multiple products, or targets multiple markets or does both. Even if one product or market falters, the company will have alternatives to help tide it over while it readjusts strategy.

Let’s take a look at the Coca Cola brand. Coca Cola already has a number of drinks launched in the brand other than Coke itself. Supposing we look into how Coke can diversify even further by launching an as yet unheard of drink such as Coca Cola Green Tea. Distribution of the different products under one company will use the established Distribution Channel leading to a major saving for the company.

CASE STUDY: GOOGLE

We all recognize Google as a multinational corporation which specializes in internet based products and services. It is one of the biggest internet companies in the world and has made an unprecedented success of its Search Engine Optimization products. It has dedicated fans worldwide and is the most preferred search engine on the internet.

For the purpose of this article, we will take a look at Google’s Cost Structure in particular. Holistically, Google’s cost elements can be divided into four categories which are:

  • R&D,
  • Data center operations,
  • Traffic Acquisition, and
  • Sales and Marketing.

Google invests deeply into its research and development with the purpose of bringing around improvement in existing products and constantly creating new and innovative solutions. This expenditure has helped Google maintain its position at the top despite the typical short-lived cycles of popularity of most internet based successes. This has led to economies of scope for Google because it has resulted in a great deal of product diversification such as Google’s entry into the mobile app market as well as its cloud sharing services.

It is speculated that Google has almost a million servers globally and these servers help process around a billion search requests daily. Google has invested a great deal into these data centers and they represent a significant fixed cost for the company. Even the management of these servers’ represents a major cost for the company. However, due to the high volume of searches these centers process, they are able to increase economies of scale for the company by optimizing the servers search capacities.

Traffic acquisition costs refer to the money given to the Google Network through its Adsense program or to websites which redirect users to Google or provide the Google Toolbar to their customers. All these players help Google in attracting more and more users to its products and services daily.

Finally, Google invests in advertising and marketing to the wide customer base it is targeting. These costs also include the worldwide Sales Force that Google maintains which aims to sell its campaigns as well as its support team, available to handle customer complaints or hiccups.

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2 comments

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1
Buddhi Raj Sharma

This is a very useful sight for entrepreneurs worth spending about 15 minutes in a day.

2

I have used the BMC for 4 years and I love your blog and it's thorough explanations.