Economics For Entrepreneurs
Jeremy Vesta on How to Create Differentiated Value in Seemingly Undifferentiated Markets
Jeremy Vesta is a partner in Vesta Holdings, and a manager of Harmony Beef, a greenfield start-up in the fresh beef industry. Fresh beef might be thought of as a commoditized industry. But new entrepreneurial thinking can bring profitable differentiation to all markets. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
What’s the entrepreneurial response if you are operating in a commodity-like market? A fresh beef processor stands in the middle of the production chain, downstream from the unprocessed inputs and upstream relative to the distributors, retailers and consumers. Some abundant products and services that are inputs to finished consumer goods are deemed to be commodities and subject to price competition — lowest price gets the contract. Market conditions like these can be very challenging for entrepreneurs, apparently leaving little room for the kind of value creation or brand building that will generate higher prices and customer loyalty. What’s the right entrepreneurial response?
Operational excellence is a primary pillar of value provision in commodity markets. Jeremy’s first foundational principle for value creation in his industry — fresh beef — is operational excellence. It is often overlooked as a source of value by theorists, but not by customers. When they can count on exactness in meeting specifications, when their preferred timing is respected, when the quantities they ordered are the quantities that are delivered, customers translate the reliability of promises kept into trustworthiness, and the integrity of contractual precision into relationship strength. Operational excellence is often underestimated as a source of customer value.
The same is true further up the production chain. When an operator exhibits excellence to upstream suppliers and vendors, they are reassured that they are selling into a waste-free and efficient partnership, without operating friction or relationship tension.
An operator in a lightly differentiated market can provide the valuable service of transmitting market signals up and down the chain. Austrian economists say that the capital structure of an industry reflects the preferences of the end-consumer. Once customer and supplier relationships are established, the middle-of-the-production chain firm can provide a valuable market function as a curator, evaluator and transmitter of market signals. In Jeremy’s business, consumer signals pass through retailers as a request for “more products like that” or, conversely, as a non-purchase that shows up as “shrink” (perishable product that is unsold before its expiration date). Jeremy’s firm can pass these signals to the upstream suppliers to adjust their production practices. Similarly, social conversations in the marketplace about grass-fed beef, or organic beef, or hormone free / antibiotic free beef can be passed up the chain to producers willing to respond, and the resulting new products can be marketed as innovations by the retailer.
Careful and responsive market signal management enables increasingly sophisticated consumer, customer and product segmentation. True commodity markets, if there are such things, defy segmentation. The operator who senses the potential for market changes by curating market signals can create effective segmentation to increase differentiation and therefore profits. When the upstream producer provides more grass-fed beef in response to the market signals transmitted through Jeremy’s company, the supply side is newly segmented to Jeremy’s benefit. Then his company can supply the beef to selected retailers, restaurants and foodservice distributors who have expressed an interest in serving it to consumers, thus creating strong downstream segmentation and relationships. The capability to organize market signals, deduce evolutions in consumer preference, and to be a catalyst for innovation in the production chain is an important value-creation skill, even in (perhaps especially in) a lightly differentiated market.
The use of technology is another source of differentiation. Jeremy identified vacuum-packaging as a consumer-value creating technological advance in his industry. The product arrives at the consumer in a fresher condition and better protected, and provides the consumer more convenience as well as greater confidence in storing and handling. Jeremy’s company is an early adopter of such operational technologies, procuring the most advanced machinery and the latest componentry (such as high-tech bag material) to ensure the best functional performance (better / more complete vacuum) and therefore the greatest level of consumer emotional benefit (trust). Beef is still beef, but packaging and presentation are open pathways to greater customer satisfaction.
Most importantly, a firm can bring its own distinguishing values to bear in any market. Culture, values and integrity can’t be commoditized. Jeremy’s family chose the name Harmony for their beef company with great care and purposeful intent. Harmony up and down the production chain is built on trust and service. The company realizes more value when it exhibits core, true, genuine empathy. All market participants operate more efficiently when there is unquestioned trust. Each helps the other realize its goals. That doesn’t mean that there are never any problems or disputes, but integrity always defuses tensions, and trust always finds collaborative understanding. Setting high standards and adhering to a distinguished set of high values is beneficial for the whole production chain. Fairness pervades transactions. The market synchronizes when the counterparties in trades include care and trust in their dealings.