Strangling Innovation: Tesla vs. “Rent Seekers”

6/26/13Follow @sgblank

The greatest number of jobs is created when startups create a new market—one where the product or service never existed before or is radically more convenient. Yet this is where startups will run into anti-innovation opponents they may not expect. These opponents have their own name—“rent seekers”—the landlords of the status-quo.

Smart startups prepare to face off against rent seekers and map out creative strategies for doing so. First, however, they need to understand what a rent seeker is and how they operate.

Recently, the New York and North Carolina legislatures considered a new law written by auto dealer lobbyists that would make it illegal for Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers. This got me thinking about the legal obstacles that face innovators with new business models.

Examples of startups challenging the status quo include: Lyft, Square, Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Zillow, Bitcoin, LegalZoom, food trucks, charter schools, and massively open online courses. Past examples of startups that succeeded in redefining current industries include Craigslist, Netflix, Amazon, Ebay and Paypal.

While Tesla, Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, et al are in very different industries, they have two things in common: 1) they’re disruptive business models creating new markets and upsetting the status quo and 2) the legal obstacles confronting them weren’t from direct competitors, but from groups commonly referred to as “rent seekers.”

Rent Seekers

Rent seekers are individuals or organizations that have succeeded with existing business models and look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against innovative competition. They use government regulation and lawsuits to keep out new entrants with more innovative business models. They use every argument from public safety to lack of quality or loss of jobs to lobby against the new entrants. Rent seekers spend money to increase their share of an existing market instead of creating new products or markets. The key idea is that rent seeking behavior creates nothing of value.

These barriers to new innovative entrants are called economic rent. Examples of economic rent include state automobile franchise laws, taxi medallion laws, limits on charter schools, auto, steel or sugar tariffs, patent trolls, bribery of government officials, corruption and regulatory capture. They’re all part of the same pattern—they add no value to the economy and prevent innovation from reaching the consumer.

No Regulation?

Not all government regulation is rent or rent seeking. Not all economic rents are bad. Patents for example, provide protection for a limited time only, to allow businesses to recoup R&D expenses as well as make a profit that would often not be possible if completely free competition were allowed immediately upon a products’ release. But patent trolls emerged as rent seekers by using patents as legalized extortion of companies.

How Do Rent Seekers Win?

Instead of offering better products or better service at lower prices, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians and regulators to pass laws, write regulations, and collect taxes that block competition. The process of getting the government to give out these favors is rent-seeking.

Rent seeking lobbyists go directly to legislative bodies (Congress, state legislatures, city councils) to persuade government officials to enact laws and regulations in exchange for campaign contributions, appeasing influential voting blocks or future jobs in the regulated industry. They also use the courts to tie up and exhaust a startups limited financial resources.

Lobbyists also work through regulatory bodies like FCC, SEC, FTC; public utility, taxi, or insurance commissions; school boards, etc. Although most regulatory bodies are initially set up to protect the public’s health and safety, or to provide an equal playing field, over time the very people they’re supposed to regulate capture the regulatory agencies. Rent seekers take advantage of regulatory capture to protect their interests against the new innovators.

PayPal—Dodging Bullets

PayPal consistently walked a fine line with regulators. Early on the company shut down their commercial banking operation to avoid being labeled as a commercial bank and burdened by banks’ federal regulations. PayPal worried that complying with state-by-state laws for money transmission would also be too burdensome for a startup, so they first tried to be classified as a chartered trust company to provide a benign regulatory cover, but failed. As the company grew larger, incumbent banks forced PayPal to register in each state. The banks lobbied regulators in Louisiana, New York, California, and Idaho and soon they were issuing injunctions forcing PayPal to delay their IPO. Ironically, once PayPal complied with state regulations by registering as a “money transmitter” on a state-by-state basis, it created a barrier to entry for future new entrants.

U.S. Auto Makers—Death by Rent Seeking

The U.S. auto industry is a textbook case of rent-seeking behavior. In 1981, unable to compete with the quality and price of Japanese cars, the domestic car companies convinced the U.S. government to restrict the import of “foreign” cars. The result? Americans paid an extra $5 billion for cars. Japan overcame these barriers by using their import quotas to ship high-end, high-margin luxury cars, establishing manufacturing plants in the U.S. for high-volume lower cost cars and by continuing to innovate. In contrast, U.S. car manufacturers raised prices, pocketed the profits, bought off the unions with unsustainable contracts, ran inefficient factories and … Next Page »

Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at www.steveblank.com. Follow @sgblank

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  • Simons Chase

    Didn’t you know legislative agendas are prioritized by the potential to generate bribes/campaign funds? Soviet style!

  • god

    paypal elon musk tesla elon musk spacex elon musk i’m seeing a pattern here

  • All Hat, No Cattle

    For life science business innovators, one class of rent seekers is clinicians. Resistant to adopting IT, resistant to evidence-based medicine, using medical school licensure to limit access and artificially maintain high labor costs, resistant to adopting best practices, unaware of quality control methodology, and resistant to performance review. Together with powerful rent seekers, including FDA and hospital administrators, they stifle cost-saving innovation in delivery models. Paradoxically, adoption of innovation would dramatically improve their performance and bolster their waning satisfaction in their career choice. This article suggests a nefarious motivation in rent seekers, but I think evidence in the life sciences suggests an additional explanation. With the best intention, experts and established luminaries can protect their turf, their rented turf, at the expense of innovation and a better reality.

    • Drew Hession-Kunz

      Yes, our totally selfless medical community is willing to deliver sub-standard medicine to people to protect their franchise– true rent seeking. Wonderful people caught up in a nefarious medical system. Yet they ARE the system, and support it

    • Garn

      REALLY??? (Enough said…)