Are Business Models Changing Our Relationships?

Jen van der MeerBusiness Model Practice

Hi, I’m Jen, and I design business models. 

I am a teacher and consultant and I help people understand how their organizations make money. That’s been an in-demand skill during the pandemic.  Making money is on-trend.

I’ve been on constant Zoom calls with current and former clients and students to help redesign and shift their business models. It’s been non-stop. I have just started to take long walks as the city opens up and notice the major differences in street life as every week goes by. 

This picture is of my neighborhood in the West Village of Manhattan, NYC, June 2020, just after the protests, just as the city officially opened up. 

I can see so much in this photo that tells me how we are doing here in NYC. I can see so much more because I can still talk to my neighbors, parents, kids, local business owners, and delivery people.

I start to understand what’s changed when I respond to questions from my eleven-year-old who wants to make sense of the protests, the climate, the closed and boarded-up stores, and the emergent thriving streets.

How ARE we doing?

I see the Indian Roti shop that stayed open almost every day during COVID19 and had to fight with delivery apps to make sure her open times were accurate and that she could survive after Seamless took their cut.

I see the pizza place that just re-opened, one that has claimed “best of NY” status by multiple sources, and has chosen to rely on delivery service Caviar.

I see a bike dealer, Brompton, that sells British foldable bikes. You can’t order these bikes from the manufacturer. You can’t get these bikes on Amazon. They are all sold out. But this dealer has stockpiled many boxes in their store and they are doing a brisk business. 

I see an expensive but just-ok restaurant and a local old-time butcher that have both remained closed. 

I see an Uber Eats delivery bike rider hovering near the pizza and Roti shop, waiting for their next order. 

I see no Ubers (cars) or Lyfts or even Yellow Cabs.

I see not everyone is wearing a mask. I know from the angry discussions on NextDoor with my neighbors that mask-wearing is politicized, just as it might be in the heartland of our country. 

I see the apartments above the stores, where I know families are arguing over the automated emails from Google Classroom. Are they edited by humans? Do they contain instructions? Or are they just machine-read-out noise? I see middle school students who get lost in hours down the YouTube-recommended-by-teachers to content-recommended-by-YouTube rabbit hole. 

You can’t see but I hear the constant helicopters and drones overhead,  set up to control the protest marches that continue to emerge that we all follow on Instagram, Citizen, and Twitter.

We are a resilient city. We have recovered from major events before. But right now as we plan our recovery we are negotiating through digital systems that change how we interact with each other, and they hold the key for any new model we want to create. 

We can’t just redesign the world on a blank canvas. We have to first understand how the world is organized, and how these technical systems have reshaped our economics, and how these technical-economic systems have changed our social life, culture, and relationships.

In this city corner alone, I count multiple business model archetypes:

Seamless, by Grubhub: Two-sided marketplace connecting customers to restaurants for take-out.

Caviar: Two-sided marketplace connecting customers to restaurants for take-out.

Brompton: Retail Dealer

Amazon: Amazon has 22 business models, but in this case, we’re referring to their e-commerce marketplace model.

Uber Eats: Three-sided marketplace, connecting take-out customers to restaurants and Uber drivers, taking a cut.

Uber: Two-sided marketplace, subsidizing rides, taking a % of transactions

Lyft: Two-sided marketplace, subsidizing rides, taking a % of transactions

Yellow Cabs: Pay-Per-Mile, plus Medallion.

Google Classroom, offered by Alphabet: Free to educational institutions, to get kids interested in other Alphabet offerings like…

YouTube, offered by Alphabet: Advertising, minimal subscription fees

Instagram, offered by Facebook: Advertising

NextDoor: Advertising

Citizen: Free, pre-business model (funded to just build and grow and decide later)

Twitter: Advertising

In some ways, much of commerce would not be possible if it were not for digital businesses. I see no waits for stores. I have friends in the Bronx and Brooklyn who wait for hours in lines at banks and pharmacies that do not have digital interfaces.

In other ways, I see friction and unfairness and more fragile conditions for the people who work for these companies, and the small businesses that depend on them. I also see no recourse to resist the way advertising-models have infiltrated my home and my life.

But what if we could change all of these interactions just by changing the companies and the way these models are designed? If we could change how our world is shaped by money?

As I see the younger generation convene just a few blocks north at the Stonewall National Monument, I hear a call for change. Marching is important. Changing the laws is critical. But business models have crawled underneath our laws. Business models are more powerful. If we want to change the world, we need to change how the world makes money.

This Business Model Design writing exercise is for a generation of people who did not create this mess, but need to redesign how this world works through models.

Hopefully, we can all observe and experiment as we make sense of this world we created, and try out new versions to not just survive the crises, but to flourish in this city and on this earth. 

I’ll be following up with a combination of qualitative and quantitative observations over the next couple of weeks, as I relocate out of the city and notice what’s changed. 

Jen