Shrimponomics, Complements & BPOs

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A few years ago, there was a Freakonomics post about how people reason about economic situations and phenomena. The phenomenon in question was shrimp consumption: the amount of shrimp people eat in the US per capita  tripled between 1982 and 2007. When asked to explain this rise, non-economists mainly give demand reasons (changes in preferences), while economists are more likely to also give supply reasons (improved fishing efficiency, rise of aquaculture etc.). 

If I had to offer an explanation for this focus on demand explanations, my guess it that demand explanations come more easily to us because it is the side of the market that is more familiar to us : most of us have eaten shrimp & bought shrimp—very few of us have worked in commercial fishing. So when asked “why are people consuming more shrimp?” we start with “why might I consume more shrimp?” and although price is certainly a reason (and a path of thought that would help lead to a demand explanation), it’s not as salient or even as interesting as things like changing tastes, health trends, exciting new shrimp-based dishes etc.     
So this blog post isn’t about shrimp and it isn’t about supply & demand. It’s about complements and substitutes. I think there is a similar psychological tendency to focus on goods-as-substitutes than goods-as-complements.  At the individual level where we are making choices, we are usually thinking in terms of substitutes: do I want coffee or tea? Should I take a vacation to Las Vegas or Hawaii? Mac or PC? It’s a bit more subtle to think about “if I had X, would it make Y more useful to me” which is at the heart of all complementarity stories. 

This is a long-winded introduction to my real topic, which is that in my last blog post, I made the argument that online work could disrupt the BPO industry by serving as a substitute for what BPOs offer. A point I didn’t think of—but in retrospect seems pretty obvious—is how just as easily complementarity could be the dominate effect. After my blog post, my CTO at oDesk, Odysseas, emailed me with his thoughts:  

The primary benefit of BPOs is not that of labor cost arbitrage. Thats typically the motive/benefit for offshore staff augmentation firms – but BPOs are business process outsourcers. BPO is ADP [Automated Data Processing] that outsources your payroll or a business that outsource your HR process etc… We often tend to think of BPOs as an offshore firm that does a little bit of everything having as sole pivot point its lower cost of labor – thats true, but its an abuse of the term and I would agree there that the particular type of business is going to be affected in the years to come from online labor.

This part is basically my substitutes story—now the complements part:

However, the more interesting effect would be the effect of online labor to the real BPOs..
There BPOs will not be negatively affected – the opposite. The availability of online labor would allow BPOs to become more flexible lower their overall fixed costs force them to become more automated and streamline (their virtual nature will require that), allowing them to lower even the cost per customer, allowing them to focus on smaller projects, smaller customers allowing to address smaller/different market segments.  They will become less relying on an enterprise sales force customer acquisition model which is dramatically affecting their cost structure.
We are seing examples of what the new BPOs will become in companies that outsource the process of testing (uTest) of seo writing (Mediapiston) etc.

He’s of course exactly right—and he’s a CS PhD, not an economist, so shame on me :). If you think of true BPOs in the sense that Odysseas is talking about, then the complementarity story becomes more important. These true BPOs would be big buyers in the inputs market and would benefit greatly from a liquid, efficient market for labor.