After Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) announced iTunes Radio last week, I watched a panel of experts on Bloomberg discuss its effect on Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P), as Pandora’s stock was actually up following the announcement. When asked whether Pandora would be negatively impacted by Apple’s move, an analyst equated Apple going after Pandora’s market to the following, “It reminds me of Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) and Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) going after eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) on the auction side, they lost that war, Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P) has first mover advantage, if Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is going to be successful, they’re going to have to do something different.”
This is a fundamentally incomplete analogy that would give Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P) shareholders a false sense of security if they were to take the analyst at his word.
“Economic moat” is of course a term coined by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B)‘s Warren Buffett, and is one his primary qualitative criteria he evaluates before he invests in any company. A moat essentially is a strong, hard to duplicate/overcome competitive advantage. There is a huge difference in the value of eBay’s moat and, similarly, Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)‘s versus that of Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P).
Facebook and eBay
What generates the strength of Facebook’s or eBay’s moat? Not just their already installed base (developed in part from first mover advantage), but the fact that their users are so intertwined with one another. One user begets another for both companies.
Google Plus might be a superior platform in many ways to Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), but that’s like having a beautiful night club with no one in it, versus your local bar where all your friends are. You can go to the marble walled nightclub, yell for hours, and maybe hear a faint echo back, or stay on your favorite worn out bar stool and joke around with all your friends, having a good time. We can’t leave Facebook for long like we can’t leave the Earth’s surface when we jump–gravity pulls us back. Simply put, we Facebook because all our friends Facebook.
Similarly, Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) was unsuccessful in taking on eBay’s auction business (even with Yahoo charging no fees and generating its revenues from advertising.) Why? Because eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) had built a user base that was interacting continually and was thus interdependent. Put your stuff on Yahoo Auctions, and you wouldn’t find as many bidders; go to Yahoo Auctions, and you don’t find what you want. It was a catch 22, and thus even with superior pricing, Yahoo couldn’t penetrate eBay’s moat and has since shut down its auction site in the US and most countries.
Pandora vs. Apple
Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P) is a great service which I really enjoy using, but Pandora’s moat does not have the intertwined base of users/gravity of a Facebook or eBay. Yes, Pandora has a large installed user base which it did gain from first mover advantage, but unlike Google Plus, if iTunes Radio is a better service somehow, there is nothing to keep me from moving over.