The “network effect” is one of the most powerful ideas in technology and business. The idea is that the more users there are in a network, the more valuable the network becomes.
Network effects are a big deal for both businesses and investors. For companies that have critical masses of users and have established lock-in, it can mean profits that grow and grow and grow. It also means that investors may be willing to have a company they fund lose money for a while if they have a shot at becoming the number one business in a field with network effects.
We can see networks in all sorts of businesses, but especially ones based around the internet, which connects individuals to one another. There are network effects in the internet, in social networks, and in digital products like cryptocurrencies.
What Is a Network Effect?
The basic idea behind network effects comes from a relatively old form of technology: the telephone. Imagine you’re the first person with a landline telephone installed. You can pick it up and listen to a dial tone, but without anyone else with a telephone, it’s merely a sculpture plugged into your wall. If you had to pay for it, the phone is perhaps of negative value, unless you really like how it looks.
But there’s value for the second person getting a phone installed—after all, they can call you up and you can call them. As more phones get installed, the value of the phone network increases. When there are strong network effects, the value of new users rises for existing users as more and more users are added to the network.
How Does the Network Effect Work?
Network effects are crucial for basically any internet-related business, including the web itself. One of the most influential attempts to quantify network effects comes from Robert Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet. He maintained that the value of a network grew as the square of its number of users.
Following this line of thinking, the value of the network to the customers or users would grow exponentially while the cost of adding new users grows linearly. For businesses that can establish network effects, then, it may make sense to invest very very heavily in user growth, even if it means losing money in the short run.
What are Businesses with Network Effects?
There are a number of modern-day industries that benefit from network effects.
Network effects apply to parts of communications infrastructure that are not exactly businesses per se. For example, the World Wide Web, which is a platform for all sorts of nonprofit and for-profit activity and is not controlled by any one company, is characterized by network effects.
Online marketplace eBay is a useful look at how network effects work in marketplace businesses, where a service tries to connect buyers and sellers. One reason eBay was so successful in its early years was that it achieved “lock-in” (the point where it doesn’t make sense to go to other services) for individuals wanting to auction items online. It did this in part by making the service free for sellers in its early days, attracting new users eager to make money off their items.
Perhaps the most prominent example of businesses characterized by network effects are social networks. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social networks improve for users as more users, usually people they know or are interested in, use them. Once everyone you know is on a social network, it may become harder to avoid and easier to simply succumb to signing up.
If the previous examples of network effects were internet infrastructure or internet businesses, cryptocurrency may be a combination of both. Some cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, are incredibly valuable and have built up an ecosystem of service around them.
As more people consider Bitcoin to have value, it creates an incentive for miners to secure the network—the network effect at work. In the case of Ethereum, as more apps are deployed, each one becomes a building block. This drives increased usage, and ultimately more demand for Ethereum.
In both cases network effects are a sign that the cryptocurrency could have staying power: If it does something useful for its holders, it may do something useful for people who buy in.
Granted, many other cryptocurrencies have flamed out. One big question going forward is the extent to which crypto can be characterized as having network effects—that at a certain point people will almost feel compelled to start using them, rather than only viewing cryptocurrency as an investment.
A network effect is an idea that as a product or service gets more users, it will inherently attract more users—thus creating a pattern of success. The network effect can be seen most clearly in communication technology, including digital products and services like social media and cryptocurrency account. For investors, it can be smart to keep an eye on the network effect in businesses you’re invested in, or are considering.
For investors just starting out, or established investors looking to expand their holdings, the SoFi Invest® online trading app offers an active investing solution that allows you to choose your investments—including crypto—as well as an automated investing solution that invests your money for you based on your goals and risk.
Photo credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin
The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . SoFi Invest refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.
1) Automated Investing—The Automated Investing platform is owned by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor (“Sofi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC, an affiliated SEC registered broker dealer and member FINRA/SIPC, (“Sofi Securities).
2) Active Investing—The Active Investing platform is owned by SoFi Securities LLC. Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
3) Cryptocurrency is offered by SoFi Digital Assets, LLC, a FinCEN registered Money Service Business.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above, including state licensure of Sofi Digital Assets, LLC, please visit www.sofi.com/legal. Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform. Information related to lending products contained herein should not be construed as an offer or pre-qualification for any loan product offered by SoFi Lending Corp and/or its affiliates.
Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands or products mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Crypto: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t endorsed or guaranteed by any government, are volatile, and involve a high degree of risk. Consumer protection and securities laws don’t regulate cryptocurrencies to the same degree as traditional brokerage and investment products. Research and knowledge are essential prerequisites before engaging with any cryptocurrency. US regulators, including FINRA , the SEC , and the CFPB , have issued public advisories concerning digital asset risk. Cryptocurrency purchases should not be made with funds drawn from financial products including student loans, personal loans, mortgage refinancing, savings, retirement funds or traditional investments. Limitations apply to trading certain crypto assets and may not be available to residents of all states.