The Fat Torso

The Internet’s potential to enable new businesses by building for customers in the Long Tail is well-documented. However, for many Internet businesses, the Fat Torso is now more important.

As the Internet has scaled, we have seen the emergence of markets with Fat Torso and successful businesses that first target the Fat Torso of customers.

The Shape of Markets

Markets can have a big head, fat torso, or long tail. Offline businesses tend to have a fat head because there are real economies of scale. For example, the top five automotive manufacturers own about 50% of the global market and the top 15 own about 90% of the market. Internet businesses such as YouTube have both a fat head and a long tail uniquely enabled by the Internet.

As the Internet has matured, many markets have grown to also have “fat torsos.” These Fat Torso markets are often fantastic markets for startups to enter and the right entry point is through the Fat Torso.

What is the Torso?

Customers in the torso are between the head and the tail. They make decisions quickly and generate significant revenue or engagement per customer. Customers in the torso generate more value for your business (revenue or engagement) than tail customers, i.e. the area under the curve is larger. Unlike customers in the head who often make unreasonable demands because they are used to being catered to and having market dominance, torso companies will make feature requests that apply to many customers. Torso companies are hungry to compete with head companies and will try new solutions in order to gain an edge against their bigger competitors.

What is a Fat Torso?

Not all markets have “fat” torsos. If the torso is “fat,” there are many customers who meet the torso criteria (who spend lots of money and move quickly). Thus you can scale your business quickly: lots of customers * high revenue per customer (and they move quickly).

Go To Market: Torso First

The Fat Torso is the best place for startups to prove their business model. Often the go-to-market:

  1. Prove the model with the fat torso customers – torso customers move quickly, offer significant value to your business, are eager to scale their businesses, and do not have significant leverage over you to make unreasonable demands.
  2. Scale to support the head – now that you have some scale, you can negotiate with larger customers or partners. Your company has the runway to wait out the long time horizons that large customers require.
  3. Build self-service tools to serve the long tail – these customers offer significant revenue at scale but require a significant investment of self-service tools. They serve as a moat around your business if you can get them onboarded. Now that you have the customers they aspire to be (torso customers)

Examples

  • Online Ads — target sophisticated online advertisers such as game developers who scale ad spend quickly to $10 million+. Targeting smaller businesses in the tail requires hand-holding, self-service tools, and they will not scale ad spend over time. After you have the torso advertisers, convince large advertisers such as brand advertisers to use test budget and build out self-service tools for the tail.
  • SAAS — start by targeting companies large enough to give their employees autonomy to make purchasing decisions (say 100-1000 people). Avoid Fortune 1000 companies and avoid two-person startups. After you have many companies from 100-1000 people using your product, you can start moving up stream to enterprises and then build self-serve tools for startups.
  • E-Commerce Marketplace — find sellers who can use your platform as part of their existing full time business. At the same time, find buyers who will buy more frequently on your platform not just once per year. Etsy is a good example. It has many suppliers supplement their income substantially via Etsy and Etsy’s customer base appears to have a fat torso with 60% of customers buying only once per year. Over time you may be able to scale to head sellers like Nike or Dell. This is the path eBay took after scaling its core business by first working with sellers who made a living on the eBay platform.

The Torso First approach not the right fit for every market since not all markets have a Fat Torso. However, it is an increasingly common theme in businesses that scale to $100M+ in revenue, both because the markets that have Fat Torsos are great markets and because businesses that scale often use this strategy to scale quickly.

We discussed very similar ideas in some meetings at Facebook. I’m not sure who came up with these insights exactly, so thanks to everyone involved in helping form the ideas: Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Alex Himel, Pratiti Raychoudhary, and Jon Lax.

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