The lesson we must learn from Gutenberg and 3D printers: The key of business is not in the control of a resource, but in providing users access to it.

15-16th century. Books are disseminated in manuscript copies, making books scarce and inaccessible resources. With the advent of Gutenberg’s printing, the publication of books leaves the monasteries to move to print shops. In the next 50 years, 20 million books are published. Knowledge is no longer the monopoly of a few. Students no longer rely solely on their teachers and they can learn with the help of books.

20-21th century. 3D printing is in the hands of a few manufacturers. The printers are only available to large corporations and the other companies must send their designs to manufacturers to print prototypes. In 2009, patents of 3D printing technology expire and prices plummet, making printers accessible to small businesses and, predictably, allowing personal fabrication.

There are many other similar examples to the two cases we just saw:

  • Digital photography combined with the improvement of the quality of home printers reduces the demand for professional photo printing.
  • Social networks become a direct channel of communication, without resorting to traditional media to inform the public.
  • Content management systems make it possible to create a website without the help of a designer.

The same pattern is observed in all these cases:

The complex and costly process of creating a resource is monopolized by a few intermediaries. To obtain this resource is therefore necessary to turn to them. At a certain point, a (usually) technological advance simplifies the process of creating, reducing its cost. The resource is released from the monopoly of intermediaries.

I’ve met some of these intermediaries, belonging to different fields. I’ve seen how their services were no longer needed, although the quality of their work was far superior to that offered by their numerous and new competitors.

Business models based on the control of a resource, be it a product, service or information have always been doomed to be replaced. Sooner or later, access to that product, service or information is opened and many others can create similar resources at a lower cost and difficulty.

No matter if the quality of our resource is higher, because the two key questions are: How many users need that level of quality now? And how many users are willing to pay for that level of quality? Too few. Demand decreases dramatically and the old supply is reduced to a few.

How many of us will no longer be needed? What can we do about it?

The mistake lies in basing a business on the (ephemeral) control of a resource, instead of basing it on the resource itself. The key is not in the control of the resource, but in providing users access to it.

Although it may seem contradictory, if we have control of a resource and we want to avoid being replaced, the next step to take is to end this control. We must become our future competitors.