21. Peter Klein on Transaction Costs

Are you transaction cost-savvy? Peter Klein explains why it’s important.

We emphasize profitable value creation as the role of the entrepreneur. Managing costs can contribute to profitability – but there are some costs that are not easy to calculate and not even that easy to identify in some cases. They are not captured by traditional cost accounting. Economists call them transaction costs. They are the costs of acquiring, assembling, monitoring and managing and, in some cases, discarding or re-purposing the resources and assets your firm utilizes to produce output. They are not production costs per se; they are not value creation costs. They’re administrative and managerial costs.

Peter Klein explains:

Show Notes

Think of any transaction, like buying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks store. Now think of all the economic costs of that transaction above and beyond the actual dollars you hand over to the barista.

There’s the cost of traveling to the store, in both time and money (gasoline if you drive) and wear and tear on your vehicle. There is time spent on studying the menu, explaining your choice and waiting for delivery – and time is the entrepreneur’s most precious scarce resource.

Now apply that same thinking to the acquisition of any resource you want to bring into the firm to support your business model. There are many transaction costs in addition to the purchase price.

There is the time taken to research features and attributes, and comparative pricing. There may be negotiation or haggling with the vendor. There may be legal costs in a contracting process. There may be integration costs to fit the new resource into your production chain. If you’re buying from a wholesaler, there are issues of timely delivery and accurate order fulfillment you must monitor and manage. If the new resource is an employee you are hiring, there are advertising, interviewing and negotiation costs, as well as the benefits package that accompanies the salary agreement. All of these transaction costs, across the entirety of your business, add up to an amount that is pretty significant.

And, once you own the resource, transaction costs don’t disappear. They transform into monitoring and management costs.

Peter used the example of Walmart’s trucking fleet. Walmart owns many trucks and the drivers are employees. There are extensive monitoring costs associated with the ownership of these resources and the employment of the drivers and mechanics and service technicians. This group of costs can be characterized as the cost of confidence that you are getting the performance that you want out of the resource you own. In the case of Walmart’s truck fleet, these costs include monitoring the vehicles themselves (location, speed, downtime, tons hauled, gasoline used, etc), the drivers’ productivity, the maintenance burden, delivery accuracy and many more metrics. Walmart employs people and uses technology assets to implement all this monitoring, and those monitoring resources are not really creating value; they’re supervisory overhead.

Another kind of transaction cost arises when you decide you want to recombine, reshuffle or discard assets, or to use them in a new way.

In the entrepreneur’s uncertain business environment, it’s never certain that the asset you have acquired or the people you have hired are always going to be perfectly tuned to your business model. Circumstances change, and you want to make adjustments. Is the asset adjustable? Does the employee have exactly the skills you want for a new process or method? Will you be able to reprogram the asset or redirect the employee to a new job function? In many cases, you might have need of the legal system for a revised contract (legal costs are transaction costs), or there may be regulations preventing you from closing a plant or laying off workers. Any time you are constrained from making the adjustments you want at the speed you prefer, you are facing transaction costs. Could you have anticipated the situation when you first contracted for the resource or first hired the worker? Probably not – but trying to do so would be a transaction cost in itself!

Often, the issues raised by the problems of transaction costs are characterized as “make versus buy” decisions. Or rent versus own. Or in-house versus outsource.

It seems that there is a tendency today towards organizational models that are asset-lite, with a lot of the control that the firm seeks to exert over resources being exercised through renting or outsourcing, or by utilizing independent contractors rather than directly hiring employees. (Actually, Peter disputes this, suggesting that many such business models get a lot of publicity but there is no general tendency across multiple business sectors.) Does a virtual organization chart or a network model compared to a hierarchical model always have lower transaction costs?

Not necessarily. Compare Amazon, which mostly utilizes FedEx and UPS and USPS to make deliveries. Amazon still has many of the monitoring costs that Walmart has – it’s just that they are monitoring an outside vendor. Yes, FedEx and UPS bring their own tracking systems and technologies, but Amazon can’t afford to let its vendors go un-monitored.

In fact, in-house transaction costs are declining at the same speed as outsourced transaction costs.

With the advent of software HR and CRM systems and other kinds of monitoring and management technologies, internal transaction costs are not as burdensome as they were in the past. It would be unwise to make the automatic assumption that in-house transaction costs are always higher than outsourced costs.

Transaction Costs Types

Actionable Insight

So what’s the answer for entrepreneurs? There’s no simple formula, just the admonition to be transaction cost savvy. In every situation where there are alternative scenarios, the savvy entrepreneur thinks through the transaction costs of each one, and makes a best estimate of the economic costs. He or she thinks about the present costs, the future ongoing monitoring costs, and the potential costs when there is a future adjustment to be made.

Always relate this economic calculation of transaction cost alternatives to the creation of customer value. What is the best alternative transactional mode or organizational mode to deliver value to the customer, today, tomorrow and a year from now? What is the cost of the resource control you need in order to deliver value, especially if customer preferences change and you want to change with them?

Download our transaction cost checklist to help you become transaction cost savvy.

Buy Peter Klein’s book Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgement on Amazon.

Here are extra links to information that Peter Klein mentioned in the podcast:

An article Peter wrote to commemorate Oliver Williamson’s Nobel Prize – he is the originator of “transaction cost economics,” which is closely related to today’s discussion topics, though not directly dealing with entrepreneurship.

A longer, more academic survey on transaction costs – may be a useful reference.

Also, listeners may enjoy the comments on this blog post.


PDF icon Download the 3 Phases of Entrepreneurial Transaction Costs PDF (101 KB)


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Where’s The Profit In Digital Innovation? It’s In Reduced Transaction Costs.

Economists tend to use weird and unhelpful language. One of their terms is Transaction Costs and these things are really important. They’re the reason why firms exist at all, and they’re the reason why the new digital platforms like and Uber get to be so big and grow so fast and assume such great prominence.

Let’s see if we can unpack the language.

When a consumer or a customer buys a service, they pay a price in money. Let’s call this the final price, after all discounts and savings and haggling, it’s the amount of cash you part with or the amount on the cheque that you write.

But the final price does not reflect the total cost to you, the buyer. There are a lot of other costs involved in many transactions, some of which we think about and try to compute, some of which we are not conscious of or don’t compute.

The High Price We Pay For Transaction Costs.

Since we have already mentioned Uber, let’s use the purchase of a taxi ride to illustrate transaction costs. If you are in the big city on a dark rainy night and you’d like to get a taxi ride to a destination several blocks away, you might compute the expected price in your head as $15 plus a tip, and decide that it represents a good value to you. You stand in the rain and the wind at the edge of the sidewalk waving at passing yellow cabs, feeling like an idiot and getting yourself and your clothes wet, thinking that there may be a visit to the dry cleaners in your future. Eventually you think you’ve snagged one, but just as it pulls to the curb a burly and brutish-looking guy runs up, pushes you out of the way, yelling “This one’s mine” and you are left disappointed and disheveled. Eventually, after waiting much longer than you had planned and worrying about being late for your appointment, you do get in the cab. It’s uncomfortable, cramped, dirty and doesn’t smell very nice. Nor does the driver. He mumbles to you in a foreign sounding accent you can’t understand. Does he recognize the address you’ve given him? He seems to be taking a long way round. Should you argue? Safer not to, probably. Eventually, you arrive. The fare is higher than you thought. You consider giving no tip but fear the confrontation this may bring on, so you demur. You take out some bills, negotiate some change, then you get out feeling wet and badly treated, and you consider a stiffer drink than you had originally planned.

These inconveniences of time, discomfort, fear and undesirable aesthetics are transaction costs. The cab ride cost $15 or $20 plus tip plus all of these transaction costs. Its value to you must be greater than the money price plus transaction costs for you to feel as though you got a good deal – that’s the essence of a voluntary market transaction, that both parties feel better for having made the exchange. Odds are that you don’t feel that way. There must be a better alternative.

Smartphones And Software Sharply Reduce Transaction Costs.

Now there is: Uber. You install the software on your smartphone. On the next similar occasion, you initiate a transaction. The software knows who you are (you’ve pre-entered the information), and it knows where you are, by the magic of GPS. It finds you a car and a driver, and gives you a rating that suggests to you that you can trust the driver and will have a good experience. The car comes to you, and you can track its incoming progress. No-one pushes you out of the way, asserting they have a prior claim. After minimum time in the rain (perhaps you have to run from the doorway to the car, but no standing), you are safely ensconced, feeling good, and on your way. You pay with one tap (you’ve already entered your payment information and the system has verified it). You arrive on time. You are unstressed, happy to be at your destination, and can get by on a regular sized alcoholic beverage.

Uber has saved you a significant amount of transaction cost. The money price of the ride may be higher, yet you feel you received good value and you’d repeat the experience.

Triangulation, Transfer And Trust.

In his new book, Tomorrow 3.0, Transaction Costs And The Sharing Economy, Michael Munger tries to wrap up these transaction costs in a catchy alliterative expression of three T’s: triangulation, transfer and trust. The affectation is a bit forced, but let’s go with it.

Triangulation refers to information about who you are, who the Uber driver is, the location of the pick-up and of the destination (and the car’s location as it makes its way to you). It’s about getting two parties to the exchange together. Munger also includes making an agreement on a price in his definition of triangulation, which you can also do with the software. All of this is easier / better / more comfortable with Uber.

Transfer refers to the way of transferring the service and the payment for it that is immediate, convenient and as invisible as possible. Software, and the pre-registration of a payment mechanism (your credit card) and the in-built processing capability make transfer easy and safe.

Trust is the way the software creates a feeling of assurance, anticipating honest dealing, with both sides living up to expectations, and performance of the terms of the contract. Both parties can anticipate that their expectations will be met by a trustworthy service provider and a trustworthy customer.

When all of the potential transaction costs are eliminated or highly reduced, the value received for the final price plus transaction costs is much higher in the consumer’s perception.

The Entrepreneurial Opportunity.

Munger’s major point is that there are tremendous amounts of entrepreneurial value creation available in the reduction of transaction costs. He refers to the sharing economy and paints the picture of  future where, if transaction costs are sufficiently reduced, no-one will need to own anything, and we’ll all get by on entrepreneurially-facilitated sharing. Need an electric drill to make a hole to hang a picture? Click on an app, have the drone or robot deliver the drill in a secure package to which you have the unlocking software code, use it for a couple of minutes, and send it back. Same with cars (don’t own one, borrow or rent one for a while), lawnmowers, perhaps even some clothes (like specialized formalwear).

Who is creating these low transaction cost experiences? Entrepreneurs. They see consumers saying, “I wish it were easier to ……..” or “I wish I had XXXX here right now” or “I really disliked my last experience with YYYY”, and they immediately think of ways to solve those problems and meet those needs. They can design an app, assembling the code from Github or by hiring an app developer on Upwork, go to market, and quickly find out whether they can sell the low transaction service improvement.

The new era of low transaction cost digital service provision is, in Munger’s telling, a revolution, as significant as the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. Each of us as consumers will have the opportunity to lead more convenient, more efficient, and safer lives. And each of us as entrepreneurs – from Uber drivers to coders – will thrive by delivering new value creation through transaction cost reduction.