Amplification beats disruption

Disrupting markets have for years been a formula for success for startups. Be nimbler, nicer looking and cheaper than the incumbents in your market, grow at a blistering pace whatever the costs associated with it and you will be on to doing great things taking your idea from it’s inception into potentially a unicorn scale-up.

While these startups have been blasting the competition to the roadside, there are a couple of things, we haven’t really discussed. One is the obvious fact that the expansion has only been possible due to a presence of excessive funding, sometimes with very little prospects for developing a viable business model going forward (Uber comes to mind as the poster example of this). The other is the more important one; that in the quest for disruption, more value has been destroyed than has been accrued by the startup.

Of course there is no rule anywhere in the capitalist world that suggests that challengers should be mindful of not destroying more than they create, and you could also very well argue that for customers that are left with a better service at a cheaper price, it’s a pure win. But in terms of the prospects of economic growth on the longer term, I would still suggest that the business of disrupting things just for the sake of disrupting it runs counter to what should be our common interests.

The challenge with disruption is that in the absence of real innovation, disruption doesn’t create anything. To put it in other terms the size of the pie stays the same, as there is no real growth anywhere. Now, you could argue that customers being able to get more for less increases the overall economic activity and make the individual better off, because he gets access to more, but we need to ask ourselves whether we really do think that improving our economic prospects by going cheap is really sustainable?

Just ask the American middle class. Think about how much of their economic growth is really down to the availability of ever more cheap products and services – aka crap IMHO – than, say, an ongoing positive development in their disposable income? It’s a lot more of the former than the latter, and it’s actually quite a systemic problem that we have done preciously little to try and fix but will need to fix sooner rather than later. If not for anything else then for ensuring social stability in society.

It might be a small detour to take, but in essence my point is this: The things we celebrate as being innovations and creating value are really the opposite. A lot of it is piggy backing on extracting value that already exists other places while creating nothing meaningful new, and the end result is that while it undoubtedly leaves a few better off, it leaves more worse off. That’s not a winning recipe long term. It is a race to a bottom, you don’t want to reach.

So the question then really becomes how we might work to change this dynamic? How do we get from celebrating the gold calf into innovating in a way that is not only positive in itself but net positive for economic growth and with that society itself?

We need to get back on the track where innovation is about creating breakthroughs that unlock new kinds of value instead of sucking existing markets dry. We need to come up with technologies that create new markets that can in essence function as amplifiers of new markets.

For startups this means that instead of looking to disrupt someone already there and try to get their slice of the cake, the focus should be on how to ensure that the cake itself gets bigger, and whatever is added to said cake the startup in question will be well positioned to grab its significant share off.

Doing that will surely require a vision above and beyond 99,99 % of all vision statements ever presented by startups or corporates. But think about the opportunity? Think about being the innovators edition of Christopher Columbus setting sail to find something that no-one has found before only to end up with far more than what you were able to imagine, you would ever find?

We need that kind of imagination to replace the fighting for scraps in areas we already know really well. We need this to get a situation, where innovation is a net positive of a more significant nature than used as a cover up for ideas that could in essence very well be net negatives for all.

I’ll be curious to see who sets the standard first, and what kind of vision could emerge from this.

(Photo by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash)

The end of free money

Few things have been such an important catalyst for entrepreneurs and startups over the last 15 years as the availability of basically free money. Not only has it been associated with low costs of borrowing. It has also provided investors with a higher appetite for risk as they have lacked other more ‘safe’ alternatives for placing their abundance of cheap capital. 

But now all of that is changing. Central banks led by the US Federal Reserve are looking to increase interest rates in order to curb rising inflation, and with that entire generations of primarily young people will need to learn and come to terms with what interest rates actually mean and how they impact the financial choices they can make for both themselves and for their businesses.

One of the more interesting parts of this major shift of fortunes (pardon me) is to get a sense of just how much of the economy is essentially built on the premise of access to cheap capital. How many startups and service companies do we have that would struggle or perhaps not even exist, if they didn’t have access to cheap financing? I don’t think anyone really has a clue. 

The rising interest rates create two major challenges and one major opportunity, as I see it:

The first challenge is the viability of various businesses and startups, which is likely going to be put to the test. If free money is no longer an option, does it make sense to keep the same burn to grow user/customer base? That’s just one question. And what will happen once you come to the conclusion that it doesn’t, and you start raising prices, and customers start walking away? Continue ad nauseam. It is a whole new both strategic and operational reality, many of these companies are looking into to. 

Following on as a close second is what the added cost of debt is going to do to founders and executive teams. Especially for the ones who have never experienced higher interest rates before, getting to know them and their impact will likely take some time and require a great deal of painful acceptance. Can that be gained without running the risk of making less thought-through decisions out of sheer panic? We humans seldom make the best decisions, when we feel we have our backs against the wall. 

Overall the declining access to cheap funding is going to be a ‘tour de force’ in the ability to adapt, which my gutfeel is many will struggle with – simply because they don’t have the tools or the experience to deal with it. 

From an investor point of view, it will also be a reckoning but at the same time also an opportunity to once again be less persuaded by the narrative and look more at the business fundamentals when making decisions on where to make investments; i.e. is there any indication of a viable business model in its own right or not? Maybe, in all fairness, it is as much a hope as its a gutfeel, as I have always been an advocate for businesses proving their fundamental viability without it requiring a 5 year plan. But we will see. 

Finally, there is also opportunity in the not so great news. Opportunities to innovate. Because God knows there are going to be a lot of people who will require help and various sorts of tools to navigate safely in the new reality. Those who can solve that and make people and businesses feel better of or safer despite the new realities on the ground, will be able to make it big. 

As the old saying goes, it is a terrible shame to let a good crisis go to waste. So let’s focus our efforts on how we learn to navigate and prosper in a world, where interest rates are once again a thing to be reckoned with. 

(Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)

The new WFH opportunity

What will the Work-from-home (WFH) movement mean for local economic growth prospects? And for startups looking to facilitate this new way of basically organizing the economy?

Futurist Thomas Frey has an interesting take, in which he basically says that while flexibility for people and corporations will be at an all time high, the demands on investment in infrastructure is going to be gigantic.

Of course he is referring to the investments in bandwidth, support infrastructure (incl. education) etc., but my bet is that the investment opportunity in more soft components of these emerging ecosystems is going to be just as massive.

Many will doubtless see the WFH future as the domain of the big tech companies. But I think there are countless opportunities for startups to come in, seize opportunities to make this new reality ‘gel’ better and build some very substantial businesses from it.

I especielly think this is going to hold true as the big corporations by default probably are the least suited towards figuring out what a new flexible workday outside the corporate controlled office should look and feel like. Here the more nimble, creative players should have a very good chance of carving something out (before they are eventually acquired by the big players, of course).

We may indeed be on the brink of a golden age for digital tools and services supporting a remote economy. The question is who are going to go after it, and what kind of products and services will end up winning in this space.

Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

(Photo by Jason Strull on Unsplash)