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)