Startups Fewer in Number, Less Ambitious in Scope

The economic downturn, called the Great Recession by some, is supposed to be over. Numerous economists and pundits have pronounced an incipient recovery. If it has arrived, it’s an odd sort of recovery that is barely perceptible, even invisible to many.

We know the downturn has taken an enormous toll on the information-technology industry in North America. We know that jobs have been lost, companies have gone out of business, and that venture capital has contracted. We also know, as an article in today’s Wall Street Journal notes, that fewer startup companies – in all industries, not just technology – are getting off the ground.

From the WSJ:

Company formation typically dips slightly in recessions, says Brian Headd, a Small Business Administration economist. Earlier this decade, business starts — including new businesses and units of existing businesses — fell 9% between the third quarter of 2000 and the first quarter of 2003, the BLS says.

This time, the decline has been steeper. Business starts fell 14% from the third quarter of 2007 to the third quarter of 2008; the 187,000 businesses launched in that quarter were the fewest in a quarter since 1995. The number ticked up slightly in the fourth quarter, the latest data available. But those new establishments created only 794,000 jobs, the fewest since the government began tracking the data in 1993.

The reasons behind the declining numbers of startup companies are relatively easy to identify. Funding, from venture capitalists and banks, is harder to get. Entrepreneurs, recognizing the funding squeeze, are become less tolerant of risk, choosing to pursue less-ambitious startup ideas or not to pursue them at all. Many would-be entrepreneurs have chosen to ride out the economic turbulence as employees of larger, established companies.

For the most part, businesses that are getting started are smaller than those launched in previous periods, even in past recessions. That’s directly attributable to constrained funding, which compels entrepreneurs to focus on businesses and markets that require relatively modest capital expenditures and that already exist as established niches. Unfortunately, these smaller businesses are inclined to grow less than previous generations of startups. That means they will generate fewer jobs, too.

Also troubling is that many new businesses are in areas – such as babysitting and house-cleaning services – with low income potential. Relatively fewer businesses have been launched in areas with higher income potential.

One mistake being made by the mainstream business media is that they continue to treat the downturn we’ve been experiencing as just another recession in just another business cycle. That diagnosis just isn’t correct. I think this downturn’s origins, its immediate effects, and its long-term repercussions are different from what we’ve experienced previously.

We’re witnessing a reconfiguration of the global economy, not just an attempted rebound from a typical recession. Some things, such as high-powered spending by US consumers, are not coming back to their former glory. With new regulations and an overdue wariness inhibiting financial chicanery, Americans will save more and spend less. Their homes are no longer veritable automated teller machines, their jobs are no longer secure, and their retirement savings are no longer assured.

Conversely, China, which funded US consumerism by buying US bonds, has begun to lay the groundwork for its own consumer economy, largely in a bid to lessen its reliance on manufactured exports to the USA and Europe.

These are huge tectonic shifts beneath the surface of the global economy, and they don’t seem to be fully appreciated by the business press. Looking back at the past-performance charts of previous cycles won’t give us an accurate guide to where we’re heading this time.

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