20 May 2014

The Disruption of the Disruptors

I am like no other pundit waiting for the shoe to drop. Like the late 1990s. For yet another cloud storage company to shelf its IPO (sorry Box). Frothy valuations based on solely on a disruptive story are already becoming harder to come by. I wonder what will happen to the struggling ones that have already raised cash under lofty expectations; how will they handle the fallout? Now that a fresh batch of funding is no longer in the cards (at least not at current valuations), how will the newly minted blue chips change themselves amidst new market conditions?

I was the first to surprised to read that Square might be on the block due to cash flow issues. Mobile commerce has already hit mainstream and certainly the leader in the payments space should be minting money like its predecessor Paypal, right? But Square is struggling. They lost $100M in 2013 and faces a business model that doesn't scale well to profit (~20% gross margins after processing fees). Paypal was not forced to sell to Ebay in the 2000's, but does Square need a lifeline? No question it can raise fresh money if it has to, but probably not at the clip its existing investors would seek. As a standalone concern, it will likely face layoffs, cash conservation, and significant pressure towards monetization. These are not concepts that are in the Jack Dorsey DNA.

Reinvention is nothing new for tech firms of the past, but it will require a significant mindshift for the next generation of startups. IBM has gone through many periods of peaks and troughs and transformation throughout its long history. Amazon has experienced the same. However these companies had a culture of top grazing and restructuring. For the foosball playing startups with lofty aspirations, making money was never on top of the list. The last time around, the playbook was to hire MBA’s and black belts to “babysit” the business-lite founders. Does that logic still apply? I'm a bit skeptical in any approach that jeapordizes the culture of a promising startup, but perhaps a fresh mix of skill sets can bring new approaches to the problems. Maybe rightsizing will be modernized into a cool buzzword like "uncrowding" that the newbies can huddle around.

To be sure, Snapchat is no eToys. The companies of today are generally in a much better position than the late 1990s. Companies like Twitter have large cash warchests to buffer downturns. There are more fundamentals and less extraneous cash backing today's startups than two decades ago (remember price to eyeballs?). But the shakeout will be swift and painful. Once hot SaaS companies like Bazaarvoice and Fireeye, for example, have seen their valuations drop by more than half and face employee exodus and liquidity concerns shortly after their IPOs.

Lofty expectations have an ugly downside. As the second internet bull run comes to an end, the high flying startups that sought out to change the world will have to start with themselves. As external financing slows, these companies will have to become profitable and change their business models in order to keep their independence (with the exception of the fortunate Google and Apple acqui-hires). Cash flow forecasts and customer acquisition will take precedence over iterative coding and disruptive mentalities. This hard reality is not only necessary for saving face or generating returns for investors, but also for survival in itself. Expect the early signs of consolidation, bankruptcies, and growing impatience from their backers to continue. But then again, aren't we just getting started with virtual reality and 3D printing?