Is now a good time to start a business?

【双语】蜂拥而至 The gathering swarm-书迷号

A STRUGGLING Airbnb was still called AirBed&Breakfast when its founders decided to bet its future on the Democratic National Committee in Denver in 2008. Their air-bed idea was not popular with the 80,000 people congregated to select a presidential candidate. So they focused on breakfast instead, peddling $40 boxes of cereals called Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s (their quip: “Be a cereal entrepreneur”). The timing was as bad as the pun. The event came just weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed at the height of the financial crisis of 2007-09. Yet shortly afterwards they obtained their first-ever funding. The angel investor who backed them dubbed them “cockroaches” for their survival skills. That may not be the most tasteful way to describe people in the hospitality trade. The founders, though, considered it the best compliment they had ever received.

回到2008年,艰难求生的爱彼迎当时还叫作AirBed&Breakfast(充气床垫和早餐),几名创始人决定把公司的未来押注在民主党全国代表大会(Democratic National Committee)上。当时有八万人汇集在丹佛选举民主党总统候选人。然而充气床垫的创意并没有受到这些人的青睐。于是他们把重点转向早餐,把麦片取名为“奥巴马奥氏麦片”和“麦凯恩队长麦片”,以40美元一盒的价格兜售(他们打趣说要“做麦片创业者”)。 “麦片创业者”(cereal entrepreneur)正好和“连续创业者”(serial entrepreneur)谐音,他们的创业时机正应了这倒霉的双关语。几周后,也就是2007到2009年金融危机最严重的时候,雷曼兄弟破产。但不久之后,他们终于获得了第一笔投资,那位天使投资人称他们为“(打不死的)小强”。对于本身是做招待行业的人来说,这可能不是什么雅称。但几位创始人却认为这是自己受到的最高赞誉。

Like Airbnb, some of the best-known names in business started during steep slumps, including Uber (2009), Microsoft (1975), Disney (1923), General Motors (1908) and General Electric (1890). Disruptive products and services, too, have emerged in times of crisis, notably Apple’s iPod as the dotcom bubble burst in 2000.


Such stories loom large in startup folklore as evidence of entrepreneurial true grit. Yet they are rarities. Our calculations indicate that among almost 500 of today’s biggest listed firms in America, whose origins date as far back as 1857, a much larger number started life in expansionary years than during recessions. Of those founded since 1970, more than four-fifths were born in good times (see chart). That, of course, overlooks innumerable firms created along the way that have either not made it to the top, or fallen by the roadside. But it suggests that however hard it is for the enterprising to build a lasting business, it is even harder for those who start off with the economic winds blowing in their faces.


Save for a few industries such as health care, it is safe to assume that investment in innovation will plummet during the covid-19 pandemic. It usually does in times of crisis. Venture capital (VC) will also dry up as everyone keeps their heads down and tries to preserve cash. In 2007-09, VC funding in America fell by almost 30%. Yet this column would not be named after Joseph Schumpeter, the father of creative destruction, if it did not believe that following a slump, a burst of entrepreneurial activity will eventually emerge. As he wrote in “The Theory of Economic Development”, published in 1911 (itself a recessionary year), “the very logic of the capitalist system [is that] after some time of depression, new entrepreneurs would emerge. And then there would be a new ‘swarm’ of entrepreneurs. A wave of prosperity would start up and the whole cycle would roll on.” Assuming this remains the case, will the protagonists be tiny startups coming out of nowhere? Will they be better-funded entrepreneurs who have long prepared for such a moment? Or will they be the titans of tech?

可以肯定的是,除了医疗保健等少数行业外,新冠肺炎疫情期间对创新的投资会大幅下降。这是危机时期的惯例。所有人都保持低调,并尽可能持有现金,风险投资因而也会越来越少。2007到2009年,美国的风险投资下降了近30%。然而,如果本专栏不认同在衰退期之后最终会涌现一波创业潮,就不会以“创造性破坏之父”约瑟夫·熊彼特为自己命名了。正如熊彼特在1911年(也是一个衰退的年份)出版的《经济发展理论》(The Theory of Economic Development)一书中所说:“资本主义的逻辑正是一段时间的萧条过后,就会出现新的创业者。然后就会有‘一大群’新的创业者。一波繁荣会开启,整个经济周期会继续下去。”如果这个说法仍旧成立,那么主角会是那些不知道从哪里冒出来的小创业公司吗?或是那些早就在为这一刻做准备的资金更充足的企业家?抑或是那些科技巨头?

With the world in upheaval, enterprising minds are already whirring. Some of them are altruistic: schoolchildren, for instance, have been 3D-printing plastic visors for front-line workers. Some of them are saucy, such as the Thai bodybuilders, put out of work by lockdown, who last month set up Bsamfruit Durian Delivery, promoting it on Facebook not only with photos of durians and mangoes, but of taut abs and bulging bosoms. Some of them will simply be hungry for fame and fortune, believing, like Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, a VC firm, that social changes accelerated by the crisis, such as food delivery, telemedicine and online education, will eventually generate lucrative business opportunities. They will also expect the economic slump to wipe out incumbents, muting competition and freeing up space and manpower—provided governments do not interfere with the inevitable by propping up zombie firms.

在这个剧变的世界里,那些有开拓精神的人已经开始忙活起来。有些无私地帮助他人,比如为一线工作人员制作3D打印塑料面罩的小学生。有些很调皮,比如因禁足令而停业的泰国健身教练4月创立了外卖网站Bsamfruit Durian Delivery,他们发在Facebook上的宣传照中不仅有榴莲和芒果,还有紧实的腹肌和凸起的胸肌。还有一些就是为名为利,比如风险投资公司红杉资本(Sequoia Capital)的迈克尔·莫里茨(Michael Moritz),他们认为外卖、远程医疗和在线教育等因疫情而加速发展的社会变革最终会带来利润丰厚的商业机会。他们还预计,如果政府不通过扶持僵尸企业来干预自然过程,经济萧条将会摧毁既有企业,进而减少竞争,释放出市场空间和劳动力资源。

But even with the best ideas in the world, first-time entrepreneurs will struggle to convince investors to give them capital in the depths of the crisis, not least if they can only pitch to them over Zoom. Instead, the more likely standard-bearers of creative destruction will be existing firms, albeit small ones, which raised enough money before the crisis to survive it and will maintain their flair for innovation throughout, says Daniele Archibugi of Birkbeck, University of London. There may be plenty of such firms. According to Crunchbase, a data gatherer, startups raised about $600bn worldwide in 2018 and 2019. That provides a cushion of support. They will, however, have to be quick at shifting from growth to survival and back again, and at embracing new business plans if their old ones are no longer viable.

但是,即便拥有世界上最好的创意,首次创业者还是很难说服投资者在疫情深重之时给自己投钱,尤其是如果他们只能在Zoom上自我推销的话。更有可能成为创造性破坏领袖的是那些已经存在而规模不大的公司,它们已经在疫情来袭前筹集了足够的资金来扛过危机,又能自始至终保持自己的创新天赋,伦敦大学伯贝克学院(Birkbeck, University of London)的达尼埃尔·阿尔基布吉(Daniele Archibugi)表示。这样的公司可能有很多。数据公司Crunchbase估计,2018和2019年,创业公司在全球筹集了大约6000亿美元。这为它们提供了缓冲。不过它们必须快速从扩展转向生存再转回,并在旧的商业计划不再可行的情况下快速采取新计划。

Betting on an accumulator


Yet it is not just small, scrappy firms that push innovation forward. Big firms have a critical role to play, too. Alongside creative destruction in times of crisis, Schumpetarian academics point to “creative accumulation” in economic upswings, when incremental innovation is carried out in the research-and-development labs of giant firms. In Europe during the global financial crisis such corporations increased investment into new products and ideas, as did the most innovative small firms. The cash-rich tech giants, such as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, have become examples of creative accumulation, helping foster innovation during the good times. They will probably continue to do so during the crisis. As they expand into health care, fintech and other industries, they could even be part of a new wave of creative destruction.


That is the optimist’s scenario. A more pessimistic one is that big tech will use its moneybags and muscle to stifle competition, by buying or scaring off more enterprising rivals. What is in little doubt, though, is that the covid-19 crisis, which has turned so many people’s lives upside down, will eventually produce a wealth of new business opportunities. If it attracts swarms of entrepreneurs crawling over cosy oligopolies so much the better. But even if the tech titans prevail for now, they will inevitably find themselves victims of the forces of change. Schumpeter’s “perennial gale of creative destruction” will one day blow them away, too. ■