Why Great Companies Get Started in the Downturns

I have always been amazed by how many of our success tech stories, as well as Fortune 500 companies, started during drastic down turns. Innovation does not take a holiday, and in fact, thrives during difficult times when pain & need are greatest. While the current downturn is historic, it pails in comparison to the 22 year depression the US experienced from 1873 to 1895, triggered by the Vienna stock market crash.  During this extended drought, a large number of Fortune 500's & major corporations started including Eli Lilly, IBM, Merck, Hershey's, Gillette, Alcoa, J&J, Chevron, GE, AT&T, Abbott, Lilly, Coors, Johnson Controls, Bristol-Myers and PPG to name a few.

During the great depression (1929-1939), Texas Instruments, HP, 20th Century Fox and United Technologies all launched. Since much of the Valley's legacy came out of HP, the seeds for the current Silicon Valley were planted while the stock market was crashing nearly 90% and unemployment approached 30%.

Other periods: during the Oil shock & market crash (1973-1976) Microsoft, Genentech & Apple started. The biotech and PC revolutions emerged when the market was down nearly 50% and inflation was racing into double digits.  In the crisis of the early 80's (1980-1982) with mortgage rates peaking at nearly 21%, Amgen, Sun, E*Trade, Autodesk, Adobe, BMC, EA and Symantec were created. The question is why does this happen?

Dogs Will Try New Dog Food
When everything is going well, few people or companies want to change behavior, process or vendors. They have little incentive to do so and risk upsetting the apple cart. However, when their hair is on fire, customers & business partners are willing to try new or different approaches to address the pain. So, while some would say that sales cycles stretch out significantly during downturns, I would argue that for new technologies that solve real problems, they compress considerably.

Take Care of Darwin
Leading entrepreneurs have a maniacal focus on efficient use of capital and on fulfilling customer needs (versus nice to have's). During troubled times, these entrepreneurs are even more focused on these. Cash is spent only when absolutely necessary and no to few features are built that aren't demanded by the customer. Those less disciplined will find themselves victim to Darwinian realities. Companies "forged in hell" have a much more durable and advantaged DNA coming out.

Power of an Equity Culture
In these times, firms either bootstrap or fund themselves from modest equity rounds. Credit, other than credit cards and such, is not readily available. Furthermore, the start-up world is an equity culture versus the credit/debt culture of buyouts. So, they are able to survive when banks won't lend and credit lines are non-existent. Equity can be a beautiful thing.

Weak Gazelles are pruned
During boom times, sectors get overfunded and weaker competitors destroy the economics for everyone involved. They create significant noise in the market place, create skeptical customers by overpromising and underdelivering and have undisciplined pricing policies. In hard times, there are many fewer competitors which allow companies to scale quietly during the trough and take significant market share when conditions improve. Furthermore, these firms enjoy rational pricing, higher profitability/margins and lower cost structures given their DNA.

So, yes it is ugly out there and about to get even harder but start-ups are used to hard times and are well suited, if managed properly, to thrive in the downturn and accelerate during the recovery. The trick is to stay alive one day longer than your competitors…

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