Monday, March 25, 2024

Twelve years ago at the blog -- a rare double post day on the growth fetish.

Of course, the 2012 me had no idea what kind of VC-driven insanity the 2024 me would witness.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Venture capital and the growth fetish

Felix Salmon has another smart post on venture capital and the way he feels it distorts American business:
Another way to look at this question is to compare US fight-to-be-number-one capitalism with the kind of capitalism practiced in undeniably successful countries like Germany, Korea, Brazil, and Japan. Those countries don’t have nearly as many world-beating behemoths as the US does, but overall their economies and current accounts are doing very well on a bedrock of medium-sized firms and family-owned corporations.

So in a way, Gobry is making my point for me. The IPO market and the VCs who feed off it are playing a game which might make a small number of people extremely rich, and which will create a very small number of hugely successful world-beating companies. They’re not playing a game which is good for founders; they’re not playing a game which is good for healthy, long-lived companies; and they’re not playing a game which is good for the economy as a whole. That’s kind of the point I’m making in the piece when I say that “Silicon Valley is full of venture capitalists who have become dynastically wealthy off the backs of companies that no longer exist”.
I think this fits nicely with one of our ongoing themes here at OE, the growth fetish:
Think of it this way, if we ignore all those questions about stakeholders and the larger impact of a company, you can boil the value of a business down to a single scalar: just take the profits over the lifetime of a company and apply an appropriate discount function (not trivial but certainly doable). The goal of a company's management is to maximize this number and the goal of the market is to assign a price to the company that accurately reflects that number.

The first part of the hypothesis is that there are different possible growth curves associated with a business and, ignoring the unlikely possibility of a tie, there is a particular curve that optimizes profits for a particular business. In other words, some companies are better off growing rapidly; some are better off with slow or deferred growth; some are better off simply staying at the same level; and some are better off being allowed to slowly contract.

It's not difficult to come up with examples of ill-conceived expansions. Growth almost always entails numerous risks for an established company. Costs increase and generally debt does as well. Scalability is usually a concern. And perhaps most importantly, growth usually entails moving into an area where you probably don't know what the hell you're doing. I recall Peter Lynch (certainly a fan of growth stocks) warning investors to put off buying into chains until the businesses had demonstrated the ability to set up successful operations in other cities.

But the idea of getting in on a fast-growing company is still tremendously attractive, appealing enough to unduly influence people's judgement (and no, I don't see any reason to mangle a sentence just to keep an infinitive in one piece). For reasons that merit a post of their own (GE will be mentioned), that natural bias toward growth companies has metastasised into a pervasive fetish.

This bias does more than inflate the prices of certain stocks; it pressures people running companies to make all sorts of bad decisions from moving into markets where you don't belong (Borders) to pumping up market share with unprofitable customers (Groupon) to overpaying for acquisitions (too many examples to mention).

I didn't consider the role of venture capital at the time. Perhaps I missed the biggest factor. 




Thursday, March 22, 2012

More on the growth fetish -- Facebook vs. Groupon

There is a worthwhile exchange going on between Felix Salmon and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. I've already quoted Salmon, but Gobry makes some good points as well. Still, the part I found the most interesting is the part I think he got wrong.
Breakthrough technology startups are different from other kinds of businesses in that they either create a new market or violently disrupt an existing one. This means that they almost invariably require to spend lots of capital in order to stake out a defensible market position against their numerous competitors. In particular, many technology markets have winner-take-most or winner-take-all dynamics, either because of network effects or economies of scale…

Felix writes that Groupon had a profitable Q1 2010 and “it’s easy to see how it could have grown steadily from that point onward.” Except that given the characteristics of the daily deal business, particularly the need for scale, what would have happened if Groupon had tried to “grow steadily” and profitably, is that the company wouldn’t be around anymore.

It’s LivingSocial that would have raised over a billion dollars and be worth $10 billion today, Groupon would have been sold for scrap like BuyWithMe and plenty of other daily deals also-rans, and Andrew Mason would be back to doing yoga on YouTube. Groupon would be a footnote.
This illustrates (at least for me), a common error among growth fetishists -- overgeneralizing valid arguments for growth-at-all-costs. The first paragraph above is absolutely on target. There are situations where establishing dominance and critical mass as quickly as possible is incredibly valuable. Cases like Facebook. To make a bad pop culture reference, when it comes to mainstream social networking sites, there can be only one. Once Facebook was in place, all that was left was niches.

Put another way, it would cost more to unseat Facebook than it did to build it. Under those circumstances, Zuckerberg's bury-the-problem-in-money approach to running a business made sense (even if it was aesthetically lacking).

The first mover advantages for Groupon are far less obvious. There's no reason why we couldn't have two online gift card businesses. Consumers would get a wider selection and the merchants would almost certainly see lower fees (there's no way Groupon could charge those rates in a competitive market). Nor are the economies of scale that significant, at least not for the part of the business based on arranging deals with local merchants.

A potential competitor would have to spend a lot of money building a mailing list but probably not that much more than Groupon spent on its list. In short, if a potential competitor were to spend as much money as Groupon has, it might just catch up (particularly given the fact that Groupon is not a very well run company).

In terms of lifetime value, I suspect that the money Groupon spent on explosive growth was badly invested. However, in terms of buzz and stock price, it may have been money well spent as far as the backers were concerned.


No comments:

Post a Comment