This article was written by Sibjeet Mahapatra and published in TechCrunch. Sibjeet is a writer and co-founder of Bureau, an end-to-end office furniture startup in New York City.
When considering the structural impact of technology companies on our economy and society, we tend to focus on questions of scale and monopoly.
It’s true that the FAANG companies and more recent winners (Airbnb, Uber) have surfed a combination of network effects, preferential access to capital and classic efficiencies of scale to generate tremendous value for their shareholders — to the detriment of new entrants who attempt to unseat them.
At their high water mark in mid-2018, FAANG alone made up 11 percent of the total market cap of the S&P 500 and 38 percent of the index’s year-to-date gain, representing a doubling in their influence in only five years. The question of regulating technology companies — to the point of instituting anti-trust actions — has even become a rare point of relative concord between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
But is the narrative of tech companies in the 2010s only a story of economic consolidation and growing inequality? Many of the most successful B2B startups of the last decade are aligned by a theme that paints a different picture. By transforming the nature of the costs required to start a business, these startups are reducing the influence of capital and leveling the playing field for new entrants to share in the surplus generated by the secular shift to a tech-mediated economy.
A path to equal opportunity: Turning fixed costs into variable costs
What do AWS, WeWork, Stord, Gusto and RocketLawyer have in common? They provide cloud computing services, office space, warehouse storage, payroll management and access to legal templates, respectively — at first glance, not a particularly congruent set of services.
But they are alike in the economic purpose they serve for their customers. Each of these services takes a fixed cost — a bank of servers, a lease, a legal retainer — and transforms it into a variable cost. As a refresher, a fixed cost stays constant regardless of output, and variable costs scale with the output of a business.
When my father started his software consulting business in the early 1990s, I remember the giant boxes of AIX servers that arrived at our apartment, and tagging along to office tours in central New Jersey before he decided to run the company out of our spare bedroom. Back then, starting almost any kind of business was hard because of high fixed costs. Without AWS or WeWork, you shelled out upfront for hardware and a lease.
Access to capital, whether in the form of a bank loan, savings or friends and family was a prerequisite for entrepreneurship.
Today, startups make it possible to start and scale almost any kind of business while incurring few fixed costs. Want to found an e-commerce store? Start with a free Shopify account and dropship your inventory. Want to become a freelance designer? Put a shingle up on Fiverr and meet clients at a Breather you rent by the hour.
Whether software or hardware or labor, building a business is way easier when overhead is transformed into a string of flexible microservices that you only pay for as you grow.
Lower fixed costs means capital matters less
Taken together, startups that turn fixed costs into variable costs make it less capital-intensive to start a business. This decreases the influence of gatekeepers and aggregators of capital — an impact evident in the way entrepreneurs think about starting businesses today.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of B2B startups fitting this theme has coincided with the bootstrap movement, in which tech entrepreneurs with major ambitions demur from raising venture funding because — well, they don’t need the money anymore.
It has also coincided with a renaissance in freelance entrepreneurship: 56.7 million Americans freelanced in 2018. Beyond the economic benefits of working for yourself — the fastest growing segment of freelancers earns more than $75,000 a year — freelancers can access the lifestyle and health benefits of owning their destiny, which aren’t directly captured but play a role in the economic picture. Indeed, 51 percent of freelancers said no amount of money would lure them into a traditional job, and 64 percent reported feeling healthier and happier.
When capital plays a reduced role in new business formation, access to capital plays a smaller role in determining who will succeed. More companies are founded, and the economy becomes more likely to birth new Davids that will unseat the Goliaths. Economics 101: lower barriers to entry create markets that converge on perfect competition instead of oligarchic concentration.
Variable costs don’t scale, but that’s OK
Variable costs have their downsides. A startup with a relatively higher proportion of fixed costs — the profile of the classic high-tech software business — can achieve higher profit margins as it scales. Compare Microsoft or Google, which pay high fixed costs in the form of salaries and servers but few costs in delivering their services and achieve operating margins of 25-30 percent, to Costco, which takes in more than $100 billion of annual revenue but earns an operating margin in the single digits.
That’s OK. Neither type of cost is “better” or “worse,” but having the option to decide how to structure costs through a company’s life cycle can meaningfully impact an entrepreneur’s ability to execute a business idea. Founders investigating startup ideas — and politicians debating the impact of technology — would do well to pay attention to how B2B companies have democratized access to entrepreneurship.
Equality of outcome arrives from equality of opportunity — and a future where millions of people can start businesses, differentiate and succeed on the basis of their ability and value proposition, rather than their access to capital, sounds like a promising representation of the egalitarian ethos Silicon Valley wants to bring to pass.
-- Sibjeet Mahapatra