A stat I heard repeated all over Davos: that the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is now 15 years, according to Cisco’s John Chambers. Trying to confirm that figure, I found others saying the number is less than 50.
Whatever. It’s far from forever.
So what if corporations more and more become short-lived enterprises? What would that mean?
Consider that Kodak just announced that 124 years after it started, it will stop making cameras. GM and Chrysler a mess of banks would have died, if they weren’t too big to fail. Borders and and Circuit City and Blockbuster and giant retailers are dead. Whole industries are dying.
Now consider that Kickstarter just passed a key milestone: two projects garnering more than $1 million in … what do we call it? … contributions? purchases? investments? We don’t have the right name yet for orders received before a company starts and a product is made. We don’t have a name for a company founded on its customers’ capital.
I have been arguing that vertical industries will be replaced by horizontal ecosystems made up of three layers: (1) platforms that enable (2) entrepreneurial ventures to be created at low cost and risk and (3) networks (e.g., ad networks) that, when needed, bring these ventures together to reach the critical mass that firms used to provide.
Of course, enterprises today can start with no need to build factories (use someone else’s) or distribution (plenty of that, for now) or technology (use the cloud) or marketing (let your customers do it for you) or design (let your customers help) or retail outlets (they’re dying anyway) or capital (see above). We know that this new architecture of the economy means enterprises can be launched with less investment, risk, and effort.
But consider that it also means that enterprises can disappear without leaving much of a hole. The guy who made the Kickstarter-backed iPod Nano watchband, who raised almost $1 million and guaranteed himself success (so long as he priced the product right), can keep making it until it isn’t hot anymore and then just do something else. No need to worry about long-term return on investment; no need to fret over feeding a factory-full of workers. Bermuda, here he comes.
But that’s not how our economy is built. How often do you hear that the wise person invests for the long term? Well, what’s long-term now? A generation? A decade? A few months?
If this is the case, then the platforms that make this temporary economy possible — Amazon and its web services, eBay and its retail chain, FedEx and its distribution chain, Google and Facebook and their marketing power — will be the best long-term plays. That’s why VCs keep saying they want to invest in platforms. But there’s only so many of those.
Of course, the problem for VCs in the last decade has been that start-ups just don’t need them as much as they used to. That will be ever more the case. Now the rest of us will know how the VCs feel. Where can you put our money if you’re an investment fund or a pension fund or a plain investor? Where will equity grow? Will it? I wish to hell I knew.
Oh, there will be wealth. Witness Facebook’s IPO. But consider that Facebook serves soon a billion people with a staff the size of a metro newspaper company and they will end up with much greater wealth in fewer hands. Technology will not solve the economic imbalance of the 1 percent but make it worse, unless you’re one of those 3,000 employees of the platform or you manage to start a new company — likely a temporary, pop-up company — on top of it.