Google can’t save us (anymore)

April 15, 2015
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History of Google Acquisitions

Great piece by Robert J. Samuelson in last Sunday’s Washington Post about how innovation resulting from M&A activity may lift corporate profits, but only the innovation generated by fast-growing start-ups broadly raises national prosperity.

(A) larger issue transcends individual deals. The popularity of M&A actually involves economic weakness. Unable to expand internally — by creating products or entering new markets — companies rely on M&A for growth. However, what works for the firm may work less well for society. Although buying another company may enhance the acquiring firm’s innovation, it doesn’t add much to society’s. And society’s capacity to innovate is crucial. It generates the wealth needed to raise incomes and dampen social conflicts…

In our mind’s eye, the economy is swarming with entrepreneurs. Competition is intense. Old-line firms adapt, or die. Just the opposite may be happening: Evidence suggests that entrepreneurship is in decline and that U.S. firms are becoming older, more entrenched and less dynamic…

American capitalism is middle-aged. Older firms, conditioned by success, are more rigid. They’re invested, financially and psychologically, in existing markets and production patterns. They can adapt and innovate, but it’s hard. The M&A surge is one way older firms strive to overcome internal stagnation.  What’s worrisome is not the success of the middle-aged businesses; it’s the weakness of young firms and the apparent erosion of entrepreneurship. As other research has shown, start-ups ultimately account for a disproportionately high share of new job creation and innovation. The vigor of these new firms is essential for the economy to revitalize itself.

We don’t know what explains their slide, though the sheer mass of government regulations is one candidate. Older firms have the lawyers and administrators to cope with the red-tape deluge; many small new firms drown. But that’s just a conjecture illuminating the larger question. If the economy discriminates against young firms, we will all be paying the price for many years.

There’s also evidence that suggests more early-stage firms are getting gobbled up – via M&A’s – before they have a chance to boom.  Google itself may be a prime example:  since 2001 they have acquired roughly one company per month and they recently became the country’s biggest political donor, knocking off heavily-regulated Goldman Sachs.

It may seem strange to think of Google as middle-aged, but high profile firms such as it enjoy outsized awareness because they’re personal and omnipresent, and belie the fact that the data show declining business dynamism overall and for start-ups specifically.  For every Google or Facebook there are hundreds of other early-stage companies, and no one knows at the outset which high growth firms will explode and disrupt – so we need “more shots on goal.”

Samuelson’s piece fits nicely with what we wrote last July in Not All Innovation Is Alike:

Some politicians think “innovation policy” means spending taxpayer money on promising young firms favored by bureaucrats. Rather, innovation policy means ensuring that the status quo is continuously challenged by upstart rivals and threat of failure. Those are the keys to the Schumpeterian “gales of creative destruction” that drive innovation, which in turn drives long-term economic growth and improvement in living standards.

National prosperity is generated by the start-ups who innovate and challenge entrenched incumbents. Anyone who’s worked for a large corporation – especially in an R&D department – would not rely primarily on that model for innovation. Anyone who’s worked for a large corporation – especially in a dying industry – would not rely primarily on that model for job growth. Yes, start-ups lack the economies of scale and R&D budgets of larger firms; but that’s the support venture capital provides. Those start-ups that do gain traction are able to raise capital, and, with hard work and a little luck, become large companies… and then face the next generation of innovators.

 

 

 

 

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