Startups

How business-to-business startups reduce inequality

Comment

Sibjeet Mahapatra

Contributor

Sib Mahapatra is a writer and co-founder of Bureau, an end-to-end office furniture startup in NYC.

More posts from Sibjeet Mahapatra

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.

Source: Getty Images/MIKIEKWOODS

A path to equal opportunity: Turning fixed costs into variable costs

What do AWSWeWorkStordGusto 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.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Source: Getty Images/ERHUI1979

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.

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo