Jan 3 2011

Macroeconomics for Startups

Macroeconomics for Startups

I’m not an economist.  I don’t play one on TV.  In fact, I only took one Econ class at Princeton (taught by Ben Bernanke, no less), and I barely passed it.  In any case, while I’m not an economist, I do read The Economist, religiously at that, and I’ve been reading so much about macroeconomic policies and news the past 18 months that I feel like I finally have a decent rudimentary grip on the subject.  But still, the subject doesn’t always translate as well to the average entrepreneur as microeconomics does – most business people have good intuitive understandings of supply, demand, and pricing.  But who knows what monetary policy is and why they should care?

So here’s my quick & dirty cut at Macroeconomics for Startups.  What do some of the buzzwords you read about in the news mean to you?

· Productivity Gains – This is something frequently cited as critical to developed economies like ours in the US.  Here’s my basic example over the past 10 years.  When I left my job at MovieFone in 1999, there were approximately eight administrative assistants in a company of 200 people – one for each senior person.  Today, Return Path has less than one administrative assistant in a company of the same size.  We all have access to more tools to self-manage productivity than we used to.  Cloud computing is another great example here of how companies are doing more with less. We have tons of software applications we use at Return Path, none of which require internal system administration, from Salesforce.com for CRM to Intacct for accounting. Ten years ago, each would have required dedicated hardware and operational maintenance.

· Fiscal Policy vs. Monetary Policy –  Fiscal Policy is manipulating the economy through government taxing and spending.  Monetary Policy is manipulating the economy by controlling interest rates and money supply.  For a small company that has revenue and accounts receivable, you probably are more inclined to Monetary Policy as it has more to do with your ability to access debt capital from banks through credit lines.  But if you’re in an industry where government grants or support is critical, Fiscal Policy can mean more to you in the short run.  Of course, if you’re losing money as many startups are, business tax credits and the like aren’t so relevant.

· Inflation – As my high school econ teacher defined it, “too many dollars chasing too few goods.”  Inflation may seem like a neutral thing for a business – your costs may be going up, but your revenue should be going up as well, right?  And we can inflate our way out of debt by simply devaluing our currency, right?  The main problem with inflation is that too much of it discourages investment and savings, which has negative long term consequences.  To you, rapid inflation would mean that the money you raise today is worth a lot less in a year or two.  That said, inflation is certainly better than Deflation, which can paralyze an economy.  Think about it like this – if you’re in a deflationary environment, why would you spend money today if you think prices will be lower tomorrow?

· Strong Dollar, Weak Dollar – Sounds like one of those things that’s politically explosive…of course we all want a strong dollar, right?  Why have a mental image of Uncle Sam that’s anything other than muscular?  And yes, it’s a lot more fun to travel to Europe when a latte costs you $4, not $8.  But the reality is that a strong dollar doesn’t necessarily serve all our interests well.  For a startup, sure, you can buy an offshore development team in India for less money than a development team in Silicon Valley, and for a more established company it makes it much cheaper to try and expand to Europe and Asia.  But an artificially strong dollar means that few people outside the US can afford to buy your product or service.  This is related to…

· Trade Surplus/Deficit and Exchange Rates – The net of a given country’s exports minus imports, and how much one currency is worth in terms of the other.  There’s been much talk lately about whether and how much China is manipulating its currency and holding it down, and if so, what impact that has on the global economy.  Why should you care?  If China is articifically keeping the value of the yuan down, it just means that the Chinese people can’t afford to buy as much stuff from other countries – and that other countries have an artificial incentive to buy things from China.  If the Chinese government allowed the yuan to appreciate more, the exchange rate vs. the dollar would rise, and your product or service would find itself with a lot more likely buyers in the sea of 1.3B people that is China.

I’m sure there are other terms of note and startup applications, but these are a handful that leap to mind.