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No Mercy No Malice

The Sonic (Entrepreneurship) Boom

March 26, 2021

Post-crisis periods are among history’s most productive eras. London rebuilt after the Great Fire with grand new architecture, and Europe after the worst of its plagues underwent a commercial revolution. The Marshall Plan turned enemies into allies, fomenting peace and prosperity for over half a century. Leaders also emerge from crises. Ulysses S. Grant was a washed-up soldier without prospects until war broke out, but that war created the opportunity for Grant to save the Union and advance the cause of freedom. This is all to say: In the next 36 months, I believe our economy will birth a new generation of web 3.0 firms and leaders. Why?

I’ve started nine businesses. The best predictive signal for their success has turned out to be the phase of the economic cycle in which they were started. Put simply, the best time to start a business is on the heels of a recession. And while pandemic economics haven’t resulted in a garden-variety recession — in either its duration (short) or its recovery (K-shaped) — there are factors that make this the best time to start a business in over a decade. Specifically:

  • Unprecedented stimulus and savings resulting in a Nazaré-like wave of consumer spending.
  • A gestalt among consumers and enterprises to question the status quo, and be open to new products and services.
  • The emergence of new fields and the capital to disrupt traditional industries as immunities kick in and monopoles are broken up.

Nazaré

Photo: Luis Ascenso CC BY 2.0

The massive waves of Portugal are a function of the Nazaré Canyon, a submarine valley 5,000 meters deep and 2,300 kilometers long that functions as a ripple polarizer. Ocean swells build up over thousands of miles and flow through this geological fault with a minimal dissipation of energy. I just read the last sentence and am wondering about the medium-term effects of edibles. Anyway, the greatest surfer in the world is just a freakishly strong swimmer with a fiberglass board — until the right wave comes along. The Nazaré Canyon generates the biggest waves, and therefore, the most potential for greatness.

Monster waves birth in the open ocean, but tectonic business waves begin with consumer spending. The combination of historic savings, government stimulus, and record asset appreciation is shaping a wave of consumer spending unlike anything we’ve seen since baby boomers decided consumerism was a virtue.

Similar to ocean swells barreling towards the Porteguese coast, the commercial opportunities powered by consumer spending will be shaped by business dynamics. And, as with Nazaré, there is a deep canyon that will convert this energy into the waves of change. That canyon is Dispersion, a fancy way of saying the supply chain, or route through which a product or service travels, is changing. Today, there are four big waves forming in the Dispersion Canyon.

HQ

Remote work will fuel massive opportunities. Over the next decade, we are going to see the most radical transformation of the American landscape since the freeway created the suburbs. This set will have two waves.

First, we will see a significant investment in residential real estate and communities.  Commercial real estate is a $16T asset class. If gross demand for office space declines by a third, we could see the GDP of Japan ($5.1T) reallocated from office to residential real estate. Sonos, Sub-Zero, Restoration Hardware, and Slack — along with everything else that enables or enhances work from home — should benefit.

In addition, we will see a great repurposing of office real estate. Many offices will remain, but no company will need the square footage they previously did, and companies will look for increased flexibility. In New York City, the amount of vacant office space available for sublet has doubled since 2019 and, as of December, the commercial vacancy rate in the city was the highest it’s been since the Great Recession. In 2020, San Francisco went from the lowest office vacancy rate in the city’s history to the highest.

Some office towers will be remade as residential, while others will be flexed for multiple tenants (coming soon: Airbnb Office). Cities aren’t going away – young people and inherently collaborative activities will still want/need to congregate in person. But cities will be cheaper, younger, and more diverse, all of which are inputs for startups. At $47B, WeWork was overvalued; going public via SPAC at $9 billion, it might be a buy. Prediction: look for WeWork to rise from the ashes of Covid.

Higher Education

The world’s most powerful lubricant of upward mobility (U.S. higher ed) has morphed into a corrupt enforcer of the caste system. It has enjoyed 30 years of tuition increases matched only by the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of its leadership. Covid is the fist of stone coming for this chin. The pandemic moved 1.6 billion people into online education, and many will stay there. India’s largest edtech firm, Byju, is reportedly closing a $600 million investment, valuing the company at $15 billion, and Coursera is expected to go public at a $5 billion valuation.

Healthtech

The largest consumer industry in history is U.S. healthcare. It’s also the most ripe for disruption. Imagine: Walking into a Best Buy to ask for help buying a flatscreen TV, only for the salesperson to hand you paperwork, for the 11th time, and ask you to wait 20 minutes before someone will help you. Only, you don’t have to imagine it, just think about the last time you went to a doctor’s office. At the doctor, you have to put up with this BS, because your health literally depends on it. Similar to higher ed, the healthcare industries have been sticking out their chin for years, raising prices while delivering worse outcomes. Healthtech startups raised $15.3 billion in 2020, up from $10.6 billion in 2019, according to Silicon Valley Bank.

Crypto

This is a $1.7T asset class that could be $130T (the size of the bond market), disperse trust (eliminate the need for inefficient intermediaries), and reduce human bias in the financial supply chain. Every generation gets its gold rush (social media followed the web, which followed the personal computer). Young people have the edge when it comes to transformational opportunities, as their brains still have the plasticity needed to comprehend new models. In my fifties, it feels like the part of my brain that I need to understand this sector is dying — along with the part that can mimic my father’s Glaswegian accent. Strange, right? But that’s another post. For now, I’m taking fish oils and speaking to experts. This week on the pod, we spoke with crypto investor Raoul Pal, and a few months ago, Michael Saylor lobbied me to buy bitcoin despite its recent rise to $19k. Note: I didn’t buy.

How Can I Help?

A year ago, it would have been harder to be optimistic about entrepreneurs addressing these opportunities, as Big Tech was likely to move in and dominate every open space. But at the tail end of the last administration, we registered serious movement on antitrust enforcement. And now, the Biden administration has signalled that it will double down, bringing two of the most compelling voices for enforcement, Tim Wu and Lina Kahn, into the administration. The breakup of Big Tech — and the limits on its offensive efforts — will birth new lanes the size of the 405 (yes, I’m in LA today). Thursday’s Congressional hearings confirmed what many of us have been saying for years: Big Tech is bad for society, these firms lied to us, and they need to be broken up.

Big Tech isn’t the only segment of society that has benefitted from the pandemic. If you’re in the top 10 percent, much less the top one percent, the dirty secret of Covid is that many of us have been living our best lives. The deadliest crisis in American history has meant more time with family and Netflix, coupled with an explosion in wealth. The top decile of Americans works with zeroes and ones, and this work has only been levered by remote technologies. Furthermore, the representatives of the shareholder class in government (435 in the House, and 100 in the Senate) have used the cloud cover of the pandemic to funnel trillions of dollars into the market, juicing asset prices.

One thing the shareholder class can do is to invest in early-stage (i.e., seed) startups. I don’t enjoy seed investing. Almost every business idea I hear, I think, “This makes no sense, and will never work” — I also find early-stage CEOs and firms, similar to infants, needy and impossible to predict. Regardless, I have made (in the last week) two seed stage investments: Measured, a platform for weight loss, and ScholarSite, a Substack for academics.

Capital

Despite the broader economic slowdown, we are awash in capital, at every level. Wealthy individuals have by and large done incredibly well over the past year, thanks to the stock market run-up, and are looking for opportunities to invest. Tech-focused investors have done particularly well, and crypto has generated new bitcoin billionaires. Tech companies are important venture investors, and have more capital than they can use for core operations. The result? A record 225 U.S. companies became unicorns in 2020. January 2021 saw the greatest total in venture investments in history, with $40 billion invested, and since the beginning of the year, over 60 additional private companies have achieved “unicorn” status. Meanwhile, the public markets are desperate for quality companies to sate the voracious appetite of SPACs.

Los Angeles & Dispersion

I’m currently in Los Angeles and I’m channeling Michael Jordan. Hear me out: Just as MJ loved baseball, but wasn’t great at it; there is nowhere I enjoy more, and am less successful, than Los Angeles. I meet with agents, producers, and box office superstars who show me their sneaker collection and, over lunch at their house(s), tell me, “You are a genius, we must work together.”  And then … nothing. I know this trip to the City of Angels will yield the same business (non)results. But that’s not why I’m here.

My closest friend’s mom, who cooked several hundred meals for me as a child, pre-teen, and teen, is struggling with dementia. I had lunch with her and her husband, who I have written about, today. During lunch, I’d grab her hand, and she’d look at me with surprise and then just smile. I’m not sure if in these moments she knew who I was, but I am confident she knew I loved her, and that was enough. I’ve let so much bullshit get in the way of expressing how I feel for people — some fucked up sense of masculinity or insecurity that to this day diminishes my ability to express true emotions.

There is a meaningful opportunity in the dispersion of HQ, education, and healthcare. There is a profound opportunity to register the finite nature of life and rebel against anything that gets in the way of letting people know that you love them, and how much they’ve impacted your life. I am a professional failure in my hometown of Los Angeles. However, there are people here who were generous with me, and whom I love. I need to get to LA more.

Life is so rich,

P.S. Section4, my EdTech startup, aims to to make elite business education more
accessible with 2-3 week intensive “Sprints.” Our upcoming Sprint, Product Strategy, is taught by my NYU Stern colleague Adam Alter.

44 comments

  1. Philip says:

    Great words! Happy Easter from Germany,
    Phil

    • Tristan says:

      The smartest thing I have read in a very long time. You are a genius, we must work together. 😉

  2. Gina Champion says:

    Greetings from the old westwood crew (more authentic part of LA 😉
    Fabulous article! Insights and heart! A great combination! Appreciated your experiences as I’ve had the honor to care for a dying mother as well as care for a dementia childhood caregiver! Humbling and inspiring!

  3. José Miguel Pizarro says:

    Looking forward to your next blog. In the meantime I’ll read this one one more time. Thank a lot

  4. Peter Blau says:

    Scott, thanks for the most interesting blog. I not only enjoy your comments for I am in agreement with what you are saying. Keep up the good work. I look forward to your next email and blog. Regards,

  5. Lorna Hogg says:

    Your long term thinking is so refreshing and needed and your courage to disrupt comes a healthy rage seeded in a place of humility learning alot thank you incidentally my son is ceo of koho a banking apt who’s core mantra is to help Canadians be better about their finances and offer better financial products. He said that if had started koho a year earlier that company would failed. Among other things they were nimble about moving to remote work so he recognises the values of luck and humility. Two enthusiastic 👍👍

  6. Patrick Nagle says:

    I love your comment about doing biz in LA. Yep, this New Yorker had the bi-coastal experience for many years. Everybody said the same thing…”We must do business together on something.” Then I would fly back to NYC on Sunday nights, go into my office in Soho, and do the work. Moral of the story, ‘Don’t quit your day job.”

  7. Patrice Brendle says:

    One of the best, hit the spot poste from good old Scott

  8. Paul says:

    Gawd damn, gawd damn, gawd damn he’s good! Nice Scott!

  9. Brent says:

    I read you for your insights into business, the economy, education, and investments. But I’m always most affected by your sentimental closing thoughts. I feel good, sometimes even inspired to action, after reading your stuff. Thank you, SG!

  10. Dallas says:

    Came for The Dog’s business acumen, stayed for the sentimentality.

  11. David Murphy says:

    Once again you start business and finish even stronger by touching on your humanity. That enhances these posts greatly. It’s watching Prof G grow in real time and I’m taking my queues. There are lessons everywhere. It’s why I visit regularly with my home bound neighbor and his dementia afflicted partner.

    Thank you for sharing

    David

  12. Justin Y says:

    Insightful as always! Except for the MJ comparison….

  13. Dave says:

    Brilliant as always, Professor. You drop some hard truths, identify areas of opportunity, and encourage us to get after it, before bringing it all home and explaining what’s really important: not so much what we do but how we maintain connections with those whom we love. Thank you.

  14. Elena says:

    Super interesting as usual Prof G. My heart was touched by the last paragraphs, on dementia and the importance of giving back to those who give us everything. I wish there was a way to put together all the gizmos and easy-tech pieces that have been built over time and build services that allow these loved ones to spend more time in their homes and familiar environments, before their health deteriorates to the point they have to be moved to specialized facilities (one of the most heartbreaking decisions ever for a son or a daughter). I wish…

  15. Rose Lewis says:

    I would be interested in your views on how food might change as we move away from office home – it this an opportunity to re-energise local food and turn back the tide of industrial scale agri that is harming our planet so much but was the only real way to feed mega cities

  16. Dan Munro says:

    Lot’s of solid predictions – except healthcare because it’s not a “consumer” product.

    * Demand will always exceed supply
    * There’s no “demand elasticity” for – you know – your life
    * Prices are uncapped and much of the industry is based on expensive services that are also expensive to earn.
    * As patients – we don’t always know when we’ll need expensive healthcare
    * We don’t know how much expensive healthcare we’ll need (so it’s not like we can save up)
    * We often arrive at an ER on a gurney – unconscious
    * The average cost of one inpatient surgery in the U.S. is over $47,000

    On this last one – let’s say you could wave a wand and cut that price in half – that’s still over $23,000 so average Americans have to rely on a 3rd party payment mechanism (insurance) to afford the surgery. Point being – we’re not getting rid of actuarial math anytime soon and other than low-acuity care (some of which can be accommodated in a retail model), the big $’s are still further upstream where chronic and acute care are required – and expensive.

    Lot’s of forecasting through the decades that this will be disrupted – but I’m not seeing how. Which isn’t to say that there will be a lot of venture capital poured in chasing disruption – and lot’s of ventures will make a lot of money (for investors / shareholders), but the big question will always be how does the activity lower prices that we all pay and/or improve outcomes? Those are the real measurements for healthcare disruption – not VC valuations.

    • c cook says:

      Over 40% of Americans are obese or close. Opioid, alcohol, drug use rampant. Sugar is the new heroin. There isn’t enough money in the world to ‘fix’ a population that doesn’t care about their own health. Healthcare in America is expensive for a lot of reasons, but the woke crowd doesn’t really understand. A doctor can rack up a million in debt by the time they start practice. Malpractice lawyers make even more, hence the cost of insurance can run a surgeon hundreds of thousands. If you want to ‘fix’ healthcare, look to those bright young marketing types, many in Scott’s classes. Pushing garbage food and lifestyle products on underserved populace, then telling the government to save them.

  17. Ken Morris Sior, RPA says:

    Awesome article Professor G! I am a 30 year veteran office/industrial real estate advisor and agree that a lot of office space will be repurposed. Please continue providing the good business and life guidance you have been…shine on Sir! With Gratitude, Ken Morris

  18. LG says:

    Thought provoking piece as always Scott. Would love to see a piece where you actually analyse Bitcoin because from where I’m sitting 5 mins work makes clear it’s a pump and dump. Your WeWork comment is interesting though. My company has 4 employees (fund manager) and previously rented space from a wework clone. I can’t see why we would ever go back to sitting next to the vegan shoe retailer and the Instagram bot-maker when we can just WFH. WeWork’s model is dead in my opinion, far more so than traditional office space.

  19. Hugh Stephenson says:

    Thank you for your personal anecdotes. Your thoughts on business are enlightening. Your personal stories are priceless.

  20. C Cook says:

    I enjoy your opinions and thoughts. BUT, your vision here can all be destroyed by the political machine in Washington we just elected. Personal egos, laziness, and greed are now the stuff of our government employees and elected officials. Anything coming out of the sweat of a business will be taxed and/or regulated to death. Tax dollars for green anything will be dolled out based in campaign contributions coming in. Solyndra money happens, aid to a struggling business may or may not. And, it all started with Joe’s former boss who gave us a look into the mind of a bureaucrat when he told us ‘You didn’t make that!’. You blasted Ayn Rand in your last column. Maybe re-read Atlas Shrugged, or read it for the first time. Tedious, but a vision of our future I fear.

  21. Brian Margolis says:

    Scott,
    Hi. I am a regular reader and listener. As I know you are quite precise in your written and spoken words, I was wondering why in this latest piece you chose the word gestalt instead of zeitgeist. The latter seems more appropriate to me. Curious to know your justification. Thanks bam

  22. Deb says:

    This is the kind of article why I love your articles. Absolutely amazing !!

  23. Tomas Nathhorst says:

    Agree a lot of change will come along the lines you propose.

    Joint founder with Professor B Langefors in October 2003 on Business’Quantum project.

    Business Machines consumes different forms of energy that is asset energy.

    People, Brands and money etc.
    Classic static assets does not define dynamic business processes.

    Happy to send more information.

    Tomas.Nathhorst@gmail

  24. Vishal Kalyanasundaram says:

    Hey Scott, love this post.
    Definitely anticipate a boom in the tech and business sectors – do you think you could say the same for Arts and Entertainment? You’re in LA right now, would love to get your read. Thanks!

  25. Michael says:

    Great post but the last paragraphs at the end were really hitting it on the river. I’ve spent first 16 years of my 18 year career doing brand, creative, marketing for DTC, e-comm, agency, you name it. The last two years I’ve had to opportunity to use the skills I’ve learned to help promote awareness and provide care for people with a rare and potential terminal disease. It has completely changed me professionally and personally to work directly with people living with sever disease and hearing the hope and struggle in their voices.

    Reading your latest posts about the shake-up healthcare is about to go through makes me feel very optimistic. Almost all of the people I’ve worked with were failed by the HC system somewhere along their diagnostic and care journey. It’s time to blow it up and force it to be easier to use, more equitable, and empathic.

  26. Steve Wagner says:

    RE: crypto and “disperse trust … and reduce human bias in the financial supply chain” —

    Love ya, but please find an non-salesman expert who understands that crypto is a speculative asset (if it does manage to accumulate a large gain, there are capital gains to pay) and while many conventional investment opportunities do have high loads, assets held over the long term do not necessarily incur the load and transaction costs implied by “inefficiencies.” Much of crypto’s success thus far is because it has been used by drug dealers and oligarchs to hide transactions, despite the crypto feature that the ledger is supposed to be viewable by all. Using tokens to invest in potentially successful writers or podcasters such as yourself is perhaps a somewhat riskier investment than the typical startup? And, btw, Raoul Pal’s argument that crypto is good for climate change because the excessive mining electricity usage goes after the lowest cost, off-peak electricity and gas flaring is completely ridiculous! Your brain is fine – please use it!!!!!!

  27. Ed says:

    Prof. G, great post! I realize you spend most of your time away from CA these days. As a son of CA, perhaps you would consider coming back one day and run for governor. I think you’d be great!

  28. dave says:

    Prof G – always a pleasure. Having recently entered the seed stage world, and coming from the world of a big, consumer facing company, I love the youngsters going out there with little more than an idea, maybe an MVP, and a ton of passion, and taking a risk. In corporate, we always talked the art of the possible but behaved like little, if anything, was. By the time we’d vetted most decisions, and completed the plan to implement, their shelf life had expired. But we went ahead and did ’em anyway!

    Being an old product guy, one thing I would love to see you do when talking about product in the tech space is start using the term value chain instead of supply chain. As I advise many of the startups coming through our incubator, I find both the greatest joy and service to them comes from a seriously deep decomposition of their end-to-end value chain, looking for opportunities to both simplify and impart greater value to the idea while also often tripping over a stronger brand positioning. Value is a better paradigm because it’s aspirational.

    On HQ, while I get the trend, I worry about the impact on company culture. As a youngster starting out in corporate America, showing up in the office every morning, meeting dozens of others across the various functions in the same boat, heading out for lunch or an after work beer, with each other, was a source of joy that I’ll always cherish, and it formed many of my closest relationships. More than anything, it made us love work and bred loyalty to the company. I hate to see kids today miss out on that opportunity. Getting old and crusty, some of that declined, but we still had our pockets of comfort so that we could “bring our whole selves to work.” I know kids don’t stick around like we baby boomers did, but I still think walking around and having casual conversations is how true influence is built and the peanut ultimately gets pushed forward in the best way possible. In the room will always be better than on Slack. It makes life much richer, as demonstrated as you held your friend’s mother’s hand!

  29. Tom says:

    Mind expanding, as always.

  30. Mitchman says:

    Your latest Prof G podcast with the Crypto guys, was awesome and mind blowing even trying to understand NFT’s and that mys son, who is always gaming, might, MIGHT my houses foremost expert in this changing landscape. It’s bizarro world for the Mitchman.

  31. Tien says:

    Professor G, please slow down! Our feeble little brains can only handle so much. No more than bi-weekly, I want to read them all.

  32. Whitt says:

    Dementia is the fucking worst. Sending prayers/positive energy their way.

  33. Dean Harris says:

    Lots of talk with no (business) action s not just an LA thing. I love the way you draw from your life experience to address large themes.

  34. Steve says:

    Dawg…. why is it so many of your posts end up w/ a tear in my eye. You are something else.

  35. Frantz says:

    You’re a futurist, aren’t you?

  36. Scott Finley says:

    You’re wicked smart. Technicolor vivid. And you demonstrate with every communication that your heart is in the right place. A man for our times.

    • Sylvia says:

      I’ve listened to your laughs/thoughts/predictions/wins over the months … smiled and laughed every Tuesdays and Fridays … and cried tonight.

  37. Jocelyn says:

    you buried the lede (in my opinion):
    I’m not sure if in these moments she knew who I was, but I am confident she knew I loved her, and that was enough. I’ve let so much bullshit get in the way of expressing how I feel for people — some fucked up sense of masculinity or insecurity that to this day diminishes my ability to express true emotions.

    I’m a recent fan, having seen you on Bill Maher and falling head over heels (smart AND he has great arms – WTH?!)

    I applaud your ability to add a bit of your own mishigos (as my jewish mother would say) into your posts.

    Authenticity is everything.

  38. Payam says:

    You summed LA so well Scott. So glad to run into you at the restaurant last night.

  39. Brian C Burkhart says:

    Scott…kudos to you (for all kinds of things actually) for shining a light on the nonsensical bullshit of masculine bravado, still clearly pervasive in most sectors of life. Let’s all embrace those profound and decidedly human emotions….it just makes the world a better place to be. Now, to Portugal, let’s catch some waves!