February 20, 2009

Which Companies Will Blink First and Lead Us Out of The Depths?

Graphic via Dreamstime.com

One of the scariest things about the type of economic slowdown we are in today is that it breeds yet more slowdown. If you see the headlines, you can read that as companies anticipate lower revenues and diminished profits, or expanded losses, they are turning to layoffs, and in parallel, reducing their own spending, from program and infrastructure costs, to employee costs. Just this week, for example, HP announced 5 percent pay cuts for its massive salaried employee base, across the board, and the Mercury News reports more than 100 public companies in all industries have reported executive pay cuts since the recession began.

While this helps the company in the immediate term, the ripple effects downstream are quantifiable - which, in my opinion, could make the problems worse.

Assuming lower revenues is one thing. Lowering spending costs impacts all the company's vendors, in reducing their own revenues, spreading the pain around. And of course, reducing the number of paid employees, and reducing the pay to those employees who are left, impacts them such that they are less willing to spend.

It's a high-stakes game of chicken, for if companies expect the market to turn around, and want dollars to flow again, they have to contribute to the economy themselves, and all actions we have recently seen in the press point to companies simply trying to survive what for many is the deepest downturn in memory. But there cannot be survival if every company reduces its spend so that every company downstream, and its employees, fails as well.

During the 2001 to 2003 recession, there were a few bright spots of hope and prosperity here in the Valley, from Google, who rocketed to market-share nirvana in the face of strong competition, to Apple, who rebuilt themselves from a PC company to one built around electronic gadgets and digital sales, following the introduction of the iPod in 2001, and later, the iTunes Music Store, in 2003.

Also during the 2001 to 2003 downturn, government leaders told consumers that the patriotic thing to do would be to open up their wallets and shop - to help keep the economy humming - even as spirits were broken. Of course, the resulting debts and the issues that surround people spending above their means were main contributors to the stark realities we see today, from credit crunches to home foreclosures. But this time, consumers have (hopefully) wisened up, and they are likely more reluctant to spend their way out of this deep recession, especially if they are one of the unfortunate millions who are drawing unemployment benefits or see their bi-weekly paystub reduced.

On this blog, many of the companies and services we talk about have very little to do with capital creation and distribution. Some of the products are fun widgets or sites that enable people to connect in new ways, not so much finding new places to spend money or even have revenue themselves. We recognize that - and hold to the line that for the most part, this blog caters toward early adopters, and it is not necessarily our role to gauge every company's business acumen and prospects - best left to others. But surrounding those people are real businesses with real, tangible products and a real-life balance sheet - and many entrepreneurs and fellow bloggers work for these companies that have been impacted - including some of my peers who write on this site.

Silicon Valley is not immune to this financial crisis. Companies big and small have reduced forecasts and results. Companies big and small have reduced headcount, and many more have reduced their operating expenses, without drawing headlines. Down the food chain, many start-ups have found the VC well to be dry, and will either be shutting down or changing their prospects. But as 90 percent of start-ups fail, this shakeout could violently separate the good ideas from the bad - faster than they had ever desired.

So as practically every business has reacted to the downturn and closed the spigot on spending, which ones will be the first to reverse the trend and say, 'Enough!', instead, taking advantage of competitive weaknesses to seize market share, and approach a more-wary consumer base? We can't sit on our hands and expect Google and Apple to be the names that rise to the top again.