Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Back to the Garage: How Economic Turmoil Breeds Innovation

Daniel Roth, Wired

In July 1993, Tom Siebel launched Siebel Systems, which made software for managing corporate sales staffs. The US economy was faltering, and the market for his product was new and untested. In other words, the timing couldn't have been better.

The tech veteran picked up some inexpensive, underworked software engineers, secured office space in run-down East Palo Alto—at 11 cents a square foot—and bought office equipment at auctions held by the companies failing all around him. His own desk was a folding table. By the time he had his first release ready in 1995, he had spent less than $1 million on overhead and had an offering that none of the other major software companies could challenge. Investors made Siebel's June 1996 IPO—debuting just as the stock market was picking up steam—one of the year's top performers. Tom Siebel soon became one of the richest people in the US. "It was a great way to start a company," he says.

With the world's economies apparently snowballing into a deep recession, it feels uncomfortably Pollyannish to see signs of hope. But for the bravest inventors and entrepreneurs, conditions are ideal to pounce on a business opportunity. In periods of economic turmoil, people are hungry and work cheap, and entrenched companies often concentrate on in-house cost-cutting instead of exploring new markets, which can explode with the next turn of the business cycle. When VCs from Foundation Capital met with their nervous investors recently, the partners advised them to stay the course rather than follow their peers into the bunkers. "Our strongest companies have the potential to be whales when the market opens up," partner Paul Holland told the group. "This is the crucible that forges great companies."


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