Aug 142010
 

Startups vs. Behemoths

I knew I would be touching a raw nerve with my last two posts, on patents.

But I was really surprised at the divergence of opinion. Entrepreneurs overwhelmingly supported my stance that software patents hamper innovation and need to be abolished, but friends at Microsoft, IBM, and Google were outraged at my recommendation. The big companies’ executives argued that abolishing patents would hurt their ability to innovate and thus hamper the nation’s economic growth. (They believe that companies like theirs create the majority of jobs and innovations, and they claim that without patents they cannot defend their innovations.) I am not convinced that software patents give Google any advantage over Microsoft and Yahoo, or make IBM’s databases any better than Oracle’s. But I do know one thing for sure: it isn’t the big companies that create the jobs or the revolutionary technology innovations: it is startups. So if we need to pick sides, I vote for the startups.

Let’s start with the question of who creates the jobs. This is one of the issues that I recently took Intel co-founder Andy Grove to task for, in BusinessWeek. Grove wrote a profound essay lamenting the loss of American manufacturing jobs. I share his concerns about jobs. But Andy’s protectionist recommendations for restoring America’s competitiveness were largely based on his flawed premise that companies like Intel create all the jobs—not the startups. I also discussed the tradeoff between bailing out companies like General Motors, AIG, and Citibank and nurturing startups in this BusinessWeek piece.  This question is more important than it may seem.

Kauffman Foundation has done extensive research on job creation. Kauffman Senior Fellow Tim Kane analyzed a new data set from the U.S. government, called Business Dynamics Statistics, which provides details about the age and employment of businesses started in the U.S. since 1977.  What this showed was that startups aren’t just an important contributor to job growth: they’re the only thing. Without startups, there would be no net job growth in the U.S. economy. From 1977 to 2005, existing companies were net job destroyers, losing 1 million net jobs per year. In contrast, new businesses in their first year added an average of 3 million jobs annually.

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