According to our president’s final State of the Union, we’ve recovered from the economic crisis and now enjoy the strongest, most durable economy in the world. Obama does acknowledge that startups and small businesses may need some help, so he wants to reignite our “sprit of innovation” — which he plans to do by putting Vice President Biden in charge of curing cancer.
But the problem facing startups is not a lack of innovation. We are being killed by the economy, which, for those of us who have to live in it, is not good at all. Young entrepreneurs may have spent last year working hard, innovating and building, only to find their companies are worth less now than when they started.
The market is adjusting downwards. Valuations are sinking. The investors I’ve spoken to feel the Fed’s free-money policy has created a dangerous over-valuation of companies and stocks and, now that the rates are coming back up, the air is being let out. 2015, they say, was a tough year because we knew this was coming. 2016 is going to be even tougher.
There is something else weighing on the minds of entrepreneurs and investors alike — regulatory uncertainty. No startup can deal with compliance by itself — not even software companies with no physical products to sell. Startups have to hire lawyers and compliance experts to help them, and this is money we’re not spending on product development or marketing or making our prices more competitive.
The way Obamacare is being implemented, for example, makes our hair white. The rules seem to change with bureaucratic whim; various parts of the law are suspended by executive order. How will we comply next year, and what will it cost? Nobody knows.
In the meantime, the Democratic candidates for President are proposing large hikes to the capital gains tax, which increases effective risk for investors and depresses valuations. Will these hikes ever take place? We don’t know, and that uncertainty carries an additional price.
We’re already seeing more investors decide to weather the storm on the sidelines, keeping an eye on their current affairs and declining to invest in companies they would have snapped up a year ago. A tech startup with a working product will find it harder to raise money today than it would have two years before with nothing but a concept. Not only are we faced with a weak market now, the trend is even more disturbing.
The problem is easier to diagnose than to repair. As an entrepreneur, I’d like to see less regulation and lower taxes. And not just lower taxes on the companies themselves, but on the people who can afford to invest in them. This may come as a surprise, but it’s the hated “one percent” that invests in startups and helps entrepreneurs’ dreams come true. When taxes cut deeper into the pockets of the wealthy, it most negatively affects us — the entrepreneurs and the people we would have hired — not the wealthy.
Regulation remains erratic, and the policies of the next administration cannot be foreseen. 2016 is going to be a hard year for the startup. Investments will continue to decline until investors see a stable market. And they’re not looking at one right now. Companies will die as a result, and not for lack of innovative ideas.
Dan Gelernter is CEO of the technology startup Dittach.