Technology changed every molecule of life in the 2010s.
Airbnb, Uber and other young companies morphed the physical complexion of cities and how they work. The growing prevalence of e-commerce, fast internet connections and smartphones in everyone’s pockets shifted how we shop, behave and are entertained — with both good and bad ripple effects.
Even the stodgiest industries were forced to shake up what they do in reaction to new competitors and changing expectations of their customers. Governments have new ways to reach citizens and fresh fears from the ways technology empowers them.
Because tech is changing everything, it’s hard to pick a single transformative technology for the 2010s. But my pick for the biggest impact of the decade isn’t a technology at all: It’s money — and lots of it.
Open arms policy
Look at the companies behind some of the significant changing trends: Tesla Inc., which is trying to lead an upending of the car culture, needs ongoing doses of investors’ cash to stay in business. So does Netflix Inc., the company that has transformed the entertainment industry and people’s leisure time.
Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. couldn’t exist in their current form without an unprecedented flood of investment money that flowed into tech start-ups after the financial crisis.
Food delivered to our doorsteps, real estate and software companies that are shifting how and where companies work, apps that are rewriting what it means to be a young person, businesses that are rewiring outer space, new challenges to public health, a shift in the nature of money and payments — almost none of these phenomena would be financially viable without piles of investment capital at the start, and in some cases continuing to this day.
Bright ideas are behind all of these world-bending technologies, but other people’s money is the fuel.
It’s easiest to see this effect in tech start-up land. In 2009, $27.2 billion was invested in US tech start-ups, according to figures from the National Venture Capital Association. In the 12 months ended in September, that figure was more than $143 billion.
Spreading it wide
The impact of other people’s money has also spread far beyond Silicon Valley and the other global tech start-up hubs. Superstars such as Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have been able to borrow money cheaply and easily as they thrived in the last decade. These highly profitable titans didn’t need the money, but it didn’t hurt.
Other people’s money allowed them to reward shareholders or smartly deploy cash to new areas. The belief that the world is in a unique moment of rapid technological transformation gave breathing room for companies willing to self-finance disruptive investments, whether it was Amazon shifting into a package-delivery company or Mukesh Ambani spending tens of billions of dollars to remake India into a cutting-edge internet power.
The availability of cash was the result of post-financial crisis policy-making that created conditions for economic growth and incentives for people to put their money into assets that had more risk and more promise.
In a feedback loop, once technology changes started seeping into more corners of life and business, investors were motivated to hunt for more areas in which technology could apply its disruptive magic. This effect hit even relatively young companies.
The restaurant technology company Grubhub Inc. and house hunting hub Zillow Group Inc., for example, have shaken up their businesses to compete with younger, unprofitable rivals. Those changes may not be sustainable, but they’re also unavoidable. The influx of money into technology has been rational, at least in the micro view. As an unidentified investor said about Snapchat’s parent company in 2017, “I’m willing to risk losing 50 per cent if there’s a chance this is like Facebook and I can get 10x.”
The worst outcome of putting money in risky young companies is losing all of it. The upside is potentially infinite.
The collective impact of all those rational decisions, however, is completely irrational. There is more money than good ideas, which provides incentives to rationalise bad businesses and bad behaviour. Now, almost everyone with a connection to the technology industry says too much money is sloshing around, and it’s having perverse effects. And almost everyone with a connection to the technology industry also believes he is not the one making bad decisions motivated by too much money chasing too few good ideas.
Despite this — and in spite of a few blow-ups of young companies such as Munchery, Blue Apron and WeWork, and the unresolved questions about the viability of Uber — the underlying conditions haven’t changed. Interest rates are still low in the US, and the value of most asset types keeps climbing.
That means there will continue to be lots of other people’s money going into promising — and not so promising — business ideas.
I certainly believe what we’ve seen this decade in the technology industry is in part a mirage created by money. Businesses and whole industries are being built on sand, and some of them won’t survive an inevitable shift of business cycles. That said, the technology disruption is real and irreversible. Even if other people’s money goes poof, no one can turn back time on the technological change creeping into everything.