The increased risk profile of start-ups

Start-ups, by definition, are risky. But traditionally, start-ups have looked for the least risky position in the value chain. And for many, this is being a platform.

Successful platforms build an ecosystem of contributors that create content for the platform. Or, they build a marketplace where sellers decide which products might sell or not. In both cases, the platform is a risk-minimizing strategy. Why take a decision about what content to develop if platform participants will do it for you? Why take inventory risk if the sellers on the marketplace make the inventory decisions and take on that risk for you?

But with less and less white space available and often driven by the need to provide a better customer experience, start-ups are now moving into areas of the value chain with much more increased risk. The level of risk was first measured in steps, e.g. Uber guaranteeing drivers certain bonuses if they were available in certain geographies at certain times. Then, start-ups became more aggressive: WeWork takes on office leases and then resells them in smaller chunks; Opendoor buys homes from sellers to then resell them; Sonder takes on long-term leases for apartments to rent them out on a short-term basis on AirBnB and other sites.

By taking such risks, these companies can either provide a vastly better user experience (“sell your home immediately”) and / or scale faster. The risk in this strategy is obvious: if the economy turns, any of these companies might sit on long-term commitments that require more cash to fund than what they can bring in on the revenue side in the short-term.

But it might well be that many of the interesting start-up opportunities going forward will require much more risk-taking than what we used to see. Look no further than crypto.

The overarching narrative of crypto platforms is that they want to cut out the middleman and the middleman’s rake by creating an open source platform that can be forked at any stage if the community thinks that the fee structure is inappropriate. If this assumption holds true at scale, then the only way to make money would be to build a business (risk-taking) on top of those platforms, e.g. the best storage provider on top of Filecoin or the best market maker on top of a prediction market like Augur.

If this trend of increased risk taking holds true, then many start-ups will have to develop very different capabilities to be successful in such a world – it will be interesting to see this unfold!

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