Schumpeter

The gathering swarm

Is now a good time to start a business?

A STRUGGLING Airbnb was still called AirBed&Breakfast when its founders decided to bet its future on the Democratic National Committee in Denver in 2008. Their air-bed idea was not popular with the 80,000 people congregated to select a presidential candidate. So they focused on breakfast instead, peddling $40 boxes of cereals called Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s (their quip: “Be a cereal entrepreneur”). The timing was as bad as the pun. The event came just weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed at the height of the financial crisis of 2007-09. Yet shortly afterwards they obtained their first-ever funding. The angel investor who backed them dubbed them “cockroaches” for their survival skills. That may not be the most tasteful way to describe people in the hospitality trade. The founders, though, considered it the best compliment they had ever received.

Like Airbnb, some of the best-known names in business started during steep slumps, including Uber (2009), Microsoft (1975), Disney (1923), General Motors (1908) and General Electric (1890). Disruptive products and services, too, have emerged in times of crisis, notably Apple’s iPod as the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 and Alibaba’s Taobao, an online-shopping mall, during China’s SARS epidemic of 2003.

Such stories loom large in startup folklore as evidence of entrepreneurial true grit. Yet they are rarities. Our calculations indicate that among almost 500 of today’s biggest…