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“Be ready”: Why investors are worried our pandemic boom is about to end

A report from startupworld: Things slowed down a lot in the last few months. Blip or trend?

A photo of lots of people’s hands in the air in a New York nightclub.
Is the party over?
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At the end of 2021, Food52, a company that sells cookware and gives away recipes, announced it had received a fresh $80 million in investment money from its owner, the Chernin Group.

“The company is performing extremely well — way ahead of where we had anticipated,” a Chernin executive explained at the time.

Fast-forward to April 2022: Food52 has laid off 20 people — 5 percent of its staff. A PR rep for the company described the cuts as a “realignment” — moving resources from one part of the company to another. But I’ve heard that the company’s sales growth had also started to decelerate in recent months.

Which makes Food52 part of a quiet conversation I’ve been picking up on among investors in startups and private companies. It’s a murmur, not a roar. But I keep hearing that consumer-facing companies — meaning media companies that sell advertising or commerce ones that sell stuff to regular people — have seen their sales start to head down in recent months.

“It’s a little slower than I’d like,” a publishing CEO tells me.

“It’s slowing, across the board,” a venture capital investor tells me.

“It’s choppy,” a private equity investor says.

Maybe it’s a blip — nothing to see here. But maybe this is an early warning sign of an actual contraction. And if so, feel free to spin out the scenarios from here: Goods and services that have been subsidized by investors looking to get market share may become more expensive — just like Uber and Lyft rides did once those companies decided they needed profits as well as growth. (An obvious candidate here would be the new breed of grocery services like Gopuff, which are promising near-instant delivery.) Companies that have been competitors could end up merging — which could benefit their margins but reduce consumer choice. And workers who’ve gotten used to a rare employment market that gave many of them more choices and power may end up facing layoffs.

It’s hard to peer inside private companies to get a good sense of how things are going. But when investors and business leaders who traffic in optimism tell me they’ve gotten a lot less confident in recent months, my ears perk up. Job cuts in what has been an extremely tight labor market are another sign: The tech and business news site The Information has tracked 2,000 layoffs at startups in the last month alone.

Public companies, whose business results are much more transparent, are also starting to send up flares. When BuzzFeed announced that it was offering buyouts to 30 percent of its news staff in March, it also said its revenue would decline by a “low single-digit percentage” for the first few months of the year. It said its commerce business — where it makes money from the likes of Amazon when online shoppers click on a link on a BuzzFeed page — had started to slow, and that its ad business was seeing a “slower start” from retailers and companies selling consumer packaged goods.

Meanwhile, some businesses simply don’t know what to make of the economy. “I wouldn’t call it happy days right now,” said Gary Friedman, the CEO of home furnishing retailer RH, in a March earnings call that raised eyebrows all over Wall Street. “I’d call it pensive days. Be ready.”

Not everyone is seeing it. Some investors tell me their portfolios of startups are chugging along just fine; others allow that things have slowed a bit — but not worryingly so.

The theories for why it’s happening are across the board. They’re also not mutually exclusive. Some of the leading contenders:

  • Banner growth during the pandemic, when people were stuck at home consuming tons of media and buying lots of stuff online was inevitably going to slow down. Now people are more likely to spend money outside of the house — the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for instance, says US airport traffic is almost back to pre-pandemic status — and even those who aren’t out and about may have made all the panic/impulse purchases they’re going to make for a while.
  • Free money — both in the form of federal stimulus checks and just-about-no-interest loans — has gone away.
  • Inflation, or fear of inflation, which started cropping up last summer, may be causing consumers to hold off or scale back their purchases.
  • Changes Apple has pushed into the ad market, which are supposed to protect users’ privacy, have made it much harder for their companies to find the customers they need. That lack of precision targeting has either pushed up the amount they need to spend to reach those customers — increasing their expenses — or prompted them to pull back on ad spending — decreasing revenue for ad-supported media companies.

Again, it’s entirely possible that all of this gets wiped away with a quarter or two of bounceback growth this summer and fall, and that things return to the go-go times. More realistically, it’s possible that lots of companies overestimated their growth prospects and simply have to rein them in for a bit: That could mean cutting back on marketing — traditionally the first thing that companies worried about costs tend to drop — or slowing hiring plans.

But if things get worse? It gets interesting, and potentially worrisome for people up and down the economic food chain. For the last several years, for instance, super-low interest rates made it easy for companies that needed more time to figure out their business to kick the can down the road. They could easily borrow money for next to nothing, or sell off parts of themselves to investors willing to pay ever-increasing prices. See WeWork, to pick a particularly infamous example.

But that era looks over, and the new one features inflation and rising interest rates, which some investors tell me could make their companies much more open to merging with rivals: If you don’t have cheap money to help you buy scale, maybe you’ll try to get scale by combining with your competitors. That’s good news if you’re a banker or lawyer who specializes in M&A; not so good if you’ve got a job made redundant because someone at the company you’re merging with does the same work you do. Or, used to do.

Unsettling? Sure. Confusing? You bet. But then again, those are adjectives we’ve been living with for quite some time. The pandemic helped shutter a slew of small businesses — at the same time that big tech companies saw their top and bottom lines soar. Now there’s a land war in Europe that could threaten … everything — but after a brief surge of interest, many Americans seem content to go about their days. So I’m not going to tell you I have any idea where any of this is going. Just that some of the people who like to tell me they’re crushing it aren’t doing that anymore. Heads up.

Is that a useful warning? Too broad? Too pessimistic? Let me know what you think about this week’s column — or anything else. You can @ me on Twitter or send me an email: kafkaonmedia@recode.net.