Dr. William Lazonick, co-founder and president of The Academic-Industry Research Network, sits down with Real Vision’s Max Wiethe to dissect the evolution of the stock market and the modern American economic system. Citing Boeing as an example, he contends that the stock market is being used to loot previously innovative corporations as insiders and outsiders alike are incentivized to push stock prices higher. He also argues that American competitiveness is being sapped as companies prioritize stock buybacks over investing in research and development, building new infrastructure, and paying off debt. Lazonick explains how this focus on short-term profits has led to unstable employment, sagging productivity growth and a loss of international competitiveness. Filmed on December 6, 2019 in New York.
It doesn’t look too bad, right? It’s going in the right direction: up.
But we were venture-funded, which was like playing a game of double-or-nothing. It’s euphoric when things are going your way — and suffocating when they’re not. And we weren’t doubling fast enough to raise the $15M+ Series B (the second major round of funding) we were looking for to grow the team.
For the type of business we were trying to build, every month of less than 20 percent growth should have been a red flag.
But at the time, I thought it was okay. We had money in the bank and product-market fit. We would continue to ship product and things would work out. The online creator movement was still nascent; the slow growth wasn’t our fault. It always looked like change was right around the corner.
But now, I realize: It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is; we hit a peak in November 2014 and stalled. A lot of creators absolutely loved us, but there weren’t enough of them who needed our specific product offering. Product-market fit is great, but we needed to find a new, larger fit to justify raising more money (and then do it again and again, until acquisition or IPO).
.. Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t hit those numbers. If we’d doubled down, raised more money, and appeared in the headlines again, there would have been a very real possibility of even more spectacular failure.
.. Some of my investors wanted me to shut down the business. They tried to convince me that my time was worth more than trying to keep a small business like Gumroad afloat, and I should try to build another billion-dollar company armed with all of my learnings — and their money.
I tended to agree with them, to be honest. But I was accountable to our creators, our employees, and our investors — in that order. We helped thousands of creators get paid, every month. About $2,500,000 was going to go into the pockets of creators — for rent checks and mortgages, for student loans and kids’ college funds. And it was only growing! Could I really just turn that faucet off?
If I sold the company, it would be mostly for our stellar team — and I would no longer be able to control the destiny of the product. There were too many acquisition stories of companies promising exciting journeys and amazing synergies to come — and ending with a deprecated product a year later.
Selling was certainly tempting. I could say I sold my first company, raise more money, and do this all again with a new idea. But that didn’t sit right with me. We were responsible to our creators first. That’s what I told every new hire and every investor. I didn’t want to become a serial entrepreneur and risk disappointing yet another customer base.
We decided to become profitable at any cost. The next year was not fun: I shrunk the company from twenty employees to five. We struggled to find a new tenant for our $25,000/month office. We focused all of our remaining resources on launching a premium service.
For years, my only metric of success was building a billion-dollar company. Now, I realize that was a terrible goal.
.. To me, happiness is about an expectation of positive change. Every year before 2016, there was an improvement in my expectations — in the team, the product, or the company. This was the first time in my life when the present year felt worse than the last.
.. It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is, or how fast you ship features. The market you’re in will determine most of your growth. For better or worse, Gumroad grew at roughly the same rate almost every month because that’s how quickly the market determined we would grow.
Instead of pretending to be some sort of product visionary, trying to build a billion-dollar company, I’m just focused on making Gumroad better and better for our existing creators. Because they are the ones that have kept us alive.
.. At a CEO Summit many years ago, my all-time hero, Bill Gates, took the stage. Someone asked him how he dealt with failing to capture so much value. Microsoft was huge, sure, but tiny compared to the total impact it has had on the world and on humanity.
Bill’s answer: “Sure, but that’s true with all companies, right? They create some value and succeed in capturing a very small percentage of it.”
I am now more focused on creating value than capturing it. I still want to have as large an impact as possible, but I don’t need to create it directly or capture it in the form of revenue and valuation.
.. While Gumroad, Inc. may be small, our impact is large. There is, of course, the $178,000,000 we have sent to creators. But then there’s the impact of the impact, the opportunities that those creators have taken to create new opportunities for others.
.. As a way to re-engage with the community, I thought about sharing our financials publicly. Founders starting their own companies could learn from our mistakes, utilizing our data to make better decisions.
It was scary: What if we don’t grow every month? It could scare off prospective customers. It’s something I would never expect a startup seeking venture capital to do. It makes sense to hold those cards as close to your chest for as long as possible when you must raise money, hire people, and compete for customers with other venture-seeking startups.
But, since we were not any of those things anymore, it was easier to share that information. We were profitable, and a no-growth month won’t change that. So in April 2018, I started to release our monthly financials publicly.
.. Ironically, more investors have reached out (we’re just interested in raising money from our customers for the moment, thanks!), more folks want to contribute to Gumroad, and our shift in focus has brought us closer to our creators.
And instead of freaking out about how “small” Gumroad actually is (like I thought they would), our creators have grown more loyal. It feels like we’re all in this together, trying to earn a living doing what we love.
Soon, we’re also planning to open-source the whole product, WordPress-style. Anyone will be able to deploy their own version of Gumroad, make the changes they want, and sell the content they want, without us being the middleman.
.. Where did my singular focus on building a billion-dollar company come from in the first place? I think I inherited it from a society that worships wealth. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bill Gates was my all-time hero and the world’s richest person. Ever since I can remember, I’ve equated “success” with net worth. If I heard someone say “that person’s really successful,” I didn’t assume they were improving the well-being of those around them, but that they’d found a way to make a ton of cash.