Layoffs, Contracts and Lawyers: Connecting the Dots
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of news about startups laying off employees. Edtech companies like UnAcademy and Vedantu, used car sales companies like Cars 24 and E-commerce players like Meesho have all reportedly laid off people. As many as 8000 people have been laid off in the first four months of 2022. The irony is that this is happening even as the startup ecosystem raised more than US$10 Billion in capital during the Jan-March 2022 quarter. IVCA-EY data indicates that in April 2022, the capital raised was around US$1.6 Billion- less than half the sum in the corresponding period in 2021. Last year saw a record number of Indian unicorns emerge.
It is not that there is a sudden scarcity of risk capital. What is happening is that VC funds and other investors are taking a long hard look at business models and valuations. Cash burn rates and unit economics, which were always important elements of valuation, have become front and centre again, after a prolonged period of time that saw some investors take their eyes off the ball as they frenetically looked for ventures to invest in. This long bull run for startups also encouraged many executives to throw their hats into the ring; they relied on their personal expertise and experience to attract investors.
There are also external factors whose unfortunate confluence in the last couple of months has contributed to this situation and exacerbated the stressors. The Ukraine invasion has undoubtedly impacted energy prices; the lockdown of large Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing has further disrupted global supply chains that were already affected due to the pandemic. These have thrown unit economics out of gear. Inflation rates around the world have soared- in some countries, the prevailing inflation is at the highest level in over a decade or even longer. In response, central banks around the world have raised interest rates; in India too, the RBI raised interest rates more than anticipated and ahead of when such action was expected. Further increases in interest rates are expected, as central banks seek to suck out the money supply to cool inflation. This means that in the short term, growth expectations will need to be moderated. This affects valuations (something that is also visible in how stock prices of listed companies are fluctuating).
Investors and company managements are therefore looking for ways to cut costs. Rationalizing the workforce is one way to achieve this goal. During a euphoric phase, businesses tend to hire more than they need, often at higher compensation levels than are sustainable. Many companies that have laid off their people continue to advertise extensively on national television. Logically, cutting down on TVCs and using lower-cost digital marketing will be another cost-cutting lever. As the market tightens, business plans will need to be revised. Growth will moderate, and high valuations will get harder to defend. The lack of clarity surrounding when various events will be resolved adds to the uncertainty around when an economic rebound will occur and what the new operating environment will look like. Indeed, Y Combinator, the highly successful Silicon Valley accelerator has advised founders of the companies in its portfolio to “plan for the worst” and focus all efforts in the next month on extending their runway. They are advising ventures to ensure survival even if fresh funds cannot be raised for 24 months.
Sometimes, there are contractual constraints on implementing cost-cutting actions. While some of these clauses may be legitimate and the result of deliberate negotiations between the parties, I have also seen “cut-paste” clauses in contracts; these are taken directly from other contracts downloaded from the internet or obtained in other ways. Many entrepreneurs succumb to taking this shortcut because it saves them the lawyer’s fees for drafting customized contracts. While some money can be saved, doing so creates risk because the business context in which a contract is drafted varies- and blindly lifting clauses can render the entire contract meaningless, hard to implement or leave entities open to expensive litigation.
Founders and leadership teams need to make better-informed decisions around every facet of their business strategy and operations. This includes the kind of capital to be raised, the timing, quantum and terms. Depending on the nature of business, expensive office space may not be needed; the savings on rentals/lease payments can be deployed elsewhere. Hiring frenzies must be avoided just because someone good is available. If the candidate is indeed likely to add value to the venture, maybe the compensation can be structured differently, so that risk of losing a good resource is reduced. Lawyers and Business Advisors who understand business- especially in the world of startups- can guide entrepreneurs so that they don’t pay a high price later, since a stitch in time saves nine!
Founders and leadership teams need to make better-informed decisions around every facet of their business strategy and operations. This includes the kind of capital to be raised, the timing, quantum and terms. Depending on the nature of business, expensive office space may not be needed; the savings on rentals/lease payments can be deployed elsewhere. Hiring frenzies must be avoided just because someone good is available. If the candidate is indeed likely to add value to the venture, maybe the compensation can be structured differently, so that risk of losing a good resource is reduced.