Back in November, the Planet Money newsletter reported that — despite a deadly pandemic and an ugly recession — America was seeing a boom in the creation of new startups. We spoke with University of Maryland economist John Haltiwanger, one of the leading scholars of business formation. Now Haltiwanger has a new study out, and the trend is clear: “The surge continues,” Haltiwanger says. “We’re now convinced this wasn’t just a blip.”
Like so many other areas of the economy, applications for new businesses pulled back in the first half of 2020 but then snapped forward again like a slingshot. Not only was 2020 the best year on record for new business creation since the Census Bureau began tracking it in 2004, but applications for new businesses have continued to soar, through at least last month. In May, there were a half a million applications for new businesses; the second highest month on record, below only last July. In total, there have been more than six million filings for new businesses since the pandemic began. The boom can be seen in both businesses composed of only one self-employed person and businesses that the Census expects will employ multiple people.
Over the last year and half, we have been reshuffling how and where we work and shop; and that shift has created all sorts of opportunities for entrepreneurs. With the pandemic, it’s like someone ripped out an irrigation pipe for brick-and-mortar commerce and plugged it into virtual commerce. It’s brought a drought to face-to-face businesses, and a bounty to businesses you interact with on a digital screen. The retail sector alone, driven by e-commerce, accounts for about a third of all the new startup growth. In addition, trucking, warehousing, and delivery services are all seeing surges — which makes sense, as we’ve seen a massive shift of spending on in-person services to tangible goods that are bought online.
We’ve also seen the rise of remote work and a reshuffling of the population, from city centers to suburbs, and from traditional job centers to “Zoom Towns.” Where people go, they bring their dollars. It may help explain why the food and accommodation sector is the greatest area of growth. We’ve also seen huge growth in the types of businesses that can provide remote services.
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There are at least two potential theories for what’s going on. First, while the boom is undeniably good news, there is a slightly negative take: we’ve seen a surge in new businesses mainly because the pandemic forced two painful restructurings to the economy. It began by ravaging the face-to-face economy and creating an awkward marketplace where we could only do stuff six feet apart. This suffocated many existing businesses while providing oxygen for others, such as online retailers, video conferencing apps, drive-thrus, delivery services, mask and sanitizer companies, and the like. Yet, many of these new opportunities for pandemic-friendly businesses may prove to be only temporary. Many of them could die as we head back to normal.
Now that most of us are vaccinated, we’re releasing the pressure cooker of our pent-up demand for going out. It’s leading to the second major restructuring: new businesses — restaurants, bars, salons and so on — are growing out of the ashes of the businesses scorched by the pandemic. This is great news! It’s better than no new businesses. But it’s possible that we’re now just heading back to normal, as opposed to something new and better. Think of it like the economy doing a pendulum swing from a normal economy to a pandemic economy and back to a normal economy again.
It’s hard to completely rule out this Negative Nancy take. We don’t have many details about what exactly the new businesses created during the pandemic are doing, or how big they’re gonna get. More importantly, we still don’t have great data on how many and what kinds of businesses died over the last year, and whether these new businesses are merely just filling the massive hole created at the beginning of the pandemic. The data suggests the biggest surges occurred at the beginning and tail ends of the pandemic, which is consistent with the idea that this was a pendulum swing.
But Haltiwanger offers a second, more optimistic theory, which says this is about way more than just a pendulum swing: it’s a rocket ship to a better economy. As painful as the pandemic has been, he believes it has forced the business world to drop outdated ways of doing things and embrace technology in a new way. “I don’t think any of us had a clue that we could do so much business activity remotely,” Haltiwanger says. “That sparks all kinds of new ideas.”
The MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson told us last year that history suggests there is “a lot of inertia in the way people work” and that “unless there’s a shock, most people will tend to continue to do things the old way.” The pandemic, he said, provided that shock. It’s forced businesses to fully embrace technologies that enable a whole raft of new business practices, including remote work. Moreover, he argued, these changes may finally result in real productivity growth after so many years of stagnation.
When Haltiwanger looks at the data on business creation, he sees signs that this pickup in productivity may be on the verge of happening. “I have been struck over the last six months at how much of a sustained increase this surge in new business applications has been,” he says. “Here’s the thing: when we’ve seen sustained increases like this in the past, it has boded well for job creation, innovation, and productivity growth in the United States.”
The legendary Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter developed a concept known as creative destruction that may help explain what’s going on. It describes the cycle of business death and birth that remakes the economy into something more efficient and productive. Economists believe it’s a vital process to improve society’s living standards. As destructive as the pandemic has been, it’s possible we’ll look back and see it as the spark for creating a new and better economy.
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