Why enterprise tech is seen as a safe harbor in 2023

Why enterprise tech is seen as a safe harbor in 2023

By Bobby Yazdani

Published in Fortune Magazine  on Jan. 5, 2023


The current macroeconomic environment is frightening investors. Particularly within technology, a general slowdown in funding is being driven by economic concerns and declines in tech stocks broadly across the market.

If you’re a large, institutional investor, particularly in the technology space, conventional wisdom says to sit tight. Fortunately, conventional wisdom is often wrong.

In fact, this ongoing reset is an opportunity for institutional investors to strategically enter select markets in a concerted way. This recent realignment allows those looking to deploy capital at rational valuations the opportunity to do so in ways that were simply too expensive in the past. In short, rather than circle the wagons, now is the time to invest.

The current rightsizing of valuations in both the public and private markets is much needed and long overdue. For example, the sky-high valuations many technology companies have enjoyed over the past two years are coming back to earth. As one of the more extreme but indicative examples, Klarna, the buy-now-pay-later giant, recently saw its valuation slashed from $45.6 billion in June 2021 to $6.7 billion in its latest round.

The historical frothiness of private markets in recent years–and the outsize financial rewards many have reaped as a result–should not necessarily be understood as the result of smarter, technically superior investment strategies. In a negative-real-interest-rate environment with cash aplenty, we have seen financial discipline, rigor, and good sense take a backseat to mega-rounds in search of the next big valuation.

With a rising tide lifting all boats anyway, “riding the wave,” while financially beneficial in the recent past, isn’t a strategy.

Now, the ground is shifting, dramatically and fast. The devaluation of many high-flying startups is a multi-sector, multi-stage level set, and it has encouraged a renewed, back-to-basics focus on financial discipline, operational best practices, and strategic rigor.

Particularly within the current climate, enterprise technology offers a potentially attractive alternative.

The use of enterprise technology by banks, healthcare systems, logistics providers, and government agencies is largely unaffected by the impact of an economic downturn. Enterprise technologies are mission-critical, and large institutions and organizations must be able to use and benefit from technology regardless of where the economy stands.

In many cases, a contraction can actually bolster a company’s need for enterprise technology, especially if it helps serve existing clientele while attracting new business. Salesforce’s customers, for example, aren’t going to “unplug” their CRMs as a way to save money and play it safe during a difficult downturn. If anything, they’ll double down on teaching employees how to use the software in hopes of generating more revenue.

The Great Recession is a cogent example of this dynamic. Two of the three large tech companies that fared best between December 2007 and June 2009 were enterprise tech companies: IBM and Oracle. Their stocks remained steady or even grew as the S&P dropped 35% over the same eighteen months. Many tech companies not traditionally put in the “enterprise” category–Google, for instance–experienced large drops.

Some enterprise tech companies, including IBMhave fared better than average throughout the recent tech selloff. And top analysts have promoted enterprise tech as a defensive buy in case of a broader downturn. This makes intuitive sense: during a recession, companies will seek to cut costs while still competing for new clients amid reduced demand. The newest and most effective hardware and software can help achieve these goals.

In other words, enterprise technology offers a recession-resistant ray of hope during dark economic times.

As a result, attractive investments in enterprise technology companies, and companies whose products are fueled by enterprise technology, are now on the table for a far wider swath of investors with reasonable valuations driven by strong underlying performance.

Venture firms that focus on ensuring discipline and rigor among their portfolio companies can break through in this environment.

In this new world order, a focus on operational excellence within the portfolio will help deliver strong returns and guide the leaders of portfolio companies–many of whom are weathering their first major macroeconomic crisis–to grow their businesses, create value for their investors and shareholders, and command strong, commonsense valuations rooted in the tangible value their companies create.

Deep operating experience, vast multi-industry networks, and a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality with founders and CEOs– through both good times and bad–are where experienced investors will shine.

Call me a contrarian, but today’s macroeconomic environment–coupled with an insistence on financial discipline, capital efficiency, strategic and operational rigor, and a go-to-market approach anchored in operating experience–creates opportunities for firms to do their best work: operate side-by-side with founders and CEOs to build timeless companies that enable the future.