Stock Buybacks Aren’t Always Good

Less than half of the S&P 500 invest any money in R&D. Instead, they are pumping dollars into stock buybacks that ultimately provide no real tangible value to the productivity of the enterprise (sorry Warren). I’m convinced this is stifling innovation and giving startups more room to eat their lunch. Wall Street has no patience when it comes to waiting around to see innovation bare fruit which can sometimes take 4+ years. The unfortunate reality of this is management must then live by a quarter-to-quarter clock which hurts internal innovation. This myopic perspective is further reinforced by hedge funds and activist investors who are chasing short term gains. Allocators of capital need to recognize that management has to be given more leeway to invest for the long run. If they don’t, a heavily funded lean startup will be glad to take their customers.

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The Innovator’s Dilemma is Real and Corporations Need a Strategy

If you haven’t read the Innovator’s Dilemma by the late Clay Christensen I highly recommend it. For those who work in innovation, this book is a wealth of knowledge on how best to structure your organization in order to embrace new technologies. Prior to joining the startup world, I spent nearly 9 years at a large S&P 500 corporation where I witnessed firsthand how slow and cumbersome these giant companies are. We held significant market share in many of the niche categories we dominated but slowly it became clear that insurgent brands (startups) wanted a piece of the pie. When large incumbents want to innovate it can sometimes take years to get a new product to market and by then the customer (and this sometimes can be a large retailer) may not even want it. Furthermore, this assumes R&D is even a priority. In 2018, less than a half of the S&P 500 companies recorded any R&D expense. The reason for this? Blame share buybacks.  Over $200b more was spent on buybacks in 2018 than R&D and one would argue that this has little to no influence on the productive nature of the company. Hedge funds and activist investors chasing short term wins are further enabling this behavior. 

Meanwhile tech companies who are spending in R&D are reaping the benefits. Startups are getting products to market 3x faster than incumbents (Bain & Co: 2018).  So as a corporation, you must refine your innovation strategy into three parts under a buy, partner, build scenario or be left like one of these folks. 

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