It's a trying time for businesses that are reliant on the cross-border flow of goods, workers, and capital. Brexit and Donald Trump's election served as flashpoints for the political backlash against globalization, which is seen by many voters (fairly or not) as the primary force eroding jobs and wages.
But even with the winds blowing against them in the form of Trump's embattled executive orders and floated tariffs, a number of intrepid entrepreneurs are betting on international trade. They're forging ahead with a mixture of hope and frustration.
Aptly named Globality is one such company. The startup offers an international services marketplace that brokers deals between huge multinational corporations and mid-size consulting firms, across verticals like law and marketing. For example, supply-chain sustainability consultancy EcoDesk is a partner.
Globality's value proposition is that it does proactive due diligence on thousands of smaller firms to verify their expertise and capacity. The company then uses proprietary technology to recommend a handful of appropriate options to its large clients, who dole out projects accordingly. Globality told Inc. that its platform will enable clients to hire smaller firms instead of defaulting to massive consulting shops. The platform profits by taking a cut of the contract value.
Globality CEO Joel Hyatt, formerly the Democratic Party finance chair and Al Gore's business partner in Current TV, was emphatic on the benefits of globalization: "In the developing world, it's brought almost two billion people out of poverty. In the developed world, here where we live, every family is paying less for the goods that it buys because of globalization," he said in an interview.
"The solution of building walls and tariffs and protectionism is only going to increase the cost of goods for every American family. That will hit hardest on the low-income families, who are unfortunately thinking that these promises to bring the coal mines back are going solve all the problems."
"What we have to do is make globalization work for more people," Hyatt added. "When more and more smaller companies become players in the global economy, that will create the good middle-class jobs of the future." Globality's mission includes making international commerce more accessible, although the company is too young for its impact to be assessed.
Ryan Petersen, who heads up high-tech freight forwarder Flexport, has a similar outlook. "I hate to see a political climate that's made trade have a bad name," he told Inc. "Trade is one of the very few things that's been shown to increase wellbeing around the world. A trade transaction, if it's voluntary, by definition made both people better off. You wouldn't have done the deal if it didn't make you better off. And so the notion that people are stealing our jobs because we trade with them is extremely silly."
"If it were just silly I wouldn't worry," Petersen added, "but I think it's dangerous." (Petersen's strong feelings put him at odds with one of his investors, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, one of the few prominent Silicon Valley figures to come out for Trump.)
Also like Hyatt, Petersen said his startup will lower the barriers to being a cross-border player. Global trade has traditionally required resources and logistical capabilities beyond the reach of most small or mid-size firms. Because of that, "only the biggest companies have tended to participate," he said. "Our role can be to make trade easier, so that it's more democratic and more human." Flexport, like fellow startup ClearMetal, uses its logistics software to help companies ship goods overseas more reliably and efficiently.
Petersen continued, "If you actually get to the level where you look at a trade transaction and see the individuals involved, it's very hard to think of this as an evil thing. But if it's anonymized and done by these big giant global institutions, it's much easier to see what you want to see," and focus on the negatives over the positives.
Peter Johnston, the CEO of freelancer-management platform Lystable, says that companies can gain a competitive edge when hiring digital creative workers by expanding their talent pool to include workers across the globe. "People should be hiring talent based on how good they are at a particular skill, and the relevance of that to the project. It just started to seem old-school that companies would potentially consider people who were simply easier to hire, because they were in the geographical borders."
A firm based in Illinois can hire a designer based in Brussels, or vice versa, based on which candidate they judge to be the absolute best for the job. Lystable wants its payments product to take the headache out of paying freelancers across borders, reducing administrative overhead as well as bank fees. Like Globality, Lystable takes a cut of the value that flows through its platform.
Many tech companies advocate for open borders, not least so that they can recruit foreign workers. In general, Silicon Valley's ideological bent is toward advocating free trade. But the stakes are higher for companies like Globality, Flexport, ClearMetal, and Lystable. They've accepted millions of dollars from venture capitalists with the expectation that they'll be able to make their fortunes by facilitating the global cooperation that some voters have turned against. The founders are still determined to do so.