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'Never in my lifetime': Louis Borders has founded 2 multi-million-dollar companies over the last 50 years, but he says the downturn has created a completely new world for startups

Louis Borders

  • Louis Borders has seen the economy go through its ups and downs over the last half-century, but says that he's never seen a recession come close to the scale of the current downturn. 
  • Borders, who made his fortune by founding Borders and Webvan, is now preparing to launch a new grocery delivery startup, HDS, as online food shopping remains one of the few bright spots in the economy.
  • But other startups in industries hit harder by the coronavirus might not have it so easy, Borders acknowledged."Be ready to pivot, and pivot hard," Borders advised.  
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Louis Borders has watched the economy go through some dramatic cycles over the last half-century, boosting businesses to sky-high levels and then dragging them down.
But he says that the dot.com bust, the 2008 recession, and every other recession that he's lived through never reached the scale of the current downturn.
"In my lifetime, we haven't had anything like this," the 71-year-old entrepreneur told Business Insider. "It's a completely new world."
Over the years, Borders has made a name for himself as an entrepreneur to watch. He founded the bookstore chain Borders, which was valued at $190 million when Borders sold it to Kmart in 1992 (the chain later made its debut on the public market and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2011).
He then made his way to Silicon Valley, where his grocery delivery startup Webvan attracted funding from SoftBank, Sequoia, and Benchmark.
But Borders has also personally experienced the extent to which a downturn can bring a business crashing down: Webvan made its debut on the public market in 2001, and proceeded to run into a stream of troubles. Borders had already stepped down as CEO in 1999, but he watched his brainchild spiral downwards and eventually file for bankruptcy in 2001.
Now, as he prepares to launch a new grocery delivery startup at a moment when online grocery orders are surging, Borders is hesitant to offer advice to other startups that may be squeezed by the current business disruptions, because luck can play such a big role in making or breaking their fates.
"I don't even know what to say — we happen to be fortunate that it [the coronavirus] was great for our business but if you are a company that's based in retail stores, then you're really in trouble," Borders said. Plans for his new startup HDS have been in the works for years now. "It's just kind of luck... I'm humbled by it."
Still, he has a few fail-safe lessons that he's picked up over the years.
"The basics of good startups, to me, is to pay attention to your talent, respect your investors, and be really upfront with where you are and what you're doing," Borders said. 
And right now, as the coronavirus reshapes the economic landscape, Borders suggests that startups lean into the change.
"You have to be ready to pivot, and pivot hard," he said. "Don't fight the change that this is causing your business."
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