As I built my first Web site ? and wrote my first article about the Web ? back in 1995, I have the privilege of counting myself among the senior citizens of the Internet. So for all you young pups out there, gather around and let grandpa tell you a scary story, just in time for Halloween.
Once? upon a time, there was a speculative bubble, as more and more people saw the stocks of fledgling dot.coms go up and up, in spite of the fact that many of them hadn?t turned a profit, and in fact, several didn?t really have any viable plans to do so. But we all started believing our own hype, and the VCs and other investors piled on, and companies who rushed to go public saw insane ramp-ups of their stock prices, mostly on the relatively new NASDAQ market.
Until, of course, the speculative bubble burst, and the whole shebang came crashing down, taking with it the fortunes of many established technology players as well as the telcos, leading to what I snarkily like to call ?Bush Recession #1? around 2001.
But while dot.com darlings like Kozmo, Boo.com, and TheGlobe.com are relegated to the history books, others like Amazon.com, Google, eBay, and Yahoo are still with us. It took a few years, but the technology and telco sectors are now going full steam, in spite of the financial crisis and ? you guessed it ? the 2007 ? 2009 ?Bush Recession #2? (two recessions, same Bush). But while the financial crisis hit banking and real estate, it only presented a speed bump on the road to today?s insane technology run up, as the all-time NASDAQ chart below will attest.
That ominous spike around 2000 was the dot.com bubble, of course. The little dip around 2008? Well, that was Bush Recession #2, aka the financial crisis.
Sure Signs of a Bubble
As we complete our scary Halloween story, the question now is, do we live happily ever after? Direct your attention if you will to what?s happened with the NASDAQ since the last recession. A rather sharp run up, wouldn?t you say? Now my crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else?s, but my bet is that we?re in the midst of yet another speculative bubble ? and all bubbles pop sooner or later.
I?m no financial analyst, but I do follow the technology marketplace, and I have the perspective of someone who lived through the dot.com bubble. The reason I make such a dire prediction isn?t primarily based on the chart above, but rather the following similarities between what?s going on today and the period during the dot.com run up.
Crazy Money: Acquisitions. In ?normal? times, a small tech company with a few dozen people and no profits might sell for a few million bucks. Well, you don?t have to be an avid reader of the financial press to know that there have been a series of such acquisitions, only in the billions of dollars. Facebook picked up WhatsApp for a cool $19 billion. Google buying Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. Facebook again using its clout to buy Instagram for the bargain basement price of only a billion ? to name a few.
These transactions in and of themselves aren?t necessarily the primary indicator of a speculative bubble. Rather, it?s the effect they have on other small tech companies and the people who work for them ? or who might want to join such a company. When people start or work for companies because they see them as lottery tickets with billion dollar jackpots, rather than opportunities to make some money solving problems for customers, you have a huge ?party like it?s 1999? red flag on your hands.
Crazy Money: Investments. Remember Zefer? No? Well, listen to Grandpa again. Zefer was one of a group of dot.com consulting darlings we liked to call iBuilders (I worked for a time at another iBuilder, USWeb/CKS, which became spectacular dot.com flameout marchFIRST, but I digress.) Zefer made history back in 1999 when they snagged a $100 million VC investment ? unheard of at the time for a professional services firm.
Today, $100 million is chump change. So far this year alone, we?ve seen VC investments of $1.2 billion for Uber. $325 million for Dropbox. $250 million for Lyft. $200 million for AirBnB. $160 million for Pinterest. $160 million for Cloudera. $158 million for Box. And too many deals in the $100 million range to list (numbers from here). And those are just some 2014 deals ? many of these companies had received many tens or hundreds of millions in earlier rounds.
And just what are these companies supposed to do with all this green? Grow. Big. And fast. The VCs are looking for ?multiple baggers? ? a simple 10% or 20% return on investment isn?t good enough for this group of one percenters, oh no. They want to multiply their investments many times over. 1000%. 2000%. Those are the returns they?re really hoping for.
When investors put $10 million into a company hoping to get $100 million out that?s one thing. But just what will that NASDAQ chart have to look like for the investments like the ones above to pay off? Might as well invest in tulips.
Hype about Hype. Hype ? which I might define as overblown rhetoric touting products or services with a limited current value proposition ? is a common phenomenon at all times, and doesn?t necessarily indicate a speculative bubble. But when we start seeing hype about the hype, that?s when my alarm bells go off. Case in point: when The Motley Fool investing site publishes an article entitled Believe the Hype: The Internet of Things Is No Gimmick, then in my opinion, it?s time to sell all your stock in the market in question, which in this case is the ridiculously overhyped Internet of Things.
How to Mitigate the Fallout
The great thing about playing musical chairs is we all have a seat until the music stops. So get while the getting is good to be sure. Also remember that it?s anybody?s guess whether a correction in the technology marketplace (or the broader digital marketplace, as the Ubers and AirBnBs of the world aren?t really technology plays) will lead to a broader market recession. After all, unemployment in the US has been going down steadily for years (yes, the ?Obama Recovery,? naturally), and the Federal Reserve has yet to even start raising interest rates to cool inflation, both signs that we have a good while to go before the broader market cools.
In the meantime, my advice is the same advice I?d give any business at any time ? only during speculative run ups, this advice becomes even more important: focus on the fundamentals. Businesses exist to serve their customers. Customers pay for products and services they want or need, and companies make money by providing them at prices customers are willing to pay. So simple, and yet so easy to forget during times of insanity. Keep your eye on your customer and you?ll do OK ? even if everyone else is partying like it?s 1999.