1995 was one of my favorite years. Silicon Valley had been in a funk for over a decade, with a fading memory of the last tech bubble, the PC IPO craze that flamed out in 1983 but launched some really great companies. The peace dividend from the fall of the Berlin Wall had impacted engineers in local defense companies (remember the movie of a laid-off defense worker in LA going postal?), and an area-wide initiative called Joint Venture:Silicon Valley was formed to revitalize the place. Was Silicon Valley already over?
Then along came the Netscape IPO and the dot-com boom was born. It ran for five more years.
This time around our Netscape is Facebook, and it has its own social network of other high-profile IPOs. LinkedIn, Groupon, Twitter and Zynga are expected to go out before Facebook gets forced out by our SEC by April 2012.
The question du jour is will it spark the next great tech boom, and the most encouraging (nea joyous) answer is that people are still skeptical. They expect this bubblet to burn off fast and for Silicon Vallley to sink back into the abyss of the past decade. The herd was also full of skeptics in 1995, and in 1996, and 1997; it was only after the eBay IPO in 1998 that the stampede began and people opined that this time it was different. Of course it wasn’t, but the Nasdaq doubled from late ’98 to early ’00.
I led a local panel two weeks ago, with VCs squaring off against Angels and SuperAngels. When asked whether the slew of social IPOs would spark a new boom, they demurred and said these would be one-off events, like Google was – special companies that get out, not the start of another bubble. This attitude is good news; in 1999 the same sorts of opinion leaders would have said they know things are nuts but they have to keep investing to keep up. (You can look that up – a real quote from a well respected VC.) It is the attitude of greed, which is just fear – fear of falling behind.
Point is, we are still in “1995″, not “1999″.
In the past two weeks, however, the new tech boom has begun to be recognized. It started at GigaOm, where their European commentator asked whether we could avoid another bubble, and answered that we have already been in one for 20 months, it just hasn’t been recognized. Then the inestimable Om Malek compared top big-fund VCs to the Yankees to explain some of the bubbilicious valuations (Twitter at $10B!!), comparing them to the salaries paid to baseball stars to draw in fans (or in the VC case, to draw in LPs). He made them make sense. (If you have been following this blog, you know that for the past year I have reported on ever-rising valuations of SuperAngel startups, the signature of a new tech boom.)
The recogniton began building, with Dick Kramlich of NEA telling Bloomberg how the coming social IPOs would be the first blockbuster IPOs since the ’90s! (NEA invested in Groupon when it was called ThePoint, at a normal venture valuation, before it ran to over a Billion Dollar value two years later.) It culminated with a report across the wire at MarketWatch about here comes dot-com 2.0!
The MarketWatch gushy wire got me worried, so I scanned more news items, and breathed a sigh of relief. The general thrust of the commentors is still coming in skeptical. The SF Chronicle ran a piece Sunday a week ago about the incipient bubble, and concluded that the skepticism is curbing the hype. Paul Graham, the head of the very successful incubator, Y Combinator, calmly explained that there is no tech bubble, since unlike the ’90s, almost all of these companies have real business models (Twitter excepted). Mark Cuban, who became an overnight billionaire in the dot-com bubble by selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.7B, a business which then promptly disappeared, expressed disdain, calling this not a bubble but a “pyramid scheme”. He would know! Paul Kedrowsky, an industry watcher, opined that Facebook is not a bubble value, and it could go higher in secondary-market trading before its IPO. Well, after Goldman led a mezz round at $50B, the stock has crept up to $70B in the secondary trading markets.
At DEMO this week,the bubble question came up. Mike Maples said yes, sort of – we had not yet reached “bubble status” but the 10-15 really good deals each year get a crowd of VCs driving values up. That is about right – the lucky 10 -15 go to VC Auction, but that does not a bubble make. At the same time, Ben Holmes of Index Ventures, a Euro fund that has come recently to SiliconValley, said Index wasn’t coming over because of a bubble. Instead, the center of gravity has again become Silicon Valley for the new hot deals. His take on the VC Auction idea is that a few big players like Google have been pouncing on new ventures, driving the Quick Flip.
Ok, this “we don’t believe it yet” got me comfortable again, until I saw the advance cover for this week’s Fast Company: Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, will grace it. CEOs are back, as celebrities – we haven’t seen that since 1999!
The problem: it is well known that when a magazine like Sports llustrated shows a star quarterback after a big game, he is likely to bomb the next week. Getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated was the kiss of death for a sports star. In the 1990s, getting on the cover of Inc had the same impact. Is Pincus peaking?
I think not. VentureBeat sees Zynga as becoming the most valuable video game company of them all, eclipsing the venerable Electronic Arts, started by one of my Bullpen partners. And of course, they are extremely skeptical of this: “On its face, it is absurd.” That is exactly how it was in 1995.