Friday, April 15, 2011

BW - This Tech Bubble is Different

An interesting take in BusinessWeek as we embark on yet another bubble, this time in social media. (which you must embrace as a momo investor, until they crash) Unlike previous "tech" bubbles (say PC era, or internet era), which left something tangible behind when they busted, this time around there appears we'll have little to show for a central banker gone mad showering the world with liquidity.  (heck yesterday an unprofitable car rental company that had no market interest last fall went ballistic on its IPO)

As an aside, Groupon looks to be coming public in Q3 at a valuation of $15-20 Billion.  I bet it doubles on the first day - after all, money for nothing and chicks for free.... 

  • As a 23-year-old math genius one year out of Harvard, Jeff Hammerbacher arrived at Facebook when the company was still in its infancy. This was in April 2006, and Mark Zuckerberg gave Hammerbacher—one of Facebook's first 100 employees—the lofty title of research scientist and put him to work analyzing how people used the social networking service.  
  • Over the next two years, Hammerbacher assembled a team to build a new class of analytical technology. His crew gathered huge volumes of data, pored over it, and learned much about people's relationships, tendencies, and desires. Facebook has since turned these insights into precision advertising, the foundation of its business. It offers companies access to a captive pool of people who have effectively volunteered to have their actions monitored like so many lab rats. The hope—as signified by Facebook's value, now at $65 billion according to research firm Nyppex—is that more data translate into better ads and higher sales.
  • After a couple years at Facebook, Hammerbacher grew restless. He figured that much of the groundbreaking computer science had been done. Something else gnawed at him. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google, and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks." 
  • Online ads have been around since the dawn of the Web, but only in recent years have they become the rapturous life dream of Silicon Valley. Arriving on the heels of Facebook have been blockbusters such as the game maker Zynga and coupon peddler Groupon. These companies have engaged in a frenetic, costly war to hire the best executives and engineers they can find. 
  • Investors have joined in, throwing money at the Web stars and sending valuations into the stratosphere. Inevitably, copycats have arrived, and investors are pushing and shoving to get in early on that action, too. Once again, 11 years after the dot-com-era peak of the Nasdaq, Silicon Valley is reaching the saturation point with business plans that hinge on crossed fingers as much as anything else. 
  •  "We are certainly in another bubble," says Matthew Cowan, co-founder of the tech investment firm Bridgescale Partners. "And it's being driven by social media and consumer-oriented applications."
  • There's always someone out there crying bubble, it seems; the trick is figuring out when it's easy money—and when it's a shell game. Some bubbles actually do some good, even if they don't end happily. In the 1980s, the rise of Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel  pushed personal computers into millions of businesses and homes—and the stocks of those companies soared. Tech stumbled in the late 1980s, and the Valley was left with lots of cheap microprocessors and theories on what to do with them. The dot-com boom was built on infatuation with anything Web-related. Then the correction began in early 2000, eventually vaporizing about $6 trillion in shareholder value. But that cycle, too, left behind an Internet infrastructure that has come to benefit businesses and consumers.
  • This time, the hype centers on more precise ways to sell. At Zynga, they're mastering the art of coaxing game players to take surveys and snatch up credit-card deals. Elsewhere, engineers burn the midnight oil making sure that a shoe ad follows a consumer from Web site to Web site until the person finally cracks and buys some new kicks.
  • So if this tech bubble is about getting shoppers to buy, what's left if and when it pops?
  • ...... says that venture capitalists have become consumed with finding overnight sensations. They've pulled away from funding risky projects that create more of those general-purpose technologies—inventions that lay the foundation for more invention. "Facebook is not the kind of technology that will stop us from having dropped cell phone calls, and neither is Groupon or any of these advertising things," he says. "We need them. O.K., great. But they are building on top of old technology, and at some point you exhaust the fuel of the underpinnings."
  • And if that fuel of innovation is exhausted? "My fear is that Silicon Valley has become more like Hollywood," says Glenn Kelman, chief executive officer of online real estate brokerage Redfin, who has been a software executive for 20 years. "An entertainment-oriented, hit-driven business that doesn't fundamentally increase American competitiveness."
  • "It's clear that the new industry that is building around Internet advertising and these other services doesn't create that many jobs," says Christophe L√©cuyer, a historian who has written numerous books about Silicon Valley's economic history. "The loss of manufacturing and design knowhow is truly worrisome."
  • Dial back the clock 25 years to an earlier tech boom. In 1986, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems went public. Compaq went from launch to the Fortune 500 in four years—the quickest run in history. Each of those companies has waxed and waned, yet all helped build technology that begat other technologies. And now? Groupon, which e-mails coupons to people, may be the fastest-growing company of all time.  Its revenue could hit $4 billion this year, up from $750 million last year, and the startup has reached a valuation of $25 billion. Its technological legacy is cute e-mail.
  • No one is suggesting that the top tier of ad-centric companies—Facebook, Google—is going down should the bubble pop. As for the next tier or two down, where a profusion of startups is piling into every possible niche involving social networking and ads—the fate of those companies is anybody's guess.

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