If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. — Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park, 1993
When not engaging in polite conversation over the past few weeks that involved either unsound journalistic ethics at News Corporation or the pending apocalypse of the U.S. debt ceiling, the most popular question I tended to encounter was, “Do you think we’re in a stock bubble?” Truth be told, that has been a raging topic all year. The cover story in the current issue of Fortune is “Tech Bubble 2.0” with a reasonably balanced assessment of Is It or Isn’t It. My assessment? Got me.
Here’s what I know.
It’s sure not 2000. The internet is real now and so are an incredible number of businesses being launched of late. This new wave of entrepreneurial enterprises sits upon real business models either with real revenues and real profits or real revenues and reasonably predictable profits at scale. The business models are new, unexpected, but sound. Some are working wildly well and bringing buckets of cash to their corporate bank accounts with pleased and well served customers, employees, and shareholders. Others hold promise to do the same, aren’t quite there yet, but don’t take a lot of imagination to understand how they will scale to profitability because their models make sense.
Corporate earnings appear for the most part to be sound, albeit with heavy cost controls in place that aren’t doing much for the unemployed. If you are buying the major indices across the board — domestic and international, large and small, growth and value — fully diversified along with fixed income to your own level of acceptable risk, you probably aren’t having trouble sleeping at night (except, of course, when you think about resolution to the debt ceiling). Are the markets volatile? They are, but they always are. Are the fundamentals and multiples reasonable? Well, I’m not an economist or a trader, but the Dow looks pretty understandable to me.
So how about that bubble? Major players in venture capital have issued their opinions and are easy to search on other blogs, I am hardly qualified to comment. Is it likely that some valuations are products of hope, optimism, or hyperbole? Tell me anytime when that’s not the case. Have you ever heard a Realtor tell you it’s not a good time to buy a house? It’s always a good time, if it’s the right house at the right price. My sense is, same with equities, preferred and common, private and public. Bubble is a broad and complicated idea, always easy to assess in hindsight, virtually impossible in the crystal ball.
That’s what I know. Sorry if I disappointed.
Here’s one thing else I know: the innovation all around us is astounding. I can’t remember a time when there was so much happening so quickly and so much of it actually looked like true value creation. Here is small sampling of the mind-blowing advances all around us:
Apple — the iPhone was a game changer, the iPad is a life changer. I think the iPad will change everything about media for a generation.
Netflix — another game changer, first movies by mail, then movies on demand, easy and affordable, changing entertainment distribution paradigms at every turn.
Zynga — will people buy virtual goods? They will. Can a tiny segment of your audience underwrite the ability for everyone else to play free and still create profits? Indeed.
Pandora — here’s technology that lets you create your own radio station that not only plays the songs you already like, but introduces you to new music you probably will like.
LinkedIn — not long ago if you had your resume online you were job hunting, afraid of being caught by the boss; now you must have your resume online or you don’t exist.
Hulu — one new brand aggregator derives more advertising revenue from network created content than the total online revenue of all the suppliers combined; wow!
Groupon & Living Social — coupons used to be the least cool way in the world to shop; call them time sensitive Daily Deals and online drives consumers back to storefronts offline.
Twitter — people communicate in less than 140 characters and the world is connected through snippets of information that can alter public opinion and evangelize democracy.
Facebook — connect people with friends, redefine the verb like, open your platform, create the most display ad inventory imaginable, then enjoy the value of 750 million accounts.
Again, this is just a sample of very cool companies doing very interesting things, among them, creating jobs and creating wealth. Each of these represents incredible creativity, brilliant execution, and deep levels of passion. People are working hard, people are working smart, people are being rewarded. With > 9% national unemployment still our challenge, it is inspiring to see there are paths out of the malaise. There are lessons to be learned in the current Silicon Valley run-up, first among them, the key is innovation.
It is ironic this “Tale of Two Economies” comes at a time when so much of the nation’s economy is suffering, and so many job losses lead the gloomy headlines. It’s also ironic that it comes just as we lose a much beloved company, Borders, which in its day reinvented our notion of what a bookstore could be. When the first wave of internet companies changed the landscape, Borders leased their digital real estate to Amazon. They never recovered. I asked a former VP of mine her sense of this recently, to which she replied: “They just forget to keep innovating.”
Perhaps the former CEO of Intel, the incomparable Andy Grove, said it best and most succinctly in the title of his 1996 book: Only the Paranoid Survive.
While I will always be reticent to render an opinion on the fair market value of a company, I can give a resounding endorsement to so much outstanding work I see going on all around us, much of it disruptive, as it should be in an entrepreneurial landscape that favors creative destruction.
Given a choice to share an opinion on the bubble versus the landscape, I’ll take the landscape. I like what I see. I would like to see it spread. The old jobs aren’t coming back, innovation and automation pretty much assure that, there is little point waiting. Let’s hope the new business models work so that new jobs will replace them and all boats float with the rising tide. Many companies will fail, but the direction seems right.
Creativity tempered by sound judgment is the currency of the new economy. It remains largely an open playing field for anyone who wants to relearn on a daily basis everything they thought they knew.