Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tech Bubbles and Escape Velocity

In 1997 I was one of many exuberant entrepreneurs working for a company in this new domain, "the Internet." In telling our stories to investors we all predicted future valuation based on the belief that someday everyone would have high speed connections to the Internet. Its hard to recall today that in December of 1997 only 70 million people had such connections.

By the time we had sold our company in August of 1998 many of these early Internet pioneers, including me, had started to say that we were in a period of gross overvaluation. And when Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman took their company,, public in November of 1998 and reached a valuation of almost $1 Billion the first day, our fears of a "tech bubble" were confirmed.

But of course, the party continued for quite awhile after that.

An interesting conversation circulates today amongst those of us that knew each other during the so-called dot-com bubble as we watch the current crop of "unicorn" and "decacorn" companies (and the worsening traffic and accelerating rise in the cost of living in the Bay Area). It feels like we've all seen this before and know how it ends -- but we can't decide, is this 1997 or 1998 or 1999? In other words, how much longer will this particular tech bubble last?

But I've begun to think that we are asking the wrong question. Looking back on the crazy predictions that we made that someday we'd go from a mere 70 million people connected to the Internet to "everyone" connected -- we were right. And we were probably even right about the timing. And this is where tech bubbles are fundamentally different from other kinds of speculative asset bubbles -- there is an underlying economic dynamic that actually is in a state of transformation.

Take a step back and examine what economists mean when they describe something as a bubble. The most basic formulation is when assets are valued in a way that becomes disconnected with the intrinsic value of those assets. One way this happens is when supply and demand fall out of balance for what would otherwise be a stable commodity. Everyone wanting a particular toy as a Christmas present might cause speculators to buy up those presents and put them on eBay at a higher price, creating a kind of toy bubble which would ultimately be resolved either by the company increasing production or another toy coming into favor which would decrease demand.

But tech bubbles are different because we are looking at companies extracting value from a transformation of markets rather than from an unbalanced market. When we made our Excel charts of 70 million Internet users growing to billions of Internet users to convince investors of our future value, we were describing a transformation in the way everything would function on our planet. A transformation that has come to pass and is continuing to accelerate today.

The current set of maturing technologies founded on the infrastructure of the Internet -- social, mobile, analytics, and cloud -- are well on their way to reformulate the way our markets operate. How we select, purchase, receive, and consume products and services is being transformed.

Thus the target opportunity for the tech industry is virtually the entire $18 trillion US economy of which technology only represents 7.1% today. And the $80 trillion global economy of which technology is an even smaller component. Shifting cash flows (and thus valuations) by only a few percentage points would move trillions of dollars out of the old economy and into the hands of technology entrepreneurs and investors, thereby justifying the valuations we are seeing today. Why should Uber ($60 Billion) be worth more than General Motors ($50 Billion)? Because Uber has a plan to shift cash flows from old industries to themselves while GM is still making and selling cars (fewer and fewer as well - down to 3 million cars last year from over 5 million back in the dot-com bubble).

So what actually happened during the dot-com bubble? Why did it burst? Will the current tech boom also turn out to have been a bubble and will it burst as well?

Certainly one element of the valuation of assets outpacing their intrinsic value came through the uninteded consequences of tax policy changes (here is a good and brief overview). But capital could have flowed into many different financial vehicles. The reason that Internet companies attracted the most attention was that the underlying trends really did appear to be correct (and in hindsight they were correct). The Internet really was going to shift old economy cash flows into the hands of technology entrepreneurs and investors. But investor enthusiasm outpaced the speed at which this shift could happen. As a result, too much supply was created too fast -- too many companies selling pet food on the Internet. Business models and valuations diverged too far from intrinsic value and investors blinked.

Which brings me to the question that I think we should be asking right now about the current tech boom. The question is NOT "when will the bubble burst" but instead something a bit more subtle. The question is -- this time around can technology transform markets at a fast enough pace to keep up with growing valuations. I think of this as an escape velocity problem -- gravity in this case being investor expectations. Can the current crop of tech boom companies grow fast enough, deliver results fast enough, to outpace the come back to earth force of investor expectations?

Every old economy company on the planet should be frightened by now of the logic behind this process -- shift cash flow away from every other industry to the tech industry. Technology companies are serving as intermediary entities in which the retail (Amazon), entertainment (Apple or Netflix), or transportation (Uber) revenues go first to the tech company and, only after margin has been removed, back to the old economy creator or owner of those assets (often bypassing prior intermediary models). That isn't what technology used to be about. Tech companies used to create new products (personal computers) that created new markets. But increasingly the new products that tech companies create are disrupting old markets instead.

And this time around the tech industry is moving faster and has many more tools at its disposal to capture the $80 trillion global GDP. It may be the case that tech again fails to achieve escape velocity and that this boom also comes to an end. But over time, tech will win. In the future as the less mature technologies of accretive manufacturing, robotics, and artificial intelligence further accelerate market transformation, the tech industry will have an ever increasing array of tools to capture a larger and larger portion of global GDP.

Eventually we won't even talk about a "tech industry" because ALL companies will be tech companies -- that is, all companies will be dependent upon continuous technology innovation to achieve and maintain competitive advantage in their markets.

So next time someone asks you when you think the current tech bubble will burst, ask them instead when do they think tech companies will slow down in transferring wealth from other industries to the tech industry.

My answer: not until they have all of it.

No comments: