Whether you assume that a "market correction" or bubble pop-pop is around the corner or not depends on which side of the local economic equation you live on. Those of us not currently employed in tech, or in some ancillary industry dependent on startup/VC cash, tend to be a bit more cavalier about the idea that it's probably coming soon. (And SFist recently penned a nostalgic field guide to life after a boom via those who were here in 1999/2000.) Many smart, wealthy men seem confident that all the economics of the current boom are much more robust than they were 15 years ago, and whatever correction might be coming won't be a kaboom so much as a minor crash, with far fewer casualties.
But now that TechCrunch Disrupt just wrapped up, there's a new round of journalism on the topic of a coming bubble burst, including this new piece from the UK Guardian which points to a couple of prescient facts. First, historical moments of economic collapse are often characterized by a kind of mass delusion in which only a minority of canny folks keep their sober heads and see what's on the horizon. And second, fueling the current boom is a whole lot of optimism and idealistic chutzpah from a generation of young entrepreneurs who actually have no memory of the first dot-com bubble, and therefore no visceral connection to its lessons.
As Carole Cadwalladr writes in the Guardian, "Back in 2000, Google was less than 18 months old and Facebook wasn’t even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye he was still at high school. (At 31, he’s now practically Silicon Valley’s elder statesman.)"
She also brings up the legend of the shoeshine boy who was so confidently handing out stock tips in 1929 that Joseph Kennedy immediately sold his whole portfolio, saving his family from financial ruin. Legendarily, and ironically, the kid said, "Buy Hindenburg," and Kennedy later said, "You know it's time to sell when shoeshine boys give you stock tips."
Former Condé Nast digital editorial director James Pallot, who now has a startup of his own, claims to have met an actual shoeshine boy at JFK Airport who had his own startup he was pitching a "national shoeshine franchise." So, how's that for prescient symbolism?
But is all this just the media trying to frame a predictable narrative? Or is there just so much hubris in Silicon Valley because the collective memory of the dot-com bubble has become too diluted with youthful exuberance?
Cadwalladr's experience at TechCrunch Disrupt mirrors that shown in parody form on HBO's Silicon Valley. She runs into an Israeli with a dating site called Diggidi that he says is "disruptive" and "a dating revolution" and "can’t be ignored." He also has the confidence to say his will be one of the 10 percent of startups that don't fail, saying, it will be bigger than Tinder, "Nothing is forcing me to ruin my life." The winner of the Startup Battlefield this year is called Agrilyst, which wants to be the "Google Analytics for greenhouses," i.e. an app for indoor agriculture. But more comical than that perhaps was runner-up Stitch, which is the "Slack for healthcare," or Scrumpt, the Blue Apron for school lunches.
No one who's in the heart of this world can see the humor in all this, of course, and Cadwalladr can't help but ask every single person she talks to, "Is this a bubble?" because that is what journalists with longer memories all tend to believe we all remember Kozmo.com, Pets.com, Toys.com and the early boom businesses that seemed like great ideas and sure things.
The figures these days are certainly staggering.
[F]or three days, I’ve been hearing about “unicorns” a Silicon Valley term for companies that have been valued at more than $1bn. When this usage was first coined, less than two years ago, there were 39 of them. Today, there are 147... Eight years ago, TechCrunch launched its Disrupt conference with 45 startups. This year, there are 5,000 of them.
Nick Bilton wrote a piece for Vanity Fair's September issue that points to other factors like high-class prostitutes flooding into town, an over-inflated art market, and Salesforce Tower rising out of the ground pointing to the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building presaging the Great Depression, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur getting completed just before the Asian economic crisis.
And despite all of these signs and symbols, TechCrunch itself was insisting as late as eight weeks ago, "Chicken Little should be put on mute at this stage in the tech startup game." They point to multiple economic factors, lessons learned, and real profit potential for many companies as signs that there will be no great crash, and whatever does slow things down is still a ways off.
While all good things must eventually come to an end, the measured approach that more founders and investors are taking in terms of disrupting and innovation means the end won’t come with a crash, burn, burst or any other destructive event. If anything, it will be a slowdown and recalibration for the next opportunity that comes during a new cycle.
But they also had a vested interest in calming everyone down eight weeks ago: They had more $3,000 tickets to TechCrunch Disrupt to sell.