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The Perfect Storm for Silicon Valley

June 19th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Society | #
"Thoughts on Exuberance in Silicon Valley"

The last few years have been pretty incredible for the San Francisco Bay Area.  You really have to have lived here as I have to see how easily capital has flowed into the area, the effects of it trickling into nearly every industry even remotely tech related.  Just two years ago, there was San Francisco being more expensive than most cities but not quite at the level of New York or other top tier cities.  Now an apartment that once rented for $2500 can command mid-$3000s or higher.  A place the size of a walk-in closet at under 200 sqft can be found at $1700 or more.  When I first graduated college in 2013, the predominant attitude I saw in my peers was still that of caution and skepticism about the job market.  Now I have peers who have literally switched full time tech jobs every 4 months, some who would buy up an armful of snacks at a convenience store only to throw it all away upon changing their mind, others who take Uber to work everyday for sheer convenience (what's next? an app to do laundry?), and many who are living paycheck to paycheck spending every dime they get as if they'll always have a job.

Before I get too far into this discussion, I want to be clear that I do not think tech is necessarily a bubble.  There is a lot of actual new technology out there worth paying attention to.  This year in particular is shaping up to be the year of Fintech (cryptocurrencies, payments, financial software) and Virtual Reality (Rift, Leap Motion, Magic Leap, Hololens) in terms of what is coming to fruition and where attention is focused.  A more distant 3rd would be healthcare/biotech, but one doesn't really walk into an event in Silicon Valley and hear as much about it.  In later years, I expect we'll also see more of artificial intelligence (the real deal, not just linear regression that so many startups are selling right now), quantum computers, robotics, nanotechnology, and energy/transportation (self-driving cars, solar power, jetpacks, etc).  These to me are actual new technologies and developments as opposed to simply using existing technology in different ways or repackaging old ideas into new environments.

What I do think is that there are many subcategories of tech which are in a bubble and that the flow of easy capital will be slowing down across the board.  The type of companies I would be careful about are those that are not really building anything new or are just riding trends rather than creating their own.  Services or products that are merely convenience or solving strictly first-world problems (too lazy to do x) are also, in my opinion, things to be cautious about.  There are many in the Valley itself who will absolutely deny this, but I think that is hard to accept when companies are getting so easily funded at high valuations, many of which do not even have a prototype let alone revenue.  Many will try to value themselves on the number of users (or even just potential users) over the actual business model (or worse, adding users *is* the business model).  It is utterly backwards.  Figuring out how to increase users and traction is optimization and refinement that one does at a later stage in the business when things are up and running.  You can't optimize your revenue when you don't have any.  You don't worry about retaining users when you haven't figured out what you're even going to do with them.  It's a common case of confusing correlation and causation.  It's affirming the consequent.  A successful product may come with many users, but it's logically fallacious to think the reverse is true.  In the meantime, VCs continue to approach startups that build user traction and value them as if the monetization is guaranteed to happen.

The pitches I see now either for getting a startup funded or even marketing to consumers often come across almost like scams, if it weren't for the guys giving the pitches actually believing what they were saying.  I'm sure we've all heard the now cliche "making the world a better place" pitch.  It sounds grand until one realizes the product is just an on-demand butler service or a button that sends "Yo" to your friend.  Some don't even try to explain why their product is useful or helpful to anyone.  Instead their pitches basically amount to who has money and how to get such people to spend it - in other words quite blatantly how to trick and scam people.  Does no one remember growing up with the horrible "buy it now" commercials and wondering who would ever fall for that? Or perhaps reading novels in school about dystopias, where conformity is so rampant that people practically live their lives being told what makes them happy, and then us wondering why we bother reading stories so absurd?  Yet here we are now with so many unable to even walk into a restaurant without first checking the rating on Yelp.

Then there's the assumption that just because a startup is doing things differently from the status quo, that it is being "disruptive," it is automatically in the running as the next big thing.  I've come across so many entrepreneurs who don't even have a clue how traditional financial systems work, yet they're trying to "overhaul" finance and actually wear proudly the fact they are completely ignorant of the industry (or in marketing terms, they're an "outsider").  I've seen exchanges built with fields like "price you want to buy" and "price you want to sell."  When I ask why they aren't simply "bid" and "ask," the guys running the company ask me "what's bid and ask?" I have seen claims like a startup's potential market being virtually the entire industry for which the company belongs to.  Too often, if a company is making mobile games, what I end up hearing is that their market potential is then the entire mobile gaming market.  Of course, they try to soften it up and sound modest by then saying they would only expect to get some fraction of that.  The problem here is not that they're being overly optimistic on how much of the industry's market share they can capture but that they have absolutely no idea who their market is.  As a very simple example, if you were to start a lemonade stand, your target market would not be the entire drink industry or even the lemonade industry.  It would be the neighborhood in which you are setting up your stand and among that the individuals who are thirsty, like to drink lemonade, and would actually come by your stand.  Then you take a fraction of *that* and work from there.  However, the former is sadly the kind of logic we see most often now, and it builds a feedback loop where others then follow up with increasingly absurd assumptions.  What many guys are doing are counting their chickens before they hatch, describing the goal reached when they haven't thought out the first steps past square one.  They draw correlations between their company and their industry as if they're already established.  They assume that by simply participating or being "disruptive" they are guaranteed a slice of whatever market they're in.  At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if the next startup tells me their market is the human race and that their potential market is entire global economy.

The hardest part about calling a top is that markets tends to have a herd mentality.  Even if things are in a bubble, it may climb higher for quite a while on the piling in of everyone else before things begin to crumble.  Think of 1999 or even 2000 before the actual Dotcom bust; betting against that, while right in the longer term, would have been completely wrong for the first year or two.  Again, I don't think we necessarily burst like the last one did and there are real technological innovations this time around, but there are definitely warning signs that things might at least start to slow.  Reality will kick in at some point.

There's the fundamental side, the actual startups themselves running into problems on in their execution.  For one, the cash burn rate on a lot of startups is getting pretty extreme.  I've come across startups that were only seeded a few million to begin with, yet are burning over half a million a month on expenses without even having a revenue stream yet.  Some flat out buy what almost looks like a vacation home as the company office, without having even a prototype of their product yet.  It's extremely lavish spending and not sustainable.  At some point, investors will no longer be willing to just gamble away on speculative plays like this.  Already, I've come across quite a few companies in the bay here myself which are finding it more difficult than past years to find capital and stay liquid.

Then there are the legal/political grounds which are slowly becoming less favorable to startups.  Regulations are also picking up, whether it be in crowdsharing services like Uber (now being pushed towards treating drivers as employees, which will become a huge expense) or financial innovations like Bitcoin (now requiring licenses and other credentials to operate with).  I've met quite a few folks who point out how something like Uber is making transportation so cheap without realizing how much of it is Uber operating at a loss per ride at the expense of VCs and that the pricing is often temporary or promotional to just grab market share.  The same goes for many other companies offering unrealistically cheap services; it's usually for market share.  It's very easy to live and create startups now because things are in untested territory, but it's not going to be this easy again once regulation catches up or funding is not as easy to come by.

Lastly, macroeconomic conditions are starting to tighten.  There's the Fed having ended their Quantitative Easing program and it now looking for any opportunity to raise rates.  It was heavily criticized at first for the effects of their money printing not trickling down to the rest of the economy, but it took time for that to happen, as is clearly evident today.  Then there's Greece and its overall contagion effect on the European Union, which in effect puts a damper on the rest of the world as well.  Greece's financial instability has been a recurring issue as far back as 2010, but at some point, its problems will have to come to an end, which very well might be defaulting on its obligations to the EU.  The danger here is becoming used to hearing about Greece to the point it's no longer considered a serious problem when by any objective measure it is.  Greece alone may not be a significant portion of the world or even the European economy, but it's the domino effect, the extra straw on camel's back, the catalyst that highlights the true overall weakness in the world markets, that should be the greatest concern.  Yet whereas a single headline about the potential for Greece's default used to swing the global markets one way or another, the past couple years have seen a gradual complacency of the market on the assumption these issues will resolve themselves or continue to defer to later years.  Nothing has happened yet, but the danger here is being completely off guard and looking the other way.

Individually, these conditions are not that big of a deal, but what's interesting to me is that these conditions are all coming together at a time when Silicon Valley seems to be at its frothiest.  Again, this is not to say that things necessarily collapse; in truth, it is a great time to start a company and pursue careers that you actually enjoy rather than just what pays, at least for the next year or two.  My point is just that, rather than live lavishly like there is no tomorrow, it would be a good idea to start considering times when money will not be as easy to come by.  The chipping away at the armor for Silicon Valley and gradually hollowing foundation beneath which many of these companies are formed come across to me as what is a perfect storm, and from this, I think we'll start to see a separation of the companies that truly offer something worthwhile to the world from those that exist solely on the coattails of Silicon Valley.
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