If you’ve ever read Carlota Perez‘s work, and/or are endowed with an average amount of common sense, you will know that like many other things, economic life cycles follow certain patterns. So do technological innovations. Some people call them ‘revolutions’. Like the Industrial Revolution or the Internet Revolution.
Very often, the climate (economy, markets, investors, …) must ‘storm’ before it can ‘form’. And many times this storm takes the form of a financial ‘bubble’.
Financial bubbles are periods during which companies are over-valued. Essentially a form of inflation but instead of currency-based it is business-based. Investors and entrepreneurs (and, sadly, the general public) are misled into believing that a company is worth many more degrees of magnitude than it actually is. Very often, it’s worth would actually be negative, meaning that it loses money. That’s why it’s called a ‘bubble’ – because the investments look large and shiny from the outside but in effect are as empty as hell on the inside (no clients, no sales, no products).
This is what happened at the turn of the millennium in the infamous Dotcom Bust. Hundreds of companies were perceived to be worth millions for the wrong reasons. The ‘wrong’ reason was mainly that entrepreneurs and investors got all excited about the possibility of selling stuff using the Internet instead of the regular brick-and-mortar store. In all this enthusiasm, they forgot to take a good look at how the companies were supposed to make money… what used to be quaintly called a ‘business model’.
By burning up an approximate $4 trillion, investors and entrepreneurs found out the hard way that there is only one real way to value a company, and that is by how much it sells. They re-learned to think in terms of “Income minus expenditure”. Units sold minus cost per unit. They learned that whatever business you’re in and however much cool technology you have, you need a decent business model.
Or did they?
Just six years later, there is a disturbing resurgence of the same feeling disguised as something different. Under the guise of the ubiquitous – and almost meaningless – “Web 2.0” label, companies are getting funding, or being acquired, simply based on the fact that they have a ‘community’. The approach of “get traffic and then try to monetize” is starkly reminiscent of the “put it on the Internet and you’ll make money” tagline that was the 1999 motto.
And it’s not working out too well.
Youtube and Postini are not making money and Digg is finding it impossible to sell itself. Twitter is raising money but they’re not sure how to go about making it. (How do you make money for sending free text messages to people? Anytime now, Twitter will begin ramming adverts down peoples phones. A guaranteed audience loser.) Facebook stumbled upon a community and is now desperately trying to justify all it’s VC funding by foisting ads on its users. The chaps at Facebook apparently have such a hazy idea of how to make money that they’re becoming “VCs” themselves, expecting Facebook developers to come up with ways of making money for them. These are just the big names of course, although there are countless other start-ups who received funding and went bust.
Sometimes, history can repeat itself much faster than we expect. If you’re a budding entrepreneur, have a good hard think and make sure you have a clear idea of how you expect to make money. And if you find a VC who thinks it’s a good idea to give you money just because you have traffic and ‘an audience’, run as fast as you can. You may think its cool to get the millions, but when the Bubble version 2.0 bursts, you’ll be left standing in the middle of a very empty space.