Many people who study economics say that you often don’t know you’re in a bubble until it has popped. But once the bubble bursts, it seems almost obvious that one had existed. I’m going to postulate something that no one in Silicon Valley wants to hear right now: we’re in another bubble.
This isn’t the same as the dotcom bubble
In the late 1990′s and the early 2000′s, we had the dotcom bubble. Every other day, a new IPO was launching for some web company. Excitement was bountiful, and it seemed like a fool-proof move to invest in anything that ended in “.com.” Some things were great. After all, the economy was surging at the time and companies like Amazon made the scene. But, as we soon found out, there wasn’t much to back up this excitement. Eventually, companies like Pets.com realized that having a website wasn’t equivalent to having a business, and the bubble collapsed. Investors pulled out, stock values went to zero, credit was frozen, and companies died. The dotcom bubble was an exercise in investing in nothing. But the current app bubble more closely resembles the recent housing bubble.
If you want a good, in-depth, analysis of what happened in the housing crisis of 2008, you should read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail. But for the moment, we can focus on some very simple concepts. The housing bubble came about because (big investment) banks made risky bets. They loaned money to consumers to buy homes that, historically, should not have been eligible for such financing. The banks assumed that housing prices would continue to go up, and even if they took some losses on risky loans, they would profit in the long run. Also, these big banks took out insurance on their loans so that if a consumer defaulted, the bank would still be covered. Unfortunately, the defaults hit hard. The assets (housing) that the banks had financed became toxic–as there was no one to pay off the debt–and the banks started losing money, fast. The insurance that they had taken out was also crumbling because it was never anticipated that so many banks would need so much coverage in such a short span of time. All in all, the banks, who had loaned and insured trillions of dollars to each other, started to bring one another down.
So what does that have to do with apps? Well, take this same idea and scale it down a couple orders of magnitude. Instead of large investment banks and houses, we have venture capital investors (like Y Combinator or Google Ventures) and app startups. New app companies are popping up at a very impressive rate, and it seems like they all have the same business model: build up a user base and then sell out to a big company. Very few of them appear to have an actual method of bringing in revenue. But what’s more amazing is that the big tech companies are continuing to invest in these “toxic” assets. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. Instagram had never turned a profit. Companies like Zynga, which is in the “virtual farm animal” industry, are buying up competitors like OMGPOP for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yes, there is a case to be made for these acquisitions. You could argue that Facebook bought out Instagram so that it could secure the large user base. But here’s the problem: that cannot go on forever. Asset bubbles occur when companies focus on securing assets rather than profits, in the hopes that the profits will come later. The big banks secured housing, California investors are securing apps and users. This is when “bubble math” starts appearing. Companies make a large investment, and break it down into individuals, saying things like “we spent $20/user on that acquisition,” and hope to eventually turn that user into a profit.
Software development is a good business model
I know that this sounds like an attack on the software development industry. Trust me: it’s not. I work in the software development industry and I see enormous value in it every day. There are also decades of evidence to show that the industry is quite lucrative.
I also have no problem with software startups. You never know which next big tech company is going to come about out of someone’s garage. The problem is that too many people think that having a website or an app is the same thing as having a business. If you don’t sell anything (such as your software or a service related to your software) it’s hard to picture any success in the long run. Eventually, Google and Facebook will stop spending $1 billion on asset takeovers and realize that they can do it cheaper in-house. Then what will happen? Google will stop paying inflated prices for the assets. Venture capitalists, who have been anticipating these high payouts, will stop (or significantly decrease) funding to startups, and then we’ll see a massive exodus (failure) in the tech startup industry.
Six months ago, I predicted that we would see the bubble collapse soon after the Facebook IPO landed. So far, we haven’t seen that. And for the sake of all those startups, I hope I’m wrong. But for the sake of a healthy industry, we need to start producing better products and services. I would much rather see Google, or any other large tech company, acquire profitable tech startups. Or better yet, if startups can be profitable on their own, then maybe they will be the next Google or Facebook. Enough with this Instagram and Zynga crap. Let’s see some real innovation that is actually sustainable.