I was working on Wall Street in 1995 when the Netscape IPO hit like a bombshell. It was the first big Internet stock and, although originally priced at $14 per share, it opened at double that amount and quickly zoomed to $75. By the end of the day, it had settled back at $58.25 and, just like that, a tiny company with no profits was worth $2.9 billion.
It seemed crazy, but economists soon explained that certain conditions, like negligible marginal costs and network effects, would lead to “winner take all markets” and increasing returns to investment. Venture capitalists who bet on this logic would, in many cases, become rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Yet as Charles Duhigg explained in The New Yorker, things have gone awry. Investors who preach prudence are deemed to be not “founder friendly” and cut out of deals. Evidence suggests that the billions wantonly plowed into massive failures like WeWork and Quibi are crowding out productive investments. Silicon Valley is becoming a ticking time bomb.
The Rise Of Silicon Valley
In Regional Advantage, author AnnaLee Saxenian explained how the rise of the computer can be traced to the buildup of military research after World War II. At first, most of the entrepreneurial activity centered around Boston, but the scientific and engineering talent attracted to labs based in Northern California soon began starting their own companies.
Back east, big banks were the financial gatekeepers. In the Bay Area, however, small venture capitalists, many of whom were ex-engineers themselves, invested in entrepreneurs. Stanford Provost Frederick Terman, as well as existing companies, such as Hewlett Packard, also devoted resources to broaden and strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Saxenian would later point out to me that this was largely the result of an unusual confluence of forces. Because there was a relative dearth of industry in Northern California, tech entrepreneurs tended to stick together. In a similar vein, Stanford had few large corporate partners to collaborate with, so sought out entrepreneurs. The different mixture produced a different brew and Silicon Valley developed a unique culture and approach to business.