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.
The early success of the model led to a process that was somewhat self-perpetuating. Engineers became entrepreneurs and got rich. They, in turn, became investors in new enterprises, which attracted more engineers to the region, many of whom became entrepreneurs. By the 1980’s, Silicon Valley had surpassed Route 128 outside Boston to become the center of the technology universe.
The Productivity Paradox and the Dotcom Bust
As Silicon Valley became ascendant and information technology gained traction, economists began to notice something strange. Although businesses were increasing investment in computers at a healthy clip, there seemed to be negligible economic impact. As Robert Solow put it, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” This came to be known as the productivity paradox.
Things began to change around the time of the Netscape IPO. Productivity growth, which had been depressed since the early 1970s, began to surge and the idea of “increasing returns” began to take hold. Companies such as Webvan and Pets.com, with no viable business plan or path to profitability, attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors.
By 2000, the market hit its peak and the bubble burst. While some of the fledgling Internet companies, such as Cisco and Amazon, did turn out well, thousands of others went down in flames. Other more conventional businesses, such as Enron, World Com and Arthur Anderson, got caught up in the hoopla, became mired in scandal and went bankrupt.
When it was all over there was plenty of handwringing, a small number of prosecutions, some reminiscing about the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 and then everybody went on with their business. The Federal Reserve Bank pumped money into the economy, the Bush Administration pushed big tax cuts and within a few years things were humming again.
Web 2.0. Great Recession And The Rise Of The Unicorns
Out of the ashes of the dotcom bubble arose Web 2.0, which saw the emergence of new social platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube that leveraged their own users to create content and grew exponentially. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 ushered in a new mobile era and, just like that, techno-enthusiasts were once again back in vogue. Marc Andreessen, who founded Netscape, would declare that software was eating the world.
Yet trouble was lurking under the surface. Productivity growth disappeared in 2005 just as mysteriously as it appeared in 1996. All the money being pumped into the economy by the Fed and the Bush tax cuts had to go somewhere and found a home in a booming housing market. Mortgage bankers, Wall Street traders, credit raters and regulators all looked the other way while the bubble expanded and then, somewhat predictably, imploded.
But this time, there were no zany West Coast startup entrepreneurs to blame. It was, in fact, the establishment that had run us off the cliff. The worthless assets at the center didn’t involve esoteric new business models, but the brick and mortar of our homes and workplaces. The techno-enthusiasts could whistle past the graveyard, pitying the poor suckers who got caught up in a seemingly anachronistic fascination with things made with atoms.
Repeating a now-familiar pattern, the Fed pumped money into the economy to fuel the recovery, establishment industries, such as the auto companies in Detroit were discredited and a superabundance of capital needed a place to go and Silicon Valley looked attractive.
The era of the unicorns, startup companies worth more than a billion dollars, had begun.
Charting A New Path Forward
In his inaugural address, Ronald Reagan declared that, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In his view, bureaucrats were the enemy and private enterprise the hero, so he sought to dismantle federal regulations. This led to the Savings and Loan crisis that exploded, conveniently or inconveniently, during the first Bush administration.
So small town bankers became the enemy while hotshot Wall Street traders and, after the Netscape IPO, Internet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists became heroes. Wall Street would lose its luster after the global financial meltdown, leaving Silicon Valley’s venture-backed entrepreneurship as the only model left with any genuine allure.
That brings us to now and “big tech” is increasingly under scrutiny. At this point, the government, the media, big business, small business, Silicon Valley, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have all been somewhat discredited. There is no real enemy left besides ourselves and there are no heroes coming to save us. Until we learn to embrace our own culpability we will never be able to truly move forward.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Consider the recent Covid crisis, in which unprecedented collaboration between governments, large pharmaceutical companies, innovative startups and academic scientists developed a life-saving vaccine in record time. Similar, albeit fledgling, efforts have been going on for years.
Put simply, we have seen the next big thing and it is each other. By discarding childish old notions about economic heroes and villains we can learn to collaborate across historical, organizational and institutional boundaries to solve problems and create new value. It is in our collective ability to solve problems that we will create our triumph or our peril.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto