Bubble Zen: When is a bubble half-inflated?

Lots of talk in the blogosphere about Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s piece on The New Boom in Wired magazine. In it, Chris says point blank that what we’re all seeing — the multiple VC rounds for startups with virtually no revenue, the $30-million buyouts of del.icio.us, not to mention the $4-billion or so for Skype — isn’t a bubble, it’s a boom. So there.

A boom perhaps, but not (phew!) a bubble. There’s a difference. Bubbles are inflated with hot air and speculation. They end with a wet pop, leaving behind messy splatters. Booms, on the other hand, tend to have strong foundations and gentle conclusions. Bubbles can be good: They spark a huge amount of investment that can make things easier for the next generation, even as they bankrupt the current one. But booms – with their more rational allocation of capital – are better. The problem is that exuberance can make it hard to tell one from the other.

How can Chris be so sure? Because “the Internet and digital media are clearly not fads” and “some silly bubble-era ideas are starting to actually make sense – perhaps a lot of sense.” But the key, he says, is that it costs less to start and run a Boom 2.0 company, and that means less venture capital, and less venture capital means “fewer venture capitalists hustling for early exits at high valuations. That, in turn, reduces the pressure to go public and translates to fewer undercooked companies launching IPOs on hype alone.”

A fair point — and one I’ve talked about with friends recently: where does that leave VCs? Hunting around for deals to do, and watching companies grow and be acquired with no VC money at all. For what it’s worth, Om Malik says he thinks the new boom is about halfway over. How does he know that? He’s not saying. That’s a Zen koan kind of question: How do you know when a bubble is half-inflated?

My friend Mark Evans isn’t so sure about the non-bubble talk, and I think he is right to be cautious. As we all know, the phrase “it’s different this time” is what got investors into so much trouble last time around. Nick Carr also makes a good point, which is that entrepeneurs are not the ones who make a bubble a bubble, since they are the “supply” side of the equation — the problem is the “demand” side, i.e. the market. When it becomes frenetic, then the rules go out the window. Kent Newsome says everyone is swinging for the fences instead of being content with a single.

5 thoughts on “Bubble Zen: When is a bubble half-inflated?

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  2. Great analysis as always, Mathew.

    I think as with both things, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. The good news all around, I would think, is that we’ve reached an age where ideas and business models can be cheaply and relatively easily explored.

    Blogcritics.org (full disclosure: I’m the Exec Producer) is a perfect example. Founded by Eric Olsen in mid-2002, it’s had the marvelous ability to grow organically and at an absolutely grass roots level because the overhead was so low. Further, things like easy access to broadband and cheap cell phone rates allow for a dispersed and virtual organization to run on the cheap.

    I very much like Mark Evans’ notion of investors adapting to this climate and going for smaller, targeted rounds of investment that don’t just include money but include the assets to help an organization like mine reach the next level.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Eric. And I think you’re right — the model Mark and others have described makes a lot of sense, particularly in the kind of low-cost Web 2.0 environment you’re describing.

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