Every week a “we are in a tech bubble” article seems to come out in a major newspaper or blog. People who argue we aren’t in a bubble are casually dismissed as promoting their own interests. I’d argue the situation is far more nuanced and that people who engage in this debate should consider the following:
- Public tech companies: Anyone with an understanding of finance would have trouble arguing many large public tech companies are trading at “bubble valuations” – e.g. Apple (14 P/E), Google (18 P/E), eBay (16 P/E), Yahoo (17 P/E). You could certainly debate other public tech stock valuations (there are a number of companies that recently IPOd that many reasonable people think are overvalued), but on a market-cap weighted average the tech sector is trading at a very reasonable 17 P/E.
- Instagram seems to be the case study du jour for people arguing we are in a bubble. Reasonable people could disagree about Instagram’s exit price but in order to argue the price was too high you need to argue that either: 1) Facebook is overvalued at its expected IPO valuation of roughly $100B, 2) it was irrational for Facebook to spend 1% of its market cap to own what many people considered one of Facebook’s biggest threats (including Mark Zuckerberg – who I tend to think knows what is good for Facebook better than pundits).
- Certain stages of venture valuations do seem on average over-valued, in particular seed-stage valuations and (less obviously) later-stage “momentum valuations.” The high seed-stage valuations are driven by an influx of angel/seed investors (successful entrepreneurs/tech company employees, VC’s with seed funds, non-tech people who are chasing trends). The momentum-stage valuations are driven by a variety of things, including VC’s who want to be associated with marquee startup names, the desire to catch the next Facebook before it gets too big, and the desire of mega-sized VC funds to “put more money to work”.
- Certain stages – most notably the Series A – seem under valued. Many good companies are having trouble raising Series As and the valuations I’ve seen for the ones who do have been pretty reasonable. Unfortunately, since the financials and valuations of these companies aren’t disclosed, it is very difficult to have a public debate on this topic. But many investors I know are moving from seed to Series A precisely because they agree with this claim.
- No one can predict macro trends. The bear case includes: something bad happens to the economy (Euro collapses, US enters double dip recession). The warning sign here will be a drop in profits by marquee tech companies. The bull case includes: economy is ok or improves, and tech continues to eat into other industries (the “software is eating the world” argument). Anyone who claims to know what will happen over the next 3 years at the macro level is blowing hot air. That’s why smart investors continue investing at a regular pace through ups and downs.
- The argument that sometimes startups get better valuations without revenue is somewhat true. As Josh Koppelman said “There’s nothing like numbers to screw up a good story.” This is driven by the psychology of venture investors who are sometimes able to justify a higher price to “buy the dream” than the same price to “buy the numbers.” This doesn’t mean the investors think they will invest and then get some greater fool to invest in the company again. For instance, at the seed stage, intelligent investors are quite aware that they are buying the dream but will need to have numbers to raise a Series A.
- No good venture investors invest in companies with the primary strategy being to flip them. This isn’t because they are altruistic – it is because it is a bad strategy. You are much better off investing in companies that have a good chance to build a big business. This creates many more options including the option to sell the company. Acquisitions depend heavily on the whims of acquirers and no good venture investors bet on that.