Yes, it’s a bubble, of course

A picture named dice.gifThis is a permathread in the tech discussion, and it’s basically always true, and the discussion is always the same.

First, there are the mature companies, ongoing concerns. They are never part of the bubble. Apple makes products that people buy. They will likely make faster CPUs and disks will get bigger, so we’ll buy new computers periodically. And they also invent new stuff and we buy that too. Any business that makes products that people will continue to buy long-term is not a bubble company.

Then we hear from VCs, and they report on it as if the front-line of whether it’s a bubble or not is in their minds. If they’re making decisions based on sound business principles, they believe, then it’s not a bubble. It’s understandable that they’re self-centered, that’s the reflex we all have. And money — everyone likes to talk about money. That’s why when VCs speak lots of other VCs come to listen, and the press, and prospective entrepreneurs.

The reason it is a bubble has nothing to do with the minds of the VCs. Nothing.

The question is this. Are the new businesses, the startups, making identifiable products that make sense, and will they make money selling them, and how long will that last, and most important, will they grow. Because that’s fundamentially what makes companies worth something. If you put money into them, how much will it grow.

If they are making good businesses that will be profitable and will grow, then no bubble. If they aren’t — depending how frothy the startup scene is — that’s the extent to which we’re in a bubble.

An example of a bubble was the derivatives market that grew up around junk mortgages. that popped in 2006 through 2008. No one is in that business anymore (at least I hope so!) and the collapse took a lot of people’s futures with it. Jobs were lost, houses were lost, and sure some investors lost money too. But the big concern are the people who could ill-afford to lose. When they lost they were put out into the street, or unemployed, future-less, hope-less. Fucked, as we used to say in the dotcom crash of the early 2000’s.

This time around they’re building businesses whose only way of making money will be through advertising. Are there as many different ways to slice things as all the startups, collectively, would have you believe. And when they’re done, what will happen to them. What institutions will the bubble-pop take with it. How many people, and which people. That’s what we have to worry about.

You do know that a lot of universities were hurt hard when the real estate bubble crashed because they got greedy and put their endowments into the derivatives market. This time around it’s going to hit universities even harder. And the people who will be fucked won’t be homeowners. They’ll be young people whose lives are just beginning, who have student debt to pay off, and post-bubble will have few prospects. It’s a vast game of musical chairs, and there really aren’t that many chairs.

We’re not worried about the VCs, or we shouldn’t be. They are the promoters. They have the money, and they surely will protect themselves against losing everything. It’s the generation that will be lost, and the educational system that will go with it. That won’t be fun to see. I’m totally sure it’s going to happen. We’ve seen this so many times, how can we pretend not to see it this time?

How many times have we been through this? Here’s a good indicator. I wrote this piece in seven minutes. Believe me, it’s well-rehearsed. :-)

About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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