Is Silicon Valley in Another Bubble . . . and What Could Burst It?

In the U.S. alone, nearly 100 tech start-ups are currently considered unicorns.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe.
With the tech industry awash in cash and 100 “unicorn” start-ups now valued at $1 billion or more, Silicon Valley can’t escape the question. Nick Bilton reports.
One Thursday morning in early June, the ballroom of the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, in Menlo Park, was closed for a private presentation. The grand banquet hall appeared worthy of the sprawling resort’s five-star designation: ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling; silk panels with a silver stenciled design covered the walls. Behind a stage in the 2,800-square-foot room, a large sign bore the name of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture-capital firms.As breakfast and coffee were offered, the company’s partners mingled with the men and women who endow their $1.5 billion fund. The investors were dressed invariably in business casual, with the top button of their dress shirts noticeably undone. (A mere handful of men stood out in a suit and tie.) Off in the distance, you could make out the faint purr of Bentleys and Teslas ferrying along Sand Hill Road, depositing the Valley’s other top V.C.’s at their respective offices—Greylock Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Sequoia Capital, to name just a few—for another day of meetings with founders, reviewing the decks of new start-ups, and searching for the next can’t-miss company.

After some chitchat (Mitt Romney had addressed the group the previous night), Scott Kupor, a managing partner, took the stage to tell the assembled investors what was going on with their money. A16z, as the firm is commonly known in the Valley, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in some of the industry’s biggest companies—Instagram, Facebook, Box, Twitter, and Oculus VR—along with a number of upstarts, such as Instacart, a grocery-delivery business that had been recently valued at about $2 billion. After the guests found their seats, Kupor began moving through a series of slides depicting the past and present of the tech sector, using data that would help inform the firm’s investments in the future. Each set of numbers had been meticulously researched and culled from sources that included Capital IQ, Bloomberg, and the National Venture Capital Association.

Yet the presentation, which adhered to a16z’s gray-and-deep-orange palette, seemed to have an ulterior motive. Kupor, his hair neatly parted, was eager to assuage any worry about the existence of a tech bubble. While he conceded that there were some eerie similarities with the infamous dot-com bubble of 1999—such as the preponderance of so-called unicorns, or tech start-ups valued at $1 billion and upward—Kupor confidently buoyed his audience with slides that read, “It’s different this time,” and charts highlighting the decrease in tech I.P.O.’s, the metric that eventually pierced the froth in March of 2000. Back then, a company went public almost every single day; now it was down to about once per week. This time around, he noted, the money was flowing backward. Rather than entering a company’s coffers in the public markets, it was making its way to start-ups in late-stage investments. There was little, he suggested, to worry about.

And then, toward the end of his reassuring soliloquy, the ANDREESSEN HOROWITZ sign fell from the wall and landed on the floor with an ominous thud. As the investors looked on, some partners in the Rosewood ballroom laughed awkwardly. Others did not seem so amused.


While the rest of the country has spent the past year debating gay marriage, policing tactics, Obamacare, and Deflate-gate, the inescapable topic of discussion in Silicon Valley is whether we are in a technology bubble. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of his eponymous venture firm, is perhaps the leading advocate against the bubble chatter. On his Twitter feed, he has referenced the word “bubble” more than 300 times, repeatedly mocking or refuting anyone on his radar who even hints at such a possibility. One of his arguments, as the slides in the Rosewood ballroom suggested, is the exponential growth of mobile phones, which have fundamentally changed the way we buy and sell virtually everything, from groceries to taxi-like services, and created unprecedented disruption. Also, in contrast to the days of the dot-com boom, many tech companies are creating revenue—in some instances, lots of it.Andreessen’s points are all valid, but the bubble chatter is still impossible to quell, in part, because the signs are increasingly ubiquitous. When I moved to the Bay Area to cover the tech industry for The New York Times,in the summer of 2011, the Valley was still reeling from the bursting of the last bubble, which led to more than $6 trillion in losses, and sent the NASDAQ on a downward spiral similar to the Dow’s amid the Wall Street crash of 1929. In 2000, some start-up C.E.O.’s lost millions of dollars in a matter of hours. Others saw their entire net worth fall to zero in months. People vanished; commuting times were sawed in half; private investment ossified. At the time I arrived, LinkedIn was the only publicly traded social-media company. A little-known upstart with a catchy name, Uber, had just raised a seemingly staggering amount ($11 million) in venture capital. Postmates, Tinder, Instacart, Lyft, and Slack didn’t exist. Silicon Valley was an actual place, not an HBO show.

But within months I noticed that private money was returning and a cavalcade of start-ups were reshaping the city in their image. Engineers from companies I hadn’t yet heard of began showing up at open houses with checks written out to cover rent for the first few months (a recruiting perk, I later learned). I attended a jungle-themed Halloween extravaganza featuring acrobats, a 600-pound tiger, and other wild animals in order to bolster photo moments that people were posting on a hot new start-up, Instagram. Meanwhile, I was pitched countless apps to find a parking space, or messaging services to tell someone that you are running late. The founders told me their companies were worth tens of millions of dollars. When I asked for their logic, they looked at me as though I were the crazy one. Shortly after the Facebook I.P.O., I learned about a secret group within the social-network company called “T.N.R. 250”; it was an abbreviation of “The Nouveau Riche 250,” comprising Facebook’s first 250 employees, many of whom had become multi-millionaires. The members of T.N.R. 250 privately discussed things they wanted to buy with their windfall, including boats, planes, Banksy portraits, and even tropical islands.

Whenever I even suggested the word “bubble” in my reporting, I became a punching bag. After I scrutinized the ethics (and preposterous valuation) of Path, an ill-fated social network, Michael Arrington, once a nexus of power in Silicon Valley who had invested in the start-up, called me a “pit bull” and said I wasn’t a very noble person. But lately the worries have spread. There are now fast approaching 100 unicorns based in the U.S. alone, and counting. The NASDAQ recently closed at an all-time high, surpassing a record set right before the dot-com crash in 2000. The Shiller P/E ratio, a measure of the ratio of price to earnings, has a number of investors worrying, with The Wall Street Journal noting that it shows stocks are “frothy.”

Lately, in fact, even some of the most aggressive V.C.’s have cowered. Not long after the Andreessen Horowitz presentation, Roger McNamee, co-founder of the private-equity firm Elevation Partners, told CNBC, “We are going to have a correction one of these days.” Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital and Andreessen’s nemesis (“my Newman,” as he recently put it, referring to the Seinfeld character), echoed this sentiment on Twitter, venture capitalists’ preferred platform of communication. (Many are staked in it.) “Arguing we aren’t in a bubble because it’s not as bad as 1999,” Gurley tweeted, “is like saying that Kim Jong-un is fine because he’s not as bad as Hitler.” (Gurley declined to comment for this story.)CONTINUED:

The Tech Industry Bubble Is About To Burst

Euphoric reaction to superstar tech businesses is rampant — so much so that the tech industry is in denial about looming threats. The tech industry is in a bubble, and there are sufficient indicators for those willing to open their eyes. Rearing unicorns, however, is a distracting fascination.

The Perfect Storm

Raising funding for tech startups has never been so easy. Some of this flood of money has been because of mutual funds and hedge funds, including Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Tiger Global Management. This is altering not only the funding landscape for tech startups, but also valuation expectations.

There are many concerns that valuations for businesses are confounding rationale. Entrepreneurs and their investors are deviating from more traditional valuation and performance metrics to more unconventional ones. Another cause cited for increasing valuations is the trend of protections for late investors that cause valuations to inflate further. The combination of a number of these factors has put the sector into a state of artificial valuations.

Meanwhile, the companies themselves are burning through cash like there is no tomorrow. Throwing money at marketing, overheads and, in particular, remuneration has become the accepted investment strategy for startup growth. All this does is perpetuate the vicious cycle of raising more money and spending more money. For the amounts that some of these businesses have raised, the jury is still out on actual profitability.

Unicorn Season

CB Insights publishes information on unicorns (companies with a valuation above $1 billion), which shows that access to the club has become increasingly less exclusive in the last couple of years. The chart below shows that the number of companies valued at $1 billion or above in 2014 exceeded previous years by quite some margin (47 unicorns joined the club in 2014 vs. 7 and 8 in 2012 and 2013, respectively). In addition, for the first 5 months of 2015, this trend shows no signs of abating (32 new unicorns as of June 1, 2015).


Different Experts, Same Conclusion

In the face of these trends, a small group of well-respected and influential individuals are voicing their concern. They are reflecting on what happened in the last dot-com bust and identifying fallacies in the current unsustainable modus operandi. These relatively lonely voices are difficult to ignore. They include established successful entrepreneurs, respected VC and hedge fund investors, economists and CEOs who are riding their very own unicorns.

Mark Cuban is scathing in his personal blog, arguing that this tech bubble is worse than that of 2000, because, he states, that unlike in 2000, this time the “bubble comes from private investors,” including angel investors and crowd funders. The problem for these investors is there is no liquidity in their investments, and we’re currently in a market with “no valuations and no liquidity.” He was one of the fortunate ones who exited his company,, just before the 2000 boom, netting $5 billion. But he saw others around him not so lucky then, and fears the same this time around.

A number of high-profile investors have come out and said what their peers all secretly must know. Responding to concerns raised by Bill Gurley (Benchmark) and Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures), Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz expressed his thoughts in an 18-tweet tirade. Andreessen agrees with Gurley and Wilson in that high cash burn in startups is the cause of spiralling valuations and underperformance; the availability of capital is hampering common sense.

The tech startup space at the moment resembles the story of the emperor with no clothes.

As Wilson emphasizes, “At some point you have to build a real business, generate real profits, sustain the company without the largess of investor’s capital, and start producing value the old fashioned way.” Gurley, a stalwart investor, puts the discussion into context by saying “We’re in a risk bubble … we’re taking on … a level of risk that we’ve never taken on before in the history of Silicon Valley startups.”

The tech bubble has resulted in unconventional investors, such as hedge funds, in privately owned startups. David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital Inc. stated that although he is bullish on the tech sector, he believes he has identified a number of momentum technology stocks that have reached prices beyond any normal sense of valuation, and that they have shorted many of them in what they call the “bubble basket.”

Meanwhile, Noble Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, who previously warned about both the dot-com and housing bubbles, suspects the recent equity valuation increases are more because of fear than exuberance. Shiller believes that “compared with history, US stocks are overvalued.” He says, “one way to assess this is by looking at the CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) ratio … defined as the real stock price (using the S&P Composite Stock Price Index deflated by CPI) divided by the ten-year average of real earnings per share.”

Shiller says this has been a “good predictor of subsequent stock market returns, especially over the long run. The CAPE ratio has recently been around 27, which is quite high by US historical standards. The only other times it is has been that high or higher were in 1929, 2000, and 2007 — all moments before market crashes.”

Perhaps the most surprising contributor to the debate on a looming tech bubble is Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat. Founded in 2011, Spiegel’s company is a certified “unicorn,” with a valuation in excess of $15 billion. Spiegel believes that years of near-zero interest rates have created an asset bubble that has led people to make “riskier investments” than they otherwise would. He added that a correction was inevitable.

What Does A Bubble Look Like?

To shed light on how close we may be to the tech bubble bursting, it is worthwhile trying to understand what determines being in a bubble. Typically, this refers to a situation where the price of an asset exceeds by a large margin its fundamental value.

In his 1986 book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, economist Hyman Minsky’s theory of financial instability attracted a great deal of attention, and gathered an increasing number of adherents following the crisis of 2008-09. Minsky identified five stages that culminate in a bubble, as described in this Forbes article: displacement, boom, euphoria, profit taking, and panic.

Uber is an enviable company for much of what it has achieved, and the team is to be commended for how they have grown this business, as well as their previous successes. However, it serves as a good example to illustrate the dynamics of the tech bubble.

Displacement:Investors’ excitement with a new paradigm, such as advances in technology or historically low interest rates. The explosion of the “sharing economy” has resulted in companies such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb growing exponentially in recent years by taking advantage of this new mode of operation.

Boom:Prices rise slowly at first, but then gain momentum as more participants enter the market. Fear of missing out (FOMO) attracts even more participants. Consequently, publicity for the asset class in question increases. Reviewing investment rounds for Uber since 2010 when they completed their seed round shows a large variety of investors wanting a piece of the action, perhaps in part due to a fear of missing out on the golden goose. The introduction of hedge funds and investment banks funding the business can also be seen, which underlines the facelift happening in this sector.

Euphoria:Asset prices increase exponentially; there is little rationale evident in decision making. During this phase, new valuation measures and metrics are touted to justify the unrelenting rise of asset prices. Uber’s increased valuation between funding rounds symbolizes the euphoria around the business. The chart below shows the evolution of Uber’s pre-money valuation over the last number of funding rounds.

Source: CB Insights; data analyzed by Funding Your Tech Startup


Although the pace of revenue growth at Uber is astounding (doubling approximately every 12 months at the moment), profitability is less certain. Profitability margins should increase over time as recognition and saturation are achieved in newer markets, but it is difficult to ignore the regulatory burdens and lawsuits the business is facing, which could steer it off course.

Profit taking:The few that have identified what’s going on are making their profit by selling their positions. This is the right time to exit, but is not seen by the majority. This is the next indicator on the horizon that will underline that we are in a tech bubble, and that it is about to burst. The catalyst for profit taking could be regulatory strains or excessive cash consumption that isn’t reflected by profitability gains in startups. Savvy investors will take the opportunity to exit while valuations are still high. The exits may well be too late for investors who are further behind on the FOMO curve or new types of investors who don’t appreciate that the market has moved.

Panic:By now it’s too late and asset prices collapse as rapidly as they once increased. With everyone trying to cash in realizing the situation, supply outstrips demand and many face big losses. Watch this space for the unfortunately impending examples.


The fact that we are in a tech bubble is in no doubt. The fact that the bubble is about to burst, however, is not something the sector wants to wake up to. The good times the sector is enjoying are becoming increasingly artificial. The tech startup space at the moment resembles the story of the emperor with no clothes. It remains for a few established, reasoned voices to persist with their concerns so the majority will finally listen.

The Man Who Gave “Yo” $200,000

The Man Who Gave "Yo" $200,000


This week, a group of otherwise mentally sound adults agreed to go fucking insane all at once. The object of their manic episode was Yo, an app that sends the word “Yo” to other people with the app installed. It’s garnered over a million real dollars from investors. I talked to the one in charge.

Yo is exactly the kind of thing that techies adore. The story—intentionally stupid app nets $1.2 million in venture funding—is eminently bloggable. The app itself is clever on an 8th grade level, simple enough to tweet about, and proof that truly, money is a pastry puff, a trifle that can be scooped and bent and mushed around without any tethers to reality. On its own, Yo is just evidence of what we already know: that people are silly, and that TechCrunch is the kind of publication that will write an earnest essay on Yo. But Yo isn’t just another viral migraine—it’s an insincere idea, but it’s received very real money. If money still means anything anymore—and I’m not sure it does!—we need to insist that a million dollars is not a trifle, and that giving this amount of money to an app that does literally one thing is worth scrutinizing. We’re supposed to be talking about businesses here, right?

Israeli investor Moshe Hogeg is the CEO of Mobli, an Instagram clone, and led the $1.2 million angel investment round with $200,000 from his own pocket. He declined to list the other investors, but was nice enough to speak with me as I asked why someone would ever spend $200,000 on a joke app. The answer, basically, is why would you ever not?

“You need to be nuts to regard the numbers,” Hogeg tells me. “It’s crazy, it’s viral, the engagement is unbelievable.” This occult metric of “engagement” is something every startup craves more than Teslas and stock options, an end in itself that’s defined roughly as “how much are people clicking your shit instead of someone else’s shit?” In the case of Yo, it’s a lot: Hogeg says he’s literally never seen anything that’s engaged users more. But are people tapping single button that does one thing really “engaged” with anything? Is it a problem that this app doesn’t really do anything? Hogeg says I’m being shortsighted:

“I like to do things in the easiest way. We are always looking for the easiest way. My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come.” Now Hogeg can send her a message that says “Yo” instead, using a specialized app for this purpose alone. “My wife, she complains I don’t call her enough during the day. Now I can send a push notification anytime I want.” When I ask if this is enough to build an entire company on top of, Hogeg speculates about Yo’s future: he can imagine Starbucks baristas, McDonald’s cashiers, and Virgin America flight crews all getting your attention with Yo. Nevermind that many service companies have their own apps that send out their own push notifications. “Yo is more than a yo,” Hogeg says, like a software yogi. “I have no idea if it’s going to succeed.”

OK, so again, why invest so much money in this thing that took, by its founder’s admission, eight hours and zero dollars to code? “It’s a stupid app,” Hogeg admits. But “it’s not responsible to not give it a chance.” He cites its virality again, and points out that Marc Andreessen recently praised the app. Marc Andreessen is never wrong, right?

Hogeg demurs when asked if he thinks $200,000 is even a lot of money: “200 is a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money at the same time.” But why does it need any money at all, if it took zero money to create? Hogeg points out that Yo now has a staff of five, and it’ll need office space. Office space for what, he doesn’t say. Will Yo make money? “Yeah, I guess.” He compares it to Google, which in its early days was doubted as a viable business.

But even if $200,000 isn’t a lot of money to you, is there any moral element to promoting a deliberately joke-y app when so many people are working—in vain—on software with a purpose?

Does Yo deserve a million dollars? What could someone more earnest have done with even Hogeg’s $200,000 slice? “The world doesn’t work on deserve,” replies Hogeg. He’s worked just as hard as his father back in Israel, he explains, and has far more money. So much for the glimmering Silicon Meritocracy. “I’m not a hater,” Hogeg elaborates. “I never was. But I can understand the criticism: I was a young engineer, I worked my ass off. If back then I could see an app like Yo getting a million, I would go nuts.” I feel like I’m on the verge of a moral breakthrough with Hogeg, but he drifts back into software zen-speak. “[Success] is not about the technology, it’s about the execution.” “Execution” here is a euphemism, I think.

To anyone struggling in Startupland who might wince at Yo’s 24 hour attention spree, Hogeg has a message of hope: “I hear you. We love you. You need to be creative, disruptive, think outside the box. You need to be a lover, not a hater. The energy you send into the world, you get back.”

So why not send $200,000 worth of energy into the world via charity, rather than investing in Yo? “Charity?” Hogeg bristles. “Who says I’m not? I choose my life, I choose to enjoy it.” For Hogeg, enjoying one’s life seems to include this sort of recreational investing, treating business ventures like parlor games, or a kind of thrilling diversion—Hogeg refers to his habit of buying lottery tickets. It’s all a very fun and giggly “maybe” for a man who can afford to play “what if” with large sums. The stakes sound low: “[Yo] is not making the world a better place…[and] I don’t think it’s too much money. It’s surprising we’re on the phone right now. If Marc Andreessen writes what he writes, we should all be very humble. Who knows, there might be something to it.” And even if there’s nothing to it, as there likely is not, Hogeg remains calm: “Don’t be so arrogant to think that Yo can’t make you eat your words. You can look at this interview, years from now. We will never eat our words. We already won.”

It’s easy to see where they’re making money with the app. This isn’t an app – It’s a wiretap.

Permissions requested:
This app has access to:

  • read your contacts
  • modify your contacts


  • reroute outgoing calls
  • directly call phone numbers
  • read call log
  • write call log

  • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • test access to protected storage

  • record audio
  • take pictures and videos
Device ID & call information

  • read phone status and identity

  • full network access
  • change your audio settings
  • view network connections
  • prevent device from sleeping
  • run at startup
  • control vibration

Who talks like FDR but acts like Ayn Rand? Easy: Silicon Valley’s wealthiest and most powerful people

Tech’s toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs

Tech's toxic political culture: The stealth libertarianism of Silicon Valley bigwigs
Ayn Rand, Marc Andreessen, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Credit: AP/Reuters/Fred Prouser/Salon)

Marc Andreessen is a major architect of our current technologically mediated reality. As the leader of the team that created the Mosaic Web browser in the early ’90s and as co-founder of Netscape, Andreessen, possibly more than any single other person, helped make the Internet accessible to the masses.

In his second act as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Andreessen has hardly slackened the pace. The portfolio of companies with investments from his VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is a roll-call for tech “disruption.” (Included on the list: Airbnb, Lyft, Box, Oculus VR, Imgur, Pinterest, RapGenius, Skype and, of course, Twitter and Facebook.) Social media, the “sharing” economy, Bitcoin — Andreessen’s dollars are fueling all of it.

So when the man tweets, people listen.

And, good grief, right now the man is tweeting. Since Jan. 1, when Andreessen decided to aggressively reengage with Twitter after staying mostly silent for years, @pmarca has been pumping out so many tweets that one wonders how he finds time to attend to his normal business.

On June 1, Andreessen took his game to a new level. In what seems to be a major bid to establish himself as Silicon Valley’s premier public intellectual, Andreessen has deployed Twitter to deliver a unified theory of tech utopia.

In seven different multi-part tweet streams, adding up to a total of almost 100 tweets, Andreessen argues that we shouldn’t bother our heads about the prospect that robots will steal all our jobs.  Technological innovation will end poverty, solve bottlenecks in education and healthcare, and usher in an era of ubiquitous affluence in which all our basic needs are taken care of. We will occupy our time engaged in the creative pursuits of our heart’s desire.

So how do we get there? Easy! All we have to do is just get out of Silicon Valley’s way. (Andreessen is never specific about exactly what he means by this, but it’s easy to guess: Don’t burden tech’s disruptive firms with the safety, health and insurance regulations that the old economy must abide by.)

Oh, and one other little thing: Make sure that we have a social welfare safety net robust enough to take care of the people who fall though the cracks (or are eaten by robots).

The full collection of tweets marks an impressive achievement — a manifesto, you might even call it, although Andreessen has been quick to distinguish his techno-capitalist-created utopia from any kind of Marxist paradise. But there’s a hole in his argument big enough to steer a $500 million round of Series A financing right through. Getting out of the way of Silicon Valley and ensuring a strong safety net add up to a political paradox. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t want to pay for the safety net.

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