The Bubble Machine

If you have at least some sort of marginal interest in what is going on in 2011 with respect to start ups, you can’t help to have read or heard about the new “bubble” controversy.

Valuations and deal sizes for “hot start ups” are reaching lofty heights.

Just off the press is an article from Dan Primack, a journalist for Fortune magazine. In his article titled, “Venture capital shows sign of bubble” he writes the following:

Venture capitalists invested $5.87 billion in 736 U.S.-based companies during the first quarter of 2011, according to a new MoneyTree Report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the National Venture Capital Association and Thomson Reuters. That works out to $7.98 million per deal, which is 18% larger than the average deal size during the prior quarter. It also is 21.6% higher than the average deal size in Q1 2010, and a whopping 47% larger than the average deal size in Q1 2009. Moreover, the average early-stage, expansion-stage and later-stage deal was larger in Q1 2011 than was the comparable deal in 2010. That’s important, because it indicates that this isn’t just reflective of VCs putting more of their eggs into less-risky, later-stage deals.

He goes on to cite the following statistics:

Overall, software companies continued to lead all industry sectors with $1.1 billion raised for 187 companies last quarter. This was followed by industrial/energy with $1.03 billion for 75 companies and biotech with $784 million for 85 companies. The quarter’s largest deal was a $201 million round for BrightSource Energy, an Oakland, Calif.-based thermal power plant developer, that raised $201 million. The rest of the top five was Plastic Logic ($200 million), Fisker Automotive ($111 million), Tabula ($108 million) and SoloPower ($78 million). Per usual, Silicon Valley led the nation with $2.49 billion invested in 212 companies. New England placed second with $639 million for 90 companies, and New York Metro snared $580 million for 69 companies.

So, the question currently being bandied about the proverbial watercooler is are we or are we not in a bubble? If we are in a bubble, are we in 1998 or 2000 (referring to the relative beginning and end of the last formally recognized bubble) and if we are in a bubble will this one end like the last one or will the ending be somehow different this time.

From my own perspective at InterWest, we are seeing more deals than ever in 2011. The weeks are literally jammed with back to back meetings with great entrepreneurs with great ideas. And, the deals that are getting done, for companies in a hot sector (e.g. consumer internet) and/or with a proven team are being fought for and won at valuations that may be hard for the entrepreneurs to live up to — and for the venture firms to generate a great return if anything goes wrong and the company takes longer and more capital to reach its goals.

That said, one observation made by Keval Desai, an early member of Google and VP at Digg, is that:

  •  There are 7B people on the planet.
  • 2/3rds of them don’t have Internet yet
  • 95% without smartphones
  • Facebook only has 10% share
  • There is an entire new generation that is using mobile tablets, as infants, that will learn, socialize and play completely differently than anyone born prior to them.

In addition, the rapid rise of the mobile/cloud computing market is also driving a complete transformation and overhaul of back end systems thereby creating opportunity throughout the technology markets.

Given all this, it could be entirely possible that we see many years of growth in many, many different technology areas without the big bubble pop we saw last time. Companies started today that see early traction and growth - and revenue – have a good shot at not suffering the fate of the Bubble 1.0 companies like “pets.com” but instead could survive to become the new large incumbents that help to reshape the world in which we work and play.

Of course, this doesn’t factor in exogenous issues such as instability in the Middle East, natural disasters, etc. which could act as a countervailing dampener.

So, while hot start up valuations may appear to be “bubbly”, we may look back and feel they were actually fairly valued. The next few years should be pretty interesting…but hopefully “interesting” in a good way.