When tech startups are willing to offer almost anyone -- even a journalist -- shares ahead of an I.P.O., a burst isn't terribly far behind.
FORTUNE — I was surprised but not completely flabbergasted by the phone call I received a few weeks ago. A representative of Arista Networks, a networking company I’ve written about recently, phoned to inform me that the company’s chief executive wanted to offer me “friends and family” shares in Arista’s upcoming initial public offering. The offer was explicit, down to the number of shares I’d have the opportunity to purchase at the I.P.O. price. The caller specifically wanted me to understand this offer came directly from CEO Jayshree Ullal.
I declined. I briefly explained that it was impossible for me to accept the gift that was being offered. I also told the (clearly uncomfortable) Arista rep, with whom I’ve dealt for stories for Fortune, that it is a horrible idea to be making these shares available to me. That’s because the company must be similarly propositioning other business partners who, like me, are neither a friend of the company nor family members of its employees.
I never heard another word from the company, which hasn’t yet gone public. (I phoned Wednesday to ask if other journalists had been offered I.P.O. shares; a spokeswoman pointed me to a section of its Form S-1 filing which states that a directed share program exists — and nothing more.) But as I hung up the phone, I realized that I finally had tangible confirmation that we are squarely in the middle of a tech-company bubble.
At the outset of this post, I wrote that I was merely surprised by this slimy suggestion that it’d be okay for a journalist to buy into the I.P.O. of a company he has covered. That’s because, as with so many of the telltale signs of a bubble, I have seen this before. During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early aughts, a colleague of mine at the San Jose Mercury News got into hot water for accepting a “friends and family” share allocation. (She contended that the CEO who offered her the shares was indeed a friend. I had and have no reason to doubt her assertion, which was and is beside the point.) When times are so good that executives are willing to disregard the difference between ethical and unctuous behavior, it’s just one sign that the end, relatively speaking, is near.
It’s not the only sign. Calling a bubble is something of a fool’s errand. Some will rely on comparative valuation analysis to argue that private and public prices for companies are overvalued. That’s fine though imprecise, and almost no help in terms of timing. Others will point to scarcity of real estate, salaries paid for engineers, or the inability to nail down a reservation at a hot San Francisco restaurant. All are good tells of a tech bubble.
Mine, however, revolve around my personal experiences of having lived through the last one. The over-supply of journalism jobs covering the technology industry, for example, is a good indicator. Silicon Valley is the hottest story going these days, and not just because The New Yorker, New York magazine, and The New York Times Magazine have discovered it. New digital publications devoted exclusively to covering technology have sprung up, including PandoDaily, The Information, Re/code and Mashable. That, in turn, has provoked a frenzy of tech-coverage hiring at the likes of The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. All of these reporters are now competing for what a wise editor at one of these publications calls “micro scoops,” stories that are fresh, exclusive, newsy — and most likely irrelevant to all but a group of people you could count on your hands and feet.
At the risk of sounding old, I’ve seen this before, too. Back in the good old days, there were Upside and Red Herring magazines (each notable, like some of today’s new outlets, for being backed by some of the venture capitalists they covered), as well as CNET News, The Industry Standard and robust coverage in the Journal, Times, and — bless its diminished soul — the Mercury News.
The fact that most people reading this post won’t have ever heard of some of these publications should sufficiently explain how it all turned out for them. And some of the news organizations that I listed above that are in existence today won’t survive the demise of the current bubble. Some will, of course. That’s how bubbles work.
I can also gauge the tech bubble by the flow of dinner, drinks and other social invitations in my inbox. The P.T.A. at my daughter’s school is hosting a really neat fundraiser this week in San Francisco, the kind of event that appeals to an audience far beyond our school community. I personally know of no fewer than four other significant functions happening that night elsewhere in San Francisco, and that’s not counting straight-ahead business functions. I could easily dine out four nights a week on the dime of some public relations firm that is hosting a dinner in an attempt to drum up publicity for its client. And I’m not invited to nearly the number of swanky gatherings that my younger, more receptive colleagues are.
This isn’t new, either. During the last bubble — when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities outside of work — I pretty much stopped going to tech-related dinners because they were all the same. The stories were the same. The people were the same. The restaurants? The same.
After the bubble popped, the invitations slowed down dramatically. It was a relief.
I’ll conclude with one caveat and one lesson learned.
The caveat is that I have no idea when this game of musical chairs will end and who will be left standing. I just know that it will end.
The lesson involves how I intend to behave differently this time around. Before, I was so exhausted from the trajectory of it all — first the giddy run-up, then the monotonous exuberance, and finally the depressing collapse — that I had a hard time getting excited about the technology business for a while. For a short period of time, it blinded me to legitimately cool companies that were still grinding away on interesting businesses. I remember visiting Google GOOG , for example, during the depths of the tech downturn and being simultaneously excited by its optimism and unimpressed with its business model. (Oops.)
This time around, I plan to keep my eyes open for the interesting companies and entrepreneurs that are sure to survive this strange period. Because the tech bubble is upon us — and I fully expect it to burst.