Suddenly, they're everywhere: "Unicorns," technology startups valued at more than $1 billion. How did these companies proliferate so quickly, and what does the flood of investments in these seemingly mythical businesses mean? And the obvious question: is it a sign of another bubble?
We asked the CEOs of these unicorns that very question. Most of them say no—which is unsurprising—but some say yes, and all of them cite different reasoning.
Tomer Bar-Zeev, IronSource
"I don’t think we’re in a tech bubble because I don’t think technology is something that can be separated into one discrete aspect of our lives anymore. Nor are the really successful tech companies confining themselves to one market, but expanding internationally as quickly and as aggressively as possible. If we’re in a tech bubble, it’s a global one. We’re not just talking about the technology that consumers are using, but the entire infrastructure of companies and services that exist to help those technology businesses succeed. The growth potential for tech businesses is theoretically limitless."
Andrew Thompson, CEO, Proteus
"Technology valuations will vary around a trend line. Folks may debate where we are today. But the trend is not a bubble. Billions of people globally are entering the middle class. These new consumers all have access to mobile technology. One of the biggest changes in consumer behavior in 100 years is upon us: a shift from models that were about buildings, people and products—go to a book store, see a clerk, buy a book)—to models that are about mobile devices, software and services: go to a Kindle, use software, download the content. If you combine the enormous growth in the global market place with a ubiquitous new distribution platform that consumers love, and highly efficient new business models where you only pay for value delivered, then you have the basis for massive opportunities to create wealth."
Niklas Ostberg, CEO, Delivery Hero
"Yes and no. Governments have been printing money for a long time and this has also found its way down to startups. Those companies relaying on capital directly or indirectly could get it trouble if capital market dries up. At the same time, I believe companies like our own would rather see a long-term benefit from this as it would drive customer acquisition cost down."
Naveen Tewari, CEO, InMobi
"The VC scene in the Valley and in India is definitely red-hot and that is great news for all entrepreneurs. Companies today are able to provide better products and services since there is better access to data, mobility, and the virality of social platforms. Several of the businesses getting invested in, acquired, or listing are based on exactly such fundamentals. Therefore I don't believe there is over-valuation. However, previous bubbles have shown us that only the businesses that stay most relevant to consumers survive. Other 'me too' businesses never last beyond the boom."
Kenneth Lin, CEO, Credit Karma
"Having been part of a company that was in the last tech bubble, I don’t think we’re in one now. Certain sectors are hotter than others, but that is true in any economic environment. Most importantly, quite a bit has changed. While some high-valuation companies still aren’t profitable, there is a strong focus on revenues and business models. That wasn’t the case in the late '90s."
Jyoti Bansal, CEO, AppDynamics
"We are not in a bubble, especially on the enterprise technology side. We’re going through a massive shift in enterprise IT spending—a $2.76 trillion dollars marketplace—because of disruptive changes driven by the cloud, mobile, the Internet of things, and the unprecedented connectivity that is changing the way we all live and work. We’re building good, strong businesses that are evolving at a very fast pace to solve business-critical problems — problems that may not have even been on our radar screens six or seven years ago, before this transformation that we’re living in right now."
Dev Ittycheria, CEO, MongoDB
"Having lived through the last bubble, I think it’s very different. From the outside looking in, some valuations are just crazy, but this is very different than the late '90s where people were getting obscene valuations based on not even financial metrics but traffic and other non-financial activity."
Kunal Bahl, CEO, Snapdeal
"The tech industry hasn’t been around long enough to really define what bubbles look like. We had one bubble that burst in 1999 and 2000, which was specific to tech. The current exuberance in financing of tech companies has two causes. First, some companies are solving big problems using technology at a mega scale, and hence impacting the lives of millions of people. Second, investors are finding it hard to determine the true value of some of these businesses because there are limited precedents or, often, no revenue. Hence, prices of deals get set by looking left or right at the next guy’s transaction, not because of a more absolute, objective evaluation."
Adam Goldenberg, co-CEO, JustFab
"A tech bubble implies that every tech company is overvalued, and there is no basis for that. I consider this a transformational moment in time. Every several decades there are changes in invention or consumer behavior that will transform an entire industry. In a decade VHS and movie rentals disappeared and Netflix took over. Ten years ago the smart phone didn’t exist—now mobile makes up more than 40% of web traffic. Investors are placing bets that some of these channels will transform their respective industry."
Tom Reilly, CEO, Cloudera
"I do not believe that we’re in a tech bubble. I am sure that there are prominent companies that will prove to be overvalued but this grouping as a whole does not represent a bubble to me... In part, we are just seeing the convergence of some pretty amazing trends: cloud, big data, interconnectedness, mobile and social."
Dan Wagner, CEO, Powa
"No. I think investors are much more sophisticated now about the opportunity that Internet-based products and services can deliver. You create an app, and if it’s a hit, people can download it and share it, tens of millions of consumers can engage with it right away. And that was never possible before. It can all happen in a matter of days. We’ve seen it with things like Snapchat—they’ve just had the most extraordinary rise in speed of adoption. People can reach other people, in volume, in an instant, and that’s the difference from before. I don’t think the businesses that are getting these valuations are phantom businesses, whereas in the dotcom bubble of 15 years ago, it was very different because investors didn’t understand which would be the winner and which wasn’t. Because they didn’t use the technology. Now we all use it and understand it."
Stewart Butterfield, CEO, Slack
"I’m one of those people who thinks the other shoe has yet to drop from 2008. I like to be prudent about raising money when the market conditions [suggest it’s a good time]. I’m 41. I was born during stagflation. I graduated high school into the slacker generation. I lost a shitload of money in 2008, and I saw the fundraising environment tighten up. I’m aware of the cycle. It's difficult to call a top but its pretty obvious we’re far from the bottom. There will be a period in the future where money will be much harder [to raise]. It could be next week."