Predicting when bubbles will burst is a foolish exercise. I began beating the drum, for example, in an article last year about Arista Networks, which offered me shares in its upcoming IPO after I’d written about the company. Such craven behavior, I reasoned, was a sure sign that things had gotten out of hand. As we know, Fortune’s unicorn list of private companies worth $1 billion or more has only grown since then; Arista’s (ANET) stock nearly doubled from its listing price.
New signs of a bubble, qualitative and quantitative, abound. Public-market volatility and interest rate fears are legitimate red flags for the tech economy. Scarcer and more expensive capital will hurt swaggering tech companies more than their inexperienced leaders realize. The swagger itself is an underappreciated warning sign. To catch the vibe, I highly recommend Nick Bilton’s bubble feature in Vanity Fair. Insiders sniff that Bilton offers nothing new. True. Ignore his connect-the-dot exercise at your peril.
Here’s a subtler sign of the top. Last week the government authority building a massive, traffic-clogging transportation project in downtown San Francisco cancelled a land auction 18 hours before its start. Key bidders said they were too spooked by markets to participate, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The parcel is question can handle a 750-foot tower and was expected to fetch as much as $200 million.
Subtler still are the subjective signs of a top. An Australian company called Zeetings emailed recently to set up a meeting with its visiting CEO. Zeetings, I was told, is a free tool that is “changing the presentation game” by letting users spice up their PowerPoint slides. I replied by asking how the fledgling company, which brags that eBay has been using its product, makes money. No one responded. Whether or not Zeetings makes it, there are hundreds of companies like it that soon won’t exist.
The hubris factor is another obvious tell. When venture capitalists, a confident lot, become so full of themselves that they publish essays about their life goals upon turning 39 that end with the rallying cry that “its [sic] time to really start fucking some shit up …”, well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
For a more optimistic take on bubbles, watch this Fortune video: