Brad Feld has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for over twenty years. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is also a co-founder of TechStars.
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” – Macbeth
Every time I hear the word “bubble” I think of that quote from Macbeth. I also think of Tulip Mania and the South Sea Company which purportedly was the source of the concept of an economic bubble. And then I remember Charles Mackay’s classic book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds.”
When I returned last weekend from a week off the grid I encountered the word “bubble” over and over again when referring to the tech industry. A variety of people were using it to describe the current situation. This has been going on for at least a quarter or two, but the velocity of it seems to have picked up with a wave of high priced financings along with large financings for nascent companies. While plenty of tech bloggers were tossing around the word “bubble,” I also noticed it among the mainstream media. But more interestingly I saw it in my twitter feed from some entrepreneurs and VCs who I respect a lot. So I spent some time on my run yesterday rolling the idea of a bubble around in my head.
In the tech industry, the great Internet bubble inflated between 1999 and 2000 and deflated (or popped) in 2001. I remember it well as 2001 was easily the most challenging year of my business life. I made a lot of mistakes in 1999 and 2000 that I’ve hopefully learned from (I believe I have) and took on a lot of challenging things between 2001 and 2005 which laid the groundwork for the business context that I find myself in today. So, in hindsight, the great Internet bubble of 2001 was very powerful and useful to me, even though it was very painful.
I refuse to make predictions as the only thing I know with certainty is that some day I will be dead. I view predictions as irrelevant in the context of what I am working on and trying to accomplish. Sure – I pay attention to what is going on around me, have hypotheses about what’s going to happen, and adjust my behavior accordingly. But I think making predictions with certainty such as “we are in a bubble” are useless, especially in the absence of recommendations about what to do to either defend against or take advantage of the situation.
I find this discussion about bubbles especially bizarre and entertaining against the backdrop of the downward economic cycle of the past few years. In 2008, everyone in business and politics was consumed with the “global economic crisis.” However, entrepreneurs just put their heads down and continued to accelerate the current web revolution which started around 2004 with “Web 2.0” being articulated by Tim O’Reilly. Today, there is once again enormous focus on entrepreneurship as the salvation for many things, with the naysayers starting to say “but it’s a bubble” or some variant.
If you recognize that we are in a strong, positive, upward segment of the current “tech company creation cycle”, that’s more than enough. You should accept that we’ll be back in a downward part of the cycle at some point, but that we don’t know if it’ll be in a week, month, year, or decade. We also won’t know the slope of the curve although if you are a hedge fund trader you probably think you can calculate the derivative of some equation about the future that will tell you what to buy and sell. Whatever – have fun and good luck.
If you are an entrepreneur, you can build a significant, powerful, sustainable business taking advantage of market expansion during the up cycle and consolidating your position during the down cycle. Don’t get distracted by speculating about “bubbles” other than the ones in your bathtub. Instead, spend your energy creating amazing products, thrilling your customers, building an awesome organization, and living your life. Always remember that one day you too will be dead.