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This Is Not Our Bubble

Back in early October I posted about coming economic storms and what entrepreneurs could do to prepare. Given recent news, it is now almost certain that we are in recession. The bad news from financial institutions and credit markets is like a steady drumbeat, so it would be easy to write about “battening down the hatches” or even jumping for the lifeboats.

Far from it. These are great times for entrepreneurs. Really. This is not our bubble. We had our bubble and it burst in March 2000.

The fallout from that – the technology nuclear winter – was as ugly as it gets in business. We won’t get another bubble inflating in our business (technology/media start-ups) until all of us who had any involvement have retired. We will get bubbles in other places, but they don’t recur in the same place within a generation or longer. Tulips, anybody wanna buy some tulips?

This is a credit bubble, pure and simple. That has far, far bigger implications for the economy than a stock bubble. So the recession is real. It is only a question of how long and how deep and my guess would be on the side of long and deep.

But equity valuations are fine. A very conservative investor friend who manages money on an asset allocation basis – choosing between bonds and equities – is pushing into equities. There are of course pockets of excess – please don’t tell me all the stocks you see that are overvalued, I know thats true – but broad markets are in reasonable value shape.

Nor are VCs going hog wild; sadly, because those days were fun 🙂 Sure there is a bit too much money at work, but that’s good. VCs sure as hell remember the bubble and the burst. It is their “cousins”, the Private Equity (PE) guys, who’ve just had their bubble – fueled by the credit markets. But while VC and PE may sound the same to an entrepreneur – hey they are all money guys right? – at a more fundamental level they are on opposite sides of what is a very big battle.

The battle is around something which few people like to talk about in start-up circles. It is the big unmentionable, like sex for Victorians. The unmentionable is zero sum game. Yes, in an economy growing at 3% if we are lucky and zero or less if we are not, the dollars you earn come from another business. Economists call it “creative destruction”. People who work at newspapers call it a “disaster”. Entrepreneurs coming in like barbarians at the gate call it “window of opportunity”. Established companies and – this is the point – their PE backers, call it a possible negative externality which might impact Q4 earnings to the extent that they go near their debt covenant ratios. Or in other words, “I missed that barbarian with my boiling oil and he is now over the wall and wreaking havoc and oh my god there are so many of them….”

The first wave of barbarians were bad enough. They at least talked the same language of margins and profits. It is firms such as Craigslist and Plenty of Fish that really worry the bejesus out of people, as they are happy to take massive volume at ridiculous prices; which in a digital world where additional users are virtually zero cost and all the rewards go to the firm that gets the network effect, is totally sensible, rational economic behavior. More rational than chanting phrases learned in MBA classes like a mantra to ward off evil spirits.

But we are in recession, and that does change the game for entrepreneurs. In particular it changes the game for entrepreneurs banking on consumer advertising dollars. Advertising gets cut in a recession. Always has in the past and will do so now. There is a strong belief in start-up circles that the shift from traditional media to online is such a huge shift that it opens up an opportunity that is “big enough to drive a truck through”. Yes we are still in the relatively early days of this massive shift. But recessions lead to irrational behavior as much as bubbles and that can mean some short term pain.

More importantly, recessions have a way of changing behavior that lasts into the recovery and next boom. From that change of behavior, new companies and new industries are born. Pay Per Click, a more cost effective form of advertising, and offshore outsourcing, a way to cut legacy costs, both got their momentum going in the last recession.

Online CPM is like traditional media advertising. It is a traditional media model grafted onto online services. Which is like the talking heads in the early days of TV mimicing Radio. CPM is “faith based advertising”, you cannot measure the return. We will always have CPM but the prices will crash. Facebook ads going for 12.5c per CPM is one straw in this wind. Those low prices are OK when it costs so little to acquire the eyeballs, so these low prices are sustainable and may become the “new normal”.

Think about that. Right now there are new companies and new models that are below the radar screen that will emerge as major powerhouses in a few years and they will be radically different from what’s out there today. Thats kinda cool. Kinda scary too.

In a recession, the winners are able to make one of these two propositions:

  1. I will get you new revenue for a variable cost that is lower than your current cost of revenue acquisition. Note, that does not mean invest a lot of money now in the belief that new revenue comes in. It means, your current cost of revenue is 30%, I will deliver you that revenue for 25%. Guaranteed, no revenue = no fee to us.
  2. I will cut your costs now. Not, in 12 months, maybe, if it all works out. I will cut it now, this month, no investment needed. We are talking hard costs, external vendor costs, not fire a bunch of people to get the return; the latter is also popular in a recession but takes longer and is more painful and may also harm the business, who knows when it is muscles not fat that is being cut. But if you are replacing another vendor it is simple; “they cost you $100,000 per month, we cost $80,000 per month and I can prove that we are at least as good”.

Those are not easy things to deliver on, but if you can deliver on them you will win. If your start-up proposition is marginal, burning cash and the VCs are not calling, well it could get a bit messy. But if you have one of those propositions you can build a phenomenal business in a recession and there plenty of VCs willing to bankroll you to get there – if thats what you need.

Who do you see out there who can deliver what customers want in a recession?

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