A reporter asked me some thought provoking questions about the state of the world and whether Silicon Valley will play a large role in recovery and building new companies and employing tons of now-out-of-work people. I gave a rambling reply which also caused me to think deeper about how things are and my dissatisfaction with many things in the past, which I hope will be fixed. Since it was an interesting thought exercise for me, I thought I'd share it with you (with a bit more embellishment):
3% is the new 20%
Greed has played a large role in how broken the system is. I now say 3% growth is the new 20%, which means that expectations have been totally out of whack in the past. When I was at Yahoo, it was ridiculous to have investors continually push for 20% growth quarter over quarter, year over year. It's unsustainable. and when Yahoo fails at this, or any company for that matter, the investors knock the stock down. When the stock goes down, the investors get in an uproar and scream bloody murder, try to get rid of the current management team, cause a huge ruckus which is hugely distracting and doesn't enable a company to respond in the way that is best, which sometimes takes time - More time than investors are willing to give. The short term mindset of investors which drives the short term mindset of companies doesn't let any company plan effectively for the long term, but only for next quarter's earnings call.
Stock market driven by emotion
The whole stock market is driven by emotion which is really bad in general. Whatever happened to what I learned about stock investing way back, when the stock price was a reflection of the actual value of the assets a company had, not what emotion drives what we think it should be?
Is incremental innovation enough?
Lots of innovation is definitely in the form of incremental innovation but that is true in more established technologies. We see this in bulk on the internet, but on the other hand, we still see a lot of truly weird new stuff that nobody is working on before. I think a lot of people think they can merely do something better and that is enough to get to a good place, or become number one. the main problem is that users have services overload; ex. how many social networks do we really need?
This is a big problem for us internet startup investors. We see a lot of me-too products and while something may be truly better, there are so many factors out there that inhibit the establishment and growth of a me-too product, even though it's better. Users have lots of inertia in products they know; they learn, get used to them, then are unwilling to switch. Users also can't determine what is truly better or not - when two things work in the same industry or product area, users aren't going to spend time to dig into every new product's details to figure out which is better; they don't have time. In the past, large marketing campaigns to drive awareness could get a new entrant a place in the marketplace, but "firehoses of users" aren't easy to find or establish to get enough trial such that natural growth of users starts to happen.
Where's the next big industry creation going to happen?
If i were a betting man, I would say cleantech is the next big area for large scale innovation that creates big companies and factories, that employ a wide variety of skills and skill levels - it's an area that will require lots of capital to start and get going.
Internet tech only employs a certain type and set of skills - as a veteran of the internet and investor in the area, I still think there will be lots of innovation there, but it will come more slowly and the big returns will become more rare, but lots of smaller companies will pop up. It's still an interesting area and think it will be for some time. Capital requirements are virtually nil for internet startups now.
Statistics says that Silicon Valley can still drive a large portion of company creation and thus, help in the recovery
I'm biased. I live in the Silicon Valley and in living there, versus visiting elsewhere, I think that innovation and new business creation still happens a great deal in the valley. Why:
1. Even in the economic downturn where we'll see many of the venture funds die, the greatest concentration will still be in the bay area. No other region in the US can claim the sheer number of funds and greatest concentration of angel investors too.
2. The economic downturn will kill off many dumb ideas and leave the strongest to survive. This puts back a constraint on startups which had gone missing in the boom years: gotta make a great business that can make money. duh!
3. Still people flock to silicon valley to start businesses. This inertia isn't going to go away instantly. It would require many years of failure to reset this in peoples' minds that Silicon Valley isn't the right place to be.
4. Being in the Valley means you are surrounded by tons of other like-minded startup people. It would be hard to find some other place like this, except for perhaps NYC or maybe Boston (even those two would still be dwarfed by the sheer number of people in Silicon Valley). Everywhere else has a much much less dense concentration of people who can help you and who have done it before.
5. I personally still look at deals and those that kind of are sub-standard, I tell them (as does everyone else) to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea that can make money. This kind of feedback is just one more iterative step in getting people to the right place.
6. So eventually some great ideas will make it through the filter, but you have to wait for time and effort to pay off. Statistics says that the greater number you have to play with, the higher the chance you'll get something new and big. With the sheer volume of stuff that goes on in Silicon Valley, that says to me statistically that you'll get a next big idea faster than in any other place in the country.
The next big breakthrough employing 1000s of people won't happen overnight
I doubt that any idea could move that fast and with the economy so down, it will be even harder to see a company grow to such size in those conditions, even those with some momentum. So in that sense, it may be that the government's massive infrastructure projects may be the ones that will employ a lot of people in the short term while the other companies fight off their investors by laying off people just so they can get their revenue numbers looking better.
What if we didn't layoff anyone and just waited it out?
What if companies didn't sucumb to the pressure - what if they kept paying people but were OK with zero profit? We all know we'll pull out of this downturn at some point - but we have to make a whole bunch of people suffer by laying them off just so a company can look good to investors. Again, the short term focus will weaken companies and place a lot of good, experienced workers out of work. OK OK I'm not totally correct because maybe some companies will make less than their expenses so they will no longer be break even, so maybe they should cut dumb projects and fat off their staff. On the other hand, we've seen time and time again where companies would layoff people in downturns, and then just re-hire them later during good times. We don't need them - we DO need them - this see-sawing back and forth costs people in time, money, and effort.
What if we just didn't fire them, made less or zero money, and just waited it out since we would have hired them back anyways?
Another thing I learned along the way: being loyal to a company is a thing of the past. A company exists for the survival of itself; if that means that people should be let go, it will do so in order to survive. It doesn't care about the people, even though it should. As long as the people help a company survive, it will retain those people. Anybody who doesn't contribute to its survival get cut. I don't see people having any say or power in this decision. Thus, we have to prepare and take care of ourselves in case it happens.
People are resilient, and will drive new business creation
In a downturn, people tend to be resilient. I read somewhere that during these times, people start their own businesses because they've been laid off, sulk for a while, then pick themselves up and go and start new sustainable businesses because now they are free from the corporate mess to do so, whereas they may not have felt that freedom before....?
Entrepreneurism is under attack
I agree generally with this statement. I think the capital mkts are closed, but only for a while. The evidence is that the recovery steps are taking hold but it will still be a few months before things are more back to normal. There will be a shake out in the venture industry. IPOs will still be tough until SAOX gets fixed, which I heard people are working on.
Education could use some serious improvement in the US. But still many kids come out of college wanting to do a startup instead of taking a corporate job. so while we essentially closed the doors to international talent, I think that there is plenty of talent ready and willing to go with just a little experienced handholding.
Basic research is declining I hear. People aren't encouraged to take science; they want to make the quick buck so they become stock traders. So less ideas come out that way, but still there are many untapped. I met a guy who had a line to the DARPA funded projects in universities. He raised a small fund to help these projects become real businesses. Real scary star wars stuff he was telling me about. Pretty cool.
The search for exits is a problem for the whole venture industry. Tt does foster this attitude of building a business for the exit and not for sustainability. This needs some re-thinking. I admit I even suffer from exit-itis as an angel investor. But we also need to figure out how investors can profit from supporting a company and being able to cash out their investment.
Silicon Valley downturn not as severe as other parts of the country..sort of
Still lots of wealthy people running around, although a lot of Valley companies laying off 1000s of people. And I think parts of the Valley are experiencing downturns but not all, as evidenced by housing prices, etc. Still, it's probably not as bad as other parts of the country. But as for contributing to the entire country's recovery, I think you'd have to make people move to the Bay area to look for jobs, or have those companies expand out to other states to get cheaper labor. One problem is finding skilled workers in the areas that high technology requires in other states. Sometimes, you just can't find those people there, or get people to move there because the quality of life is not what they want (who doesn't want to live in California haha?).
I read an article in Venture Hacks about American Apparel. This is the innovation that is required in the US; to stop throwing jobs out of the country and figure out how to do things here, so that we can employ Americans and pay them what we need to pay, but also do it in a cost effective manner to be competitive.
California is well poised to recover
I think California has a great chance to recover by itself: entertainment industry in southern California, tech and other stuff in northern California. As in other years, I think there will yet again be a migration to California to look for fortune, as companies get created and are looking for skilled people, and that will draw skilled people from states where jobs are lost.
Do you agree or disagree?