March 4, 2021

In Silicon Valley, the Night Is Still Young


LET the rest of the country worry about a double-dip recession. Tech land, stretching from San Jose to San Francisco, is in a time warp, and times here are still flush.

Even now, technology types in their 20s and 30s are dropping a million-plus each on modest ranch houses in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley and Victorian duplexes in San Francisco, and home prices in some parts have jumped nearly 50 percent in the last six months.

Jobs — good, six-figure jobs, with perks like free haircuts and lessons on how to create the next start-up company — are here for the taking, at least for software engineers.

And for anyone with a decent idea and the drive to start a company, $100,000 to get it off the ground is easy to come by.

Yet, for all the outward optimism, even before the recent gyrations on Wall Street, old fears have been creeping in, nagging memories of the dot-com bust. You can sense it at cocktail parties in Menlo Park, at business conferences in Redwood City, inside the hipper-than-thou offices of young Web companies in San Francisco. Maybe, just maybe, these good times won’t last, and it will all come crashing down again.

“There’s this ’90s hangover people still have,” says Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and tech investor.

Now the worry is that all the turmoil on Wall Street will spread West. Can Silicon Valley really prosper if the general economy tips back into a recession? Can you make a fortune on your I.P.O. if the market is falling? Probably not. But then, no one should work here unless she is prepared to be lucky. Even in worrisome moments, like now, the essential optimism of this place endures.

“There’s a ‘greater-fool theory,’ ” says Lise Buyer, who was a tech stock analyst during the dot-com bubble and is back with a consulting firm, the Class V Group, that advises on initial public offerings. “In Silicon Valley, we are as a species wildly optimistic. But if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have so many entrepreneurs because no one who’s being rational would ever found a company.”

And so start-ups are multiplying. Engineers are deciding that this is the right time to create would-be Groupons or Facebooks — “me-too companies,” valley speak for start-ups that are basically copycats of a winning formula — or yet another local, social mobile app.

Even more than buying a new Prius or jetting off to Cabo for the weekend, the new money set here wants to keep investing — and believing. Backing another start-up is a status symbol, the No. 1 splurge, and it captures both the tech industry’s belief in the future and its fear of missing the next big thing.

 “These are nouveau tech millionaires,” says Adeo Ressi, a coach for entrepreneurs. “It’s not that they don’t see the warning signs. It’s like roulette.”

Even before the fragility of the stock market became apparent, people here had been asking this question: Are we in a new tech bubble?

The optimists — or, some would say, the self-interested who stand to profit from the hype — note that the amounts being invested are nowhere near what they were in 2000, and that the companies this time are generally profitable and mature. The pessimists say yes, a bubble has been inflating, yet even they aren’t fleeing. They just hope to be the smart ones who get lucky and get out before it pops.

A bubble looks just like a boom, says Marc Andreessen, who touched off the first boom when his company, Netscape, went public in 1995. Frank Quattrone, the investment banker who took Netscape and dozens more companies public back then, says that today feels less like the height of the bubble and more like 1995, when tech companies were starting to go public but investors weren’t yet speculative.

Just four short years ago, social media and the iPhone were the hot new things, and money was sloshing around. But when the recession hit in 2008, Silicon Valley froze. Of course, that didn’t last long: by 2010, start-up investing was booming again with money from angel investors playing with their own cash, and this year the I.P.O. markets opened wide to tech companies for the first time since 2007.

Twenty-two tech companies went public in the second quarter alone this year worth $5.5 billion, the highest dollar amount since 2000, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Only six went public in all of 2008.

The valuations of young start-ups, meanwhile, have been defying gravity. Almost 1,000 raised $7.5 billion from venture capitalists in the second quarter, up 19 percent from the first quarter and 61 percent from the same period in 2009.

Miguel Helft contributed reporting.

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