Wednesday, February 26, 2014

If Facebook kills entrepreneurship, what’s next?

Cross-posted from Engineering Entrepreneurship.

The $19b that Facebook paid to buy WhatsApp is shaking up Silicon Valley, as other Internet startups try to figure out how they can get their own inflated multiple.

But for the rest of the world of tech entrepreneurship — such as life sciences — it could further starve the flow of investment capital they need to get off the ground.

Entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank tweeted Monday

steve blank ‏@sgblank Feb 24
Why Facebook is killing Silicon Valley … more relevant today
The earlier article talked about his work teaching entrepreneurship for science-based startups:
The irony is that as good as some of these nascent startups are in material science, sensors, robotics, medical devices, life sciences, etc., more and more frequently VCs whose firms would have looked at these deals or invested in these sectors, are now only interested in whether it runs on a smart phone or tablet. And who can blame them.

Facebook and Social Media
Facebook has adroitly capitalized on market forces on a scale never seen in the history of commerce. For the first time, startups can today think about a Total Available Market in the billions of users (smart phones, tablets, PC’s, etc.) and aim for hundreds of millions of customers. Second, social needs previously done face-to-face, (friends, entertainment, communication, dating, gambling, etc.) are now moving to a computing device. And those customers may be using their devices/apps continuously. This intersection of a customer base of billions of people with applications that are used/needed 24/7 never existed before.

The potential revenue and profits from these users (or advertisers who want to reach them) and the speed of scale of the winning companies can be breathtaking. The Facebook IPO has reinforced the new calculus for investors. In the past, if you were a great VC, you could make $100 million on an investment in 5-7 years. Today, social media startups can return 100’s of millions or even billions in less than 3 years. …

If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division. As investors funding clean tech watch the Chinese dump cheap solar cells in the U.S. and put U.S. startups out of business, do you think they’re going to continue to fund solar? And as Clean Tech VC’s have painfully learned, trying to scale Clean Tech past demonstration plants to industrial scale takes capital and time past the resources of venture capital. A new car company? It takes at least a decade and needs at least a billion dollars. Compared to IOS/Android apps, all that other stuff is hard and the returns take forever.
Two years ago — ironically a few weeks before Blank’s blog posting — I started writing my own posting along these same lines. What I wrote (but never posted):
Did software ruin entrepreneurship?
On Friday, I sat between two entrepreneurs at an office party for my old job. One of the entrepreneurs is in clean tech (hardware) while the other is in IT (software). One is in his 30s and one is in his 50s.

The hardware guy was talking about his challenges raising funds. One VC told him (I'm paraphrasing): “I gave Instagram $5 million and got back $200 million. Why should I give you money?” [after their $1 billion acquisition by Facebook].
The remainder of my (incipient) argument was that software promises abnormally low cap short returns, and the amount of money needed to fund a software company is getting smaller by the week, as VC Mark Suster wrote back in 2011.

How will this play out? I see at least four possibilities:
  1. During the dot-bomb (dot-con) era we had too much money chasing too few good ideas, and what resulted was what economists call excess entry. Eventually the bubble burst — and it could again.
  2. Another possibility is that these other ideas don’t get funded. There are business models that made sense in the 1890s or 1950s that no longer make sense — such as ones that are labor intensive or based on craft work — and new businesses here don’t get launched.
  3. Blank points to the genius philosopher-king model — where a really rich guy (it’s almost always a guy) puts his money where is mouth is (again, almost always a big mouth). In a previous century it was Howard Hughes or Richard Branson, while today Blank points to Elon Musk.
  4. The final possibility is that politicians play kingmaker, not with their own money but with Other People’s Money, i.e. yours and mine. (They will be egged on by a incantations of “market failure” of a few economists.) While this may make sense for public goods such as public health, we saw how such large scale private intervention worked with firms like Solyndra.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive. Musk depends on public subsidies to support the business models of Tesla and SolarCity, although — unlike Fisker and Solyndra — he’s at least offering something people want to buy. SpaceX depends on public procurement, but I believe his announced plans that this is just a bootstrap to get the business off the group (so to speak).

Is there a happy ending? Like Blank, I think the Facebook effect is going to get worse before it gets better.

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