TECH INVESTOR: We're in a huge bubble -- but it's not what you think

The flaming lips bubble band concertEthan Miller/Getty Images‘I’m not in a bubble! YOU’RE in a bubble!’

What links Walmart’s $3 billion purchase of, Unilever buying up Dollar Shave Club ($1 billion), and GM buying Cruise for $1 billion?

They’re all examples of smaller startups being acquired by dominant incumbent rivals — and according to Dave McClure, a venture capitalist at investment firm and startup accelerator 500 Startups, they’re indicative of a bubble, but not where most people think.

One of the tech sector’s favourite topics of discussion is bubbles: Is the industry in one? And what happens when it pops? With huge volumes of venture capital sloshing around, and the increasing proliferation of billion-dollar-plus startups (known as “unicorns”), plenty of people think there’s a tech bubble.

And amid a decline in VC funding, and valuation write-downs of some of Silicon Valley’s darlings (including Snapchat), we may already be in a contraction, the argument goes.

But McClure takes the opposite approach. “Most unicorns and many tech IPOs are perhaps overvalued, but a few of them are actually UNDER-valued as well,” he argues in a new blogpost. The investor points to Facebook as an example of how tech company valuations can skyrocket post-valuation — and makes the case that if anyone is in a bubble, it’s the traditional incumbent companies, ripe for disruption.

Of course, Dave McClure works in the venture capital business, so it’s no surprise that he’s trying to talk down the idea that he might be contributing to an unsustainable bubble. He has his livelihood, and the valuations of his investments to think about.

With that in mind, it’s an interesting argument, not only for its own merits — but also because of what it tells you about the vision of boundless meritocratic “disruption” that startup investors are trying to sell to the world.

Jamae Hallberg and her Shih Tsu Femma pose as unicorns at the Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade on October 20, 2012 in New York City. Hundreds of dog owners festooned their pets for the annual event, the largest of its kind in the United States. (Photo by)John Moore/Getty ImagesIs that unicorn a dog in disguise?

McClure asserts: “The REAL bubble is in far-too-generous P/E multiples and valuations of global public companies, whose business models are being obliterated by startups and improved by orders of magnitude.”

As a result, he argues, we should expect to see plenty more acquisitions like Walmart’s purchase of, as the incumbents wake up to the threat that smaller startups are posing, and attempt to “hedge their own public valuations by buying the very same unicorns that keep them awake at night.”

He goes on (emphasis ours):

“Of course, this might be risky, but it’s no more risky than not doing anything and expecting to keep your CEO job intact and the stock price rising. Hedging your public company stock by buying potentially disruptive unicorns for only 5 — 10% of your market cap may be one of the simplest ways to defuse the startup threat and keep on trucking… this is the Unicorn Hedge.

“No surprise, most of the now-public tech giants are investing in and buying OTHER tech startups and unicorns to stay on top of their game. Microsoft bought LinkedIn and Skype. Google bought YouTube and Android. Facebook bought WhatsApp and Instagram. In fact in the past five years ALL of the top 5 highest-value public companies are tech companies. So what do you think is more overvalued? The average unicorn or tech IPO? Or the average non-tech public company that hasn’t innovated in over a decade?”

These allegedly non-innovative public companies, McClure argues, are ripe to come crashing down:

“The REAL twist is Wall Street finance getting disrupted by Silicon Valley tech (and, by NYC and LA tech too). The REAL twist is the S&P 500 not realising their avg P/E multiple should be ~5 — 10 instead of ~15 — 25. The REAL twist is big oil & gas and automotive companies not realising their market caps aren’t just overvalued, but that in 10 — 20 years THEY WILL GO TO ZERO as electric power and autonomous vehicles become the norm. The REAL twist is thousands of public companies haemorrhaging billions in losses and value over the next ten years, like gigantic, collapsing Manhattan skyscrapers in slow motion… except that it might not be that slow.”

In short: It’s the traditional billion-dollar companies that are overvalued — not the startups that are planning to eat their dinner.

It’s certainly true that some big incumbent companies are going to be toppled by the next generation of entrepreneurs. But even the most ardent bubble theory advocates wouldn’t disagree with that. It’s the extravagant spending in some corners of startup culture, and the allure of meteoric growth and hyperbolic investor promises that is in question.

And as McClure points out, these incumbents are more aware of — and taking steps to counteract — the threat posed by startups than ever before.

Meanwhile, when multi-billion dollar startups can blow through hundreds of millions of investor dollars before imploding — or hire hundreds of employees and then close without ever launching a proper product — it gets harder and harder to believe that the tech sector isn’t at least a little over-inflated.

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