Divining the Sheep Entrails of the Tech Bubble

The Ancient Romans used a variety of divination methods to predict the future. My favorite was the way in which they would slaughter a Ram right before a major battle to augur their fortunes.

I was reminded of this the other day when someone asked me how we will be able to tell if the Tech Industry is slowing down. As I have said before (and here), I do not think we are heading for a full-blown “Crash” or “Bursting Bubble”, but I do think we are well on our way towards a slowdown in the business cycle. The hard part of this analysis is that often we can only be certain of the slowdown once it is too late to actually do anything about it.

Donning my analyst galea, I came up with a list of things to keep an eye out for. I recognize that data is NOT the plural of anecdote, these are just a few of the public clues we can add to our judgment calls. Hence roughly the same correlation to reality as sheep entrails.

First, traffic times on Bay Area freeways. The theory being that as the economy slows, fewer people will be commuting, and traffic will improve. I remember the week in 2001 when Yahoo!, eBay and Cisco all put in place big lay-offs, and overnight commute times on the Peninsula fell dramatically. I now drive regularly from San Francisco to the South Bay. I have started tracking drive times for that stretch of the 101. On this limited data set, there are certainly some signs of change. Two hour drives at peak rush hour, are now closer to 90 minutes, leave late enough and traffic hardly slows anywhere.

Second, I think the fallout will be felt indirectly at first. Companies will cut back on small things and individuals will do as well. This will lead to pain at non-tech companies. My current favorite area of investigation is retailers. Every time I am in the grocery store or at a cafe, I ask the cashier if they are getting enough hours. I began doing this last month when I encountered a streak of angry retail staff. My sense is that there are a lot of people working in non-Tech jobs in San Francisco, who have put up the rising costs and ridiculous rents because the job market has been good. Once these people stop getting overtime hours and full 40-hour weeks, I have to think their level of patience decreases. One cafe in San Francisco saw its entire staff quit one day because of this kind of problem. There are a few ways to interpret this kind of data, but I do get the sense that retail hours are ticking down as managers scale back staffing to compensate for declining sales.

Rent is of course another thing to look at. This one changes more slowly. And to be honest, I am not dedicated enough to actually go out and survey landlords, but anecdotally, I know a few people who have moved recently who report that rents have gotten a little softer with landlords (finally) willing to negotiate a bit.

There are of course dozens more indicators: Airport traffic; car rentals; hotel reservations; property sales on the individual side. On the business side, there are many widely-watched criteria like IPOs, the length of time it takes to close a venture round and valuation levels, among many others. Most of these indicators are flat to down slightly, but not in a resoundingly clear way.

If I had to guess, I would say we are still may months away from the full brunt of a slowdown. Conditions are not as good as they were a year ago, but they are not dire. My hope is that this continues for a while and the Industry slowly lets off some of the ‘steam’ of exuberant, cheap venture dollars. If we were talking about the broader economy, we would call that a ‘soft landing’ – things just slow down for a period. However, my guess is that things will go beyond that. If history is any guide, we will have to see a few high profile names close shop or get sold at heavily discounted valuations.

My favorite anecdote so far has been the fate of Applovin. This is marketing automation company, about which all I know is that they once plastered San Francisco with high-profile billboards advertising for job applicants. My favorite was this one where the figure says “Applovin is Still Hiring”. This is a company made famous for aggressively courting engineering talent. Last week Applovin sold itself to a group of Chinese investors. On the plus side, they got a great valuation for their shareholders of $1.5 billion, not bad for what Crunchbase reports is a company that only raised $4 million in funding. On the other hand, I have to wonder how many people they will be hiring now. Most of those billboards are gone.

One response to “Divining the Sheep Entrails of the Tech Bubble

  1. nice post, jay. i like how you’ve incorporated more traditional story elements in recent posts. hope you guys are well.

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