As tech bubbles go, this one is turning out to be very curious. To the casual observer, it has embraced both the sublime and the ridiculous. While Apple's valuation has remained solidly moored in reality, even as its sales continue to soar, an 18-month-old app maker like Instagram, with no revenues at all, can sell for $1-billion (U.S.).
Yet both companies are riding the same technology wave: the advent of ubiquitous mobile computing. As always with such architectural shifts in information technology, there are very big fortunes to be made. The problem is finding the companies with real profit potential and staying power – preferably, before their share prices reach the stratosphere.
For the bubble-wary, the biggest test is now in sight. Facebook is gearing up to start the "roadshow" of investor presentations next week that will lead to its own, long-awaited stock market debut, most likely on May 18.
Ahead of this seminal IPO, there have been very mixed signals on the environment for technology investment.
The private financing markets are still, in parts, red-hot. Early-stage investment money has been pouring into the Internet and software companies that are tapping into the emerging touchscreen computing platform. That is only likely to accelerate following Instagram's quick and highly profitable exit in a sale to Facebook.
At the same time, the valuations of some late-stage investments – those made in private companies that have established a revenue record and are moving closer to an IPO or sale – are still scaling new heights. A year or so ago, the valuations of companies like daily deals site Groupon and social gaming company Zynga more than doubled within a few months as mutual funds and others who normally wait for an IPO to invest instead took advantage of the new private secondary markets to jump on the bandwagon early.
The late-stage boom eased last summer as stock prices turned volatile. But there are now signs of a renewed jump in valuations, with start-ups like mobile payment company Square said to be trying to raise money at big premiums to their previous financings.
Wall Street, however, has been slow to join this party. In the public market, there are precious few signs of a bubble to be found. That point was made earlier this week by Facebook board member and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen: speaking at a conference organized by Wired magazine, he highlighted the fact that, in general, tech stocks are at a low point by historic price-to-earnings standards.
As always, the average masks some outliers: investors are still willing to pay up for growth, which has become a scarce commodity in difficult economic times.
Wall Street has also failed to play its part as far as the stocks of recent IPO candidates go. A year ago, with the first-day "pops" in the share prices of companies like professional social network LinkedIn, internet music site Pandora and Chinese social network Renren, it looked like the stock market was limbering up for a full-scale IPO boom.
It was not to be. While LinkedIn remains a standout both in terms of its operating performance and strong stock market following, Pandora , RenRen and Groupon are trading at only about half their IPO levels. For Groupon, which was expected to be the star of the Class of 2011, the decline has reduced its stock market value to close to the $6-billion that Google offered to pay for the company in late 2010.
That makes the continuing boom in late-stage investing an anomaly. Normally, the backers of well-established private companies are assuming a quick return as the businesses move on to the public markets. Stock market investors have failed to play their part and look like they are still waiting for the real action.
Enter Facebook. Its steady path to Wall Street in recent months has presented a big contrast to a company like Groupon, whose stumbles led this week to the announcement that it was bringing two accounting experts on to its board.
That, in turn, has reinforced the perception that Facebook has achieved one of the most difficult management challenges for any fast-growing company: to maintain its solid business execution without losing its ability to act fast – a point driven home by Mark Zuckerberg's personal involvement in sewing up an Instagram deal in a matter of days.
Facebook still has much to prove, not least because of recent signs that its growth is flagging. But all the pieces are now falling into place for Wall Street to join the latest tech party.