Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Post-Mortem on Tech Boom Enthusiasm

A former Yahoo employee has written an insightful analysis of the bursting of the nineties' tech bubble:

Yahoo was a special case. It was not just our price to earnings ratio that was bogus. Half our earnings were too. Not in the Enron way, of course. The finance guys seemed scrupulous about reporting earnings. What made our earnings bogus was that Yahoo was, in effect, the center of a pyramid scheme. Investors looked at Yahoo's earnings and said to themselves, here is proof that Internet companies can make money. So they invested in new startups that promised to be the next Yahoo. And as soon as these startups got the money, what did they do with it? Buy millions of dollars worth of advertising on Yahoo to promote their brand. Result: a capital investment in a startup this quarter shows up as Yahoo earnings next quarter-- stimulating another round of investments in startups.

As in a pyramid scheme, what seemed to be the returns of this system were simply the latest round of investments in it. What made it not a pyramid scheme was that it was unintentional. At least, I think it was. The venture capital business is pretty incestuous, and there were presumably people in a position, if not to create this situation, to realize what was happening and to milk it.

He also has some thoughts on stock options and productivity:

If there is a problem with options, it's that they reward slightly the wrong thing. Not surprisingly, people do what you pay them to. If you pay them by the hour, they'll work a lot of hours. If you pay them by the volume of work done, they'll get a lot of work done (but only as you defined work). And if you pay them to raise the stock price, which is what options amount to, they'll raise the stock price.

But that's not quite what you want. What you want is to increase the actual value of the company, not its market cap. Over time the two inevitably meet, but not always as quickly as options vest. Which means options tempt employees, if only unconsciously, to "pump and dump"-- to do things that will make the company seem valuable. I found that when I was at Yahoo, I couldn't help thinking, "how will this sound to investors?" when I should have been thinking "is this a good idea?"

No comments: