One of the most exciting things about Silicon Valley is that it constantly reinvents itself. The development of new technologies and products serves a fundamental role in the cycle of Schumpeterian creative-destruction that drives those in Silicon Valley to simultaneously seek the creation of greatness and also force the annihilation of that which was previously great.
And it’s all about to change – again.
I have personally lived through three boom/bust cycles. The first was the personal computer boom and bust of the ’80s; the second was the Internet bubble bursting at the end of the ’90s, and the third was the “Good Times RIP” experience of 2008. No matter what is the cause of this current pull-back, this cycle has similar attributes to some of the previous sequences; we are in one of the receding portions of a Silicon Valley explosion, and while it is still unknown how deep this retrenchment will go, thus far it feels quite familiar.
And I am in such a good mood.
Perhaps I feel like the little boy who gladly dug into the room full of manure because he knew that there had “to be a pony in there somewhere.” If history is any guide, I know that the next cycle of innovation is coming.
And here we are again – living through a pull-back, which encompasses tougher times for fundraising, increased scrutiny of business models, and rational discussions of building companies that can survive beyond those that are “built to flip.”
Which means that the next expansion is coming. Perhaps it will come in one year. Or two years. Or three years. But one thing is for sure: It’s coming.
What will drive the next cycle? No one has a clue right now.
Let me be very clear: The prognosticators that we read about are simply making it up as they go along. VR? Bots? Digital healthcare? No one knows.
Now is the time for all of us to unlearn what has been learned.
More specifically, the cycle of mobile and enterprise software innovation is getting to the end of the game from a returns standpoint. Oh, there will still be some interesting developments and innovative new products, but the incumbents in those spaces are watching for threats to their core businesses and will acquire what they need sooner rather than later in order to protect their territories.
It is much more rewarding for startups to attack incumbents when they don’t see it coming. If there are sectors that were previously dead zones of innovation, it’s time to suspend conventional wisdom and see if they are ripe for disruption.
What does this mean for those of us in the business of technology innovation and reinvention? Some thoughts on this cyclical transition:
1. Time to change course. If you are an entrepreneur who is fighting against four other similarly targeted startups, all of whom have decent funding and are battling their way through market clashes, you may want to consider tacking in a different direction or finding who might be the “natural owner of your asset.” You are on a race to mediocre returns for founders, employees, and investors. You didn’t become an entrepreneur to be average. Don’t waste your time.
2. Time to take the leap. If you are an employee at a large firm and looking for a change, now is a great time to take a risk. The journey of the entrepreneur does not statistically lead to success, but if you can build a company that survives through the tough times, you will have the chance to accomplish something incredible. Firms that are started in downtimes and succeed usually become the monsters of the next wave of innovation.
3. Time to hunt elsewhere. If you are an entrepreneur or an investor, disproportionate returns accrue to those leaders who correctly identify the right product that customers want and the right time when market and technological forces are ready to be disrupted. Look for those markets that don’t see an attack coming – don’t follow where everyone else is looking. As an investor, I look for those firms that fall in the correct quadrant of being considered foolish but are actually quite clever. If you can start a company with these attributes right now, the potential for astronomical returns is at its highest.
4. Time to remember. Not all ends well for people and companies during these times. In fact, now is the time when, if you plan to make a livelihood in Silicon Valley over the long term, it is important to remember that careers here are multi-round games. People will come back into your life whether you want them to or not. It is critical to remember, as we go through the contraction part of the cycle, the importance of conducting yourself with dignity and grace under the stresses of difficult times. The people you anger and take advantage of now might reappear later in your career, and the dynamics of power might be different the next time around.
If you have the courage to act aggressively during challenging times, you have the greatest chance of accomplishing something wonderful.
Game on! Times like these are why entrepreneurs and investors do what they do.
Robert Siegel is a Partner at XSeed Capital. He sits on the Board of Directors of Cape Productions and Caller Zen, and he led XSeed’s investments in Zooz, Chatous, Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis of the RELX Group – NYSE:RELX), CirroSecure (acquired by Palo Alto Networks – NYSE:PANW),Growbot, Breezeworks, The League, Trove, Teapot, Smart Coffee Technology, Neon, Pixlee, ZipLine Medical and SIPX (acquired by ProQuest), and also supports other portfolio companies such as Citrine Informatics. He is currently on the faculty at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is Co-President Emeritus of Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an alumni association that fosters relationships to strengthen the Stanford startup community, as well as the Chairman of the Strategic Advisory Board for TTTech in Vienna, Austria.