A dive into tech's eternal boom-bust cycle shows how companies can succeed in tough times
- Tech's pandemic bubble has finally burst, demonstrated by layoffs and falling share prices.
- Every previous boom and bust in tech over the decades has resulted in winners and losers.
There's been a lot of noise in the tech sector lately. Debates over "fake work," sweeping rounds of layoffs, and the rollback of lavish employee perks, have all raised a single unifying question: is the golden age of American tech over?
Call it a downturn or call it a market correction. Whichever way you slice it, one thing is certain, the valuations of most major tech companies were high — and now they're not. Investors have spoken and the tech industry has hit a rough patch. After over a decade where the music never seemed to stop in Silicon Valley, the last song of the night is finally playing.
The thing is that the tech industry has been here before, and will likely be here again. While companies like Meta and Google have hit rough patches for sure, there's no reason not to believe that they'll bounce back. They may even be wiser for the experience, experts say.
"The fundamentals are strong, maybe this is a reminder that austerity is important," said Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
But while the rest of the world gawks at the current state of tech, experts say that there are lessons to be learned from looking at the winners and losers of the previous booms and busts.
Every tech boom and bust has a lesson to teach
The origins of modern-day Big Tech dates back to the 1960's, as computers slowly but surely transitioned from something primarily used by the government and academic sectors and into something that would find their way into the workplace, and later, households. Companies like IBM, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard saw their fortunes rise, as Wall Street began to fall in love with tech stocks, American historian and University of Washington professor Margaret O'Mara told Insider.
But when the US government started pulling its tech spending amid the economic recession of the 1970s, the floor fell out from under Silicon Valley. It took the personal computer revolution, which peaked in the 1980s to bring the tech sector back into investors' good graces.
That boom lasted well through the advent of the Internet in the 1990s — right up until the notorious dot-com crash of 2000 when the market turned on buzzed-about web startups whose investment capital didn't match their earnings potential . The Nasdaq fell 39%, and a number of companies went under. Some of the remaining dot-com survivors that still exist today are Google, Amazon, eBay, Priceline (now Booking.com), and what's left of Yahoo.
Tech historian Micheal Malone told Insider that the successful companies took an important lesson from this difficult period: One product wasn't going to keep them relevant nor afloat. Information technology was evolving too fast for any one idea, no matter how good, to carry a comapny through. Apple shook up its PC business with the introduction of the iPhone and the discontinued iPod. And Microsoft acquired internet companies that could help support the creation of its internet software business.
"You can't just have a hot product, get rich, and walk away. You had to create follow up products," said Malone.
Others suggest the real lesson is the dangers of what can happen when investors get involved with technologies that aren't quite mature yet.
"If you jump into a disruptive technology, you can really lose a lot of money because nobody knows enough about it," said Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
Staying agile is a relevant lesson, and so is making sure the foundations are sound
It took years for things to turn around, with the great recession of 2008 slowing down the recovery.
When investors finally warmed back up to tech, Malone said the new theme became scalability: "You had to understand the markets, changing trends, and if you have those things, can you grow that company by 10 times every year?"
Startups turned to users for help instead of taking on the expensive task of scaling by themselves. So-called Web 2.0 companies like Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr (now part of SmugMug) and Twitter all relied on user-generated content, rather than creating it by themselves.
"Facebook could not have created a billion webpages for people. They let people create them themselves. That's scalability," Malone told Insider.
That theme carried companies into the earliest part of the 2020's. But something new is emerging now. While the rounds of layoffs and falling stock prices have been painful, Malone believes its bringing new focus to the lessons of being "financially sound" and having strong "structural underpinnings."
For Dr. Govindarajan, the theme is austerity, telling Insider that tech "can't afford to be wasteful" anymore. Wall Street and tech are betting the next boom will come from ChatGPT or the metaverse. But in this environment, it'll be those who thought ahead and made sure to spend their money wisely.
"Ten years from today, there will be players who would've made money. Some people would've lost," said Dr. Govindarajan. "And that's the nature of the tech industry."
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