This bubble stuff feels eerily familiar

Celebrating after the AOL Time Warner mergerI was sitting in a conference room at the hi-tech incubator BizTech in Huntsville, Alabama with hopeful eyes fixed on the TV. It was January 10, 2000, and on the screen was the press conference during which the AOL and Time Warner merger was announced. I remember it like it was yesterday. Here I was trying to raise a million dollars for my own start-up, ANSIR (A New Style In Relating), and these guys were talking about a merger valued at $350 billion. AOL itself was valued for the deal at $165 billion. It was then and remains the biggest merger in business history.

I remember the excitement and the wonder of it all. Little did we know it was all just part of a big market bubble, and I remember especially this provocative line from Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, a very sane, important and knowledgeable businessman at the time.

I accept that something profound is happening in the Internet space; I believe that. The new media stock-market valuations are real — not in every case, of course. But what AOL has done is get first position in this new world. Its valuation is real, and I am attesting to that.”

Levin’s attestation would later be proven wrong, and he would be forced out as the merged company shriveled under the blended brand. It is now a case study in why what Levin said is a bad reason to take such an enormous gamble. Walt Disney built his empire with what he called “the plausible impossible,” and I suspect that was at work here. Logic is great, the old saying goes, unless you begin at the wrong spot. Believing the valuations was what grew the bubble. Turns out that if it seems unbelievable, it probably is.

I’m recalling this today, because I’m feeling the same vibe as Facebook is about to approach Wall Street with an IPO valued at $100 billion, a valuation that’s roughly 100 times its earnings from last year. It sounds and feels oh so familiar.

So are we in a bubble? The always astute Mathew Ingram has a nice overview of the subject today that’s worth a read, although his conclusion tends to support those who feel we’re not.

So while some venture funds may be doing their best to inflate expectations and cash in on high valuations, that appears to be causing problems only at the small end of the startup pool — for now. Without any obvious signs of a public-stock mania that puts individual shareholders at risk, it’s hard to argue that we are in a 1990s-style bubble yet (although some critics fear that the new crowdfunding bill could accelerate the problem). Whether Facebook’s IPO triggers a broader inflationary atmosphere remains to be seen.

Dave Winer says we’re “definitely” in a bubble, and I believe him. I mean, look at the evidence. AOL’s model was based on a pre-Internet business model, one we know of as mass marketing. They could make tons of money, if they could just keep people inside their walls, a “walled garden” as many would later call it. When the fickle public disagreed, a new garden called MySpace sprang up. This social network could make money the same way, and for awhile, things looked good, until a young guy named Mark Zuckerberg took over with his Facebook. So here we are again, and the whole thing still hinges on the same value proposition, that Facebook can somehow keep those people within its walls. Old school media value, after all, is about controlling the infrastructure for content, whether its made by the New York Times, Zuckerberg or Joe Blow.

And for the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to justification and rationalization that Facebook is somehow different than its predecessors. The company paid a billion dollars for Instagram in what most (myself included) feel was an overpriced grab at real estate Facebook needed to be inside its wall instead of outside. But is Facebook substantially different that previous walled-garden approaches? Get real. It may have a few more bells and whistles and connections, but the core competency is the same. Web research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey is hosting a webinar on the topic this week to probe this specific issue:

…questions continue to swirl about its (Facebook’s) actual worth and whether any company can justify becoming public at such a high value. The prevailing question: How will Facebook support this valuation…?

I don’t believe it can be justified, although lots of smart people who’ve doubtless done their homework will try to explain that it is entirely justified.

I’m sure Mr. Levin had done his homework when he made that infamous statement back in January of 2000, but at some point in a gamble, you must consider that you could be wrong, partly or as the AOL Time Warner deal proved, utterly and completely. So in addition to homework, what say we also consider common sense. We could also ask a few teenagers.

Everybody’s switching to Twitter,” a 17-year old family member told me. She used to be a pretty regular user of social media, but her activity has been shrinking for the last year or so. She doesn’t need Facebook anymore, and besides, “it’s pretty lame.” Think about that for a minute. It’s AOL all over again.

To everything is a season,” we’re taught. I wouldn’t bet on Facebook’s future if you gave me the money with which to do it.