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The Wikipedia article on the dot-com bubble defines it as:

a speculative bubble covering roughly 1995–2000 (with a climax on March 10, 2000 with the NASDAQ peaking at 5132.52 in intraday trading before closing at 5048.62) during which stock markets in industrialized nations saw their equity value rise rapidly from growth in the more recent Internet sector and related fields. While the latter part was a boom and bust cycle, the Internet boom is sometimes meant to refer to the steady commercial growth of the Internet with the advent of the world wide web, as exemplified by the first release of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, and continuing through the 1990s.

I'm having a hard time making sense of this passage as it relates to startups and bubbles -- can anyone explain it?

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From the perspective of an investor and someone in high-tech during that period, here is my take:

A few high tech companies had made it big (Apple, Microsoft, Dell) and a lot of people were sitting around bemoaning the fact that we all should have realized that computers were going to be huge and invested early in those companies. We all convinced ourselves that we knew it was going to happen (whether we did or not), but for some reason we didn't put our money where our mouth was and now we were grumpy because we could be millionaires already.

In the meantime the whole Internet thing transitioned from being something that only nerds and academics used to a new paradigm for computing. Many of us reasoned that we weren't going to be suckers twice and this time we were getting on that boat before it left for money-land.

So it became fashionable to invest in Internet stocks. Everyone was doing it. It was guaranteed to come up in any conversation at parties or with friends at work. So with all this investment money out there for the Internet's "next big thing" naturally lots of companies popped up to take advantage of the easy money. It got to the point where brokers and Venture capital firms were beating the bushes LOOKING for companies to throw money at and often they didn't scrutinize these company's business plans very well and/or bought into insane growth projections. Frankly, most of the business plans amounted to "We may not make any money off our users, but if we get enough people to sign up that HAS to be valuable, right?"

Problem #2 was that most of these companies weren't run by proven business types, but that didn't matter. It worked for those rag-tag kids at Google, Apple and Microsoft right? Well-heeled business types who know how to build a sustainable business model are so gauche in the new "Internet Economy".

Also, the implicit agenda of most of these new entrepreneurs is
(1) Get enough funding to make the company big enough go public while keeping enough equity to get rich when it does;
(2) Buy a Ferrari;
(3) Repeat with another company.

Now these investors weren't stupid. They knew what was going on and that most of these Internet companies weren't going to be around in a decade. Everyone was just playing the momentum and planned to get out when they saw "the signal" that the whole house of cards was going to fall. At the time we always talked about the fact that these investments were totally playing with monopoly money, but it was addictive. During the peak, at least on paper, my brokerage account was earning more money for me than my day job.

The problem was, that it was all kind of a pyramid scheme. These dot com companies needed a continual supply of new investment because most of them were operating at a loss and some didn't even have a mechanism to make a profit at all, at least not a realistic one. A buddy of mine, for example worked for an IPO bound company that made a freaking web based contact management system. They didn't charge yet, but they would one day turn on the meter and all of those thousands of customers who signed up for a free account would naturally start paying for something the company was actively devaluing by giving it away for free. This company raised more than $100M in venture capital.

So eventually it started to get harder for these companies to continue to raise new money to pay operational costs without showing some kind of ROI. That is, the tried-and-true model for valuing a company started to seep back in and these companies had to admit that the CEO had no clothes. So without money to continue paying for expensive developers and marketing, these companies started to go under. When a few of the big names tumbled, everyone saw that as "the signal" and it was a race to the bank. The rest is history.

  • I blame Ebay. Ebay came out of no where with an idea that should have been obvious. They made money hand over fist. People used Ebay to make money hand over fist. So now people with no real job are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the internet. Well if Sally homebody can get rich on the internet these wizkids ought to get really really rick in the internet. The rest is as you said though. – user4127 Aug 31 '11 at 18:19
  • Great explanation, JohnFx. I would just add that investing in the stock market by individuals became quite popular and many people lost a lot of money when the bubble burst and the market went down. – George Marian Sep 1 '11 at 4:50
  • JohnFx, that is similar to my experience. I would add that there were several small companies (of 20-40 people) with very useful innovative and exciting technology, that attracted great investment. But as web technology became a commodity, the small fish were gobbled by bigger fish, and these innovative companies just dissolved as their technology got eaten up. – Ash Machine Feb 29 '12 at 23:25
  • >> It worked for those rag-tag kids at Google, Apple and Microsoft right << Google didn't IPO until 2004... – B Z Mar 2 '12 at 2:46
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It's tough to share exactly what happened. Go to yahoo and look at the chart for Cisco from 1990 to 2003 or so. From a split adjusted 8 cents a share, it peaked at just under $80 in March 2000, up by a factor of 1000. People were buying in thinking this stock would continue to rise at this pace, but logic says that's preposterous. By April of 2001, it was down to $14, 80% off its high, and later to drop below $10. This was a classic bubble and should be studied so you don't get caught in them. A book titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds was published in 1841, yes is still an interesting read. Bubbles in markets are not new, but can be recognized and avoided. Cisco at $80 had a market cap of $438B. Had it risen 1000 fold over another decade, it would have been worth $438T, but all the wealth in the US isn't even $75T, so something was wrong, very wrong. This is one story, one stock. A remarkable time.

Yes, many companies went under, and the employees lost their jobs. And those who were heavy into the "dotcom" stocks lost as much as 80% (or more) of their wealth. Entire 401(k) accounts dropping this amount due to bad decisions. Those who bailed out in time survived, some doing better than others.

  • ic, so it was a terrible issue, sorry for not knowing! – Jean Aug 31 '11 at 1:27
  • No problem, glad to share my reflections on it. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Aug 31 '11 at 1:31
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The dot.com companies were purveyors of the Internet, then a "new" technology around 2000.

Everyone "knows" that such a new technology will change the economy and society. What people didn't know at the time was WHICH companies would be the leaders/beneficiaries of such change. So investors pushed up the stock prices of ALMOST ALL companies in the "space."

Any ONE (or two or three) companies can benefit from such a new technology. But not ALL of them can: It's something called the "fallacy of composition." That is, there can be one or two Googles (or Microsoft of a previous era), but not 100 of them. Most of the other 98 will go bust. Those were victims of the bubble that affected all, including the successful ones.

It's a bit like the California gold rush. Maybe one of 10 miners got "rich" (or at least moderately wealthy). The other 90% died heartbroken, trying.

5

What happened was that people would start an "Internet" company without any viable business plan, and investors would pour money. Any company with ".COM" or "eSomething" or "netXXX" or whatever would get tons of money from investors, basically selling dreams of getting rich fast.

The companies that flourished back than had often no sales and no income, yet they paid high salaries and provided very lucrative benefits to the employees.

One of the examples is Mirabilis - company that invented the on-line messenger (ICQ), but provided free service and free products (there were no fees associated with using the ICQ messenger). They got bought for almost half a billion dollars when they had ZERO revenues, by AOL. AOL sold the company, ten years later, for less than 200 million dollars when at that time ICQ (or, as re-branded, AIM) was already providing revenue (from advertisements).

Eventually, investors stopped pouring the money in (for various reasons, but amongst others the higher rates and the slower overall economy), and almost immediately companies started going out of business, and then it all blew up.

  • So what happened when it below up? Did 50% of the people become unemployed? I mean why is it so famous, what was so scary about it? – Jean Aug 30 '11 at 22:53
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    @Jean - the .COM crisis affected mostly people related to the industry and those heavily invested in it. Many people lost a lot of money on .COM stocks, and yes, there was a huge round of unemployment amongst software engineers. But it was localized to the specific industry, and didn't affect much the rest of the economy aside the loss of investments. In 2008 the main core of the economy collapsed (the financial system), and the damage was much bigger. – littleadv Aug 31 '11 at 0:53
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    @Jean Although you didn't notice a difference since 2008, millions of Americans (and Europeans, and others) did. This YouTube video of the change in unemployment in that year and beyond might give you some better idea: youtube.com/watch?v=tc976f-T45g – Chelonian Aug 31 '11 at 5:19
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    @Jean - People with jobs and money didnt really notice the great depression either. – user4127 Aug 31 '11 at 18:34
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    @jean I sure noticed a difference. However, for me the pain started in the middle of 2009. There is usually some delay before events in the markets affect the economy and vice versa. – George Marian Sep 1 '11 at 4:56
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To add to the already existing answers, most of the dotcom companies used an accounting sheningan so profusely that everything looked rosy. To account for revenues, what dotcom companies did was, get into a barter transaction with another dotcom company by selling advertising space and stuff on each other's website. So the final outcome was each had quite a substantial amount of revenue while in reality there wasn't any revenue earned.

This cooked up their books to look quite rosy to investors who then poured in their money, without realizing they were pouring money into a black hole. As someone mentioned Cisco, which sells networking gear and was heavily dependent on the dotcom boost. So when everything went bust, its stock price also crashed heavily.

This was for the losers, but some good ones did sail through. Dotcom companies which had substance took a hit, in fact everybody did, during the bust but more than made up for it later on when investors realized they are valuable.

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Two big things:

  1. Commercial activity on the Internet was frowned upon until the US Gov't got out of the internet business in the 90's. So just about everyone learned about this new thing that dramatically increased the efficiency of doing many different things. In some ways, it was like the discovery of the New World by Columbus.
  2. We were at a level of sophistication with Finance that getting access to large amounts of venture capital became easy. The internet presented such a revolutionary business opportunity that the markets spun out of control and dramatically over-valued things.

In many ways, the early internet people were correct -- in 2011 we are much more productive as a society than we were in 1991. (Which comes with downsides, such as high unemployment) The bubble was a result of over-estimating those improvements and under-estimating the time required to yield those productivity gains.

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Well basically a lot of dot-com companies that had no real plans for having actual profit's, self-destructed.

I had worked for a company called VarsityOnline.com which was depending on endless money from investor's, and had never really made any kind of profit, for which it had ample opportunity.

People lost sight of reality, that just because it wasn't a real brick and mortar store, that common sense, good service and good products didn't matter.

We were so clueless back then.

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