In the 1985 James Bond classic A View to a Kill, super-villain Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) plots to destroy Silicon Valley. That was fiction, of course — but this year, tech start-ups have suffered 70 “down-rounds” as venture capitalists have suddenly demanded that companies become profitable.
Silicon Valley had been in a start-up boom since 2009, with VC investors pouring billions into tech “themes,” such as the sharing economy; on-demand delivery; and cloud and mobile computing.
But as Breitbart News reported in March, so-called “unicorn” tech companies — valued at over $1 billion by private equity investors — were about to become “unicorpses.”
The venture-backed investors were “coining it” from 2012 through 2014, as Wall Street pumped out an average of 36 venture-backed tech IPOs per year, despite the average profitability of the “deals” being negative. In 2015 that IPO number slowed to 23, and only 7 of those offerings were completed in the second half of the year.
“On-demand” economy deals were so hot in 2014 that Zirx Mobility Services could raise $36 million to locate parking spots for San Francisco commuters. Zirx’s Chief Executive Officer Sean Behr told the Financial Times, “We lived through 2015 with venture subsidy — you could get cheap rides, cheap food, cheap everything because the VCs were funding it.”
Behr added: “Not any more.” In 2016, the VC rules have changed. Now Behr admits that his company’s business model, “just wasn’t realistic.” Zirx is now focusing on serving business customers, rather than consumers.
Silicon Valley’s 50-mile strip still looks like it is in boom times, with 700-square-foot San Francisco condos selling for $1 million. Freeways into the “Valley” are clogged with a growing percentage of workers making the 2.2 hour commute each way from distant places like the North San Joaquin Valley.
But money for VC start-ups has slowed down by 25 percent over the last twelve months to $12 billion from $16 billion in the prior period. The biggest difference is that outside investors are want a “path to profitability”, rather than “revenue growth rates.”
There were 131 tech “unicorns,” mostly located in Silicon Valley, at the start of 2016. These mythical beasts assumed that access would be available to an almost unlimited amount of cash at valuations much higher than early stage private investors paid through Wall Street’s enchanted IPO money machine.
But for the first five months of 2016, Wall Street was closed to any tech company with high “burn rates” — those consuming large amounts of cash each month. As a result, 70 VC-backed companies had to raise VC money at lower valuations, called “down-rounds.” Ten of those down-round loser deals were unicorns.
Carving profitable businesses out of bloated unicorns is still possible. But it took until June 21 for cloud software developer Twilio to become the first Silicon Valley venture-backed tech IPO of 2016.
Twilio did sell 10 million shares at $15 to avoid a “down-round” for VC investors that paid $11.31 a share in 2015. But that itself cost the company $22.5 million, since the IPO prospectus said the company intended to sell 11.5 million shares.
If he were real, Max Zorin would be smiling. You don’t need an artificial earthquake and a flood to destroy Silicon Valley. You just need to demand that it produce a profit.