'Best of times' or 'Worst of Times' in Silicon Valley

February 18, 2020

Someof the most interesting times to be a journalist are when there are two opposing views about the same circumstances, and it’s hard to tell who is right.

 

That, to a tee, describes the mood around the business opportunities in Silicon Valley right now.

 

Sit down at a restaurant in San Francisco and you’ll very likely overhear a conversation about how the tech economy and innovation are thriving. The evidence is the record stock highs of the world’s most valuable technology companies and the fact technology is making so many things easier for consumers.

 

But turn elsewhere in the same restaurant and you may well hear talk about how the industry is in disastrous peril, as evidenced by the collapse of startups (this week Brandless and Essential) and the challenges of starting new ones.

 

The split was on display at Stanford University this week, the preeminent symbol of Silicon Valley’s optimism and success if there was ever one.

 

Department of Justice officials, including antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, attended an event designed to convince investors to join the Big Tech Resistance, according to our reporter Kate who was there. In some cases, their arguments fell on deaf ears. Kate said many investors—most of whom owe their massive wealth to big tech companies—seemed pretty content. “I don’t think today is any different from 20 or 30 years ago,” Sequoia partner Mike Moritz said on stage at the event.

 

As for the idea that big tech companies are too dominant, he said: “All of these companies are vulnerable in some fashion or another.”

 

But some expressed concern, talking repeatedly about “kill zones”—areas closed off to startups because the big companies have crowded out competition. And earlier in the week the Federal Trade Commission said it was looking into whether big tech companies like Facebook and Amazon bought smaller companies to neutralize competitors. 

 

Whether you think we live in a tech golden age of opportunity or not bears on your opinion about tech regulation. If you believe times are good, you are probably against more regulation. If you believe they are bad, you might be for it.

 

It’s painfully obvious we need the government to police bad practices tech companies have gotten away with for too long—notably privacy lapses. And companies engage in lots of other shady behavior that should stop. But there is plenty of white space for new businesses. After all, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google four months after the government sued Microsoft in 1998. Microsoft spent half a dozen years and many many billions trying to compete with them and eventually gave up.

 

And remember, Facebook’s growth rate is slowing. Google is undergoing a major transformation as Larry Page steps aside. Bezos won’t be running Amazon forever.

 

It would be foolish to think that today’s big companies will be dominant forever. The best entrepreneurs never make that mistake. 

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