Next tech bubble may float past Minnesota

  • Article by: ERIC WIEFFERING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2011 - 9:15 PM

Last week's overheated initial stock offering for LinkedIn, the social networking site for cubicle dwellers, has some seers speculating about whether we are experiencing another bubble in tech stocks.

Gosh, I hope so.

I realize this may not be the most politically correct perspective, given that bubbles often end badly for a lot of people. Just ask all those people who held it as an article of faith that home prices never fall.

The mania of 1998-2000 may not have been quite so calamitous, but it did cost people their jobs and millions of dollars of stock-option scrip. Worse, it forced many to confront profoundly existential questions like, 'How did that sock puppet cast such a wicked spell over me?' or, 'Will my Flooze money ever be worth anything?'

But comic effect and carnage aren't the only legacies of the dot-com era.

We got companies, such as Amazon, Netflix and Google, that blew up existing business models while opening our eyes to the Web's possibilities. We got supply-chain management software, cloud computing and e-commerce logistics that allowed companies to become more responsive.

In other words, in a relatively short period of time we got a whole new way of thinking about how businesses interact with their customers, employees and shareholders. And Minnesota-born dot-com start-ups at least had walk-on roles in that drama.

Net Perceptions, a software developer for online retailers that was co-founded by two University of Minnesota professors, raised $180 million in two public stock offerings. Philip Hotchkiss founded BigCharts in the Minneapolis Warehouse District and sold it for $157 million a few years later to MarketWatch. Shares of Retek, another retail software firm, more than doubled to $32 on its first day as a publicly traded company and eventually climbed to more than $120.

And while it may have ended badly for some firms and their investors, companies like Digital River and SPS Commerce survived and ultimately thrived.

This time around, Minnesota looks to be a relatively bit player in what is being called the Web 2.0 or social media economy.

That doesn't mean people aren't working on cool stuff in Minnesota, including iPad or Facebook applications. But the prospect of those ideas becoming the foundation for a business is more remote when you consider that last year was the worst year on record for venture capital funding in Minnesota, and only one or two social media companies have drawn the interest of institutional investors.

"We have one of the most vibrant interactive communities in the entire country," said Andrew Eklund, who launched his Internet consulting firm, Ciceron, in the pre-Google era of 1995. "I see awesome software, developed here, with almost zero access to capital."

That money is so tough to come by may yet be the best proof that we are not yet in a bubble, said Dan Frawley, CEO of a Twin Cities-based consumer research firm, Iconoculture.

"The companies that you're seeing or reading about coming public are more mature businesses" than those that came public during the dot-com boom, Frawley said. "They're actually making money."

Frawley knows better than most what a bubble looks like. In 1998 he joined Techies.com, a Web-based job site for technologists. In less than three years he raised more than $100 million from private investors for a company that never did more than $30 million in sales. A planned stock offering for another $250 million was scratched after tech stocks plunged in the spring of 2000.

Then, an idea alone could attract investment capital, even if the business plan included losing money on every transaction for a long period of time.

"Now," Frawley said, "you have to go that next hard step and prove to me that somebody will pay for it."

I suppose it's a good thing that mostly good ideas will be funded, even if it deprives columnists the sport of mocking the nuttier ones.

Now excuse me, I'm working on getting myself declared "mayor" of my local pizza parlor on Foursquare.

ericw@startribune.com • 612-673-1736

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