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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Inside the Silicon Valley tech bubble
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Pitching ideas
Firms pitch ideas to an audience at a technology 'meet up'
Silicon Valley and the Bay Area around San Francisco have long been a crucible for technology innovation. In decades past it led the world in chip development, and more recently it has been at the forefront of web applications.

Each month in San Francisco an audience of technology lovers, bloggers, journalists and potential investors gathers at the headquarters of technology news firm Cnet to hear four firms pitch their ideas.

Called the New Tech Meet Up, it is a networking event in which the "next big thing" in web developments meets the audience looking out for the hot new tip.

You do have a lot of entrepreneurs who come from Stanford and think they have the next Google. The chances are they don't
Myles Weissleder, New Tech Meet Up

Myles Weissleder, who runs the event, says the "purpose is to bring together the technology community".

'Show off'

He says: "We allow a handful of local and not so local firms to show off their latest and greatest.

"It's a good way to gauge reaction, take some heat and learn what people have to say."

The ideas pitched at the March Meet Up include a plug-in for iTunes which lets people add their own commentaries, a peer-to-peer document collaboration service, web-based productivity suite Think Free and a housing market analysis tool.

In the audience is well-known west coast trend spotter Michael Tchong.

He tells the crowd: "There's a huge amount of cash floating out there and it's chasing too few good ideas."

This is what the audience wants to hear - that they don't have to chase fortune with their plans, the money will chase them.

Across San Francisco and down into the Valley people believe the boom times - known as the bubble - are back.

"Technology is the lifeblood of this city," says Mr Weissleder. "It keeps a lot of people employed who have seen the ebb and flow of pre-bubble, bubble and post bubble."

Audience optimism

A year ago, the San Francisco New Tech Meet Up was eight people in a bar discussing technology; now there are more than 1,000 registered members.

And there is plenty of optimism in the audience.

"The bubble is back," says onlooker James Teiser. "In 1997/8 everyone had a business plan in their back pocket. They would whip it out and find some sucker and get some money.

"Now the money people are a lot more discerning."

Mr Teiser, who admits he is working on a business plan for a web-based project himself, says the frenzy has returned.

"The YouTube acquisition by Google turned it back on," he says.

Mr Weissleder comments: "San Francisco has had some hard times a few years ago, but now I am sensing a resurgence of that energy.

"I'll go out and feel like I am at a Yahoo party in 1997. It's vibrant."

Angel investors

Jonathan Crow, director of marketing for Think Free, says there is a lot of hype around Web 2.0 and many companies are looking for angel investors.

Many start-ups in the Valley are chasing seed money from investors who swoop in and help an idea get off the ground with their own money in exchange for ownership equity.

If the traffic is a killer then you know times are good
Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla

Last year these "angels" invested more than $12bn in start-ups, according to the Center for Venture Research.

But while some companies are looking for angel investors, a lot more are being realistic, says Mr Crow.

"People are spending more time understanding the business proposition and building the product."

But investors still play a critical role in helping good ideas develop, and all it takes sometimes is a single mention on a blog as the launchpad to success.

Eighteen-year-old Kris Tate single-handedly built photo-sharing service Zooomr when living in Seattle, but moved to San Francisco to help give his company an exposure boost.

"Website TechCrunch posted about Zooomr one evening and within five hours we were swamped with users."

Significant response

Mr Tate recalls: "The response was significant. Soon after I was walking down the sidewalk of Palo Alto and I was called by Ron Conway, one of the more prominent angel investors.

"He said he'd like to fund the firm."

Conway, known as the godfather of Silicon Valley, put $50,000 into Zooomr.

Mr Tate says he moved to San Francisco to be closer to the heart of the technology industry

Kris Tate. Photo: Thomas Hawk
It's a very supportive environment. Many people are in the same boat
Kris Tate, Zooomr

"It's a very supportive environment. Many people are in the same boat. There are also a lot of investors who understand what is at stake."

So is the bubble back?

Mike Shroepfer, vice president of engineering for Firefox developers Mozilla, says the best way to work out if Silicon Valley is booming is to look at the traffic on Highway 101 which snakes down from San Francisco.

"If the traffic is a killer then you know times are good.

"When the commute is pain free then that's a signal that the bubble has burst."

On that basis alone, times must be good in the Valley, for the journey on the 101 is painful indeed.

Once again, groups of brilliant 20-somethings are sitting in coffee shops thinking up ideas that they hope will make them into the next Google.

"You do have a lot of entrepreneurs who come from Stanford and think they have the next Google," says Mr Weissleder. "The chances are they don't."

Failure forgiveness

But what drives people in the Valley to set up on their own rather than look for jobs at Microsoft and Google? Where does this spirit of entrepreneurship come from, especially when so many people got burnt at the end of the 1990s?

"There is definitely forgiveness for failure here," says Mr Schroepfer.

"I know many people who prefer to invest in entrepreneurs who have failed once - you learn from failure.

"People are more willing to take risks because failure is not seen as a failure.

"It's a critical part of why the Valley is a great place to start companies."

But at the New Tech Meet Up, a word of warning is sounded.

At the end of each event members of the audience are given 60 seconds per person to pitch an idea or make an announcement.

Alexandros Pagidas stands up and introduces himself as a philosopher looking for work in a technology firm.

"We are making things without questioning if we need them," he says.

"I use my knowledge of human nature and cognition to propose innovative ideas. If you think these things are important, talk to me."

Wise words indeed.




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