MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
LinkedIn became the first social networking company to sell shares to the public last week. The offering was wildly successful. Shares more than doubled in price the first day. The company, which had $15 million in profits last year, is now worth about $9 billion. Those kind of numbers have some wondering whether we're looking at the start of another tech bubble. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI: The last time CNBC sounded this upbeat was over a decade ago.
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Unidentified Woman (News anchor): LinkedIn IPO are blowing the lid off the New York Stock Exchange this morning...
NOGUCHI: Back in early 2000, the NASDAQ was nearly twice where it is now. Investors poured big bucks into anything with a dot com. Remember the sock puppet?
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Unidentified Man (Voiceover Artist): (As sock puppet) I'm a professional happy puppet thing and it's my job to make animals happy. Pets.com, because pets can't drive.
NOGUCHI: Pets.com, like many others, failed to generate a profit. Investors pulled out in a huge rush, and it all came crashing down in early 2000. Investors retrenched. They started caring about profits again. Lee Simmons is an industry analyst at Hoover's, a company that tracks IPOs.
Mr. LEE SIMMONS (Industry Analyst, Hoovers): We have a lot of echoes of 1999.
NOGUCHI: This time, the enthusiasm is over social networking. Speculation is that Facebook, Groupon, and Twitter are mulling their own offerings. Simmons says there are plenty of risks for investors, most notably, that users are fickle and could ditch these services as quickly as they signed up for them. But that may not be enough to scare investors. He says some people love bubbles.
Mr. SIMMONS: Bubbles are fun, you know? They're round, they don't hurt, initially, when you run into them. They get bigger and bigger.
NOGUCHI: Simmons says venture capitalists, or VCs, are among those willing to fan the hot air.
Mr. SIMMONS: This is really the first spark of hope that we've seen in the VC industry in a long, long time and I guarantee you that there is not a single VC backer in this country who isn't thinking about how they're going to go to market as quickly as possible. These guys want to start making money again.
NOGUCHI: Michael Aronson is a venture capitalist who is, indeed, excited about making money again.
What was the biggest lesson you think you learned about bubbles from the 2000 bubble crash?
Mr. MICHAEL ARONSON (Venture Capitalist): Sell when you get the opportunity.
NOGUCHI: That's it?
Mr. ARONSON: Because markets may turn against you.
NOGUCHI: Aronson got his chance to sell late last year. Diapers.com, which his firm funded, sold to Amazon for a little over half a billion dollars. He was pleased with that deal until LinkedIn's showing last week.
Mr. ARONSON: Diapers.com was on the path toward IPO. And right now I wish they had stayed on that path because the valuation probably would have been significantly higher.
NOGUCHI: Aronson, who taught at Wharton School of Business during the last tech boom, says there are significant differences between then and now. Now, companies can do a lot more without having millions of dollars in capital. Web access, computers, servers and other basic infrastructure is so much cheaper. Also, startups aren't throwing money at Superbowl ads like they used to.
And, like LinkedIn, companies these days have been around a few years - long enough to have a proven track record and some profits.
Mr. ARONSON: The companies are going public now, where the companies are fairly large companies, with, you know, real users, real customers, real revenues, multiple revenue sources.
NOGUCHI: Anyway, Aronson says, it's wrong to think that just because some of those businesses didn't work out in the 1990s, that they won't work now. Back then we relied on clunky dial-up connections. Phones didn't come with high-speed data plans, so online shopping wasn't what it is now.
It's funny, Aronson says. Just the other day he reviewed a couple of business plans proposing to sell - of all things - pet food online.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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