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As Tech Stocks Rise, Silicon Valley Is Acting Like It's 1999

The State

July 13, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Now it's swung back from the extreme pessimism of, say, four months ago. Labrador just raised $100 million for its fifth investment fund. That's $10 million more than the previous fund, which was launched at the end of the boom in 2000.

"It's a great time for investing in early-stage companies that will mature in three to five years," Kubal said. "Other venture firms are also heading out to raise money and will be successful."

Another leading indicator is public relations firms. Since money was plentiful during the boom and attention was not, start-ups handsomely rewarded the PR shops in the hopes of buying enough media attention to become viable. When the money disappeared and the media moved on, the PR firms cut back or folded.

The drought is over. "We've just gotten five new clients in the last month," said Melody Haller, president of Antenna Group. "We only got six all last year."

Despite the fizziness in some stocks, Haller maintained that "this is not a repeat of 1999. This is learning from 1999."

The start-ups looking for publicity four years ago often were headed by business school graduates who wanted to sell things over the Web such as dog food and greeting cards. The ideas were so simple anyone could do them, and anyone often did. Three of Haller's new clients are in "clean" technologies. One makes hydrogen fuel cells, another organic pest management products, and the third turns industrial sludge into renewable energy. These aren't the creations of smooth-talking MBAs.

"These companies all have strong technology patents. Silicon Valley got rid of the airheads, the stupid me-too stuff," Haller said. "The people who are still in this, the vendors, the support network, are the smart ones."

The employment market, although continuing to flag badly, is showing signs of improvement. State unemployment figures released Friday showed that Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, had a jobless rate of 8.5% in June, a small improvement over the post-boom high of 8.9% in October but still well above the 6.7% state average.

Last week, 2-year-old start-up company Jumpstart Technologies posted listings on the job site Craig's List for a quality assurance engineer and an application engineer. Each drew about a hundred responses. Three months ago, the San Francisco company said, it saw more desperation in the job market: A similar posting for an application engineer drew 300 responses.

Jumpstart, which was founded by two Stanford University doctoral candidates in molecular physics, creates Web sites that collect marketing information. Freeflixtix.com, for instance, gives free movie tickets to people who register not only themselves but also four friends. Those friends supposedly will register others to get tickets themselves, and so on.

This approach, called viral marketing, was tried during the boom with generally miserable results, but Jumpstart says it's already profitable.

"Companies are succeeding now because they're trying to build profitable business models instead of focusing on exit strategies like going public or being acquired," said Sean Eilers, Jumpstart's vice president of sales.

But this is still Silicon Valley, where the final payoff is not only creating something great but also being handsomely rewarded for it.

"They still think about going public," Eilers said. "It's just not all-consuming."

In the second quarter, only two venture-backed companies offered shares: credit-card processor IPayment Holdings Inc. and FormFactor Inc., which makes semiconductor testing tools. During the boom, two initial public offerings would have meant a slow week, not an entire quarter.

It was a symbolic moment last month when IPO.com shut down. The company had tracked public offerings for six years, but its own $10-million funding had apparently been exhausted.

Suddenly, though, the new-issues dearth has ended. Digital Theater Systems Inc.'s public offering Thursday was the strongest in more than a year. Shares of the Agoura Hills digital audio system firm rose 47% on the first day of trading.

Half a dozen other companies are in registration, the last step before going public. None is likely to plumb investors' new-found affection for tech more than RedEnvelope.

The 6-year-old company is using the Dutch auction method in which the price of the offering is determined by how many people commit to buying shares. Previous Dutch auctions among valley firms have been subscribed at prices between $10 and $12.

If RedEnvelope gets such a price, its chief executive, Alison May, will follow a valley tradition of suddenly being quite rich, at least on paper. According to filing documents, May, who joined the retailer in April 2002, has options to buy 3.5 million shares at 14 cents each.

Large option grants to executives became a prime symbol of dot-com excess. Critics say they often were so lavish that they encouraged executives to pump up their firms' stock prices and then dump their shares as quickly as possible. They also distorted a company's true earnings.

Microsoft, the biggest technology firm, announced last week that it would no longer grant employee stock options. But in Silicon Valley, as the filing for RedEnvelope demonstrates, the desire for options is one thing that never gets forgotten.

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