Fun Friday: Back to the Old New Tech Lifestyle

As I sit in William’s and my office in Los Gatos, I’m struck with how empty everything feels. The aux offices nearby are now empty as the call of the wild beckons folks back to the non-performing real estate that leaves many CEOs fuming. People who once revelled in the glories of a non-commute day now struggle to drive the crowded freeways and fight to park near the lobby entrance, grab a quick drab coffee from the machine, and stagger to a shared table “desk”. Just like in the Before Time. 

As I always told the kids, “Traffic is the most important thing is Siicon Valley”.

 Does this upset me? Not really. I no longer have to hear the bellowing of the sales guy wafting through the walls. Nobody builds offices to be sound-proof. My relaxing music sounds so much nicer when I don’t have to crank it up to compensate, or put on noise-cancelling headphones.

But for those who worked at home, the demands of working in an office must be quite a struggle. Startup types do their “zero to one” juggling pitch act in any place that will suffice, whether it is a coffee shop, a conference room, a beach, or even, dare I say it, at home. Obtaining an office to work is actually a milestone funding achievement – not a given.

Hence, I am at our office today, surrounded by memorabilia, computer and software and writings, seeking inspiration!

Well, perhaps inspiration should step aside for the moment. Let’s take a bit to check the weak pulse of venture and startups.

As we move out of the “spend money for anything online” phase of a cloistered culture in the grips of the pandemic, major  companies responded by 1) laying off all of their excess employees hired to keep other major companies from hiring those same people they just laid off and 2) forcing everyone back to the office to listen to the CEO tell them how useless they were when they were stuck at home working. 

In like kind, investment in the wacko side dropped like an anvil. Crypto currency was shown to be a fraud (is anyone shocked?). Blockchain is too narrow for application. Gaming is hit and miss, usually miss. The gig economy is a bust. And whatever happened to Meta?

So now venture is hyping AI. Again. Yes. Again. 

In lockstep, startups are all adding their AI gambits to their existing offerings to look mod and rock their asses. Sigh. It’s a living.

So where do we stand. Easy. We have 1) M&A in the doldrums,  2) down rounds and the potential for clawbacks, and 3) VCs on the defensive. Let’s take these one at a time.


As VCs closed their wallets, they hoped that continued hype would propel their less favored dead dogs into the eager arms of corporate strategy guys. (Note — William actually handled strategy and new ventures for Tandem in the old days, so I heard about this a lot, every day). Well, these guys aren’t quite as stupid as they thought. A bunch of desperate sounding VCs selling a high discount startup (hey, it’s 50% cheaper than last time!) wasn’t enough to move the acquisition forward. Frankly, these deals take time and are usually lined up well before one needs funding as their “Plan B”. 

At the same time, while venture was eager to deal, corporations looked at their bottom line and didn’t like what they saw. Stock prices are depressed, or at the very least not increasing dramatically. Integrating new companies into the fold is a costly investment in people and technology. And last and not least, the random pivots by VCs from one unicorn technology to a completely different unicorn technology has heads spinning and disrupt the acquisition process.

In an effort to preserve the appearance of astronomically priced unicorn startups, venture has grasped the tail of the AI GoogleBull while Microsoft NoPilot yaws and ChatGTFO hallucinates. It is a strange summer, even for Silicon Valley.

Already the tech journo crowd is side-eying all this sturm und drang. They’re starting to whisper that all this stuff is passe. After all, when you start to have ignorant Texas Aggie profs flunking students because he heard about AI taking over writing essays, you know the jig is up.

Down Rounds, Discounts and Clawbacks:

Let’s face it, startup valuations have always been, shall we say, invented? Created? Innovated? OK, yes we look at the upside potential. That’s because in zero-to-one that’s all you have — Potential. And potential can mean nothing — or it can mean everything.

But we also had to demonstrate a product, market, path to profitability, and an exit strategy. 

Guess what? This is where the tech innovators and the con-men (like poor little rich boy Sammy Bankrupt-Fried) and con-women (Orange is the New Black Liz Holmes) separate, if not actively scuttle away. 

Building a prototype and product is hard. Convincing customers to pay for it is extra hard. Making enough money to actually not need investment is super hard. And finding a means to transition beyond the startup mode, whether through acquisition, IPO or just plain good sales is excrutiatingly hard. So it’s no surprise that most unicorns skipped all that other stuff and got lots of money when money was basically free.

Now that things are hard, VCs are looking at all those other pesky hard things. And most startups funded in different conditions can’t step up and evolve. The end result is a lot of startups will not get further funding. They just aren’t worth it, valuation-wise.

While some of the fatter venture unicorns are pitched as promising M&A opportunities (see above), many others will shrivel and starve. The ones that pivot to some kind of revenue and profitability with real customers may survive, while those that restructure to some kind of “NewCo Tech Opp” (cough, AI, cough) may squeak by with fresh funding.

As venture partners and their Limiteds get increasingly disappointed in their portfolios, anticipate clawback. It’s never pretty, but it will happen.

VCs on the Defensive:

It’s only common sense that as returns nosedived, folks would start looking for someone to blame. And VCs are in the thick of it.

This lovely little article from Crunchbase is an excellent example of forensic analysis of successful investments. On this Fun Friday, I leave you with these thoughts from that article:

“What’s concerning with our sample of the largest IPOs of the past 10 years, however, is the absence of any real star performers among the big names. None are even above their first-day prices, let alone returning a multiple to their IPO investors.

It’s even more worrisome when one looks at how much capital has been going into startup investment. Over the past 10 years, investors have plowed more than $1.4 trillion (!) into seed through late-stage and pre-IPO financings.

At the peak, in 2021, a whopping $329.5 billion went into North American startup investments across all stages, per Crunchbase data. That — to put it in context — is more than the total recent valuation of all 20 of the biggest IPOs in our sample set.

To make good on that level of investment, startup backers will need not just hits but grand slams. Their recent batting averages indicate that’s unlikely to happen.

Fun Friday: Old Style SV and the Great DOD Financial Fallback

Silicon Valley tech has long run on DOD and related monies. From established companies like IBM and Raytheon to think-tanks like SRI and Xerox PARC to startups, it was understood that national security was a lucrative opportunity. War, whether hot or cold, is good for business, if you’re the right kind of business.

Symmetric Computer Systems, founded by William Jolitz in 1982, was one such company. Unix, TCP/IP and networking software, and processor technologies were all considered controlled technologies subject to export restrictions. Heck, when William and I took a 375 computer to Germany for a USENIX conference, we had to have the appropriate license to carry one with us — and I had to take special courses in how to apply for and maintain such licenses. I also had nice conversations with the various national laboratories and security agencies who loved our little systems. Easy to transport, hardy, and enough processing power to handle any immediate intelligence and scientific need. William understood his customer. And his primary customer was not conventional.

But things changed here in the Valley. Companies exported their technologies to cheaper shores. We stopped making semiconductors. We stopped building computers. By the time I had co-founded InterProphet, an inventor of low-latency TCP chip technology we pioneered, few VCs would consider a hardware or semiconductor investment at all. Everyone talked about their “China Strategy” and their Guangdong manufacturing as if that was the only key to success (it wasn’t). Even the US government was asking for RFPs for technologies which were expected to be built, not by US firms, but by Huawai. Technology was viewed as trivial, of no value except to pass on as a bribe to build inexpensive trinkets to bored Americans.

Silicon Valley transmuted from one that invented technology to one that concerned itself with “unicorns”, aka fantasy companies devoid of financial fundamentals. One of my investors in InterProphet, Dan Lynch of Cybercash and Interop fame, warned William and me of the folly of nailing down the technology too soon, before investment was secured. Once the market cap was determined, you were no longer a fantasy. Sometimes it was better to not build the product, but just talk about it. This was an accurate assessment of the situation over the last twenty years. Unfortunately, it was one concession William and I could never make. We loved to build products. We loved to make things. We loved to create.

So we retired from the game. It was sweet while it lasted.

This little meditation does have a point. And it has to do with the change in the world economy with 1) the pandemic and 2) the war in Ukraine. Bear with me.

The pandemic of 2020-2022 led to a sea change in the structure of work. In companies where people could work remotely, such as software development, there was little impact of the disease on the workforce. People could isolate, maintain their income stream, and produce. Technology companies were winners.

For the majority of businesses, people could not easily isolate. Schools were shut down and remote learning introduced (a boon to the Zooms of the world). But remote learning on such a scale had never been done, and its effectiveness was poor. Children isolated from their teachers, peers and supports did not do as well as college-educated professionals using Slack and cloud tools. Stores and entertainment venues such as movie theaters were closed down. Medical offices limited visits to reduce the threat of contagion. People died in isolation wards of the disease, separated from their families. It was a tragic and depressing time.

Given so many lost their jobs due to the pandemic through no fault of their own, extensive government funding was used to essentially pay people to stay home while a vaccine was developed. Remarkably, within one year after Covid struck our shores, a vaccine was made available. This will go down as one of the most amazing scientific achievements of our time.

But as the threat of contagion has eased, the ability to get tech workers back in the office has stalled. The frustration of the CEO and investment class towards these “entitled” workers has been venomous and extreme as they continue to look on their now empty business properties. And as government supports for the consumer class have ended, so too has the artificial consumer boom. And heck, if those tech workers won’t come to the office to bend the knee to management, well, let’s fire them.

Silicon Valley is a small place. One jumps off the cliff, all jump off the cliff.

The second impact (this is beginning to sound like Evangelion) was the war in Ukraine launched by Russia. This war had an immense unexpected effect on Silicon Valley investment for a simple reason — much of the funds channeled through crypto and currency schemes dried up when the EU, the UK and the US agreed to impose sanctions on Russia and its many collaborators. And while VCs and its unicorns did not advertise it, the underpinnings of many financial deals were based on money flows that have existed since the Cold War and were now interdicted. Whomp whomp, indeed.

It’s taken about a year for these investments to collapse. The collateral damage: job losses, startup failures, venture funds with negative outlook, and eventually clawbacks from angry customers, investors, and LLCs. We live in interesting times.

We are now embarking on a new Cold War, with Russia, China and the lesser lights (Iran, N. Korea, and so forth). There is no longer a demand for a China strategy or Russian oligarch monies. And this is a win for startups involved in technologies which have a basis in national security, just like Symmetric Computer Systems started with 40 years ago. What was old is new again.

So what should we be looking at in well-positioned investments?

Strategic investments in battery technologies, carbon capture, and energy storage are still strong contenders for long-term investment. AI technologies focused on separating the wheat from the chaff for meaningful intelligence, both business and governmental. Alternative satellite creation and maintenance, especially for low-latency non-interceptible communications — something I was solicited and wrote an RFP for about twenty years ago — will be a growing opportunity. And good old-fashioned secure software, hardware and networking is always a safe bet in bad times as a lucrative acquisition by a big guy.

Avoid broad consumer gimmicks like AI journalists, unless you’re a VC that can sustain the hype for at least six months. The lack of sustainable dark funds and non-protected IPR (AI can’t hold patents or copyright) given the current Cold War climate makes it problematic until everyone figures out how to get around the currency strictures. SPACs are nothing but trouble (hey, Palantir, how’s it going?). And the launch side of satellites is locked up for now.

Sedate Sunday: Battle of the Batteries

Tesla has been in the forefront of fully electric vehicles (EV) at a time when most of the major car manufacturers only fitfully dabbled with short-range plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). Now that Li-ion batteries Tesla builds into battery packs at their Gigafactory have become standard, the automotive industry has essentially abandoned the older BEV battery approaches and embraced Li-ion.

The pursuit of energy dense batteries to increase range may take a left turn, however, due to cost. You see, the batteries used by all the EV car manufacturers today use cobalt in the batteries (Tesla uses Li-NCA — most others use Li-NMC), and cobalt is costly. So Tesla is now considering a less energy dense LFP (lithium iron phosphate) battery manufactured by Contemporary Amperex Technology Company (CATC, Fujian Province, China) for their Chinese Tesla EVs that does not require cobalt. In addition, instead of the current module packaging strategy, the cells would be bundled tightly directly, which CATC claims will result in an energy-dense battery pack comparable to current module-based battery packs using cobalt. This will take the battle of the batteries to a whole new level.