New study on companies worth $100M+ shows how much of a lie the Web 2.0 fad was

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 6, 2012

From The News Desk

CB Insights has released a new study on what it calls pre-IPO tech companies. But really that term is a little too generous.

It's a list of companies with valuations of over $100 million, "real or rumored." A $100 million valuation is clearly an accomplishment, but the study lumps in very mature companies with huge revenues along with promising but nascent companies like Stripe that have a long way to go before we can talk about an IPO.

Still, it's fascinating reading. Mostly because it indirectly shows what a lie the Web 2.0 zeitgeist was.

I don't mean that Web 2.0 itself was over hyped. If anything back in 2006 when people were crying and moaning and gnashing their teeth about a bubble, they were underestimating the impact of companies like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter -- both in terms of what they could be worth and the impact they could have on the world. But the faddishness, the zeitgeist, the sense that it was somehow hacked and easy, the parties and glamour of it -- that was all BS when it comes to the metrics that actually matter: Building a valuable company.

As we've written, oh, a jillion times: Silicon Valley, a rash of incubators and angel funding, and the dramatically lower costs of consumer Web company formation have made it very, very easy to start something. But there are no short cuts to building a company, even when there are a billion people online, and you can hack your way to a big audience through cheesy SEO and viral tricks.

A few stats to consider:

  • There were only 472 companies they could find worth more than $100 million. I know, that sounds like a lot. But it's really not. There are thousands of companies started every year, and the companies in this group were funded as early as 1998.
  • What's more: They took a huge amount of cash to get to this point. In aggregate $40 billion has gone into funding these 472 companies. The median amount was $75.8 million per company and the average was $84.7 million. Now a lot of these companies are worth well over $100 million. But on average that's not exactly a stunning return on investment.
  • Companies selling to other companies -- whether enterprises or small businesses -- hands down dominate the list. Dominate. This enterprise fad as popularized on blogs is reactionary. It's following the reality of what has actually delivered since 1998. The allure of clean business models isn't new. More than 80 percent of the companies in this group have built businesses by relying on customers paying them.
  • Let's look at that 20 percent in the consumer space. Out of some 80 companies, 34 of them were in the ecommerce space. Again, companies with a model for making money. Out of every company valued at north of $100 million since 1998, roughly 50 are building a business off of advertising. That's astoundingly low, and kicks the grab-eyeballs-and-figure-it-out-later ethos right in the teeth.
  • They've taken a long time and weathered storms. There are almost no overnight success on this list. The bulk were financed in 2007, right before Sequoia Capital's RIP Good Times memo and the recession. I wrote at the time that the recession wouldn't effect the startup world much, because unlike the dot com crash, tech wasn't the cause, it was a mere bystander. Oddly enough it was considered controversial, and I got a ton of hate from readers. But it was true, and the good companies buckled down and survived.
Not reflected in this kind of analysis of course is how gargantuan consumer Web, ad-based businesses can become when they hit. But it does show how incredibly binary that world is. You are Facebook, or you are PicPlz. There are a few Instagrams and YouTubes that get sold for $1 billion-plus. A few Slides that go for nine figures. But very, very few.

That binary aspect of the consumer Web showed up in the study's breakdown of who invested in these 472 companies too. The top 10 investors didn't match up with other measures of top return generators, like the Forbes Midas List. Accel, which is regarded as having one of the best runs in venture history of late, ranked after Sequoia Capital and Intel Capital. That's because Accel invested in a smaller number of companies valued at over $100 million. But it just goes to show one investment in a $60 billion company can make up a lot of ground. Similarly, Benchmark is tied with IVP by this kind of ranking, Greylock ranks a mere eighth and Andresseen Horowitz didn't even rank in the top ten.

Still, I was interested to read that there are a whopping 444 investors who have at least two of these companies in their portfolios. Given the list of active VCs is less than a quarter of that, there are a lot of funds who are pinning their survival hopes on these names continuing to grow and one day go public.

Perhaps the least surprising part of the survey was where these companies are based. More than 50 percent were in California, and the New York ecosystem barely -- just barely -- edged out Massachusetts by one company. But given Boston's legacy as a startup hub, how old many of the companies in the group are, and the bias towards business to business companies, the dead heat certainly shows New York has more East Coast momentum. Unsexy ad tech in particular buoyed New York up dramatically.

If you don't count California as one region, Silicon Valley is clearly dominant. Duh. But taken alone, nascent Southern California beats out both New York and Massachusetts.

Michael Carney is going to have a field day with that tidbit.