Taking Stock / They're Back!

When Jim Breyer, a managing partner at the giant American venture capital fund Accel Partners, set out to woo Mark Zuckerberg, manager of the red-hot startup thefacebook.com, he couldn't offer him a beer.

That's because American law forbids giving kids under 21 alcoholic beverages. But there is no law to stop kids like Zuckerberg from raising $12 million in their first financing round for their startups set up a year before with the guys from university.

Breyer, who badly wanted to invest in thefacebook.com, had to resort to all sorts of gambits because he was in competition with Don Graham of the media giant Washington Post.

What is Zuckerberg's company? You guessed it: It's a classic dot.com, an Internet site where surfers virtually meet and natter. It is a social network.

Yes, ladies and gentlesurfers, they're back. Teen entrepreneurs with dot.coms based on bizarre ideas, loony business plans, term sheets printed in pink magic marker on napkins. All that nuttiness that we'd already forgotten is making a comeback, big time.

If you thought that having hundreds of billions of dollars worth of value evaporate in the Internet bubble of 1999-2000 would finish the phenomenon of serious businesses placing millions into the hands of smooth-cheeked entrepreneurs with zero business record, you were wrong.

The hunger has never been keener for youngsters who are supposed to have a deeper grasp of "what's happening," "what's hot" and who understand the Internet. Again graying venture capital managers are standing in awe of kids who barely finished college.

Love them kids

A reporter for the Knight Ridder news agency reporting about Zuckerberg's coup had little trouble obtaining quotes from venture capitalists who claimed they always prefer to invest in young entrepreneurs with open minds, who haven't gone rotten yet. Again they're talking about how Microsoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo! were set up by entrepreneurs in their 20s, with zero business history.

Naturally, the story in 2002 and 2003 was something else entirely. Then venture capital managers were saying the idea wasn't the point, it was all execution, and that had to come from experienced management.

But that was ages ago, wasn't it, a whole two or three years ago, which in Internet time is a century ago. Now it's all been forgotten as the arena turns red hot.

Maurice Levy of Publicis didn't blink when telling TheMarker in an interview this week: "The Internet not only is reinventing the world of advertising, it's redefining humanity." That's the kind of statement that had people on the floor after the bubble burst.

Are we in 2000 bubble redux? No, we are not. Bubbles do not repeat themselves: Each bubble is a wholly new one.

Not just a cool idea any more

In the year 2006, the Internet is not a cool idea with great potential. It is an arena with room for thousands of profitable companies and tens of thousands of companies that achieved their breakthrough with its help. In the year 2006, the volume of trade on the Internet is hundreds of billions of dollars.

In 2006, almost all the companies advertising on the Internet are profitable companies with clear business models. These are not dot.coms that raised money only to pour it into advertising on other dot.com sites.

In 2006, people know what works on the Internet and what doesn't, what real needs the Web can fulfill and where the real business opportunities lie.

In 2006, everybody knows that the Internet is not a passing fad. It's the reason your kids (and not only your kids) spend so much time glued to their computer screens in their rooms.

In 2006, entrepreneurs are again contemptuously starting to reject financing from venture capital funds, because setting up an Internet business has become cheaper and it's not obvious what contribution the funds have to make. The path to revenues has become clearer.

None of the above guarantees that we aren't entering another financial bubble. In fact, it promises that a bubble will develop, in one format or another. When you have a market growing that fast, with a new business model and idea being born every day and a constantly expanding pool of users, it's just a matter of time before imagination and greed outpace economic reality.

Oh, there is another difference between this bubble and its predecessor. This time it is crystal clear to everybody in the business world, or searching for business opportunities, that Internet cannot be ignored. Even if corporate valuations and visions are tending to irrational exuberance, it is dangerous to stay outside the game.

A lot of the people who got burned, fell and rose again are riding straight into the next bubble, armed this time with experience, understanding and a better chance of turning their dreams into business, and their paper into cash.