The Failure Of Google Glass Is A Useful Warning To Investors

Google_Glass_with_frameLast week Google announced that it would not be proceeding with another round of Google Glass for 2015, meaning that the most ambitious experiment in wearable technology had come to an end. Google Glass has many failings, ranging from looking stupid to attracting angry mobs of people, but it did seem to be the vanguard of wearable technology. Wearable tech has attracted a great deal of attention, both from consumers and investors, but I have a feeling that it’s rise may be overstated.

For the most part wearable technology is a subset of the “internet of things“, the growth of cloud computing, mobile sensors and high speed communication between stuff. The most beneficial forms of this could be about smart city grids communicating with cars to smooth traffic flows and reduce congestion. In reality it is largely counting how many steps you take everyday.

Looking past the incredible number of terrifying elements about our privacy and data mining that go along with these devices, by and large most wearable technology hasn’t really taken off. Google Glass may be a high end flop, but the vast amount of wearable devices on the markets today have yet to win over big audiences. They remain largely niche devices with a high drop off rate. Where as people adopted smartphones on mass, many people have just shrugged their shoulders and moved on, while those that do buy into wearable tech often stop using it after a few months. This suggests that there is a disconnect between understanding what smartphones get right and wearables get wrong.

That gap is clearly frustrating tech companies, and it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s first wearable device, the Apple Watch, is able to change the pattern. But for investors the allure of the new as a reason to invest should be tempered, and excitement over the prospect of “the next big thing” and the importance of getting in on the ground floor may prove financially costly.

Take for instance TESLA Motors (TSLA: Nasdaq). Tesla may be a car company, but it is treated like a technology company on the stock market, meaning that it is currently trading with a ridiculous P/E ratio, close to 130x next years earnings. Put simply, if Tesla were to pay out all of its earnings to its shareholders it would take 130 years (given current earnings) for you to receive the equivalent value of what you paid for a share. That gives Tesla, a company that sells cars by the thousands a market cap similar to General Motors, a company that sells cars by the millions.

That’s crazy, but normal for the tech world. This has been exceptionally true social media sites like Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest. All of them also trade well and above “normal” valuations, especially given that they don’t make anything.

The lesson for investors is to be cautious about technology companies. They come with a host of pitfalls and unique qualities that are frequently glossed over in the excitement of the new. Investors have been swept up before with the prospect of some great new device that can’t go wrong, but with some notable exceptions much technology often finds itself on the scrapheap of history. Or maybe we will all start carrying around smart glasses for every beverage


Don’t Forget to Like This Market Bubble on Facebook!

Say No to FacebookHow much would you pay for something that is free? This is the basic question behind trying to value the many forms of social media that have dominated the business news over the last few years. Pinterest was valued earlier in 2013 at $3.8 billion. It makes no money. In Twitter’s initial pubic offering its share’s rose to over $45, giving the company a value in excess of $30 billion. It also has yet to turn a profit. Linkedin does make money, but it’s valued like a company that makes 100x more than it actually does. Facebook, which does turn a mighty profit, generates that money not from their user base, but from companies trying to engage its user base. While Facebook does have a lot of users, many of them don’t like advertising on their profile and click rates for advertising have been reported as lower than advertising on the web in general.

What we have then is an abnormal situation where investors appear to be willing to pay big money for companies that don’t seem to be even close to making any of that investment back (some companies don’t even seem interested). In contrast companies like Apple have seen huge fluctuations in their share value on the mere speculation that they may not make quite as much money as previously thought.

To my eyes this has all the makings of a market bubble. I’ve written about the absurd way we seem to value internet businesses that don’t make any money before. One theory for these valuations is that these businesses are highly scalable. Adding more users doesn’t cost much more in terms of effort. Other theories include the idea that while many of these businesses may yet to turn a profit, the sheer number of dedicated subscribers means that the business model simply needs to be worked out.

My view on this is that there is a lot of hope attached to a lot of uncertainty. Investment excitement behind companies like Pinterest, Linkedin or Twitter, which have high valuations and little to no earnings, is driven more by a “don’t miss out” attitude. In comparison businesses that have actual earnings, products and market presence are judged far more critically and by more rigorous standards.

I think a good acid test here is what investors are being encouraged to buy compared to say, an actual tech company. In the last few months Google has acquired both robotics maker Boston Dynamic and recently Nest, the innovative thermostat and smoke detector company. Both of these companies make things. Amazing things. None of these things require you to like, share, link to or visit a page. Instead they are making tangible things that people want, or will want. The same is true for Apple computers, Samsung, GM, Toyota, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble.

As investors its important not to lose focus that the ideal investment is one that provides the steak, not just the sizzle.