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Do Underwhelming Square, Match IPOs Mean Bubble Trouble?

Two tech startups you know have now gone public: Square (which makes the little white square to swipe credit cards) and Match, the online dating giant. Both companies got nice, first-day pops to their share prices as they started selling for well above the initial price. But interestingly, those initial prices were set low.

Really low.

Square was planning to price somewhere between $11 and $13 a share, which, analysts say, is already pretty cheap. But then, the company went even lower, settling for just $9. That's really, really cheap.

And Match set its initial price at $12, which was on the low end of the company's original expectations.

This could be significant for how we, and the Wall Street, are thinking about Silicon Valley. But before we get into why, let's take a look at each company separately.

Match Not On Top

Unlike many tech startups, Match actually turns a profit. It has millions of active users on Match.com and its other brands, OkCupid and the infamous app Tinder (where you swipe to like).

Plus, Match has been able to create and run new, successful products, which is an impressive skill — especially when it's done without spending a lot of money. (Tinder, for instance, was born in-house at the labs of IAC, Match's parent group.)

All that makes Match a really strong company, says Kathleen Smith, an analyst with Renaissance Capital who is an expert in initial public offerings.

"It has very high profitability for every user," she says. According to the numbers disclosed in a regulatory filing, Match earns $20 pretax for every $100 it collects.

The problem is, Smith says, other companies have tarnished the halo of Silicon Valley with investors. Take Etsy, which went public at $16 a share in April and has since taken a nosedive, to $8.72 on Thursday.

And so Wall Street's clamming up. In 2012, Smith says, a company like Match would have sold for a lot more because back then, investors had an appetite and a tolerance for risk. "That tolerance is no longer in this market that we're in today," she says.

Smith says Match's decision to price at the bottom of its originally planned range of $12-$14 signals a power shift. "It's the IPO investor that's calling the shots here," she says.

Put another way, Match is not on top.

Square Is A 'Breaking Point'

Now, let's turn to the second company that hit Wall Street on Thursday, Square.

"Square had this very unique proposition of allowing anybody to accept credit cards," says Gil Luria, analyst with Wedbush Securities, who recalls Square's glory days: "It was a very novel idea."

In its first couple of years, Square got people to use iPhones and little white dongles to pay with plastic — at farmers markets, art fairs and coffee shops. Its founder, Jack Dorsey (also chief of Twitter), was the man with the Midas touch.

That story has now flipped. As Luria puts it: "It's gotten a lot more complicated."

Which is to say, Square has yet to turn a profit, the market is saturated and there's new, better competition.

And from one perspective, you could look at Thursday's initial trading and say Square is killing it. Sure, it priced at $9, but at its peak the stock soared almost two-thirds above the IPO price. (It closed at $13.07.) It's a pretty successful initial public offering.

Luria doesn't buy it: "Square priced the IPO low, in order for the stock to pop on its first day of trading, to create a perception of a successful IPO."

Perception is key. The prices of Square and Match can fluctuate, but those initial prices — those lackluster prices — they're kind of a cold shower for Silicon Valley.

To Luria, it shows the hype around tech is fading, and Square represents a "breaking point."

The New Mantra

With these companies' lackluster public offerings, there's a palpable shift in Silicon Valley. Local analyst Rajeev Chand, with Rutberg & Co., sums it up: "In today's market there is a bubble, clearly."

It's actually a raging, unsettled debate. But Chand and other analysts say private investors have grossly inflated the value of their startups. According to CB Insights, more than 140 companies are so-called "unicorns," valued at more than $1 billion.

"There are so many companies that have been bid up so high," Chand predicts, "the vast majority of these companies will struggle to live up to the valuations that the private markets have given them."

According to Digi-Capital, the average valuation for mobile internet unicorns dropped from $9 billion to $8 billion in the 3rd quarter of this year.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aarti Shahani
Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.