The opinions expressed are his own.
The late 1990s was a wild time in Silicon Valley. The NASDAQ was soaring, and seemingly anyone could start a company, stick a .com at the end of its name, put together an IPO and retire a millionaire. The great boom ultimately took on a speculative character that led to wasted investments and the collapse of many poorly-grounded operations. But it was rooted in a surge of not-unrealistic optimism about the potential of the internet to change the world of business.
Among the striking features of the era, one of the most startling is this: the rate of high-tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley seems to have been below the national average from 1996 to 2000, according to a recent analysis of business creation during the tech boom. And from the late 1990s to the early 2000s — after the bust — Silicon Valley’s rate of high-tech entrepreneurship actually increased. How can this be? How is it that during the first great boom of the internet era, Silicon Valley was less of a hotbed for new firm formation than the country as a whole?
Economists Robert Fairlie and Aaron Chatterji suggest that the answer lies in the extremely tight labor market conditions that prevailed at the time. The tech boom was remarkably good for Silicon Valley workers. Average earnings rose by nearly 40% from 1997 to 2000 — more than twice as fast as the increase for the country as a whole. Non-salary compensation also soared, thanks to the popularity of stock options and the skyrocketing value of equity in tech firms. These generous pay increases made it unattractive for workers to leave established companies to strike out on their own. Entrepreneurship fell because life on salary was too lucrative to risk self-employment.
Why was pay so high? Rising productivity was a big reason, as were expectations (some more reasonable than others) of high and rising profitability across the tech sector. But these factors could just as easily have driven an increase in new firm formation and employment as a rise in salaries. Silicon Valley experienced more of the latter than the former because workers were scarce. During the late 1990s, the unemployment rate across Silicon Valley dropped well under 3%, eventually sinking to nearly half the national level. There was essentially no surplus labor in the whole of the region. Firms therefore had to bargain hard to hire qualified workers, and this meant giving up a substantial share of firm surplus in the form of salary, benefits, and profit-sharing. That, in turn, made it more attractive to be a worker than an entrepreneur.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter: why was the Silicon Valley labour market so tight? If the unemployment rate was so much lower than it was elsewhere in the country, and if compensation was rising so much more rapidly than elsewhere in the country, why weren’t people pouring into Silicon Valley from elsewhere in the country? More remarkably, why were people moving in the opposite direction?