The venture capitalists saw record-setting rises in stock valuations of dot-com companies, and therefore moved faster and with less caution than usual, choosing to mitigate the risk by starting many contenders and letting the market decide which would succeed. The low interest rates in 1998–99 helped increase the start-up capital amounts. Although a number of these new entrepreneurs had realistic plans and administrative ability, most of them lacked these characteristics but were able to sell their ideas to investors because of the novelty of the dot-com concept.
A canonical "dot-com" company's business model relied on harnessing network effects by operating at a sustained net loss to build market share (or mind share). These companies expected that they could build enough brand awareness to charge profitable rates for their services later. The motto "get big fast" reflected this strategy. During the loss period the companies relied on venture capital and especially initial public offerings of stock to pay their expenses. The novelty of these stocks, combined with the difficulty of valuing the companies, sent many stocks to dizzying heights and made the initial controllers of the company wildly rich on paper.
Historically, the dot-com boom can be seen as similar to a number of other technology-inspired booms of the past including railroads in the 1840s, automobiles and radio in the 1920s, transistor electronics in the 1950s, computer time-sharing in the 1960s, and home computers and biotechnology in the early 1980s.
The dot-com model was inherently flawed: a vast number of companies all had the same business plan of monopolizing their respective sectors through network effects, and it was clear that even if the plan was sound, there could only be at most one network-effects winner in each sector, and therefore that most companies with this business plan would fail. In fact, many sectors could not support even one company powered entirely by network effects.
In spite of this, however, a few company founders made vast fortunes when their companies were bought out at an early stage in the dot-com stock market bubble. These early successes made the bubble even more buoyant. An unprecedented amount of personal investing occurred during the boom, and the press reported the phenomenon of people quitting their jobs to become full-time day traders.
Public awareness campaigns were one way that dot-coms sought to grow their customer base. These included television ads, print ads, and targeting of professional sporting events. Many dot-coms named themselves with onomatopoeic nonsense words that they hoped would be memorable and not easily confused with a competitor. Super Bowl XXXIV in January 2000 featured seventeen dot-com companies that each paid over two million dollars for a thirty-second spot. By contrast, in January 2001, just three dot-coms bought advertising spots during Super Bowl XXXV. In a similar vein, CBS-backed iWon.com gave away ten million dollars to a lucky contestant on an April 15, 2000, half-hour primetime special that was broadcast on CBS.
Not surprisingly, the "growth over profits" mentality and the aura of "new economy" invincibility led some companies to engage in lavish internal spending, such as elaborate business facilities and luxury vacations for employees. Executives and employees who were paid with stock options in lieu of cash became instant millionaires when the company made its initial public offering; many invested their new wealth into yet more dot-coms.
Cities all over the United States sought to become the "next Silicon Valley" by building network-enabled office space to attract Internet entrepreneurs. Communication providers, convinced that the future economy would require ubiquitous broadband access, went deeply into debt to improve their networks with high-speed equipment and fiber optic cables. Companies that produced network equipment, such as Cisco Systems, profited greatly from these projects.
Similarly, in Europe the vast amounts of cash the mobile operators spent on 3G licences in Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, for example, led them into deep debt. The investments were far out of proportion to both their current and projected cash flow, but this was not publicly acknowledged until as late as 2001 and 2002. Due to the highly networked nature of the IT (information-technology) industry, this quickly led to problems for small companies dependent on contracts from operators.
Over 1999 and early 2000, the Federal Reserve had increased interest rates six times, and the runaway economy was beginning to lose speed. The dot-com bubble burst, numerically, on March 10, 2000, when the technology heavy NASDAQ Composite index peaked at 5,048.62 (intra-day peak 5,132.52), more than double its value just a year before. The NASDAQ fell slightly after that, but this was attributed to correction by most market analysts; the actual reversal and subsequent bear market may have been triggered by the adverse findings of fact in the United States v. Microsoft case which was being heard in federal court. The findings, which declared Microsoft a monopoly, were widely expected in the weeks before their release on April 3.
One possible cause for the collapse of the NASDAQ (and all dotcoms) were massive, multi-billion dollar sell orders for major bellwether high tech stocks (Cisco, IBM, Dell, etc.) that happened by chance to be processed simultaneously on the Monday morning following the March 10 weekend. This selling resulted in the NASDAQ opening roughly four percentage points lower on Monday March 13 from 5,038 to 4,879—the greatest percentage 'pre-market' selloff for the entire year.
The massive initial batch of sell orders processed on Monday, March 13 triggered a chain reaction of selling that fed on itself as investors, funds, and institutions liquidated positions. In just six days the NASDAQ had lost nearly nine percent, falling from roughly 5,050 on March 10 to 4,580 on March 15.
Another reason may have been accelerated business spending in preparation for the Y2K switchover. Once New Year had passed without incident, businesses found themselves with all the equipment they needed for some time, and business spending quickly declined. This correlates quite closely to the peak of U.S. stock markets. The Dow Jones peaked on January 14, 2000 (closed at 11,722.98, with an intra-day peak of 11,750.28 and theoretical peak of 11,908.50) and the broader S&P 500 on March 24, 2000 (closed at 1,527.46, with an intra-day peak of 1,553.11); while, even more dramatically the UK's FTSE 100 Index peaked at 6,950.60 on the last day of trading in 1999 (December 30). Hiring freezes, layoffs, and consolidations followed in several industries, especially in the dot-com sector.
The bursting of the bubble may also have been related to the poor results of Internet retailers following the 1999 Christmas season. This was the first unequivocal and public evidence that the "Get Big Fast" Internet strategy was flawed for most companies. These retailers' results were made public in March when annual and quarterly reports of public firms were released.
By 2001 the bubble was deflating at full speed. A majority of the dot-coms ceased trading after burning through their venture capital, many having never made a net profit. Investors often jokingly referred to these failed dot-coms as either "dot-bombs" or "dot-compost".
Several communication companies, burdened with unredeemable debts from their expansion projects, sold their assets for cash or filed for bankruptcy. WorldCom, the largest of these, was found to have used illegal accounting practices to overstate its profits by billions of dollars. The company's stock crashed when these irregularities were revealed, and within days it filed the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history. Other examples include NorthPoint Communications, Global Crossing, JDS Uniphase, XO Communications, and Covad Communications. Demand for the new high-speed infrastructure never materialized, and it became dark fiber.
Many dot-coms ran out of capital and were acquired or liquidated; the domain names were picked up by old-economy competitors or domain name investors. Several companies and their executives were accused or convicted of fraud for misusing shareholders' money, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission fined top investment firms like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch millions of dollars for misleading investors. Various supporting industries, such as advertising and shipping, scaled back their operations as demand for their services fell. A few large dot-com companies, such as Amazon.com and eBay, survived the turmoil and appear assured of long-term survival.
The Dot-com bubble crash wiped out $5 trillion in market value of technology companies from March 2000 to October 2002.
Recent research suggests, however, that as many as 50% of the dot-coms survived through 2004, reflecting two facts: the destruction of public market wealth did not necessarily correspond to firm closings, and second, that most of the dot-coms were small players who were able to weather the financial markets storm.
Nevertheless, laid-off technology experts, such as computer programmers, found a glutted job market. In the U.S., International outsourcing and the recently allowed increase of skilled visa "guest workers" (e.g., those participating in the U.S. H-1B visa program) exacerbated the situation. University degree programs for computer-related careers saw a noticeable drop in new students. Anecdotes of unemployed programmers going back to school to become accountants or lawyers were common.
Some believe the crash of the dot-com bubble contributed to the housing bubble in the U.S. Yale economist Robert Shiller said in 2005, “Once stocks fell, real estate became the primary outlet for the speculative frenzy that the stock market had unleashed. Where else could plungers apply their newly acquired trading talents? The materialistic display of the big house also has become a salve to bruised egos of disappointed stock investors. These days, the only thing that comes close to real estate as a national obsession is poker.”