Well, this was certainly a doozy of a year.
Over 2020, I wrote 308 articles, including Equity podcast episodes. According to a quick command line check, I wrote about 250,000 words this year in published form across TechCrunch, my blog here, City Journal, and elsewhere, or about five business books in 12 months.
And yet, I can’t help but feel like I barely covered … anything. In technology, in startups, in politics, and in the intersection of all the above, 2020 just brought in an avalanche of stories. Huge investments in semiconductors. Antitrust authorities targeting tech globally. Competition in GPS networks from China and India, with indigenous innovation happening around the world. Housing innovation, fintech/blockchain innovation, and the evolution of venture capital. And that’s not even getting close to the mainline story of 2020 — the pandemic.
I don’t know how to process my work, since so much of it ended up being on autopilot this year. But here are a couple of stabs at picking out the gems from the rubble.
On the scoop side: Palantir’s IPO
In terms of just raw reporting power, my best story series of the year was a set of 12 articles covering Palantir’s IPO. First, I secured the company’s entire S-1 SEC filing before the company filed and made it public, garnering a nice series of mentions in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg.
From there, I continued to cover the story, including Palantir’s unique lockup period, independent board governance, direct stock sales, and more. As the company published revision after revision to the SEC, the company finally inserted language saying that its founders and major owners could “unilaterally adjust their total voting power.” My story on that (frankly, ridiculous) governance model got quite a bit of attention, and within hours, the company reversed course with the SEC.
That was all well and good. And did it hurt Palantir in the end? The stock is up nearly 3x from its IPO in September. Clearly, Wall Street really doesn’t care about governance at all, which honestly shouldn’t be much of a surprise if you have followed … anything … the last few centuries.
On the analysis side
This is an “angry” post, in the sense of an optimist getting cynical about the current state of affairs in the United States. Perhaps best coupled with “‘Made in America’ is on (government) life support, and the prognosis isn’t good,” it's a paean to a recent past when America was an open country with ambitious growth that was pioneering the future of science and technology on an almost daily basis. That world wasn't that long ago, but today, I increasingly see a paranoid country that's blocking the world's best talent from immigrating, halting foreign companies from selling locally because we fear the competitiveness of our own companies, and then doing nothing to remove the blocks on growth and progress that have sprung up the last five decades in areas like housing and transportation. There are no panaceas, but even some of the obvious and widely-supported parts of the solution remain mired in America's dysfunction.
Second Place: The dual PhD problem of today’s startups
Startups today are getting harder to build. We are reaching new scientific frontiers in many fields, and founders are increasingly facing what I dub the “dual PhD problem” — requiring multiple, independent, deep skillsets and domain knowledge just to get started on the edge. Artificial intelligence and bio/medicine is a popular one, but there are many other such intersections. How many people can realistically be at the top of two incredibly challenging fields? And what does this dynamic portend for the future of scientific progress going forward?
Third Place: The No-Code Generation is arriving
Finally, I wrote an analysis of how the skills of our children are going to change the economy. The kids these days are smarter, know programming and engineering, and aren’t afraid to use computers. My generation is typically dubbed the first to be “digital native,” but this next generation is just incredibly proficient at engineering from the earliest ages (on average, of course). How will the workforce change as more workers outside software engineering have basic data science and coding abilities? And what does that mean for even just slightly older workers who lack such skills?
According to my little tracker, I covered 39 startup fundings this year, from the earliest check to later-stage rounds. I love all the companies that I covered, since I mostly filter out the ones I don’t like! Nonetheless, here are six startups that I profiled this year which seem to bubble to the surface in retrospect:
- Free Agency: “Free Agency wants to give every tech worker a career and salary boost”. Can you build Hollywood-style agencies for other knowledge workers?
- Vise: “Trillions are at stake in the retirement wars, and Vise nets $14.5M from Sequoia to manage it.” These folks have done exceptionally well automating retirement planning.
- LeverEdge: “LeverEdge wants to get you and your friends a volume discount on student loans.” What happens when college students collectively bargain for lower student loan interest rates?
- Circle: “Creators need better community tools. Circle wants to fill the gap." Can you build a platform that actually helps creators with all the challenges of building a media business?
- Hebbia: “Hebbia wants to make Ctrl-F (or Command-F) actually useful through better AI.” Finally, someone is starting to reinvent desktop and online search.
- Trust & Will: “Trust & Will raises $15M as digital estate planning hits mainstream” I've covered this one since the beginning, and they just keep growing. Digital estate planning is barely used today, but will be the norm in 10 years.
That’s a wrap! If you’re curious, check out last year’s edition as well.
Cover photo by Chris Gladis via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.