The Secret Lives of Start-Ups: 9 Tech Companies of the 2010s and What They Did Right
If you’re ever feeling bored in a place with lots of advertising (the London Underground is good for this), have a look and see what percentage of the adverts are for tech or online-based companies.
It’s likely to be more than half of the adverts you can see, and it might even be all of them. We are a long way away from Time Magazine’s 1968 prediction that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” In fact, for some of the companies on this list, the line between being a tech company and something else is blurred – if a retailer is online-only but they send you clothes to wear in real life, are they a tech company? Or do they become a tech company only if their way of selling clothes online involves a new technological quirk not used by their competitors?
In order to avoid getting too bogged down in this kind of debate, we’ve taken a broad-brush view as to what constitutes a tech company here, and focused on what we think are the most interesting companies to either have been founded, or come to prominence, in the current decade.
Founded in 2009, Uber released the app that made it famous the following year. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid coming across it, the app enables you to order what’s essentially a taxi, but with a driver who uses their own car. The cost of the trip is estimated in advance so you know how much you’ll pay, you can watch the car’s journey to you on the app, and you can even carpool with others to save money. Prices are generally cheaper than a standard taxi, but the app operates ‘surge pricing’ – so things can get very expensive indeed at peak times. Billing is automatic and done via the customer’s smartphone.
Uber seems obvious, but also wouldn’t have worked even a couple of years before it was developed. It relies on GPS technology, enough people having a smartphone, and the reliability and security of taking payments via a smartphone. The genius of the idea is to put all of this together and turn something that had previously been inconvenient and eliminating the problems. You don’t know when your taxi will show up, or if it will be delayed? Uber tells you. You can’t get a taxi at busy times? Surge pricing evens out supply and demand so there’ll be a car there if you’re willing to pay. You’d rather not carry cash, or you’re worried about being ripped off? Uber fixes that one too. It’s a great example of how if you want to be rich and successful, the key isn’t always having an inspired idea; it’s having a reasonably obvious idea first.
We go from a company you’ve almost certainly heard of to one you most likely haven’t – though you might have seen their work in the news. DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence company owned by Google, hit headlines recently when their Go-playing computer, AlphaGo, beat Lee Sedol, a world-class Go player, in a feat that most computer scientists thought wouldn’t be achieved for decades.
But DeepMind does more than just making computers play board games. Founded in 2010, the company aims to ‘solve intelligence’; to figure out how to produce computers that are as intelligent or more intelligent than humans, not just in narrow domains such as mathematical calculations, but general purpose intelligence that can outclass humans in every area. It’s a hugely challenging goal, and DeepMind’s current success seems to be investing in the best talent available. Its founders – Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman – represent a terrifying level of ability in their own right; Hassabis, for instance, was a chess prodigy who co-designed the classic game Theme Park at the age of just 17.
File storage and transfer used to be – and to a certain extent, still is – one of the things the internet struggles with most. You might have no problems whatsoever creating and editing a file of 40 or 50 megabytes, but let’s say you then want to send it to a friend. It’s almost certainly over the limit for attachments for one of your emails. You could use something like WeTransfer (which didn’t even exist when Dropbox was first developed) to upload the file and have a link to download it sent to your friend, but this quickly becomes tedious if you don’t just want to send it once, but instead want to collaborate and send it back and forth several times.
Founded in 2007, and going from 50 million registered users in 2011 to 400 million registered users in 2015, Dropbox provides cloud-based storage that several users can share and access at the same time. It was founded when an MIT student, Drew Houston, kept forgetting his USB drive and decided to create something to help others with the same problem. The lesson to be learned here is that if you notice a problem you’re having, consider whether the solution you come up with might have broader application.
Alongside Uber, Airbnb is the symbol of the current economic world we live in. It’s another example of a great idea growing out of an immediate need: in this instance, the fact that there weren’t enough hotel rooms in San Francisco to house all of the delegates to the Industrial Designers Society of America’s conference there. The founders of Airbnb found spaces on people’s sofas, in their spare rooms and so on – and continued to follow the same model for further events that left host cities short of accommodation.
The internet was already being used for couchsurfing networks, but Airbnb offered a safer, more upmarket alternative, enabled by the growing number of people who could afford international travel and the increasing number of people around the world able to communicate easily in the lingua franca of English. In February 2011, the site had its one millionth booking. It works not only because the travellers are there, but because the hosts are too: as families get smaller, there are a surfeit of spare rooms from people for whom rental income through something like Airbnb makes all the difference in being able to afford their property.
If you’ve heard of Shazam (and you probably have), you’d probably be surprised to learn it was founded way back during the dot-com boom years, in 1999. By the standard of this list and tech companies in general, that makes it practically Jurassic. The service it offers – you play it a song, it tells you what the song is and which artist performed it – dates back to 2002, when users were informed of the song by text. But like so many of the other companies on this list, its true potential could only be unleashed through the right technology coming into being; for Shazam, that was the launch of the Apple App Store in 2008 (and yes, we are stretching ‘of the 2010s’ for this one, but chances are that’s the decade you first starting using Shazam in.
Lots of people had come up with the idea of creating a way of solving the irritating problem of listening to a great song and not knowing what it is, but mostly they had less sophisticated solutions, such as monitoring radio stations. Shazam’s cleverer software gave it the edge and it’s now been used to identify over 15 billion songs.
Patreon is another brilliant idea that emerged from someone trying to solve a problem they were facing themselves. In the 2010s it’s increasingly hard to make a living from any creative work on a digital medium – people expect to get it for free, and if it’s not free initially, it’s likely to end up pirated. That’s the case whether you’re a writer, a songwriter, a digital artist, or – in the case of the founder of Patreon – you make YouTube videos. YouTube ads help with this, but it’s still tricky to make a living.
Writers and artists throughout history have relied on wealthy patrons: people who chose to support them financially because they liked their work. The same principle is at work with Patreon, but spread out over more people so they don’t necessarily need to be wealthy. If you’re a fan of someone’s work, Patreon offers an easy way to support them so that they can carry on creating the art you love.
Sometimes you don’t need to come up with an amazing, original idea to be a successful entrepreneur. Sometimes, you just need to do something that’s already being done by dozens or even hundreds of different service providers, that crucial bit better.
The founders of TransferWise were Estonians working in the UK, who were getting frustrated with the high charges imposed on them whenever they moved money between the UK and Estonia. The co-founders, Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus, developed a system whereby they exchanged sterling for euros and vice versa with each other, as one needed to convert euros to sterling and one sterling to euros, thereby avoiding bank charges.
Their genius was to realise that this system could work on a larger scale. It’s a crowdsourced system whereby money isn’t transferred across borders – so if Johannes in Germany wants to pay Sven in Norway, and Marie in Norway wants to send money home to her family in Germany, the two are paired up so that Marie’s money is transferred to Sven (in the same country and the same currency) and Johannes’ money is transferred to Marie’s family in the same way. It all looks exactly the same to the customers using it as conventional transfers – just a whole lot cheaper.
What do you think of when you think of a takeaway? It might be a pizza, or a curry – something tasty, sure, but probably not all that healthy, and from a limited range of options. We still don’t think of takeaway food as equivalent in quality to home-cooked or restaurant food. But then Deliveroo only launched in 2013.
The company allows customers to order food delivered to their door from the kinds of restaurants that wouldn’t conventionally do delivery. There are more than 40 restaurants signed up in Oxford, for instance, offering cuisines ranging from classic British pub food to sushi, bubble tea and burritos. Their average delivery time is 32 minutes. And once again, it’s a start-up founded to address something that irritated the founder: Deliveroo’s founder, Will Shu, was used to the lively takeaway culture of New York and so after 8 years of being annoyed by the lack of a similar culture in London, decided to do something about it himself.
Lots of sites do what Skyscanner does. But thanks to a program of expansion (and quite a lot of hard work), Skyscanner does it better than most. Founded in 2001 because of frustration with the difficulty of finding cheap flights, Skyscanner was employing more than 180 people by 2013, and had taken its coverage from cheap flights within Europe to flights, hotels and car hire all over the world.
Skyscanner is straightforward: it tells you what flights etc. are available for your planned destination, and then searches “more providers than anyone else” (to quote their own marketing) to find the cheapest option. Their secret is simply that they do better than their competitors, and the market is crowded enough to keep them on their toes. Their approach was enough to win them the Queen’s Award for Enterprise – the highest official accolade for businesses in the UK.
So what have the tech start-ups that were founded or come to prominence in the 2010s done right? Some were created by programming geniuses; others were remarkably quick off the mark to harness the full potential of new technology. But if there’s one message that shines through all of this, it’s that if there’s something in your daily life that’s annoying you, and you’ve created a solution for it, it might be worth monetising – because it might be annoying other people, and that’s how multi-million pound companies are born.
Image credits: toolkit; laptop and notepad; london taxi; chess; usb; tulips; headphones; smart phone; euros; prawns; aeroplane.