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Looking back on this year's tech boom

Illustration of a unicorn in a raft
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As 2019 comes to a close, we've been in a boom period, but what happens next?

The big picture: This question was partly answered when the first stampede of private unicorns hit the public market in the spring. The results were mixed — but mostly not good. (Uber, anyone?) And of course, WeWork didn't even make it to the Nasdaq bell-ringing, instead breaking down shortly after it filed its S-1.

Some pundits were quick to mock Silicon Valley as the "myth of the unicorns," to call everyone with a Patagonia vest and VC job an idiot, and to predict a collapse of startup life as we know it.

  • However, a more nuanced view is that the last decade gave birth to a new generation of tech-enabled companies whose novelty resides in their business models — many of them made possible only by the advent of the iPhone. Ordering groceries didn't go so well in the Dotcom era (RIP Webvan) … but what about doing it from your phone via Instacart's app, which pays an independent contractor (with a smartphone) to deliver your precious Oat milk from a store to your door? Could still fail, of course.

But one thing has been clear: For the most part, the public markets haven't shared the same optimism about a lot of these business models, which is why we've seen Uber and Lyft's stock prices struggle as they try to shine a very dim flashlight on a faraway era of profits. Even Slack has to explain why it has not turned a profit, while its top rival, Microsoft, is printing money and using it to go after Slack’s lunch with its increasingly popular rival, Teams.

  • The fun part: There's a whole other cast of companies prepping to go public next year, so we'll have plenty more opportunities to watch unicorns gallop (or stumble) into the market. As Dan warned, don't necessarily leave the unicorns for dead.
  • Who's in the pipeline? CB Insights has some predictions here.

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Editor's note: The story has been updated to note that it's Microsoft that's "printing money" (not Teams, an error inserted during editing). It has also been updated to eliminate elements from a separate Pro Rata story.