Consumer is BACK: A Look at 2020’s Top Tech Trends

In recent years, the whispers had grown louder, and the tweets came more frequently. “Consumer tech is dead.” “There’s no innovation in consumer.” 2020 has sent an emphatic response to all of the doubts and gripes: Consumer is back.

COVID-19 has flipped our world upside down, drastically and fundamentally changing consumer behavior. While many of us were online before, now the internet is a lifeline. Almost every element of our lives, from education, to work, to socializing, has migrated into the virtual arena.

Needless to say, in 2020, some things just *hit different.* As we were all stuck at home, the year’s biggest IPO came from a travel company. And who knew we’d become obsessed with note-taking apps, see the biggest Beyoncé moment come from a collab with a stationary bike, and interact with our politicians on Animal Crossing? It’s been a long year of Quibi jokes, Slack sneakers, and LinkedIn stories.

We could all use a break before 2021 kicks off, so as we start to sit back and relax over the holidays, we present to you, the first Annual Definitive Ranking of Consumer & Tech Trends™:

While a wide range of trends have defined the 2020 consumer tech landscape, five primary themes stand out:

Sustainability, Inclusivity and Diversity

If there’s one driving theme of 2020, it should be intersectionality. Diversity and inclusion are intrinsically linked to our environment, our economy, our lives. It is not a coincidence that Gen Zs, the generation most affected by climate change and societal ills, have been at the forefront of pushing for change within the consumer space.

What companies moved the needle? In the software space, Aerial and Joro created tools that allow consumers to actively monitor their carbon footprint, and Good On You emerged as the defining arbiter of sustainability. A generation of brands including Stasherbag, Pela, Bite, Leaf Shave, By Humankind, and Dropps exploded across our Instagram feeds promoting a plastic-free, sustainable future–one that might have seemed extreme or strange in past years, but in 2020 was coated with a special kind of D2C ~sheen~.

Depop became the marketplace du jour as Gen Zs across the world used the app to resell thrifted and used wares, helping a generation of teens achieve a Billie Eilish look sustainably and on the cheap. Notably, in today’s creator economy where it is common to have not one or two but five or more sources of income, Depop selling has become a de-rigueur side hustle among Youtubers and TikTokers, even powering successful teens to six-figure salaries.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and as brands were encouraged to “pull up or shut up,” those that already had meaningful diversity and inclusion practices had a running head start. Notably, companies like Parade and Savage X Fenty exploded in popularity, while notorious stalwart Victoria’s Secret fumbled so much that its planned acquisition was cancelled.

Perhaps this year was marked more by what didn’t happen than what did. Beginning in June, we saw a slew of corporate cancellations and scandals, including at Carta, Bon Appetit, Clubhouse, and Coinbase, only to be reminded that sexism is still very much alive and well on #techtwitter.

It’s a long road towards real equity and inclusion in the tech and investment communities, but we’re optimistic about the future. 2020 has been a watershed year and it’s safe to say that these values — sustainability, inclusivity, and diversity — are no longer a “nice to have” but a necessity. We’re excited about inclusive cults over exclusive clubs and bullish on the idea that equitable, accessible platforms are not just the right moral choice, but the best business decision.

Creator and Influencer Economy

If you weren’t on TikTok in 2020, were you even on the internet? This year, the social media platform catapulted a generation of creators to online stardom. While teens like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae made headlines as the top two most followed influencers on TikTok (102M and 71M fans, respectively), their fame only signals the tip of 2020’s creator-led online boom. Today, scaling from zero to viral can occur faster than ever, with many celebrities becoming D2C commodities, cultivating relationships with their fans in a more intimate and direct fashion than ever before.

Over 50M people consider themselves to be creators and rely on an expanding number of platforms to help them monetize and strengthen relationships with fans. These include Substack (paid newsletters), Patreon and Only Fans (exclusive content), and Cameo and Pear Pop (customized appearances). Creators now rely on so many different sources of income that platforms like Stir have emerged to consolidate their finances.

While we’ve seen the rise of the custom-branded celebrity collab (Charli x Dunkin, Travis Scott x McDonalds), a more interesting offshoot of this trend is the celebrity equity deal. A growing group of influencers and stars launched their own companies, including David Dobrik’s Dispo, Josh Richards’ and Bryce Hall’s Ani Energy, and Ryan Reynolds’s Aviation Gin — which sold for a whopping $610M in June.

In one of the biggest events of the year, the company behind K-Pop superstars BTS notched a $4B IPO, allowing fans to buy a stake in the band’s future success. On a smaller scale, platforms like Indify and AmplifyX allow individuals to invest directly in musicians.

Audio

Remember the memes and jokes surrounding Apple’s AirPods when the first generation came out in 2016? Us too. Three generations later (the $549 AirPods Max were just released last week) and the only people laughing are the folks at Apple. Apple sold nearly 60 million AirPods in 2019 and is on track to sell more than 90 million this year. AirPods have fundamentally changed the audio landscape, becoming an ever-present conduit between media and consumers’ ears.

We’ve watched behavioral patterns change rapidly since Airpods’ adoption: People wear them while working, ordering in a coffee shop, sitting and talking with friends (“Oh, don’t worry, these aren’t on”), or just to convey unavailability in public spaces. We’ve even seen AirPods worn purely as a fashion accessory, with people posing for pictures in their Pods to round out an outfit.

This Apple trend aside, we didn’t fully recognize audio’s potential within consumer tech until this spring. Despite the emergence of smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa and hands-free technology in recent years, we watched in awe as a16z overcame Benchmark to lead Clubhouse’s highly touted Series A financing. At a $100 million valuation, consumer VCs immediately perked their ears and began clamoring to find the next superstar in audio.

Founders are also rushing to build new startups in the space. In a time where many of us are overwhelmed with Zoom fatigue, audibly engaging with friends or consuming content is a refreshing antidote, and founders are fighting for our ears in any way they can. Synchronous audio startup Rodeo is making it easier to talk to friends, Dipsea provides erotic audio content, Marine Snow helps users make internet friends through music, and Alpe is distributing top-tier academic audio courses. High Fidelity, Betty Labs, Chalk, and Quilt are just a handful of others competing in the growing social audio landscape.

In 2021, we’ll be on the lookout for startups building around audio-first content creation, music as a social unit of interaction, audio social networks, and obviously 25 different versions of “Clubhouse for [insert interest group / demographic].” We’ve already seen demand for verticalized social audio platforms across music and sports, but only time will tell if niche communities will create strong enough standalone apps.

EdTech

With tens of millions of students from kindergarten to business school learning remotely this year, EdTech found itself as the center of attention for students, teachers, parents, and obviously VCs. Never before has education been productized as much as it is today. Consequently, never before have K-12 students and higher ed students required such tailored learning solutions.

School closures have been especially difficult for K-12 families as younger students require high levels of oversight, guidance, and engagement. The ecosystem is exploding with startups Jan Lynn-Matern categorizes as ‘enablers,’ — those that help existing institutions to become more scalable. Startups like ClassDojo, Yuday, and Seesaw are encouraging higher and more active participation from parents in their children’s learning experience, and Kahoot, the self-titled “Netflix of Education,” is designing its content around games to make e-learning more fun. Other startups, like Swing, are building marketplaces to guarantee teacher supply for millions of students.

In 2020, changes in higher education seemed more existential as students re-evaluate its value proposition. According to Jomayra Herrera, higher ed’s value prop can be broken down into three components:

1) The content and skills you learn

2) The credentials you earn

3) The brand and network you develop(the only defensible component)

Though one can argue the importance of each, remote learning experiences have convinced many that content & skills are enough. Students are realizing they can read the Canterbury Tales AND land a competitive job without saddling themselves with student loans. Abandoning an alumni network and credentials that historically have acted as safety nets, students are supplanting the undergraduate experience with gap year communities and hacker houses.

Understanding this, unicorns like Udemy, Udacity, and Skillshare are offering the skills and credentials, without the network. Others, including Lambda School and OnDeck, even include a strong brand and a network of accomplished alumni as a part of their value proposition. In short, as we reimagine the higher ed of the future, the offerings of 2021 and beyond will need to be more flexible, accessible, and cost-effective.

As innovative as the year has been for EdTech, 2020 has also introduced new shortfalls within the space and exacerbated existing ones that must be addressed. Despite remarkable progress in the past decade, the digital divide in our country is clear as over 4.4 million children still lack access to computers at home.

Gaming and the Metaverse

For those who doubted the strength of the global gaming appetite, 2020 has been an eye-opening year. Unity currently boasts a $41 billion market cap, Epic Games’ most recent round valued it at $17.3 billion, Scopely just raised at a +$3 billion valuation, and AOC took to Twitch to play Among Us in the biggest voter turnout event of the year.

We are seeing aspects of the video game experience (immersive worlds, social connectivity, virtual economies) migrate toward all areas of life: social media, investing, shopping, education, and even the workplace. While some real-life experiences are becoming gamified, games are increasingly imitating real life. One word defining tech discourse this year is the Metaverse, the idea of shared immersive, 3D online environments.

Metaverse has taken 2020 by storm, in both concept and practice, and its applications extend beyond the traditional world of gaming. Startups like Branch, Gather and Kumospace are quickly proving its utility for the future of work by creating virtual offices, and similar spatial audio and video others like Bash are offering virtual, social communities for internet friends to interact.

Other benefactors of the surge in Metaverse awareness will likely include virtual economies. Animal Crossing’s Bank of Nook institutes interest rate cuts that mimic the real world, and in the first nine months of 2020 alone, Roblox sold $1.2 billion of its virtual currency, Robux, which gamers use to purchase in-game objects, avatars, and enhancements. It also bodes well for Roblox’s community of young developers, who will collectively pull in $250 million this year, but no one is more excited about the Metaverse than Travis Scott.

In 2018–19, Travis Scott’s Astroworld tour stretched 57 shows across roughly four months; the tour covered more than 850,000 fans and netted him nearly $54 million. In 2020, Scott performed five virtual concerts inside Epic Games’ Fortnite. In a span of just 3 days, Scott’s concerts reached almost 28 million fans and earned him $20 million. Talk about efficiency.

Quickly proving its utility for publicity, monetization and brand-building, expect the Metaverse and gaming world to pull in swaths of new communities in 2021; artists, influencers, and politicians alike will build their avatars and pick up a controller …everyone is slowly becoming a gamer.

Looking Ahead

So, where are we going in 2021? We’re confident our lives will continue to be lived online, with technology playing an increasing role in how we interact with ourselves and others.

In 2021, we’re expecting an even greater emphasis on wellness, with fitness, meditation, and therapy platforms rising in popularity, and a suite of tools to help us disconnect. Consequently, privacy will be top of mind as consumers reevaluate their deep relationships with internet companies. Whether it’s more sustainable fashion, water usage, meat consumption, or travel, consumer tech will take a stronger, more active approach to healing our planet. We’re entering an era of Social Media 3.0, where we’re confident consumer social apps will prioritize inclusivity, authenticity, serendipity, and vertical alignment.

Things are finally looking up with the help of the COVID-19 vaccine and maybe — just maybe — we’ll trade in this year’s Zoom holidays for IRL hugs and celebrations in 2021. Until then, we’ll see you in a more creative, immersive, and forward-looking corner of the internet. Tasha is busy earning her PhD in TikTok psychology and Jay is still perfecting the art of the DM slide, but you can find us both on Twitter, at @natashajuliakim and @jay_drainjr.

Thank you to our incredible friends and fellow investors, Leah Fessler, Gaby Goldberg, Mark Grace, Faye Maidement, and Lia Zhang, who contributed editing, input, and thoughts to this article.

Chicago native / New York resident | Lover of basketball, food, fashion, and 90’s R&B | Investing @ Maven Ventures