At the turn of the last decade, the U.S. was still coming out of recession, the term unicorn for billion-dollar-valued tech company hadn't yet been coined, and the film The Social Network hadn't come out. Since, a whole new ecosystem of influential technologies has matured. Presented in no particular order, these fast-growing companies--which hadn't launched or were private as of 10 years ago--have left the biggest mark on their industries, the business ecosystem, and our culture through the 2010s. 

1. Airbnb

Back in 2008, when three friends applied the marketplace model to people's air mattresses and extra rooms, it was far from a sure thing they'd find traction. Within three years, though, the business had booked a million stays, and helped usher in the sharing economy. Now, two million people a night stay in an Airbnb-listed property. Its latest valuation is more than $35 billion--higher than the market cap of Hilton or Marriott--and it appears poised for a public listing. 

2. Epic Games

Founded as Potomac Computer Systems in founder Tim Sweeney's parents' house, the single-person game-development company soon adopted the name Epic MegaGames (later, Epic Games) to make it seem larger than it was. Its first big project was the Unreal game engine, which still powers its hits. Those of course include Fortnite, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a month and has become a cultural phenomenon with more than 250 million players around the globe.

3. Facebook

The world's biggest social network crossed the billion-user threshold right around the time it went public in 2012. Today it reaches 2.45 billion people monthly. While it's impossible to quantify the ways in which Facebook has helped people connect (or, for that matter, to harass, misinform, or plot genocide against one another), it is possible we've learned a thing or two about data privacy and security from the giant. Since the launch of multiple federal investigations into the scandal around data mining firm Cambridge Analytica--in which 87 million Facebook users had their information inappropriately accessed--a security firm uncovered that 540 million users' information had been left unsecured, and Facebook revealed that hackers had stolen personal information about 30 million more.

4. Instagram

The internet has come a long way since the Valencia photo filter seemed ingenious. With its army of influencers, infinite scroll, and dominance of the mobile-attention economy, Instagram is in many ways the quintessential app of the 2010s. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger founded the business right at the dawn of the decade. Facebook snapped it up two years later for $1 billion, the social network's largest acquisition to date.

5. Slack

Now that Slack has reached near-ubiquity, it seems strange to recall that we didn't have the workplace chat app before 2013. The company's freemium go-to-market strategy proved to be genius, allowing it to worm into almost every sort of office, giving workers an unprecedented level of control over their workflow and communications (while also often making them unable to disconnect from their offices). It's also worth commending the company's unconventional streak, which was on display when it went public in June on the New York Stock Exchange through a direct listing.

6. Snap

When Snapchat launched in 2011, it was the butt of a million jokes over what innovations it could bring to sexting. Turns out, Snap's founders and content creators accurately predicted the continuous shortening of people's attention spans. Within years, nearly every social platform would mimic its addictive and advertiser-friendly formula. Also admirable: Its founders' steadfast refusal to sell, and remarkable control of the company. Together Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy have 95 percent of the company's voting power.

7/8. SpaceX and Tesla

Elon Musk's pair of innovative companies born from moonshots have ended up bending multiple industries' trajectories. The companies have taken considerably different paths: While Tesla began the decade by going public, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, in 2010. Now it's valued at more than $33 billion and is a partner of NASA as well as a major defense contractor. Tesla, on the other hand, is a perpetual fascination for both consumers and investors. It became the best-selling plug-in passenger car manufacturer in 2018, and has pushed other car manufacturers to fast-track more electric and autopilot-ready vehicles. Yet Tesla has never had a profitable year. It earned most of its 2019 headlines for debuting a prototype of a triangular pickup truck--and essentially crowdfunding its development through pre-orders. 

9. Stripe

Paypal had been around a decade when John and Patrick Collison, college drop-outs from rural Ireland, turned seven lines of code into a viable competitor--and a giant break in the ongoing payments revolution. What they'd designed was an easy way anyone could use to connect their website to a payment processer. Today, Stripe provides that function for thousands of small businesses, and is used by giant ones, too: It counts Lyft, Target, and Salesforce as customers. The company still feels there's room to grown, and has stayed private, with a valuation of $35 billion that puts it ahead of other high-profile unicorns like Airbnb and Palantir. 

10. Theranos

Elizabeth Holmes founded her blood-test-with-a-fingerprint upstart in 2004, and went on to raise more than $700 million, coming out of stealth mode in 2013 and amassing a valuation of $9 billion by 2015. That year, everything fell apart, and she and her operation were revealed to have deceived investors, the public, and its partners through "massive fraud," as later charged by the SEC. Theranos is no more but continues to live on for investors as a cautionary tale of the allure of shoddy, unremarkable technology masked by a promising founder with friends in high places and illustrious board members.

11. Twitter

Originally an experiment in micro-blogging, Twitter's influence has extended to socio-political movements and fueling actual revolutions. Many of its well-documented effects have been nothing short of calamitous--from spreading racist memes to allowing direct harassment of individuals. Still, the company's role in fueling the Arab Spring, #MeToo, climate walk-outs, and a million other mini-movements, illuminate its deep, enduring cultural influence.

12. WeWork

With a valuation of $47 billion--the size of Lithuania's GDP--and 12,500 employees across more than 800 locations, WeWork was soaring well into 2019. On the cusp of going public, the reckoning came. Investors wouldn't bite on that valuation--nor the company's inflated "mission," as stated in its filing, to "elevate the world's consciousness." Things didn't improve once the valuation was slashed to about $10 billion. After massive layoffs, an ouster of founder Adam Neumann, and withdrawal of the IPO, the company only now is beginning to steady things.

Published on: Dec 17, 2019