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The Companies that Defined 2021

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The Companies that Defined 2021

The Companies that Defined 2021

Attention is an increasingly valuable form of currency in the Information Age.

In 2021, a handful of companies stood out from the pack, dominating the conversation and influencing society in both positive and negative ways. After vigorous internal debate, here is Visual Capitalist’s list of companies that defined 2021:

  • Robinhood
  • Pfizer
  • Coinbase
  • Tesla
  • TikTok
  • Facebook/Meta

We looked at a number of metrics to select these companies, including Google search and news volume, performance relative to competitors, industry-specific indicators, and more.

Many of these are digital companies, and all have massive reach, scale, and influence. Interestingly, many of these companies also faced controversies along with their success, and were caught up in movements that were bigger than themselves.

With this context in mind, let’s dive in.

Robinhood

Robinhood’s eventful year reached its peak when the stock trading app was caught in a frenzy involving retail traders, short sellers, and “meme stonks”. It did not take long for Robinhood to go from hero to villain in this story. As the Gamestop stock shot up past $400, trading was halted and position limits were initiated on the app.

As well, Robinhood’s stated goal of democratizing finance came under scrutiny due to their pay-for-order-flow business model, where sensitive user trade activity data is sold to the highest bidder who then gets ahead of the trade, otherwise known as “front-running”.

robinhood account size vs competitors

Despite the controversy, Robinhood’s platform now has over 22 million users, many of whom are younger, first-time investors. While they have key attractions like zero commission trades, they were also accused of gamifying investing with features like confetti shooting across the screen after a trade is made (a feature that was removed after media criticism).

The company frequently made front page financial news in early 2021, and while the often negative press didn’t get in the way of their IPO—which commenced in late July—it has affected investor sentiment. Since their 52-week high of $70 per share in August, the stock has fallen some 70% towards the $18 range.

Furthermore, the SEC is rumored to be launching an investigation into them. With these headwinds, investing on Robinhood has probably fared better so far than investing in Robinhood.

Pfizer

Perhaps there was no bigger story in 2021 than COVID-19 vaccines.

Early in the year, the race to secure vaccines was on. Wealthy countries scrambled to buy stock and roll out widespread vaccination programs ahead of spring.

And the companies that managed to produce efficient vaccines saw the biggest benefits, like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The company’s COVID-19 vaccine, made in partnership with German firm BioNTech, ended up becoming the world’s most-preferred vaccine to fight the pandemic.

The company is forecasting revenue of $36 billion from its vaccine this year.

Competing vaccines from Moderna and AstraZeneca also saw their parent companies rise in both market cap and newsworthiness. All of the involved pharma companies have also faced constant scrutiny, with many countries in the world struggling to secure COVID-19 vaccines, and others dealing with vaccine hesitancy.

As the pandemic continues with the Omicron variant quickly spreading around the globe, Pfizer and its competitors will continue to be impactful into the new year. The company announced a COVID-19 antiviral pill that is planned to be released in the near future, and more effective vaccines and boosters against other variants are still a hot commodity.

Coinbase

2021 was a pivotal year for cryptocurrency. Prices reached new highs, and institutions and retail investors alike poured into the market.

With its user-friendly app and focus on security, Coinbase was well positioned to benefit from this surge in interest. The exchange started off the year by more than doubling its transacting user base as Bitcoin prices shot to new heights.

coinbase transacting users 2021

It’s easy to underestimate the influence of the company’s IPO—especially as its share price slid as the crypto market cooled off—but the exchange’s very entry into the public markets was a huge boost in legitimacy for crypto, paving the way for similar companies to IPO in the future.

Tesla

Nobody captures attention and creates controversy quite like Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk.

Most of Tesla’s actions are tied closely to the famous entrepreneur, who’s known for his brazen online presence. Musk’s social media persona is so strong, one tweet can send Tesla’s stock plummeting, like it did last year after Musk told Twitter that “Tesla’s stock is too high imo.”

While naysayers are quick to criticize Tesla and Musk, the company has some impressive numbers to back up its hype. 2020 was already a ridiculous year for Tesla—its stock surged by nearly 700%, and with a valuation of $630 billion, it became one of the most valuable companies in the world.

This momentum carried over into 2021. This year, revenue rose each quarter, and in October, the company’s market value surpassed $1 trillion.

Tesla was also intertwined within other societal narratives over the course of the year. The automaker’s move from California to Texas was part of a larger conversation about the “Bay Area exodus”, as jurisdictions in Texas and Florida looked to steal Silicon Valley’s thunder.

elon musk twitter poll

Musk’s Tesla stock sales generated a lot of buzz in Q4 as well.

Seemingly in response to criticism over inequality and tax avoidance, Musk ran a Twitter poll to decide whether or not to sell a significant portion of his Tesla holdings. After a majority “yes” vote, the Tesla CEO now appears to have sold off enough stock to hold up his end of the bargain.

TikTok

TikTok was already popular in 2020, but this year truly solidified its status as a cultural phenomenon.

The app topped a billion users in 2021, just five years after its launch in 2016. For context, it took Facebook and Instagram nearly eight years to hit that same milestone.

tiktok user growth

What’s so appealing about TikTok? Experts have many theories, but in an interview with Forbes, John Holdridge, GM of Fullscreen, puts its simply: “TikTok’s success can be attributed to how it flips what we think of as social media on its head, while at the same time returning us all to roots of the original appeal–the ability to go viral.”

TikTok’s short-style video format has become so popular that it’s inspired a slew of copycat apps, especially in regions like India where TikTok is banned.

Even established companies like Meta have tried to mimic TikTok’s success. In 2020, Instagram launched “reels,” its own short-form video feature where users can create and share 30 second videos. But Instagram reels failed to overtake TikTok’s growth—instead, reels has become a place for users to share and promote their TikTok videos.

Facebook/Meta

Facebook frequently finds itself in the news, given its status as the world’s largest social network. In 2021, however, it was for two different reasons.

The first was the U.S. Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. In the aftermath of this event, many blamed Facebook for not doing enough to mitigate the negative effects of its platform—mainly polarization, conspiracy theories, and hate speech.

The controversy reached its peak in September 2021, when internal files leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen were published. These documents exposed Facebook’s internal struggles with combating misinformation, as well as employee dissent.

Ultimately, Facebook weathered the storm and opted to shed its baggage with a new name. Not only does this help the company disassociate from its previous scandals, it also lines up with Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions of pioneering the metaverse.

Facebook metaverse

Following the announcement, “metaverse” exploded overnight and became one of the hottest topics of 2021. The word “Meta” has also become incredibly valuable—Meta (the company) recently completed a $60 million deal to acquire the trademark assets of Meta Financial Group, a regional U.S. bank.

Honorable Mentions

While the companies highlighted above were undeniably influential in 2021, any list like this is bound to be subjective and open to debate. Here is a shortlist of other companies that we considered for the Companies that Defined 2021 list:

Reddit

The surge in investment that propelled Robinhood and Coinbase to new heights was partially fueled by communities on Reddit. One of the most fascinating moments of the year came when Reddit user u/deepfuckingvalue appeared before the House Committee on Financial Services proclaiming, “I am not a cat” and “I like the stock”.

On the business front, the “Front Page of the Internet” saw double-digit user growth during the pandemic, and now has a valuation of $10 billion after a hefty round of funding.

OpenSea

NFTs had a Cambrian explosion alongside the crypto bull run, with OpenSea emerging as the dominant marketplace this past year. In the second half of 2021, OpenSea made up 95% of NFT trading volume on major marketplaces, and has transacted $1.42B in volume in December so far.

While it seemed OpenSea was planning an IPO after their CFO Brian Roberts commented how “you’d be foolish not to think about it [OpenSea] going public,” user backlash resulted in Roberts later tweeting that the company is not actively planning an IPO. Whether or not OpenSea does set sail onto the public markets, they’ll soon have some serious competition from Coinbase’s own NFT marketplace currently in the works.

Netflix

Despite intense competition from rival streaming platforms, Netflix will finish the year on top once again. The company has a number of impressive tallies in the win column this year.

First, Squid Game was a cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming the streaming service’s number one show, and also the world’s most Googled TV show of 2021.

Next, Netflix’s Red Notice is likely the most watched new movie of 2021, logging well over 300 million hours of viewing time. Not bad, considering its tepid score of 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains to be seen whether deep-pocketed competitors like Disney+ are able to dethrone Netflix, but for now, the company is as culturally relevant as ever.

SpaceX

The fact that Elon Musk has two companies in this conversation points to why he was named Time’s Most Influential Person for 2021.

SpaceX has made launching rockets drastically cheaper in recent years, which helps explain its massive reported valuation of $200 billion. The company, which is the top commercial launch provider in the U.S., will round out the year with 31 launches.

Which companies would you add to this list?

The following members of the VC editorial staff contributed to this article: Nick Routley, Carmen Ang, Niccolo Conte, Marcus Lu, Aran Ali, and Omri Wallach.

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The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web

A lot has changed since Yahoo and AOL were the homepages of choice. This visualization looks at the largest internet giants in the U.S. since 1998.

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The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web (1998-Today)

With each passing year, an increasingly large segment of the population no longer remembers images loading a single pixel row at a time, the earsplitting sound of a 56k modem, or the early domination of web portals.

Many of the top websites in 1998 were news aggregators or search portals, which are easy concepts to understand. Today, brand touch-points are often spread out between devices (e.g. mobile apps vs. desktop) and a myriad of services and sub-brands (e.g. Facebook’s constellation of apps). As a result, the world’s biggest websites are complex, interconnected web properties.

The visualization above, which primarily uses data from ComScore’s U.S. Multi-Platform Properties ranking, looks at which of the internet giants have evolved to stay on top, and which have faded into internet lore.

America Moves Online

For millions of curious people the late ’90s, the iconic AOL compact disc was the key that opened the door to the World Wide Web. At its peak, an estimated 35 million people accessed the internet using AOL, and the company rode the Dotcom bubble to dizzying heights, reaching a valuation of $222 billion dollars in 1999.

AOL’s brand may not carry the caché it once did, but the brand never completely faded into obscurity. The company continually evolved, finally merging with Yahoo after Verizon acquired both of the legendary online brands. Verizon had high hopes for the company—called Oath—to evolve into a “third option” for advertisers and users who were fed up with Google and Facebook.

Sadly, those ambitions did not materialize as planned. In 2019, Oath was renamed Verizon Media, and was eventually sold once again in 2021.

A City of Gifs and Web Logs

As internet usage began to reach critical mass, web hosts such as AngelFire and GeoCities made it easy for people to create a new home on the Web.

GeoCities, in particular, made a huge impact on the early internet, hosting millions of websites and giving people a way to actually participate in creating online content. If it were a physical community of “home” pages, it would’ve been the third largest city in America, after Los Angeles.

This early online community was at risk of being erased permanently when GeoCities was finally shuttered by Yahoo in 2009, but luckily, the nonprofit Internet Archive took special efforts to create a thorough record of GeoCities-hosted pages.

From A to Z

In December of 1998, long before Amazon became the well-oiled retail machine we know today, the company was in the midst of a massive holiday season crunch.

In the real world, employees were pulling long hours and even sleeping in cars to keep the goods flowing, while online, Amazon.com had become one of the biggest sites on the internet as people began to get comfortable with the idea of purchasing goods online. Demand surged as the company began to expand their offering beyond books.

Amazon.com has grown to be the most successful merchant on the Internet.

– New York Times (1998)

Digital Magazine Rack

Meredith will be an unfamiliar brand to many people looking at today’s top 20 list. While Meredith may not be a household name, the company controlled many of the country’s most popular magazine brands (People, AllRecipes, Martha Stewart, Health, etc.) including their sizable digital footprints. The company also owned a slew of local television networks around the United States.

After its acquisition of Time Inc. in 2017, Meredith became the largest magazine publisher in the world. Since then, however, Meredith has divested many of its most valuable assets (Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune). In December 2021, Meredith merged with IAC’s Dotdash.

“Hey, Google”

When people have burning questions, they increasingly turn to the internet for answers, but the diversity of sources for those answers is shrinking.

Even as recently as 2013, we can see that About.com, Ask.com, and Answers.com were still among the biggest websites in America. Today though, Google appears to have cemented its status as a universal wellspring of answers.

As smart speakers and voice assistants continue penetrate the market and influence search behavior, Google is unlikely to face any near-term competition from any company not already in the top 20 list.

New Kids on the Block

Social media has long since outgrown its fad stage and is now a common digital thread connecting people across the world. While Facebook rapidly jumped into the top 20 by 2007, other social media infused brands took longer to grow into internet giants.

By 2018, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook’s umbrella of platforms were all in the top 20, and you can see a more detailed and up-to-date breakdown of the social media universe here.

A Tangled Web

Today’s internet giants have evolved far beyond their ancestors from two decades ago. Many of the companies in the top 20 run numerous platforms and content streams, and more often than not, they are not household names.

A few, such as Mediavine and CafeMedia, are services that manage ads. Others manage content distribution, such as music, or manage a constellation of smaller media properties, as is the case with Hearst.

Lastly, there are still the tech giants. Remarkably, three of the top five web properties were in the top 20 list in 1998. In the fast-paced digital ecosystem, that’s some remarkable staying power.

This article was inspired by an earlier work by Philip Bump, published in the Washington Post.

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Visualizing the Power of the World’s Supercomputers

Supercomputers are some of the most advanced machines humans have ever created. See how they stack up in this infographic.

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Visualizing the Power of the World’s Supercomputers

A supercomputer is a machine that is built to handle billions, if not trillions of calculations at once. Each supercomputer is actually made up of many individual computers (known as nodes) that work together in parallel.

A common metric for measuring the performance of these machines is flops, or floating point operations per second.

In this visualization, we’ve used November 2021 data from TOP500 to visualize the computing power of the world’s top five supercomputers. For added context, a number of modern consumer devices were included in the comparison.

Ranking by Teraflops

Because supercomputers can achieve over one quadrillion flops, and consumer devices are much less powerful, we’ve used teraflops as our comparison metric.

1 teraflop = 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) flops.

RankNameTypeTeraflops
#1🇯🇵 Supercomputer FugakuSupercomputer537,212
#2🇺🇸 SummitSupercomputer200,795
#3🇺🇸 SierraSupercomputer125,712
#4🇨🇳 Sunway TaihulightSupercomputer125,436
#5🇺🇸 PerlmutterSupercomputer93,750
n/aNvidia Titan RTXConsumer device130
n/aNvidia GeForce RTX 3090Consumer device36
n/aXbox Series XConsumer device12
n/aTesla Model S (2021) Consumer device10

Supercomputer Fugaku was completed in March 2021, and is officially the world’s most powerful supercomputer. It’s used for various applications, including weather simulations and innovative drug discovery.

Sunway Taihulight is officially China’s top supercomputer and fourth most powerful in the world. That said, some experts believe that the country is already operating two much more powerful systems, based on data from anonymous sources.

As you can see, the most advanced consumer devices do not come close to supercomputing power. For example, it would take the combined power of 4,000 Nvidia Titan RTX graphics cards (the most powerful consumer card available) to measure up to the Fugaku.

Upcoming Supercomputers

One of China’s unrevealed supercomputers is supposedly named Oceanlite, and is a successor to Sunway Taihulight. It’s believed to have reached 1.3 exaflops, or 1.3 quintillion flops. The following table makes it easier to follow all of these big numbers.

NameNotationExponentPrefix
Quintillion1,000,000,000,000,000,00010^18Exa 
Quadrillion1,000,000,000,000,00010^15Peta
Trillion 1,000,000,000,00010^12Tera
Billion1,000,000,00010^9Giga
Million1,000,00010^6Mega

In the U.S., rival chipmakers AMD and Intel have both won contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy to build exascale supercomputers. On the AMD side, there’s Frontier and El Capitan, while on the Intel side, there’s Aurora.

Also involved in the EL Capitan project is Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), which claims the supercomputer will be able to reach 2 exaflops upon its completion in 2023. All of this power will be used to support several exciting endeavors:

  • Enable advanced simulation and modeling to support the U.S. nuclear stockpile and ensure its reliability and security.
  • Accelerate cancer drug discovery from six years to one year through a partnership with pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Understand the dynamic and mutations of RAS proteins that are linked to 30% of human cancers

Altogether, exascale computing represents the ability to conduct complex analysis in a matter of seconds, rather than hours. This could unlock an even faster pace of innovation.

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