For people that are not aware of the term (a term that I actually don’t like that much), “unicorn companies” or “unicorn startups” are companies that basically get hyper-funded and gets a lot of investments in a period of time: the idea is basically that a company (or startup) have such a wonderful idea, or a wonderful execution of that idea, that people want to put money on it, to the point of millions (or even billions) of USD, on the hope that the company will revolutionize the market. Nubank is an example; Twitter’s probably another one; and there were a lot of companies (specially startups) that are trended as “unicorns”.
For me, there is a real problem with the term – it uses a mythological animal to explain the company. Unicorns don’t exist, which basically mean that the “money” an Unicorn Company make also… don’t exist. At least, not for now; there’s a promise that it will be profitable in the future. Considering we’re talking about literally millions of USD, these want to probably get thousands of millions in return. So they start by making less than zero to the point of trying to reach eight zeroes to the right of some number, at least. They also don’t need to be sustainable, or sometimes even have good code, in the beginning – what matters is the idea, and that they somehow get founded by a group of investors.
And that’s where the problem comes in. I worked at some of these companies in the past, but up to that point I never knew what it means to have such a big money invested. The thing is, good practices in both product and code were present, for sure. But the focus was on delivering – so everything goes to the drain if you’re not delivering fast enough – you always have to deliver something new, something that the users will like, and it have to make to production really to see if that idea will make sense or not.
Which is good enough, but there’s a problem. Your products will always get worse.
And in some way, I knew that instinctively. But recently with cases of Twitter being bought by the megalomaniac, and the problems with Reddit’s moderation… and even, honestly, Nubank.
As a disclaimer, I’m still an avid user of the Nubank account – it’s basically still the best option for me, to keep my money in Brazil while living in Uruguay – it’s a good service overall. But the thing is, in the beginning, Nubank application was mindblowing – really simple, fast, straighforward, really cool to use – you basically put your money there and from time to time it will give you some money back because it basically invest your money into some very low risk business model. That, together with a credit card with no tax (something that wasn’t heard off in Brazil, and still wasn’t heard of here in Uruguay), made the service simply amazing.
But since they started, things changed – the there were some changes in taxes which made things more expensive (I don’t use any paid service, but the point still stands). There were more weird things happening in the app, like bugs and other things, that me, the user, need to be aware of instead of having somebody asking me if the “weird movements on my account are legit”. Technical Support for anything got way worse – because in the past, I would open a chat and 20 minutes, tops, I got an answer with my problem already solved – now, it takes 40 minutes to for somebody to reply me on the chat! It’s not even to talk, or to solve the problem! Worse yet is that, more than once, I had a generic “we are looking at your problem, and in two or three business days we’ll reply to you”, which is basically the problem that I had with all other banks in Brazil.
As for Twitter… that was probably one of the worst thing I ever saw happening with some platform. But let me start by saying that I think people don’t understand the power that Twitter had, and how important it was.
When you live in a country like I used to (Brazil), government not always work; government companies and consumer protection rights are so bad that, multiple times, you had this weird situation where nobody could solve your problem, and if you didn’t solve the problem you would be subject to sanctions, fines, etc… so, when this things don’t work, you have to somehow call the attention of somebody – and Twitter was basically one of the best ways to do that.
Nobody wants a bad reputation on a public social media that anyone could google, right? So, the only thing that I had to do was to mention that company (or government division) and publish something that would make them look bad – I got situations where, 10 minutes later, a message reply would come, asking for the description of the problem and to solve it via direct message – usually, this would take way less time than trying the official means (to the point I even stopped trying the official stuff – I mean, why bother sending an e-mail that would never get an answer, or calling a phone that would make you wait for 20 minutes then drop the call, or visiting some far, far away place, to wait an hour or two for someone to answer you, and then, after five hours lost in transit and finishing up paperwork and other things, exit the building certain that nothing would happen and maybe in like, two to five YEARS you will have an answer to your problem?).
The issue is basically – these unicorns have a lot of money to burn – and they do burn a lot of money producing products that are enticing, better than everybody else, and that eventually, after five to seven years of only losing money, will need to start making huge profits – FAST. And that’s where the weird stuff comes in. When I lived in Brazil, I envisioned a day I could buy at Amazon, because their prices were amazing and everybody said how their products were top-notch from good sellers; now that I can buy from Amazon with ease (thans Uruguay and their easy to understand import laws – really, it’s AMAZING compared with the nonsense that Brazil is), it seems that it’s basically an US version of Aliexpress, really… but considering that they basically killed all their competitors, I’m stuck with it.
We need to be aware of what we are creating. We are letting these big corporations drug us with promises; but we need to be aware that, someday, the drug’s effects will pass, and we’ll be left with all the after-effects of it.
Honestly, it might even be too late.