Creativity thrives within constraints. COVID-19, for better or worse, has provided some of the most unique constraints to test innovators’ prowess. We are not only faced with new problems - widespread health concerns, isolation, infrastructure that is stretched to its limits - but we also have new consumer behaviors that are being rapidly trained and adopted.
Almost every aspect of how we live has changed over the past days and weeks, prompting much discussion and analysis. Below is my attempt to take a step back and summarize the areas of consumer technology that offer the most potential. While we still have a long road ahead, I’m a deep believer that tech innovators will play a critical role in enabling consumers to adapt to a new normal.
Reskilling / Upskilling:
Ed-tech broadly has seen massive adoption with schools moving to remote learning and educators and parents alike scrambling to find lessons, tools, and content for students. However, the area of adult education for reskilling and upskilling in particular is one that I believe to be more critical now and in the next few years than ever before. The US is experiencing record levels of unemployment and some employers are already looking at ways to introduce technology that could permanently eliminate roles that once existed. With this elimination of jobs in the long-run, there will be a massive need for reskilling and upskilling amongst the working population. D2C certification and training programs, ISAs, and employer-sponsored training for vocational or trade skills will be a particular area of need. Companies like Springboard, Thinkful, and Lambda School have been leading the way in training and job placement for technical roles and I expect to see even more innovation for vocational roles like nursing and medical technicians.
Always-on collaboration tools
COVID has accelerated what was already a growing trend around collaboration and productivity tools. Zoom has been the obvious big winner within this space - it’s currently still the #1 app in the appstore worldwide. But as the world is forced into remote work, the limitations of zoom have already begun to be felt. What is missing is that proverbial office watercooler. Teams need that equivalent of stopping by someone’s desk to chat or getting looped into a random conversation on the way to the bathroom that actually meaningfully impacts that third item you had on your to do list.
What’s more, the line between enterprise and consumer is being blurred even more as a result of COVID. Our place of work and our place of living have become one and the same. We are fluidly switching between communicating with coworkers, administering 3rd grade lesson plans, shipping a new product, prepping lunch, checking in on family, and jumping on a company happy hour over zoom (case in point: Facebook’s Portal TV sold out last month). Consumers need tools that can fluidly switch with them through this new normal.
Fortunately, a new crop of tools seems to be popping up every week. There are tools like Loom, Tandem, Around, Clubhouse, and Slashtalk for an “always-on” experience. In addition, you have solutions like Run the World and Icebreaker for conferences or large interactive groups. Bottom line, employers have an unprecedented number of tools at their finger-tips to make collaboration easier than ever before. I’m excited to see more of these tools that blur the line between the consumer and enterprise and adapt with consumers as we find a new normal for working.
Content / Media:
It’s no surprise that people are consuming more content while stuck at home in quarantine. Youtube has seen a 15% increase in traffic over the last two months, TwitchTracker estimates that concurrent viewership on Twitch is up as much as 100% since January.
From an investment perspective, there are two areas that I’m tracking closely. The first is new platforms for content. With movie theaters closed and production paused for many cable shows, consumers are flocking to streaming platforms to get their entertainment fix. Netflix and Amazon have been inundated with shows and movies from the studios looking for a new distribution channel for their content. This indicates a clear opportunity for new platforms to provide an alternative to the incumbents. Quibi is a clear example here, but also companies like Serial Box or AWA Studios who provide a new platform for beloved IP.
The second is new formats of content (on either existing or new platforms). As we move towards an “always-on” mode for work, I expect we will see more of an “always-on” mode for entertainment as well. Especially while working from home, I believe new content formats that enable us to stay lightly engaged while working throughout the day will become the standard. Texting and Slack are both great early MVPs of what this behavior looks like and I believe we will see richer media formats that enable a fluid transition between entertainment and work.
We can’t talk about content / media without talking about gaming. They are all closely intertwined elements of entertainment.
The trend I am most excited about within gaming is social and interactive gaming. We’ve all seen the surge in apps like Houseparty and Bunch.live, or games like Animal Crossing as a result of COVID-19. While I don’t expect engagement to maintain at the levels we are seeing today, I do expect adoption of some of these platforms to persist at a higher waterline than we had 2 months ago. New casual gamers have been anointed as a result of COVID - they have had daily exposure to build a new habit, they’ve had their entire friend groups or families also adopt these gaming platforms so that initial barrier to adoption has completely crumbled.
I’ve written a lot about social media in the past, and I believe gaming is the new social platform for Gen Z. Just look at Travis Scott’s upcoming “Astronomical” tour that is taking place inside... Fortnite. In this case, Fortnite serves as a digital third-space in a time when physical third spaces like coffee shops, The Wing, or concert stadiums are out of the question. Within this third space, fortnite players are able to come together to socialize, transact, and consume content. It’s the ultimate blending of social, gaming, and media - and a trend that is amplified in adoption as a result of COVID-19.
TeleMed / Telehealth
In the last 6 weeks, the US government has made sweeping structural changes to the American healthcare system via a series of waivers that will fundamentally change healthcare as we once knew it.
1. CMS now allows for over 80 services to be furnished via telemedicine (billed at the same rate as an in-person visit). Prior to COVID, Medicare paid for telehealth on a very limited basis - primarily only in designated rural areas. Three major types of visits are now billable under the CMS waivers:
- Medicare telehealth visits: standard online (or audio) visit between patient and provider
- Virtual check-ins: a brief 5-10 minute check-in
- E-visits: communication between patients and their provider via an online portal
2. Physicians can now work across state lines and other restrictions have been lifted to allow healthcare professionals to work at the full extent of their license
3. Hospitals can now bill for services outside of their four walls (this includes telehealth, as well as alternate treatment and testing sites which are not subject to the Emergency Medical Labor and Treatment Act (EMTALA)
This certainly provides an unprecedented opportunity for new telemedicine platforms, adoption of telemedicine practices within existing consumer healthcare offerings, and a heightened expectation of ease and convenience from consumers.
Cocooning is a term that was coined in the 1980s to describe the trend of consumers focusing their social lives at home in the face of economic uncertainty. As the LA Times put it, “it’s a desire for a cozy, perfect environment far from the influences of a madding world.”
COVID-19 has forced everyone to cocoon, whether desired or not, and I believe this behavior is here to stay for the foreseeable future. The cocooning of the 1980s spawned home entertainment innovations like video game systems, the adoption of VHS, and an entire industry around DIY creations. In 2020, I expect to see many “survival” products that make cocooning easier - such as telemedicine and ed-tech discussed above. In addition, we’ll see “sanity” products like content and gaming, as well as fitness and perhaps alcohol, among others, to help people navigate cocooning successfully.
As we begin to bring our social lives inside the home, while still maintaining isolation, I believe there is an opportunity for a new class of products specific to what I’m calling “spiritual cocooning.” These might be products or services that have traditionally been categorized as wellness, such as coaching, community groups, and health and beauty services. However the difference here is that spiritual cocooning companies fill those needs specifically in a post-COVID world. Examples include platforms like Quilt for moderated online conversations related to work and women’s health, Corduroy Wellness for online relationship coaching, or Calibrate for a modern, medical approach to metabolic health.