COVID-19 upended human interaction in 2020. Most if not all in-person events scheduled after COVID-19 took hold in North American were cancelled. As the world grappled with the deadly disease, technologists tinkered with platforms that augmented in-person experiences.

In his June 2020 post titled Solving Online Events, Benedict Evans says, “No-one has ever really managed to take a networking event and put it online.” In his usual clinical way, Evans lays out a framework to understand the product-market fit dilemma. First, we must understand the benefit of the displaced technology. Despite being costly and time consuming, events endure because they foster serendipity and facilitate encounters that may lead to new business opportunities or ideas for the attendees. Further, attendees are centralized in one place so everyone can get a lot of business done all at once.

To summarize the key points of the post:

  • Most people attend events for the serendipity of meeting people & having everyone in the same place. Conferences make for an efficient way of doing business. Taking the content & pushing it online is easy, but creating the special, serendipitous moments online is an unmet need.

  • Physical events are time-bound. Essentially, a catalyst for all of the benefits of attending an event. Evans explains how you could attempt to re-create CES, “You can probably convert those scheduled meetings in hotel rooms to video calls - but if you’re going to do a video call, it doesn’t matter where you are or when it is.” While you can build online networking and collaboration software tools, it’s hard to productize a tool that captures the magic of an annual event.

  • Online event platforms look like the virtual malls of the 1990s. “Going online breaks the bundle, and conferences will be the same.” In other words, one cannot pick up one business model and drop it into a different format. Today, ecommerce is driven by a long-tail of diverse brands: cooky, cool, utilitarian, mom & pop. The coolest items purchased online aren’t coming from a “Hot Topic.” We don’t visit an online mall for as we would in real life. The same may be true for the online event model. Evans is doubtful that one platform can effectively reproduce an event online.

In my opinion, events are also an important shared experience that can bond disparate groups of customers and vendors together. Online events shouldn’t even wield the term “event” as they are nothing of the sort. As Evans posits, events may return, albeit in a reduced capacity format, which could reduce demand for these tools. I’m almost certain that there will not be a product that can recreate the magic of a day-long company gathering or an inspiring conference. Nonetheless, the limitations and possibilities for online events are important to discuss as COVID-19 accelerated the trend towards remote and distributed work.

Evan takes an anthropological oriented perspective when attempting to layout the future possibilities. I find that his frameworks are instructive, even for technologies where the writing is written on the wall (ahem, VR).

Another take on bridging the physical to virtual divide:

-a16z podcast: Remote Work and Our New Reality

As you can imagine, a16z is bullish on tools that bridge the vast chasm between physical and virtual:

  • Mentions Tandem (?) - an app that attempts to replicate real time “water cooler” style conversations online. Note how this is being described as a stand-alone app, proving the point of Evans

Discuss virtual events @ 5 minutes:

  • Networking at events can be inefficient and awkward and are biased towards extroverts. Online platforms can serve up information on participants and facilitate efficient matching.Further, online events are much more accessible to introverts & those with no to low budgets.

Before listening to this podcast, I was bearish on virtual events. However, the speakers provide compelling benefits for online events and I do believe there is a market for these tools, but it is hard to imagine a world where online events replicate live events.

The premise of the book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, is that most 20th century nutritional advice is based on "bad science." Science and food writer Gary Taubes, posits that "low fat" diets - en vogue in the latter half of the 20th century - is based on deeply flawed assumptions of data. In the first chapter of the book, he recounts how researchers of the day confused correlation with causation exacerbated by data cherry-picking. Although the concept of correlation is a simple concept, confusing correlation with causation trips up even the brightest minds with the best of intentions.

Here is a useful primer on the Fallacy of Correlation versus Causation

Bad Science

“In 1913, the Russian pathologist Nikolaj Anitschkow reported that he could induce atherosclerotic-type lesions in rabbits by feeding them olive oil and cholesterol. Rabbits, though, are herbivores and would never consume such high-cholesterol diets naturally.”

Rabbits developed the buildup of cholesterol in their tendons and connective tissues, suggesting it was a storage disease - meaning they had no way to metabolize. Despite this obvious flaw in methodology, the authors of the study concluded that high-fat diets caused a 'cholesterol disease of rabbits.'

Life Expectancy - 1900 versus 1950

Source: Our World in Data

In 1900, the average lifespan in the United States ranged from forty to fifty years. By 1950, lifespans had extended on average between sixty and seventy years. While infectious diseases were still (and still are) a major concern, extending lifespans revealed an entirely new set of healthcare challenges.

The first chapter reveals many more egregious errors. Heart disease was declared a major health issue in mid 20th century. Eisenhower's heart disease helped to catapult the disease to the forefront of America's concern. Yes, more Americans were in fact dying from heart attacks. However, there was something else at play. More Americans were dying from chronic diseases, as compared to contagious diseases like cholera and the flu, because they were living longer. Antibiotics and advances in public health extended the average lifespan by decades. However, when culling through mortality data, scientists did not connect the second order effects of living longer.

As I read through this chapter, I was reminded of the incipient nature of science and medicine. In the grand scheme of human existence, medicine & biology are still relatively novel fields. My other blog post on the state of medicine in the early 20th century touches on the infantile nature of American medicine in the early 19th and 20th centuries.

There are bits of positive news and surprising patterns among the economic carnage inflicted by COIVD-19. For one, consumers have dramatically shifted behaviors. A senior citizen in my family, just recently set up with the internet over the holidays of 2019, is now regularly ordering Walmart curbside pickup on her mobile phone. COVID-19 has forced almost everyone to change their habits.

The following articles highlight businesses that have seen an unexpected windfall or have had to significantly pivot due to COVID-19.

WSJ - How Etsy Became America's Unlikeliest Breadbasket

  • Etsy now sells food - namely baked goods 0 thanks to “cottage food laws” enacted over the past seven years

  • Etsy is becoming to go-to for everyday staples

  • Backdrop of new CEO who streamlined and experimented to get Etsy on a path towards growth/profitability

  • The baked goods category is exploding, “reported increases in orders of between 200% and 450% in the past two months, compared with a year ago

  • Etsy was well positioned to buffet COVID-19 as creators are usually based at home. Interestingly, the article notes how Etsy customers are loyal and prefer to shop with Etsy versus other lower priced competitors like Amazon and eBay. Etsy is a platform that fosters goodwill between both sides of the market. For example, buyers and sellers are encouraged to message each other.

Meal Kit Trends

WSJ - Can Meal Kits Remain the Flavor of the Month

WSJ - Meal Kits Thrive During Lockdown

  • Meal kit makers are busy. Direct to consumer meal kits have thrived during the lockdown imposed by COVID-19 in early 2020.

  • HelloFresh is one of the more popular services

  • While Instacart staffed up and restaurants shuttered, meal kits helped fill the void.

  • “HelloFresh grew first-quarter revenue by 37% compared with the final three months of 2019 and made its first quarterly net profit. Blue Apron, which has struggled to execute on its promises for several years, made more muted gains of 8% quarter-on-quarter and remains in the red.” (Flavor of the Month)

  • But meal kit services are beset by high churn rates.

  • Unsurprisingly, BlueApron is still financially struggling, but they are aware that they need to adjust to retain customers: “To keep customers for the long run, the company said it is boosting marketing and offering more flexible menu choices.” (Thrive During Lockdown)

  • Once the economy opens up, will meal kits see a precipitous decline is usage?

WSJ - The New Recipe for Restaurant Survival? Become the Next Dominos

  • The non-delivery software that support restaurant operations like Toast and ChowNow - are what interest me. Restauranting is operationally intensive and could benefit from streamlined processes enabled by software. However, the margins are often razor-thin. What are the products that truly grow the pie as opposed to just taking a cut?

New York Times - Your Kitchen Can Be as Well Stocked as Restaurants Now

  • Restaurant suppliers quickly pivoted to the retail market.

  • Once they figured out consumer distribution strategies, suppliers experienced faster payments and presumably lower nonpayment rates. Normally restaurant suppliers and farmers extend credit to the restaurant clients.

  • Consumers are benefitting from the high quality meats and produce and experimenting with new ways of cooking.

Will this trend stick? Will restaurant suppliers permanently nurture enthusiastic retail customers who want quality food and have a desire to support small businesses?

It's not just food. All categories have been impacted in surprising ways

New York Times - Americans Keep Clicking to Buy, Minting New Online Shopping Winners

  • Of course, on aggregate, there has been a major economic contraction. However, not all categories of spending have declined, especially when it comes to e-commerce. According to the article, e-commerce electronic sales have experience a 200%+ growth in sales.

  • Shows us that Instacart and Amazon are the only major players in grocery delivery. Grocers need to be on Instacart to compete with Amazon. Due to the network effect, it generally doesn’t make sense for a grocery store like Vons or Pavillions to be on a smaller outfit like PeaPod. Thanks to COVID-19, Instacart is back to a going concern.

  • Walmart and Target’s online business has grown.

  • DoorDash is to food delivery as Instacart is to grocery delivery.

  • No one is interested in wearing anything but rayon-spandex blends. LuLuLemon’s online sales are up by 200%+, while major players like StichFix & Rent the Runway are flat or declining. Even MeUndies is flagging.

© 2017 Athena.LA