8 Themes For The Near Future Of Tech 🔮

As we pull ourselves out of the ditch that was 2020, there are a few major themes of the future I’m particularly excited about. Like previous years, I am sharing them as a way to connect more dots, meet more founders, and solicit input to further develop these ideas. No surprise, some of the companies I mention within these trends are in my own portfolio or related to my work. But I have challenged myself to share ideas still on the cusp of breakout rather than the obvious trends and winners.

  1. “Decentralized” is spreading to unexpected places.
  2. The Era of Eduployment: Identifying a trade, getting an education, and getting a job (or starting a company) become fully integrated.
  3. A few seemingly quirky social apps will tune into the under 16 demographic’s distinct approach to creation as a form of self-expression and tolerance for transparency by default.
  4. Talent will increasingly own their audience, with the rise of “channels of one” and community-as-a-service.
  5. More and more niche functions of the enterprise will become multi-player, powered by a next generation of highly specialized, AI-bolstered, enterprise companies with consumerized product experiences.
  6. Creativity tools will be deployed across the enterprise, much like productivity tools were deployed in previous decades.
  7. New and disruptive interfaces will emerge that aggregate and connect the underlying services we use to live and work.
  8. Another round of “the roaring 20's” is ahead of us, where the pent-up desires from the pandemic will be unleashed in the form of fashion, travel, and culture-bending creative self-expression.
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Yes, Bitcoin and blockchain-powered solutions are all the rage these days. One side-effect is ideas for how other aspects of work and life can be decentralized. For example, Ben Rubin’s /Talk is developing ways to decentralize how teams work (it turns out the very notion of “meetings” may be an archaic and wasteful vestige of centralized workplaces). The team at Braintrust is using both the principles and technology of blockchain to build a user-controlled talent network. Rather than take any fees or percentage of the participating talent’s income, my understanding is that Braintrust plans to gain value alongside other participants via tokens that become more valuable as the network grows. And the team at CashDrop has built a way for anyone (from a taco stand to an apparel designer) to build a storefront without the fees and commissions from traditional marketplaces. Taking a step back, the traditional model of central owners of community-powered utilities (marketplaces, app stores, etc.) taking a percentage of everything (and central “bosses” for huge teams insisting on reviewing and approving everything) may finally be getting old. About time!

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Take Nana for instance, a company that will train you in appliance repair (think unique brands of dishwashers, etc), and then set you up in a marketplace to start getting jobs in your local area fueled by leads from the manufacturers of these appliances. Or take Main Street, who will train you as a painter, outfit you with everything you need, and set you up to be a successful business out of the gate within 30 days — essentially turning you into a franchise. Rather than enduring an expensive education only to assume the complete risk of your career, this new eduployment model, as I’ve come to call it, gives everyone skin in the game. The vertical integration of education and employment is upon us, and I think this trend will help address major systematic issues in our economy at scale while also minting a ton of new small businesses.

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I’m seeing more entrepreneurs starting social apps now than in years past, and they’re no longer building off of Facebook’s graph or emulating existing products with slight iterations. Nope, these are (finally) wildly original ideas. One of my favorites, under the radar but experiencing rapid growth, is ItsMe. Now approximately #24 in App Store under social networking, ItsMe connects you with others based on your mood, it MAKES YOU create your own appearance, and allows you to communicate with text, voice, audio, or drawing among other forms. And there are a few other new social models brewing that I am quite excited about. What do these next gen social platforms share? They combine ephemeral sharing with lasting reputation building, they lean towards default transparency and with a more liberal interpretation of “privacy,” and they have fewer creative constraints and are geared to reward those with the most creative self-expression. In the category of social, I am also quite excited about the rebirth of Gowalla as a wild social game still a bit under wraps that will take place in the real world, and Public, a social network for public market investing. Suffice to say, the future of social is exciting and, contrary to popular belief, will not be constrained to today’s dominant social networks.

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Gone are the days when super talented people needed to sign a contract with a TV network to break through. But the ad-supported and algorithmically-driven alternatives, like YouTube and TikTok, still have the upper hand with talent. The pursuit to “own your own audience” will be a macro trend over the coming years. Equivalents to Substack (where you build and monetize your own email list) will emerge in video, communities, branded products (like Borgo, still pre-launch) and other ways to build, manage, and monetize your audience. Some early breakouts like OnlyFans and Patreon give us a sense of what is possible. But I am especially enthusiastic about products like Circle and Geneva that power fully-fledged community functionality for brands and individuals. If you’re a content creator of any kind, you can now spin up a community to gather your audience and spawn all sorts of offshoot services to delight (and monetize) your base. In such a world, the Instagram and YouTube type products simply serve as top-of-funnel marketing initiatives. The goal becomes simply converting everyone you reach on other platforms to your own privately owned and managed channel. We will see a massive acceleration of this trend in the years ahead.

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From procurement and security to financial planning and design, functions of a company that were once siloed to particular teams are being transformed by SaaS tools that are collaborative-by default, easier to use, and inclusive of stakeholders across the company. Those of you who co-invest with me know my obsession with this space. From companies like Globality for procurement, Sora for HR interactions, Meter for wifi and IT, Welcome for hiring, closing, and onboarding new employees, there are many approaches and the list goes on. These types of products will fundamentally change how big companies operate across functions while transforming the quality of life for employees. And to help fuel this transformation, WorkOS is building enterprise-readiness as a service, enabling new companies to start selling to enterprise customers with just a few lines of code, with the value proposition “Single Sign-On (SSO) to your app in minutes.” And Scarf is building tools for open source developers to service and monetize enterprise customers. So, lots of energy in this space up and down the stack. One side consequence of all this: increasingly crowded and outdated customer acquisition channels for enterprise SaaS. This is also a problem/opportunity to solve.

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Until the age of AI, being more productive was the best way to stand out at work. But now, as bots and algorithms supplant mundane and repetitive labor in the workplace, the benefits of human labor will shift to the skills and capabilities that are uniquely human. Chief among them: creativity. Think compelling ways to visualize data, better ways to share a narrative with your co-workers, attractive graphics to spice up every presentation, and powerful prototypes that are worth a hundred meetings. These capabilities will drive outperformance at work (and in school, and on social) in the coming decades, and everyone must be outfitted to make it happen. Obviously, this is a major focus in my day job as Chief Product Officer for my creative teams at Adobe. We see this massive broadening of the market divided into two types of personas: content-first creators and collaboration-first creators. The former wants to start with something — an image, a video or a graphic — and remix or deconstruct. The latter starts by bringing together a group of people and leveraging shared assets (we’ve been gradually turning Creative Cloud into a “creative system” of sorts for this very purpose). Of course, this need requires new types of tools on modern platforms like the web. Adobe, along with a whole ecosystem of new apps, are working to make this happen.

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This is certainly not a new trend, and I’ve been writing about the “interface layers” and the “battle to be the default” since 2014. But the explosion of SaaS offerings for everyday work (enterprise trend noted above) and life is setting the stage for a new problem and opportunity: How do we stitch it all together? Consider the digital spaces in which we spend our days — the “home” page of our favorite apps, the finder on our desktops, the home screens of our phones. We’re creating different kinds of documents, files, folders, and teams all over the place! We have specialized apps for everything and must manage permissions in so many places. All of these various cloud documents and services have different schemas and don’t interact with one another — it’s a mess. Some companies are rising to the occasion, including Command E (an easy keyboard shortcut to open any document, contact, file or record from the cloud) and another early stage stealth company I am excited about. No doubt, all of these underlying services and resources WILL be stitched together, and whoever does the stitching will control the interface where we actually live, work, and make decisions.

My family and I endured a good chunk of the pandemic with our neighbor and dear friend Jenn Hyman, co-founder and CEO of RentTheRunway, and her family. Needless to say, the stay-at-home world made for a very difficult year for Jenn’s team. But now, with a light at the end of the tunnel, Jenn has a new energy. She believes that post-pandemic fashion will have more fun and edge than ever before. I agree, and imagine our vaccinated selves fervently jumping back into the world through travel, fashion, parties, concerts, and meeting new people. (After all, the last century’s Roaring 20’s also followed a pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu.) Our desire to fill the cultural void that has accumulated in us will result in a form of overcompensation that will make for an epic decade ahead (yes, i’m a relentless optimist).

Like all of you, I am eager to move past the challenges of 2020. I’m hopeful that we emerge more productive from the “great refactoring” we all endured, and that we can all reclaim the ~30% of cognitive load that has been consumed by political craziness, gaslighting, and a seemingly never-ending stream of things to worry about. With our newfound peace and capacity, may we all dream and build in equal parts!

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(special thanks to a few friends who read/provided feedback before publishing, including Semil Shah, Jenn Hyman, Satya Patel, and my operating partner for the early-stage portfolio, Sheldon Wong)

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Written by

founder @Behance, cpo @Adobe, early stage investor and product obsessive; author of Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle. http://scottbelsky.com

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