A COUPLE OF years ago Snap, the company behind Snapchat, a social-media App, came close to imitating the feature for which it was then famous: digital photos that self-destruct ten seconds after the recipient views them. Shortly after a headline-grabbing initial public offering in 2017, the firm faced a user revolt triggered by an unpopular redesign, falling rates after it started automatically auctioning ad space and an exodus of executives. Its shares dropped precipitously in value, at one point in late 2018 sinking below $5, Less than a fifth of the price they fetched when the firm started trading.
社交媒体应用 Snapchat 有一个曾让它大出风头的功能，数码照片会在接收者打开查看 10 秒钟后自动销毁。几年前，推出这款应用的 Snap 公司自己差点也上演了一次阅后即焚。2017 年，Snap 的 IPO 登上各大媒体头条，之后不久该公司就因为新设计不受欢迎遭到用户抵制，当它开始自动拍卖广告位后广告收费降低，高管又接连出走。公司股价大幅下跌，2018 年底一度跌破五美元，不到公司上市发行价的五分之一。
Snap has since staged one of the greatest turnarounds in tech history. When it reported its latest quarterly results in April, it pleasantly surprised analysts again, just as it has for the past few quarters. Revenue grew by 66% from a year earlier, to $770 m. The number of daily users reached 280 m, an addition of more than 50 m over the same period. The firm’s share price has surged by 208% in the past 12 months, to $54.“The pandemic exposed the resilience of the changes we have made,”says Evan Spiegel, Snap’s boss.
从那之后，Snap 上演了科技业历史上最了不起的逆转之一。在今年 4 月公布的最新季报中，它延续前几个季度的增长势头，再次令分析师感到惊喜。公司收入同比增长 66%，达到 7.7 亿美元。日活跃用户数达到 2.8 亿，比去年同期增长了五千多万人。公司股价在过去 12 个月里飙升了 208%，达到每股 54 美元。「我们所做的改变在疫情中显现了韧性。」老板埃文・斯皮格尔（Evan Spiegel）说。
The comeback reveals a broader trend. While the largest Western tech companies have had a blowout first quarter, firms that fall in the category below—call them“tier-two tech”—are growing briskly, too. And it is not just the extra digital demand generated by the pandemic that is making all boats rise, or the fact that it is easier for smaller firms to grow. Some second-tier companies are confounding sceptics who claimed it was impossible to thrive in the shadow of the industry’s titans.
By any reasonable definition, the universe of biggish listed tech companies is large. In America it includes hundreds of firms. We have defined as“tier-two”those with a market value of no Less than $20 bn that were incorporated in 2000 or later. That leaves 42 firms worth a combined $2.4 trn. They range from e-commerce sites and streaming services to travel firms and vendors of corporate applications.
无论按何种合理定义，「较大」上市科技公司的群体都会很大。在美国就有成百上千家。我们对「第二梯队」的定义是 2000 年及以后成立、市值不低于 200 亿美元。美国符合这一定义的公司有 42 家，市值合计 2.4 万亿美元，业务涉及电商网站、流媒体、旅游和企业软件等。
Even before the pandemic this group had added some weight relative to“GAFAM”，as some now call America’s five tech behemoths (Google and its parent company Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft). In February 2020 its joint market capitalisation amounted to 22% of GAFAM’s, up from 14% three years earlier (see chart).
即使在疫情之前，第二梯队公司相对于五大科技股「GAFAM」（包括谷歌、谷歌母公司 Alphabet、苹果、Facebook、亚马逊和微软）的体量就已经有所增加。2020 年 2 月，这些公司的总市值为五大巨头的 22%，而三年前是 14%。
One reason for the increase in relative size in America is technological progress, especially the rise of cloud computing. This has allowed firms to specialise and created big markets even for seemingly obscure products and services, which can now be tailored for narrow purposes and offered globally.“The investments we made back in 2017 are now paying off,”says Mr Spiegel.
美国第二梯队公司的体量相对提升的原因之一是技术进步，尤其是云计算的兴起。这让公司得以发展出专门化的业务，为哪怕是看似冷门的产品和服务也创造出了大市场——如今这些产品和服务可以针对窄小范围的用途量身定制，并向全球供应。「我们在 2017 年所做的投资正在得到回报。」斯皮格尔说。
A good example is Twilio. The firm is largely unknown to consumers, but used by most. It provides services for text, voice and video communication to more than 200,000 other firms, from Airbnb, a home-sharing site, to Zendesk, a help-desk service. After a few years of fast growth, its annual revenue is approaching $2 bn and its market capitalisation exceeds $50 bn.“If you are a developer, you don’t have to spend a year to understand all the details. You can just plug into our systems,”explains Jeff Lawson, Twilio’s boss,“that’s the idea of infrastructure-as-a-service.”
Twilio 就是一个很好的例子。很少有消费者知道这家公司，但大多数人都在使用它的服务。该公司向从民宿应用爱彼迎到客服软件公司 Zendesk 的 20 多万家企业提供文本、语音和视频交流服务。经过几年的快速增长，Twilio 的年收入已接近 20 亿美元，市值超过 500 亿美元。「如果您是开发者，不用花一年的时间来了解所有细节，直接接入我们的系统就行了，」Twilio 的老板杰夫・劳森（Jeff Lawson）解释说，「这就是『基础架构即服务』的理念。」
The pandemic has given the second tier a further boost. At its peak it was worth 35% of the big five (although that has fallen to 29%, as investors have cooled on newish tech stocks). This pattern in America of a weightier second tier has parallels in China, where a new generation of tech darlings, including Meituan and Pinduoduo, has come of age to take on the duopoly of Alibaba and Tencent.“Covid has been the great digital accelerator,”says Mr Lawson.
疫情也推动了第二梯队的发展。它们的总市值一度升至相当于五巨头的 35%（尽管由于投资者对较新的科技股的热情降温，这一比例目前已跌至 29%）。美国这种第二梯队增强的趋势在中国同样存在。包括美团和拼多多在内的新一代科技宠儿已经成熟，可以挑战阿里巴巴和腾讯的双头垄断。「新冠疫情成了数字化的大加速器。」劳森说。
Demand for Twilio’s services, for instance enabling salespeople to communicate electronically with customers, shot up when physical retailers had to move online. Many other second-tier tech firms benefited, too. Zoom, a now near-ubiquitous videoconferencing service, saw its revenue surge to $882 m in the latest quarter, nearly a five-fold increase on a year earlier. Revenues of Shopify, an e-commerce platform, more than doubled. Most of the other 40 firms in our sample grew by double digits or more. Besides Snap, these include Pinterest, another social-media firm (78%), and PayPal, a provider of online payments (29%).
在实体零售商不得不转战线上之时，对 Twilio 的服务（例如让销售人员能通过电子设备与客户交流）的需求激增。第二梯队的许多其他公司也同样受益。如今几乎无人不用的视频会议服务 Zoom 最新一季度的收入飙升至 8.82 亿美元，比去年同期增长了近四倍。电子商务平台 Shopify 的收入翻了一番多。这一梯队里的其他 40 家公司大多数也都实现了两位数或更高的增长。除 Snap 之外，其中还包括另一家社交媒体公司 Pinterest（增长 78%）和在线支付供应商 PayPal（增长 29%）。
The techlash has helped, too. Under scrutiny from critics and regulators, GAFAM mostly shied away from big takeovers (with the notable exception of Microsoft, which recently bought Nuance, which makes speech-recognition and other software, for $16 bn and was rumoured to be in talks with Pinterest). This in turn has pushed more tier-two firms to go public. Of the 42, no fewer than 13 did so in 2019 and 2020, adding about $600 bn to the group’s current collective market capitalisation.
对科技巨头的抵制也帮了忙。在被批评人士和监管机构盯牢之际，五巨头大多避免进行大型收购（明显的例外是微软，它最近以 160 亿美元的价格收购了语音识别等软件的供应商 Nuance，据传还在与 Pinterest 洽谈）。这继而又促使更多的第二梯队公司上市。在这 42 家公司中，有多达 13 家在 2019 年和 2020 年上市，为这一梯队目前的总市值添加了约 6000 亿美元。
The second tier have succeeded mainly by getting better at creating protected space for themselves to grow, says Mark Mahaney of Evercore ISI, an investment bank. They not only offer compelling products but have built, in geek speak,“platforms”，complete with an“ecosystem”of users and corporate partners on top.
投资银行 Evercore ISI 的马克・马哈尼（Mark Mahaney）说，第二梯队取得成功主要是因为它们越来越擅长为自身增长创造受保护的空间。它们不仅提供吸引人的产品，还构建了极客们所说的「平台」，平台之上是用户和企业合作伙伴组成的「生态系统」。
Platforms are best thought of as a marketplace, where the operator provides some basic services that enable buyers and sellers to transact. They often exhibit strong“network effects”：more buyers attract more merchants, which attract more buyers and so on. Such setups also make it harder for one of the giants to ape rival products, as Microsoft has done with Slack or Apple with Spotify.
最好把平台看成市场，运营方在其中提供一些让买卖双方得以开展交易的基本服务。平台通常会显现出强大的「网络效应」：更多买家吸引来更多卖家，继而吸引更多买家，循环往复。这样的模式也让巨头更难模仿打造出具竞争力的产品，就像微软和苹果分别面对 Slack 和 Spotify 那样。
Take Snap. It was straightforward for Facebook to copy Snapchat’s hallmark feature, called“Stories”。These were just collections of pictures and videos captured within the past 24 hours. So the firm has instead recast“Stories”as a platform on which curated partners, such as big media companies, can offer original content. Snapchat’s four other main offerings are conceived as platforms, too. For example, users of“Map”can locate their friends and local hotspots, and“Camera”lets tens of thousands of developers offer digital filters for users’cameras.
以 Snap 为例。Facebook 轻易就复制了 Snapchat 的标志性功能「故事」（Stories），也就是过去 24 小时内拍摄的图片和视频合集。Snap 就把「故事」功能改成了一个平台，大型媒体公司等精选合作伙伴可以在该平台上发布原创内容。Snapchat 其他四个主要功能也都做成了平台。例如，「地图」的用户可以定位朋友和本地热门场所，而「相机」让数万名开发者可以为用户的相机提供数字滤镜。
Several more tier-two firms have also erected robust platforms.“Shopify does not compete with Amazon. We are not a retailer. We are a piece of software that powers other brands,”explains Harley Finkelstein, the company’s president. Instead of selling stuff for other firms, in other words, the site provides them with tools to set up their own virtual stores, from Web hosting to payment, and allows third-party companies to offer additional services, including design and delivery.
还有另外几个第二梯队公司也建立了强大的平台。「Shopify 不和亚马逊竞争。我们不是零售公司。我们是赋能其他品牌的软件。」Shopify 的总裁哈里・芬克尔斯坦（Harley Finkelstein）解释说。也就是说，Shopify 不是帮其他公司销售产品，而是为它们提供建立自己的虚拟商店所需的虚拟主机和支付等工具，并让第三方公司可以提供包括设计和送货在内的更多服务。
Build it and they will come 筑巢引凤
Similarly, the more users and merchants PayPal and other payments firms like Square and Stripe attract, the more useful they become to everyone. Twilio’s corporate customers and developers of more specialised communication applications, such as call-centre software and group texting, likewise feed off each other.
同样，PayPal 以及 Square 和 Stripe 等其他支付公司吸引的用户和商家越多，它们对各方的用处就越大。Twilio 的企业客户和更专门化的通信应用（比如呼叫中心软件和群发短信等）的开发者之间同样也是互相增强。
Others are trying to spin up their own“flywheels”，as the digital virtuous circles are known. Spotify and Twitter want to fulfil this function for anyone producing digital works. The first now sees itself as a home for all sorts of audio content, from songs to podcasts. The second mainly aims to distribute all manner of written content, including tweets and newsletters. Zoom, for its part, in October introduced“Zapps”(later renamed“Zoom Apps”). These, much like the lenses on Snapchat and the applications on Twilio, are supposed to form a moat that both keeps rivals at a safe distance and creates additional demand.
其他公司也在尝试转动起自己的「飞轮」，也就是数字化的良性循环。Spotify 和推特希望为数字作品的生产者发挥这样的功能。如今 Spotify 自视为一个涵盖从歌曲到播客的各种音频内容的平台。推特则主要是发布包括推文和简讯等各类文字内容。Zoom 在 10 月推出了「Zapps」（后更名为「Zoom Apps」）。这些产品和 Snapchat 的镜头及 Twilio 的应用类似，希望打造出护城河，把竞争对手挡在安全距离之外，同时创造出更多需求。
Not all this platform-building will succeed. But where it does, the builders could yet catch up with GAFAM, at least if tech history is a guide.
In China Meituan and Pinduoduo, two e-commerce platforms, have overtaken Baidu to become the third- and fourth-largest internet firms in China. Only a few years ago Adobe and Salesforce, two providers of corporate applications (which are both too old to be included in our sample), were still much smaller than Oracle and SAP, leaders in business software, let alone Microsoft. Adobe and Salesforce still have lower revenues than Oracle and SAP. But they are growing faster and are now in the same league in terms of market capitalisation, currently worth $229 bn and $204 bn, respectively, compared with $227 bn for Oracle and $168 bn for SAP.
在中国，电商平台美团和拼多多已经赶超百度，成为中国的第三和第四大互联网公司。仅在几年前，企业软件供应商 Adobe 和 Salesforce（两家公司创立时间都比较长，没有包含在我们列出的第二梯队中）的规模还比商业软件领头羊甲骨文和 SAP 小得多，更不用说微软了。它们两家现在的收入仍低于甲骨文和 SAP，但增速更快，而按市值看已经处于同一行列。Adobe 和 Salesforce 目前的市值分别为 2290 亿美元和 2040 亿美元，甲骨文和 SAP 分别为 2270 亿美元和 1680 亿美元。
“S”is the most likely letter to be added to the GAFAM acronym. In its new incarnation, Snap may yet become a serious rival to Facebook. Snapchat is now arguably the closest the West has to a“super-App”(the model is WeChat, Tencent’s flagship platform). If it keeps buying biggish companies, meanwhile, Salesforce could one day pull even with Microsoft. And if it continues on its current trajectory long enough, more wares may one day be sold on Shopify than on Amazon.
GAFAM 这个缩写最有可能增加「S」这个字母。经历了凤凰涅槃的 Snap 可能会成为真正能威胁到 Facebook 的竞争对手。Snapchat 目前可说是西方最接近于「超级应用」（以腾讯的旗舰平台微信为典范）的软件。如果 Saleforce 继续收购较大的公司，那它某天可能与微软并驾齐驱。如果 Shopify 能长久保持当前的发展轨迹，那么有朝一日它平台上销售的商品可能比亚马逊还多。
Much has to go right for this to happen. One risk is that the tech sell-off of the past few weeks makes it harder for loss-making firms to raise capital, or maintain the enthusiasm of shareholders for heavy losses in the pursuit of growth. Over three-fifths of the second tier lose money. The titans will have to become Less innovative, the reason Oracle and SAP have seen their lead eroded. Many of the second-tier tech firms will need to be willing to merge. And trustbusters will have to tackle GAFAM’s dominance.“Unless the regulatory environment really changes, this is going to be the status quo for the foreseeable future,”argues Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities, an investment firm.
这些要成为现实，还需要多方因素配合。一个风险是过去几周的科技股抛售潮让亏损的公司更难融资，或者更难维持股东们愿意为了追求增长而承受严重亏损的热情。第二梯队公司中超过五分之三都在赔钱。巨头们的创新能力必须得是减退的，这正是甲骨文和 SAP 丧失领先地位的原因。许多第二梯队公司得愿意接受合并。此外还需要反垄断机构解决五巨头主宰市场的问题。「除非监管环境发生实质性改变，否则在可预见的未来，现状还是会持续下去。」投资公司 Wedbush Securities 的丹・艾夫斯（Dan Ives）表示。
Instead of waiting for a second-tier firm to grow into a GAFAM-sized beast, it may be more realistic to expect an ecosystem like the biological one, in which species of all sizes find their niche. Dinosaurs occasionally die out. But that happens rarely, and mostly through outside intervention.