Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting hundreds of business stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these nine reads, including coverage of the wildest startup collapses and in-depth explorations of pandemic insurance, TikTok content houses, 5G, and the state of the fossil fuel industry.
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Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani (Aaron Gell, Marker)
Carolyn Rafaelian spent 15 years building a jewelry empire, making her company, famous for its $30 expandable wire bracelets, one of the fastest-growing fashion brands ever. But what led to Alex and Ani’s fall? Aaron Gell’s piece has it all: an odd alliance between a spiritual “earth mother” founder and an Army major-turned-CEO, business decisions influenced by astrology and New Age practices, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit against Bank of America, and even a spinoff into a “university”that was meant to share the company’s life lessons with the world.
Buzzwords aside, the curriculum mostly aimed to impart an essential truth behind Alex and Ani’s appeal: Its products were not just glittery trinkets but spiritual armor designed to protect, inspire, and ennoble the bearer as she made her way through the world. Retail employees at the company’s “bangle bars” were known internally as “bar tenders” for their patience and empathy. They’d draw out customers’ personal stories — what AAU president Dennis Rebelo called “story birthing” — prescribing just the right stones and talismans (the Eye of Horus for protection, light, and reason; the dragonfly for grace, change, and power) for each unique journey.
We Can Protect the Economy From Pandemics. Why Didn’t We? (Evan Ratliff, Wired)
Nathan Wolfe, a former epidemiology professor at UCLA, started a company — Metabiota — focused on helping industries and governments build resilience to epidemics. When they partnered with German reinsurance provider Munich Re five years ago, they developed what is essentially the world’s first pandemic business insurance. But, as Wolfe explains to Ratliff, nobody bought it. Through Ratliff’s lens, Wolfe is compelling (“an Indiana Jones-like virus hunter”), as is his look into Metabiota’s work on disease surveillance and pandemic modeling.
As the human and economic devastation multiplied in tandem across the globe, Metabiota’s employees suddenly found themselves living inside their own model’s projections. Just two years earlier, the company had run a large set of scenarios forecasting the consequences of a novel coronavirus spreading around the globe. “I guess part of what I’m struggling with emotionally is that it’s almost like we’ve been attacked by a cliché,” Oppenheim told me later. “No one can predict the exact timing and location and dynamics, but the broad contours are a story that people have walked through specifically before.”
The 8th Wonder of the World* (Josh Dzieza, The Verge)
“In many ways, the Foxconn debacle in Wisconsin is the physical manifestation of the alternate reality that has defined the Trump administration.” The deal the administration and the state’s Republican leaders made in 2017 for the Foxconn project was huge: a $10 billion investment from the Taiwanese electronics company, a 20 million-square-foot LCD factory, and 13,000 jobs. It would put Southeastern Wisconsin on the map as a world-class manufacturing hub: “Wisconn Valley,” or the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. Today, none of that exists. Dzieza’s investigation is thorough and brutal from start to finish (and is sleekly designed, too).
The company had little progress to show the new administration. Rather than the 1,040 people Foxconn intended to hire by the end of 2018, per its contract with the state, or even the 260 needed in order to receive subsidies, an audit found the company had managed to hire only 113. At the Mount Pleasant campus, it had erected a single structure, a 120,000-square-foot space that sat virtually empty. Its very name, “the multi-purpose building,” seemed noncommittal. As for the promised LCD factory, the “Fab,” Foxconn boasted in a letter that a contractor had moved 4 million cubic yards of dirt. As 2018 came to an end, the company froze budgets and canceled planned career fairs. The project entered a complete stall.
A TikTok House Divided (Rebecca Jennings, Vox)
In this fun deep-dive into the fascinating and fickle world of TikTok content mansions and collab houses in Los Angeles, Jennings follows internet-famous teens navigating a new system of talent management and fame, which is compared to the studio system of classic Hollywood when stars were tied to companies in long-term contracts. You’ll read about content creators who’ve leveraged their massive followings into lucrative sponsorships and deals with brands, feuds with rival houses, shady managers sharking for opportunities in a fledgling industry, and money that doesn’t seem to exist.
By the end of October, the Inspir3 House started to turn on its founder. “I’ve known him forever, so when he started telling all these lies, I was sure to tell everybody to protect themselves,” Justin says. Nupur says they’d have meetings during which Chase would talk for hours about what was going to happen with their careers — he’d allegedly promised lucrative sponsorship deals and a potential reality show. A charity called U R the Future had reached out to hire the members to do activities, such as cleaning up beaches and handing out pizzas to homeless people, and then post the videos on their social channels, but Chase allegedly asked the house members to pay for things the charity was supposed to have covered (for instance, the pizza). U R the Future eventually pulled out.
Nupur also says all the money she earned during her stay with Inspir3 came from her own TikTok livestreams, where viewers would send her digital gifts that could be transferred to cash, without any help from Chase. That was, until CBS reached out for a brand promotion: Nupur was nervous to negotiate with such a large company, so she forwarded the email to Chase, who set the payment to $1,500 with a 15 percent fee. But Nupur never got the money, even as Chase badgered her for his 15 percent. She eventually found out he had CBS pay his PayPal account instead of hers, and when she confronted him, he claimed his PayPal account wasn’t working. She says she still hasn’t gotten the money.
The Eco–Yogi Slumlords of Brooklyn (Bridget Read, The Cut)
“What could drive two yogic, environmentally conscious, vegan brownstoners to kick out their unemployed tenants during a global pandemic?” In a can’t-put-down tale of gentrification and grift, Read traces the undoing of Gennaro Brooks-Church and Loretta Gendville, ex-partners who accumulated their wealth through a network of yoga studios, Airbnb rentals, and rooms in illegally converted properties. As bosses and landlords, they were a complete mess, and their “empire seemed to operate on a shoestring”: think overworked staff with low pay and no benefits, nonexistent leases, unpaid gas bills and fines, and rat sightings at parties. By the time the pandemic hit in March, the couple had nine mortgages on six properties, so you can take a guess at why they suddenly appeared on the doorstep of one of them, 1214 Dean Street, over the summer. While I don’t like the phrase “hate-read,” this one certainly is. And it’s a good one.
They squeezed every drop of money they could out of every setup. Brooks-Church offered workers free yoga classes in exchange for a day of labor in his building business. Gendville offered free classes to guests when the couple began renting out both of their Carroll Gardens brownstones on Airbnb and Vrbo for at least $200 a night. Multiple guests at the Douglass Street listing complained in reviews that it looked as if someone had been living in the rooms right up to the moment they arrived. The couple and their children, according to yoga teachers, would sometimes sleep in the yoga studios because every other property was occupied.
And still they kept expanding. In 2016, as the next wave of gentrification gathered speed, the couple spent $1.4 million to purchase two properties in Flatbush and East New York. They took out additional mortgages on two of their other homes, accruing more than $2 million in debt in only four months. And why not? Brooklyn home sales continued to break records, and the market’s consensus was as giddy as it was unsustainable.
Huawei, 5G, and the Man Who Conquered Noise (Steven Levy, Wired)
Over 10 years ago, a relatively unknown Turkish scientist named Erdal Arıkan made a breakthrough in the field of information theory — polar codes. This discovery eventually helped Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, to take the lead in the global 5G technology race. Levy’s profile of Arıkan and his wider look at Huawei offer context on who will drive technology for the world’s communications system for years to come.
Huawei was ecstatic. But it was not just Huawei’s win; it was China’s too. Finally, a Chinese company was getting respect commensurate with its increasingly dominant power in the marketplace. “Huawei-backed polar code entering the 5G standard has a symbolic meaning,” one observer told a reporter at the time. “This is the first time a Chinese company has entered a telecommunications framework agreement, winning the right to be heard.”
Shell Is Looking Forward (Malcolm Harris, New York Magazine)
Fossil fuel giant Shell flew Malcolm Harris to a private planning workshop so he could talk about global warming from his millennial perspective. In turn, he meets and chats with a number of employees, and — having not signed an NDA — shares a frank, fly-on-the-wall account of what he hears and learns. TL;DR: big oil companies are talking about climate change. They may even invest in progress. But at the end of the day, their future still rests in oil and gas. The policymakers at Shell simply want the public to think they’re part of the solution, when “[in] reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.”
By gathering millennial employees from throughout the company, along with experts on the cohort and senior management, the strategies team surely hoped to infuse the firm’s leadership with a drip of youth consciousness, the way some oligarchs are rumored to inject themselves with young people’s blood.
If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to rally millennials around Green New Deal legislation, then it’s a good time to become a green-energy company — or at least buy a few of those and rebrand that way. Climate protesters are just another market reality, one that can be profitable when apprehended correctly, even for a big, old oil and gas firm. The question was how to see that generational conflict coming, how to meet it and harness it and ride it into the future.
Lavish Parties, Greedy Pols and Panic Rooms: How the ‘Apple of Pot’ Collapsed (Ben Schreckinger and Mona Zhang, Politico)
Enjoyed this story about MedMen? Here’s another favorite on a startup collapse: Mo Tkacik’s Bustle profile of Rebekah Neumann and an account of WeWork’s rise and fall.
Right from the start, MedMen was slated to become the next big cannabis startup: it had famous fans at its ribbon-cutting ceremony in Venice, California, a partnership with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, and a slick marketing campaign. But the company, founded by Adam Bierman and Andrew Modlin, ran into trouble soon after: Bank fraud. Excessive spending. Illegal political contributions. Instead of soaring high, it unraveled into a “cautionary tale of American Wild West capitalism,” becoming known as the “WeWork of weed” to the rest of the industry.
Where the traditional dispensary experience could feel grungy and illicit, the MedMen in “WeHo,” with its wood-paneled interior, aimed for sleek sophistication. Strains of weed were displayed in well-lit glass cases, and built-in iPads allowed customers to browse information about the offerings. The weed was stored in stainless steel drums in a back room that resembled an open kitchen in a high-end restaurant. After ordering, customers could watch through a window as uniformed staff, called “Budtenders,” retrieved it.
Garbage Language (Molly Young, Vulture)
Hey team! I have an ask. Let’s chat async about ways we can ladder up our skills in the new year and strategize some quick wins. We’ll break up into two teams so we can parallel-path roadmaps, then meet in a few weeks to synergize and find alignment. Sigh.
I’ve revisited this brilliant piece numerous times this year, and it gets better each time. Young writes sharply about the language we encounter in the workplace — from empty corporate-speak to marketing fluff — that takes up space, impedes communication, and even creates the illusion that you’re doing more work than you really are. It’s spot on.
The front of the plaid packet said UPTAPPED: ALL NATURAL ENERGY. The marketing copy said, “For too long athletic nutrition has been sweetened with cheap synthetic sugars. The simplicity of endurance sports deserves a simple ingredient — 100% pure, unadulterated, organic Vermont maple syrup, the all-natural, low glycemic-index sports fuel.”
It was a packet of maple syrup. Nothing more. Whenever I hear a word like operationalize or touchpoint, I think of that packet — of some anonymous individual, probably with a Stanford degree and a net worth many multiples of my own, funneling maple syrup into tubelets and calling it low-glycemic-index sports fuel. It’s not a crime to try to convince people that their favorite pancake accessory is a viable biohack, but the words have a scammy flavor. And that’s the closest I can come to a definition of garbage language that accounts for its eternal mutability: words with a scammy flavor. As with any scam, the effectiveness lies in the delivery. Thousands of companies have tricked us into believing that a mattress or lip-gloss order is an ideological position.
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