Some Silicon Valley Companies Are Booming as COVID-19 Rages

For some businesses, the novel coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it have been a boon, boosting their popularity if not yet their revenue. Grocery stores, online delivery and the post office are all hiring.

by Leonardo Castañeda, The Mercury News / March 31, 2020
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(TNS) — Traffic at Coursera, the Mountain View-based online learning platform with university classes for anyone, is four to five times higher than usual, with thousands of universities requesting free access to their platform. At the same time, videoconferencing app Zoom has become central to countless companies where most employees are working from home. And grocery delivery app Instacart has seen a 150 percent increase in demand, with billions of dollars worth of groceries purchased through the app in the past three weeks.

The global coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on thousands of businesses large and small, shuttering restaurants, bars and many retail stores. Silicon Valley startups selling cars, homes and co-working space are struggling and starting rounds of layoffs. Already, more than 1 million Californians have filed for unemployment. But for some businesses, the pandemic and efforts to contain it have been a boon, boosting their popularity if not yet their revenue. Grocery stores, online delivery and the post office are all hiring. But not all the businesses seeing a rise in demand are as obviously tied to the response to the pandemic.

Among them is Coursera, which offers extremely popular series available to anyone for free on the science of well-being and machine learning. In Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, enrollment is up 200 percent, and a course from the Imperial College London on the science of COVID-19 has more than 66,000 students enrolled after launching less than two months ago.

The company also has a program that helps universities transition entire classes online, which Coursera recently made free to any university that wanted it until July 31 — longer for students who signed up before the deadline. Arunav Sinha, head of global communications at the company, said they’re monitoring the progression of the virus and are willing to extend the free period if needed. Already, he said, more than 3,000 universities in 120 countries have requested access.

“I think this is, in many ways, a watershed moment for online education,” said Sinha. “This crisis will accelerate that trend and what would’ve happened in a few years, will happen really quickly.”

Sinha said the company has been working almost nonstop the past two weeks making sure their servers can handle the added demand. “It has some short-term impact on our business and revenue, but we’re not even thinking about that right now,” he said, adding they’re focused on expanding access to quality online education to everyone who needs it.

Automation Anywhere, a San Jose-based leader in AI technology, is also seeing a turning point for its business as companies scramble to find alternatives to call centers that are being closed, said Stephen DeWitt, Automation Anywhere’s chief strategy officer. The pandemic, he said, is a “tectonic shift” in how companies work and the role of technology.

“This moment in time is transformational to the AI economy and will likely hugely influence the future of labor discussion, which has been kind of brewing in our society,” DeWitt said. “This is going to bring it way up to the front.”

Even health care, he said, is turning to AI to speed up access to data and to spread critical information. DeWitt said the company saw its automation software used in Asia to share data and statistics about coronavirus as early as December. The pandemic, he said, won’t necessarily have an immediate impact on Automation Anywhere’s bottom line, but it’ll push forward the entire industry.

One of the most high-profile tech companies riding a wave of attention has been San Jose-based Zoom, maker of the videoconferencing software that has become the lynchpin of countless companies and schools that have been forced to move online. It’s been so popular the Securities and Exchange Commission stopped trading on the much smaller Zoom Technologies because it’s ticker symbol — ZOOM — was confusing investors thinking they were buying shares of the videoconferencing company. For the record, Zoom Video’s ticker symbol is ZM.

The company is so busy it isn’t granting interviews, a spokesman said in an email, as it focuses on new and existing customers.

But it’s not just online businesses — groceries and delivery have become one of the few bright stops for workers facing layoffs. Safeway, based in Pleasanton, announced last week it wants to hire 2,000 workers to respond to an increase in demand that has made some essentials like toilet paper virtually impossible to keep on store shelves. And Instacart, a San Francisco-based food and grocery delivery company, wants to hire 300,000 shoppers in the next three months to meet a 150 percent uptick in demand, according to the company.

Cannabis dispensaries have also been allowed to stay open — although San Francisco initially closed them before reversing course. Business was booming at San Jose’s Airfield Supply Co. dispensary in the week leading up to the region’s shelter-in-place order, with customers stocking up in case of closures, according to CEO Marc Matulich. There were more customers than usual, Matulich said, and purchases were 20 percent higher. The share of delivery orders more than doubled, Matulich said, and that was only limited by the number of cars in Airfield’s all-Tesla delivery fleet.

“There’s been a lot of demand there,” he said.

Matulich said that despite the increase, their first focus was on their roughly 155 employees. The company offered everyone that works on-site a full week of paid time off. Workers that chose to come in were earning double pay, and everyone got a 12.5 percent pay raise. They’re also providing free daily lunch to all on-site employees.

Since that early rush, Matulich said business has slowed a little, but they’ve expanded their delivery fleet and next week will roll out curbside pickup.

“(We’re) doing everything we can to support our employees, support our cannabis community,” he said. “This is our time to be doing what we can for our community, not a time to profiteer.”

©2020 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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