Unicorns Tech Stack – Your Perfect Kit to Build the Next Giant

Unicorns Tech Stack: Favorite Technologies of Top Startups

There are 472 unicorn startup companies with a cumulative valuation of almost $1.4 trillion, according to CB Insights. The largest one is the Chinese news platform Toutiao by Bytedance that is valued at $75 billion. In the list, there are also such famous names as Stripe ($36 billion), SpaceX ($33 billion), Airbnb ($18 million), Palantir Technologies ($12 billion), and others.

The startup culture attracts trillions of dollars from venture capitalists. It’s one of the reasons why more and more entrepreneurs start their own businesses. And one of the first questions they face is “which technologies should I use?". Right languages and libraries can seriously boost the chance of success while the wrong choice dooms the project to failure.

In this guide, we’re going to analyze unicorns tech stack. What are the top tech tools used by startups? How did they evolve over time? Which solutions smart minds from Slack, Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb prefer? And, overall, why does the tech stack matter? 

Technology Stack as a Strategy for Your Startup

Let’s start with the last question. While it’s clear that startups require relevant technologies to build their products or provide services, it’s not as evident with tech stack strategies. Put simply, a technology stack strategy is a mindful approach to choosing your technologies. For this, it’s essential to know business goals, end-user needs, current market conditions, emerging trends, etc. The main idea is to make data-driven decisions, not just pick hyped or familiar tools.

Overall, to choose the appropriate technologies, you should mind four criteria:

  • General relevance. It means that the stack should meet your business and product goals. In other words, it’s better to choose Python instead of C/C++ for the web or Swift for iOS but not for Android. 
  • Performance requirements. This point is purely technical. Any system should remain stable, react quickly, handle the sufficient number of requests. Choose the most reliable technologies if you expect high loads and need instant responses. 
  • Scalability requirements. They provide for the product’s ability to grow. There’s vertical scalability that allows adding more functional modules. And horizontal option means that the software can run on more devices, that more users can access it. 
  • Costs. Unicorns tech stack strategies include many expenses. There are salaries for devs, licensing fees, hosting costs, maintenance, marketing. And it’s vital to balance between overspending and lack of tech power. 

Concluding these points, remember that there are hundreds of technologies available. And the preparation stage is as important as development. It helps to narrow the selection, understand which technology stack options fit the project. Thus, you can get the required features and avoid spending too much on redundant things. To help with this planning, we want to explore which solutions unicorn startup companies use.

10 Popular Technologies Used by Unicorn Companies

There are a lot of unicorns so we barely can analyze all of them. Instead, let’s choose the most famous and/or capitalized teams with open information about their technologies. For instance, there’s a comprehensive comparison made by Coding Dojo in 2019. It features programming languages of unicorns, frameworks, and database tools. Here are the results:

The comparison table by Coding Dojo

The most popular languages:

  1. Python (used by 20 out of 25 analyzed companies).
  2. Java (19/25).
  3. JavaScript (18/25).
  4. C/C++ (15/25).
  5. Ruby (12/25).
  6. Go (11/25).
  7. Kotlin (8/25).
  8. PHP (7/25).
  9. Objective C (7/25).
  10. Swift (6/25).

The most popular frameworks:

  1. ReactJS (used by 24% of analyzed companies).
  2. Hadoop (14%).
  3. NodeJS (14%).
  4. Django (8%).
  5. Flask (8%).

The most popular databases:

  1. MySQL (used by 23% of analyzed companies).
  2. Redis (23%).
  3. PostgreSQL (15%).
  4. MongoDB (10%).
  5. Cassandra (5%).

In total, the most popular options of tech stack behind unicorns are languages, mostly. Python, Java, JavaScript, C/C+, Ruby, Go, and Kotlin are top choices. As for frameworks and databases, ReactJS, MySQL, and Redis are quite popular, too. 

The Evolution of Unicorns Tech Stack

Before moving to the exact technologies used by unicorns, let’s briefly explore how these startups evolved. Obviously, a company run by two students with the garage headquarters requires less sophisticated software solutions than a multibillion corporation. Over time, businesses switch to more complex things, improve unicorns tech stack.

Teams change, too. Often, fresh startup owners do everything by themselves. They prefer free or cheap open-source tools, write own apps, don’t disdain manual coding. After attracting enough VC, companies expand their teams, hire more developers, provide them with advanced technologies. 

There’s a pretty clear correlation between the funding stage and the programming languages of unicorns, their frameworks, and other tools. Let’s analyze a few examples:

  • Airbnb: focus on custom solutions:
    • After getting almost $320 million in three funding rounds, Airbnb continued using its own software. The team relied on manual ACH via FTP, Nerve for health checks, Synapse for connecting SOA. 
    • For a database proxy, Airbnb also developed a custom tool based on the MariaDB in 2016. Another in-house tool called Nebula was launched the same year to distribute storage. 
    • By 2017, Airbnb finally redesigned its front end using famous and not in-house tools: React and Redux. 
  • Lyft: simplicity and dev productivity:
    • With $6 million in Series A, Lyft started with PHP, MongoDB, iOS, and Android. 
    • After Series D in 2014, the team migrated from Pupper to Salt. 
    • In 2016, Lyft switched to SOA using the custom open-source project Envoy.
    • One year later, the company implemented TypeScript.
    • In 2018, it added Apache Airflow to work with large datasets and Kubernetes that matured enough to meet the startup’s containerization tasks. 
  • Slack: burst after investments: 
    • Slack hasn’t changed the starting technology stack for a long time. It used Java, PHP, MySQL, and Solr. 
    • In 2016, with $540 million attracted from seed to Series F, the team launched the new hybrid desktop app on Electron. 
    • The same year, Slack migrated from PHP5 to Hack. It still relied on MySQL but also used Presto, Hive, and Spark. 
    • Between Series G with $250 million in 2017 and IPO in 2019, Slack added other tools. We’ll review them in the next section with current stacks.
  • Uber: progress to serverless and containers:
    • Similarly to Slack, Uber attracted a lot of money using the basic kit. Python, MySQL, MongoDB, Node.js, Redis, Objective-C, Java, and Backbone.js allowed the team to get over $300 million up to Series C.
    • In early 2014, the company started working with Big Data using MySQL, PostgreSQL, Vertica, and even individual coding for data processing.
    • With mind-blowing $4.5 billion in the next funding rounds, Uber designed the internal serverless mesh Catalyst in 2015.
    • Extra $1 billion in Series F helped the company to start using Docker to facilitate the process of the creation of new services via containers.
    • In 2016, Uber got another $3.5 billion and had to scale. It switched from PostgreSQL to MySQL and InnoDB.

Hence, there are different approaches to the evolution of unicorn startup companies. Some teams prefer attracting more capital and then upgrading everything at once. Others choose steady development. You should focus on the strategy that matches your goals and opportunities. Still, the one thing is true for all successful startups: they adapt to new trends quickly, integrating the relevant innovations like microservices, serverless architecture, and containerization. 

Tech Stack Behind Unicorns – Famous Examples

As you know how startups changed their tech kits, it’s finally time to look at the current stacks. Below, we list eight famous unicorns, both private and post-IPO companies. We defined the tech stack behind unicorns for each name using StackShare and official sources. Thus, if you’re going to build the next Uber or Airbnb, look at the technologies you may need. 

Slack

A famous business communication tool approached its IPO in 2019 with an impressive set of technologies. Here are the core ones:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: Airflow, Hadoop, Kafka, Memcached, MySQL, Presto, Redis, Spark, Vitess.
  • DevOps tools: Chef, Consul, HAProxy, HHVM, Logstash, Kibana, Kubernetes. 
  • Frameworks: Electron, gRPC, Node.js, 
  • Languages: Go, Elixir, Java, JavaScript, Kotlin, Objective-C, PHP, Swift.
  • Libraries: React.
  • Other tools: Elasticsearch, Solr. 

Lyft

This ridesharing team and its core app rely on a few dozens of various unicorns tech stack options. We’ve picked the most popular ones that may be interesting for you:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: Airflow, MongoDB, Redis.
  • DevOps tools: Docker, Gradle, Jenkins, Kubernetes, Salt. 
  • Frameworks: AngularJS, Bootstrap, Flask.
  • Languages: C++, Go, HTML5, Java, PHP, Python, Swift, TypeScript.
  • Libraries: React.
  • Other tools: CloudFlare, nginx.

Uber

Being way more powerful than Lyft, Uber has access to a nearly unlimited source of VC money. This taxi and delivery service relies on the next technologies:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: Cassandra, Hadoop, Kafka, MySQL, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, Redis, Spark.
  • DevOps tools: Docker, Grafana, Jenkins, Kraken, Sentry, Zookeeper.
  • Frameworks: Backbone.js, Node.js
  • Languages: Go, Java, JavaScript, Objective-C, Python, Swift.
  • Libraries: jQuery, React.
  • Other tools: Elasticsearch, nginx.

Wish

This e-commerce platform was launched in 2010 and surged through $10 billion in total assets in 2019. It focuses on smooth online shopping and features the next technology stack:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: MongoDB, Redis.
  • DevOps tools: Consul, Docker, Kubernetes, Grafana, Salt, Sentry, Webpack.
  • Frameworks: -. 
  • Languages: Go, Python.
  • Libraries: React.
  • Other tools: Ubuntu

Revolut

Revolut is one of the most famous mobile-only all-in-one banking applications in Europe. It offers currency exchange, P2P transfers, stock and crypto trading. The tech is as follows:

  • Cloud provider: Google Cloud.
  • Data tools: PostgreSQL.
  • DevOps tools: Ansible, Babel, Bitbucket, Cypress, Docker, Visual Studio Code, Yarn.
  • Frameworks: Gatsby, Node.js
  • Languages: Java, JavaScript, Kotlin, Python, Scala, Swift, TypeScript. 
  • Libraries: React, Redux.
  • Other tools: nginx.

Stripe

This company facilitates online payments, making them faster and more accessible for individuals and businesses. Stripe doesn’t use too much programming languages of unicorns:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: MongoDB, MySQL, PostgreSQL.
  • DevOps tools: CircleCI, PagerDuty.
  • Frameworks: Ruby on Rails.
  • Languages: Ruby.
  • Libraries: N/A.
  • Other tools: Mailgun, Mandrill, Mixpanel.

Airbnb

While hospitality startups are facing troubles nowadays, Airbnb will make through this period thanks to its insane popularity. With the valuation of $18 billion, it utilizes the next tools:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: Airflow, Hadoop, MySQL, Presto, Redis.
  • DevOps tools: Chef, Kibana, Logstash, Sentry, SmartStack, Webpack.
  • Frameworks: Ruby on Rails.
  • Languages: Java, JavaScript, Ruby. 
  • Libraries: React, Redux.
  • Other tools: Mixpanel, nginx.

Coinbase

Coinbase is a cryptocurrency and fiat exchange – one of the main entry points for crypto traders in the USA. It uses a bit unusual selection from the tech stack behind unicorns:

  • Cloud provider: Amazon Web Services.
  • Data tools: IronMQ, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, Redis
  • DevOps tools: New Relic, CircleCI. 
  • Frameworks: Node.js, Ruby on Rails.
  • Languages: Java, Objective-C, Ruby.
  • Libraries: D3.js. 
  • Other tools: Authy, CloudFlare, Mixpanel.

Double Down on Technologies

Concluding the information above, we can say that Unicron startup companies use a lot of various tools. Nevertheless, there are a few top choices such as Python, Java, JavaScript, Ruby, and Go. For mobile apps, startups often also use Objective-C and Swift. ReactJS is the most used framework while MySQL is the most widespread database. But MongoDB is also approaching the leader. 

Overall, the unicorns tech stack is diverse. It’s a good idea to analyze it, especially if you already know which type of product or service you’re going to build. However, remember that each project is unique. What launched the rocket of Airbnb and Uber may fail to help you. That’s why your perfect journey should start with comprehensive analysis and planning. Through them, you can identify the relevant technologies for your next unicorn. Good luck!

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Grzegorz Kłos
Co-Founder
office@apphawks.com
Grzegorz Kłos - Apphawks Co-founder
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