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10 CNBC Disruptors that topped headlines

2014 CNBC Disruptors in the news

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2014 was a busy year for the CNBC Disruptors. They incurred the attention—and sometimes the wrath—of everyone from teen pop stars to powerful regulators and even the high-and-mighty robed legal eagles of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A few went public—and haven't exactly thrilled investors.

Some start-ups took it straight to global market giants—and recorded some impressive underdog victories.

Some start-ups are fighting each other—and it's gotten nastier in the past year.

And a few have even disappeared from the landscape forever.

Here are 10 of the most high-profile—and most telling—events involving companies that made the 2014 CNBC Disruptor 50 List.

By David Spiegel, editorial manager, CNBC.com
Posted 11 May 2015

(On Tuesday morning, the 2015 CNBC Disruptor List will be unveiled. Follow CNBC and CNBC.com for coverage of this year's list of the market's 50 most innovative private companies.)

Uber is accused of dirty tricks

Cabbie drivers and supporters held their own rally against Uber drivers in New Jersey.
Brad Quick | CNBC

Good or bad, Uber has been a frequent topic of discussion in the news media over the last 12 months. Back in August, CNN reported that it had evidence of Uber ordering, then canceling rides from rival Lyft in New York City beginning in October 2013. 

It wasn't the first questionable tactic Uber used to try to muscle Lyft out of the Big Apple. Shortly after Lyft entered the New York market in July 2014, Uber told its drivers the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission's regulations prohibited drivers from working for both companies. The TLC said that was not true, and Uber later stated officially that drivers can work for both Lyft and Uber. 

Uber also made the kind of news it didn't want to make when one of its top executives was quoted by BuzzFeed saying that the company might hire private investigators to dig up dirt on journalists that wrote nasty things about the company—the executive thought he was speaking at an off-the-record event. 

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley continues to tune out the rising anti-Uber sentiment, most recently to the tune of a reported $50 billion valuation in a new round of fundraising.

Unilever sues Hampton Creek, then doesn’t

Just Mayo and Hellmann's Mayonnaise.
Just Mayo (L) | Getty Images (R)

It's been dubbed the Great Mayo Wars of 2014, though it lasted less than 30 days and ended in a draw. Unilever, maker of Hellmann's and Best Foods mayonnaise, took issue with Hampton Creek's "Just Mayo," which contains no chicken eggs and, therefore, according to Unilever, could not be called "Mayo." 

Hampton Creek vowed to fight the suit, saying it called its product "Mayo" and not "Mayonnaise" to stay in line with the FDA's definitions. In the meantime, Hampton picked up public support in the form of a Change.org petition, further expanded its presence in Europe and Asia and announced a new round of funding from investors, including Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff. 

CEO Josh Tetrick also acknowledged the huge marketing opportunity Unilever delivered to his company. "The deeper issue for us is our food system is messed up," Tetrick said on CNBC's "Closing Bell." He added, "This gives us a chance to say that over and over again." 

After less than a month, Unilever spread the mayo love and dropped the suit. "We share a vision with Hampton Creek of a more sustainable world," Unilever said in a statement. "It is for these reasons that we believe Hampton Creek will take the appropriate steps in labeling its products going forward."

Etsy IPOs, then has to sell itself to investors

Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson and others celebrate their IPO at the Nasdaq exchange, April 16, 2015.
Getty Images

The second of the 2014 CNBC Disruptor 50 to hit the public market, Etsy debuted amid confetti and a craft bazaar outside the Nasdaq market site in New York's Times Square.

Shares nearly doubled on day one, from an initial offer price of $16 to a closing price of $30. But it's been mostly downhill since. Investors are concerned that Etsy has not yet turned a profit. Plus, as it expands, it faces the challenge of competing with giants eBay and Amazon.

Shares have declined by more than 30 percent since the IPO, and in its worst day yet, on Monday morning three Wall Street firms published skeptical to outright bearish ratings on the company, and it tanked by as much as 10 percent, hitting a new post-IPO trading low. One of the new reports estimated that as much as 5 percent of products sold on Etsy are counterfeits or infringe on trademarks.  

SpaceX has no technical difficulties landing cash

NASA

SpaceX's dream of landing a reusable rocket and creating an entirely new space business model has continued to elude it—and the company's landing pad, specifically—but that has not stopped the unicorn from landing more money from some big names in tech and investing. 

In January, SpaceX, Elon Musk's rocket and spacecraft start-up, announced it raised $1 billion in a financing round led by Google and supported by Fidelity Investments. The investment valued SpaceX at just over $10 billion. 

SpaceX said it would use the funds "to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability and satellite manufacturing."

What's in it for Google? The search giant has ambitions to build an advanced Internet-by-satellite network, and a partnership with SpaceX could advance those efforts.  

Taylor Swift dumps Spotify

Daniel Ek and Taylor Swift
Getty Images

Pop idol Taylor Swift broke new ground with her album "1989," moving past her country roots and plucking from the Swedish pop playbook, but in the process, she also broke up with the leading music-streaming service.

Swift refused to allow "1989" to be offered on Spotify and went even further, pulling her entire catalog. In a move not many pop divas have shown previously, she penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal about her decision:

"Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically. ... Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for," she wrote.

Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek—whose company still makes no profit—fired back that Swift would have made $6 million on Spotify last year. He also had a warning for artists: "People's listening habits have changed—and they're not going to change back. ... Even though Taylor can pull her music off Spotify (where we license and pay for every song we've ever played), her songs are all over services and sites like YouTube and Soundcloud, where people can listen all they want for free."

Swift was among the big-name musical acts who recently signed on for Jay Z's streaming service Tidal, which is pitching itself as a more artist-friendly model.

Supreme Court rules against Aereo

Loretta Hostettler | Getty Images

When Barry Diller and Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia said they had no Plan B for the company if it lost a pending Supreme Court case, it sounded like a negotiating position for the Internet TV upstart backed by Diller's IAC Corp. It wasn't. 

The Supreme Court sided with CBS and other big media companies in a June 2014 decision and said Aereo's business model violated copyright laws. The ruling forced Aereo to suspend its streaming service and cut jobs. On November 20 the inevitable occurred: The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and said it would sell its assets or reorganize.

How much were those assets worth? Aereo raised less than $2 million in the bankruptcy auction.  

Schwab launches a robo-advisor, and the robo-advisors attack

Lluís Real | Age Fotostock | Getty Images / Jose Luis Pelaez | Iconica | Getty Images

One important criteria we consider when choosing the Disruptor 50 is whether the disruptor is causing established companies to change their ways. Case in point: Charles Schwab launching its Intelligent Portfolios product in March. 

Betterment CEO Jon Stein told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" he felt validated by the move. "Schwab entering says, 'Hey they're on to something,'" Stein said, "and I've heard from people at the very top of Schwab that they're concerned that they may be too late to this game." 

Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash took a different approach, publishing a scathing, detailed condemnation of the Schwab product, saying it was designed to unfairly benefit Schwab and would put young investors at a disadvantage. 

Schwab fired back, saying Nash misrepresented the facts. But Nash and his fellow disruptors haven't backed down. And Nash wore as a badge of honor the fact that Schwab felt compelled to respond directly to his post.


LendingClub completes first online lending IPO; now the hard part

Lending Club executives celebrate with company executives during the company’s IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, Dec. 11, 2014.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Almost exactly six months after being named to the 2014 Disruptor 50, peer-to-peer lending platform LendingClub (also a 2013 CNBC Disruptor) became the first of the 2014 class to go public. It raised nearly $870 million. 

On CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" that morning, LendingClub CEO Renaud LaPlanche continued to talk like a disruptor. "We think we have the opportunity to transform the entire banking system, making it more transparent, more cost efficient, more consumer friendly."

But as in the Etsy case, investors are proving to be more skeptical. LendingClub shares took off on day one, jumping as high as 67 percent above the initial offer price of $15, but shares have dropped 28 percent since its opening trade price, and its fourth quarter results disappointed. It has announced a number of big-name deals, including strategic partnerships with Google and Alibaba, as well as a lending partnership with Citigroup, as it aims to show Wall Street some stability. 

But the online lending sector, as a whole, has a lot left to prove to investors. LendingClub's valuation has declined from $9 billion to $6 billion since its IPO. On Deck Capital, which also went public last December, is down 45 percent since its IPO.

Birchbox opens brick-and-mortar store

Birchbox store in New York's Soho
Source: Birchbox

Retail disruptors tend to congregate online, but there's another trend among them: After their online success, they go brick-and-mortar.

Birchbox, the subscription e-commerce company, brought its brand to a storefront in NYC's SoHo neighborhood in July, with the hope of giving subscribers a chance to try more products and take free classes while hoping new subscribers would sign up.

Other CNBC Disruptors in the retail space have also brought their online brands to Main Street. Warby Parker now has 10 brick-and-mortar locations, and Rent the Runway has stores in NYC, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. 

Amid the clouds, Nebula turns to dust

Stocktrek Images | Getty Images

It had all the hallmarks of a true disruptor—a founder with NASA pedigree, a mission to level the cloud playing field, and almost $40 million raised from high-profile VCs, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.  

The one thing it was missing: customer demand. In its four-year existence, Nebula failed to differentiate itself from the increasingly crowded field of cloud-computing infrastructure and services companies and on April 1, 2015, announced it was closing up shop. 

"We are incredibly proud of the role we had in establishing Nebula as the leading enterprise cloud-computing platform," reads a statement still posted on Nebula's home page. "At the same time, we are deeply disappointed that the market will likely take another several years to mature. As a venture-backed start-up, we did not have the resources to wait."