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A Look Back at 2021: 3 Surprising Business Moves

Yes, Facebook actually changed its name, Bezos and Branson went to space, and one CEO fired 900 people over Zoom.

After the pandemic made much of 2020  a year where people put their lives on hold, 2021 -- at least the second half of it -- seemed almost normal. The pandemic never quite ended, but vaccines made it possible to see other people, eat in a restaurant and even travel.

It was a more normal, albeit not exactly normal, year where companies still made some moves that could be called surprising. Sure, we all still had meetings, and even family gatherings, on Zoom (ZM) - Get Zoom Video Communications, Inc. Class A Report, but most of us managed to get through the year without changing our names, taking a risky trip to space, or firing a bunch of people on a video call,

The best thing about 2021 may be that there's no clear biggest disaster of the year since Quibi -- the ill-conceived, short-lived video service young people led by two senior citizens -- actually closed in 2020. And, while neither Jeffrey Katzenberg or Meg Whitman led another startup quite as ridiculous as a paid video service designed to disrupt an incredibly popular free one, there were still a handful of surprising business moves made in 2020.

Facebook Changes Its Name to Meta

Like a friend from college who comes back from summer break who tells you he now wants to be known by a nickname nobody gave him, Mark Zuckerberg declared in October that Facebook would now be called Meta (FB) - Get Meta Platforms Inc. Class A Report. The new name reflects the direction he plans to take the company in. The company explained the name change in a press release:

Today at Connect 2021, CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced Meta, which brings together our apps and technologies under one new company brand. Meta’s focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses. The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world. It’s the next evolution in a long line of social technologies, and it’s ushering in a new chapter for our company.

This move may make lots of sense in a few years should all of those things come true. Right now, it's a bit premature, and people continue to call the company Facebook in a similar way to how everyone still uses Google even though it's technically Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report.

Billionaires Go to Space

Richard Branson, who leads a bunch of companies under the Virgin brand, and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report Founder and Charman Jeff Bezos conducted an unofficial race to become the first billionaire to launch himself into space. Branson, at least, had a reason for taking the risk -- his company, Virgin Galactic (SPCE) - Get Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc Report-- sells trips to space. By going on one of those under-20 minute trips himself, the eccentric billionaire at least demonstrated that his companies flights are safe, even if (maybe) they're not.

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Bezos' company, Blue Origin, has loftier goals than space tourism. It's more about bringing man to the stars and less about selling six-figure vanity space flights. That, of course, did not stop Bezos from putting himself on one of the company's early rest voyages.

Fired Over Zoom

When you name your company Better.com, you're sort of creating a base level of expectations. The company's CEO Vishal Garg did not live up to that name when he gathered 900 employees on a Zoom call three weeks before Christmas and somewhat flippantly laid them off.

"This isn’t news that you’re going to want to hear," he said. "If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately."

The reasons for the layoff may have been sound, but the timing and the method brought the company a lot of negative attention. It also resurfaced an email Garg sent last year that showed this was perhaps not a one-time lapse in judgement,

In the email obtained by Forbes last year Garg wrote: ‘You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS and…DUMB DOLPHINS get caught in nets and eaten by sharks. SO STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME.”

Garg has since taken a leave of absence from the company.