Facebook can save itself by becoming a B Corporation

As Facebook confronts outrage among its employees and the public for mishandling multiple decisions about its role in shaping public discourse, it is becoming clear that it cannot solve its conundrums without a major change in its business model. And a new model is readily available: for-benefit status.

For decades, a misguided ideology has warped companies, economies and societies: that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize short-term returns to one set of stakeholders — those who have bought shares. Neither law nor history requires this to be true.

But shareholder value-maximization ideology has become cemented in far too much corporate practice at the expense of societal well-being. This is manifested in many ways: a slavish adherence to the judgment of the “market,” even when other social signals are more powerful; executives enriched by stock options; companies fearful of “activist investors” who attack whenever stock prices fail to meet quarterly “expectations” and often-frivolous shareholder lawsuits pushing for stock gains at all costs.

The pandemic, however, has accelerated an already-spreading recognition that shareholder value maximization is often a harmful choice — not by any means a moral imperative or even a fiduciary responsibility.

Major institutions of capitalism are converging on a new vision for it. The 2019 Business Roundtable CEO statement said that corporate strategy should benefit all stakeholders – including shareholders, yes, but equally customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letters assert new views of how that investment company, the world’s largest, should invest the trillions it oversees.

Fink’s 2019 letter spelled out a new vision for corporate purpose; the subsequent 2020 and 2021 letters focused on business’ responsibility around climate change, particularly in light of the pandemic. The B Corporation and conscious capitalism movements are growing. The World Economic Forum is championing a “Fourth Sector,” combining purpose with profit. Business schools, facing student rebellions against a purely profit-maximizing curriculum, are rapidly changing what they teach.

And with society under siege, many more businesses, including social media, are scrambling to seem like good corporate citizens. They have no choice.

Facebook, for example, has doubled down on philanthropy and new efforts to combat misinformation, even as usage and share price soar. Platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have become essential services to connect people whose physical ties have been abruptly severed during the global pandemic. Shelter-in-place has become, in many ways, shelter-in-Facebook-properties.

But Facebook and its brethren remain fragile. Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Facebook has faced governmental hearings and regulation, public uproar (#deleteFacebook), and huge fines for invading privacy and undermining democracy. These calls were amplified in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. Separately, it faces allegations of bias, largely (though not entirely) from the political right. These have led to calls for the revocation or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from the actions of its users.

A giant company that is simultaneously essential and pilloried is vulnerable. Just ask the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons, whose huge monopolies industrialized America more than 100 years ago. Journalistic muckrakers and public outrage targeted them for their abusive practices until the government finally broke up their companies via antitrust legislation.

Because Mark Zuckerberg maintains complete majority control of Facebook, he could unilaterally quell public opprobrium and fend off heavy-handed regulation singlehandedly by transforming Facebook into a new kind of business: a for-benefit corporation.

Under the Public Benefit Corporation legal model, firms bind themselves to a public benefit mission statement and carry out required ongoing reporting on both the standard financials and on how the company is living up to its mission. That status protects the company against profit-demanding shareholder lawsuits, and also attracts employees and investors who want to combine profit with purpose.

Data.world is one of the thousands of certified B Corporations that have seen good returns on financial metrics. Allbirds, for example, launched in a few sustainable materials using a pro-sustainability process to manufacture comfortable shoes, quickly reaching revenues of $100 million and valuation of $1.7 billion in an industry fraught with sustainability and human rights concerns. Other household names that are B Corps include The Body ShopCourseraDanone, the Jamie Oliver GroupKing Arthur FlourNumi Tea and Patagonia.

Many companies that have not undergone formal B Certification from B Labs have nonetheless done well while transforming their business practices, such as the carpet and flooring company Interface. Some firms incorporate ESG principles into their management systems – the $24 billion (market cap) Dutch life sciences company DSM has for years had meaningful sustainability targets for its senior management that account for fully 50 percent of their annual bonuses. Both Interface and DSM attribute much of their commercial success to their attention to non-financial considerations.

A for-benefit Facebook could similarly relate to the world differently, avoiding many of the reputational shocks and regulatory responses that have led to huge stock dips and enormous fines. Its operations would align with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed purpose to enable the potential abundance that results from connecting everyone in the world.

Imagine a Facebook town hall as a true public square, not just another way to gather and sell people’s data without their explicit consent. Imagine a Facebook that put its users first and its advertisers second; that revealed where ads came from; that earned your attention in a way that you controlled rather than through machine-driven algorithms maximizing your attention for good or ill. Such a for-benefit Facebook could create true buy-in and transparency with its massive community around the world.

Of course, such steps as Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which may provide some meaningful review, don’t require a legal change. But if shareholders and employees continue to be rewarded primarily by the success of the problematic ad revenue model, a continuing conflict between private gain and public benefit makes it impossible to have confidence about what is happening behind the scenes. A shift to for-benefit incorporation and appropriate certification brings with it different performance metrics and accountability systems with public scores.

In changing Facebook into a for-benefit corporation, Zuckerberg could insulate himself against presidential rage while rehabilitating his reputation — and his company’s. It would likely create vast ripples both in Silicon Valley and beyond — and it might help transform capitalism itself.

#column, #ethics, #facebook, #mark-zuckerberg, #opinion, #social, #startups

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Daily Crunch: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

Microsoft shows off a new AR/VR meeting platform, Uber spins out a robotics startup and Compass files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for March 2, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

Mesh is a platform that allows for shared meetings between Microsoft’s HoloLens (augmented reality) and Windows Mixed Reality (virtual reality). Lucas Matney describes it as “pretty standard faire” for spatial computing, but noted that this will also serve as a platform for developers to build their own applications.

This is just one of a long list of announcements that Microsoft made as part of its virtual Ignite conference this week. It’s also updating Teams with new presentation features; introducing a new open-source, low-code language; launching a new NoSQL database offering called Azure Managed Instance for Apache Cassandra; announcing a hardware and software platform called Azure Precept and more.

The tech giants

Uber spins out delivery robot startup as Serve Robotics — Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year, has officially spun out as an independent company called Serve Robotics.

Amazon issues rare apology in India over drama series — The series, called “Tandav,” has faced criticism over its depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Apple releases results from hearing health study — Hearing loss is an issue Apple has looked to tackle, due in no small part to its growing involvement in the headphone category.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Compass files S-1, reveals $3.7B in revenue on net loss of $270M — Compass is not profitable, but it did see a massive surge in revenue over the past few years.

Vestiaire Collective raises $216M for its second-hand fashion platform — It’s a complicated industry, since you don’t want to buy a damaged item or a cheap knockoff.

Instacart raises $265M at a $39B valuation — What’s behind the massive increase in the value investors are willing to ascribe to the business? Put simply, the pandemic.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Six tips for SaaS founders who don’t want VC money — JotForm’s Aytekin Tank argues that bootstrapping is a saner, more sustainable way to build and scale a business.

Oscar Health raises IPO price as Coupang releases bullish debut valuation — IPO season is hot and investors are bothered.

Kaltura files to go public on the back of accelerating revenue growth, rising losses — The company’s revenue growth has accelerated yearly since at least 2018, and its final quarter of 2020 placed the company at a new growth rate maximum.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

MIT’s insect-sized drones are built to survive collisions — If you’re going to build something this small, you need to ensure that it doesn’t break down the first time it comes into contact with something.

Volvo to sell only all-electric vehicles by 2030 — This is part of a broader transformation of the automaker that will include shifting sales online.

Attend TechCrunch’s free virtual Miami meetup on March 11 — Even though we can’t be there physically right now, it’ll sure feel like we are.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#daily-crunch, #microsoft, #tc

0

Create a handbook and integrate AI to onboard remote employees

The pandemic has forced organizations across the globe to shutter the office environment, and take up a remote-first strategy. Through necessity, professionals have adapted to remote working. But the systems they use are still playing catch up.

One area less readily accommodating to the remote environment is the onboarding process. Given that it is the first sustained contact that a new starter has with a company,  a remote-first strategy is dependent on its success. When looking to onboard new employees, the luxuries of first-day meet and greets, in-person hardware setup, and a team lunch are no longer available. From interview to offer-letter and beyond, any new hire’s early journey is critical to their life at the company, their job satisfaction and ultimately their productivity. The remote induction must be a smooth process, and so needs a thorough rethink.

A cultural shift in the company may be necessary. Organizations need to embrace knowledge-sharing and collaboration, by turning to a “handbook first” approach. A few simple steps can lead them there. Companies also need to analyze their workflow. Are the right systems in place to ensure the seamless flow of both tacit and explicit knowledge?

Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence can help transform a clunky old onboarding process into a sophisticated, smooth journey. Naturally the best AI models to use will depend on the business, and department in question. However, with a few pointers business leaders can carve out a path to AI integration.

Let’s dive into the specifics that can transform the remote onboarding process, for the benefit of both the company and the new starter in question.

How to handbook

This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring newcomers are able to access the right information at the right time; it’s also the most difficult to get right. It is for workers at all levels of an organization to think about how knowledge is shared between teams, and the processes which surround that interchange of ideas.

What is most important is that everyone in an organization prioritizes documentation; exactly how they do it is secondary. You can spin up plenty of free and paid softwares to start creating a handbook. Anything cloud based is suitable, with more sophisticated paid options recommended to keep things easily searchable with documentation sorted into well defined hierarchies, rather than losing those nuggets of information in a sea of folders.

However, this systemic challenge is best addressed from top down. The process should include some checks and balances, with permissioning crucial for parts of the handbook which should remain static, like policies and SLPs. Other parts of the documentation should be kept flexible, like processes and team level knowledge. The majority of the handbook must be democratized as far as possible.

Gitlab, an all-remote company, first coined the term “handbook-first.” The DevOps software provider acts as a great example of a company that lives and breathes through documenting and codifying internal knowledge. Everyone within the organization buys into the mantra of documenting what they know, with subject matter experts assigned to manage knowledge base content. Keeping company documentation up to date is a collaborative task, considered paramount to the company’s livelihood. Softwares give a helping hand, nudging contributors to keep information up to date.

Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, says that their documentation strategy, twinned with a cooperative approach, helps to build trust with new starters. “When everything a new hire needs to know is written down, there’s no ambiguity or wondering if something is missing. We couple documentation with an Onboarding Buddy – a partner who is responsible for directing key stakeholder conversations and ensuring that acclimation goes well.”

#artificial-intelligence, #column, #ec-column, #ec-future-of-work, #labor, #remote-work, #startups

0

SpaceX’s first paying Moon flight customer wants to give away eight seats aboard his spaceship

Yusaku Maezawa, the first paying passenger to book a trip aboard SpaceX’s (still in development) Starship spacecraft around the Moon, has provided a promised update about his mission. It’s still aiming for 2023 for a flight date, and the plan is still to fly a week-long trip around the Moon and back. Now, however, Maezawa is looking for crewmates. The full passenger list will include 10 to 12 crew members, Maezawa said in a video about the announcement, but eight will be selected rom the general public.

Back when the mission was first announced in 2018, Maezawa said that he wan†´d to bring between six and eight artists with him as co-astronauts, in order to inspire them to create art based on the experience. That approach has changed somewhat, since he says that he realized anyone who expresses any kind of creativity could be considered an artist. There’s now two criteria for the selection: First, that you can excel at what you do by going to space, and second, that you can support the rest of the crew on the trip.

Maezawa, a billionaire, serial entrepreneur and an artist himself, has paid for the entire trip himself, including the eight passenger seats that he announced today he’d be giving away for free.

Maezawa also detailed the process for selecting the crew members in a new site. It includes pre-registration, which closes on March 14, and then moves into a screening process that ends on March 21. There’s an assignment of some kind that applicants need to complete by March 21, and then there’s an online interview component, followed by final interviews and medical screening to take place late in May.

All of the above timeline is subject to change, according to the application microsite. But once the team is selected, 2022 and 2023 will be focused on training in preparation for the flight. There’s also now a rough flight plan for the mission, which you can see in the graphic below. It’s not too detailed, but does include timestamps and a visual that shows the intended course will indeed loop around the Moon and then return.

Image Credits: dearMoon

One thing that’s notably absent from this call for passenger applications is the ill-advised and definitely creepy call for applicants to be Maezawa’s ‘life partner.’ He made the ask in 2020, seeking single women older than 20 to apply to a ‘match-making’ from which he would choose one romantic potential to join him on the trip, and star in a documentary about the process. Maezawa reversed course on that tactic before the end of the month in which he announced the scheme.

This isn’t the only trip to space with an open application process aiming to give away free seats, oddly enough. There’s also Inspiration4, an orbital mission that will use SpaceX’s Dragon (which is already certified for human flight) and which aims to take off as early as late 2021.


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#aerospace, #artist, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #yusaku-maezawa

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The explosive (and inclusive) potential of NFTs in the creative world

Digital collectibles are having a very large moment. Just last month, a piece of digital art by Beeple sold for $6.6 million on online art marketplace Nifty Gateway. Meanwhile, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda recently sold clips of a song via online marketplace Zora. Over on Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot, more than 200,000 people recently waited hours for the chance to buy one of just 10,631 packs of digital NBA moments.

Those marketplaces, along with others, are where people go to buy digital assets, or, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that live on the blockchain. This whole world of NFTs is super new to me (I’ve only been using Top Shot for a couple of weeks now) so I caught up with a couple of NFT creators to break it down for me, as well as share some insights on where they think the space is going, and it’s overall potential.

“The way I like to explain NFTs, they are digital assets with true ownership and provenance,” Ronin the Collector told TechCrunch. “You can track their origin and they can only be owned by one person.”

Many people, myself included, at some point wonder why someone would pay for a short video clip of, for example, Stephen Curry making a three-pointer when you download it to your computer for free.

“Humans inherently, whether we will like to admit it or not, want to own things,” Ronin said. “And I think that that’s part of the human experience is owning things. When you own things, it’s a connection, and it’s like you have reason for being and there’s something unique about ownership. And I think that at the end of the day, yeah, you can you can watch it all you want. But can you sell it?”

With that clip as an NFT, you can. As an example, one user bought a LeBron James dunk for $208,000 a couple of weeks ago, according to CryptoSlam. Last month, Top Shot reached nearly $50 million in marketplace transactions. Then, over a 24-hour period last week, Top Shot saw more than $37 million in sales, according to Cryptoslam.

As to why they’re blowing up right now, Ronin attributes it to a couple of things: the pandemic that’s forced everyone behind a computer screen and an easy entry point. Top Shot, for example, makes it super easy for plebeians like me to sign up and you don’t need to have a crypto wallet. You can just use your credit card. The same goes for Nifty Gateway.

But Top Shot and Nifty are outliers, Ronin said. For the majority of NFT platforms, you need to have an Ethereum wallet. As Cooper Turley, crypto strategy lead at Audius, wrote on TC, “this means collectors need to purchase ETH from an exchange like Coinbase and send it to a non-custodial address that consists of a long string of numbers and letters to get started.”

That sounds like a whole thing that I, for one, am not ready to dive into. In general, barriers to access continue to be a problem in the NFTs space, Ronin said.

“Projects are just now starting to pay attention to the user experience,” he said. “And just barely in time. One of the best rooms I’ve been on Clubhouse was one that talked about how basically, with the whole world watching, how do we not mess this up. So I think when you have a product like Top Shot, which is easy to get into, easy to sign up for, and easy to purchase. You have to use a credit card, you don’t need crypto and throw in the mix that everyone’s online and then Beeple sells $3 million worth of digital art, and all of a sudden, people want to pay attention. So I think that was the catalyst.”


But an even more expansive and interesting arena for NFTs than Top Shot is the world of NFT art. Ameer Carter, an artist that is also known as Sirsu, got into NFTs last summer thanks to a friend, he told TechCrunch. Pretty much immediately, he said, he realized the transformative nature of the technology.

“We literally have creative immortality,” he told me he realized at the time.

But the art world has historically been inhospitable to Black folks and people of color, and especially in the world of NFTs, Carter said. The traditional art scene, Carter said, is elitist. And while Carter himself is a classically trained artist, he hasn’t been able to make his way into the traditional art world, he said.

“And it’s not because of lack of trying,” he said.

Carter said he’s had a number of conversations with art curators who all love his work, but they’ve told him it’s not “something that they could build a whole curriculum around and intellectualize,” he said. What NFTs do is enable artists like Carter to create and share their art in a way that hadn’t previously been afforded to them.

“And this is a much more open and accessible platform, and environment for them to do so,” Carter said. “And so my goal is to help really give them that type of visibility and empower them to be creatives. My mission is to remove the starving artists stigma. I don’t believe that creativity is cheap. I believe that it is rich. And it enriches and it gives us the reasons why we live in the first place.”

However, Carter said he’s begun to notice white folks taking credit for things Black artists have already done.

“There’s this push and pull between folks who are really about the provenance of the blockchain versus folks who are wanting to predispose themselves as first because they have more visibility,” Carter said.

He pointed to Black artists like Connie Digital, Harrison First and others who were some of the first people to institute social tokens for their fans on the blockchain.

“They were some of the first to deploy and sell albums as NFTs, EPs as NFTs, singular songs,” Carter said. “And now we have Blau that came out and people were saying he’s the first to sell an album. And it’s like, well, that’s not true, technically. But what works and has continued to work is because there’s a lot of hoopla and a lot of money around that sale, that becomes the formative thing as being first because it’s the one that’s made the most noise. And I find it interesting because of the fact that we can literally go back tangibly, and there’s verifiable hash proof that it wasn’t the case.”

These are the types of phenomena pushing Carter to become an NFT archivist of sorts, he said.

“I’m not necessarily a historian, but I think the more and more I get involved in this space, the more and more I feel that pressing role of being an archivist,” he said. “So that culturally, we aren’t erased, even in a space that’s supposed to be decentralized and supposed to be something that works for everyone.”

That’s partly why Carter is building The Well to archive the work of Black artists, like Blacksneakers, for example. The Well will also be a platform for Black artists to mint their NFTs in a place that feels safe, supportive and not exploitative, he said.

On current platforms, Carter said it feels like white artists generally get more promotions on the site, as well as on social media, than Black artists.

“They deserve to have that kind of artists’ growth and development,” Carter said. “Yet it is afforded to a lot of other artists that don’t look like them.”

Carter said he recognizes it’s not the responsibility of platforms like Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and others to provide opportunities to Black artists, but that they do have the ability to put Black artists in a better position to receive opportunities.

That’s partly what Carter hopes to achieve with The Well Protocol. The Well, which Carter plans to launch on Juneteenth, aims to create an inclusive platform and ecosystem for NFT artists, collectors and curators. Carter said he wants artists to not have to feel like they have to constantly leverage Twitter to showcase their work. Instead, they’ll have the full backing of an ecosystem pumping up their work.

“Everywhere else, you look at other artists and they have write-ups, and they have news coverage and things of that nature,” Carter said. “And [Black artists] don’t have a lot of those avenues to compete. You know, I’m in the business of building true equity for us, so part and parcel to that is developing the tools and the ecosystem for us to thrive.”

No longer should art just be for the rich, Carter said.

“We have the ability to completely dismantle that,” he said. “So we have to be very, very, very careful about that and make a concerted effort to make that thing work, but we can’t do it when we have folks entering the space with money erasing folks who were already here. We can’t have that where platforms are not allowing the positioning of artists to grow. You know, we can’t have that when we have folks by and large, fear mongering and trying to get other artists to not be a part of this system.”

It’s also important, he said, for NFTs to not solely be seen as collectible, investable objects.

“Everyone’s getting into the game like it’s a money grab,” he said. “It’s not. It’s playing with artists lives and careers here.”


For those who aren’t yet in on NFTs, there’s still time, Ronin said. Even with the increased attention on NFTs, Ronin says it’s still early days.

“Honestly, I don’t even think we’ve got a full foot into early adoption yet,” he said. “I don’t think you come out of early adoption until we’ve got a solid experience across the board. I think we’re still in alpha.”

That’s partly because Ronin believes the things people will be able to do in five or ten years with this technology will pale in comparison to what’s happening today. For example, Ronin said he spoke with an artist who is experimenting with an NFT experience that will transcend VR, AR and XR.

“And I’m so excited that she chose to work with me and bring me in on this, and use me as kind of an advisor,” he said. “And she can change the world with this technology.”

That’s really what’s so exciting about NFTs for Ronin — the notion that the technology can change your life, and the world, he said.

“And it is a space in which you should feel free to come into and dream big and then figure out how to make those dreams happen,” he said. “You can use AR, VR, mobile, you know, the internet — you can use all these aspects and create an NFT experience that transcends space, transcends time, transcends our life. So it’s a super powerful technology. And I think that people should really pay attention.”

Down the road, Ronin also envisions having connected blockchains “where you can take an NFT from, you know, Bitcoin to Ethereum to WAX to Flow,” he said. “I really think that it’s why this this is that important.”

For Carter, he hopes his work at The Well will help to set a precedent for inclusivity and access in the NFT space. It’s worth mentioning that Carter is also working on the Mint Fund to help minimize the barriers to entry for artists looking to mint their first NFTs. Minting an NFT can be expensive to the tune of $50-$250 depending on how busy the Ethereum network is, and Mint Fund will pay those fees for new artists, making the on-ramp into the world smoother.

“If we don’t do this the right way with the right type of community-driven thinking, then we will lose,” he said. “And it’s not going to look good, it’s going to be ugly. And it’s going to again perpetuate the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer…We have to find the best ways to redistribute wealth at any given point in time within this economy, within this system. If we do not know how to do that, we are fucked. At least in my opinion.”

There are also conversations in the space around the ecological impact of minting NFTs, which requires a good amount of energy to do. Carter described the existence of two camps: the camp arguing minting NFTs are very ecologically damaging and the ones saying it’s not the fault of minters and you can’t blame them “for minting on a system that is already going to process these transactions, whether they mint or not.”

For Carter, he thinks the first camp could be right, but says there’s just a lot of yelling at this point.

“I think that collectively, us as minters should not feel so fucked up that we can’t do anything anymore,” he said.

Carter also pointed to the energy required to print and ship a bunch of his work.

“To sell one piece of art that I’ve minted versus the energy expenditure and the emissions it takes for me to sell, let’s say 1,000 prints at $20,” he said. “To now shop those to 1,000 different places and for those things to then be transported to 1,000 different homes. Like, maybe they’re comparable, maybe they’re not. I’m not too interested in doing the math at this point.”

Ultimately, Carter thinks there needs to be better access to renewable energy sources and more innovative hardware in the space.

“And the production of creating that innovative hardware also has to be coming from renewable energy sources, like the entire framework should be working to be carbon negative,” he said. “As carbon neutral to carbon negative as possible. And not just the minting side but the mining side. And, you know, the manufacturing side. It’s a cyclical issue.”

#blockchain, #crypto, #nba-topshot, #nfts, #tc

0

Cornea eyes in on fighting wildfires using better data

It’s not yet fire season thankfully, which affords some breathing room for firefighters and emergency responders to begin planning out how to confront the increasingly complex and unwieldy task of preventing and responding to fires in the American West. Wildfires in the region have been particularly acute in recent years in states like California, mostly due to hotter conditions driven by climate change, decaying grid infrastructure that can lead to sparks, and a tinderbox of trees and foliage ripe for conflagration.

After years of bruising firefighting, some startups are exploring how to improve fire response. One of them is Cornea, a sort of spin-up by public sector-focused venture studio Hangar, which raised $15 million last year to build new startups targeting the government.

One of Hangar’s first companies was Cornea back a couple of years ago, and it remains one of the most interesting for its potential. The idea is to meld geographical, weather and historical fire data into a machine learning model that can augment frontline firefighters with better guidance on where to push forward and when to retreat in the midst of a blaze.

The startup has two main products it is looking to launch this year. The first is focused around delivering better situational awareness around a subject known among firefighters as the “Suppression Difficulty Index.” These are essentially maps that inform firefighters of the dangers of fighting fire in a very specific geographical location. For instance, a particular location could have wind or water conditions that might accelerate a fire and endanger responders if they are not careful.

The other product is focused on “Potential Control Lines” — locations where a fire break or other action could potentially push back a fire. Using typography, vegetation and a myriad of other data, Cornea can locate positions with a higher likelihood of success in battling a fire.

Cornea’s Chief Fire Officer is Tom Harbour, who formerly served a decade as head of fire response for the U.S. Forest Service. He said that “50 years ago, I was raised in a culture where you never knew ‘why’ — you just obeyed orders” when it came to firefighting decisions out in the field. “Your head was on the proverbial swivel.” With Cornea and the products the company is creating, we are “Getting aligned on the ‘why’ and beginning to have [firefighters] sense the information that they are looking at.”

Harbour noted that the most common tools in the field today remain paper maps and markers, simply because “you know it doesn’t break right at the time when you can’t have things break.” Cornea’s products may help firefighters in the field, but they are far more likely to have an impact in the fire operations centers where strategic decisions get made about where to invest firefighting resources.

Josh Mendelsohn, the founder and managing partner of Hangar, said that the company is straight down the center of the studio’s investment thesis. “Cornea is focused on taking these large datasets, processing them effectively … and then giving [firefighters] as much analytical impact in an output as simple as possible,” he said, noting that “it turns out that in this market the best user experience is a PDF.”

Indeed, one of the major challenges for building in this market is simply the unique dynamic of disaster response compared to, say, enterprise SaaS. “Cornea has had to go through a customer-discovery process,” Mendelsohn said. “It all feels necessary, but what are the right things that require the least amount of behavior change to have impact immediately?” One challenge particularly around firefighting is simply the feedback loop from the field to the team. “Fire is seasonal so we have had to be a bit incremental,” Mendelsohn said.

The team is currently three full-time people plus consultants with Hangar augmenting them with its own studio staff. The company built out its product partially using federal research grants to deepen the science of firefighting, and this year, hopes to work with the Forest Service and state firefighting agencies to get its models out to the frontlines. “There is a human bandwidth problem,” Mendelsohn said. “How do you take limited resources to help [firefighters] go further by using them effectively?”


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#cornea, #government, #hangar, #startups

0

Following unionization, Glitch signs collective bargaining agreement

In another key moment for the growing tech labor movement, Glitch employees today announced that they have signed a collective bargaining agreement with the company. The move comes a year after the site’s workforce voted to join the Communications Workers of America Local 1101.

“We’re excited that Glitch workers have signed their first-ever contract, a milestone in this industry,” CWA Local 1101 President Keith Purce said in a release tied to the announcement. “CWA has decades of experience helping workers improve conditions at some of this country’s largest, most powerful corporations. We know we’re stronger when we fight together, and we hope this victory inspires other software engineers to organize their workplaces.”

Glitch says the agreement has been in the works for around five months before being, “ratified overwhelmingly” by employees. The union calls the move, “the first collective bargaining agreement signed by software engineers in the tech industry,” citing industry moves designed from preventing labor movements from solidifying in tech.

In spite of this, however, the movement has been growing, particularly over the past year, among blue-collar and white-collar workers alike. Recent examples include Kickstarter and the Alphabet Workers Union.

Attempts to unionize among Amazon warehouse employees have been decidedly more rocky, as the company has purchased advertising and sent mailers attempting to dissuade workers. Still, the pro-union wing has seemingly found an ally in Joe Biden, who recently commented, “The choice to join a union is up to the workers, full stop.”

In May, Glitch laid off 18 — amounting to around a third of the staff. CEO Anil Dash noted at the time, “we are a small company in a fiercely competitive space in a tough economy. But these good people have done immensely valuable work that our entire team and community are grateful for.”

The agreement, which holds for 11 months, focuses — in part — on the rights of those impacted workers, detailing severance and rehiring those former employees if their former positions are re-instated.

“This is an absolutely historic win for us,” said software engineer Katie Lundsgaard. “We love our jobs, we love working at Glitch, which is why we wanted to ensure we have a lasting voice at this company and lasting protections. This contract does that, and I hope tech workers across the industry can see that unions and startups are not incompatible.”

Organizers add:

The contract also does not focus on wages and benefits, which are already generous at Glitch, opting instead to ensure basic union protections for workers and a continued voice in the workplace.


Early Stage is the premier ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, product market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion.

#apps, #glitch, #hiring, #labor, #union, #unionization

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Proptech startup States Title, now Doma, going public via SPAC in $3B deal

Real estate tech startup Doma, formerly known as States Title, announced Tuesday it will go public through a merger with SPAC Capitol Investment Corp. V in a deal valued at $3 billion, including debt.

SPACs, often called blank-check companies, are increasingly common. They exist as publicly traded entities in search of a private company to combine with, taking the private entity public without the hassle of an IPO.

When it floats later this year, Doma will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol DOMA. The transaction is expected to provide up to $645 million in cash proceeds, including a fully committed PIPE of $300 million and up to $345 million of cash held in the trust account of Capitol Investment Corp. V. 

CEO Max Simkoff founded San Francisco-based Doma in September 2016 with the aim of creating a technology-driven solution for “closing mortgages instantly.” While it initially was founded to instantly underwrite title insurance, the company has expanded that same approach to handle “every aspect” of closing and escrow.

Doma has developed patented machine learning technology that it says reduces title processing time from five days to “as little as one minute” and cuts down the entire mortgage closing process “from a 50+ day ordeal to less than a week.” The startup has facilitated over 800,000 real estate closings for lenders such as Chase, Homepoint, Sierra Pacific Mortgage and others.

The name change is designed to more accurately reflect its intention to expand “well beyond” title into areas such as appraisals and home warranties.

Its goal with going public is to be able to “continue to invest in growth, market expansion and new products.”

Anchoring the PIPE include funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, SB Management (a subsidiary of SoftBank Group), Gores, Hedosophia, and Wells Capital. Existing Doma shareholder Lennar has also committed to the PIPE and Spencer Rascoff, co-founder and former CEO of Zillow Group, has committed a personal investment to the PIPE.

Up to approximately $510 million of cash proceeds are expected to be retained by Doma, and existing Doma shareholders will own no less than approximately 80 percent of the equity of the new combined company, subject to redemptions by the public stockholders of Capitol and payment of transaction expenses.

In mid-February, Doma announced it had closed on $150 million in debt financing from HSCM Bermuda, which had previously invested in the company. And last May, it announced a massive $123 million Series C round of funding at a valuation of $623 million.

Doma joins the growing number of proptech companies going the public route. On Monday, Compass, the real-estate brokerage startup backed by roughly $1.6 billion in venture funding, filed its S-1

In 2020, Social Capital Hedosophia II, the blank-check company associated with investor Chamath Palihapitiya, announced that it would merge with Opendoor, taking the private real estate startup public in the process.

Porch.com also went public in a SPAC deal in December. And, SoftBank-backed View, a Silicon Valley-based smart window company, will complete a recent SPAC merger to be publicly listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange on March 8. The company is expected to debut trading with a market value of $1.6 billion.

#exit, #finance, #fundings-exits, #real-estate, #startups, #tc

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Fluid Truck, the Zipcar of commercial trucks, raises $63M to take on rental giants

Fluid Truck has built an app-based platform that aims to take away the pain and cost of owning or leasing commercial vehicles, all while grabbing market share from established companies like Penske, Ryder and U-Haul. 

Now, it has the capital to help it get there. The Denver-based company said Tuesday it raised $63 million in a Series A funding round to expand its truck-sharing platform, which helps mid-mile and last-mile delivery companies remotely manage an on-demand rental fleet via web or mobile app. Private equity firm Bison Capital led the round, with participation from Ingka Investments (part of Ingka Group, the main Ikea retailer), Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Fluid Vehicle Owners.  

The investment, its first external round, comes after rapid growth at the four-year-old company. Founder and CEO James Eberhard told TechCrunch that revenue increased 100x in the last two years. That type of growth sounds promising, but the company did not provide a baseline, so it’s hard to judge scale. 

With e-commerce expected to continue to rise at a global 9.5% compound annual growth rate from 2020 to 2025, the demand for accessible trucks for hire might see correlative growth. It’s no surprise that e-commerce is one of the industries Fluid Truck has targeted. 

Fluid Truck, which operates in 25 U.S. markets, operates like the car-sharing company Zipcar, with a commercial bent. Businesses such as moving and e-commerce delivery companies can use the platform to rent trucks. Fluid Truck’s pitch to businesses extends beyond the “you don’t need to buy or lease” argument. The platform also allows delivery companies to dispense with having a manager on staff who would manage, maintain and eventually sell the fleet. 

Businesses eager to outsource the purchasing and managing of their trucks can find fleets for hire in industrial parks and retail areas within Fluid’s service network. 

“You can hop on our platform, rent a truck and be in it in a matter of minutes, which really allows businesses to scale up and scale down,” said Eberhard. “We’re watching our user behavior go from a place where they used to own every vehicle they needed at a time to a place where they’re now grabbing spare capacity off Fluid.”

Eberhard hopes to see that type of supplementary use morph into an end state where companies don’t own a single truck and run solely on Fluid Truck’s platform. 

Fluid Truck argues that its tech stack, which is designed to smooth out the booking and renting process, gives it a competitive edge in a market dominated by the likes of U-Haul, Ryder and or other small depots. Eberhard said the process of going to a depot and waiting in line is slow and sloppy, whereas Fluid Truck’s app makes renting a van as easy as calling an Uber.

“We take all those complexities away and allow people to have a virtual fleet,” Eberhard told TechCrunch.

Fluid Truck’s fleet is made up of thousands — and soon to be tens of thousands — of cargo vans, pickup trucks, large box trucks and various other vehicles. The company also claims to have the largest medium-duty EV rental fleet in the United States, which it continues to expand as it works with OEMs to increase fleet capacity. Electric vehicles still make up less than 1% of its total portfolio due to the slower adoption of EVs on the commercial side. 

Eberhard wants Fluid to be a dominant force in the trucking industry. But Fluid Truck is not the only truck sharing app on the streets. Competitors GoShare and Bungii have similar offerings.

This sizable round could provide an advantage as it tries to become the household name in digital truck sharing. Perhaps, as importantly, the company has the attention and investment of Ikea. 

“This is another step in enabling Ikea retail to provide last mile delivery services to our customers, continue to improve on our customer promise, while also reducing our environmental footprint,” Krister Mattsson, managing director of Ingka Investments said in a statement, a comment that suggests a future partnership with Fluid Truck. 

With this latest capital round, Fluid’s goal is to (you guessed it) scale outwards, with a focus on expanding the team, adding dozens more markets in the U.S. and preparing to take Fluid into the EU and Canada. 

Fluid Truck will also be investing back into its own tech stack, which includes an internal proprietary telematics platform to predict and automate servicing and maintenance of the company’s fleet. 

#automotive, #bison-capital, #fluid-truck, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation

0

Twitter Spaces arrives on Android ahead of Clubhouse

Twitter announced today it’s opening up its live audio chat rooms, known as Twitter Spaces, to users on Android. Previously, the experience was only open to select users on iOS following the product’s private beta launch in late December 2020. The company says that Android users will only be able to join and talk in Spaces for the time being, but won’t yet be able to start their own.

That added functionality is expected to ship “soon,” Twitter says, without offering an exact timeframe.

The company has been working quickly to iterate on Twitter Spaces in the months since its beta debut, and has been fairly transparent about its roadmap.

Last month, the team developing Twitter Spaces hosted a Space where users were invited to offer feedback, ask questions, and learn about what Twitter had in the works for the product in both the near-term and further down the road. During this live chat, Twitter confirmed that Spaces would arrive on Android in March.

It also promised a fix to how it displays listeners, which has since rolled out.

Other Spaces features are being shared in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including things like titles and descriptions, scheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderators, guest lists, and more. Twitter has also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint.

The time frame of some of its new developments  — like Android and scheduling options — were being promised in a matter of weeks, not months.

This fast pace has now led Twitter to beat its rival Clubhouse — the app currently leading the “social audio” market — to offer support for Android. Today, Clubhouse remains iOS-only in addition to being invite-only.

It’s also indicative of the resources Twitter is putting into this new product, which was first announced publicly just in November. Clearly, Twitter believes social audio is a market it needs to win.

The company also sees the broader potential for Spaces as being a key part of a larger creator platform now in the works. During its Investor Day last week, Twitter spoke of tying together its new products like Spaces, Newsletters along with a “Super Follow” paid subscription, for example.

It’s now also testing a Twitter “Shopping Card” that would allow users to tweets posts that link directly to product pages via a “Shop” button — a feature that would seem to fall under this new creator focus, as well.

Some Twitter users on Android had already found their way to Spaces before today’s announcement by way of the Twitter beta app on Google Play.

But now, a separate beta app won’t be required — when live Spaces are available, they’ll appear at the top of the Twitter timeline for Android users to join.

 

 

#apps, #mobile

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SpineZone is the latest health tech startup to raise millions in the musculoskeletal space

SpineZone is a startup that creates personalized exercise programs and treatment for neck and back pain. The company uses an online platform and in-person clinics to deliver a curriculum that, ideally, helps patients avoid the need for prescription drugs, injections and surgeries, and providers then avoid the cost of all of the above. Co-founded by brothers Kian Raiszadeh and Kamshad Raiszadeh, the company tells TechCrunch that it has raised $12 million in a Series A round led by Polaris Partners and Providence Ventures, with participation from Martin Ventures.

At its core, SpineZone is a virtual physical therapy platform augmented by in-person clinics. The latter bit is important because it takes a video repository, which has health outcomes baked into it, and helps get those same users some real-life support.

Patients can log onto the site, either through smartphone or laptop, and then answer a series of questions around pain and risk factors. Then, patients can go through a series of exercises. These exercises are created in tandem with professionals, and are based on peer-reviewed and evidence-based articles on musculoskeletal health.

Beyond this digital archive of videos, SpineZone offers an in-person clinic option to help patients practice these exercises. Off of this strategy, the startup claims that it has “1 million lives under management.”

SpineZone’s value proposition is that it helps payers and providers, whether that be employers, clinics or health plans such as Cigna or Aetna, avoid placing their patients in surgeries, which are expensive. By taking care of pain issues before they bubble up, SpineZone says that its current partners have been able to have a 50% reduction in surgery rate (it’s worth noting that COVID-19 could also play a role in this because it is high-risk to enter a medical facility).

Partners are happy because footing the bill of a non-operative procedure is remarkably cheaper than a non-operative procedure.

The cost saving that a medical center could endure can be in the millions. For example, the Sharp Community Medical Group saved $3.4 million in cost savings after working with SpineZone for two years.

SpineZone’s business model is a smidge more complicated than your classic SaaS fee. For example, it charges a clinic based on the number of members it serves per month, and also shares in the downside. For example, if SpineZone promises to get a clinic to $12 million in spend from $15 million, and the cost ends up being $17 million, the company will pay the clinic a portion of the difference. Alternatively, if SpineZone got the clinic to $10 million, even below estimates, it shares in the upside.

SpineZone joins a cohort of health tech startups that focus on musculoskeletal conditions. Venture-backed competitors include Peerwell, Force Therapeutics and Hinge Health, which was most recently valued at $3 billion, with plans to go public.

In order to win, many startups, SpineZone including, need value-based care to replace fee-for-service care. Value-based care is the idea that doctors are paid for outcomes instead of the number of times you enter a doctor’s office. The end goal is that this format creates monetary incentives around getting to an outcome faster: If a doctor is going to make $30,000 on fixing a knee, regardless of whether it takes two appointments or 20 appointments, they might as well do a more thorough job upon check-up instead of elongating the process. The flipside of this, of course, is that doctors might optimize for outcome volume and speed rather than the quality of the result itself.

While SpineZone’s early traction is promising, the healthcare ecosystem still has a ways to go before value-based models take precedence. Right now, Kian Raiszadeh estimates that 10 to 20% of revenue in a medical center comes from value-based care. SpineZone is projecting that it will get to 50% of revenue in the near future.

“And that’s the biggest evolution and tallest lift that we’re expecting,” he said.

#early-stage, #health, #health-tech, #polaris-partners, #providence-ventures, #recent-funding, #skeleton, #spinezone, #startups, #tc

0

Microsoft says China-backed hackers are exploiting Exchange zero-days

Microsoft is warning customers that a new China state-sponsored threat actor is exploiting four previously undisclosed security flaws in Exchange Server, an enterprise email product built by the software giant.

The technology company said Tuesday that it believes the hacking group, which it calls Hafnium, tries to steal information from a broad range of U.S.-based organizations, including law firms and defense contractors, but also infectious disease researchers and policy think tanks.

Microsoft said Hafnium used the four newly discovered security vulnerabilities to break into Exchange email servers running on company networks, granting the attackers to steal data from a victim’s organization — such as email accounts and address books — and the ability to plant malware. When used together, the four vulnerabilities create an attack chain that can compromise vulnerable servers running on-premise Exchange 2013 and later.

Hafnium operates out of China, but uses servers located in the U.S. to launch its attacks, the company said. Microsoft said that Hafnium was the only threat group it has detected using these four new vulnerabilities.

Microsoft declined to say how many successful attacks it had seen, but described the number as “limited.”

Patches to fix those four security vulnerabilities are now out, a week earlier than the company’s typical patching schedule, usually reserved for the second Tuesday in each month.

“Even though we’ve worked quickly to deploy an update for the Hafnium exploits, we know that many nation-state actors and criminal groups will move quickly to take advantage of any unpatched systems,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security.

The company said it has also briefed U.S. government agencies on its findings, but that the Hafnium attacks are not related to the SolarWinds-related espionage campaign against U.S. federal agencies. In the last days of the Trump administration, the National Security Agency and the FBI said that the SolarWinds campaign was “likely Russian in origin.”

#china, #computer-security, #computing, #cryptography, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #defense-contractors, #federal-bureau-of-investigation, #internet-security, #law-firms, #microsoft, #national-security-agency, #security, #software, #solarwinds, #technology, #threat, #trump-administration, #u-s-government, #united-states, #vulnerability

0

Six tips for SaaS founders who don’t want VC money

Over the past decade, venture capital has become synonymous with entrepreneurship. Founders from around the world arrive in Silicon Valley with visions of record-setting A rounds and billion-dollar valuations. But what if you don’t have unicorn dreams – or you don’t want to pursue VC money?

Bootstrapping a SaaS company is not only possible – I believe it’s a saner, more sustainable way to build and scale a business. To be clear, bootstrapping isn’t always easy. It requires patience and focus, but the freedom to create a meaningful product, on your terms, is worth more than even the biggest VC check.

I started my company, JotForm, in 2006. We’ve grown steadily from a simple web tool into a product that serves more than 8 million users – without taking a dime in outside funding. We’re profitable in an industry with big-name competitors like Google.

Most importantly, I still love this company and its mission, and I want the same for my fellow entrepreneurs. If you’re a SaaS founder who’s wary of VC funding, here are my best bootstrapping tips.

Keep your day job

Success stories from founders who leap blindly into business without resources or relevant experience are compelling, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Working inside another organization can build your skills, your network, and even inspire great product ideas.

After finishing college with a computer science degree, I worked as a developer for a New York media company. The editors always needed custom web forms, which were tedious and time-consuming to build. I kept thinking, “There has to be a better way.”

That daily frustration led me to start JotForm – but I didn’t leave my job right away. I stayed with the media firm for five years and worked on my product on the side. By the time I was ready to go all-in, I had the confidence, experience and savings I needed.

Many of the world’s biggest companies began as side projects, including Twitter, Craigslist, Slack, Instagram, Trello, and a little venture called Apple. If your day job doesn’t pay enough to fund the early stages of your business, consider a side gig or consulting work. There are so many ways to set yourself up for success without the pressure of VC cash or selling a chunk of your business.

Know you’re not alone

The exact numbers shift every year, but data compiled by Fundable show that only 0.05 percent of U.S. startups are backed by VCs. Another 0.91 percent are funded by angel investors. The vast majority, at 57 percent, are funded by credit and personal loans, while 38 percent get funding from friends and family.

It may feel like most founders raise multi-million-dollar rounds, but that’s simply not the case. It’s also good to remember that securing VC money is complicated and time-consuming. You can spend months taking meetings and presenting the perfect deck – and still leave empty-handed. Be patient and stick to your own path.

Measure profits, not popularity

SaaS founders often emphasize vanity metrics, like user acquisitions and total downloads. These numbers can measure short-term popularity, but they don’t reveal how users and customers feel about your product – or your long-term potential.

#bootstrapping, #column, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #entrepreneurship, #private-equity, #saas, #startups, #venture-capital

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Retail Zipline raises $30M as it helps retailers adapt to the pandemic

When I first wrote about Retail Zipline in 2019, the startup was focused on building a communication platform that would help corporate decision-makers in retail communicate with individual stores. As you’d probably guess, the startup saw some changes in 2020.

“When COVID first hit, you might think a company that’s primarily focused on retail would be in trouble,” said co-founder and CTO Jeremy Baker. “But it turns out that a product that helps retailers communicate critical information when everything is changing is no longer a nice to have.”

In other words, where Retail Zipline might previously have been used for coordinating sales and promotions, it suddenly became a channel for managing things like health and safety protocols and communicating about furloughs and closures.

Co-founder and CEO Melissa Wong said the platform supports both engagement (a company executives sending a message to retail associates) and execution (translating a broader corporate strategy into an in-store experience). While you might think that execution was the only thing that mattered in the middle of a pandemic, Wong argued that the engagement side was also essential, particularly when employees felt they were putting themselves at risk.

“The engagement part means that we can explain to a retail employee what we’re doing to protect you during this crisis, and your role as part of this company and this brand,” she said.

Retail Zipline screenshot

Image Credits: Retail Zipline

She added that the company has doubled its customer baes during the pandemic and seen revenue increase 2.5x. Retailers using the platform include Sephora, AEO, L.L.Bean, Gap, Hy-Vee, Lush Cosmetics, BevMo, LL Flooring, Cole Haan, The LEGO Group, TOMS and Torrid.

The pandemic also spurred dramatic growth in e-commerce, but Wong (who previously worked on the corporate side of Gap and Old Navy) suggested that this won’t eliminate the need for physical stores. Instead, it just means they’ll have to live up to the long-standing “omni-channel promise,” where they serve as both a store and a distribution center for online orders.

“Retail will become more complex,” she said. “We will enable them to meet those complexities.”

Today, Retail Zipline is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding. The round was led by real estate-focused firm Fifth Wall, with partner Dan Wenhold joining the board of directors. Emergence Capital, Ridge Ventures, Hillsven Capital, Veeva co-founder Matt Wallach and the Fisher Family Fund also participated.

The company has now raised more than $39 million, according to Crunchbase.

In a blog post, Fifth Wall wrote:

The Fifth Wall network is rich with opportunities for Zipline to explore potential partnerships among our retail-focused partners and portfolio companies. However, we believe retail to be just the beginning for Zipline as we envision the product appealing to many Built World industries. The opportunity for Zipline within real estate could lie with organizations whose HQ office must communicate daily with field operations workers, such as more traditional brokers with a geographic focus (e.g., CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield), leasing agents within multifamily and SFR (e.g., Equity Residential, Greystar), or construction site workers.

 

#fifth-wall-ventures, #funding, #fundings-exits, #retail-zipline, #startups

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Amazon’s GameOn app, a platform for sharing mobile gaming clips, launches on iOS,

Mobile gaming hasn’t seen the same demand for streaming content in the past as desktop has, but Amazon sees a market there to extend Twitch’s dominance. After launching on Android back in November, the company’s mobile streaming centric app has just launched on Apple’s App Store.

The app lets users record short clips (anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes of content) of gameplay from a variety of titles that support screen recording capture. Users can screen record these clips directly into the GameOn library at which point they can add commentary or additional edits before publishing to the GameOn platform or sharing links to the platform on other sites.

The GameOn platform is interestingly fully disconnected from Twitch with separate branding and different channels. Amazon has been partnering with streamers to wholly focus on mobile gaming while promoting challenges unique to the app.

Developers have been increasingly vigilant about brining more full-featured ports of desktop titles to mobile though the lack of sophisticated controls has made this a challenge. As gaming platforms aim to bring cloud streaming networks to iOS there could end up being more demand for shot-on-mobile content and titles that users control with a gamepad, but this will depend on whether the App Store grows more amenable to these platforms over time.

#amazon, #android, #app-store, #computing, #gameon, #gaming, #internet, #mass-media, #mobile-game, #streaming, #twitch, #video-hosting

0

West Tenth’s app encourages women to start home businesses, not join MLMs

A new digital marketplace called West Tenth, now backed by $1.5 million in seed funding, wants to give women a platform to start and grow their home-based businesses. Through its mobile app, women can promote their business to others in the local community, then field inquiries and requests through the app’s integrated messaging platform, as well as finalize transactions through in-app payments.

The startup was co-founded by Lyn Johnson and Sara Sparhawk, who met when they both worked in finance. Johnson remained in finance, but Sparhawk later moved on to work at Amazon.

Johnson explains that her experience led her to better understand the economic inequality of women in the U.S., where they only own 32 cents to every dollar in financial assets than men own. A large driver of this is that women leave the workforce, often to raise children, which results in years where they don’t have earnings.

“We’re really good as a society at supporting women on the way of out of the workforce to care for their kids, but really terrible at supporting them on the way back in,” Johnson says. “Women know this, and as an alternative to employment that just seems to fail them, they’re starting businesses in droves.”

Image Credits: West Tenth

With West Tenth, the goal is to encourage this sort of entrepreneurship — and more broadly, to help women understand that the many of the talents they’ve developed at home are, in fact, potential businesses.

This includes opportunities like home-based bakers and cooks, photographers, home organizers or designers, home florists, baby sleep consultants, party planning and event services, crafting classes, fitness training, homemade goods, and more.

The company notes that the app isn’t necessarily closed to men, but the current market for U.S. home businesses favors women as they’re more often the partner who chooses to leave work to raise children. However, there are some men on its platform.

Though today many of these entrepreneurs market their home businesses on Facebook, they’re missing opportunities to reach customers if they’re not heavily involved in local groups and responding to requests for recommendations. West Tenth instead centralizes local businesses in one place to make discovery easier.

Image Credits: West Tenth

 

In the app, customers can browse and shop local businesses, filtering by category via buttons at the top of the screen. The results are sorted by distance and offer photos, description, and the starting price for the goods or services offered. Through integrated messaging, users can reach out directly for a quote or more information. Customers can also complete their purchases through the app’s Stripe payments integration. West Tenth takes a 9.5% commission on these sales.

Another key aspect to West Tenth is its education component, The Foundry.

Through a $100 per quarter subscription membership (or $350 per year), business owners will be able to attend bi-monthly events, including classes focused on the fundamentals of setting up home-based businesses, marketing, customer acquisition, and other topics. These classes will also be available à la carte at around $30 apiece, for those who want to pay per session.

In addition, attendees will hear from guest speakers who have experience in the home-based business market, and they’ll be able join mastermind networking groups to exchange ideas with their peers.

Image Credits: West Tenth

This system of combining education and networking with business ownership could potentially help more women become home-based business entrepreneurs instead of joining multi-level marketing (MLM) companies, as is common.

“When we started this, we recognized that MLMs are one of the few kind of industries that’s focused on this demographic of women who’ve left the workforce — which is a huge, untapped talent pool in the U.S.,” notes Johnson. “But they’re really predatory. Only the top 1% of sellers distributors really make money and the rest lose money. And they lose their social capital, as well. What we’re really interested in doing is becoming an alternative to MLMs in many respects,” she adds.

Not surprisingly, MLMs aren’t allowed on the West Tenth platform.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The startup, which completed Kansas City TechStars last summer, has now raised $1.5 million in seed funding to get its platform off the ground. The round was led by Better Ventures along with Stand Together Ventures Lab, Kapital Partners,The Community Fund, Backstage Capital, Wedbush Ventures, and Gaingels.

The funds will be used to develop the product and grow its user base. In time, West Tenth aims to build out product features to better highlight local businesses. This includes shopping elements that will let you see what friends are buying and video demonstrations, among other things.

Since 2019, West Tenth has grown its footprint from just 20 businesses on the app to now over 600, largely in suburban L.A. and Salt Lake City. It’s now aiming to target growth in Phoenix, Boise, and Northern California.

Image Credits: West Tenth

The timing for West Tenth’s expansion is coming on the tail end of the COVID-19 crisis, where things have only gotten worse for women’s traditional employment.

School and daycare closures combined with job losses that greatly impacted women’s roles have now driven more women out of the workforce compared with men. And according to McKinsey, women accounted for nearly 56% of workforce exits since the start of the pandemic, despite making up just 48% of the workforce. This COVID-driven “shecession,” as some have dubbed it, is also disproportionately impacting women of color, studies have found.

“We’ve seen 5 million women exit the workforce — some because they were laid off or furloughed, and a huge chunk because they’re opting out because the caregiving responsibilities just became overwhelming,” says Johnson.

“The thing is when women leave the workforce for caregiving reasons — for some reason we really discount that and we make it even harder for them to return to work. So I think over the next 18 to 24 months, we’ll see a big surge in economic activity in the home with women trying to bring in additional sources of income by running a business from the home,” she says.

The West Tenth app is available on both iOS and Android.

#apps, #funding, #mobile, #recent-funding, #startups

0

Amazon issues rare apology in India over drama series

Amazon on Tuesday issued a rare apology to users in India for an original political drama series over allegations that a few scenes in the nine-part mini series hurt religious sentiments of some people in the key overseas market.

The series, called “Tandav,” has faced criticism from some people in India — including a few members of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party — over its depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses.

In a message titled, “Amazon Prime Video Apologizes,” the American e-commerce group said it “deeply regrets that viewers considered certain scenes to be objectionable” and that it had either edited those scenes or removed them altogether from the show after hearing concerns from viewers.

“We respect our viewers’ diverse beliefs and apologize unconditionally to anyone who felt hurt by these scenes. Our teams follow company content evaluation processes, which we acknowledge need to be constantly updated to better serve our audiences. We will continue to develop entertaining content with partners, while complying with the laws of India and respecting the diversity of culture and beliefs of our audiences.”

The show, which stars several top Bollywood actors including Saif Ali Khan, premiered in mid-January and immediately prompted controversy and criminal complaints. Things have escalated in recent weeks as several high-profile executives of Amazon Prime Video have been questioned by the authority.

Prime Video has amassed millions of subscribers in India, where it competes with Disney’s Hotstar, Netflix, Times Internet’s MX Player, and dozens more streaming services. Amazon has grown more aggressive with Prime Video in India in recent months. It recently introduced an even cheaper subscription tier and secured rights for streaming some cricket matches.

Amazon’s rare apology today comes days after New Delhi announced new rules for on-demand video streaming services and social media firms.

Until now Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services have operated in India without having to worry too much about the nature of their content. But that’s changing, according to the new rules.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the new rules state.

As we wrote recently, the controversy surrounding the political drama and the new rules from India for streaming services are only few of the challenges that Amazon is facing in India, where it has committed to deploy over $6.5 billion.

Last month, an influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country after an investigation by Reuters claimed that the American e-commerce group had given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers in India, publicly misrepresented its ties with those sellers and used them to circumvent foreign investment rules in the country.

#amazon, #amazon-prime-video, #asia, #ecommerce, #india, #media, #netflix, #prime-video

0

Epic is buying ‘Fall Guys’ developer, Mediatonic

Fortnite maker Epic today announced plans to acquire Tonic Games Group, most notably the publisher behind the fellow massive battle royale hit title, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. Tonic Games Group is the parent company for the Irregular Corporation, Fortitude Games and Fall Guys developer, Mediatonic. Other titles developed under the umbrella include Murder by Numbers, Gears of War/Funko spinoff Gears Pop and Yahtzee with Buddies.

“It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse and Tonic Games shares this goal,” Epic founder and CEO Tim Sweeney said in a release tied to the news. “As Epic works to build this virtual future, we need great creative talent who know how to build powerful games, content and experiences.”

Epic notes in its announcement post that gameplay for the popular title won’t change under the new ownership. As with Fornite, the company says it’s investing in cross platform play for the title, which is currently available on the PlayStation and PC with Nintendo Switch and Xbox arriving later this year.

Mediatonic was founded in the U.K. in 2005. Tonic Games Group was developed as a parent company last year. Based in London, the group now employs roughly 300 people, globally. Released last August, Fall Guys has proven a major hit for audiences and critics, alike.

“With Epic, we feel like we have found a home that was made for us,” Tonic cofounder and CEO Dave Bailey said in the release. “They share our mission to build and support games that have a positive impact, empower others and stand the test of time and we couldn’t be more excited to be joining forces with their team.”

Epic, of course, has money to burn. In addition to massive revenue generated from Fortnite, the company has raised $3.4 billion to date, including a $1.78 billion round in August of last year.

 

#entertainment, #epic-games, #fortnite, #gaming, #mediatonic, #tonic

0

SkyMul’s drones secure rebar on the fly to speed up construction

There are many jobs in the construction industry that fall under the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” category said to be ripe for automation — but only a few can actually be taken on with today’s technology. One such job is the crucial but repetitive task of rebar tying, which a startup called SkyMul is aiming to completely automate using fleets of drones.

Unless you’ve put together reinforced concrete at some point in your life, you may not know what rebar tying is. The steel rebar that provides strength to concrete floors, walls, and other structures is held in place during the pouring process by tying it to the other rebar where the rods cross. For a good-size building or bridge this can easily be thousands of ties — and the process is generally done manually.

Rodbusters (as rebar tying specialists are called, or so I’m told) are masters of the art of looping a short length of plastic or wire around an intersection between two pieces of rebar, then twisting and tying it tightly so that the rods are secured in multiple directions. It must be done precisely and efficiently, and so it is — but it’s backbreaking, repetitive work. Though any professional must feel pride in what they do, I doubt anyone cherishes the chronic pain they get from doing that task thousands of times in an hour. As you might expect, rodbusters have high injury rates and develop chronic issues.

Automation of rebar tying is tricky because it happens in so many different circumstances. A prominent semi-robotic solution is the TyBot, which is a sort of rail-mounted gantry that suspends itself over the surface — but while this makes sense for a bridge, it makes far less for the 20th floor of an office building.

Animated image of a drone floating over rebar and tying it together at intersections.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Enter SkyMul, a startup still in the very early stages but with a compelling pitch: rebar tying done by a fleet of drones. When you consider that the tying process doesn’t involve too much force, and that computer vision has gotten more than good enough to locate the spots that need work… it starts sounding kind of obvious.

CEO and co-founder Eohan George said that they evaluated a number of different robotic solutions but that drones are the only ones that make sense. The only legged robots with the dexterity to pick their way through the rebar are too expensive, and treads and wheels are too likely to move the unsecured rebar.

Diagram showing how SkyMul's drones map an area of rebar then divide it up for tying.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Here’s how the company’s SkyTy system works. First, a mapper drone flies over the site to mark the boundaries and then, in an automated closer flyover, to build a map of the rebar itself and where the ties will need to go. This map is then double-checked by the rodbuster technician running the show, which George said only takes about a minute per thousand square feet of rebar (though that adds up quickly).

Then the tying drones are released, as many as needed or wanted. Each one moves from spot to spot, hovering and descending until its tying tool (much like those used by human rodbusters) spans the rebar intersection; the tie is wrapped, twisted, and the drone is off to the next spot. They need their batteries swapped every 25 minutes, which means they generally have time to put down 70-80 ties; right now each drone does one tie every 20 seconds, which is in line with humans, who can do it faster but generally go at about that speed or slower, according to numbers George cited.

It’s difficult to estimate the cost savings and value of the work SkyTy does, because the value of the labor varies widely. In some places rodbusters are earning north of $80/hour, meaning the draw of automation is in cost savings. But in other markets the pay is less than a third of that, which compounded with the injury risk makes rodbusters a scarce quantity — so the value is in availability and reliability. Drone-based tying seems to offer value one way or the other, but that means the business model is somewhat in flux as SkyMul figures out what makes the most sense. Generally contractors at one level or another would lease and eventually own their own drones, though other methods are being looked into.

Animated image of a computer-generated grid overlaid on images of rebar.

Image Credits: SkyMul

The system offers value-add services as well, for instance the precise map of the rebar generated at the beginning, which can be archived and used later for maintenance, quality assurance, comparison with plans, and other purposes. Once a contractor is convinced it’s as good or better than the manually-produced ones currently used, this could save hours, turning a 3-day job into a 2-day job or otherwise simplifying logistics.

The plan at the company is to first offer SkyTy as an option for bridge construction, which is a simpler environment than a multi-story building for the drones. The market there is on the order of $30-40 million per year for rebar tying services, providing an easier path to the more complex deployments.

SkyMul is looking for funding, having spun out of Georgia Tech and going through Comcast-NBC accelerator The Farm and then being granted a National Science Foundation SBIR Phase I award (with hopes for a Phase II). They have demonstrated the system but have yet to enter into any pilot programs — there are partnerships in the works but the construction business isn’t a nimble one and a drone-based solution isn’t trivial to swap in for human rodbusters on short notice. But once a few projects are under its belt the company seems likely to find serious traction among forward-thinking contractors.

#artificial-intelligence, #automation, #construction, #drones, #gadgets, #hardware, #startups, #tc, #uavs

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Microsoft debuts its AR/VR meetings platform Mesh

Today, at a special AR/VR focused event held inside its virtual reality community platform Altspace, Microsoft showcased a new product aiming to provide their AR HoloLens platform and VR Windows Mixed Reality platform with a shared platform for meetings.

The app is called Microsoft Mesh and it gives users a cross AR/VR meeting space to interact with other users and 3D content, handling all of technical hard parts of sharing spatial multi-player experiences over the web. Like Microsoft’s other AR/VR apps, the sell seems to be less in the software than it is in enabling developers to tap into one more specialization of Azure, building their own software that builds on the capabilities. The company announced that AltspaceVR will now be Mesh-enabled.

In the company’s presentation, they swung for the fences in showcasing potential use cases, bringing in James Cameron, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and Pokémon Go developer Niantic.

Microsoft’s HoloLens platform has always been at its most impressive when it comes to viewers in a shared space looking at the same digital content in the same room that’s invisible to everyone else. Inside Mesh, other users are represented as cartoonish avatars, a design break that has plagued countless other AR/VR apps and platforms. Microsoft says the hope is to one day beam a user’s 3D photo-realistic presence into the app but that will assuredly require the commoditization of some complex camera hardware.

The company showcased a concept video of Mesh, which seems to be a few years further ahead in several places than the current software is.

Mesh isn’t offering any capabilities that are terribly unique to the spatial computing world — it’s all pretty standard faire in terms of bells and whistles — the distinguishing factor is the breadth of access, something once the unique distinguishing feature of the AltspaceVR platform back in the day. Mesh can be accessed on the HoloLens 2, many VR headsets, phones, tablets, and PCs, providing a window into the futuristic platform for even desktop users.

The software is available in preview now on HoloLens 2 alongside its AltspaceVR integration.


Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.

#altspacevr, #augmented-reality, #cirque-du-soleil, #co-founder, #computing, #hololens-2, #james-cameron, #microsoft, #microsoft-hololens, #microsoft-windows, #mixed-reality, #pokemon-go, #virtual-reality, #wearable-devices, #windows-10

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Airbyte raises $5.2M for its open-source data integration platform

Airbyte, an open-source data integration platform, today announced that it has raised a $5.2 million seed funding round led by Accel. Other investors include YCombinator, 8VC, Segment co-founder Calvin French-Owen, former Cloudera GM Charles Zedlewski, LiveRamp and Safegraph CEO Auren Hoffman, Datavant CEO Travis May and Alain Rossmann, the president of Machinify.

The company was co-founded by Michel Tricot, the former director of engineering and head of integrations at LiverRamp and RideOS, and John Lafleur, a serial entrepreneur who focuses on developer tools and B2B services. The last startup he co-founded was Anaxi.

Image Credits: Airbyte

In its early days, the team was actually working on a slightly different project that focused on data connectivity for marketing companies. The founders were accepted into Y Combinator and built out their application, but once the COVID pandemic hit, a lot of the companies that had placed early bets on Airbyte’s original project faced budget freezes and layoffs.

“At that point, we decided to go into deeper data integration and that’s how we started the Airbyte project and product as we know it today,” Tricot explained.

Today’s Airbyte is geared toward data engineering, without the specific industry focus of its early incarnation, but it offers both a graphical UI for building connectors, as well as APIs for developers to hook into.

As Tricot noted, a lot of companies start out by building their own data connectors — and that tends to work alright at first. But the real complexity is in maintaining them. “You have zero control over how they behave,” he noted. “So either they’re going to fail, or they’re going to change something. The cost of data integration is in the maintenance.”

Even for a company that specializes in building these connectors, the complexity will quickly outpace its ability to keep up, so the team decided on building Airbyte as an open-source company. The team also argues that while there are companies like Fivetran that focus on data integration, a lot of customers end up with use cases that aren’t supported by Airbyte’s closed-source competitors and that they had to build themselves from the ground up.

“Our mission with Airbyte is really to become the standard to replicate data,” Lafleur said. “To do that, we will open-source every feature that addresses the need of the individual contributor, so all the connectors.” He also noted that Airbyte will exclusively focus on its open-source tools until it raises a Series A round — likely early next year.

To monetize its service, Airbyte plans to use an open core model, where all of the features that address the needs of a company (think enterprise features like data quality, privacy, user management, etc.) will be licensed. The team is also looking at white-labeling its containerized connectors to others.

Currently, about 600 companies use Airbyte’s connectors — up from 250 just a month ago. Its users include the likes of Safegraph, Dribbble, Mercato, GraniteRock, Agridigital and Cart.com.

The company plans to use the new funding to double its team from about 12 people to 25 by the end of the year. Right now, the company’s focus is on establishing its user base, and then it plans to start monetizing that — and raise more funding — next year.

 

#airbyte, #auren-hoffman, #ceo, #cloud, #cloud-infrastructure, #cloudera, #computing, #enterprise, #information-technology, #liveramp, #machinify, #safegraph, #serial-entrepreneur, #y-combinator

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Silicon Valley’s myths and realities of existential risk

Existential risk has been on many of our minds the past year. Sales of survival goods from food kits to nuclear-proof bunkers are way up, we doomscroll on Twitter all day, and it seems like there isn’t a week that goes by where civilizational collapse isn’t at least a possibility on the agenda.

Yet, if you hang out in tech circles long enough, there remains an astonishing divergence between the realities of existential risk and the speculative nature this subject tends to push us towards.

In Silicon Valley, the fun topics here are scenarios like custom-designed pathogens that assassinate individuals or the entire human population constructed in a small biolab by an irascible bio PhD (throw in CRISPR as an acronym to make it sound interesting). Coronal mass ejections or some sort of electromagnetic bomb comes up frequently, events that could knock out all power as we know it. You’ll also frequently run into some sort of hacking scenario where all the chips in the world are vulnerable to the same line of code (perhaps inspired in the vein of Meltdown or Spectre).

These scenarios are fun and imaginative, and it’s a great Zoom drinking game in an otherwise “what do you do for a living” conversation.

What the last year has shown, however, is that we have a very bad cognitive bias here where we think about the speculative dangers far too much and the mundane civilizational dangers far too little.

COVID-19 is the too-obvious example, a global pandemic that has been predicted in some form or another for literally decades. But it’s hardly the only “boring” disaster that’s befallen us. The failure last month of much of Texas’ energy grid knocked out power for days for millions of people at some of the coldest temperatures experienced locally — no electromagnetic bomb required. California’s wildfire season has expanded, leading to lives lost, wide-scale power outages, billions of dollars in damages and that iconic orange air — no Hollywood special effects required. A “software issue” led to a swath of the East Coast losing the internet in January, while a lone bomber in Nashville knocked out much of the telecommunications in that metropolitan area over the Christmas holidays.

Here, then, is the divergence: we have had forms of civilizational collapse, but so far, they’ve been limited in duration and limited in scope. We didn’t all lose power: just Texas last month and California last year. We didn’t all lose internet: just the East Coast and Nashville at different times. We didn’t lose civilization, we just had a pandemic that has forced much of the world to regularly shut down schools and stores to limit viral spread. It’s almost like a disaster doesn’t count if Netflix still operates for 10% of the population.

So we have folks talking about artificial general intelligence and the singularity and fleeing to Mars, when the immediate reality is that there are thousands of dams under incredible strain where millions of people could perish in the coming years if a number of these fail. Not just fail hypothetically, but fail as predicted when these structures reach the end of their usable lives and become increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

What’s strange is how much we as people have begun to cognitively route around these quotidian catastrophes. AWS outages that used to elicit extreme opprobrium a few years ago are now a snow day from Zoom calls. Power outages are just the new normal. Pandemics — well, why bother wearing a mask at this point anyway, even as variants start to threaten the recovery we all expect? As one colleague put it me, just buy a battery-powered radio — you know you’ll need it here soon, as if we should just expect to lose connectivity at any time.

The solutionism that makes Silicon Valley an entrepreneurial spectacle never seems to migrate over to the solvable world of most daily existential threats. Power grid failures are preventable. The internet was supposed to be designed to route around damage, not be based in a couple of central data centers and exchanges where one rogue patch or saboteur brings down the global GDP. Health care systems are capable of managing outbreaks — we know the playbook, if only we could execute on one.

Perhaps more frustrating than the lack of resilience and planning, which use precisely the sort of analytical skills that the Valley loves, is the sheer lack of action during these catastrophes. If the last year has shown us anything, it’s the complete lethargy from government to organizations to everyday citizens, all of which are apparently completely unprepared to do anything if disaster strikes.

Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the crowdsourced projects that sprung out of COVID-19 to direct people to hospitals, or to track data, or to guide people to finding vaccines today or finding masks in the early, hectic days. These projects are important despite their fumbles, and represent a fresh and flourishing civil society. It’s key though not to assume that keyboard actions can somehow compensate entirely for a lack of action in the field. The tech industry loves to code up a web app to solve all problems, when most disasters really and truly can’t be responded to with Python code.

Within the tech community, the one exception I have been able to find is Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who seems to have put his time and resources behind building out global capacity for disaster response with an organization called Global Support and Development, which Mark Harris described at length in a piece last year. Per his article:

For the past five years, GSD has been quietly using high-tech systems to rapidly deliver humanitarian assistance during high-profile disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic. These range from drones and super-yachts to a gigantic new airship that the outfit apparently hopes will make it easier to get aid supplies into disaster zones.

We need more of this, and stat.

Existential risk has always been at the heart of the tech industry. From a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the Manhattan Project to AI and cybernetics in the 1960s, cyberpunk and climate punk and all the other punks in the 80s, continuing right up to artificial general intelligence and the singularity today, we’ve always known that the technological progress we make could have massive consequences for the world as we know it.

Yet, it’s time to turn our attention away from the crazy and speculative and future, and more toward the chaos and challenges facing our world right now, using tools that we have available to us today. Most of our major challenges aren’t just solvable, they’re eminently solvable if we put the time into them. But that requires us to actively thwart our cognitive bias away from the scary and improbable to the mundane and normal — the boring events that almost certainly will actually kill us in the end.

#disasters, #government, #health, #venture-capital

0

Maestro nets $15 million for its interactive commerce, community and engagement tools for livestreams

Making money on livestreams has never been easier thanks to a suite of tools from the Los Angeles-based startup Maestro, which just nabbed $15 million in financing to grow its business.

As video commerce becomes the norm and entertainers, brands, businesses, and franchises of all sizes and stripes look to cut out the middle man, the array of services on offer from Maestro may be the scissors these entities need to cut the cord.

The company has already worked with names as diverse as the Golden State Warriors, the Dallas Cowboys, and pop sensation Billy Eilish on embedding its interactive tools into various live events and promotions.

Initially the LA-based company launched to the gaming community with interactive features that folks could use in-stream to create better engagement with fans. But what started in the gaming world quickly spun out as the company slashed prices to $500 per month for its services.

The pandemic also helped as artists who were cut off from their audiences began to explore alternative ways to reach fans — and make money.

We were targeted to a small number of very premier customers. It was around 50 to 60 and we grew to in the hundreds,” said Maestro chief executive, Ari Evans, said. “2020 was a blowout year… People needed an interactive streaming platform that they could spin up quickly that they could launch on their website.”

Celebrities from Katy Perry to Post Malone to Billie Eilish all turned to the service and so did other streaming platforms like the Los Angeles-based virtual concert platform, The Wave.

Now the company has $15 million in new financing to capitalize on its growth from investors including NetEase, Sony Music Entertainment, and Acronym Venture Capital, alongside a host of industry titans including Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and Moonwell Capital, founded by former Activision Blizzard executives Michael and Amy Morhaime, the company said in a statement. 

Existing investors like SeventySix Capital, The Strand Partners, Stadia Ventures, Hersh Interactive Group, and Transcend Fund, as well as early Zoom employees Richard Gatchalian and Aaron Lewis, also participated. 

Since the launch of monetization tools in May of last year, Evans estimated that the platform has paid out at least $5 million to entertainers who used the service.

“We are pleased to be supporting the continued development of Maestro as part of our ongoing investment in new technologies that provide artists with cutting-edge tools and solutions for growing their careers. Maestro gives artists greater flexibility and control to build the most engaging and customized events for their fans, allowing creators at any stage of their career to put together a world class live stream event,” said Dennis Kooker, President, Global Digital Business and U.S. Sales, Sony Music Entertainment, in a statement. 

“Maestro is at the forefront of redefining the relationship of content owners and creators with their viewers. Instead of relying on incumbent distribution platforms, customers control the audience relationship directly and maximize engagement and monetization in a way that fits with their brand objectives. We are very excited by Maestro’s potential to be a fundamental driver in the growth of the creator economy,” said Joshua Siegel, General Partner, Acronym Venture Capital.  

“Maestro… started off with the content and now we’re adding membership and community management and ticketing and all that stuff,” said Evans. 

The next step, and a big part of what Evans and his team of 55 employees will work on building will be a developer ecosystem, so software designers can start building out new tools to sell through the Maestro platform.

“The third piece is a developer ecosystem,” Evans said. “We’re really copying Shopify, Squarespace for video or Shopify for video. It’s kind of strange that this has taken so long to develop.

The one thing that Maestro won’t do is discovery or search services, Evans said. “We’re helping creators make money and build a business on top of video. That’s something creators need to be aware of if they’re going to  build that direct to consumer channel,” he said. “If you do do that and you’re successful you’re in control over your audience.”

#activision-blizzard, #billie-eilish, #co-founder, #companies, #electronic-arts, #general-partner, #golden-state-warriors, #katy-perry, #kevin-lin, #los-angeles, #louisiana, #maestro, #michael, #musicians, #netease, #shopify, #sony, #sony-music-entertainment, #tc, #technology, #twitch, #united-states, #unity-technologies, #website

0

What to expect tomorrow at TC Sessions: Justice 2021

Get ready to engage in essential conversations about some of the most important issues facing the tech industry — diversity, equity, inclusion and labor. TC Sessions: Justice 2021 — a day-long virtual symposium — begins tomorrow, March 3, and we’re here to highlight just a few of the powerful people, presentations and fireside chats you won’t want to miss.

Hold up — if you don’t have a ticket yet, secure your seat here.

You’ll hear from top experts, leading voices and social justice warriors — from the tech industry and beyond. It’s a highly interactive day, and the virtual platform lets you engage in the conversations, ask questions and connect with participants around the world.

Here are just a few of tomorrow’s compelling presentations and exciting events. You’ll find a complete listing of the day’s programming in the event agenda.

Creating Equity in Tech with Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA): When it comes to myths, lack of tech diversity as a “pipeline problem” is a whopper. Don’t miss our discussion with Congresswoman Lee, California’s East Bay representative, about the opportunities to create an equal playing field in tech so that underrepresented investors, founders, designers and coders can reap the benefits.

Fireside Chat – Diversity Is More Than Hiring People of Color: It may appear that the country is accepting change — from racial diversity to equality in the workplace. However, we still have ways to go. For example, organizational diversity is still about hiring from diverse talent pools. However, activating the full potential of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requires more than a “people strategy.” Robust and sustainable work in this area requires embedding DEI principles, policies, systems and practices into all parts of the business, including the employee and customer experience, brand culture and overall industry/corporate citizenship. Sponsored by Onshape.

Pitch Feedback: Join us for a pitch feedback session for select TC Include founders exhibiting at TC Sessions: Justice 2021 and moderated by TechCrunch staff.

Access All Areas – Designing Accessibility From Day One: This session examines the importance of ensuring accessible product design from the beginning. We’ll ask how the social and medical models of disability influence technological evolution. Integrating the expertise of disabled technologists, makers, investors, scientists and software engineers into your company’s DNA from the very beginning is vital to the pursuit of a functioning and equitable society. And could mean you don’t leave money on the table.

That’s just a tiny taste of what to expect tomorrow at TC Sessions: Justice 2021. Grab a pass, check the agenda, plan your day accordingly and join us for the important work of creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable tech industry.

#startups

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SoundCloud adjusts revenue model for indie artists

We’ve known for a long time that music streaming royalties are fundamentally broken. As revenue has shifted away from sales of physical music, it’s become increasingly difficult for many independent artists to make a living off recorded music. But all of that has come to a head as the pandemic has stripped live music out of the equation entirely.

Some services have looked to buck the trend. The immensely popular Bandcamp Fridays are a notable example, offering all revenue to artists and labels one day a month. And now SoundCloud is looking to shake up how it pays its own independent creators — a move that could prove a nice boon for musicians on a service that’s lent its name to at least one popular musical subgenre.

The site will institute a new revenue structure at the beginning of next month. Soundcloud breaks down “Fan-powered” royalties thusly,

Fan-powered royalties are a more equitable and transparent way for independent artists who monetize directly with SoundCloud to get paid. The more fans listen on SoundCloud, and listen to your music, the more you get paid.

Under the old model, money from your dedicated fans goes into a giant pool that’s paid out to artists based on their share of total streams. That model mostly benefits mega stars.

Under fan-powered royalties, you get paid based on your fans’ actual listening habits. The more of their time your dedicated fans listen to your music, the more you get paid. This model benefits independent artists.

The service is available for independent artists who monetize their pages through select Pro accounts. There are a number of factors that go into the final payment (the first of which will arrive in May), including whether listeners have a subscription, the amount they’ve listened to one artist relative to others and ads they’ve listened to. The fine print is available here.

Musicians have become increasingly vocal about their inability to live off of streaming revenue as the pandemic has cut off major income sources over the past year. Spotify, in particular, has drawn harsh criticism as the company has spent hundreds of millions on podcast acquisitions while maintaining old revenue models for musicians.

#apps, #enterprise, #music, #royalties, #soundcloud, #streaming

0

Uber spins out delivery robot startup as Serve Robotics

Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year for $2.65 billion, has officially spun out as an independent company called Serve Robotics.

TechCrunch reported in January that a deal was being shopped to investors.

Serve Robotics, a name taken from the autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates X, has raised seed funding in a round led by venture capital firm Neo. Other investors included Uber as well as Lee Jacobs and Cyan Banister’s Long Journey Ventures, Western Technology Investment, Scott Banister, Farhad Mohit and Postmates co-founders Bastian Lehmann and Sean Plaice.

Serve Robotics didn’t share specifics of the funding except to confirm that the round, which will be a Series A, has not been completed yet. Funding a spin out can occur in phases, with the first tranche used for the initial launch and the rest of the round closing once IP has been transferred.

The new company will be run by Ali Kashani, who headed up Postmates X. Other co-founders include Dmitry Demeshchuk, the first engineer who joined the Serve team at Postmates and MJ Chun, who previously led product at Anki, has been heading up product strategy at Serve. The company is launching with 60 employees with headquarters in San Francisco and offices in Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada.

Serve Robotics Uber Postmates

Image Credits: Serve Robotics

“While self-driving cars remove the driver, robotic delivery eliminates the car itself and makes deliveries sustainable and accessible to all,” said Kashani, co-founder and CEO of Serve Robotics. “Over the next two decades, new mobility robots will enter every aspect of our lives–first moving food, then everything else.”

Postmates’ exploration into sidewalk delivery bots began in earnest in 2017 after the company quietly acquired Kashani’s startup Lox Inc. As head of Postmates X, Kashani set out to answer the question: why move two-pound burritos with two-ton cars? Postmates revealed its first Serve autonomous delivery bot in December 2018. A second generation — with an identical design but different lidar sensors and few other upgrades — emerged in summer 2019 ahead of its planned commercial launch in Los Angeles.

The company’s mission to design, develop, and operate delivery robots specialized in navigating sidewalks will continue, albeit with an eye towards expansion. Serve will continue its delivery operations in Los Angeles. It plans to ramp up research and development in the San Francisco Bay area and expand its market reach through new partnerships.

The spin out is consistent with Uber’s aim to narrow the focus of its business on ride-hailing and delivery in a push towards profitability. This strategy began to take shape after Uber’s public market debut in May 2019 and accelerated last year as the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on the ride-hailing company. Two years ago, Uber had enterprises across the transportation landscape, from ride-hailing and micromobility to logistics, public transit, food delivery and futuristic bets like autonomous vehicles and air taxis. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has dismantled the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach as he pushes the company toward profitability.

In 2020, Uber offloaded shared scooter and bike unit Jump in a complex deal with Lime, sold a stake worth $500 million in its logistics spinoff Uber Freight and rid itself of its autonomous vehicle unit Uber ATG and its air taxi play Uber Elevate. Aurora acquired Uber ATG in a deal that had a similar structure to the Jump-Lime transaction. Aurora didn’t pay cash for Uber ATG. Instead, Uber handed over its equity in ATG and invested $400 million into Aurora, which gave it a 26% stake in the combined company. In a similarly crafted deal, Uber Elevate was sold to Joby Aviation in December.

#automotive, #postmates, #serve-robotics, #tc, #uber

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Parabol raises $8M after reaching 100,000 users of its agile meeting software

This morning Parabol, a startup that provides retrospective meeting software to agile development teams, announced that it has closed an $8 million Series A. Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12, led the deal. The investment also saw participation from Techstars, CRV, and Haystack.

TechCrunch caught up with Parabol CEO Jordan Husney to talk about the round, and his company. We were curious how large the market that Parabol serves is, and if the company was overly-nicheing its service. While the startup is still young, the answer appears to be no – adding to our general sentiment that the software market is even larger than we perhaps thought.

Let’s explore how Parabol came to be, and how it came to pick its target market. Or more precisely, how its target market chose it.

Building horizontally, focusing vertically

After a stint in the consulting world, Husney was more than aware of the communications issues that distributed teams can endure. With multiple offices the norm among big companies, he told TechCrunch in an interview, communications between remote workers came down to an email thread, or a meeting. A self-described “recovering engineer,” Husney wondered if there was space in the business market for “structured communications,” or the type of asynchronous meetings that are popular in the code-writing world.

Borrowing from the ethos of agile development, a method of writing software that prioritizes collaboration and evolution over process and documentation, Husney built Parabol to bring agile work and communications methods to non-developer business teams. If agile principles were good at helping foster developer results through status meetings, why wouldn’t the same process translate to other work settings?

But the market had other ideas. Instead of hitting it big in the business world, owing to the friction resulting from needing what Husney described as a “behavior change” — something often lethal to rapid adoption of a new service, or product — agile teams themselves started using Parabol’s tech.

The startup followed the demand. And there’s quite a lot of it, as it turns out. Husney estimated that there are around 20 million agile developers in the world, the business from which has helped propel companies like Atlassian to enormous heights. It’s a big enough pool for the startup to swim in for a long time.

Returning to our earlier note about the depth of the software market, Parabol is a good reference point. It appears capable of building a real company on the back of supporting a subset of the software creation world’s peculiar meeting style; the market for software is simply gigantic.

Growth

After deciding to support agile software teams, growth came quickly to Parabol. In 2018 and 2019, the company saw growth of 20% to 40% each month, its CEO said. Calling his company a “rocket,” Husney gave partial credit to Parabol’s freemium go-to-market model, a common approach when selling to developers who eschew the traditional sales process.

By selling to the already-converted, Parabol found product-market fit. Husney himself had underestimated the demand from agile software developers for tools to support they work, because he thought that they’d already figured out their own needs, he told TechCrunch.

What Parabol has built is not a simple tool, however. Powering retrospective meetings and incident post-mortems, its software collects notes from workers on things that should be done, things that should no longer done, and things that should be kept up. The service then aggregates them automatically by topic, followed by users voting to decide on changes and takeaway actions. The result is an asynchronous way for developer teams to stay in sync.

The startup closed a Seed round in November of 2019, just in time to have cash on hand for the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid switch to remote work quickly drove Parabol’s user growth from 600 per week in January of 2020, to 5,000 per week in March of the same year. The company has some public usage data available here, in case you want to check the spike yourself.

After raising its $4 million Seed, Husney decided to raise more capital after being told by others that it was a great time to do so. And after winding up with a few firms to choose between, wound up taking Microsoft’s money.

There’s a story there. Per Husney, Microsoft’s M12 was not on the top of its venture capital list; there is a somewhat good reason for that, as taking strategic capital over pure-venture capital is a choice and not the best one for every startup. But after Husney and company got to know the Microsoft partners, and each side underwent diligence, the fit became clear. According to the CEO, M12’s investing team called various Microsoft groups — Azure, GitHub, etc — to ask them about their views on Parabol. They raved. So Microsoft had strong internal signals concerning the deal, and Parabol learned that its potential investor was a heavy user of its product.

The deal worked out.

Why $8 million and not more? The startup’s growth plan isn’t super capital intensive according to Husney, and its market is pulling it instead of the other way around. The team is dilution-conscious as well, he explained. The founding team put the company together in 2015, and didn’t raise its seed round until 2019. It was ramen days back then, he explained; you’ll cling to your ownership, I suppose, when you have bought it that dearly.

Parabol runs lean on purpose. Husney said that his team was not following the Reid Hoffman blitzscaling ethos, instead focusing on hiring for individual leverage. In the CEO’s view, you don’t need to scale quickly to build collaboration products.

The $8 million raise could give Parabol infinite runway, the CEO said, but his company instead raised it for about a 24 month spend. At the end of that he expects the company to have around 30 workers, up from its current 10.

Parabol wants to quadruple its revenues this year, and triple them in 2022. And it wants to scale to 500,000 users from its current 100,000 this year, reaching one million by the end of next year. Let’s see how it performs against those goals.

#crv, #enterprise, #funding, #m12, #microsoft, #parabol, #tc

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Apple releases results from hearing health study

Was back in 2019, Apple launched Research. The app was the latest effort by a company looking to take a more serious approach to user health, built (naturally) around data collected from the iPhone and Apple Watch. The app debuted with four studies: heart health, women’s health, movement and hearing.

Today, the company is issuing results from the latter, conducted alongside the University of Michigan School of Public Health, a day prior World Hearing Day. Hearing loss is an issue the company has looked to tackle, due in no small part to its large — and growing — involvement in the headphone category.

Headphones have, of course, become a common source of long term hearing loss as the technology has proliferated. The company has also built noise level readings into its mobile operating systems, to offer notifications of loud environments. That info is also built into the health app, showing off both headphone levels and environmental sound levels – the latter of which can be a subtler source of hearing loss.

According to the study of “thousands” of participants in the U.S., a quarter of those involved encounter more than the WHO’s recommended daily limit of environmental sound exposure. 50% of those in the survey work or worked in in a loud environment. The numbers remain reasonably high, even as many or most have transitioned to a work-from-home setting during the pandemic.

“Even during this pandemic, when many people are staying home, we’re still seeing 25%of our participants experiencing high environmental sound exposures,” University of Michigan Associate Profession Rick Neitzel says in a release tied to the news. “The results of this study can improve our understanding of potentially harmful exposures, and help identify ways that people can proactively protect their hearing.”

Ten-percent of those surveyed, meanwhile, exceed the recommended limit for weekly headphone exposure, while a quarter reported ringing in their ears a few times a week or more.

#apple, #apps, #headphones, #health, #hearing

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Vestiaire Collective raises $216 million for its second-hand fashion platform

Vestiaire Collective announced a new funding round. The company has raised $216 million, or €178 million — it has reached a valuation above $1 billion, making it a unicorn. French fashion and luxury group Kering is leading the round with Tiger Global Management. Kering now owns 5% of Vestiaire Collective.

The startup operates an online marketplace where you can find pre-owned luxury and fashion items. And it’s a complicated industry as you don’t want to buy a damaged item or a cheap knockoff. The company controls and authenticate some items before they reach the buyer. If you opt for direct shipping, you can get reimbursed if there’s something wrong with what you ordered.

In addition to the two lead investors, many of the company’s existing shareholders are investing once again, such as Vestiaire Collective’s own CEO Max Bittner, Bpifrance’s Large Venture fund, Condé Nast, Eurazeo through Eurazeo Growth and Idinvest Venture, Fidelity International, Korelya Capital, Luxury Tech Fund and Vitruvian Partner.

As you may have noticed, it’s been a bit harder to travel and buy fashion items in store. Many fashion e-commerce companies have been thriving during the coronavirus outbreak, and Vestiaire Collective is one of them. Transaction volume doubled in 2020 compared to 2019. There are 140,000 new listings every week.

In addition to the current pandemic, many consumers are concerned about the impact of fashion on the environment. At the lower end of the spectrum, retailers and fast fashion brands encourage you to buy more and more stuff as trends change with each season. At the higher end of the spectrum, luxury brands don’t want to undermine the value of their goods by putting items on sale to clear room for a new collection.

That’s why Vestiaire Collective is particularly well positioned to find new customers who are looking for quality goods that are going to last for a while and that haven’t been specifically produced for them. Similarly, people can sell their stuff instead of throwing them away.

While Vestiaire Collective originally started in Europe, the company is now growing rapidly in the U.S. and Asia. “As of January 2021, local sellers in those regions had increased their items sold by more than 250% year-over-year,” Tiger Global partner Griffin Schroeder said in the release.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to further develop partnerships with brands through buy-back circular solutions. The company also wants to encourage more people to sell something every time they buy something. Vestiaire Collective aims to be carbon neutral by 2026 and get the B Corp certification. The startup will also hire 155 people in the technology team.

#ecommerce, #europe, #france-newsletter, #fundings-exits, #startups, #vestiaire-collective

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Looped raises $7.7M to expand its interactive live event platform

Live events in the age of Covid-19 have largely been moved into the virtual world: we buy tickets (or simply click on a link), go to a site or app, and watch the action unfold on a screen. Your seat or mine might be just as good as that of any other audience member, but these affairs also leave a lot to be desired. Today, a startup called Looped that’s trying to build a livestreaming event service that is more engaged and interactive is announcing some funding to see how it can fill that gap.

The startup, which powers music concerts, comedy and other entertainment, has closed funding of $7.7 million, money that Faisel Durrani, co-CEO of Looped, said in an interview will be used to continue building out the company’s technology stack. It has now raised $8.8 million in total.

The funding comes on the heels of a strong year for the company, which was founded in October 2019 and has since launch seen some 300,000 people buy virtual tickets to join events led by some 1,000 creators on its platform. Stars have included Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes, BTS, Kevin Durant, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Usher, Sam Smith, Charlie Puth, Khalid, Dua Lipa, the original cast of Hamilton, and many more.

These creators use Looped to set up and broadcast performances (using Looped’s own tools or integrating with whatever production tools a creator prefers to use), sell tickets and merchandise, create “backstage pass” rooms, initiate conversations between a couple or many people, create “co-viewing” suites for groups to watch something together, and more.

As an example of what you can do on Looped, the Hamilton cast assembled for a charity event called Ham4Change, to raise money for 9 non-profits working on fighting racial injustice. The event, which saw the cast chatting and singing for their audience, raised over $1.1 million, selling 15,500+ livestream tickets and 1,000+ Virtual Meet & Greets with 35 cast members. (One of the screenshots of the event is the main illustration here.)

The funding is notable for a couple of reasons.

First, Looped is yet another example of the proliferation of streaming startups and virtual event services that are seeing attention in the market today. In addition to the very obvious and biggest players like Zoom (which is… zooming right now, and also moving into events), there are sizable startups like Hopin and Bizzabo, and smaller or newer tech player like