Bezos says Amazon should “do a better job for our employees” after union vote

A man in a suit gestures during a presentation.

Enlarge (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos used his final letter to Amazon shareholders to focus on employee well-being and the company’s significant carbon footprint.

Bezos’ new emphasis on employee well-being comes on the heels of a contentious unionization vote at one of its warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama. Though Amazon won, with 1,798 employees voting against unionizing out of 3,041 total ballots cast, participation was low, with just over half of eligible voters participating. Labor organizers have made it clear that even if unionization votes continue to go against them, they’ll keep pressuring Amazon through other means.

That strategy may be working. Bezos dedicates a significant portion of his letter to both the unionization vote and to employee well-being. Whereas Bezos wrote a single paragraph about a tuition reimbursement program three years ago, he wrote nearly 1,200 words about pay rates, employee satisfaction, and workplace safety this year.

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#amazon, #climate-change, #jeff-bezos, #policy, #unionization

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Amazon announces $250 million venture fund for Indian startups

Amazon on Thursday announced a $250 million venture fund to invest in Indian startups and entrepreneurs focusing on digitization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the key overseas market.

The announcement comes at a time when the American e-commerce group, which has previously invested over $6.5 billion in its India business, faces heat from government bodies, and the small and medium-sized businesses that it purports to serve.

Through the new venture fund, called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund, Amazon said it wants to invest in startups that focus on helping small businesses come online, sell online, automate and digitize their operations, and expand to customers worldwide.

Agriculture and healthcare are two additional areas Amazon is focusing on with its new venture fund, but it said it is open to looking at tech startups from other sectors if their work intersects with SMBs.

In the agri-tech sector, Amazon is looking to invest in Indian startups that are using technology to make agri-inputs more accessible to farmers, provide credit and insurance to farmers, reduce food wastage, and improve the quality of produce to consumers. In the healthcare sector, Amazon said it will invest in startups that are enabling healthcare providers to leverage telemedicine, e-diagnosis, AI powered treatment recommendations.

The announcement was made at Amazon’s annual event, called Sambhav, that focuses on India-based SMBs. At the virtual event, Amazon also unveiled ‘Spotlight North East’, an initiative to bring 50,000 artisans, weavers and small businesses online from the eight states in the North East region of India by 2025 and to boost exports of key commodities like tea, spices and honey from the region.

In the first edition of Sambhav last year, Amazon announced it would be investing $1 billion to help digitize 10 million small and medium sized businesses. Amazon said earlier this month that it had created 300,000 jobs in India since January 2020, and enabled exports for Indian-made goods worth $3 billion.

The company said more than 50,000 offline retailers and neighborhood stores — called kirana locally — are using Amazon marketplace and about 250,000 new sellers have also joined the platform. The company said today it aims to onboard 1 million offline retailers and neighbourhood stores by 2025 through the Local Shops on Amazon program.

Not far from Sambhav’s first event last year, which was attended by Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the street and expressed their concerns about what they alleged was unfair practices employed by Amazon to crush them.

A similar protest was seen today. You can hear some of their stories here. It’s an ongoing challenge for Amazon, which has long struggled to stay out of controversy in India.

An influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country in February this year after a report 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.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) “demanded” serious action from the Indian government against Amazon following revelations made in a Reuters story. “For years, CAIT has been maintaining that Amazon has been circumventing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] laws of India to conduct unfair and unethical trade,” it said.

Several international technology giants including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in Indian startups in recent years. Amazon, too, has backed a number of firms including ride-hailing startup Shuttl, and consumer brand MyGlamm. Last month, it acquired retail startup Perpule for about $20 million.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #asia, #ecommerce, #india

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Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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#amazon, #boston, #california, #chicago, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #cloud-storage, #computer-security, #computing, #data-breach, #data-security, #ecommerce, #food, #instacart, #los-angeles, #mercato, #new-york, #security, #technology, #united-states, #velvet-sea-ventures

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Amazon’s latest Echo Buds are a shameless Apple knock-off

This is Amazon’s latest hardware product: The redesigned Alexa earbuds. TechCrunch covered the announcement here, where the specs and capabilities are listed. I’m sure they work fine, too, but the case design is a blatant rip-off of Apple’s AirPod Pros.

This is just lazy.

Amazon has a long history of selling and promoting lookalikes, copycats, and clones of other products. Likewise, the retailer sued third-party sellers for doing the same thing. Amazon also has been accused of investing in companies and later producing clones of the products. In 2020 CEO Jeff Bezos testified on this subject in front of a congressional hearing where he couldn’t guarantee the company would end this process. Often the products Amazon copies come from small startups without the resources to fight a giant like Amazon.

Last month California-based Peak Design took to YouTube to protest Amazon’s unabashed copy of one of Peak’s top products. As Peak points out, Amazon’s take is a cheap knockoff made from lower quality materials and without Peak Design’s ethical manufacturing. The video quickly went viral, amassing over 4.5 million hits and highlighting Amazon’s shady practices.

For the latest Echo Buds, Amazon copied a market leader instead of a small startup. To recap, Amazon, a company worth over a trillion dollars, just released a product that looks essentially identical to a top-selling product from Apple, a company worth 2 trillion dollars.

The Echo Buds are much less expensive than Apple’s $250 AirPod Pros, too. The standard Echo Buds costs $100, and the version with wireless charging runs $120. It’s important to note the wireless buds themselves do not look like AirPods. Amazon only copied the ubiquitous AirPod Pro case.

The consumer is the loser here. With more resources than many countries, Amazon can produce world-class products, yet it decided to copy a rival’s market-leading product. In the end, it’s easier (and cheaper) to follow trends than become a trendsetter.


Peak Design takes on Amazon

#airpod-pro, #amazon, #apple, #echo-buds, #tc

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Amazon’s Alexa earbuds return with a smaller design and wireless charging

It’s been about a year and a half since Amazon released the first Echo Buds. I reviewed them when they arrived, and they were, I don’t know, fine, I guess. They were a bit on the cheap side, facing some stiff competition in the category and, honestly, the idea of wearing Alexa on my head still isn’t super exciting to me.

But for a first attempt at the space, they weren’t bad. And now the company’s giving it a second go, with some tweaks to the original formula. Top of the list is a redesign that shrinks them 20% and makes them a bit lighter weight. The nozzle is smaller, which should make them more comfortable for longer periods, coupled with four ear tip sizes. The headphones are rated IPX4 for sweat and weather resistance.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon has moved on from the predecessor’s Bose noise canceling to its own proprietary tech, which it says can effectively double V1. There’s also an optional case that supports wireless charging via Qi, à la AirPods. The white case, in particular, looks…rather familiar.

That case runs an extra $20 over the $120 asking price for the USB-C case. Though Amazon’s running a limited-time deal to get the standard for $100 and the wireless charging version for $120. They’re also throwing in six months of Amazon Music Unlimited and Audible Plus. The new buds are also available in white. They’re up for preorder today and start shipping in May.

Image Credits: Amazon

Future software updates will bring a new VIP Filter to the headphones. Introduced on the Echo Frames, the feature lets users filter notifications from select senders. In addition to Alexa, the buds can also be set to access Siri or Google Assistant.

#amazon, #echo-buds, #hardware, #wearables, #wireless-earbuds

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Risk startup LogicGate confirms data breach

Risk and compliance startup LogicGate has confirmed a data breach. But unless you’re a customer, you probably didn’t hear about it.

An email sent by LogicGate to customers earlier this month said on February 23 an unauthorized third-party obtained credentials to its Amazon Web Services-hosted cloud storage servers storing customer backup files for its flagship platform Risk Cloud, which helps companies to identify and manage their risk and compliance with data protection and security standards. LogicGate says its Risk Cloud can also help find security vulnerabilities before they are exploited by malicious hackers.

The credentials “appear to have been used by an unauthorized third party to decrypt particular files stored in AWS S3 buckets in the LogicGate Risk Cloud backup environment,” the email read.

“Only data uploaded to your Risk Cloud environment on or prior to February 23, 2021, would have been included in that backup file. Further, to the extent you have stored attachments in the Risk Cloud, we did not identify decrypt events associated with such attachments,” it added.

LogicGate did not say how the AWS credentials were compromised. An email update sent by LogicGate last Friday said the company anticipates finding the root cause of the incident by this week.

But LogicGate has not made any public statement about the breach. It’s also not clear if the company contacted all of its customers or only those whose data was accessed. LogicGate counts Capco, SoFi, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City as customers.

We sent a list of questions, including how many customers were affected and if the company has alerted U.S. state authorities as required by state data breach notification laws. When reached, LogicGate chief executive Matt Kunkel confirmed the breach but declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation. “We believe it’s best to communicate developments directly to our customers,” he said.

Kunkel would not say, when asked, if the attacker also exfiltrated the decrypted customer data from its servers.

Data breach notification laws vary by state, but companies that fail to report security incidents can face heavy fines. Under Europe’s GDPR rules, companies can face fines of up to 4% of their annual turnover for violations.

In December, LogicGate secured $8.75 million in fresh funding, totaling more than $40 million since it launched in 2015.


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#amazon, #amazon-web-services, #blue-cross-blue-shield, #capco, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-storage, #computer-security, #computing, #data-breach, #data-security, #europe, #health-insurance, #securedrop, #security, #security-breaches, #sofi, #united-states

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Berlin Brands Group raises $240M to buy and scale up third-party Amazon Marketplace brands

The race is on for companies building e-commerce empires by rolling up smaller, promising businesses that sell via Amazon and other marketplaces and growing by using some economies of scale to operate them as one. In the latest development, Berlin Brands Group has raised $240 million that it says it will be using to acquire smaller but promising enterprises in Europe and North America — specifically the U.S. — that are already making between $1 million and $100 million in sales via marketplaces like Amazon.

The funding is coming in the form of debt, not equity, and it is coming specifically from UniCredit, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, BBG founder and CEO Peter Chaljawski said in an interview. BBG is profitable and earlier this year it committed more than $300 million off its balance sheet for buying up and operating companies, and so with this debt round (which we reported earlier this year was in the works), it now has $540 million for that purpose.

“We’re in a wonderful situation with a proven business model, and this is the cheapest money you could get,” he said of the decision to go for debt, a choice often made by startups that are in capital-intensive modes but either reluctant or do not need to give up equity to raise capital to scale if they are generating cash. In the case of BBG it’s the latter, since the company is profitable. “This is better than equity. BBG does not have any debt as of 2020, and we had cash on hand for our first acquisitions, 20 brands that we bought in cash from our balance sheet. Now we want to accelerate that even more.”

Chaljawski said that BBG may well tap an equity round in the near future to bring on investors to shape its own growth and set a valuation for the company. (For a point of comparison, competitors like Thrasio are now valued in the multiple billions of dollars.)

BBG has to date mostly built its business around starting up and scaling its own in-house brands that sell on Amazon and elsewhere — starting first with home audio equipment, coming out of Chaljawski’s own interests in sound technology from a previous life as a budding dance music DJ. Its brands include Klarstein (kitchen appliances), auna (home electronics and music equipment), Capital Sports (home fitness) and blumfeldt (garden).

In a big move to scale and build out what it’s established itself, last year BBG shifted over to the roll-up model: leveraging a more buying power to cut better deals with manufacturers and other suppliers, consolidating some of the other functions like marketing, and providing a more comprehensive set of analytics around what is selling best, who is buying, how best to market an item, and more. It says it has 1.3 million square feet of warehouse space in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and is one of the biggest Amazon sellers in Europe today.

The basic idea of rolling up businesses that sell on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) has been around for years in fact, but the notable and more recent shift is that it has taken on a startup profile in part because of how some of the latest entrants are leveraging big data analytics, the latest innovations in manufacturing and logistics technology and a founder-led, e-commerce ethos to grow the model.

“Without data, you would go nowhere in this business,” Chaljawski said. “But on top of that, there is something you can’t pull from market data — a toolbox of manufacturing and engineering expertise that we use to evaluate products.” He says that BBG’s data scientists build algorithms that millions of products, and hundreds of thousands of sellers, to produce the data that it uses both to source potential acquisitions and to run the business.

U.S. players like Thrasio — which itself closed a $1.2 billion Series C for the same purposes: rolling up and scaling — have led the charge. But in recent months we’ve seen a number of others also move into the space, buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from investors very keen to ride the e-commerce wave and the vision of tapping into some of the economies of scale and the marketplace model that have been such a juggernaut for Amazon.

It’s a two-sided marketplace, and Amazon has focused primarily on earning money from operating the marketplace itself and sales to consumers, so that leaves a huge opportunity on the table for someone else (or as it happens, many others) to tackle the opportunity to address the needs and services of the other side of that marketplace: the sellers.

In addition to BBG and Thrasio, others in the same space include Branded, which launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding earlier this year; SellerXHeydayHeroesPerch, among several others. Even removing the very-highly capitalized Thrasio and BBG from the equation, these companies have collectively raised or committed from their own balance sheets hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up small but promising third-party merchants.

If that sounds like a crowded market, well, it probably is. These are also startups, after all, and so the chances that some of these roll-up consolidators will not be that skilled at running multiple companies — with their disparate supply chains, customer bases, replacement cycles and marketing strategies — are as risky as in any other area of e-commerce startup interest.

On the other hand, though, there are a lot of opportunities to play for here.

By one estimate, there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, a number that appears to be growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Out of those, Thrasio estimates that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) that are making $1 million or more per year in revenues.

We have pointed out before that within that bigger number of merchants, there are a huge amount of clones and companies of questionable quality. What is interesting is that there are distinct companies, built around more originality and flair, swimming in that sea: some of them have broken through and floated, while others that have not.

So for a company like BBG, the opportunity lies in the fact that for many of these smaller but promising merchants, they have not been built with longer-term growth visions in place. The merchants might not be prepared for the kind of scaling, investment or operational commitment that would need to be made to keep their businesses going, or they simply don’t have the appetite for it. BBG’s selling point — as it is with others in this space — is that they do.

And BBG’s added pitch is that they can help open another door, to Europe. In the region, Amazon on average has about a 10% market share of marketplaces, BBG estimates, with regional players accounting for more marketplace activity than in the U.S. BBG not only has the links into selling on these other marketplaces, but the promise is that it can help improve how a brand will sell on Amazon itself in the region, given its traction in the market already. Conversely, it hopes to do the same for European brands by giving them a better window into selling in the U.S.

Chaljawski is however realistic about the profusion of companies like his, and is “sure” there will be some casualties down the road. He also believes that we may start to see some emerge around specific verticals as an alternative.

“Yes, I’m sure consolidation will happen, but I also think that we’ll see some specialization, with roll-ups focusing on one vertical or another. I think it will be a mix,” he said.

#amazon, #amazon-fulfillment, #bbg, #berlin-brands-group, #ecommerce, #europe, #fba, #fulfilment-by-amazon, #roll-up

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A ‘more honest’ stock market

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.

I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.

This picture sold for a $1.05 million.

I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.

A telling quote from my reporting:

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.

Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.

Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.

Read the full thing.


an illustration of a cardboard ballot box with an Amazon smile on the front

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.

Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.

Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.

Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.

Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.

Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.

So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”

Until next week,
Lucas M.

And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

#alabama, #amazon, #app-annie, #apple, #bessemer, #blockchain, #bluetooth, #bluetooth-speaker, #christies, #coinbase, #cryptocurrency, #e-commerce, #extra-crunch, #gamestop, #google, #operating-systems, #oracle, #real-time-web, #smartphone, #software, #software-development, #sonos, #stockx, #supreme-court, #tc, #techcrunch, #text-messaging, #twitter, #week-in-review

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Daily Crunch: Amazon beats back union push

Efforts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama appear to have failed, Facebook takes down fake review groups and a monkey plays Pong with its brain. This is your Daily Crunch for April 9, 2021.

The big story: Amazon beats back union push

Union organizers lost a much-publicized election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, with more than half of the 3,215 ballots cast ultimately voting against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a blog post. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

However, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum suggested that there will “very likely” be a rerun election, and his organization is demanding “a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election.”

The tech giants

Facebook takes down 16,000 groups trading fake reviews after another poke by UK’s CMA — The CMA has been leaning on tech giants to prevent their platforms from being used as marketplaces for selling fake reviews.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain — A macaque named Pager was eventually able to control the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

Mortgage is suddenly sexy as SoftBank pumps $500M in Better.com at a $6B valuation — The COVID-19 pandemic and historically low mortgage rates fueled an acceleration in online lending.

SnackMagic picks up $15M to expand from build-your-own snack boxes into a wider gifting marketplace — The company hit a $20 million revenue run rate in eight months and turned profitable in December.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

So you want to raise a Series A — Kleiner Perkins’ Bucky Moore shares sector-agnostic advice.

How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup — Jorge Torres and Adam Carrigan of MindDB tell their funding story.

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup — From building out Facebook’s first office in Austin to putting together most of Quora’s team, Bain Capital Ventures managing director Sarah Smith has done a bit of everything when it comes to hiring.

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

Everything else

The 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV lowers the cost of entry for some of GM’s most advanced tech — The optional Super Cruise puts it on course to compete with the Tesla Model Y.

APKPure app contained malicious adware, say researchers — APKPure is a widely popular app for installing older or discontinued Android apps from outside of Google’s app store.

Last call for Detroit startups to apply for TechCrunch’s Detroit City Spotlight pitch-off — The deadline is today, April 9.

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.

#amazon, #daily-crunch, #ecommerce, #policy

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RWDSU head says rerun election ‘very likely’ following Amazon union vote loss

However the outcome of today’s vote count turned out, there was one thing we knew for certain: it wasn’t going to mark the end of the battle between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. With voting having broken overwhelmingly in Amazon’s favor, the union was quick to challenge the results.

The RWDSU was quick to offer TechCrunch a statement from President Stuart Appelbaum after no votes broke the 50% threshold, noting, “We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election.”

Amazon, unsurprisingly, was quick to take a victory lap. In a blog post credited to “Amazon Staff,” the company writes:

Thank you to employees at our BHM1 fulfillment center in Alabama for participating in the election. There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard. In the end, less than 16% of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union. It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.

While the company was quick to state that the election is “over,” the RWDSU is hopeful, both in terms of future organizing at the Bessemer warehouse and for what the movement will mean for unionizing efforts at Amazon, going forward.

In a press conference held earlier today, Appelbaum suggested that Amazon told workers that they would have to vote against the union if they wanted to keep their jobs.

“We believe a rerun election is going to be very likely,” the union president told media. “I think that if Amazon considers this a victory, they may want to reconsider it. At best, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Look at what happened during this period. We exposed atrocious working conditions at Amazon for everybody to see.”

Appelbaum’s comments seem to refer, in part, to numerous reports of workers urinating in bottles over concerns about stringent quotas. In the midst of an aggressive social media campaign at the apparent behest of CEO Jeff Bezos, the company initially denied reports, before conceding they may apply to some drivers. Amazon was quick to deflect blame to broader industry issues, however.

“Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union,” the company added in its post. “Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”

A key part to the RWDSU’s challenge is a ballot box the company reportedly pressured the USPS to install, in defiance of a National Labor Relations Board ruling. Appelbaum said the box “creates the impression of surveillance.”

He added that the union has already been in communication with workers at other Amazon facilities, explaining, “We have already started talking to workers at other facilities, as well, before this election.”

#amazon, #labor, #rwdsu, #union

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Amazon defeats warehouse union push, RWDSU challenges results

Efforts to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse were defeated by a wide margin in the second day of vote counting. More than half of the 3,215 votes cast broke in in factor of the retailer. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would have served as the workers’ union, had the vote passed, was quick to challenge the results.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement offered to TechCrunch,

Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote. Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union.

That’s why they required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union. That’s why they flooded the internet, the airwaves and social media with ads spreading misinformation. That’s why they brought in dozens of outsiders and union-busters to walk the floor of the warehouse. That’s why they bombarded people with signs throughout the facility and with text messages and calls at home. And that’s why they have been lying about union dues in a right to work state. Amazon’s conduct has been despicable.

This initial defeat represents a large setback in the biggest unionization push in Amazon’s 27 year history. What might have represented a sea change for both the retail giant and blue collar tech workers has, for now, been fairly soundly defeated.

Amazon has, of course, long insisted that it treats workers fairly, making such union efforts unnecessary. The company cites such standards as a $15 an hour minimum wage, a factor the company initial pushed back on, but ultimately instated after pressure from legislators.

It was a hard fought battle on both sides. A number of legislators threw their weight behind unionization efforts, in an unlikely alliance that ranged from Bernie Sanders to Marco Rubio. The conservative Florida Senator noted the company’s “uniquely malicious corporate behavior.” President Joe Biden also sided with the workers, calling himself, “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

The company will no doubt tout the results as vindication. It noted in an early statement, “[O]ur employees are smart and know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encourage all of our employees to vote.” We’ve reached out to the company for a statement following this morning’s news.

Among the expected challenges from the union are lingering questions around ballot boxes reportedly installed by the company in violation of labor board terms.”[E]ven though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” the RWDSU writes. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.”

The Bessemer warehouse, which employees around 6,000 workers, was opened at the end of March 2020, as the company looked to expand the operation of its essential workers during the impending lock down. The conversation has surface variously long standing complaints around the company’s treatment of blue collar workers, including numerous reports that employees urinate in water bottles, in order to meet stringent performance standards.

The company initially denied these claims during a social media offensive, but later clarified its stance in an apology of sorts, appearing to shift the blame to wider industry problems.

All told, 3,215 were cast, representing more than half of the workers at the Alabama warehouse.

#amazon, #labor, #union

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NLPCloud.io helps devs add language processing smarts to their apps

While visual ‘no code‘ tools are helping businesses get more out of computing without the need for armies of in-house techies to configure software on behalf of other staff, access to the most powerful tech tools — at the ‘deep tech’ AI coal face — still requires some expert help (and/or costly in-house expertise).

This is where bootstrapping French startup, NLPCloud.io, is plying a trade in MLOps/AIOps — or ‘compute platform as a service’ (being as it runs the queries on its own servers) — with a focus on natural language processing (NLP), as its name suggests.

Developments in artificial intelligence have, in recent years, led to impressive advances in the field of NLP — a technology that can help businesses scale their capacity to intelligently grapple with all sorts of communications by automating tasks like Named Entity Recognition, sentiment-analysis, text classification, summarization, question answering, and Part-Of-Speech tagging, freeing up (human) staff to focus on more complex/nuanced work. (Although it’s worth emphasizing that the bulk of NLP research has focused on the English language — meaning that’s where this tech is most mature; so associated AI advances are not universally distributed.)

Production ready (pre-trained) NLP models for English are readily available ‘out of the box’. There are also dedicated open source frameworks offering help with training models. But businesses wanting to tap into NLP still need to have the DevOps resource and chops to implement NLP models.

NLPCloud.io is catering to businesses that don’t feel up to the implementation challenge themselves — offering “production-ready NLP API” with the promise of “no DevOps required”.

Its API is based on Hugging Face and spaCy open-source models. Customers can either choose to use ready-to-use pre-trained models (it selects the “best” open source models; it does not build its own); or they can upload custom models developed internally by their own data scientists — which it says is a point of differentiation vs SaaS services such as Google Natural Language (which uses Google’s ML models) or Amazon Comprehend and Monkey Learn.

NLPCloud.io says it wants to democratize NLP by helping developers and data scientists deliver these projects “in no time and at a fair price”. (It has a tiered pricing model based on requests per minute, which starts at $39pm and ranges up to $1,199pm, at the enterprise end, for one custom model running on a GPU. It does also offer a free tier so users can test models at low request velocity without incurring a charge.)

“The idea came from the fact that, as a software engineer, I saw many AI projects fail because of the deployment to production phase,” says sole founder and CTO Julien Salinas. “Companies often focus on building accurate and fast AI models but today more and more excellent open-source models are available and are doing an excellent job… so the toughest challenge now is being able to efficiently use these models in production. It takes AI skills, DevOps skills, programming skill… which is why it’s a challenge for so many companies, and which is why I decided to launch NLPCloud.io.”

The platform launched in January 2021 and now has around 500 users, including 30 who are paying for the service. While the startup, which is based in Grenoble, in the French Alps, is a team of three for now, plus a couple of independent contractors. (Salinas says he plans to hire five people by the end of the year.)

“Most of our users are tech startups but we also start having a couple of bigger companies,” he tells TechCrunch. “The biggest demand I’m seeing is both from software engineers and data scientists. Sometimes it’s from teams who have data science skills but don’t have DevOps skills (or don’t want to spend time on this). Sometimes it’s from tech teams who want to leverage NLP out-of-the-box without hiring a whole data science team.”

“We have very diverse customers, from solo startup founders to bigger companies like BBVA, Mintel, Senuto… in all sorts of sectors (banking, public relations, market research),” he adds.

Use cases of its customers include lead generation from unstructured text (such as web pages), via named entities extraction; and sorting support tickets based on urgency by conducting sentiment analysis.

Content marketers are also using its platform for headline generation (via summarization). While text classification capabilities are being used for economic intelligence and financial data extraction, per Salinas.

He says his own experience as a CTO and software engineer working on NLP projects at a number of tech companies led him to spot an opportunity in the challenge of AI implementation.

“I realized that it was quite easy to build acceptable NLP models thanks to great open-source frameworks like spaCy and Hugging Face Transformers but then I found it quite hard to use these models in production,” he explains. “It takes programming skills in order to develop an API, strong DevOps skills in order to build a robust and fast infrastructure to serve NLP models (AI models in general consume a lot of resources), and also data science skills of course.

“I tried to look for ready-to-use cloud solutions in order to save weeks of work but I couldn’t find anything satisfactory. My intuition was that such a platform would help tech teams save a lot of time, sometimes months of work for the teams who don’t have strong DevOps profiles.”

“NLP has been around for decades but until recently it took whole teams of data scientists to build acceptable NLP models. For a couple of years, we’ve made amazing progress in terms of accuracy and speed of the NLP models. More and more experts who have been working in the NLP field for decades agree that NLP is becoming a ‘commodity’,” he goes on. “Frameworks like spaCy make it extremely simple for developers to leverage NLP models without having advanced data science knowledge. And Hugging Face’s open-source repository for NLP models is also a great step in this direction.

“But having these models run in production is still hard, and maybe even harder than before as these brand new models are very demanding in terms of resources.”

The models NLPCloud.io offers are picked for performance — where “best” means it has “the best compromise between accuracy and speed”. Salinas also says they are paying mind to context, given NLP can be used for diverse user cases — hence proposing number of models so as to be able to adapt to a given use.

“Initially we started with models dedicated to entities extraction only but most of our first customers also asked for other use cases too, so we started adding other models,” he notes, adding that they will continue to add more models from the two chosen frameworks — “in order to cover more use cases, and more languages”.

SpaCy and Hugging Face, meanwhile, were chosen to be the source for the models offered via its API based on their track record as companies, the NLP libraries they offer and their focus on production-ready framework — with the combination allowing NLPCloud.io to offer a selection of models that are fast and accurate, working within the bounds of respective trade-offs, according to Salinas.

“SpaCy is developed by a solid company in Germany called Explosion.ai. This library has become one of the most used NLP libraries among companies who want to leverage NLP in production ‘for real’ (as opposed to academic research only). The reason is that it is very fast, has great accuracy in most scenarios, and is an opinionated” framework which makes it very simple to use by non-data scientists (the tradeoff is that it gives less customization possibilities),” he says.

Hugging Face is an even more solid company that recently raised $40M for a good reason: They created a disruptive NLP library called ‘transformers’ that improves a lot the accuracy of NLP models (the tradeoff is that it is very resource intensive though). It gives the opportunity to cover more use cases like sentiment analysis, classification, summarization… In addition to that, they created an open-source repository where it is easy to select the best model you need for your use case.”

While AI is advancing at a clip within certain tracks — such as NLP for English — there are still caveats and potential pitfalls attached to automating language processing and analysis, with the risk of getting stuff wrong or worse. AI models trained on human-generated data have, for example, been shown reflecting embedded biases and prejudices of the people who produced the underlying data.

Salinas agrees NLP can sometimes face “concerning bias issues”, such as racism and misogyny. But he expresses confidence in the models they’ve selected.

“Most of the time it seems [bias in NLP] is due to the underlying data used to trained the models. It shows we should be more careful about the origin of this data,” he says. “In my opinion the best solution in order to mitigate this is that the community of NLP users should actively report something inappropriate when using a specific model so that this model can be paused and fixed.”

“Even if we doubt that such a bias exists in the models we’re proposing, we do encourage our users to report such problems to us so we can take measures,” he adds.

 

#amazon, #api, #artificial-intelligence, #artificial-neural-networks, #bbva, #computing, #developer, #devops, #europe, #germany, #google, #hugging-face, #ml, #natural-language-processing, #nlpcloud-io, #public-relations, #software-development, #speech-recognition, #startups, #transformer

0

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

#amazon, #asia, #brooklyn, #california, #china, #crowdfunding, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #indiegogo, #kickstarter, #philanthropy, #shenzhen, #tc

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The Amazon union drive in Alabama appears headed for defeat

A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.

Enlarge / A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (credit: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

A closely watched effort to unionize an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama appears to be headed for defeat. With about half the votes counted, 1,100 workers have voted against forming a union, while only 463 voted in favor.

The National Labor Relations Board is counting the 3,215 votes that were cast by workers at the Bessemer facility. The union needs to win at least half the votes in order to become the official representative of the roughly 6,000 workers at the Bessemer facility. Counting has ended for the evening and is scheduled to resume at 8:30 AM Central Time on Friday.

The stakes are high for both Amazon and the labor movement. Amazon has more than 1.1 million workers overall, with hundreds of thousands working in fulfillment centers. A successful vote in Bessemer would embolden labor organizers at other Amazon fulfillment centers around the country. An organized workforce could force dramatic changes in the way Amazon manages its warehouses.

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#amazon, #bessemer, #policy, #unions

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Counting strongly favors Amazon in warehouse union vote

It’s been a little over a week since union voting concluded for Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Things have been fairly quiet in the eye of the storm for most of it. That changed today, however, as vote counting began in earnest. Thus far, things are breaking pretty dramatically in the company’s favor, following a hard-fought anti-union campaign.

As of the end of the day, no votes have more than doubled the yeses, at 1,100 to 463. With counting resuming — and likely concluding — tomorrow, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would potentially serve as the worker’s union, is decrying the company’s tactics.

“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard.”

The comments appear to be as much about actions the company has taken during the campaign as it is bracing for a likely challenge to the results. The numbers constitute around half of the 3,215 ballots that are being counted. They put Amazon around 500 no votes away from defeating union efforts.

We have reached out to the company for a response to Appelbaum’s comment, but have not heard back. In a comment offered to TechCrunch last month, the company had less than stellar words about Appelbaum, calling the union head the “Chief Disinformation Officer,” adding that “in an attempt to save his long declining union, [he] is taking alternative facts to a whole new level.”

Regardless of the final count, this process is likely to be drawn out. Among the complaints are reports that the company pushed the USPS to install an illegal ballot box, breaking National Labor Relations Board rulings in the process.

 

#amazon, #labor, #union

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Amazon warns Texas: Don’t pass bill that would drive up wind power costs

Wind turbines in Colorado.

Enlarge (credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fallout from Texas’ statewide power outages in February continues to spread. Today, the Texas House of Representatives is scheduled to debate a bill that would require power producers to bear the costs of services that help keep the electrical grid stable.

If the bill passes, it would “unfairly shift the cost of ancillary electric services exclusively onto renewable generators rather than all the beneficiaries,” according to a letter written by the Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance (PREF), an industry group, and signed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Goldman Sachs, and a number of other firms. 

Amazon and other big tech firms have invested heavily in renewable power, seeking to spruce up their images while cutting their power bills. Costs for wind and solar have dropped precipitously in recent years, making investments in wind farms and solar plants attractive to power-hungry data center operators like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. 

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#amazon, #grid-storage, #policy, #renewable-energy, #texas, #wind-power

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Labor relations board sides with Amazon employees over firings

Last year, Amazon fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. The pair of employees had been among the company’s most outspoken critics on staff, openly taking Amazon to task for environmental and labor issues.

This week, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the pair’s firing was an illegal form of retaliation. Speaking with The New York Times, Cunningham noted that the board would issue a more public criticism of Amazon’s action if the company does not take steps to address the issue.

TechCrunch has reached out to Amazon for comment, but has yet to hear back. Cunningham, meanwhile, called the decision a “moral victory.”

Following last year’s firing, Amazon told TechCrunch that the decision was not a direct result of the pair’s criticism, but rather a product of other, unstated polices. “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions,” a spokesperson said at the time, “but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”

The news came amid widescale ramp-ups as Amazon was declared an essential service while COVID-19 bore down on the U.S. in April. Two weeks prior, the company opened a massive fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, which has become the focal point of yet another labor battle for the online retail giant.

The warehouse is currently ground zero for the largest unionizing effort in the company’s history. The National Labor Relations Board is tasked with ballot counting, which kicked off on Tuesday of last week. In the final days of voting, the company made an aggressive social media push against union allies, though it has since walked it back some, including a soft apology for comments surrounding reports that employees regularly pee in bottles to meet stringent quotas.

In addition to its rulings on Cunningham and Costa, the NLRB has also found for Amazonians United co-founder, Jonathan Bailey.

 

#amazon, #labor, #union

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Amazon illegally fired two employees who pushed for climate, labor action

An Amazon logo falls apart and catches fire.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Ars Technica)

Nearly a year ago, Amazon fired two employees who had criticized the company. The employees had publicly called on the company to do more to reduce its carbon footprint and had circulated a petition among Amazon employees supporting better compensation and support for warehouse workers. Now, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, has found that Amazon acted illegally and in retaliation when it fired them, according to a report from The New York Times.

Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were both designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and their tussles with management began in 2018 when they joined a group of employees who vocally backed shareholder petitions urging the company to do more to combat climate change. (The group had received Amazon stock as part of its compensation.)

They and a handful of other employees rallied others to the cause. On September 20, 2018, thousands of employees walked out in protest of the company’s climate policies. Lawyers told Cunningham, Costa, and others that in speaking out, they had violated company policies that restrict employees from talking about Amazon publicly. The group ultimately wrote an open letter, which was signed by more than 8,700 Amazon workers, to CEO Jeff Bezos and the board of directors.

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#amazon, #labor, #nlrb, #policy, #unions

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The Station: Argo AI plots its fundraising course and Waymo changes leadership

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hi there, new and returning readers. This is The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

There is a lot to get to, so let’s dive right in.

My email inbox is always open. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Rebecca Bellan is back with some micromobbin’ insights. Let’s dig in and take a look at this roundup of news.

It was a buzzy week for ebikes news, another indication that there is still demand — or at least the perception of demand — for this form of mobility.

Take Gocycle as just one example. The UK-based company released its fourth generation of folding electric bikes, which are claimed to be lighter and more powerful. The new line is made of three models — the G4 ($3,999), G4i ($4,999) and G4i+ ($5,999) — and they all have 20-inch wheels, a sealed chain drive with a 3-speed rear hub transmission, hydraulic disc brakes, a polymer reach shock and a 500-watt front motor. This is all to say, this bike can rip.

Ebike sharing also continues to be a busy market with startups making plans and governments making orders.

Smoove, a French mobility startup. is partnering with Zoov, another mobility startup that focuses on IoT and self-diagnosis features, to try to become leaders in the European e-bike sharing market. Smoove is already well-placed in major cities like Paris, Vancouver, Lima and Moscow, and now will be joining forces with Zoov’s high quality tech and compact docking stations.

China-based EZGO announced an order of e-bikes to the Ukraine worth 1 million RMB, or about $150,000. Ukraine is also purchasing EZGO’s “Dilang” brand of e-modes, as well as some electric tricycles. The company hopes to begin distribution within the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, in the land of policy …

A council committee has delayed votes to make changes to e-scooter and e-bike sharing schemes in Denver.

The deal they’re working out involves allowing the two micromobility companies to get free access to operating on the city’s streets. Usually, these companies would pay the city for the right to operate, but if the Denver City Council approves their licenses, Lyft and Lime will just be making profits. The upside is that it (hopefully) gets more people out of cars and into more sustainable modes of transport. This deal also doesn’t require Denverites to contribute to funding, unlike the deal Denver had with B-cycle, the city’s original bike share nonprofit.

 — Rebecca Bellan 

Deal of the week

money the station

Lilium became the latest electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft startup to seek capital by going public via a reverse merger with a “blank check” company. In this deal, Lilium announced a merger with special purpose acquisition company Qell Acquisition Corp, in a deal valuing the combined business at $3.3 billion.

(Side note: Qell Acquisition Corp. is a SPAC led by Barry Engle, a former president of General Motors North America.) Once the merger is complete, Lilium will trade on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol LILM.

The German-based startup designs and builds eVTOLs and has aspirations to launch commercial air taxi operations in 2024. Lilium plans to launch an air taxi network in Florida with up to 14 vertiport development sites, which the company says will be built and operated by its infrastructure partners.

Other deals that got my attention …

Cazoo, the UK-based used car sales platform, announced it too will merge with a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that values it at an eye-popping $7 billion. Bloomberg reported.

Chargerhelp!, an on-demand EV charger repair startup, has raised $2.75 million from investors Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. This round values the startup, which was founded in January 2020, at $11 million post-money. The startup is interesting to me because as far as my research has shown there isn’t a lot of competition; and there should be. They also have a progressive (dare I suggest sustainable approach) to hiring.

Glovo, a startup out of Spain with 10 million users that delivers restaurant takeout, groceries and other items in partnership with brick-and-mortar businesses, raised $528 million in a Series F round. The round is significant not just because of its size, but because of its proximity to Deliveroo’s raising more than $2 billion ahead of its debut on the London Stock Exchange this week.

To offset the thin (or even negative) margins that are typically associated with a lot of delivery startups, Glovo aims to become the market leader in the 20 markets in Europe where it is live today, in part by expanding its “q-commerce” service — the delivery of items to urban consumers in 30 minutes or less, TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden reported. It will be using the money to double down on that strategy, including hiring up to 200 more engineers to work in its headquarters in Barcelona, as well as hubs in Madrid and Warsaw, Poland to build out the technology to underpin it.

LGN, a UK-based startup focused on edge AI, raised $2 million in a round that included investors Trucks VC, Luminous Ventures, and Jaguar Land Rover.

The company, which was founded in 2018 by former Apple and BMW executive Daniel Warner, Oxbridge research fellow Dr Luke Robinson and Professor Vladimir Čeperić of MIT and the University of Zagreb, plans to use the funds to develop its product and hire more employees. Specifically, the company said it is working on low-latency inference technology that can process optical data on-chip orders faster than current technology allows, VentureBeat reported.

Wavesense, the Massachusetts-based startup that makes ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology for self-driving cars, raised $15 million in a round led by Rhapsody Venture Partners and Impossible Ventures.

Takeaways from Biden’s plans

What will it take to get Americans to choose an electric vehicle for their next car and to get American supply chains up to the task of manufacturing them in-house? According to President Joe Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan unveiled Wednesday, the answer is $174 billion.

The funds are just one part of the $2 trillion plan, which seeks to overhaul the lifelines that keep the country running, such as our transportation networks, electric grid and even broadband. In some ways, the plan is bipartisan genius: it combines Democrats’ concern over climate change with Republicans’ concern over Chinese dominance in manufacturing, and appeals to both parties in its promise to revitalize domestic jobs. But the plan still needs approval from Congress before it can move forward.

To spur Americans to buy electric, Biden has taken a two-pronged approach: make them cheaper (through tax credits and rebates) and make EV chargers more readily available (by building a staggeringly large network of 500,000 chargers by 2030). His administration hasn’t released details on the size of the incentives, so it’s unclear whether they will be larger than the $7,500 tax credit already available for EVs. It’s also unclear whether Tesla and GM will qualify, as the current credit isn’t available for manufacturers that have already sold more than 200,000 EVs.

For now, Biden’s administration is withholding a lot of details — how will his plan help automakers “spur domestic supply chains from raw materials to parts” and “retool factories to compete globally”? — so we’ll keep an eye out for these details in the future.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

Argo AI plots its fundraising course

the station autonomous vehicles1

I dared to take some time off, which is all well and good until news breaks in the world of autonomous vehicles. A report from The Information said that Argo AI CEO and co-founder Bryan Salesky told employees in an all-hands meeting that the autonomous vehicle startup was planning for a public listing later this year.

I connected with some sources – vacation be damned — and have more context to share with you. Salesky did indeed mention the prospect of an IPO during the company’s regular weekly all-hands meeting. There is a bit more to the story though. The comments were made as the CEO discussed upcoming important milestones in 2021 that will lead to an IPO or a significant raise of some kind. The upshot: apparently all fundraising options are on the table, including a merger with a special acquisition company or SPAC.

Argo, as one source told me, is intent on scaling. Raising capital is a key part of that plan. The company also plans to expand testing beyond the six cities it currently is in — including into Europe. (Remember, Volkswagen is a backer and a customer. )

All of that takes money. Argo has raised $2 billion to date. That’s no small sum and yet far below the war chests of Cruise and Waymo.

The fundraising effort has not started in earnest. There is no roadshow, according to folks familiar. The broad plan is to secure investors, which could turn into the PIPE (private investment in public equity) for a SPAC or a “fairly substantial private round,” according to one insider.

Waymo’s changing of the guard

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced on Friday that he is stepping down from the leadership position he held for five years. The CEO position will now be held by two people: Tekedra Mawakana, who was COO and Dmitri Dolgov, who was part of the original Google self-driving project and was most recently CTO.

The idea is that the co-CEOs will take their respective expertise — business and engineering — and combine them to help Waymo scale up commercially. Co-CEO models are risky, so it will be interesting to see if the pair can work together, and importantly, get their employees to buy into the idea. Dolgov and Mawakana apparently brought the co-CEO idea to the board, one source told me. (Remember Waymo is an Alphabet company, and so its leaders ultimately answer to their parent.)

In a post on LinkedIn, Krafcik described his time at the company and hinted at a few of his plans, which for now seems to be focused on settling in Austin, Texas and regrouping with family and friends. He’s also now listed as an advisor to Waymo, a contractual position that doesn’t have a specific end date.

As you might suspect, I received lots of texts and email messages from sources within the industry wanting to weigh in or provide inside information (or speculate) why Krafcik left.

Here’s what I can tell you. Krafcik could be a polarizing figure within Waymo, particularly in the early days of his employment when it was still a “project” and had not yet become an independent company under Alphabet. That transition led to the departure of some of the Google self-driving project’s key engineers and leaders, including Chris Urmson, Bryan Salesky and Dave Ferguson, who went on to found AV startups Aurora, Argo AI and Nuro.

Krafcik’s tenure was also marked by extreme growth — in terms of number of employees — as well as an aggressive push to lock up OEM and supplier partners, the launch of a ride-hailing service in the suburbs of Phoenix, expanded testing and its first external investment round of $2.25 billion. That round was extended by another $750 million, bringing the total size of the financing to $3 billion.

Dolgov and Mawakana have some decisions to make on how they want to proceed and where to place their bets. My educated forecast? Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous delivery unit, will become a bigger priority along with a more visible push into complex urban environments like San Francisco.

Notable reads and other tidbits

the-station-delivery

Here are a few other items worth mentioning.

It’s electric

Amazon Web Services is expanding its offerings and anticipating the inevitable spike in EVs by partnering with Swiss automation company ABB. The two are working on a single-view electric fleet management platform that can work with any charging infrastructure or EV.

“Not only do fleet managers have to contend with the speed of development in charging technology, but they also need real-time vehicle and charging status information, access to charging infrastructures and information for hands-on maintenance,” Frank Muehlon, president of ABB’s e-mobility division, told TechCrunch. “This new real-time EV fleet management solution will set new standards in the world of electric mobility for global fleet operators and help them realize improved operations.”

Autonomous vehicles

Cartken, the robotics startup founded by ex-Google employees, has partnered with REEF Technology to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami. REEF,  a startup that operates parking lots and tech-focused neighborhood hubs, to develop and deploy the robots. They are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius of its delivery hubs.’

Geodis, the global logistics company, has tapped startup Phantom Auto to help it deploy forklifts that can be controlled remotely by human operators located hundreds, and even thousands, of miles away. The aim is to use the technology to reduce operator fatigue — and the injuries that can occur as a result — as well as reduce the number of people physically inside warehouses, according to the Geodis.

Motional, which is partnering with Lyft for ride-hailing services, revealed this week that it would be integrating its tech with the Hyundai IONIQ5. Customers in certain markets will be able to book this vehicle starting in 2023.

Optimus Ride, an autonomous electric mobility company, announced a partnership with sports car manufacturer Polaris to commercialize a new breed of Polaris GEM low-speed vehicles. The vehicles will serve as microtransit for certain academic or corporate campuses, mixed-use developments and other geofenced, localized environments. Side note: 2023 seems to be a big year for upcoming electric, autonomous vehicles.

Delivery

Zipline, the drone delivery service startup, announced a partnership with Toyota Tsusho
Corporation that will focus on bringing medical and pharmaceutical supplies to healthcare facilities in Japan. Toyota Tsusho is already an investor in Zipline and so this is a deepening of that relationship.

The partnership also marks Zipline’s entrance into Japan. The company already delivers medical supplies in Ghana and Rwanda, and also operates in the United States.

#amazon, #amazon-web-services, #argo-ai, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #chris-urmson, #electric-vehicles, #ford, #geodis, #john-krafcik, #motional, #tc, #transportation, #waymo, #zipline

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Equity Monday: Edtech consolidation, and Amazon continues to make you like it less

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

This morning we took a global look at the news, trying to take in the latest from around our little planet:

It’s going to be a blast of a week. Talk to you Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#amazon, #byjus, #edtech, #equity, #equity-podcast, #facebook, #fundings-exits, #startups, #tc

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Amazon addresses pee bottle denial tweet

Amazon kicked off the holiday weekend by backtracking slightly on a social media offensive that unfolded in the waning days of a historic unionization vote. The earlier  comments reportedly arrived as Jeff Bezos was pushing for a more aggressive strategy.

Along with taking on Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the Amazon News Twitter account went toe to toe with Congressman, Mark Pocan. The Wisconsin Democrat cited oft-reported stories of Amazon workers urinating in bottles in reaction to comments from Consumer CEO, Dave Clark.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the account asked. “If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”

The Congressman’s initial response was pithy and to the point: “[Y]es, I do believe your workers. You don’t?”

Subsequent reports have served to cement those stories. One called the urination issue “widespread” among Amazon drivers, adding that defecation had also, reportedly, become a problem. Last night, the company offered a mea culpa of sorts, saying it “owe[s] an apology to Representative Pocan.”

Things break down a bit from there. Amazon’s apology acknowledges that workers peeing in bottles is a thing, but appears to imply that it’s limited to drivers and not the fulfillment center staff at the center of this large scale unionization effort. From there, the company adds that drivers peeing in bottles is an “industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon.”

The company helpfully includes a list of links and tweets that are, at very least, an indictment of the gig economy and the treatment of blue collar workers, generally. Essentially, Amazon is admitting to being a part of the problem, while working to spread the blame across an admittedly faulty system.

Reports of workers urinating in bottles also go beyond drivers, including stories of warehouse employees resorting to the act in order to meet stringent quotas.

“A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time,” company writes in the post attributed to anonymous Amazon Staff. “If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we’ll work to fix it.”

Union vote counting for the company’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse began last week. Results could have a wide-ranging impact on both Amazon and the industry at large.

#amazon, #labor

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Amazon admits its drivers sometimes have to pee in bottles

A dark blue van with multiple Amazon logos.

Enlarge (credit: Lawrence Glass / Getty Images)

Amazon has posted an apology to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) for a tweet last week denying that it makes its workers urinate in water bottles.

The controversy started with a tweet by Pocan blasting Amazon for its treatment of workers—a topic of particular public interest as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama were voting on whether to unionize.

“Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Pocan wrote.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#amazon, #policy, #unions

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Backflip offers an easier way to turn used electronics into cold, hard cash

Mike Barile spent two years and racked up nearly $20,000 in credit card debt to bring his first startup, Backflip, to life.

The former management consultant had spent years toiling in the startup grind, first at Uber, then, after taking a coding academy bootcamp through AppAcademy (where Barile met his co-founder, Adam Foosaner), at Google and at a failed cryptocurrency startup.

Burned by the crypto experience, Barile was casting about for his next thing, and trying to find a way to scrape up some rent money, when he hit on the idea for Backflip. The experience of selling electronics online was still shady and Barile and Foosaner thought there had to be a better way.

That way became Backflip. It offers customers cash on delivery for their used electronics — anything from Androids to Xboxes and Apple devices to Gameboys.

When I first started working on backflip back in March 2019, I met this kid named Chris and he wanted to buy some of my old iPhones. He had been a student at USF and as a side hustle he started buying used devices and would refurbish them and then either sell them himself or sell them to an official reseller,” said Barile. “Chris started making so much money he dropped out of school. That was a holy shit moment. He can make a lot of money doing this and he’s doing a really good thing.”

The problem, said Barile, was safety. “He’s got all these devices he’s acquiring paying cash for and he’s driving all around town… Everyone who works in the [refurbish and resell] industry has at least one story about getting robbed at gunpoint.”

Backflip solved that problem by being the intermediary between buyers and sellers and taking a small commission for managing the transaction.

The company raised its first money at the end of 2019, but before that, Foosaner and Barile lived off of credit and used electronics.

So far, Backflip has facilitated the exchange of roughly 3,000 devices. The company handles everything from wiping a device and ensuring its quality to finding a buyer for the electronics. The company pays out roughly $150 per device and has deposited a little over $500,000 with users of the service, according to data provided by the company.

“We did all sorts of stuff to get our first few users,” said Barile. We posted ads on Facebook Marketplace and Craiglist. We started experimenting at the end of the summer with the most bare bones mobile app kind of thing. At that point it was just Adam and I,” Barile said.

Starting now, Backflip is working with UPS stores to provide in-person drop-off and packaging centers for the used electronics. Over time, Barile sees those services expanding to offer cash on delivery. “The experience will be similar to an Amazon return,” he said. “Except we’ll be paying you.”

Currently about half of the company’s inventory is used handsets and mobile devices, but Barile said that could drop to a third of inventory as word spreads about the hundred-odd pieces of electronics that Backflip is willing to

“Unlike other resale options, Backflip prioritizes the user’s time and convenience,” said Foosaner in a statement. “Forget the back-and-forth of negotiating over price and scheduling a meetup. We’re here to do all the work for the seller and make sure they get paid fairly and quickly. Backflip users can know that they’re getting the most for their devices without having to do anything other than bring them to The UPS Store or box them up at home.”

The connection to the refurbishing community started early for Barile, whose mother had a side business called “Stone Cottage Workshop” where she was flipping refurbished furniture on eBay and at local thrift stores near Barile’s bucolic New Jersey hometown.

“We want to build the Amazon of making things disappear from your apartment,” Barile said. 

#amazon, #apple-inc, #e-waste, #ebay, #electronics, #google, #mobile-devices, #tc, #uber

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QuikNode is building a blockchain developer cloud platform to compete with AWS

As hot as the blockchain space appears to be these days, it’s still far from simple to get a decentralized application reliably up-and-running. The NFT boom and rising cryptocurrency prices have brought more attention to applications running on the blockchain, but the dominant cloud service platforms aren’t quite ready to make a full-commit to the needs of these developers.

QuikNode, which recently raised funding from Y Combinator and is in the process of wrapping its seed funding, has been building out a Web3 cloud platform for blockchain developers that can help them create and scale applications. The startup seems to be further along than most of its fellow YC batch mates, founded back in 2017.

At the moment, running a decentralized app can involve a lot of base infrastructure headaches that take developer attention away from their actual products. The initial setup can require days worth of downloads to sync to these networks for the first time while maintenance costs can also be high, the startup says. QuikNode allows app developers to rent access to nodes that let them operate on the blockchain network of their choice, enabling them to sidestep maintaining and monitoring their own node.

Alongside node management and maintenance, QuikNode’s product integrates developer tools and analytics to simplify running a decentralized app. The challenge for QuikNode will likely be maintaining an edge here in the shadow of cloud giants if the decentralized app market grows to a sizable (and consistent) presence on the web. QuikNode is itself a customer of these large cloud companies, opting to focus on software rather than building up physical data centers, nevertheless they’re still directly competing with these big players.

“I think we have about two years on Amazon, we’re on their radar,” CEO Dmitry Shklovsky tells TechCrunch.

For the time being, QuikNode’s small size gives it a distinct pricing advantage compared to nascent programs from other cloud providers. Plans start at just $9 for users launching the most basic applications, with structured plans increasing depending on the amount of “method calls” being performed. Renting a dedicated node is $300 per month. From there, the startup offers several chain-specific add-ons with options like Archive mode that give applications access all historical value states inside smart contracts on the network or Trace mode, which lets developers request nodes to re-execute transactions.

The team currently operates over 1,000 nodes and has around 400 customers. As QuikNode aims to scale their customer base, Shklovsky says that one of the best paths to customer acquisition have been guides educating decentralized app developers on how to connect to the most popular networks. 

Currently, the largely Miami-based team supports networks on six chains including Ethereum, Bitcoin, xDai, Binance Smart Chain, Polygon and Optimism.

#amazon, #articles, #blockchain-network, #blockchains, #ceo, #cloud-computing, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #decentralization, #ethereum, #miami, #smart-contract, #tc, #technology, #y-combinator

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Amazon colluded with publishers to fix book prices, class-action suit alleges

Amazon colluded with publishers to fix book prices, class-action suit alleges

Enlarge (credit: Johner Images / Getty)

A small independent bookstore filed a class-action lawsuit against Amazon last week, alleging that the e-commerce giant colluded with the five major book publishers to fix wholesale prices and block other sellers “from competing on price or product availability.”

The suit seeks to compensate independent booksellers for Amazon’s and publishers’ practices and put an injunction on the alleged anticompetitive practices. The named plaintiff is Bookends and Beginnings, a physical and online bookstore located in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Amazon, which got its start selling books during the dot-com boom, has dominated the retail book market in recent years, selling an estimated 90 percent of all e-books and over 40 percent of physical books.

The current lawsuit targets Amazon’s practices in the market for physical trade books, which is publishing industry lingo for fiction and nonfiction books that are not textbooks or other reference materials.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#amazon, #antitrust, #book-publishers, #books, #policy, #price-fixing

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Apple adds two brand new Siri voices and will no longer default to a female or male voice in iOS

Apple is adding two new voices to Siri’s English offerings, and eliminating the default ‘female voice’ selection in the latest beta version of iOS. This means that every person setting up Siri will choose a voice for themselves and it will no longer default to the voice assistant being female, a topic that has come up quite a bit with regards to bias in voice interfaces over the past few years.

The beta version should be live now and available to program participants.

I believe that this is the first of these assistants to make the choice completely agnostic with no default selection made. This is a positive step forward as it allows people to choose the voice that they prefer without the defaults bias coming into play. The two new voices also bring some much needed variety to the voices of Siri, offering more diversity in speech sound and pattern to a user picking a voice that speaks to them.

in some countries and languages Siri already defaults to a male voice. But this change makes the choice the users’ for the first time.

“We’re excited to introduce two new Siri voices for English speakers and the option for Siri users to select the voice they want when they set up their device,” a statement from Apple reads. “This is a continuation of Apple’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.”

The two new voices use source talent recordings that are then run through Apple’s Neural text to speech engine, making the voices flow more organically through phrases that are actually being generated on the fly.

I’ve heard the new voices and they sound pretty fantastic, with natural inflection and smooth transitions. They’ll be a welcome addition of choice to iOS users. I’ll embed some samples here after the beta drops.

This latest beta also upgrades the Siri voices in Ireland, Russia and Italy to Neural TTS, bringing the total voices using the new tech to 38. Siri now handles 25 billion requests per month on over 500M devices and supports 21 languages in 36 countries.

The new voices are available to English speaking users around the world and Siri users can select a personal preference of voice in 16 languages.

It seems very likely that these two new voices are just the first expansion in Siri’s voice selections. More diversity in voice, tone and regional dialect can only be a positive development for how inclusive smart devices feel. Over the past few years we have finally begun to see some movement from Amazon, Google and Apple to aggressively correct situations where the assistants have revealed bias in their responses to queries that use negative or abusive language. Improvements there, as well as in queries on social justice topics and overall accessibility improvements are incredibly key as we continue to see an explosion of voice-first or voice-native interfaces. These kinds of choices matter, especially at a scale of hundreds of millions of people.

 

Article updated to note that in some countries and languages Siri currently defaults to a male voice. 

#amazon, #apple, #apple-inc, #artificial-intelligence, #computing, #google, #google-now, #ios, #ireland, #italy, #mach, #russia, #siri, #software, #speech-synthesis, #voice-assistant

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Amazon partners with Seraphim on AWS accelerator for space startups

Amazon will soon be a big part of the space economy in the form of its Kuiper satellite internet constellation, but here on Earth its ambitions are more commonplace: get an accelerator going. They’ve partnered with space-focused VC outfit Seraphim Capital to create a four-week program with (among other things) a $100,000 AWS credit for a carrot.

Applications are open now for the AWS Space Accelerator, with the only requirement that you’re aiming for the space sector and plan to use AWS at some point. Ten applicants will be accepted; you have until April 21 to apply.

The program sounds fairly straightforward: a “technical, business, and mentorship” deal where you’ll likely learn how to use AWS properly, get some good tips from the AWS Partner Network and other space-focused experts on tech, regulations and security, then rub shoulders with some VCs to talk about that round you’re putting together. (No doubt Seraphim’s team gets first dibs, but there doesn’t appear to be any strict equity agreement.)

“Selected startups may receive up to $100,000 in AWS Activate credit,” the announcement says, which does hedge somewhat, but probably legal made them put that in.

There are a good amount of space-focused programs out there, but not nearly enough to cover demand — there are a lot of space startups! And they often face a special challenge of being highly technical, have customers in the public sector and need rather a lot of cash to get going compared with your average enterprise SaaS.

We’ll understand more about the program once the first cohort is announced, likely not for at least a month or two.

#accelerator, #aerospace, #amazon, #aws, #seraphim-capital

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Amazon acquires Indian retail startup Perpule

Amazon has acquired a startup in India that is helping offline stores go online, the e-commerce group’s latest attempt to make inroads in the world’s second most populous nation where brick and mortar continue to drive more than 95% of sales.

The American e-commerce group said on Tuesday evening that it has acquired Perpule, a four-year-old startup. A regulatory filing showed Amazon Technologies paid $14.7 million to acquire the Indian startup in an all-cash deal. The company is expected to spend an additional $5 million or so to compensate Perpule’s employees.

Perpule, which had raised $6.36 million (per insight platform Tracxn), offers a mobile payments device (point of sale machine) to offline retailers to help them accept digital payments and also establish presence on various mini app stores including those run by Paytm, PhonePe, and Google Pay in India.

“Perpule has built an innovative cloud-based POS offering that enables offline stores in India to better manage their inventory, checkout process, and overall customer experience,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

“We are excited to have the Perpule team join us to focus on providing growth opportunities for businesses of all sizes in India while raising the bar of the shopping experience for Indian customers.”

Founded in late 2016, the Indian startup’s first product was focused on helping customers avoid queues at super chains such as Shoppers Stop, Spar Hypermarket, Big Bazaar, and More. But the product, said Abhinav Pathak in a recent interview, wasn’t scaling, which is when Perpule pivoted.

The startup — which counts Prime Venture Partners, Kalaari Capital, and Raghunandan G (founder of neobank Zolve) among its investors — has further expanded in recent years, launching products like StoreSE, which enables a business to support group ordering.

Last year, it also expanded geographically; bringing its offerings to Southeast Asian markets including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Amazon has aggressively engaged with physical stores in India in recent years, using their vast presence in the nation to expand its delivery network and warehouses and even just relying on their inventory to drive sales.

The company’s push into physical retail comes as Flipkart, and Reliance Jio Platforms (backed by Facebook and Google), which last year raised over $20 billion, also race to capture this market. The acquisition of Perpule comes less than a week after Google backed DotPe, a startup that offers several similar products.

These neighborhood stores offer all kinds of items, are family-run and pay low wages and little to no rent. Because they are ubiquitous — there are more than 30 million neighborhood stores in India, according to industry estimates — no retail giant can offer a faster delivery. And on top of that, their economics are often better than most of their digital counterparts.

#amazon, #asia, #dotpe, #dukaan, #ecommerce, #facebook, #fundings-exits, #google, #jio-platforms, #khatabook, #okcredit, #reliance-retail

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Ballot counting for Amazon’s historic union vote starts today

Vote counting begins today in the historic effort to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center. The warehouse — which opened exactly a year ago to meet ramping up demand as COVID-19 bore down on the U.S. — has become ground zero for one of the most import labor efforts in modern American history.

Voting began by mail on February 8, after Amazon repeatedly attempted to delay the vote or force workers to submit ballots in-person, in spite of pandemic restrictions. Things have gotten predictably heated in the days and weeks leading up to yesterday’s official deadline. Though even by the standards of Amazon’s aggressive public relations strategy, thing went surprisingly far.

In particular, the e-commerce giant leveraged Twitter feeds as part of an aggressive anti-union strategy. The company simultaneously sought to bolster its image of existing working conditions while confronting progressive/leftist politicians like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who played a key role in pushing the company toward the $15/hour warehouse minimum wage it now celebrates.

According to reports, the company’s scorched-earth approach against Sanders and fellow New England Senator Elizabeth Warren were spurred on from the top. Founder Jeff Bezos — who will abdicate his CEO position later this year — was said to have encouraged the offensive. Employees at the companies were said to have flagged the offending tweets internally for suspicious activity. Those tickets were reportedly closed.

After antagonist tweets and denying widespread and longstanding reports about Amazon workers peeing in bottles over fears of falling behind on quotas, the Amazon News Twitter reverted to a more positive approach. It has however, continued activity around the vote, including a bid to install video cameras for monitoring boxes carrying ballots — a bid the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has since rejected.

While the vote counting kicks off today, don’t expect immediate results. The process is a methodical and deliberate one. Among other things, there are processes in place for either side to object. It’s clear from Amazon’s recent behavior that the company is well aware that this is far more consequential than the 6,000 or so workers currently employed by the Bessemer location. If the company prevails, it will position the decision as validation of its working conditions. If workers vote to unionize, meanwhile, this could well start a chain reaction across the company.

A truck passes as Congressional delegates visit the Amazon Fulfillment Center after meeting with workers and organizers involved in the Amazon BHM1 facility unionization effort

BIRMINGHAM, AL – MARCH 05: A truck passes as Congressional delegates visit the Amazon Fulfillment Center after meeting with workers and organizers involved in the Amazon BHM1 facility unionization effort, represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union on March 5, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. Workers at Amazon facility currently make $15 an hour, however they feel that their requests for less strict work mandates are not being heard by management. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

This week, workers at Amazon’s Germany facilities are going on strike for four days, following a similar move in Italy last week.

“It’s not just workers in Alabama, it’s workers everywhere who are saying to Jeff Bezos that enough is enough. No matter what language they speak, Amazon workers around the globe will not stand for the working conditions they’ve been forced to endure for too long,” Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) President Stuart Applebaum said in a statement.

The NLRB oversees the vote counting. If workers vote to unionize, Bessemer workers will join the RWDSU. The organization has also seen its share of pushback from Amazon. As the company told TechCrunch last week:

Stuart Appelbaum, Chief Disinformation Officer of RWDSU, in an attempt to save his long declining union, is taking alternative facts to a whole new level. But our employees are smart and know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encourage all of our employees to vote.

Ballots have been sent to the NLRB’s Birmingham offices. There are a number of grounds on which either side can contest the results. These include everything from signatures to whether the person who cast a vote is, in fact, an eligible employee of Amazon. Even after votes are counted, things are likely to drag on. Court battles seem a likely outcome, moving forward. From there, things could ultimately stretch on for weeks or months.

The battle is a high stakes one that has made unusual political allies from opposite sides of the aisle. There aren’t too many events that have united politicians ranging from Marco Rubio on one side and Sanders, Warren and Joe Biden on the other. That goes double for something as traditionally divisive as labor unions.

“This campaign has already been a victory in many ways,” Appelbaum said in a statement issued late last week. “Even though we don’t know how the vote will turn out, we believe we have opened the door to more organizing around the country.”

 

#amazon, #labor, #union, #unionizing

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ABB and AWS team up to create an EV fleet management platform

Swiss automation and technology company ABB has announced a collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create a cloud-based EV fleet management platform that it hopes will hasten the electrification of fleets. The platform, which the company says will help operators maintain business continuity as they switch to electric, will roll out in the second half of 2021.

This announcement comes after a wave of major delivery companies pledged to electrify their fleets. Amazon already has a number of Rivian-sourced electric delivery vans on the streets of California and plans to have 10,000 more operational by this year; UPS ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival for its fleet; 20% of DHL’s fleet is already electric; and FedEx plans to electrify its entire fleet by 2040. A 2020 McKinsey report predicted commercial and passenger fleets in the U.S. could include as many as eight million EVs by 2030, compared with fewer than 5,000 in 2018. That’s about 10 to 15% of all fleet vehicles.

“We want to make EV adoption easier and more scalable for fleets,” Frank Muehlon, president of ABB’s e-mobility division, told TechCrunch. “To power progress, the industry must bring together the best minds and adopt an entrepreneurial approach to product development.” 

ABB brings experience in e-mobility solutions, energy management and charging technology to the table, which will combine with AWS’s cloud and software to make a single-view platform that can be tailored to whichever company is using it. Companies will be able to monitor things like charge planning, EV maintenance status, and route optimization based on the time of day, weather and use patterns. Muehlon said they’ll work with customers to explore ways to use existing data from fleets for faster implementation.

The platform will be hosted on the AWS cloud, which means that it can scale anywhere AWS is available, which so far includes in 25 regions globally.

The platform will be hardware-agnostic, meaning any type of EV or charger can work with it. Integration of software into specific EV fleets will depend on the fleet’s level of access to third-party asset management systems and onboard EV telematics, but the platform will support a layered feature approach, wherein each layer provides more accurate vehicle data. Muehlon says this makes for a more seamless interface than existing third-party charging management software, which don’t have the technology or the flexibility to work with the total breadth of EV models and charging infrastructure. 

“Not only do fleet managers have to contend with the speed of development in charging technology, but they also need real-time vehicle and charging status information, access to charging infrastructures and information for hands-on maintenance,” said Muehlon. “This new real-time EV fleet management solution will set new standards in the world of electric mobility for global fleet operators and help them realize improved operations.”

This software is aimed at depot and commercial fleets, as well as public infrastructure fleets. Muehlon declined to specify any specific EV operators or customers lined up to use this new technology, but he did say there are “several pilots underway” which will “enable us to ensure that we are developing market-ready solutions for all kinds of fleets.” 

#abb, #amazon, #amazon-web-services, #automotive, #aws, #electric-delivery-vehicles, #electric-vehicles, #ev, #logistics, #shipping, #transportation

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Daily Crunch: Amazon makes PR push ahead of union vote

Amazon pushes back against unionization, WeWork eyes the SPAC route and there’s new spyware on Android. This is your Daily Crunch for March 26, 2021.

The big story: Amazon makes PR push ahead of union vote

Workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama (a suburb of Birmingham) will vote next week on whether to unionize. In the meantime, Amazon is waging an aggressive PR campaign against the effort and the politicians who support it.

For example, in a response to news that Senator Bernie Sanders would be visiting Amazon workers, executive Dave Clark tweeted, “I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace. I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.” Meanwhile, the Amazon News account scoffed at Representative Mark Pocan for repeating accounts of Amazon workers peeing in water bottles: “If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

In response, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (which the Amazon workers would be joining if the unionization effort succeeds) put out a statement asking, “How arrogant and tone deaf can Amazon be?”

The tech giants

A new Android spyware masquerades as a ‘system update’ — The malware can take complete control of a victim’s device.

What Silicon Valley could learn from China’s Q&A platform Zhihu — China’s largest question and answer platform, Zhihu, began trading at the lower end of its IPO range.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Crypto boom continues as Chainalysis raises $100M, doubles valuation to over $2B — The round comes just four months after the company secured a $100 million Series C round at a $1 billion valuation.

Benitago Group raises $55M in combined debt and equity to buy and grow Amazon brands — Most of the funding takes the form of credit lines to fund acquisitions, but there’s also an equity investment.

‘Link-in-bio’ company Linktree raises $45M Series B for its social commerce features —  Linktree is one of the most popular “link in bio” services, with more than 12 million users.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

WeWork lines up for a second run at the public markets — If all you have is a blank-check company, every erstwhile startup looks like a public company in waiting.

Five mistakes creators make building new games on Roblox — Game developers, brands and investors alike are wondering what factors cause the most successful games on this $47 billion platform to break out.

UiPath’s IPO filing suggests robotic process automation is booming — Five takeaways from the company’s S-1.

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

Everything else

These House hearings on tech are a waste of time and everyone knows it — Devin Coldewey says the hearings need to change if lawmakers really want to put Big Tech on the spot.

Computer vision software has the potential to reinvent the way cities move — Tech provides new means of addressing the challenges of crowding, pollution and parking enforcement on dense city streets.

You can only invest if you promise not to read the fine print, OK? — Wrap up the week with an episode of Equity.

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.

#amazon, #daily-crunch, #ecommerce, #policy

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