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Tesla’s U.S.-made Model 3 vehicles now come equipped with wireless charging, USB-C ports

Tesla Model 3 vehicles produced at its Fremont, Calif. factory will reportedly come standard with a wireless charging pad and USB-C ports, upgrades that were first spotted by Drive Tesla Canada.

Electrek also reported on the changes.

The upgrades now put U.S.-made Model 3s on par with the same vehicles made at Tesla’s factory in China.

The wireless phone charger and USB-C ports first appeared in the newer Model Y, which customers began to receive in March. Tesla has since taken steps to bring some of these new Model Y features into the older Model 3. The upgrades initially showed up in vehicles assembled in China. Drive Tesla Canada said the upgrades became standard in Model 3 vehicles assembled after June 4.

Tesla still offers a $125 upgrade (seen below) for those who own pre-June 4 2020 Model 3 vehicles. Aftermarket company Jeda Products also sells a Qi wireless phone charger for about $99.

tesla wireless charging pad

Image Credits: Tesla

The upgrades are likely part of Tesla’s aim to make its automotive assembly more efficient as well as make its vehicles more attractive to potential customers who have slowed purchases during COVID-19 pandemic.

Tesla delivered 88,400 vehicles in the first quarter, beating most analysts expectations despite a 21% decrease from the previous quarter as the COVID-19 pandemic put downward pressure on demand and created logistical challenges. Tesla produced 103,000 electric vehicles in the first quarter, about 2% lower than the previous period.

COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain and global sales in China and Europe in the first quarter, which ended March 31. The pandemic spread its economic gloom to the U.S. towards the end of the first quarter, and then dug in its heels in the second period. Tesla typically reports quarter production and delivery figures a few days after the end of the quarter. The second quarter ends June 30.

Voyage gets the green light to bring robotaxi service to California’s public roads

Voyage has cleared a regulatory hurdle that will allow the company to expand its self-driving service from the private roads of a retirement community in San Jose, Calif. to public roads throughout the rest of the state.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a permit Monday that gives Voyage permission to transport passengers in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads. The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Voyage in a new and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing. Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Pony.ai, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program.

The permit also puts Voyage on a path toward broader commercialization.

The company was operating six autonomous vehicles — always with a human safety driver behind the wheel — in The Villages, a community of more than 4,000 residents in San Jose, Calif. (Those activities have been suspended temporarily under a statewide stay-at-home order prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Voyage also operates in a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in central Florida.

Voyage didn’t need a CPUC permit because the community is made up of private roads, although CEO Oliver Cameron said the company wanted to adhere to state rules regardless of any technicalities. Voyage was also motivated by a grander ambition to transport residents of The Villages to destinations outside of the community.

“We want to bring people to all the things that live outside The Villages, facilities like hospitals and grocery stores,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron told TechCrunch in an interview Monday.

Voyage’s strategy was to start with retirement communities — places with specific customer demand and a simpler surrounding environment. The demographic that Voyage serves has an average age of 70. The aim isn’t to change its customer base. Instead, Cameron wants to expand the company’s current operational design domain to give Voyage a bigger reach.

The end goal is for Voyage’s core customers — people Cameron dubs power users — to be able to use the service for everything from heading to a neighbor’s house for dinner to shopping, doctor’s visits and even the airport.

🚨 Announcement time! We recently received a CPUC permit granting permission to move CA residents in driverless cars.

We join a tiny group of companies with this permit (👋@zoox @Cruise @Waymo @aurora_inno) & can’t wait to get back on the road to serve seniors. We miss you ❤pic.twitter.com/VBPtNQjRI1

— Voyage (@voyage) April 20, 2020

The CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The first one, called the Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot would allow driverless passenger service — although no company has yet to obtain that permit.

Under the permit, Voyage can’t charge for rides. However, there might be some legal wiggle room. Voyage can technically charge for rides within The Villages; in fact, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdown, the company had started charging for a ride-hailing service.

Rides outside of The Villages would have to be free, although it’s unclear if the company could charge for mileage or time until the vehicle left the community.

Voyage has aspirations to take this further. The company is also applying for a traditional Transportation Charter Permit, which is required for limousine, bus and other third-party charter services. Cameron said the company had to go through the stringent application process for the CPUC’s Drivered AV permit first.

The CPUC programs shouldn’t be confused with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads — always with a safety driver. There are 65 companies that hold autonomous vehicle testing permits issued by the DMV. Companies that want to participate in the CPUC program must have a testing permit with the DMV.

Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns expected to last until May 4

Tesla will suspend production at its U.S. factories until at least May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night and viewed by TechCrunch.

Pay cuts for salaried employees — which ranges from 30% for vice presidents, 20% for director-level executives and 10% for the remaining workforce — is expected to be in place until the end of the second quarter, according to the email. The salary cuts and furloughs will begin April 13. Employees who cannot work from home and have not been assigned critical onsite positions will be furloughed until May 4, according to the email.

“While we are continuing to keep only minimum critical operations running, we expect to resume normal production at our U.S. facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes,” the email from Tesla’s human resources department head Valerie Workman. “Until that time, it is important we take action to ensure we remain on track to achieve our long-term plans.”

“This is a shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times,” the email read.

Furloughed employees will remain employees of Tesla without pay. They will their healthcare benefit. The email directs furloughed employees to apply for unemployment benefits.

Tesla said in the email to employees that it will also put any merit-based actions such as equity grants on hold.

Tesla operates a number of factories and facilities throughout the U.S., namely its main assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., its Nevada gigafactory that produces battery packs and electric motors for the Model 3 and its factory in Buffalo, New York, which makes solar products.

Tesla announced March 19 plans to suspend production at its Fremont and Buffalo factories. At the time, the company didn’t say when it expected to restart production. The production suspension at its Fremont factory was set to begin March 23, a week after a shelter in place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” has continued at the Fremont factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. About 2,500 workers are still working at the plant.

Tesla said in March that it had enough liquidity to weather the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cash position at the end of the fourth quarter was $6.3 billion before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise.

“We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty,” Tesla said.

The company had available credit lines worth about  $3 billion, including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of its Shanghai factory at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: New York gigafactory will reopen for ventilator production

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday that the company’s factory in Buffalo, New York will open “as soon as humanly possible” to produce ventilators that are in short supply due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His comments, which were made Wednesday via Twitter, follows previous statements by the CEO outlining plans to either donate ventilators or work to increase production of the critical piece of medical equipment needed for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by coronavirus. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

Giga New York will reopen for ventilator production as soon as humanly possible. We will do anything in our power to help the citizens of New York.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2020

Last week, Tesla said in a statement it would suspend production at its Fremont, Calif. factory, where it assembles its electric vehicles, and its Buffalo, N.Y gigafactory, except for “those parts and supplies necessary for service, infrastructure and critical supply chains.”

It isn’t clear based on Musk’s statements when the Buffalo plant would reopen or how long it would take to convert a portion of its factory, which is used to produce solar panels. Musk didn’t say if this was part of a possible collaboration with Medtronic .

Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak told CNBC on Wednesday that it is increasing capacity of its critical care ventilators and partnering with others such as Tesla. He said Medtronic is open sourcing one its lower end ventilators in less acute situations for others to, to make as quickly as they can. These lower end ventilators, which are easier to produce because there are fewer components, can be used as an intermediary step in critical care.

Tesla is one of several automakers, including GM, Ford and FCA that has pledged support to either donate supplies or offer resources to make more ventilators. Earlier this week, Ford said it is working with GE Healthcare to expand production capacity of a ventilator.

GM is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Ventec will use GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more ventilators. The companies did not provide further details such as when production might be able to ramp up or how many ventilators would be produced.

TikTok donates $3 million to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charity feeding kids affected by school closures

The social media giant TikTok said that it would donate $3 million to AfterSchool All-Stars, a charity founded by actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to feed families whose food security was affected by the close of public schools in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

TikTok said in a statement Thursday that families in 60 cities with After-School All-Stars chapters would receive food vouchers and gift cards that can be spent on food and other essentials through local grocery stores.

“We are all operating in uncertain times, and it’s more important now than ever before for both our local and global communities to come together to help those in need,” said Vanessa Pappas, General Manager of TikTok U.S., in a statement. “This pledge to ASAS will help more students get access to meals, safely provided to them, during this crisis. While this alone won’t mitigate the impact of the current situation, we hope it can relieve one worry for parents who are balancing social distancing mandates, work and caring for children who can no longer go to school each day.”

Chapters in cities that have been hardest hit by the epidemic will receive the aid, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Corporate partners in the initiative include Food Land, Giant, Kroger, Publix, Ralphs, Safeway, Target and Walmart .

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese media company Bytedance, also said it would match up to $1 million in employee donations to the ASAS to boost the organization’s ability to provide food.

“During a crisis, improvisation is critical and everyone has to look at new ways to help the most vulnerable,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California Governor and Founder of After-School All-Stars, in a statement. “The After-School All-Stars programs are paused with schools closed, but we remain committed to supporting the 100,000 families we work with year-round. When I founded After-School All-Stars in 1992, the goal was always to support the families who need it the most. I’m grateful to TikTok for their donation which allows us to shift our priorities so our team can safely deliver groceries and gift cards for groceries to the families we help.”

 

Microsoft will pay hourly workers regular wages even if their hours are reduced because of COVID-19 concerns

As more COVID-19 cases are identified in the United States, some companies are asking employees to work from home if possible. But that impacts the jobs of people who work in on-site operations, including many who are paid by the hour. Today Microsoft said that it will continue paying all vendor hourly service providers in Puget Sound and Northern California their usual wage, even if their work hour are reduced.

The announcement specifically refers to Microsoft workers in the Puget Sound region and Northern California, but the company said it will “[explore] how to best move forward in a similar way in other parts of the country and the world that are impacted by COVID-19.”

In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote that employees in those regions who can work from home have been asked to do so.

“As a result, we have reduced need in those regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs,” he said. “We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.”

Smith added, “While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making pubic health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and social impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have asked employees in places where COVID-19 cases have been identified to work from home, like Washington state and California, including Google, Lyft and Square. Concerns about the COVID-19 have also led to the cancellations of major events, like Mobile World Congress and Google’s I/O developer conference.

EV fleet management gets another venture-backed contender as Electriphi raises $3.5 million

Electriphi, a provider of charging management and fleet monitoring software for electric vehicles, has joined the scrum of startups looking to provide services to the growing number of electric vehicle fleets in the U.S.

The San Francisco-based company has just raised $3.5 million in seed funding from investors including Wireframe Ventures, the Urban Innovation Fund, and Blackhorn Ventures. Lemnos Labs and Acario Innovation also participated in the round.

Electriphi’s pitch has resonated with school districts. It counts the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif. as one of its benchmark customers.

“Twin Rivers Unified School District has the largest fleet of electric school buses in North America, and our ambition is to transition to a fully electric fleet in the coming years,” said Tim Shannon, transportation services director, Twin Rivers Unified School District, in a statement. “This is a significant undertaking, and we needed a trusted partner that could provide us state-of-the-art charging management and help us with data collection and monitoring.”

There are several companies pursuing this market — all with either a bit of a head start, significant corporate backers, or more capital. Existing offerings from EVConnect, GreenLots,  GreenFlux, AmplyPower all compete with Electriphi.

The company is betting that the experience of co-founder, Muffi Ghadiali, a former senior director at ChargePoint who led hardware and software development for fast charging infrastructure, can sway customers. Joining Ghadiali is Sanjay Dayal, who previously worked at Agralogics, Tibco, Xamplify, Versata and Sybase

There’s also the sheer scale of the opportunity, which is likely to see multiple companies emerge as winners.

“There are millions of public and commercial fleet vehicles in the U.S. alone that we rely on daily for transportation, delivery and services, ” said Paul Straub, managing partner, Wireframe Ventures. “Many of these are beginning to consider electrification and the opportunity is tremendous.”

Kleiner Perkins has already blown through much of the $600 million it raised last year

Kleiner Perkins, one of the most storied franchises in venture capital, has already invested much of the $600 million it raised last year and is now going back out to the market to raise its 19th fund, according to multiple sources.

The firm, which underwent a significant restructuring over the last two years, went on an investment tear over the course of 2019 as new partners went out to build up a new portfolio for the firm — almost of a whole cloth.

A spokesperson for KPCB declined to comment on the firm’s fundraising plans citing SEC regulations.

The quick turnaround for KPCB is indicative of a broader industry trend, which has investors pulling the trigger on term sheets for new startups in days rather than weeks.

Speaking onstage at the Upfront Summit, an event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. organized by the Los Angeles-based venture firm Upfront Ventures as a showcase for technology and investment talent in Southern California, venture investor Josh Kopelman spoke to the heightened pace of dealmaking at his own firm.

The founder of First Round Ventures said that the average time from first contact with a startup to drawing up a term sheet has collapsed from 90 days in 2004 to 9 days today.

Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital: we can look at every company we’ve ever funded, and learned that the time from first email/contact to term sheet has shrunk from 90 days in 2004 to just 9 today.

— Dan Primack (@danprimack) January 29, 2020

 

“This could also be due to changes in the competitive landscape … and there may be changes with First Round Capital itself,” says one investor. “It may have been once upon a time that they were looking at really early raw stuff… But, today, First Round is not really in the first round anymore. Companies are raising some angel money or Y Combinator money.”

At KPCB, the once-troubled firm has been buoyed by recent exits in companies like Beyond Meat, a deal spearheaded by the firm’s former partner Amol Deshpande (who now serves as the chief executive of Farmers Business Network) and Slack.

And its new partners are clearly angling to make names for themselves.

“KP used to be a small team doing hands-on company building. We’re moving away from being this institution with multiple products and really just focusing on early-stage venture capital,” Kleiner Perkins  partner Ilya Fushman said when the firm announced its last fund.

Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman

“We went out to market to LPs. We got a lot of interest. We were significantly oversubscribed,” Fushman said of the firm’s raise at the time.

In some ways, it’s likely the kind of rejuvenation that John Doerr was hoping for when he approached Social + Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya about “acquiring” that upstart firm back in 2015.

At the time, as Fortune reported, Palihapitiya and the other Social + Capital partners, Ted Maidenberg and Mamoon Hamid would have become partners in the venture firm under the terms of the proposed deal.

Instead, Social + Capital walked away, the firm eventually imploded and Hamid joined Kleiner Perkins two years later.

The new Kleiner Perkins is a much more streamlined operation. Gone are the sidecar and thematic funds that were a hallmark of earlier strategies and gone too are the superstars brought in by Mary Meeker to manage Kleiner Perkins’ growth equity investments. Meeker absconded with much of that late stage investment team to form Bond — and subsequently raised hundreds of millions of dollars herself.

Those strategies have been replaced by a clutch of young investors and seasoned Kleiner veterans including Ted Schlein who has long been an expert in enterprise software and security.

“Maybe at this point they think they can raise based on the whole story about Mamoon taking over and a few years from now they won’t be able to raise on that story and will have to raise on the results,” says one investor with knowledge of the industry. “Mamoon is a pretty legit, good investor. But the legacy of the firm is going to be tough to overcome.”

All of these changes are not necessarily sitting well with limited partners.

“LPs are not really happy about what’s going on,” says one investor with knowledge of the venture space. “Everybody thinks valuations are too high since 2011 and people are thinking there’s going to be a recession. LPs think funds are coming back to market too fast and they’re being greedy and there’s not enough vintage diversification but LPs … feel almost obligated that they have to do these things… Investing in Sequoia is like that saying that you don’t get fired for buying IBM .”

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

This new EV has a ‘California mode,’ and it’s as chill as it sounds

This new EV has a 'California mode,' and it's as chill as it sounds

The rest of the country is going to snicker, but Fisker’s upcoming all-electric SUV, called Ocean, unveiled a feature this week to honor the car’s West Coast roots and SoCal vibes. 

With one button Ocean drivers can open nine windows and openings throughout the car including a back hatch and sun roof. Let the ocean air flow in and breathe in and out. If that isn’t California dreaming we don’t know what is. The feature is called, of course, California mode. Iconic car designer Henrik Fisker is based in the Los Angeles area.

Reservations-holders for the Fisker Ocean are privy to an exclusive video demonstrating how it works, but it’s only on the Fisker app. We were told we could see the video next week after future-owners got a chance first. Reservations require a $250 deposit. The eco-friendly vehicle built with recycled materials and solar panels on the roof is supposed to start production in 2021 and arrive by 2022.  Read more…

More about California, Electric Vehicles, Fisker, Fisker Ocean, and Tech

Introducing ‘Dear Sophie,’ an advice column for U.S.-bound immigrant employees

Sophie Alcorn
Contributor

Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Extra Crunch is excited to announce the launch of “Dear Sophie,” an advice column with answers for all your questions on attracting, hiring and retaining immigrant employees — and more.

Dear Sophie is a collaborative forum hosted by ExtraCrunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, certified as a Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.”


Dear Reader,

As I pack my bags to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt in Berlin this week, I’m happy to announce the first edition of my new column, Dear Sophie. I’m excited to answer your questions about U.S. immigration!

And, If you’re in the area, I invite you to join me at Disrupt Berlin 2019. You can use promo code ALCORN for discounted admission and meet me in person for a free consultation with CrunchMatch, or attend one of my two sessions: 

Hope to see you there,

Sophie


Dear Sophie: I’m scared: I feel like I should really be in Silicon Valley to grow my company, but everything I read about immigration makes it sound so hard. Is my dream possible?

— Dreaming in Dresden

Dear Dreaming: Yes, coming to the U.S. to build a startup is absolutely possible. In fact, I see founders like you do it all the time. Your dream is valid and definitely worth pursuing.

The first piece of advice I’d give you is to be careful about which news sources you trust! You might not be getting the whole story. While dramatic changes are taking place in the United States, we still have a functioning immigration system that allows people to come live and work here — people just like you. 

The second piece of advice I have is to research the many visa and green card options that can allow you to come to the United States and grow your company (you can read about them on my blog). You’ll find that some visas grant you the ability to work for the short-term or the long-term (potentially), and some allow you to visit and see what things are like here. 

With these visas, you can find a co-founder and build the early stage of your company, establish a U.S. branch of your existing business, seek venture capital and so much more. 

The third piece of advice I have is to really clarify why you want to come to America — that way, you can be strategic about achieving your goals. You might require a little guidance here, which is one example of where immigration lawyers like myself can be helpful. 

When I meet people in your situation, I reassure them that, not only are they safe to dream with me, but I’ve also helped hundreds of people just like them realize their dreams, even when they didn’t believe it was possible. Almost everybody who comes here once asked the same questions you’re asking.

My last piece of advice is simply to follow your heart. The world needs your ideas and contributions. There are lots of resources and ways to get informed and educated, which is the first step on this journey. Once you have a clear vision, you can work to make your dream a reality — It’s not always easy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

You’ve already asked for help, which is a great way to get started. I wish you the best!

Dear Sophie: I have a startup that has been quite successful in Germany. What’s the best way for me to spend some time in the United States exploring product-market fit, gauging business development, and talking to venture capitalists?

— Founder in Frankfurt

Dear Founder: Congratulations on your startup! And bravo for considering taking steps toward strengthening the U.S. marketplace. 

The first thing I suggest you decide is how long it will likely take for you to accomplish your goals. 

If you think you can get the answers you need in less than 90 days, the answer is pretty simple: apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which is available to citizens of about 40 countries (including Germany). You’re allowed to visit for business or pleasure with ESTA, but you’re not allowed to work — and you must definitely depart the United States before the end of the authorized period. 

ESTA could be great for a short business trip or a brief accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Be careful with programs that run longer than 90 days. I’ve seen founders in these longer programs leave on day 88 to go back home for a week and then return to the U.S. to complete the program, hoping that this is a safe workaround of the time limit. Remember that ESTA is a non-immigrant status, and if Customs and Border Protection suspects that you are trying to live here or work here, they have the authority to deny your entry to the United States. 

On the other hand, if you know you’ll need to spend 4-6 months in the U.S. without interruption, I suggest you talk to an attorney about the possibility of applying for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa (even if you have ESTA). A visitor visa allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to six months on a single visit. 

People often ask me how long they can stay in the U.S. during a calendar year or how long they need to be outside of the United States after a six-month visit. While there is no fixed answer to these questions, I remind them that ESTA, B-1, and B-2 are non-immigrant statuses, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to deny you entry if you appear to be living or working in the U.S. In my experience, reentry seems OK when people are spending less than 50% of the time in the country as visitors. Still, it’s always best to talk with an attorney about your particular situation. For example, sometimes our clients request that we provide them with letters of support explaining why their trip is temporary, which they can show to the officers at the airport if they get questioned.

I encourage people in your situation to at least come for 90 days. It’s a great opportunity to network, have some great conversations, and clarify your long-term goals in the U.S. Take some time to think about it, reach out online, so you have things set up before you arrive, and plan out your finances so you can make the most of your trip. I’m wishing you every success!

Dear Sophie: I am a venture capitalist, and my fund recently had great success. We’re now raising a second round and building out the infrastructure of our organization. I have a brilliant contractor working for me who scouts new startups. She was born in India, just got her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from an Ivy League university, and was also recently accepted back into a Master’s program there. I want to help her plan for her future. Can she keep working for me after OPT, or should she go back to school? How do these choices affect her prospects for short-term and long-term chances for immigration?

— Venture in Venice Beach

Tesla Cybertruck reservations hit 146,000

Tesla has received 146,000 reservations to order the Tesla Cybertruck, pulling in some $14.6 million in deposits just two days after the company’s CEO Elon Musk unveiled the futuristic and angled vehicle.

Reservations require a $100 refundable deposit. How many of those deposits will convert to actual orders for the truck, which is currently priced between $39,900 and $69,900, is impossible to predict. And there will likely be plenty of speculation over the next two years. Production of the tri-motor variant of the cybertruck is expected to begin in late 2022, Tesla said.

Musk tweeted Saturday that 146,000 Cybertruck orders have been made so far. Of those, 41% picked the most expensive tri-motor option and 42% of future customers chose the dual motor version. The remaining 17% picked the cheapest single-motor model.

146k Cybertruck orders so far, with 42% choosing dual, 41% tri & 17% single motor

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 23, 2019

The Tesla Cybertruck, which Musk unveiled in dramatic fashion at the Tesla Design Center in Hawthorne, Calif., has been polarizing with skeptics heaping on the criticism and supporters pushing back in kind. Even Tesla fans at the Cybertruck event, which TechCrunch attended, seemed torn with some praising it and others wishing Musk had created something a bit more conventional.

The vehicle made of cold-rolled steel and features armored glass that cracked in one demonstration and an adaptive air suspension.

Tesla said it will offer three variants of the cybertruck. The cheapest version, a single motor and rear-wheel drive model, will cost $39,900, have a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds and more than 250 miles of range. The middle version will be a dual-motor all-wheel drive, have a towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds and be able to travel more than 300 miles on a single charge. The dual motor AWD model is priced at $49,900.

The third version will have three electric motors and all-wheel drive, a towing capacity of 14,000 pounds and battery range of more than 500 miles. This version, known as “tri motor,” is priced at $69,900.

Airbnb to ban ‘party houses’ in wake of Halloween shooting that left 5 dead

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said Saturday the company will ban “party houses” and take other steps to safeguard hosts and guests after five people died at a Halloween party hosted at California home that was rented on the service.

Chesky made the announcement via a series of tweets Saturday. “What happened on Thursday night in Orinda, CA was horrible,” Chesky wrote. “I feel for the families and neighbors impacted by this tragedy — we are working to support them.”

Chesky then announced that party houses would be banned and that the company is “redoubling” efforts to combat unauthorized parties.

Starting today, we are banning “party houses” and we are redoubling our efforts to combat unauthorized parties and get rid of abusive host and guest conduct, including conduct that leads to the terrible events we saw in Orinda. Here is what we are doing:

Brian Chesky (@bchesky) November 2, 2019

Chesky announced several other measures to increase safety, including the expansion of manual screenings of high-risk reservations flagged by Airbnb’s risk detection technology and creating a dedicated “party house” rapid response team

Margaret Richardson, from Airbnb’s executive team, has been tasked to accelerate the review process to enact these new policies as soon as possible, he added.

I have directed Margaret Richardson from our Executive Team to oversee this new team and initiate a 10 day sprint to review and accelerate the development and implementation of these new safety initiatives.

— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) November 2, 2019

 

Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office said the party had been advertised on social media as a mansion party, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Police were headed to the home Oct. 31 over noise complaints when the gunfire began around 10:50 p.m. Several people died at the scene. The fifth victim died Friday night.

MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

Tesla, Elon Musk violated labor laws, judge rules

Tesla broke national labor laws when it unfairly prevented workers from unionizing, an administrative law judge in California ruled Friday.

The ruling, which will likely be appealed, was first reported by Bloomberg. Tesla has not responded to a request for comment. TechCrunch will update the article if Tesla responds.

The automaker and CEO Elon Musk were ordered by Judge Amita Baman Tracy to take several actions to remedy the violations, including reinstating and giving backpay to a fired pro-union employee. The judge also ordered Musk to hold a public meeting and read aloud the findings to employees at the factory informing them the NLRB concluded the company had broken the law.

From the ruling:

I recommend that Respondent be ordered to convene its employees and have Elon Musk (or, if he is no longer the chief executive officer, a high-ranking management official), in the presence security guards, managers and supervisors, a Board agent and an agent 15 of the Union, if the Region and/or the Union so desire, read the notice aloud to employees, or, at Respondent’s option, permit a Board agent, in the presence Musk, to read the notice to the employees at the Fremont facility only.

The NLRB, while able to determine Tesla violated the law, has a limited reach, Bloomberg noted. The NLRB, for instance, can’t hold executive personally liable, nor can it assess punitive damages.

The ruling, which was published Friday, found that Musk and Tesla had violated the National Labor Relations Act by repressing attempts to organize a union at the company’s Fremont. Calif., factory. The judge determined that Tesla violated labor laws when it created rules that prevented off-duty employees from distributing union organizing leaflets in the Fremont parking lot, fired two workers unfairly and interrogated employees about their union activities. The judge also determined that Musk’s own tweets violated the law when he implied that workers who unionized would have to give up company-paid stock options.

Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018

 

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

Trump administration sues California over its brand-new net neutrality law

The Department of Justice announced on Sunday that it has filed a lawsuit against California to block its new net neutrality law, just hours after it was signed by governor Jerry Brown. The lawsuit was first reported by the Washington Post. Senior Justice Department officials told the newspaper it is filing the lawsuit because only the federal government can regulate net neutrality and that the Federal Communications Commission had been granted that authority by Congress to ensure states don’t write conflicting legislation.

In its announcement, the Justice Department stated that by signing California’s Senate Bill 822 into law, the state is “attempting to subvert the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach by imposing burdensome state regulations on the free Internet, which is unlawful and anti-consumer.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does. Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order.”

This is the latest of several legal showdowns between the Trump administration and California, the largest blue state.

Under Attorney General Sessions, the Justice Department has already filed separate lawsuits against California over immigrant sanctuary laws and a law meant to stop the Trump administration from selling or transferring federal land to private corporations. The Trump administration is also clashing with the state over environmental protection regulations.

Senate Bill 822 was introduced by Democratic Senator Scott Wiener to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality protections tossed out by the FCC last year.

Even though Washington and Oregon have also passed their own net neutrality laws, the outcome of the federal government’s battle with California will have ramifications throughout the country because the state’s new net neutrality law is the most stringent one so far, banning most kinds of zero-rating, which allows telecoms to offer services from certain providers for free.

As such, it has been the target of fierce lobbying by telecoms like AT&T and Comcast. While the FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai and telecoms argue that zero-rating allows them to offer better deals (Pai claimed in the Justice Department’s statement today that they have proven popular “especially among lower-income Americans,”) net neutrality advocates say it gives Internet service providers too much power by forcing users to rely on certain services, stifling consumer options and freedom of information.

California’s new online cancellation law benefits many disgruntled subscribers in other places, too

A new California law that went into effect on July 1 will make it much easier for people to cancel subscriptions online. Since the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), includes all services that have paying customers in the state, it will also benefit dissatisfied customers in many places outside California.

The legislation, California Senate Bill No. 313, covers “any business that makes an automatic renewal or continuous service offer to a consumer in this state,” so that includes a very wide range of services, including newspapers and magazines, subscription boxes, streaming services and more. Not only that, but if you made the subscription online, the law stipulates that you are also allowed to cancel it online. In other words, you can no longer be forced to call a customer service phone number to stop the service, a task that is usually much more frustrating and time-consuming than signing up in the first place.

The bill also requires more transparency in how companies present promotional offers. For example, if they lure in users with a free trial or gift, then they also need to include a “clear and conspicuous explanation” in the offer of how much customers will be charged after the trial ends or if the pricing will change. It also needs to tell you how to cancel (and actually allow you to do so) before you are charged.

If you sign up for a subscription at a promotional or discounted price that is only valid for a certain amount of time, the company must get your consent again before charging your debit or credit card when the price returns to its normal rate.

According to Nieman Lab, many news organizations in California are already making changes to their systems to comply with the new law.

San Francisco skies turn orange as wildfires return to Northern California

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San Francisco took on a post-apocalyptic shade of orange, after smoke from Northern Californian wildfires reached the city on Sunday.

Just under a year since the deadliest firestorms in state history, intense wildfire has returned to the region, fanned by high winds and hot temperatures.

Smoke and ash from fires burning in the Yolo and Lake counties filled the sky about 75 miles south in the San Francisco Bay Area on Sunday morning, giving the city a foreboding orange filter.

San Francisco sky is bizarre right now. Rayleigh scattering through this cloud is depleting all the blues and leaving us with a sepia skypic.twitter.com/weUDCkulsN

— Rick Zuzow (@RickZuzow) July 1, 2018 Read more…

More about California, San Francisco, Fire, California Fire, and California Wildfires

How did Thumbtack win the on-demand services market?

Earlier today, the services marketplace Thumbtack held a small conference for 300 of its best gig economy workers at an event space in San Francisco.

For the nearly ten-year-old company the event was designed to introduce some new features and a redesign of its brand that had softly launched earlier in the week. On hand, in addition to the services professionals who’d paid their way from locations across the U.S. were the company’s top executives.

It’s the latest step in the long journey that Thumbtack took to become one of the last companies standing with a consumer facing marketplace for services.

Back in 2008, as the global financial crisis was only just beginning to tear at the fabric of the U.S. economy, entrepreneurs at companies like Thumbtack andTaskRabbit were already hard at work on potential patches.

This was the beginning of what’s now known as the gig economy. In addition to Thumbtack and TaskRabbit, young companies like Handy, Zaarly, and several others — all began by trying to build better marketplaces for buyers and sellers of services. Their timing, it turns out, was prescient.

In snowy Boston during the winter of 2008, Kevin Busque and his wife Leah were building RunMyErrand, the marketplace service that would become TaskRabbit, as a way to avoid schlepping through snow to pick up dog food .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Marco Zappacosta, a young entrepreneur whose parents were the founders of Logitech, and a crew of co-founders including were building Thumbtack, a professional services marketplace from a home office they shared.

As these entrepreneurs built their businesses in northern California (amid the early years of a technology renaissance fostered by patrons made rich from returns on investments in companies like Google and Salesforce.com), the rest of America was stumbling.

In the two years between 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate in America doubled, rising from 5% to 10%. Professional services workers were hit especially hard as banks, insurance companies, realtors, contractors, developers and retailers all retrenched — laying off staff as the economy collapsed under the weight of terrible loans and a speculative real estate market.

Things weren’t easy for Thumbtack’s founders at the outset in the days before its $1.3 billion valuation and last hundred plus million dollar round of funding. “One of the things that really struck us about the team, was just how lean they were. At the time they were operating out of a house, they were still cooking meals together,” said Cyan Banister, one of the company’s earliest investors and a partner at the multi-billion dollar venture firm, Founders Fund.

“The only thing they really ever spent money on, was food… It was one of these things where they weren’t extravagant, they were extremely purposeful about every dollar that they spent,” Banister said. “They basically slept at work, and were your typical startup story of being under the couch. Every time I met with them, the story was, in the very early stages was about the same for the first couple years, which was, we’re scraping Craigslist, we’re starting to get some traction.”

The idea of powering a Craigslist replacement with more of a marketplace model was something that appealed to Thumbtack’s earliest investor and champion, the serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calcanis.

Thumbtack chief executive Marco Zappacosta

“I remember like it was yesterday when Marco showed me Thumbtack and I looked at this and I said, ‘So, why are you building this?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you go on Craigslist, you know, it’s like a crap shoot. You post, you don’t know. You read a post… you know… you don’t know how good the person is. There’re no reviews.’” Calcanis said. “He had made a directory. It wasn’t the current workflow you see in the app — that came in year three I think. But for the first three years, he built a directory. And he showed me the directory pages where he had a photo of the person, the services provided, the bio.”

The first three years were spent developing a list of vendors that the company had verified with a mailing address, a license, and a certificate of insurance for people who needed some kind of service. Those three features were all Calcanis needed to validate the deal and pull the trigger on an initial investment.

“That’s when I figured out my personal thesis of angel investing,” Calcanis said.

“Some people are market based; some people want to invest in certain demographics or psychographics; immigrant kids or Stanford kids, whatever. Mine is just, ‘Can you make a really interesting product and are your decisions about that product considered?’ And when we discuss those decisions, do I feel like you’re the person who should build this product for the world And it’s just like there’s a big sign above Marco’s head that just says ‘Winner! Winner! Winner!’”

Indeed, it looks like Zappacosta and his company are now running what may be their victory lap in their tenth year as a private company. Thumbtack will be profitable by 2019 and has rolled out a host of new products in the last six months.

Their thesis, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, was to build a product which offered listings of any service a potential customer could want in any geography across the U.S. Other companies like Handy and TaskRabbit focused on the home, but on Thumbtack (like any good community message board) users could see postings for anything from repairman to reiki lessons and magicians to musicians alongside the home repair services that now make up the bulk of its listings.

“It’s funny, we had business plans and documents that we wrote and if you look back, the vision that we outlined then, is very similar to the vision we have today. We honestly looked around and we said, ‘We want to solve a problem that impacts a huge number of people. The local services base is super inefficient. It’s really difficult for customers to find trustworthy, reliable people who are available for the right price,’” said Sander Daniels, a co-founder at the company. 

“For pros, their number one concern is, ‘Where do I put money in my pocket next? How do I put food on the table for my family next?’ We said, ‘There is a real human problem here. If we can connect these people to technology and then, look around, there are these global marketplace for products: Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, why can’t there be a global marketplace for services?’ It sounded crazy to say it at the time and it still sounds crazy to say, but that is what the dream was.”

Daniels acknowledges that the company changed the direction of its product, the ways it makes money, and pivoted to address issues as they arose, but the vision remained constant. 

Meanwhile, other startups in the market have shifted their focus. Indeed as Handy has shifted to more of a professional services model rather than working directly with consumers and TaskRabbit has been acquired by Ikea, Thumbtack has doubled down on its independence and upgrading its marketplace with automation tools to make matching service providers with customers that much easier.

Late last year the company launched an automated tool serving up job requests to its customers — the service providers that pay the company a fee for leads generated by people searching for services on the company’s app or website.

Thumbtack processes about $1 billion a year in business for its service providers in roughly 1,000 professional categories.

Now, the matching feature is getting an upgrade on the consumer side. Earlier this month the company unveiled Instant Results — a new look for its website and mobile app — that uses all of the data from its 200,000 services professionals to match with the 30 professionals that best correspond to a request for services. It’s among the highest number of professionals listed on any site, according to Zappacosta. The next largest competitor, Yelp, has around 115,000 listings a year. Thumbtack’s professionals are active in a 90 day period.

Filtering by price, location, tools and schedule, anyone in the U.S. can find a service professional for their needs. It’s the culmination of work processing nine years and 25 million requests for services from all of its different categories of jobs.

It’s a long way from the first version of Thumbtack, which had a “buy” tab and a “sell” tab; with the “buy” side to hire local services and the “sell” to offer them.

“From the very early days… the design was to iterate beyond the traditional model of business listing directors. In that, for the consumer to tell us what they were looking for and we would, then, find the right people to connect them to,” said Daniels. “That functionality, the request for quote functionality, was built in from v.1 of the product. If you tried to use it then, it wouldn’t work. There were no businesses on the platform to connect you with. I’m sure there were a million bugs, the UI and UX were a disaster, of course. That was the original version, what I remember of it at least.”

It may have been a disaster, but it was compelling enough to get the company its $1.2 million angel round — enough to barely develop the product. That million dollar investment had to last the company through the nuclear winter of America’s recession years, when venture capital — along with every other investment class — pulled back.

“We were pounding the pavement trying to find somebody to give us money for a Series A round,” Daniels said. “That was a very hard period of the company’s life when we almost went out of business, because nobody would give us money.”

That was a pre-revenue period for the company, which experimented with four revenue streams before settling on the one that worked the best. In the beginning the service was free, and it slowly transitioned to a commission model. Then, eventually, the company moved to a subscription model where service providers would pay the company a certain amount for leads generated off of Thumbtack.

“We weren’t able to close the loop,” Daniels said. “To make commissions work, you have to know who does the job, when, for how much. There are a few possible ways to collect all that information, but the best one, I think, is probably by hosting payments through your platform. We actually built payments into the platform in 2011 or 2012. We had significant transaction volume going through it, but we then decided to rip it out 18 months later, 24 months later, because, I think we had kind of abandoned the hope of making commissions work at that time.”

While Thumbtack was struggling to make its bones, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest were raking in cash. The founders thought that they could also access markets in the same way, but investors weren’t interested in a consumer facing business that required transactions — not advertising — to work. User generated content and social media were the rage, but aside from Uber and Lyft the jury was still out on the marketplace model.

“For our company that was not a Facebook or a Twitter or Pinterest, at that time, at least, that we needed revenue to show that we’re going to be able to monetize this,” Daniels said. “We had figured out a way to sign up pros at enormous scale and consumers were coming online, too. That was showing real promise. We said, ‘Man, we’re a hot ticket, we’re going to be able to raise real money.’ Then, for many reasons, our inexperience, our lack of revenue model, probably a bunch of stuff, people were reluctant to give us money.”

The company didn’t focus on revenue models until the fall of 2011, according to Daniels. Then after receiving rejection after rejection the company’s founders began to worry. “We’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ November of 2009 we start running these tests, to start making money, because we might not be able to raise money here. We need to figure out how to raise cash to pay the bills, soon,” Daniels recalled. 

The experience of almost running into the wall put the fear of god into the company. They managed to scrape out an investment from Javelin, but the founders were convinced that they needed to find the right revenue number to make the business work with or without a capital infusion. After a bunch of deliberations, they finally settled on $350,000 as the magic number to remain a going concern.

“That was the metric that we were shooting towards,” said Daniels. “It was during that period that we iterated aggressively through these revenue models, and, ultimately, landed on a paper quote. At the end of that period then Sequoia invested, and suddenly, pros supply and consumer demand and revenue model all came together and like, ‘Oh shit.’”

Finding the right business model was one thing that saved the company from withering on the vine, but another choice was the one that seemed the least logical — the idea that the company should focus on more than just home repairs and services.

The company’s home category had lots of competition with companies who had mastered the art of listing for services on Google and getting results. According to Daniels, the company couldn’t compete at all in the home categories initially.

“It turned out, randomly … we had no idea about this … there was not a similarly well developed or mature events industry,” Daniels said. “We outperformed in events. It was this strategic decision, too, that, on all these 1,000 categories, but it was random, that over the last five years we are the, if not the, certainly one of the leading events service providers in the country. It just happened to be that we … I don’t want to say stumbled into it … but we found these pockets that were less competitive and we could compete in and build a business on.”

The focus on geographical and services breadth — rather than looking at building a business in a single category or in a single geography meant that Zappacosta and company took longer to get their legs under them, but that they had a much wider stance and a much bigger base to tap as they began to grow.

“Because of naivete and this dreamy ambition that we’re going to do it all. It was really nothing more strategic or complicated than that,” said Daniels. “When we chose to go broad, we were wandering the wilderness. We had never done anything like this before.”

From the company’s perspective, there were two things that the outside world (and potential investors) didn’t grasp about its approach. The first was that a perfect product may have been more competitive in a single category, but a good enough product was better than the terrible user experiences that were then on the market. “You can build a big company on this good enough product, which you can then refine over the course of time to be greater and greater,” said Daniels.

The second misunderstanding is that the breadth of the company let it scale the product that being in one category would have never allowed Thumbtack to do. Cross selling and upselling from carpet cleaners to moving services to house cleaners to bounce house rentals for parties — allowed for more repeat use.

More repeat use meant more jobs for services employees at a time when unemployment was still running historically high. Even in 2011, unemployment remained stubbornly high. It wasn’t until 2013 that the jobless numbers began their steady decline.

There’s a question about whether these gig economy jobs can keep up with the changing times. Now, as unemployment has returned to its pre-recession levels, will people want to continue working in roles that don’t offer health insurance or retirement benefits? The answer seems to be “yes” as the Thumbtack platform continues to grow and Uber and Lyft show no signs of slowing down.

“At the time, and it still remains one of my biggest passions, I was interested in how software could create new meaningful ways of working,” said Banister of the Thumbtack deal. “That’s the criteria I was looking for, which is, does this shift how people find work? Because I do believe that we can create jobs and we can create new types of jobs that never existed before with the platforms that we have today.”

Zilingo raises $18M for its fashion e-commerce service in Southeast Asia

 Southeast Asia-based fashion marketplace Zilingo has closed an $18 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital India and Burda Principal Investments. Zilingo was founded less than two years ago by ex Sequoia analyst Ankiti Bose (CEO) and former Yahoo engineer Dhruv Kapoor (CTO). The basic vision is to help Southeast Asia’s thriving independent fashion sellers and… Read More

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ICO funding hit a record $800 million in Q2 2017

 If a ban initiated by China’s central bank this week marks an end to the first era of ICOs — the early gold rush before the regulators arrive — then Q2 2017 may turn out to be a peak quarter in the history of the industry. The total amount raised by startups via ICOs, which are known as token sales and involve the sale of newly minted crypto coins based on… Read More

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Update: The Future of HOME

Here’s a brief audio update on the immediate future of HOME: Stories From L.A. The TL;DR version is, I’m slowing down the production schedule to make the project more sustainable over the long term. Give a listen for a little more background on the hows and whys of it all. The show returns this spring for Season 5, and in the meantime, the archive is a great way to load up your podcatcher. (Oh, also: I’m looking for a social media/publicity ninja; if that’s you, drop me a line.)

HOME is a proud member of the Boing Boing Podcast Network

Subscribe: iTunes | Android | Email | Google Play | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS

If you’re already a subscriber, many thanks. And if you have a minute to leave the show a short review at the iTunes Store it’d be much appreciated. 

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Snapchat’s next Lenses could identify and add to landscapes as well as faces

snapchat-world-lens Snap, Inc. is working on an updated version of its in-app Snapchat lenses that would be able to recognize landscapes as well as faces, according to The Information, and intelligently overlay augmented reality animations and objects overtop of scenes captured through your camera. This is different from its existing smart Lenses, which can add features like snowfall to scenes, because it can… Read More

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California gets ready to punch back

Threats from the Trump administration to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities have caused California to start looking for methods to not pay taxes to the Federal government.

California’s long-time status as a “donor state,” one that pays more tax than it receives in federal funding, has been a contentious issue. Teapublicans have also long claimed the government has no right to tax people, anyways, and it’d be super fun to see what they have to say about liberals using their rhetoric against them.

Regardless, it should scare the ill-fitting pants off our illegitimately elected President that the most populous state, contributing the most money to his coffers, has state officials looking for ways to not pay taxes, and a public movement to secede. He may be in a place to push his bigoted and hateful policies forward, but California doesn’t want to pay for them.

CBS Local:

Officials are looking for money that flows through Sacramento to the federal government that could be used to offset the potential loss of billions of dollars’ worth of federal funds if President Trump makes good on his threat to punish cities and states that don’t cooperate with federal agents’ requests to turn over undocumented immigrants, a senior government source in Sacramento said.

The federal funds pay for a variety of state and local programs from law enforcement to homeless shelters.

“California could very well become an organized non-payer,” said Willie Brown, Jr, a former speaker of the state Assembly in an interview recorded Friday for KPIX 5’s Sunday morning news. “They could recommend non-compliance with the federal tax code.”

California is among a handful of so-called “donor states,” which pay more in taxes to the federal Treasury than they receive in government funding.

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Extraordinary storms blitz West with 100-plus inches of snow, flooding rains

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A firehose of moisture and a series of potent storms have sent the western United States see-sawing from drought to flood in the past few weeks, with widespread extreme weather continuing on Wednesday. 

Weather warnings and advisories, from blizzard warnings to flood watches and warnings were in effect for nine states across the West as of Wednesday morning. 

Heavy snow with accumulations greater than 100 inches at the highest peaks of the the Sierra Nevada Mountains are possible through Thursday, with winds of greater than 65 miles per hour likely. The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a blizzard warning for the Lake Tahoe area, its first for the region in nine years.  Read more…

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