Tech Crunch

The post-exponential era of AI and Moore’s Law

My MacBook Pro is three years old, and for the first time in my life, a three-year-old primary computer doesn’t feel like a crisis which must be resolved immediately. True, this is partly because I’m waiting for Apple to fix their keyboard debacle, and partly because I still cannot stomach the Touch Bar. But it is also because three years of performance growth ain’t what it used to be.

It is no exaggeration to say that Moore’s Law, the mindbogglingly relentless exponential growth in our world’s computing power, has been the most significant force in the world for the last fifty years. So its slow deceleration and/or demise are a big deal, and not just because the repercussions are now making their way into every home and every pocket.

We’ve all lived in hope that some other field would go exponential, giving us another, similar, era, of course. AI/machine learning was the great hope, especially the distant dream of a machine-learning feedback loop, AI improving AI at an exponential pace for decades. That now seems awfully unlikely.

In truth it always did. A couple of years ago I was talking to the CEO of an AI company who argued that AI progress was basically an S-curve, and we had already reached its top for sound processing, were nearing it for image and video, but were only halfway up the curve for text. No prize for guessing which one his company specialized in — but it seems to have been entirely correct.

Earlier this week OpenAI released an update to their analysis from last year regarding how the computing power used by AI1 is increasing. The outcome? It “has been increasing exponentially with a 3.4-month doubling time (by comparison, Moore’s Law had a 2-year doubling period). Since 2012, this metric has grown by more than 300,000x (a 2-year doubling period would yield only a 7x increase).”

That’s … a lot of computing power to improve the state of the AI art, and it’s clear that this growth in compute cannot continue. Not “will not”; can not. Sadly, the exponential growth in the need for computing power to train AI has happened almost exactly contemporaneously with the diminishment of the exponential growth of Moore’s Law. Throwing more money at the problem won’t help — again, we’re talking about exponential rates of growth here, linear expense adjustments won’t move the needle.

The takeaway is that, even if we assume great efficiency breakthroughs and performance improvements to reduce the rate of doubling, AI progress seems to be increasingly compute-limited at a time when our collective growth in computing power is beginning to falter. Perhaps there’ll be some sort of breakthrough, but in the absence of one, it sounds a whole lot like we’re looking at AI/machine-learning progress leveling off, not long from now, and for the foreseeable future.


1It measures “the largest AI training runs,” technically, but this seems trend-instructive.

Can America ever rebuild its neighborhoods and communities?

We talk a lot about startup ecosystems around these parts, and for good reason. Strong ecosystems have great reservoirs of talent congregated close together, a culture built around helping one another on ambitious projects, and sufficient risk capital to ensure that interesting projects have the resources to get underway.

Strip off the ecosystem layer though, and you are left with the actual, physical manifestation of a city or region — its housing, its transportation and mobility options, and its infrastructure. And if Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity is any indication, a whole heck of a swath of America has little hope of ever tapping into the modern knowledge economy or creating the kind of sustainable growth that builds “Strong Towns.”

Across the country, Marohn sees evidence of what he dubs a “Municipal Ponzi scheme.” Cities — armed with economic development dollars and consultants galore — focus their energies and budgets on new housing subdivisions as well as far-flung, auto-dependent office parks and strip malls, all the while ignoring the long-term debt, maintenance costs, and municipal burdens they are transferring to future generations of residents. “The growth creates an illusion of wealth, a broad, cultural misperception that the growing community is become [sic] stronger and more prosperous. Instead, with each new development, they become increasingly more insolvent,” the author writes.

He provides a multitude of examples, but few are as striking as that of Lafayette, Louisiana:

As one example, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, had 5 feet of pipe per person in 1949. By 2015, that had grown to 50 feet, an increase of 1,000%. They had 2.4 fire hydrants per 1,000 people in 1949, but by 2015, they had 51.3. This is a 2,140% increase. Over the same period, median household income in Lafayette grew just 160% from an inflation-adjusted $27,700 to $45,000. And if national trends hold locally in Lafayette, which they almost certainly do, household savings decreased while personal debt skyrocketed. Lafayette grew its liabilities thousands of times over in service of a theory of national growth, yet its families are poorer.

The author contextualizes just how weird the modern American suburb and community is in the grand sweep of human history, where co-location, walkability, and human-scale density weren’t just norms, but necessities. The lack of thoughtful, dynamic planning that allows cities to adapt and evolve over time eventually comes to tear at the vitality of the town itself. “Only the richest country in the world could build so much and make such poor use of it.”

Marohn has spent decades in urban planning and also runs Strong Towns, a non-profit advocacy organization that tries to create more sustainable cities by attempting to guide the urban planning conversation toward better models of adaptable growth. He brings an authority to the topic that is heartening, and the book is absolutely on the right vector on how to start to think about urban planning going forward.

In addition to his discussions around municipal finance, he makes the critical connections between urban planning and some of the most pressing challenges facing America today. He notes how the disintegration of tight-knit communities has exacerbated issues like drug abuse and mental health, and how the focus on big-box retail development has undermined smaller-scale entrepreneurship.

Even more heartening in some ways is that the solutions are seemingly so easy. For example, one is to simply account for the true, long-term costs of infrastructure and economic development dollars, properly accounting for “value per acre.”

Yet, the flaws in the book are manifold, and I couldn’t help but shake my head on numerous occasions at the extent to which movements to improve urban planning always seem to shudder on the weight of reality.

Nowhere are those flaws more glaring than over the actual preferences of the residents of these cities themselves. As anyone who lives in San Francisco or Palo Alto understands, there is a serious contingent of NIMBYs who consistently vote against housing and density regardless of its effects on inequality or urban quality. Kim-Mai Cutler wrote one of the definitive pieces on this topic five years ago right here at TechCrunch, and yet, all these years later, the same dynamics still animates local politics in California and across the world.

The prescriptions offered in Strong Towns are not only correct, they are almost incontestable. “Instead of prioritizing maintenance based on condition or age, cities must prioritize based on financial productivity,” Marohn writes. Public dollars should be spent on the highest-impact maintenance projects. Who is really against that?

But, people are, as evidenced by city council meetings all across the United States and the simple ground truth that cities don’t spend their dollars wisely. Whether your issue is housing, or climate change, or economic development, or inequality, the reality is that residents vote, and their voices are heard. That leads to Marohn writing:

As a voter, as a property owner within a municipal corporation, as a person living cooperatively with my neighbors in a community, I can respect that some people prefer development styles that are financially ruinous to my city. My local government should not feel any obligation to provide those options, particularly at the price points people expect.

Yet, what should one do if 70-80% of a city’s voters literally want to jump off the proverbial cliff?

Ultimately, should cities be responsive to their own voters? If San Francisco refuses to build more transit-oriented development and in the process exacerbates the climate change literally setting the Bay Area on fire, shouldn’t the damn voters burn straight to the ground?

Peak California liberalism is painting a mural honoring a 16 year-old climate activist within a year of her rise to prominence while spending the last 20 years refusing to build the dense multifamily housing we need to actually reduce our impact on the environment. https://t.co/9w56sbtNRy

— Strang Gang (@ryxcommar) November 9, 2019

Marohn, who talks over several pages of his political evolution from Republican to complex libertarian communalist, never faithfully addresses this core problem with the Strong Towns thesis, or indeed, the entire activism around urban politics today. “American culture spends a lot of time debating what should be done, but hardly any time discussing who should make the decision,” he writes. But we do — we did — discuss who makes the decisions, and our political systems actively respond to those decision-makers: local voters.

American towns are in a perilous state – and that is precisely what people demanded and received. Marohn criticizes the planning profession for its lack of municipal sustainability, but seemingly is willing to substitute one group of far-flung experts with another to override the locals, presumably just with a different (better?) set of values.

In the final analysis, Strong Towns the book gets the fundamentals right. But will it change minds? I’m doubtful. It certainly doesn’t offer a clear guidebook on how local leaders can start to educate their neighbors and build the kinds of voter blocs required to get local, democratic change on these issues. Ultimately, the book feels like a smaller footnote to the worthy work of Strong Towns the organization, which ultimately will drive the activity needed to build change on these issues.

Sir Martin Sorrell’s Silicon Valley charm offensive

Sir Martin Sorrell is the kind of founder who people in Silicon Valley most prize. He has enjoyed huge success, having built the world’s biggest advertising conglomerate over 32 years, WPP. He’s also out for revenge. Soon after WPP’s board began investing an “allegation of misconduct” in the spring of last year — it later asked him to pay back $200,000 in personal expenses — Sorrell left the company in a huff.

Six weeks later, he’d formed a new company, S4 Capital, using a playbook that he knows works. He and a partner launched London-based WPP by buying a controlling stake in publicly traded company that made wire baskets and teapots, then using it to launch a global shopping spree. Similarly, S4 emerged from a reverse-merger with Derriston Capital, a small shell company that went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2016 and rebranded as S4. Then it started bulking up.

Already S4 — which Sorrell funded himself with £40 million and that has raised tens of millions more from other institutions for acquisitions — has successfully pursued nine companies, though Sorrell stresses these are mergers. “All half cash and half stock.” No long lock-ups, either, says Sorrell, who was bouncing around the U.S. this week before heading to the Web Summit event in Lisbon.

“If you want to sell your company, if you want to make a quick kill and get out, we’re not interested. If you want to sign up to our vision” and help turn S4 is a powerhouse in its own right, that’s a different story, he suggests.

Silicon Valley is seemingly a big piece of the picture. Last month, S4 Capital finalized a $150 million deal to merge with the largest digital agency in the region, nine-year-old Firewood, with S4 paying $112 million up front in shares and cash and the balance coming if Firewood hits its targets for the year.

It also late last year merged with the San Francisco-based digital media and programmatic consultancy MightyHive in a deal valued at $150 million.

If it sticks it to WPP on occasion, that’s probably okay, too. S4 Capital’s first acquisition, for example, of the Dutch digital production agency MediaMonks, came at the expense of WPP, which had also been trying to buy the company. The WSJ reported at the time that S4 agreed to pay roughly $350 million for the agency.

The broad idea, Sorrell says, is to focus S4 entirely on digital advertising and on media and marketing services specifically, where in 2019 for the first time, the world’s advertisers will spend  more than half of their ad budgets. “The digital media industry is up 6 percent [for the year] and it’s down for traditional media, so we’re going where the growth is and pushing on an open door, unencumbered by legacy or analog businesses.”

Asked whether he doesn’t also have an axe to grind when it comes to WWP — which is steeped in both the digital and traditional ad worlds — Sorrell doesn’t hesitate. “I want to see this approach succeed. And if that’s an axe, that’s correct.”

Much of that approach centers on partnering with, rather than trying to compete, with the giants of ad tech, including Facebook and Google, precarious as that arrangement can be.

Other current tech clients include Apple, Salesforce, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Uber, and ServiceNow, which, according to Sorrell, treat S4’s creative and strategic marketing professionals as extensions of their internal marketing teams.

Firewood, for example, will embed teams within companies like Google to “understand the client as well as possible,” Sorrell says. As he explains it, “We don’t compete with [these companies]. We service them; we work with them. If we’re being crude about it, we’re resellers for each one of them. They don’t want to get into the service business.”

They also want to maintain control over what they know of our tastes and interests and other data on which they have an increasing lock, but asked whether he thinks some of these tech clients should be broken up, he insists that he does not, “as long as they’re transparent and they really exercise the power they have responsibly.”

Asked how S4 overcomes the growing number of people who don’t think companies are acting responsibly with their private information and might increasingly opt out of sharing it, Sorrell shrugs off the idea that people are deeply concerned about targeted advertising. “My view is that as long as the consumer knows what they’re letting themselves in for, it’s fine. If I know how my data will be used, in simple language, [I’m not going to opt out.] I do think we’ll have differentiated models, [such as] ‘I want to control my data so [you’re going to pay me for it in some fractional way].’ The problem is caused by people not knowing what’s being done with their data.”

And even that problem is dwarfed by what Sorrell sees as the real reason for so much hand-wringing, which is the size of these companies. “When Apple was the first to become a trillion-dollar company, [former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein] was asked which would be the first $2 trillion company, and he said there won’t be one because no nation-state would allow a company to get to $2 trillion. You see this in China, too,” he says. “I’ve heard concerns expressed about the size of Alibaba. It’s not just a Western phenomenon.”

And what of political ads leading up to the U.S. presidential election, we ask Sorrell. Twitter has taken a stand; Google is weighing changes to its own ad policy. Should these platforms be running them, no matter their content?

That one, he says is “very difficult. My view has always been that these are media companies that are responsible for the content flowing through their pipes. I think they are acknowledging it; Facebook has thousands of people monitoring content.

“But should we take political advertising or not? Well, in the U.K. You have to be truthful. If the ads aren’t truthful, we’ve got trouble. I think Zuckerberg made the argument that his people know what’s a fact or not, but arbitrating what’s the truth or not is quite difficult,” he concedes.

Before long, our time is up, but before he goes, we discuss with Sorrell traditional ad giants, like the one he himself built across three decades before leaving it abruptly last year. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given his new endeavor, but he says those companies, with their tangle of properties, most of which are run like independent fiefdoms, should most definitely be dismantled. “I don’t think they have a chance of making it with the legacy assets they have.”

Sorrell recalls one “snotty comment” made by one of the established players, regarding his new venture: “Someone called us a spec in the mirror.” Continues Sorrell, “When you’re in a car crash, that spec in the mirror catches up with you very quickly.”

Sir Martin Sorrell’s Silicon Valley charm offensive

Sir Martin Sorrell is the kind of founder who people in Silicon Valley most prize. He has enjoyed huge success, having built the world’s biggest advertising conglomerate over 32 years, WPP. He’s also out for revenge. Soon after WPP’s board began investing an “allegation of misconduct” in the spring of last year — it later asked him to pay back $200,000 in personal expenses — Sorrell left the company in a huff.

Six weeks later, he’d formed a new company, S4 Capital, using a playbook that he knows works. He and a partner launched London-based WPP by buying a controlling stake in publicly traded company that made wire baskets and teapots, then using it to launch a global shopping spree. Similarly, S4 emerged from a reverse-merger with Derriston Capital, a small shell company that went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2016 and rebranded as S4. Then it started bulking up.

Already S4 — which Sorrell funded himself with £40 million and that has raised tens of millions more from other institutions for acquisitions — has successfully pursued nine companies, though Sorrell stresses these are mergers. “All half cash and half stock.” No long lock-ups, either, says Sorrell, who was bouncing around the U.S. this week before heading to the Web Summit event in Lisbon.

“If you want to sell your company, if you want to make a quick kill and get out, we’re not interested. If you want to sign up to our vision” and help turn S4 is a powerhouse in its own right, that’s a different story, he suggests.

Silicon Valley is seemingly a big piece of the picture. Last month, S4 Capital finalized a $150 million deal to merge with the largest digital agency in the region, nine-year-old Firewood, with S4 paying $112 million up front in shares and cash and the balance coming if Firewood hits its targets for the year.

It also late last year merged with the San Francisco-based digital media and programmatic consultancy MightyHive in a deal valued at $150 million.

If it sticks it to WPP on occasion, that’s probably okay, too. S4 Capital’s first acquisition, for example, of the Dutch digital production agency MediaMonks, came at the expense of WPP, which had also been trying to buy the company. The WSJ reported at the time that S4 agreed to pay roughly $350 million for the agency.

The broad idea, Sorrell says, is to focus S4 entirely on digital advertising and on media and marketing services specifically, where in 2019 for the first time, the world’s advertisers will spend  more than half of their ad budgets. “The digital media industry is up 6 percent [for the year] and it’s down for traditional media, so we’re going where the growth is and pushing on an open door, unencumbered by legacy or analog businesses.”

Asked whether he doesn’t also have an axe to grind when it comes to WWP — which is steeped in both the digital and traditional ad worlds — Sorrell doesn’t hesitate. “I want to see this approach succeed. And if that’s an axe, that’s correct.”

Much of that approach centers on partnering with, rather than trying to compete, with the giants of ad tech, including Facebook and Google, precarious as that arrangement can be.

Other current tech clients include Apple, Salesforce, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Uber, and ServiceNow, which, according to Sorrell, treat S4’s creative and strategic marketing professionals as extensions of their internal marketing teams.

Firewood, for example, will embed teams within companies like Google to “understand the client as well as possible,” Sorrell says. As he explains it, “We don’t compete with [these companies]. We service them; we work with them. If we’re being crude about it, we’re resellers for each one of them. They don’t want to get into the service business.”

They also want to maintain control over what they know of our tastes and interests and other data on which they have an increasing lock, but asked whether he thinks some of these tech clients should be broken up, he insists that he does not, “as long as they’re transparent and they really exercise the power they have responsibly.”

Asked how S4 overcomes the growing number of people who don’t think companies are acting responsibly with their private information and might increasingly opt out of sharing it, Sorrell shrugs off the idea that people are deeply concerned about targeted advertising. “My view is that as long as the consumer knows what they’re letting themselves in for, it’s fine. If I know how my data will be used, in simple language, [I’m not going to opt out.] I do think we’ll have differentiated models, [such as] ‘I want to control my data so [you’re going to pay me for it in some fractional way].’ The problem is caused by people not knowing what’s being done with their data.”

And even that problem is dwarfed by what Sorrell sees as the real reason for so much hand-wringing, which is the size of these companies. “When Apple was the first to become a trillion-dollar company, [former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein] was asked which would be the first $2 trillion company, and he said there won’t be one because no nation-state would allow a company to get to $2 trillion. You see this in China, too,” he says. “I’ve heard concerns expressed about the size of Alibaba. It’s not just a Western phenomenon.”

And what of political ads leading up to the U.S. presidential election, we ask Sorrell. Twitter has taken a stand; Google is weighing changes to its own ad policy. Should these platforms be running them, no matter their content?

That one, he says is “very difficult. My view has always been that these are media companies that are responsible for the content flowing through their pipes. I think they are acknowledging it; Facebook has thousands of people monitoring content.

“But should we take political advertising or not? Well, in the U.K. You have to be truthful. If the ads aren’t truthful, we’ve got trouble. I think Zuckerberg made the argument that his people know what’s a fact or not, but arbitrating what’s the truth or not is quite difficult,” he concedes.

Before long, our time is up, but before he goes, we discuss with Sorrell traditional ad giants, like the one he himself built across three decades before leaving it abruptly last year. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given his new endeavor, but he says those companies, with their tangle of properties, most of which are run like independent fiefdoms, should most definitely be dismantled. “I don’t think they have a chance of making it with the legacy assets they have.”

Sorrell recalls one “snotty comment” made by one of the established players, regarding his new venture: “Someone called us a spec in the mirror.” Continues Sorrell, “When you’re in a car crash, that spec in the mirror catches up with you very quickly.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Cloudflare beat a patent troll. What now?

In the summer of 2017, we wrote about a battle between Cloudflare, the San Francisco-based internet security and content delivery network, and two attorneys who’d previously litigated intellectual property cases on behalf of numerous tech giants. The attorneys had come together to form Blackbird Technologies, a Boston- and Chicago-based firm that quickly amassed dozens of patents, then began using them to file dozens of patent infringement lawsuits against companies, including Cloudflare.

The suit was typical in every way, except how Cloudflare responded to it. Rather than quietly settle, as have some targets of Blackbird and other so-called patent trolls, Cloudflare decided to fight back in a very public way, blogging extensively, talking with news outlets like ours, and, most crucially, turning to anyone and everyone who could help it locate prior art. The idea wasn’t merely to invalidate the patent that Blackbird was using to sue Cloudflare — but to invalidate all of Blackbird’s patents. Cloudlfare declared war.

To its credit, Cloudflare won, too. At least, the case against Cloudflare itself was eventually dismissed, and in a postmortem published yesterday, the company described in detail its game plan and many more specifics around its efforts to crowdsource prior art that might invalidate Blackbird’s patents.

It revealed, for example, that it had received 275 total unique submissions from 155 individuals on 49 separate patents, and multiple submissions on 26 patents. Roughly 40% of these related to the patent asserted against Cloudflare, but individuals also turned up prior art submissions that could help protect Niantic (which also is trying to bat back Blackbird), as well as Lululemon and New Balance, both of which have been sued previously by Blackbird over a patent Blackbird owns relating to a “sports bra having an integral storage pouch.”

Cloudflare also went after the founders of Blackbird, filing ethics complaints rooted in rules of professional conduct that prohibit lawyers from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Where those complaints might lead is a question mark for now, though it’s worth noting that one of Blackbird’s founders, Chris Freeman, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis, currently works instead at a Chicago company that funds litigation.

Either way, Cloudflare’s victory is a feel-good story in a vast sea of bad news but it also begs the question: what’s next? 

Some might hope Cloudflare will somehow continue its campaign against injustice and they’ll be disappointed if so. Cloudflare has said from the outset that once its legal tangle with Blackbird had ended, it was getting out of the patent-troll-fighting business, a decision that the company’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, reaffirmed to us in conversation late last week about the case. As he put it, Cloudflare’s crusade was never meant to become “life-long advocacy” given the company’s other, more pressing concerns (including going public in September). 

Still, passing the torch won’t be easy. Kramer acknowledges that he has received “a lot of phone calls from other general counsels or IP lawyers and CEOs [who are also the targets of patent lawsuits] who’ve said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do here other than roll over and write a check?’” They’re understandably trying to piggyback off Cloudflare’s learnings. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to the extent that we’ve done it,” says Kramer.

Which brings us to the point of yesterday’s post, which wasn’t simply to crow about its win over Blackbird, no pun intended. It was more to thank the community on which Cloudflare relied so much, Kramer says.And it was to “make clear there are other ways forward here,” says Kramer, who hopes other companies will use part of Cloudflare’s blueprint, as well as establish their own.

Taking a stand isn’t for everybody. As Kramer observes, once a patent case is filed against a company, “the options are all bad options, and a lot of companies take the least bad option,” which is to write a check to settle the thing. It’s why companies like Blackbird gain momentum. “They face very little resistance.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily blame targets for folding easily, either. Even when things go a company’s way, as with Cloudflare, litigation can take years and can cost a company many hundreds of thousands, if not multiple millions, of dollars. “As a litigation matter, we knocked this out of the park on the first pitch,” he says, “but it cost us more than if we’d just written a check.”

But more companies need to take more action if they hope to see patents used as they were originally intended, to protect inventors of new and useful products, services, and processes. And Kramer say that “introducing more resistance,” is one way to get there. Certainly, he suggests, there are tools at their disposal, including “very active, smart, thoughtful people who’ve organized themselves across in-house positions and third parties dedicated specifically to pushing back again these practices.”

Another are sympathetic politicians like Eric Lesser, a state senator in Massachusetts who views patent trolls as a threat to his state’s economy and is doing what he can to banish them and their infringement claims.

Another, of course, are engineers and others who build things and don’t like the rise of firms profiting by means of licensing or litigation rather than by producing their own goods or services. Indeed, not every company has the financial muscle of a Cloudflare, which raised more than $300 million from investors before going public, as well as attracted an anonymous donation of $50,000 to support its efforts against Blackbird. Kramer readily acknowledges as much. But even without those resources, he says, the support of communities outside a company can add up to a lot.

“We came to understand that there a lot of people out there — colleagues and friends and like-minded folks in the commercial sector and really just the man on the street at tech companies — that are really bothered” by the abuse of patents by companies that obtain them to demand royalties and sue for damages.

It isn’t a complete solution to the steady rise in patent cases over the years, but every bit — every willing advocate, every piece of useful information they can provide — helps.  Cloudflare “didn’t fix [this broader issue]. It still exists,” says Kramer. “But we were able to leverage that sentiment. Hopefully, it’s evidence for others that there is support out there.”

Gradeup raises $7M to expand its online exam preparation platform to smaller Indian cities and towns

Gradeup, an edtech startup in India that operates an exam preparation platform for undergraduate and postgraduate level courses, has raised $7 million from Times Internet as it looks to expand its business in the country.

Times Internet, a conglomerate in India, invested $7 million in Series A and $3 million in Seed financing rounds of the four-year-old Noida-based startup, it said. Times Internet is the only external investor in Gradeup, they said.

Gradeup started as a community for students to discuss their upcoming exams, and help one another with solving questions, said Shobhit Bhatnagar, cofounder and CEO of Gradeup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

While those functionalities continue to be available on the platform, Gradeup has expanded to offer online courses from teachers to help students prepare for exams in last one year, he said. These courses, depending on their complexity and duration, cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 ($70) and Rs 35,000 ($500).

“These are live lectures that are designed to replicate the offline experience,” he said. The startup offers dozens of courses and runs multiple sessions in English and Hindi languages. As many as 200 students tune into a class simultaneously, he said.

Students can interact with the teacher through a chatroom. Each class also has a “student success rate” team assigned to it that follows up with each student to check if they had any difficulties in learning any concept and take their feedback. These extra efforts have helped Gradeup see more than 50% of its students finish their courses — an industry best, Bhatnagar said.

Each year in India, more than 30 million students appear for competitive exams. A significant number of these students enroll themselves to tuitions and other offline coaching centers.

“India has over 200 million students that spend over $90 billion on different educational services. These have primarily been served offline, where the challenge is maintaining high quality while expanding access,” said Satyan Gajwani, Vice Chairman of Times Internet.

In recent years, a number of edtech startups have emerged in the country to cater to larger audiences and make access to courses cheaper. Byju’s, backed by Naspers and valued at over $5.5 billion, offers a wide-ranging self-learning courses. Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that raised $42 million in late August, offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses.

Co-founders of Noida-based edtech startup Gradeup

But still, only a fraction of students take online courses today. One of the roadblocks in their growth has been access to mobile data, which until recent years was fairly expensive in the country. But arrival of Reliance Jio has solved that issue, said Bhatnagar. The other is acceptance from students and more importantly, their parents. Watching a course online on a smartphone or desktop is still a new concept for many parents in the country, he said. But this, too, is beginning to change.

“The first wave of online solutions were built around on-demand video content, either free or paid. Today, the next wave is online live courses like Gradeup, with teacher-student interactivity, personalisation, and adaptive learning strategies, deliver high-quality solutions that scale, which is particularly valuable in semi-urban and rural markets,” said Times Internet’s Gajwani.

“These match or better the experience quality of offline education, while being more cost-effective. This trend will keep growing in India, where online live education will grow very quickly for test prep, reskilling, and professional learning,” he added.

Gradeup has amassed over 15 million registered students who have enrolled to live lectures. The startup plans to use the fresh capital to expand its academic team to 100 faculty members (from 50 currently) and 200 subject matters and reach more users in smaller cities and towns in India.

“Students even in smaller cities and towns are paying a hefty amount of fee and are unable to get access to high-quality teachers,” Bhatnagar said. “This is exactly the void we can fill.”

Los Angeles-based BuildOps, subcontracting software for real estate, raises $5.8 million

Software development companies tackling services for niche industries, like commercial real estate subcontracting, continue to find Los Angeles to be fertile ground for development.

The latest company to raise funding from a clutch of investors is BuildOps, which raised $5.8 million in seed financing from some big names in the Los Angeles tech ecosystem.

Led by Fika Ventures, with additional investments from MetaProp VC, Global Founders Capital, CrossCut Ventures, TenOneTen, IGSB, 1984 Ventures, L2 Ventures, GroundUp, NBA all-star Metta World Peace, Oberndorf Enterprises, Wolfson Group and scouts from Sequoia Capital, the new financing will be used to support the company’s continued growth.

BuildOps sells software that integrates scheduling, dispatching, inventory management, contracts, workflow and accounting into a single software package for commercial real estate contractors with staff ranging from a few dozen to several hundred employees.

Software for the service industry is nothing new for Los Angeles entrepreneurs. The unicorn ServiceTitan hails from the greater Los Angeles area and a number of other software as a service businesses are calling the greater Los Angeles area home.

It’s hard to argue with the size of the commercial construction market. Over the past three years, commercial construction spending grew from $626 billion to $807 billion, according to data provided by the company. And while most large vendors — architects, general contractors and property management companies — have some project management software, the fragmented group of subcontractors that provide services to those customers has remained resistant to adopting new technologies, the company said.

The firm was co-founded by former ServiceTitan developer Neeraj Mittal; Microsoft, Nextag, Swurv and Fundly former executive Steve Chew; and Alok Chanani, who previously founded a commercial real estate company and was a former commander of a transportation unit of the Army in Iraq.

“At BuildOps, we are on a mission to bring a true all-in-one solution on the latest technology to the people who keep America’s hospitals, power plants and commercial real estate running. We are privileged to be working closely with some of the country’s top commercial contractors,” said Chanani.

That sentiment is echoed by Liquid 2 Ventures managing partner and former National Football League superstar, Joe Montana .

“Liquid 2 Ventures has an investment thesis in supporting America’s working class and I just love the idea of making their lives far easier and better. You have one solution that does it all and talks seamlessly to every single part of their business from parts to ordering to inventory and more,” said Montana in a statement. “There are very few world-class technology solutions for commercial subcontractors like this and we believe in the founders.”

Altria writes down $4.5 billion from its investment in Juul

Facing increasing scrutiny from international and domestic regulators, the Altria Group has decided to write down its investment into the e-cigarette company JUUL by $4.5 billion.

That’s roughly one-third of the $12.8 billion that the tobacco giant had invested into JUUL a little less than one year ago.

What a difference a year has made.

JUUL, which has become synonymous with the vaping phenomenon that has swept the U.S., was once hailed as being at the forefront of a wave of companies that were making smoking obsolete and nicotine consumption safer for consumers.

The company began running into problems as its popularity increased exponentially (in part by allegedly turning to some of the same tactics big tobacco used to target underage consumers).

As the complaints began to roll in, and as JUUL was held responsible for an explosion in the use of tobacco products among underage Americans, the regulatory scrutiny also began to increase.

First the company was compelled to limit its sale of flavored tobacco products. Now it may be forced to pull all of its flavored products outright.

None of the company’s troubles have been helped by the wave of vaping related illnesses that have swept through the U.S. causing several deaths in users across multiple states.

Indeed, a new lawsuit against the company (filed two days ago) alleges that JUUL knowingly sold contaminated pods despite warnings from at least one employee.

First reported by BuzzFeed, the lawsuit was brought by Siddharth Breja, a former senior vice president of global finance at Juul from May 2018 to March 2019.

Breja alleges he was fired for complaining about the charge — a claim that a spokesperson for JUUL called “baseless”.

“[Breja] was terminated in March 2019 because he failed to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed in his role,”a spokesperson for JUUL wrote in an email. “The allegations concerning safety issues with Juul products are equally meritless, and we already investigated the underlying manufacturing issue and determined the product met all applicable specifications.”

The write down by Altria follows an announcement from JUUL that it intends to lay off around 500 people — or roughly 10% of its workforce.

Deadspin writers quit after being ordered to stick to sports

Writers Laura Wagner, Kelsey McKinney, Tom Ley, Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, Albert Burneko and Chris Thompson all tweeted today that they have resigned from Deadspin, the sports-focused site owned by G/O Media.

A quick refresher: G/O Media was formerly known as Gizmodo Media Group, and before that as Gawker Media. It took on its current name and current leadership earlier this year when Univision sold the unit to private equity firm Great Hill Partners, who appointed former Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller as its new chief executive.

Since then, the relationship between G/O Media leadership and the editorial staff has been rocky, as you would have learned by reading Deadspin itself, particularly an in-depth story by Wagner in August about how employees were unhappy with “a lack of communication regarding company goals, seeming disregard for promoting diversity within the top ranks of the company, and by repeated and egregious interference with editorial procedures.”

Just now I resigned my position at Deadspin today along with many of my colleagues. I have been here only five months but they have been some of the best of my career and I will miss it deeply.

— kelsey mckinney (@mckinneykelsey) October 30, 2019

A few weeks later, Deadspin’s editor in chief Megan Greenwell resigned, saying that G/O Media’s new editorial director Paul Maidment was directing the staff to stick to sports coverage — a decision that she argued wasn’t dictated by traffic, since “posts on The Concourse, Deadspin’s vertical dedicated to politics and culture and other topics that are not sports, outperform posts on the main site by slightly more than two to one.”

Apparently Maidment repeated that edict in a memo earlier this week, which was leaked to The Daily Beast, and in which he said, “Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way.”

The Deadspin homepage was subsequently filled with non-sports content, and editor Barry Petchesky tweeted that he had been “fired from Deadspin for not sticking to sports.”

I quit today too https://t.co/W7meIcW0Cx

— Laura Wagner (@laurawags) October 30, 2019

At the same time, Deadspin also posted a story criticizing auto-playing ads on the site, declaring, “We, the writers, editors, and video producers of Deadspin, are as upset with the current state of our site’s user experience as you are.” The post is no longer live, but the criticism reportedly prompted advertiser Farmers Insurance to pull the campaign.

This all appears to have prompted a mass exodus from Deadspin today. The Gizmodo Media Group union also issued this statement:

Today, a number of our colleagues at Deadspin resigned from their positions. From the outset, CEO Jim Spanfeller has worked to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage because it makes him personally uncomfortable. This is not what journalism looks like and it is not what editorial independence looks like.

“Stick to sports” is and always has been a thinly veiled euphemism for “don’t speak truth to power.” In addition to being bad business, Spanfeller’s actions are morally reprehensible. The GMG Union stands with our current and former Deadspin colleagues and condemns Jim Spanfeller in the strongest possible terms.

We’ve reached out to G/O Media for comment and will update if we hear back.

As Juul announces mass layoffs, a new lawsuit alleges it shipped a million contaminated pods

A lawsuit filed a by former Juul executive alleges that the company knew a batch of contaminated e-liquid had been used in about one million pods shipped to retailers earlier this year, but did not inform customers. The lawsuit, first reported by BuzzFeed, was brought by Siddharth Breja, former senior vice president of global finance at Juul from May 2018 to March 2019, who alleges he was fired after complaining about the contaminated pods.

News of the lawsuit comes the same day as Juul’s announcement it will lay off about 500 people, or 10% to 15% of its workforce, and the departure of four executives, including chief financial officer Tim Danaher. Juul is currently under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, which claims the startup made misleading statements about its product and targeting of teens.

In the lawsuit, Breja claims that during a meeting on March 12, he learned a contaminated batch of mint e-liquid was used to make 250,000 refill kits, or a total of one million pods, that had already been shipped to retailers.

Breja alleges that when he complained about Juul’s refusal to issue a product recall or health and safety notice, Danaher said doing so would cost the company billions of dollars in lost sales, hurting its then-$38 billion valuation. About a week later, Breja says the company fired him, telling him that it was because he had misrepresented himself as former chief financial officer at Uber. In the lawsuit, Breja says the claim was “preposterous,” and that he had accurately represented his former position as a chief financial officer of a division at Uber.

In the lawsuit, Breja also claims that Juul wanted to sell pods that were almost a year old and when he asked the company to include an expiration or best by date, or a date of manufacture on the packaging, he was told by former CEO Kevin Burns that “half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods?”

TechCrunch has contacted Juul and the law firm representing Breja for comment. In a statement to BuzzFeed, Breja’s attorney Harmeet Dhillon said “Mr. Breja became aware of very concerning actions at the company, and he performed his duty to shareholders and to the board by reporting these issues internally. In exchange for doing that, he was inappropriatey terminated. This is very concerning, particularly since some of the issues he raised concerned matters of public safety.”

Burns was replaced in September by K.C. Crosthwaite, a former executive at Juul’s largest shareholder Altria . A replacement for Danaher has not been announced yet.

Stochastic disaster

As I write this, massive fires are erupting all over California, and massive protests are erupting all over the world. Is the former a facet of the climate crisis? Is the latter a symptom of hyperpolarization caused by hyperconnectivity? Yes, I mean no, I mean it’s impossible to say. That’s what it means to live in a stochastic age.

During the past few weeks there has been an extraordinary outburst of popular protests in all corners of the world.

Here’s a map of the locations, and primary causes, of recent unrest around the world. @gzeromedia pic.twitter.com/V7Lelxw9kj

— Xavi Ruiz 🇪🇺 (@xruiztru) October 23, 2019

This is an era of stochastic terrorism: “The use of mass public communication, usually against a particular individual or group, which incites or inspires acts of terrorism which are statistically probable but happen seemingly at random.” It is also an era of climate crisis as a stochastic disaster, causing a whole spectrum of ‘random’ natural disasters to become ever more probable and terrible.

Is ours also an era of stochastic political strife? Does the world’s increased connectivity, aided by social media’s inherent amplification of outrage, have second-, third-, or fourth-order effects which heat rhetoric and protest, triggering secession movements and massive rejection of the status quo? Is our hyperconnectivity the political equivalent of global warming?

If so, it would explain a lot. The baffling and horrifying rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacy around the world. The increasing political polarization of seemingly every polity. The growing dearth of anything like a political middle ground. The huge protests scattered across the globe, against almost every form of government.

But let’s not be too quick to diagnose this. This might be somehow periodic: terrorism and protests were both more common (per capita) in the late 60s and early 70s than they are today. It might just be a symptom of, and backlash against, a global trend of neoliberalism-morphing-towards-antidemocratic-oligarchy, which, sadly, is the recent economic / political history of much of the world.

The hypothesis is that this stochastic strife has something to do with technology and hyperconnectivity, that across the world we’re experiencing the political equivalent of global warming. Intriguing, but far from proven. How might we test or measure it?

The obvious test is to introduce a control group, A/B across a representative slice of the planet — but that seems pretty unlikely, and I’m not aware of any reliable quantitative measures of political strife, and either way it suffers from the inevitable problem that it’s impossible to tease out just one of the myriad factors which accumulate (or not) into political fury and protest.

— At least it’s impossible at any given moment. But we do know that connectivity is likely to just keep increasing, especially across the developing world, and that averaged across nations it is likely to change faster than almost any other factor at play.

So if this hypothesis is correct, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Political outrage, massive protests, and secession movements will continue to grow worldwide, eventually at a pace which makes California wildfires seem leisurely.

Let’s hope that either the hypothesis is proved wrong, or that we find a new way, transcending traditional nation-states, to distribute political power … before all those eruptions turn into conflagrations.

Original Content podcast: If you haven’t watched ‘Succession’ yet, what are you even doing?

You’ve probably already heard that HBO’s “Succession” (which recently completed its second season) is amazing. And as three East Coast tech reporters, we were probably the easiest targets for the show’s many charms.

Still, we felt like we had to talk about it. In fact, our “Succession” review on this episode of the Original Content podcast is perhaps our most epic discussion so far. And we probably would have gone for even longer, if we thought anyone would still be listening.

The series revolves around the Roy family, whose patriarch Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox) founded and still leads the Waystar Royco media empire. Throughout the course of the two seasons, his four children — heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), political fixer Shiv (Sarah Snook), snarky smart aleck Roman (Kieran Culkin) and libertarian weirdo Connor (Alan Ruck) — all take turns vying for their father’s attention and scheming against him.

All three of us loved “Succession,” but even without a long argument about the show’s merits, there was still plenty for us to debate: How a story with such morally bankrupt characters can still be so compelling, to what extend those characters are motivated by love versus hate versus greed (and whether they can even tell the difference) and who, in the end, deserves to sit on the corporate throne.

We also discuss next week’s launch of Disney+ and Apple TV+, and which shows we’re most excited about finally watching.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:41 Apple/Disney discussion
10:16 “Succession” spoiler-free review
25:50 “Succession” spoiler discussion

Don Valentine, who founded Sequoia Capital, has died at age 87

Sequoia Capital founder Don Valentine passed way at his home in Woodside, Ca., today at age 87 of natural causes.

Sequoia posted a tribute to Valentine shortly afterward, calling him “one of a generation of leaders who forged Silicon Valley.”

A native of New York, Valentine majored in chemistry at Fordham University before joining Raytheon in South California, then moving north to the Bay Area to work at Fairchild Semiconductor, where over the years, Valentine began investing his own small checks into technology companies that he was meeting. According to Sequoia Capital, he soon attracted the attention of an early mutual fund group, Capital Group, which staked Valentine, allowing him to form a $3 million venture fund in 1974. Among his first bets from that pool of capital: Atari and Apple. He later led the firm into numerous other high-flyers, including Cisco Systems.

Valentine continue to lead Sequoia until handing over the reins well before retirement age to Doug Leone and Michael Moritz, though he continued attending partner meetings for another 10 years. The partners have said they were happy for his continued advice and guidance — not that they always agreed with him.

In 2017, in keeping with the firm’s focus on succession and ensuring smooth transitions, partner Roelof Botha was made U.S. head of the firm working under Leone, who oversees the firm’s global operations with Neil Shen, the founder and managing partner of Sequoia Capital China. (Moritz stepped away for health reasons in 2012, though he has continued to remain actively involved in the firm.)

Leone issued a statement this afternoon about Valentine’s passing, writing: “We are deeply saddened to share that Don Valentine passed away on October 25, 2019. Don’s life is woven into the fabric of Silicon Valley. He shaped Sequoia and left his imprint not just on those of us who had the privilege to work with him or the many philanthropic institutions that invested with Sequoia, but also on the founders and leaders of some of the most significant technology companies of the later part of the twentieth century. Our thoughts are with Don’s wife, Rachel, with his family, and with all those inspired by his pioneering vision and indelible impact.”

Valentine chose the name Sequoia because it “conveyed the longevity and strength of the tallest of redwoods,” according to the firm’s tribute today to Valentine. The partners note, too, the “humility of someone who refrained from putting his own name on our business.”

Valentine is survived by his wife; three children; and seven grandchildren, according to Sequoia.

Valentine joined TechCrunch at a Disrupt event back in 2013. He appeared along with another pioneer of the venture industry, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers cofounder Tom Perkins . Perkins passed away in June 2016 at age 84.

FT launches a new consulting arm focused on helping businesses use consumer data

As more and more news businesses turn to paywalls and subscriptions, The Financial Times looks like an early model and success story — a few months ago the organization announced that it’s passed 1 million paying readers, with digital subscribers accounting for more than three-fourths of its circulation.

Now The FT is looking to share some of what it’s learned (and further diversify its business) by launching a new consulting unit called FT Strategies.

Chief Data Officer Tom Betts told me that The FT built a lot of the technology behind its subscription efforts. At first, the team assumed that it might be able to build a business selling that technology to other publishers. After all, Vox Media and The Washington Post are both trying to do something similar with their content management systems.

So it was surprising to hear Betts say that FT Strategy is actually “a pure consulting business.”

Asked whether The FT might eventually start selling a tech product as well, he replied, “Never say never about the technology dimension, but I think as we did our market research and started talking to customers and looking more at the technological landscape out there, we realized that over the years, many of the elements of the technology we have built have become commoditized.”

That doesn’t mean there’s a technology stack that publishers can buy off-the-shelf that can meet all their needs (there’s at least one startup called The News Project trying to piece that stack together).

But Betts argued, “Even if you go and buy best-of-breed technology, that doesn’t mean you can assembly it in the right way to make it useful and meaningful to scale and grow direct-to-consumer revenues. And most importantly it doesn’t mean that you know how to operate it with teams and how to actually use it to successfully scale and grow your business.”

That’s precisely what FT Strategies is trying to provide. In fact, Betts said the company has already been quietly testing out the idea in beta and built up a customer list that includes Bonnier, The Business of Fashion, Penguin Random House and the V&A — so not just news companies, but also a book publisher and an art and design museum.

“I believe that the capabilities that we’e built, clearly they are salient to other news publishers, but I believe that they span far beyond that,” Betts explained.

He went on to argue that FT Strategies could potentially work with any company that’s “either facing disruption as the news media industry has” or that’s in a sector that’s part of the broader direct-to-consumer trend — basically, any company that needs help figuring out “how do we market to individuals, how do we build relationships to individuals, how do we leverage those relationships both so that the consumers have the most positive and engaging experience with our products and to maximize revenue.”

As for whether any of these business might be leery about giving another company — and, in some cases, a competitor — access to their customer data, Betts said that philosophically, the FT believes that “a healthy paid content ecosystem is good for the FT and it’s good for all the publishers that participate in it.”

More concretely, he said his team is “very clear internally about having the Chinese walls and professional standards for FT Strategy that ensures the right levels of confidentiality of clients’ data [so] their confidential information doesn’t leak back into the core operation.”

Gojek founder and CEO Nadiem Makarim resigns to join Indonesian cabinet; Soelistyo and Aluwi to be new co-CEOs

Nadiem Makarim, founder and CEO of Gojek, said on Monday he has stepped down from his role at the ride-hailing startup to join Indonesia president Joko Widodo’s cabinet.

The announcement, which has taken many by surprise, comes a day after Widodo was sworn in for a second term. Widodo has previously said that he wants young business executives to join his cabinet.

In a statement, a Gojek spokesperson told TechCrunch that Andre Soelistyo, Gojek Group President and Kevin Aluwi, Gojek co-founder, are taking over as co-CEOs of the startup.

“We are very proud that our founder will play such a significant role in moving Indonesia onto the global stage. It is unprecedented for a passionate local founder’s vision to be recognized as a model that can be up-scaled to help the development of an entire country,” the spokesperson said.

“We have planned for this possibility and there will be no disruption to our business. We will make an announcement on what this news means for Gojek within the next few days. We respect the process set out by the President and will not make a further comment until there is an official announcement from the Palace,” the spokesperson added.

Makarim (pictured above) said he was honored that the president had asked him to join his cabinet as a minister. He did not reveal which position he would hold, but an announcement from Widodo is expected later this week. “I am very happy to be here today as it shows we are ready for innovation and to move forward,” he told reporters.

Makarim founded Gojek in 2010 as a two-wheeler hailing service. The startup has since expanded to include a range of services including mobile payments, food delivery, online shopping and most recently on-demand video streaming.

The startup has amassed more than 2 million driver partners and 400,000 merchants on its platform. Gojek was valued at almost $10 billion in its most recent financing round. The company, which operates in Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand, clocked gross transaction worth $9 billion last year.

Makarim comes from a prominent Indonesian family: His parents are anti-corruption activist, while his grandfather is an independence hero.

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. 

Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances, as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company

In a rare instance of bipartisanship overcoming the rancorous discord that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. Congress, senators and sepresentatives issued a scathing rebuke to Apple for its decision to take down an app at the request of the Chinese government.

Signed by Senators Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski, the letter was written to “express… strong concern about Apple’s censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government.”

Tim Cook gets a letter from @RonWyden @SenTomCotton @marcorubio @AOC @tedcruz @RepGallagher & @Malinowski re: China censorship. pic.twitter.com/dJlEAlheMX

— Jessica Smith (@JessicaASmith8) October 18, 2019

In 2019, it seems the only things that can unite America’s clashing political factions are the decisions made by companies in one of its most powerful industries.

At the heart of the dispute is Apple’s decision to take down an app called HKMaps that was being used by citizens of the island territory to track police activity.

For several months protestors have been clashing with police in the tiny territory over what they see as the undue influence being exerted by China’s government in Beijing over the governance of Hong Kong. Citizens of the former British protectorate have enjoyed special privileges and rights not afforded to mainland Chinese citizens since the United Kingdom returned sovereignty over the region to China on July 1, 1997.

“Apple’s decision last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a defender of human rights (including privacy and free speech)… in the United States. Abroad, the company’s record is not quite as spotless, especially when it comes to pressure from China, which is one of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S.

Back in 2017, Apple capitulated to a request from the Chinese government that it remove all virtual private networking apps from the App Store. Those applications allowed Chinese users to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China, which limits access to information to only that which is approved by the Chinese government and its censors.

Over 1,100 applications have been taken down by Apple at the request of the Chinese government, according to the organization GreatFire (whose data was cited in the Congressional letter). They include VPNs, and applications made for oppressed communities inside China’s borders (like Uighurs and Tibetans).

Apple isn’t the only company that’s come under fire from the Chinese government as part of their overall response to the unrest in Hong Kong. The National Basketball Association and the gaming company Blizzard have had their own run-ins resulting in self-censorship as a result of various public positions from employees or individuals affiliated with the sports franchises or gaming communities these companies represent.

However, Apple is the largest of these companies, and therefore the biggest target. The company’s stance indicates a willingness to accede to pressure in markets that it considers strategically important no matter how it positions itself at home.

The question is what will happen should regulators in the U.S. stop writing letters and start making legislative demands of their own.

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘technical elite‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

new 04

Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

TD-app

Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

image1 3

Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

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BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

Catmap

Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

A message to the world from Pep Guardiola 👇👇pic.twitter.com/WdUKEyLyjO

— Jordi Pu1gnerO (@jordiPuignero) October 14, 2019

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

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Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been quick to seize on and amplify divisive visuals.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose incisive Twitter thread fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

Divendres, dia de vaga general, una petita elit política i tecnològica ja haurà adquirit la capacitat operativa per paralitzar tot el país llançant convocatòries descentralitzades i en temps real des de la més extrema opacitat.

Han aconseguit crear una botnet humana.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

Qualsevol empresa ho pot fer amb apps q passen el filtre Google Play.
I d moment, sense haver denegat cap permís, de forma predeterminada només estan activats la ubicació (amb un motiu q ja has explicat) i la càmera (per escanejar el QR, amb la qual cosa ja podría descativar-lo). pic.twitter.com/TMgQcN402q

— Albert (@Albertet1981) October 16, 2019

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Les similituds amb un capítol de Black Mirror són, evidentment, esfereïdores: Una entitat de la que no sabem res (excepte el seu alt nivell de sofisticació tecnològica) és a punt de guanyar el control efectiu de tot un territori, operant des de la més absoluta foscor.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘technical elite‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

new 04

Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

TD-app

Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

image1 3

Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

GettyImages 1181713368

BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

Catmap

Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

A message to the world from Pep Guardiola 👇👇pic.twitter.com/WdUKEyLyjO

— Jordi Pu1gnerO (@jordiPuignero) October 14, 2019

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

GettyImages 1176009080

Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been quick to seize on and amplify divisive visuals.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose incisive Twitter thread fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

Divendres, dia de vaga general, una petita elit política i tecnològica ja haurà adquirit la capacitat operativa per paralitzar tot el país llançant convocatòries descentralitzades i en temps real des de la més extrema opacitat.

Han aconseguit crear una botnet humana.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

Qualsevol empresa ho pot fer amb apps q passen el filtre Google Play.
I d moment, sense haver denegat cap permís, de forma predeterminada només estan activats la ubicació (amb un motiu q ja has explicat) i la càmera (per escanejar el QR, amb la qual cosa ja podría descativar-lo). pic.twitter.com/TMgQcN402q

— Albert (@Albertet1981) October 16, 2019

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Les similituds amb un capítol de Black Mirror són, evidentment, esfereïdores: Una entitat de la que no sabem res (excepte el seu alt nivell de sofisticació tecnològica) és a punt de guanyar el control efectiu de tot un territori, operant des de la més absoluta foscor.

— Enric Luján (@imGeheimen) October 15, 2019

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

Nigeria’s #StopRobbingUs campaign could spur tech advocacy group, CEOs say

Nigeria’s #StopRobbingUs campaign to curb police harassment of techies could grow into a formal lobbying group for the country’s tech sector, according to founders Bosun Tijani and Jason Njoku.

Tijani, the CEO of Lagos based innovation center CcHub and now Kenya’s iHub, helped spearhead the movement last month in response to detainment and extortion of tech workers by local authorities.

He joined Njoku — CEO of Nollywood VOD venture IROKO — and 29 other Nigerians to release a statement condemning police abuse of the country’s tech workers.

The language called for “an end to the common practice where Nigerian police stop young people with laptops and unlawfully arrest, attack or, in extreme circumstances, kidnap them, forcing them to withdraw funds from their bank accounts in order to regain their freedom.”

The campaign coined the #StopRobbingUs hashtag as a digital rallying point.

The statement went on to say the #StopRobbingUs movement would “consider a Class Action Lawsuit on police brutality.”

Energy for the campaign reached critical mass after Toni Astro, a Lagos-based software engineer, was reportedly beaten, arrested, detained and then extorted out of money by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] the last week of September. He tweeted about the ordeal.

Stoprobbingus Nigeria

On the impetus for forming #StopRobbingUs, “We just got tired of [the harassment]. I personally got tired of it, which is why I spoke out and with other people decided to take action,” Tijani told TechCrunch on a call.

He described the shakedown of techies as the best and worst of Nigeria colliding, when it comes to shifting perceptions and stereotypes of the country.

“They’re taking one of the most positive things that’s happening on the continent, but also Nigeria in the last 10 years, and turning it into self-destruction,” Tijani said of the law enforcement maltreatment of tech sector workers.

“It’s a gross abuse of police stop and search…The people that are supposed to protect use are ultimately harassing us and robbing us,” iRoko CEO Jason Njoku said of the profiling and extortion of young Nigerians with laptops and smartphones.

He characterized the theft of laptops as taking away the means for techies to earn a living.

“A lot of people can work around not having a laptop, but if you’re a developer, how do you code without a laptop,” he said.

Njoku, Tijani and members of #StopRobbingUs have been talking to senior members of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s Enabling Business Environment task force and the Governor of Lagos State — the geographic district in Nigeria where much of the country’s tech activity takes place.

“We’re looking to set up some kind of fund, which does advocacy and…also lines up lawsuits…to force the issue in a more formal way,” said Njoku.

“It’s also an education thing. We’re reaching out to the powers that be, to engage and educate them to find some kind of solution to this.”

Both Njoku and Tijani see the #StopRobbingUs movement as a forerunner to an innovation industry advocacy group in Nigeria to speak to the broader needs of the country’s tech community.

The West African country is home to the continent’s largest economy and largest population of 200 million.

In addition to still being known for large-scale and petty corruption, Nigeria has made strides in improving infrastructure and governance and has one of Africa’s strongest tech scenes.

The country is now a focal point for VC, startup formation, and the entry of big global tech companies in Africa.

“I still see a bright future for fintech and internet companies in Nigeria. I think it makes sense for use to be much more vocal on the things that may or may not make sense to us. Technology, media, and entertainment right now is the hope for a lot of young people in this country,” Njoku said.

He added his company, IROKO, and startups he’s invested in account for roughly 1000 jobs.

“We’ll get to the point where tech will become one of the biggest drivers of employment in this country,” Njoku said.  “It makes sense for us to demand the respect and recognition from government to…do the right thing to give us that fertile ground to keep building these companies.”

CcHub’s Bosun Tijani is in accord with Njoku on the necessity of an tech industry advocacy group in Nigeria.

“We do need a voice at the table, a voice that can contribute to getting what we need from government…and the #StopRobbingUs campaign may be the trigger,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

Google Nest Mini hands-on

Two years after the release of the Home Mini, Google’s back with the sequel. Well, “sequel” might be a bit strong. The Nest Mini is more like one of those 1.5 movies they release on home video with a little extra footage than the theatrical release.

That’s not a compliant, exactly. The truth is there are some improvements here, but honestly, Google didn’t really need to do much. The $49 Home Mini sold like hot cakes and is a big part of the company’s rapid growth in the smart home space.

google nest mini

It was a low barrier of entry for those who were curious, but perhaps not fully on-board. And, like the Echo Dot before, it’s been an inexpensive way to outfit an entire home with smart speaker functionality.

Google has smartly kept the price the same with the Nest Mini. The device may not be a loss leader, exactly, but it’s the easiest and cheapest way of hooking users into the Assistant ecosystem — one that will theoretically lead to more smart home purchases, and, perhaps mobile device decisions.

The Nest is nearly identical to its predecessor. That, too, is fine. It’s simple and with a choice of four pastel colors (Chalk, Charcoal, Coral and Sky), it should fit most interior designs reasonably well. Bonus points for the new fabric covering, which is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. Google says one half-liter bottle will cover two Minis. Interestingly the new cloth doesn’t negatively impact the sound.

google nest mini

Speaking of, that’s the biggest upgrade on-board. Sound has been improved over the original with a louder max volume and twice the bass. I’ve been listening to music at home on the new device, and while it gets pretty loud, I can’t recommend it as a standalone speaker. There are much better options for that. It serves Assistant and voice playback pretty well, but it gets a bit distorted at louder volumes.

I do quite like the music playback controls, however. Tap the center to play or pause music and either side to increase and decrease volume. When your hand approaches the speaker, two dots will illuminate on the edges to show you where to touch. Paired in stereo mode with another, better speaker (like, say, the Home Max) and it serves as a cool little touch control. The recent addition of stream transfer, meanwhile, makes it easier to keep listening to music as you change rooms.

Another interesting tidbit that didn’t get a lot of mention at today’s event is dynamic volume adjustment, which adjusts the sound based on background noise. It’s similar to the feature the company teased with today’s Pixel Buds reveal and could come in handy if you happen to live or work in a loud environment. Take that, neighbors.

google nest mini

The new Mini presents one of the more compelling use cases I’ve seen for Duo thus far (and honestly, I haven’t seen a ton). You can use the device as a kind of speakerphone with the app. I can certainly see this coming in handy for things like work calls at home. If you’ve got a big home, you can also use it as an intercom to communicate with other Home/Nest devices.

One other bit worth mentioning is the smart addition of a wall mount on the bottom of the device. It’s something small, but handy. Using a nail or thumbtack (well, probably just a nail, given the size/weight), you can now hang the Mini on a wall. Apparently this was a pretty heavily requested feature for those with limited shelf space. I could certainly imagine sticking it in my kitchen, where counter space is at an extreme premium — though dealing with the cord is another question entirely.

The Nest Mini arrives on retail shelves and walls October 22.

Surfing the reverse mullet with Alexis Ohanian

For many years the allure of Silicon Valley was contingent on the ability to move here. Its ecosystem didn’t work remotely. “We see a very strong indication that where you’re located does matter… come to Silicon Valley,” intoned Joe Kraus of Google Ventures at the first Disrupt conference I ever intended, speaking for essentially all VCs, including Y Combinator.

Easy enough if you’re American. Much, much trickier if you need a visa to get there. Is it still true that the Valley doesn’t work remotely? Or is there another path for startups from faraway countries these days? Last week I sat down with Alexis Ohanian in his ancestral homeland of Armenia to discuss this.

Every nation seems to have its own set of incubators and seed investors these days. Armenia is no exception: I met Ohanian at the launch event for Aybuben Ventures, a VC fund “for Armenia and The Armenians.” (As I wrote last week, the Armenian diaspora is a big deal.) But what happens next, when you need to raise a serious Series A, but your local market realistically isn’t big enough to support your company?

Even five years ago you would have had a lot of trouble tapping into the Valley. Since then, though, things have changed. The price of Bay Area talent — and real estate — has led to the rise of “mullet startups,” as coined by Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen. Such comapnies have their headquarters in the Bay to take advantage of the Valley, but their tech teams somewhere cheaper and more spacious. “Business up front, party out back.”

Ohanian’s point is that there’s no reason the mullet model can’t work backwards: launch a company with a strong tech team in some remote location, then, when you hit the inflection point, open a Bay Area office, move the executive team there, and turn yourself into a mullet startup. (Aided by the fact that if coming as a company, your visa options widen to include e.g. the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa.) Call it the “reverse mullet,” exemplified by e.g. PicsArt.

This model is especially viable for nations which have deep engineering / tech talent, so that the “party out back” tech team becomes an ongoing competitive advantage. (This is part of why Ohanian keeps hammering home the importance of learning to code during his visits to Armenia, something which is probably easier in a nation which already features compulsory chess education.) All of which sounds great in theory —

— but it’s not like we see a herd of unicorns with reverse mullets out there … yet. If we do, though, that will be an exceptionally interesting new growth model, with significant ramifications — a way for Silicon Valley to essentially metastasize to the rest of the world. This in turn will, ironically, reify its primacy as the center of the global tech industry, the sun around which all the faraway planets orbit, after so many prophecies of decentralization. Count the reverse mullet unicorns in three years, and if there are more than a mere few, we’ll know the answer.

Facebook should ban campaign ads. End the lies.

Permitting falsehood in political advertising would work if we had a model democracy, but we don’t. Not only are candidates dishonest, but voters aren’t educated, and the media isn’t objective. And now, hyperlinks turn lies into donations and donations into louder lies. The checks don’t balance. What we face is a self-reinforcing disinformation dystopia.

That’s why if Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube don’t want to be the arbiters of truth in campaign ads, they should stop selling them. If they can’t be distributed safely, they shouldn’t be distributed at all.

No one wants historically untrustworthy social networks becoming the honesty police, deciding what’s factual enough to fly. But the alternative of allowing deception to run rampant is unacceptable. Until voter-elected officials can implement reasonable policies to preserve truth in campaign ads, the tech giants should go a step further and refuse to run them.

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This problem came to a head recently when Facebook formalized its policy of allowing politicians to lie in ads and refusing to send their claims to third-party fact-checkers. “We don’t believe, however, that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” Facebook’s VP of policy Nick Clegg wrote.

The Trump campaign was already running ads with false claims about Democrats trying to repeal the Second Amendment and weeks-long scams about a “midnight deadline” for a contest to win the one-millionth MAGA hat.

Trump Ad

After the announcement, Trump’s campaign began running ads smearing potential opponent Joe Biden with widely debunked claims about his relationship with Ukraine. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter refused to remove the ad when asked by Biden.

In response to the policy, Elizabeth Warren is running ads claiming Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg endorses Trump because it’s allowing his campaign lies. She’s continued to press Facebook on the issue, asking “you can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards.”

We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook. Take a look: pic.twitter.com/7NQyThWHgO

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 12, 2019

It’s easy to imagine campaign ads escalating into an arms race of dishonesty.

Campaigns could advertise increasingly untrue and defamatory claims about each other tied to urgent calls for donations. Once all sides are complicit in the misinformation, lying loses its stigma, becomes the status quo, and ceases to have consequences. Otherwise, whichever campaign misleads more aggressively will have an edge.

“In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.” Facebook’s Clegg writes.

But as is emblematic of Facebook’s past mistakes, it’s putting too much idealistic faith in society. If all voters were well educated and we weren’t surrounded by hyperpartisan media from Fox News to far-left Facebook Pages, maybe this hands-off approach might work. But in reality, juicy lies spread further than boring truths, and plenty of “news” outlets are financially incentivized to share sensationalism and whatever keeps their team in power.

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Protecting the electorate should fall to legislators. But incumbents have few reasons to change the rules that got them their jobs. The FCC already has truth in advertising policies, but exempts campaign ads and a judge struck down a law mandating accuracy.

Granted, there have always been dishonest candidates, uninformed voters, and one-sided news outlets. But it’s all gotten worse. We’re in a post-truth era now where the spoils won through deceptive demagoguery are clear. Cable news and digitally native publications have turned distortion of facts into a huge business.

Most critically, targeted social network advertising combined with donation links create a perpetual misinformation machine. Politicians can target vulnerable demographics with frightening lies, then say only their financial contribution will let the candidate save them. A few clicks later and the candidate has the cash to buy more ads, amplifying more untruths and raising even more money. Without the friction of having to pick up the phone, mail a letter, or even type in a URL like TV ads request, the feedback loop is shorter and things spiral out of control.

Many countries including the UK, Ireland, and the EU ban or heavily restrict TV campaign ads. There’s plenty of precedent for policies keeping candidates’ money out of the most powerful communication mediums.

Campaign commercials on US television might need additional regulation as well. However, the lack of direct connections to donate buttons, microtargeting, and rapid variable testing weaken their potential for abuse. Individual networks can refuse ads for containing falsehoods as CNN recently did without the same backlash over bias that an entity as powerful as Facebook receives.

This is why the social networks should halt sales of political campaign ads now. They’re the one set of stakeholders with flexibility and that could make a united decision. You’ll never get all the politicians and media to be honest, or the public to understand, but just a few companies could set a policy that would protect democracy from the world’s . And they could do it without having to pick sides or make questionable decisions on a case-by-case basis. Just block them all from all candidates.

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Facebook wrote in response to Biden’s request to block the Trump ads that “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”

But banning campaign ads would still leave room for open political expression that’s subject to public scrutiny. Social networks should continue to let politicians say what they want to their own followers, barring calls for violence. Tech giants can offer a degree of freedom of speech, just not freedom of reach. Whoever wants to listen can, but they shouldn’t be able to jam misinformation into the feeds of the unsuspecting.

If the tech giants want to stop short of completely banning campaign ads, they could introduce a format designed to minimize misinformation. Politicians could be allowed to simply promote themselves with a set of stock messages, but without the option to make claims about themselves or their opponents.

Campaign ads aren’t a huge revenue driver for social apps, nor are they a high-margin business nowadays. The Trump and Clinton campaigns spent only a combined $81 million on 2016 election ads, a fraction of Facebook’s $27 billion in revenue that year. $284 million was spent in total on 2018 midterm election ads versus Facebook’s $55 billion in revenue last year, says Tech For Campaigns. Zuckerberg even said that Facebook will lose money selling political ads because of all the moderators it hires to weed out election interference by foreign parties.

Surely, there would be some unfortunate repercussions from blocking campaign ads. New candidates in local to national elections would lose a tool for reducing the lead of incumbents, some of which have already benefited from years of advertising. Some campaign ads might be pushed “underground” where they’re not properly labeled, though the major spenders could be kept under watch.

If the social apps can still offer free expression through candidates’ own accounts, aren’t reliant on politicians’ cash to survive, won’t police specific lies in their promos, and would rather let the government regulate the situation, then they should respectfully decline to sell campaign advertising. Following the law isn’t enough until the laws adapt. This will be an ongoing issue through the 2020 election, and leaving the floodgates open is irresponsible.

If a game is dangerous, you don’t eliminate the referee. You stop playing until you can play safe.

AI-based firefighter safety startup Prometeo wins IBM Call for Code Challenge

During an event at the United Nations Delegates Dining Room in New York City, IBM unveiled the winners to its annual  Call for Code Global Challenge. The competition, which is targeted at computing solutions for global problems, crowned five winners, ranging from first responders to health care info.

Prometeo took the top price for its Watson-based AI solution targeted at firefighters. The team, which is lead by a 33-year firefighting veteran, has developed a tool designed to monitor health and safety in the industry, both long term and in real-time. The Spanish startup developed a smartphone-sized device that straps onto the wearer’s arm to gauge things like temperature, smoke and humidity.

“If the color signal is green, the health of the firefighter is okay,” cofounder Salomé Valero explains on IBM’s site. “But if the color signal is yellow or red, the command center must do something. They must take immediate action in order to rescue or remove the firefighter from the fire.”

The team is working to roll out the device for testing in Spain, but is currently seeking funding for the project. The $200,000 prize from IBM ought to help out a bit.

The second place price went to India/China/US-based Sparrow, which has developed a platform for addressing physical and psychological health during natural disasters. U.C.L.A. team, Rove scored third place with a similar concept.

Call for Code is a five year program that aims to hand out $30 million for teams addressing widespread societal issues.

VC Brad Feld on WeWork, SoftBank, and why venture firms may have to slow down their pacing in 2020

Yesterday, we had a chance to talk with longtime venture investor Brad Feld of Foundry Group, whose book “Venture Deals” was recently republished for the fourth time for good reason. It’s a storehouse of knowledge, from how venture funds really work to term sheet terms, from negotiation tactics to how to choose (and pay for) the right investment banker.

Feld was generous with his time and his advice to founders, many dozens of whom had dialed in, conference call style. In fact, you can find a full transcript of our conversation right here if you’re a member of Extra Crunch.

In the meantime, we thought we’d highlight some of our favorite parts of the conversation. One of these touches on SoftBank, an organization that Feld knows a little better than many other investors. We also discussed what happened at WeWork and specifically the difference between a cult-like leader and a visionary — and why it’s not always clear right away whether a founder is one or the other.  These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

TC: We were just talking about startups raising too much money, and speaking of which, you were involved with SoftBank long ago. Your software company had raised capital from SoftBank, then you later worked for the company as an investor. This way predates the Vision Fund, but you did know Masayoshi Son, which makes me wonder: what do you think of how they’ve been investing their capital?

BF: Just for factual reference, I was initially affiliated with SoftBank with a couple of other VCs; Fred Wilson, Rich Levandov and at the time Jerry Colonna, who now runs a company called Reboot. During that period of time, a subset of us ended up starting a fund that eventually became called Mobius Venture Capital, but it was originally called SoftBank Venture Capital or SoftBank Technology Ventures. We were essentially a fund sponsored by SoftBank, so we had SoftBank money. The partners ran the fund, but we were a central part of the SoftBank ecosystem at the time. I’d say that was probably ’95, ’96 to ’99, 2000. We changed the name of the firm to Mobius in 2001 because it was endlessly getting confused with the other [SoftBank] fund activity.

I do know a handful of the senior principals at SoftBank today very well, and I have enormous respect for them. Ron Fisher [the vice chairman of SoftBank Group] is the person I’m closest to. I have enormous respect for Ron. He’s one of my mentors and somebody I have enormous affection for.

There are endless piles of ink spilled on SoftBank, and there are loads of perspectives on Masa and about the Vision Fund. I would make the observation that the biggest dissonance in everything that’s talked about is timeframe, because even in the 1990s, Masa was talking about a 300-year vision. Whether you take it literally or figuratively, one of Masa’s powers is this incredible long arc that he operates on. Yet the analysis that we have on a continual basis externally is very short term — it’s days, weeks, months.

What Masa and the Vision Fund conceptually are playing is a very, very long-term game. Is the strategy an effective strategy? I have no idea . . .  but when you start being a VC, it takes a long time to know whether you’re any good at it out or not. It takes maybe a decade really before you actually know. You get a signal in five or six years. The Vision Fund is very young . . . It’s [also] a different strategy than any strategy that’s ever been executed before at that magnitude, so it will take a while to know whether it’s a success or not. One of the things that could cause that success to be inhibited would be having too short a view on it.

If a brand-new VC or a brand new fund is measured two years in in terms of its performance, and investors look at that and that’s how they decide what to do with the VC going forward, there would be no VCs. They’d all be out of business because the first two years of a brand-new VC, with very few exceptions, is usually a time period that it’s completely indeterminate as to whether or not they’re going to be successful.

TC: So many funds — not just the Vision Fund — are deploying their funds in two years, where it used to be four or five years, that it’s a bit harder. When you deploy all your capital, you then need to raise funding and it’s [too soon] to know how your bets are going to play out.

BF: One comment on that, Connie, because I think it’s a really good one: When I started, in the ’90s, it used to be a five-year fund cycle, which is why most LP docs have a five-year commitment period for VC funds. You literally have five years to commit the capital. In the internet bubble, it’s shortened to about three years, and in some cases it shortened to 12 months. At Mobius, we raised a fund in 1999 and a fund in 2000, so we had the experience of that compression.

When we set out the raise Foundry, we decided that our fund cycle would be three years and we would be really disciplined about that. We had a model for how we were going to deploy capital from each of our funds over that period of time. It turned out that when we look back in hindsight, we raised a new fund every three years and eventually we lost a year in that cycle. We have a 2016 vintage and a 2018 vintage and it’s because we really deployed the capital over 2.75 to three years . . .It eventually caught up with us.

I think the discipline of trying to have time diversity against the capital that you have is super important. If you talk to LPs today, there is a lot of anxiety about the increased pace at which funds have been deployed, and there has been a two year cycle in the last kind of two iterations of this. I think you’re going to start seeing that stretch back out to three years. From a time diversity perspective three years is plenty [of time] against portfolio construction. When it gets shorter, you actually don’t get enough time diversity in the portfolio and it starts to inhibit you.

TC: Very separately, you wrote a post about WeWork where you used the term cult of personality. For those who didn’t read that post — even for those who did — could you explain what you were saying?

BF: What I tried to abstract was the separation between cults of personality and thought leadership. Thought leadership is incredibly important. I think it’s important for entrepreneurs. I think it’s important for CEOs. I think it’s important for leaders, and I think it’s important for people around the system.

I’m a participant in the system, right? I’m a VC. There are lots of different ways for me to contribute, and I think personally, rather than creating a cult of personality around myself, as a contribution factor, I think it’s much better to try to provide thought leadership, including running lots of experiments, trying lots of things, being wrong a lot, and learning from it. One of the things about thought leadership that’s so powerful from my frame of reference is that people who exhibit thought leadership are truly curious, are trying to learn, are looking for data, and are building feedback loops from what they’re learning that then allows them to be more effective leaders in whatever role they have.

Cult of personality a lot of times masquerades as thought leadership . . . [but it tends] to be self-reinforcing around the awesomeness that is that person or the importance that is that person, or the correctness of the vision that person has. And what happens with cult of personality is that you very often, not always, but very often, lose the signal that allows you to iterate and change and evolve and modify so that you build something that’s stronger over time.

In some cases, it goes totally off the rails. I mean, just call it what it is: what business does a private company have, regardless of how much revenue it has, to buy a Gulfstream V or whatever [WeWork] bought? It’s crazy. ..

From an entrepreneurial perspective, I think being a leader with thought leadership and introspection around what’s working and what’s not working is much, much more powerful over a long period of time than the entrepreneur or the leader who gets wrapped in the cult of personality [and is] inhaling [his or her] own exhaust

TC: Have you been in that situation yourself as a VC? Could VCs have done something sooner in this case or is that not possible when dealing with a strong personality?

BF: One of the difficult things to do, not just as an investor, but as a board member — and it’s frankly also difficult for entrepreneurs — is to deal with the spectrum that you’re on, where one end of the spectrum as an investor or board member is dictating to the charismatic, incredibly hard-driving founder who is the CEO  what they should do, and, at the other end, letting them be unconstrained so that they do whatever they want to do.

One of the challenges of a lot of VCs is that, when things are going great, it’s hard to be internally critical about it. And so a lot of times, you don’t focus as much on the character. Every company, as it’s growing the leadership, the founders, the CEO, the other executives, have to evolve. [Yet] a lot of times for various reasons, and it’s a wide spectrum, there are moments in time where it’s easier to not pay attention to that as an investor or board member. There’s a lot of investors and board members who are afraid to confront it. And there’s a lot of situations where, because you don’t set up the governance structure of the company in a certain way, because as an investor you wanted to get into the deal or the entrepreneurs insist on [on a certain structure], or you don’t have enough influence because of when you invested, it’s very, very hard. If the entrepreneur is not willing to engage collaboratively, it’s very hard to do something about it.

Again, if you’re an Extra Crunch subscriber, you can read our unedited and wide-ranging conversation here.

SAP’s Bill McDermott on stepping down as CEO

SAP’s CEO Bill McDermott today announced that he wouldn’t seek to renew his contract for the next year and step down immediately after nine years at the helm of the German enterprise giant.

Shortly after the announcement, I talked to McDermott, as well as SAP’s new co-CEOs Jennifer Morgan and Christian Klein. During the call, McDermott stressed that his decision to step down was very much a personal one, and that while he’s not ready to retire just yet, he simply believes that now is the right time for him to pass on the reins of the company.

To say that today’s news came as a surprise is a bit of an understatement, but it seems like it’s something McDermott has been thinking about for a while. But after talking to McDermott, Morgan and Klein, I can’t help but think that the actual decision came rather recently.

I last spoke to McDermott about a month ago, during a fireside chat at our TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event. At the time, I didn’t come away with the impression that this was a CEO on his way out (though McDermott reminded me that if he had already made up his decision a month ago, he probably wouldn’t have given it away anyway).

Keeping an Enterprise Behemoth on Course with Bill McDermott SAPDSC00240

“I’m not afraid to make decisions. That’s one of the things I’m known for,” he told me when I asked him about how the process unfolded. “This one, I did a lot of deep soul searching. I really did think about it very heavily — and I know that it’s the right time and that’s why I’m so happy. When you can make decisions from a position of strength, you’re always happy.”

He also noted that he has been with SAP for 17 years, with almost 10 years as CEO, and that he recently spent some time talking to fellow high-level CEOs.

“The consensus was 10 years is about the right amount of time for a CEO because you’ve accomplished a lot of things if you did the job well, but you certainly didn’t stay too long. And if you did really well, you had a fantastic success plan,” he said.

In “the recent past,” McDermott met with SAP chairman and co-founder Hasso Plattner to explain to him that he wouldn’t renew his contract. According to McDermott, both of them agreed that the company is currently at “maximum strength” and that this would be the best time to put the succession plan into action.

SAP's new co-CEO Jennifer Morgan.

SAP co-CEO Jennifer Morgan.

“With the continuity of Jennifer and Christian obviously already serving on the board and doing an unbelievable job, we said let’s control our destiny. I’m not going to renew, and these are the two best people for the job without question. Then they’ll get a chance to go to Capital Markets Day [in November]. Set that next phase of our growth story. Kick off the New Year — and do so with a clean slate and a clean run to the finish line.

“Very rarely do CEOs get the joy of handing over a company at maximum strength. And today is a great day for SAP. It’s a great day for me personally and Hasso Plattner, the chairman and [co-]founder of SAP. And also — and most importantly — a great day for Jennifer Morgan and Christian Klein.”

Don’t expect for McDermott to just fade into the background, though, now that he is leaving SAP. If you’ve ever met or seen McDermott speak, you know that he’s unlikely to simply retire. “I’m busy. I’m passionate and I’m just getting warmed up,” he said.

As for the new leadership, Morgan and Klein noted that they hadn’t had a lot of time to think about the strategy going forward. Both previously held executive positions in the company and served on SAP’s board together for the last few years. For now, it seems, they are planning on continuing on a similar path as McDermott.

“We’re excited about creating a renewed focus on the engineering DNA of SAP, combining the amazing strength and heritage of SAP — and many of the folks who have built the products that so many customers around the world run today — with a new DNA that’s come in from many of the cloud acquisitions that we’ve made,” Morgan said, noting that both she and Klein spent a lot of time over the last few months bringing their teams together in new ways. “So I think for us, that tapestry of talent and that real sense of urgency and support of our customers and innovation is top of mind for us.”

SAP co-CEO Christian Klein

SAP co-CEO Christian Klein

Klein also stressed that he believes SAP’s current strategy is the right one. “We had unbelievable deals again in Q3 where we actually combined our latest innovations — where we combined Qualtrics with SuccessFactors with S/4 [Hana] to drive unbelievable business value for our customers. This is the way to go. The business case is there. I see a huge shift now towards S/4, and the core and business case is there, supporting new business models, driving automation, steering the company in real time. All of these assets are now coming together with our great cloud assets, so for me, the strategy works.”

Having co-CEOs can be a recipe for conflict, but McDermott’s time as CEO also started out as co-CEO, so the company does have some experience there. Morgan and Klein noted that they worked together on the SAP board before and know each other quite well.

What’s next for the new CEOs? “There has to be a huge focus on Q4,” Klein said. “And then, of course, we will continue like we did in the past. I’ve known Jen now for quite a while — there was a lot of trust there in the past and I’m really now excited to really move forward together with her and driving huge business outcomes for our customers. And let’s not forget our employees. Our employee morale is at an all-time high. And we know how important that is to our employees. We definitely want that to continue.”

It’s hard to imagine SAP with McDermott, but we’ve clearly not seen the last of him yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him pop up as the CEO of another company soon.

Below is my interview with McDermott from TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise.

SmileDirectClub’s former CEO is back with a new dental startup called Tend

A growing number of newer dental brands has been attracting money from venture investors who are still kicking themselves for missing runaway hits. Most notable among these breakout companies is newly public SmileDirectClub, which sells teeth-straightening products directly to consumers and is beloved by analysts even though its shares have slipped since its September IPO.

Among the many teeth-related startups to more recently attract private funding is Swift Health Systems, a five-year-old company that makes invisible braces under the brand INBRACE and just raised $45 million from VCs; Henry the Dentist, a two-year-old, mobile dental clinic that raised $10 million earlier this year; and Quip, a five-year-old maker of electric toothbrushes and oral care products that has garnered roughly $62 million from investors.

Still, a new company called Tend is especially notable, and not because it just raised $36 million in seed and Series A funding — which it did, led by Redpoint Ventures.

First and foremost, Tend sees an opportunity to reinvent the dentist’s office. How? Through tech-heavy dental “studios” that “prioritize” your comfort by featuring sleek waiting areas that it promises you’ll almost never need to use and by offering “Netflix in your chair” that you will enjoy while wearing the latest and greatest Bose headphones. (Tend says it will get your favorite show queued up before you arrive for your appointment, which you will breezily book online, and whose prices you can learn in advance, so you don’t suffer sticker shock later. )

A Fast Company reporter who visited the startup’s newly opened flagship space in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood was even offered a selection of only the finest toothpastes, including that of Marvis, an Italian brand that comes in such distinct flavors as Amarelli licorice, cinnamon, ginger and jasmine — not to mention “classic strong,” “whitening,” and “aquatic.”

It all sounds faintly ridiculous, but also fairly nice, especially contrasted with traditional dentist offices, which tend to be both highly antiseptic and astonishingly vague about pricing.

There’s also a kind of precedent for what it’s doing. Specifically, improving on the patient experience has worked out well for One Medical, a venture-backed, tech-driven chain of 70 clinics that has become one of the largest independent groups in the U.S. (It’s also reportedly prepping an IPO.)

Little wonder that one individual participant in Tend’s new funding is Tom Lee, the physician who created One Medical in 2007 and led it as CEO until 2017. Others individual investors include Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa of Warby Parker; Zach Weinberg of Flatiron Health; and Bradley Tusk of Tusk Ventures.

Meanwhile, Tend’s cofounder and CEO is also no slouch, seemingly. Doug Hudson was the CEO of SmileDirectClub for three-and-a-half years, beginning in 2013. Before that, he founded two medical care companies that were acquired: Hearing Planet and Simplex Healthcare.

Whether that pedigree is enough to get the company going will take some time to know but certainly, it’s chasing after a huge market that can very plainly be made better.  In the U.S. alone, the dental market is now a $137 billion market, according to the research group IBIS World, and as Hudson notes in a new Medium post about his latest startup, dentistry has a Net Promoter Score of 1, which is just two points higher than dreaded cable companies.

Consumers “don’t accept this level of service in any other aspect of our lives. Not when shopping for glasses. Not when exercising at home with a stationary bike,” he writes, and it’s true. If Tend can improve the experience even a little bit and its prices are competitive, we’d guess it has a shot.

Looking for a job selling weed? EpicHint pitches training for cannabis dispensary ‘budtenders’

Adriana Herrera first came up with the idea for EpicHint, a training and staffing service for cannabis dispensaries, while she was surfing off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Decompressing after the dissolution of her last startup venture — her second attempt at running her own business — Herrera realized quickly that surfing and #vanlife wasn’t her ultimate calling.

The serial entrepreneur had previously founded FashioningChange, a recommendation engine for sustainable shopping, back in 2011. The company was gaining traction and had some initial support, but it ran into the buzzsaw of Amazon’s product development group, which Herrera claims copied their platform to build a competing product.

Undeterred, Herrera took some of the tools that FashioningChange had developed and morphed them into a business focused on online marketing to shoppers at the point of sale — helping sites like Cooking.com pitch products to people based on what their browsing history revealed about their intent.

By 2017, that business had also run into problems, and Herrera had to shut down the company. She sold her stuff and had headed down to Oaxaca, but kept thinking about the emergent cannabis industry that was taking off back in the U.S.

Herrera had a friend who’d been diagnosed with colon cancer and was taking medicinal marijuana to address side effects from the operation that removed his colon.

“When recovering from the removal of his colon, he’d run out of his homegrown medicine and go to dispensaries where he . got the worst service,” Herrera wrote in an email. “He would ask for something pain, nausea, and sleep, and was always recommended the most expensive product or a product that was being promoted. He never got what he needed and had to self advocate for the right product while barely being able to stand.”

Herrera buckled down and did research throughout the course of 2018. She hit up pharmacies first as a customer, asking different “budtenders” for information about the product they were selling. Their answers were… underwhelming, according to Herrera. The next step was to talk to dispensary managers and research the weed industry.

By her own calculations, cannabis companies (including dispensaries and growers) will add roughly 300,000 jobs — most of them starting out at near-minimum-wage salaries of $16 per-hour. Meanwhile current training programs cost between $250 and $7,000.

That disconnect led Herrera to hit on her current business model — selling an annual subscription software for brands and dispensaries that would offer a training program for would-be job applicants. The training would give dispensaries a leg up for experienced hires, increasing sales and ideally reducing turnover that costs the industry as much as $438 million.

“The data is showing an average of a 30% turnover rate in 21 months,” says Herrera. “Looking at turnover and a lot of that comes down to bad hiring.”

The company is on its first eight customers, but counts one undisclosed, large, multi-state dispensary along with a few mom and pop shops.

Herrera also says that the service can reduce bias in hiring. Because dispensaries only hire candidates after they’ve completed the program, any unconscious bias won’t creep into the hiring process, she says.

Applicants interested in a dispensary can enroll in the dispensary “university” and once they complete the curriculum go through a standardized form to apply for the job.

Our  recommendation to run and get the best results is to pre-train, pre-screen and have the graduates unlock the ability to apply.”

German tech investor leads Series A for Germany’s first medical Cannabis startup

German just hit a new milestone in the space where venture capital and the burgeoning Cannabis industry meet.

Berlin startup Demecan has completed a Series A financing round of 7 million euros to expand its production facility for medical cannabis and the wholesale trade in Germany. It’s become the only German company allowed to produce medical cannabis in Germany.

This is a watershed for the country and is the first investment in this sector for btov Partners, a private investor network. The other half of the funding came from a single, named German family office, which is understood to have its roots in the consumer goods sector. Only two other companies, two of them from Canada, were awarded the contract to produce medical cannabis in Germany in May 2019.

btov Partners manages assets of €420 million and has previously invested in tech startups such as Blacklane, Data Artisans, DeepL, Facebook, Foodspring, ORCAM, Raisin, SumUp, Volocopter and XING.

The green light from Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM), means Demecan will be able to produce at least 2,400 kilograms of dried cannabis flowers over the next four years. Demecan is also active as an importer and wholesaler of medical cannabis and can thus cover the entire value chain. Since the German government allowed cannabis to be prescribed for therapeutic purposes in 2017 demand has outstripped supply.

Jennifer Phan of btov Partners said in a statement: “Demecan operates in a very attractive market at the right time. Germany currently represents the third-largest market for medical cannabis in the world and is on a growth path. We believe that the company has a first-mover advantage in a highly regulated market environment, especially as it is the only German manufacturing and trading company in the European market”.

Dr. Constantin von der Groeben, co-founder of Demecan, added: “In recent years, we have intensively dealt with the market and reached an important milestone by winning the tender process. We are now focusing on further growth and the start of production in 2020.”

HTC stopped innovating on smartphones, new CEO admits

Several months back, we invited HTC cofounder and CEO Cher Wang to appear on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. Sometimes, however, life happens. Two weeks ago, the company announced that Wang would be stepping down from the role, which would immediately be filled by longtime telecom vet, Yves Maitres. Thankfully, the former Orange exec also agreed to appear on stage at this week’s event.

Maitres took the stage immediately following a one on one with OnePlus cofounder, Carl Pei. The contrast of the two companies couldn’t be more stark. In six short years of existence, OnePlus has managed to buck a number of industry trends with a controlled growth that flies in the face of wider industry smartphone trends.

HTC, meanwhile, has been struggling for years. In Q2, the Taiwanese hardware maker posted its fifth consecutive quarterly loss. Last July, it laid off around a quarter of its staff. It’s been a precipitous fall. In 2011, the company comprised around 11 percent of global smartphone sales, per analyst figures. Now its figures are routinely classified among the “Others” in those reports.

Speaking to Maitres at an event such as this offers a rare opportunity for insight from a newly minted exec who has spent years watching his new company from the outside. As such, he addressed HTC’s struggles with a refreshing candidness.

“HTC has stopped innovating in the hardware of the smartphone,” he told the audience. “And people like Apple, like Samsung and, most recently, Huawei, have done an incredible job investing in their hardware. We didn’t, because we have been investing in innovation on virtual reality. When I was young, somebody told me, ‘to be be right at the wrong time is to be wrong and to be wrong at the right time is right.’ I think we’ve been right at the wrong time and now we have to catch up. We made a timing mistake. It is very difficult to anticipate the time. HTC made a mistake in terms of timing. It is a difficult mistake and we are paying for that, but we still have so many assets in terms of innovation, team and balance sheets that I feel we are recovering from the timing mistake.”

‘Timing,’ here, is primarily a reference to the company’s decision to move much of its R&D money into XR (primarily VR through its Vive wing). Maitres said he anticipates that HTC’s XR offerings will overtake the mobile side in about five years.

“We’ll do our best to make it shorter, but customer adoption is key,” he explained. “How people are adopting your technology. And we all know know it is absolutely critical. And the end of the day, we have human beings in front of us, and they’re dealing with something total new and totally unusual, which is virtual.”

On the mobile side, Maitres sees 5G as the primary bottleneck to growth. Contrary to suggestions that the company’s best play is in developing nations, he says HTC’s play going forward will be more premium handset focused on “countries with higher GDP.”

“The competition is changing,” he says. “We’re all having a situation where worldwide marketshare is going down and the customer is disappointed in not being to have the latest Huawei phone anymore. How to give our customers the ability to come back to what they wish, in terms of best in class hardware and photography that HTC to will to solve in the next few months.”

While figures will largely be dependent on decisions Brough to HTC’s board, Maitres maintains optimistic projections when it comes to returning the company profitability.

“I truly believe that it is going to depend on the way carriers deploy 5G,” he says. “And you know that 2020 will bee the starting point for 5G. Usually it takes two years to deploy a network. So 2023 will have significant coverage. That’s why I believe that 2025, probably even earlier will be the turning point. We are dependent on carrier deployment speed.”

Report: WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann may have to unload property to pay off a giant loan

Adam Neumann may be out of the daily flow of WeWork, but he seemingly remains top of mind to some of the company’s bankers.

According to a new Business Insider piece, Neumann is working with JPMorgan, UBS, and Credit Suisse to consider new terms for a $500 million loan that he took out before WeWork filed to go public, and from which Neumann has already drawn down $380 million. Since he can no longer pay the loan with proceeds from selling WeWork shares publicly (it yanked its S-1 filing earlier this week), he may have to put up some of his properties or other assets as collateral for the loan, according to one of BI’s sources.

“No terms have been set,” a spokeswoman for Neumann tells the outlet.

Per earlier reports, Neumann has plenty to offload if it comes to it, having acquired numerous residential and commercial properties over the years.

Among his reported investments is a $10.5 million Greenwich Village townhouse; a farm in Westchester, New York; a home in the Hamptons where he reportedly weathered the storm with his family ahead of resigning as CEO last week; and a $21 million, 13,000-square-foot house in the Bay Area with a guitar-shaped room.

According to an earlier WSJ report, Neumann has also bought several commercial properties through investor groups that he had leased back, in some cases, to WeWork.

WeWork, and Neumann, have both enjoyed a close relationship with JPMorgan in recent years. As recently reported in the NYTimes,  JPMorgan “lent Mr. Neumann money personally (with his inflated shares as collateral), provided equity and debt for the company, served as a corporate adviser for the I.P.O. and secured nearly $6 billion in financing as part of the now scotched offering.”

Here are the five Startup Battlefield finalists at Disrupt SF 2019

Over the past two days, 20 startups have taken the stage at Disrupt SF, laying out their visions, demonstrating their technology and answering questions from our expert judges.

The startups came from all across the world, and they’re tackling industries ranging from cholera detection to orbital refueling.

Now we’ve taken the judges’ feedback and chosen five finalists — who will be presenting tomorrow, October 4, for a new group of judges. The ultimate winner will take home $100,000, equity-free, as well as receive temporary ownership of the Disrupt Cup.

You can watch the finals at Disrupt SF or on the TechCrunch website at 1:15pm Pacific. And without further ado, here are the finalists:

OmniViz

OmniVis aims to make detection of cholera and other pathogens as quick, simple, and cheap as a pregnancy test. Its smartphone-powered detection platform could save thousands of lives.

You can read more about OmniVis here.

Orbit Fab

Orbit Fab has created space-based robotic refueling technology. You might remember the company from a milestone accomplishment it achieved earlier this year: Becoming the first startup to supply water to the International Space Station.

You can read more about Orbit Fab here.

Render

Render has created a managed cloud platform. At the Startup Battlefield, it announced the ability to spin up object storage in the cloud, while greatly simplifying the tasks associated with adding storage.

You can read more about Render here.

StrattyX

StrattyX is a trading interface that lets you set up sophisticated “if-this-then-that” rules and execute orders on the stock market. The company aims to open up automated trading software to anyone, from non-professional traders who have some savings to professional day traders.

You can read more about StrattyX here.

Traptic

Things like wheat and corn are routinely harvested by machines, but strawberries (and other fruits) present a unique challenge. Traptic uses 3D vision and robotic arms to harvest ripe strawberries.

You can read more about Traptic here.

India’s NoBroker raises $50M to help people buy and rent without real estate brokers

An Indian startup that is attempting to improve the way how millions of people in the nation lease or buy an apartment — by not paying any brokerage — just raised a significant amount of capital to further expand its business.

NoBroker said on Wednesday it has raised $50 million in a new financing round. The Series D round for the Bangalore-based real estate property operator was led by Tiger Global Management and included participation from existing investor General Atlantic. The five-year-old startup, which closed its previous financing round in June, has raised $121 million to date. The new round valued NoBroker at about $325 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

NoBroker operates in six cities in India: Bengaluru, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune. The startup has established itself as one of the largest players in the local real estate business. It operates over 3 million properties on its website and serves about 7 million users. It is adding more than 280,000 new users each month, Amit Kumar, cofounder and CEO of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Real estate brokers in India, as is true in other markets, help people find properties. But they can charge up to 10 months worth of rent (leasing) — or a single-digit percent of the apartment’s worth if someone is buying the property — in urban cities as their commission. NoBroker allows the owner of a property to directly connect with potential tenants to remove brokerage charges from the equation.

The startup makes money in three ways. First, it lets non-paying users get in touch with only nine property owners. Those who wish to contact more property owners are required to pay a fee. Second, property owners can opt to pay NoBroker to have its representatives deal with prospective buyers — in a move that ironically makes the startup serve as a broker.

NoBroker also offers end-to-end services such as rent agreements, home loans, and movers and packers, for which it also charges a fee. The startup says it uses machine learning to speed up the transactions and make it service low-cost.

The startup processes about $14 million in rent each month, Kumar said. This is increasing by 25%-30% each month, he said. NoBroker’s business in Bangalore and Mumbai, two of its largest cities, are already profitable, Kumar said.

The startup will use the fresh capital to expand its business and build more products. It recently launched a community and digital management app to keep a digital log of all the entries — say a Flipkart delivery personnel comes to your house — occurring in a society, and maintain a dialogue with other people in a vicinity. The app also allows users to exchange goods with one another and pay their utility bills, startup’s executives said.

The new financing round is oddly smaller than $51 million NoBroker had raised in June this year. Saurabh Garg, chief business officer of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview that the founding team did not want to dilute their stake in the startup, hence they opted for a smaller round.

NoBroker is competing with a number of players including Proptiger, 99Acres, and heavily backed NestAway, which counts Goldman Sachs and Tiger Global among its investors. NestAway operates in eight Indian cities and has raised north of $100 million to date. Budget hotel startup Oyo, which has already become one of the largest hotel businesses in the world, also operates in NoBroker’s territory with Oyo Living.

But NoBroker’s Kumar said he does not see Oyo and other startups as competition. Instead, “these other players are some of our largest clients,” he said. India’s real estate industry is estimated to grow to $1 trillion in worth by 2030.

The business model of NoBroker has also created new local challenges for the startup. Brokers are unsurprisingly not happy with startups such as NoBroker and have grown hostile in recent years. In recent years, they have attacked and harassed NoBroker employees. So much so that the startup had to delist its address from Google Maps. But Kumar said the mindset of people is changing.

In the dual-class shares debate, the big exchanges should get off the sidelines

Adam Neumann’s fall from grace was astonishingly swift once his company, WeWork, filed to go public in August. Even while his spending was fairly well-documented across time (as were his apparent conflicts of interest), he was humiliated for enriching himself, then ultimately kicked out of the corner office before the company, in the least surprising turn of events in recent weeks, today yanked its S-1 registration.

Neumann never exactly hid who he is or how he operates, so what suddenly sparked the ire of reporters — and investors — around the world? What, exactly, in an ultimately unsurprising IPO filing had people coughing up their morning coffee? Boiled down to the worst offense (including selling his own company the trademark “We” for $5.9 million in stock) was very likely the lock on control that Neumann had set up through a multi-class voting structure that aimed to cement his control. And by ‘cement,’ we mean he would enjoy overwhelming control for not just for 5 or 10 years after the company went public but, unless Neumann sold a bunch of of his shares, until his death or “permanent incapacity.”

Given that Neumann is just 40 years old and (mostly) abstains from meat, that could have been an awfully long time. Yet this wasn’t some madcap idea of his. There are plenty of founders who have or who plan to go public with dual or multi-class shares designed to keep them in control until they kick the bucket. In some cases, it’s even more extreme that that.

Consider at Lyft, for example, Logan Green and John Zimmer hold high-voting shares entitling them to twenty votes per share not until each is dead but both of them. If one of them dies or becomes incapacitated, Lyft’s so-called sunset clause enables the remaining cofounder to control the votes of the deceased cofounder. Even more, after the lone survivor bites the dust, those votes still aren’t up for grabs. Instead, a trustee will retain that person’s full voting powers for a transition period of 9 to 18 months.

The same is true over at Snap, where cofounders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy have designated the other as their respective proxies. Accordingly, when one dies, the other could individually control nearly all of the voting power of Snap’s outstanding capital stock.

Unbelievably, that’s not the worst of it. Many dual class shares are written in such a way that founders can pass along control to their heirs. As SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson, a longtime legal scholar and law professor, told an audience last year, it’s no academic exercise.

You see, nearly half of the companies who went public with dual-class over the last 15 years gave corporate insiders outsized voting rights in perpetuity. Those companies are asking shareholders to trust management’s business judgment—not just for five years, or 10 years, or even 50 years. Forever.

So perpetual dual-class ownership—forever shares—don’t just ask investors to trust a visionary founder. It asks them to trust that founder’s kids. And their kids’ kids. And their grandkid’s kids. (Some of whom may, or may not, be visionaries.) It raises the prospect that control over our public companies, and ultimately of Main Street’s retirement savings, will be forever held by a small, elite group of corporate insiders—who will pass that power down to their heirs.

Why public market investors haven’t pushed back on such extremes isn’t clear, though they’re far from an homogenous group, of course. Surely, some aren’t aware of what they’re agreeing to when they’re buying shares, given that dual-class structures are far more prevalent than they once were. Other investors may plan to churn out of the shares so quickly that they’re uninterested in a company’s potential governance issues later in time.

A third possibility, suggests Jay Ritter, who is a professor of finance at the University of Florida and an I.P.O. expert, is that even with dual-class structures, shareholders have legal rights that limit that ability of an executive who has voting control to do anything he or she wants. Further, the board of directors, including the CEO, has a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value.

Says Ritter, “I don’t think it’s accidental that with the We Company, the board of directors let [Neumann] get away with various things, and as it was transitioning to a public company, a lot of [outside participants] pushed and said, ‘This is a company where we’re worried about corporate governance and we’re willing to apply a big discount to people with inferior voting rights.’”

Of course, some investors believe visionary founders should be left to control their companies as long as they wish because, in the case of Alphabet and Facebook specifically, their founders have produced asymmetric returns for many years. But we’re still fairly early into this experiment. Do we really want more situations like we saw with Sumner Redstone of Viacom, with trials over founders’ mental capacity playing out in the media?

For his part, Alan Patricof — the renowned venture capitalist who founded the private equity firm Apax Partners before cofounding the venture firm Greycroft — say he isn’t looking forward to that future. Instead, he think it’s time the exchanges that list these companies’ shares do something about it. “I”m not holier than thou in this industry,” says Patricof, “but if you want to be a publicly traded company, you should act like a public company.” To Patricof, that means one vote for one share — period.

There’s a precedent for intervention. Patricof notes that dual-class stock first emerged in 1895 and by that 1926, there were 183 companies with such stock. It became so widespread, that the New York Stock Exchange banned the use of non-voting stock until 1956, when it made changed its rules for the Ford Motor Company, which granted only partial voting rights to new shareholders. In the ensuing years, few companies took advantage of dual-class listings until Google bounded onto the scene and now, 15 years after its IPO, it’s like 1926 all again.

Indeed, while Patricof is sympathetic to the argument that founders might need protection for a few years after an IPO, things have gone way too far, in his estimation, and he thinks the best solution would be for the NYSE and Nasdaq to meet for lunch and decide to ban multi-class shares again.

There aren’t a lot of other options. VCs aren’t going to force the issue by turning away founders with whom they want to work. Neither are bankers or large institutional investors like mutual funds; they’ve also shown they’re more than happy to look the other way if it means money in their pockets. “I could be wrong,” says Patricof, “but I don’t think it would that tough for [the big exchanges] to impose a ban that keeps founders from wielding so much power at the expense of the company’s other shareholders.”

Given how fiercely competitive the exchanges are, it’s certainly hard to imagine, this meeting of the minds. But the only other plausible path back to a saner system would seemingly be the Securities & Exchange Commission, and it seems disinclined to do anything about the issue.

Indeed, while Commissioner Jackson has advocated for change, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton would clearly prefer to leave well enough alone. After the S&P Dow Jones Indices and another major index company, FTSE Russell, decided to ban all companies with multiple classes of stock a couple of years ago — they’re uncomfortable with forcing popular index funds to buy stakes in companies that give investors little say in corporate decisions — Clayton reportedly called the moves “governance by indexation” at a conference.

He’s worried that the indexes are being heavy-handed. On the other hand, something has to give, and a lot of market participants might rather see companies being forced to do abandon dual-class shares — or, at least, forced to dismantle their multi-class structures after a fixed period — to watching those with with unchecked power get broken into pieces afterward.

The reality is that neither WeWork, nor Neumann, are not the zany outliers they’ve been made to seem. They’re very much a product of their time, and if public market shareholders don’t want to see more of the same, something has to be done. It might be incumbent on the exchanges to do it.

Kickstarter darling EcoFlow Delta battery generator is not what it seems

The Delta EcoFlow is a new battery generator available on Kickstarter with incredible claimed features. Most are true, some are not.

Device like the Delta offer incredible battery storage capacity. Designed for more than just recharging phones and tablets, these can run refrigerators, pumps, power tools and medical equipment. They’re great for emergencies, camping and general use where power is not available. Similar devices have been on the market for some years so I was eager to verify EcoFlow’s claims.

The EcoFlow Delta can recharge from a wall outlet to 80% in an hour. It’s amazing. The GoalZero Yeti battery of a similar size takes 25 hours. This capability means the Delta can be used and then reused more than competitors.

The device is currently on Kickstarter where it quickly acquired over $2 million from over 2,000 backers. The device’s features listed on the Kickstarter page are clear, but after testing a pre-production unit, I found several of these advertised capabilities and features misleading or false.

The Delta is the latest product from EcoFlow. The company’s founder, Eli Harris, says it’s “The world’s strongest battery generator.” I found the Delta to be a competent battery generator with similar capabilities to competitors but it’s hampered by loud fans.

In short, if you need a battery generator that can recharge much faster than others, the Delta is a great option. Otherwise, the GoalZero Yeti makes more sense for most people.

Battery generators are a safe and more portable option than their gas counterparts. There are no harmful fumes or fuel allowing them to be used indoors, nearer the appliances or tools. Most often (though not with the Delta) they’re silent, too, making them perfect for a camping or hunting companion.

In real-world operation, this quick recharge time could come in handy. Say, on a construction site or in an emergency incident where power is still available, but out of reach of an extension cord — situations where loud gas generators are generally used. While the Delta is louder than other battery generators, it is not as loud as a gas generator.

The Delta battery comes packaged with a warning that the battery must be fully charged before use. I generally ignore warnings, but I followed this one and immediately plugged it in. Instantly, fans whirled to life and the screen popped on displaying the current charge levels and how long it would take to get to 100%. The Delta was at 30% and would take 45 minutes to fully recharge. It worked as advertised and 45 minutes later the battery was at 100%.

Recharging the Delta battery was a noisy affair. The fans are loud and continue to run after the battery is fully charged. Compared to a GoalZero Yeti, this was a shock. The Yeti is silent where the Delta is not. I keep a Yeti 1400 in my basement, plugged in and ready to use. But with the Delta, even when the battery is fully charged, loud fans still run presumably to keep the unit cool. EcoFlow says the shelf life on the Delta is over a year where the GoalZero Yeti is six months. To me, I would rather have the battery constantly plugged into power so I know it’s ready to go when needed.

The Delta recharges without an AC power inverter (a power brick); it uses the same sort of cable as a desktop PC. The company says by passing through the inverter directly, the Delta can increase charging speed to more than 10 times the traditional AC to DC adapter cable. This also means it’s easier to replace a lost charging cable.

The Delta is much lighter than competing products and its design makes it easier to move. EcoFlow says it’s rugged, and it feels the part. Even my pre-production sample feels tough and ready to go to work. Large rubber pads keep the battery in place and the tough plastic feels more durable than competing products.

There are a handful of plugs and outlets around the device, including USB, USB-C and six AC outlets. It’s a lot and similar in capacity to large gas generators. Most battery generators have much fewer AC outlets, though I’ve often supplemented the capability with small power strips.

IMG 0544
Kickstarter Beware

The Delta is currently on Kickstarter for pre-order and exceeded its goal. I fear a good amount of backers will be upset to learn several notable advertised features are false or misleading.

The Delta is not silent. Under operation, either recharging a cell phone or running a power tool, loud fans run on both sides of the battery. These fans run when recharging the battery, too — even when the battery is fully charged. The Kickstarter page and video lists throughout that the Delta produces no noise.

ecoflow delta

These fans detract from the appeal of the Delta battery. They’re loud. You have to raise your voice to speak over them. Because of these fans, I wouldn’t take the Delta camping or use it in the backyard for a quiet get-together. During power outage situations, I wouldn’t want to sleep near it. But I would use it for power tools — like EcoFlow does in one of its demo videos.

Only one of the four videos on the Kickstarter page allows potential owners to hear the Delta battery. The third video on the page shows the battery powering a hammer drill. Six seconds into the video, the drill stops running, and the battery’s fans are audible.

There are a handful of competing batteries that operate without noisy fans. I’ve taken GoalZero’s Yeti batteries camping and they’re great despite their heft. They’re truly silent and can still recharge from solar panels and car batteries. I’ve used battery generators from Jackery, too, and those are also silent.

I spoke with Ecoflow CEO and Founder Eli Harris during the run-up of this review. He was clear that Ecoflow’s main competitor is not other large batteries, but rather small gas generators available from Honda and others. And that makes a lot of sense. Those are the best selling generators available and widely used for emergency and convenience. These small generators are loud, and the Ecoflow Delta is quieter than those options while still offering most of the power capabilities.

When asked why the Kickstarter page is misleading, he said “that fallacy has never been called out” and he would check with his team about the use of “superlatives and blanket statements.” Three days later, the Kickstarter page still lists the false claims.

EcoFlow claims the Delta battery can run a variety of power tools, including drills, circular saws, power washers and welders. I found this capability hit or miss. Despite some tools being under the claimed amperage and wattage of the Delta battery, the battery wouldn’t power my small or large circular saw or power washer. EcoFlow also claims the battery can recharge a Tesla; it doesn’t recharge my Chevy Volt.

Many tools require extra power when starting up, and I found most of these surge requirements to exceed the capabilities of the Delta battery. This is the same with other batteries like the GoalZero Yeti. In fact, I couldn’t find one tool in my workshop that the Delta powered and the Yeti did not; they worked the same for me, and I have a lot of tools.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying. The EcoFlow Delta has impressive capabilities mainly around its recharge capabilities. This makes it an attractive option for the right use. It’s compact and solid. It has a lot of outlets and is easy to move. This could be a lifesaver in emergency situations where a person still has access to power.

The Delta has some downsides just like other battery generators. It doesn’t offer a dramatic increase in electrical output over competitors so don’t expect this battery to power larger devices. Don’t expect a silent operation, either. This massive battery is loud though, I admit, that’s a relative term. It’s louder than other battery generators but less loud than a gas generator.

I would rather have a silent battery generator that recharges slowly versus a noisy, fast-recharging battery. I use my battery generators camping and around the house when the power goes out. The Delta makes sense on a construction site or when providing power is priority. I just can’t get over the loud fans.

Elon Musk says Starship should reach orbit within six months – and could even fly with a crew next year

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered an update about Starship, the company’s nest generation spacecraft, which is being designed for full, “rapid reusability.” Musk discussed the technology behind the design of Starship, which has evolved somewhat through testing and development after its original introduction in 2017.

Among the updates detailed, Musk articulated how Starship will be used to make humans interplanetary, including its use of in-space refilling of propellant, by docking with tanker Starships already in orbit to transfer fuel. This is necessary for the spacecraft to get enough propellant on board post-launch to make the trip to the Moon or Mars from Earth – especially since it’ll be carrying as much as 100 tons of cargo on board to deliver to these other space-based bodies.

Elon Musk

These will include supplies for building bases on planetary surfaces, as well as up to 100 passengers on long-haul planet-to-planet flights.

Those are still very long-term goals, however, and Musk also went into detail about development of the current generation of Starship prototypes, as well as the planned future Starships that will go to orbit, and carry their first passengers.

The Starship Mk1, Mk2 and the forthcoming Mk3 and Mk4 orbital testers will all feature a fin design that will orient the vehicles so they can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere flat on their ‘bellies,’ coming in horizontal to increase drag and reduce velocity before performing a sort of flip maneuver to swing past vertical and then pendulum back to vertical for touch-down. In simulation, as shown at the event, it looks like it’ll be incredible to watch, since it looks more unwieldy than the current landing process for Falcon boosters, even if it’s still just as controlled.

SpaceX Starship Mk1 29

The front fins on the Starship prototype will help orient it for re-entry, a key component of reuse.

Musk also shared a look at the design planned for Super Heavy, the booster that will be used to propel Starship to orbit. This liquid-oxygen powered rocket, which is about 1.5 times the height of the Starship itself, will have 37 Raptor engines on board (the Starship will have only six) and will also feature six landing legs and deployable grid fins for its own return trip back to Earth.

In terms of testing and development timelines, Musk said that the Starship Mk1 he presented the plan in front of at Boca Chica should have its first test flight in just one to two months. That will be a flight to a sub-orbital altitude of just under 70,000 feet. The prototype spacecraft is already equipped with the three Raptor engines it will use for that flight.

Next, Starship Mk2, which is currently being built in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at another SpaceX facility, will attempt a similar high altitude test. Musk explained that both these families will continue to compete with each other internally and build Starship prototypes and rockets simultaneously. Mk3 will begin construction at Boca Chica beginning next month, and Mk4 will follow in Florida soon after. Musk said that the next Starship test flight after the sub-orbital trip for Mk1 might be an orbital launch with the full Super Heavy booster and Mk3.

Elon Musk 1

Musk said that SpaceX will be “building both ships and boosters here [at Boca Chica] and a the Cape as fast as we can,” and that they’ve already been improving both the design and the manufacture of the sections for the spacecraft “exponentially” as a result of the competition.

The Mk1 features welded panels to make up the rings you can see in the detail photograph of the prototype below, for instance, but Mk3 and Mk4 will use full sheets of stainless steel that cover the whole diameter of the spacecraft, welded with a single weld. There was one such ring on site at the event, which indicates SpaceX is already well on its way to making this work.

This rapid prototyping will enable SpaceX to build and fly Mk2 in two months, Mk3 in three months, Mk4 in four months and so on. Musk added that either Mk3 or Mk5 will be that orbital test, and that they want to be able to get that done in less than six months. He added that eventually, crewed missions aboard Starship will take place from both Boca Chica and the Cape, and that the facilities will be focused only on producing Starships until Mk4 is complete, at which point they’ll begin developing the Super Heavy booster.

Starship Mk1 night

In total, Musk said that SpaceX will need 100 of its Raptor rocket engines between now and its first orbital flight. At its current pace, he said, SpaceX is producing one every eight days – but they should increase that output to one every two days within a few months, and are targeting production of one per day for early in Q1 2019.

Because of their aggressive construction and testing cycle, and because, Musk said, the intent is to achieve rapid reusability to the point where you could “fly the booster 20 times a day” and “fly the [starship] three or four times a day,” the company should theoretically be able to prove viability very quickly. Musk said he’s optimistic that they could be flying people on test flights of Starship as early as next year as a result.

Part of its rapid reusability comes from the heat shield design that SpaceX has devised for Starship, which includes a stainless steel finish on one half of the spacecraft, with ceramic tiles used on the bottom where the heat is most intense during re-entry. Musk said that both of these are highly resistant to the stresses of reentry and conducive to frequent reuse, without incurring tremendous cost – unlike their initial concept, which used carbon fibre in place of stainless steel.

Musk is known for suggesting timelines that don’t quite match up with reality, but Starship’s early tests haven’t been so far behind his predictions thus far.

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

 

One day left to get featured at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield

Founders. The clock is ticking. Applications for Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2019 are closing in just about 24 hours.

On December 11-12, TechCrunch will feature the top early-stage startups from around the world in the most renowned on-stage pitch competition in the world – Startup Battlefield. Companies are battling for $50,000 in equity-free prize money, the infamous Disrupt Cup and the attention of press and investors from around the world.

You’ll join the leave of highly successful Startup Battlefield Alumni, including N26, JukeDeck, Dropbox, GetAround, Mint.com, and more. All together, the 857 companies that have launched with Startup Battlefield have raised over $8.9 billion in funding, with 113 successful exits (IPOs and acquisitions).

It’s simply. Startups from any part of the world and any industry can apply. Companies must be early stage, pre-major publicity and have a minimally viable product to demo live on stage. TechCrunch editors review the applications and select the top 3-5% of companies that apply – more competitive than college!

After being selected, founders will go through a mini-accelerator with the Startup Battlefield team, where we will train you on your pitch, go-to-market strategy, on stage talent and set you up for the biggest, most public launch on the largest tech stage in the world. Teams pitch for 6 minutes including a live demo, followed by a 6 min Q&A with our esteemed judges – VCs, angels and heads of major companies.

If you make it to the final round, you simply pitch on stage again with the same pitch in front of a brand new set of judges. These judges debate and decide the final winner of the competition and the startup that gets to bring home $50,000 and the Disrupt Cup.

Participating in Startup Battlefield gets you a whole suite of perks. We’re talking free exhibition space in Startup Alley for both days of Disrupt, invitations to private events, backstage access, CrunchMatch — our free business-matching platform — free subscriptions to Extra Crunch and a ticket to all future TechCrunch events. That’s some major value right there.

There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Stop procrastinating apply to Startup Battlefield today. We want to see you in Berlin!

Vested, a newly minted startup, aims to tell startup employees precisely when to exercise their options

Research when to sell shares in a privately held company, and the results may have you laughing — not because they’re funny but they’re because there’s an almost comical amount of information available out there. From blog posts to advertisements to advertorials to calculators, the data is overwhelming to the point of being useless.

It’s a problem that Matt Venables and Tom Hennessy — both former execs at the peer-to-peer payments company Circle —  experienced first-hand across numerous startup jobs. The more they looked to understand what their equity was worth and how to sell it without making a massive financial misstep, the more frustrated they felt.

Enter Vested, their three-month-old, Boston-based startup, one that is already backed already with $1.2 million from UnderscoreVC and Boston Seed Capital, and which — if they’re exceedingly lucky — will become the first stop for many thousands of startup employees who are in the same boat that the two once were.

What these individuals will find, promises Vested: access to secondary outfits that offer employees liquidity and to loan providers, but as crucially, they say, plainly explained information around taxes, along with competitive data about different industries and other recent stock sale information. More specifically, Vested will make available on its platform a lot of data that’s right now tricky to find but that VCs and data analysts tend to use, including public records filings, salary information, and 409a valuations.

Hennessey explains the pitch this way: “Matt and I have both some sold shares on the secondary market, and the process was non-transparent and not a fair process. But we realized the problem is much bigger than that — that the bigger issue is really around private equity compensation. The misunderstanding starts from day one. We’d love to capture employees before they ever sign an offer letter, then keep them along the way, so they understand at what points it makes sense to exercise their options and why.”

Ultimately, the goal is guide more employees to exercise responsibly and to convert option holders into shareholders, because the popular alternative, apparently, is for employees to do nothing at all. Says Venables, “Something like 80 percent of options are ever exercised. It’s abysmally low because people are confused, they wait too long, and [the rising value of their holdings] triggers the [alternative minimum tax]. A lot of people leave their jobs within a couple of years and they just decide it’s not worth the hassle.”

Of course, it’s very early days. Venables and Hennessey say they’ve already spoken to numerous secondary exchanges that want to work with Vested, which will serve as a kind of offer aggregator. To motivate the exchanges to put their best foot forward, Venables adds that, “In time, the most compelling offers will be surfaced first” to employees open to selling some of their holdings.

The same will go for lenders offering non-recourse loans to Vested visitors who want to exercise more options than they can afford at the moment, say the founders.

As for Vested’s business model, the idea is to receive a finder’s fee from both the exchanges and the lenders. The company also plans to offer a low-cost subscription product that goes above and beyond what an employee can find by by visiting Vested’s site. One idea is for them to receive push notifications when a buyer expresses interest in their company’s shares, though Venables and Hennessey say they’re  contemplating a host of other bells and whistles, too.

Step one, naturally, is to build up awareness around Vested, and then attract employees in search of better, clearer, more actionable information. In the meantime, the duo may need to watch out for the 600-pound elephant in their space — Carta, which helps private company investors, founders, and employees manage their equity and ownership and that raised a big round of funding led by Andreessen Horowitz earlier this year to build out a secondary marketplace.

What if Carta tries killing off Vested before it ever has a chance, we asked the founders on a call earlier this week.

Vested instead sees the two as complementary. Says Venables, “We’ve talked with Carta. Carta is building a structured secondary marketplace, one that’s really [catering to] employers. We’re building Vested 100 percent for employees.”

Pictured above from left to right: Vested cofounders Tom Hennessey and Matt Venables, along with their VP of Design, Nat Tarbox.

DJI launches new industrial drones for agriculture and new services for industry customers

DJI announced two new drones and a new initiative to support first responders during natural disasters and recovery missions with drone technologies as it moves to consolidate its position as the leading drone technology provider.

The company hyped its new multispectral drone as the world’s first fully integrated multispectral imaging drone to enable more efficient land management and the Agras T16, which is a spray drone to apply fertilizers and pesticides to field crops and orchards.

For first responders, the company is working with pre-selected U.S.-based partners to equip state and local public safety agencies with hardware and software from the company.  Initially DJI is working with public and volunteer institutions like the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and the volunteer-based Public Safety Unmanned Response Team North Texas. Companies distributing and managing services include FlyMotion and Axon (which was formerly known as Taser International).

These partnerships are being pursued even as the U.S. military has officially banned the use of DJI drones over security concerns since 2017. The military still purchases DJI drones on a case-by-case basis, but there have been a number of red flags raised by U.S. defense and intelligence officials over the potential threat that using Chinese equipment may pose to national security.

“This program builds on DJI’s growing commitment to the public safety industry, as more than 900 public safety organizations across the United States, including the Los Angeles Fire Department, are deploying DJI drones for lifesaving activities,” said Romeo Durscher, Director of Public Safety Integration at DJI. “To date, at least 278 people around the world have been rescued from peril by drones and this program will ensure that many more lives are saved by mitigating the risks to emergency responders on the ground and on the front lines of natural disasters.”

Drone hardware and software distributed through the program will include DJI’s most advanced technologies including the DJI Matrice 200 series and Mavic 2 Enterprise series drones, accessories and batteries, powerful visual and thermal cameras, DJI’s FlightHub drone fleet management software, and DJI AeroScope for airspace management and unauthorized drone detection and mitigation. In addition, DJI will provide technical support, repair services, and on-site manpower to help organizations more effectively and efficiently deploy drone technology in times of need.

“Over the past year DJI has focused on delivering enterprise-grade drone technology that enables some of the most sophisticated businesses and government agencies in America to safely and securely deploy drone technology into their daily operations,” said Mario Rebello, Vice President and Americas Regional Manager at DJI. “This year we aim to put our easy-to-use drones in the hands of farmers, agronomists, and land stewards to help manage their lands in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way, while also making sure we equip emergency responders with access to the industry’s best tools and support they need to rapidly respond and save lives during natural disasters.”

DJI also took the opportunity to show off its drones as a platform for other technology developers, with FLIR Systems introducing its first multi-gas detector integrated with the DJI Matrice 210 drone for applications in chemical, industrial and environmental monitoring. DJI is allowing for even more development with the creation of a DJI X-Port, a gimbal attachment that allows hardware developers to integrate their own sensors, cameras, and arrays. The X-Port features built-in communication APIs, SkyPort integration, and . a gimbal debugging interface to bring more sensors to market.

Finally, the company introduced new service protection plans like the “Enterprise Shield Basic Renew”, which offers a reduced price product replacement for a damaged drone within one year of purchase and a “Shield Plus Renew” plan, which offers unlimited product replacements or free repair services within a year for the coverage amount a company purchases.

Honestbee owes almost $1 million in unpaid salary to employees, according to affidavit filed by its CEO

Honestbee, the Singapore-based grocery delivery startup that has been struggling with financial issues, owes 217 employees a total of almost USD $1 million in unpaid salary. The Strait Times reported that the figure was revealed in an affidavit filed in court on Sept. 20 by Honestbee CEO Ong Lay Ann as part of the startup’s debt moratorium application.

The Ministry of Manpower told the Strait Times that 44 employees have filed claims with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, with some of the employees settling mediation by agreeing to a payment schedule with Honestbee that will be monitored by the alliance.

In an emailed statement to TechCrunch, an Honestbee spokesperson said, “There is a communicated salary delay for Honestbee’s ex-employees and employees currently serving notice. While there are regular injections of working capital, the amount remains insufficient for all headcount. As a result, the company has made the difficult decision to prioritize existing staff in Singapore. The company has the full intention in meeting its obligations to staff and will be, if not already in active discussions with staff in relation to a feasible payment schedule.”

TechCrunch reported in April that Honestbee was running out of money and trying to find a buyer. The company, which used to operate in eight markets across Asia, has stopped operating in Hong Kong and Indonesia, temporarily halted services in Japan and the Philippines and suspended its food delivery service in Thailand.

The affidavit filed by Ong says Honestbee currently has 190 employees, down from 523 full-time employees and 77 part-time workers in January.

Ong also said that Honestbee chairman Brian Koo resigned from the board on on Sept. 12.

According to the affidavit, Koo and associates including investment vehicles he set up, are owed about $258 million, or about 90% of Honestbee’s debt. Koo, a founding managing partner of venture capital firm Formation Group, was one of Honestbee’s earliest investors and served as interim CEO from May to July after former chief executive Joel Sng stepped down.

Facebook has acquired Servicefriend, which builds ‘hybrid’ chatbots, for Calibra customer service

As Facebook prepares to launch its new cryptocurrency Libra in 2020, it’s putting the pieces in place to help it run. In one of the latest developments, it has acquired Servicefriend, a startup that built bots — chat clients for messaging apps based on artificial intelligence — to help customer service teams, TechCrunch has confirmed.

The news was first reported in Israel, where Servicefriend is based, after one of its investors, Roberto Singler, alerted local publication The Marker about the deal. We reached out to Ido Arad, one of the co-founders of the company, who referred our questions to a team at Facebook. Facebook then confirmed the acquisition with an Apple-like non-specific statement:

“We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Several people, including Arad, his co-founder Shahar Ben Ami, and at least one other indicate that they now work at Facebook within the Calibra digital wallet group on their LinkedIn profiles. Their jobs at the social network started this month, meaning this acquisition closed in recent weeks. (Several others indicate that they are still at Servicefriend, meaning they too may have likely made the move as well.)

Although Facebook isn’t specifying what they will be working on, the most obvious area will be in building a bot — or more likely, a network of bots — for the customer service layer for the Calibra digital wallet that Facebook is developing.

Facebook’s plan is to build a range of financial services for people to use Calibra to pay out and receive Libra — for example, to send money to contacts, pay bills, top up their phones, buy things and more.

It remains to be seen just how much people will trust Facebook as a provider of all these. So that is where having “human” and accessible customer service experience will be essential.

“We are here for you,” Calibra notes on its welcome page, where it promises 24-7 support in WhatsApp and Messenger for its users.

Screenshot 2019 09 21 at 23.25.18

Servicefriend has worked on Facebook’s platform in the past: specifically it built “hybrid” bots for Messenger for companies to use to complement teams of humans, to better scale their services on messaging platforms. In one Messenger bot that Servicefriend built for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, it noted that the hybrid bot was able to bring the “agent hours” down to under 20 hours for each 1,000 customer interactions.

Bots have been a relatively problematic area for Facebook. The company launched a personal assistant called M in 2015, and then bots that let users talk to businesses in 2016 on Messenger, with quite some fanfare, although the reality was that nothing really worked as well as promised, and in some cases worked significantly worse than whatever services they aimed to replace.

While AI-based assistants such as Alexa have become synonymous with how a computer can carry on a conversation and provide information to humans, the consensus around bots these days is that the most workable way forward is to build services that complement, rather than completely replace, teams.

For Facebook, getting its customer service on Calibra right can help it build and expand its credibility (note: another area where Servicefriend has build services is in using customer service as a marketing channel). Getting it wrong could mean issues not just with customers, but with partners and possibly regulators.

Want to crush competitors? Forget SoftBank, Blackstone suggests; it can write $500 million checks, too

Back in January, Blackstone — the investment firm whose assets under management surpassed a jaw-dropping half a trillion dollars earlier this year — quietly began piecing together a new, growth equity platform called Blackstone Growth, or BXG. Step one was hiring away Jon Korngold from General Atlantic, where he’d spent the previous 18 years, including as a managing director and a member of its management committee.

Step two has been for Korngold, who is responsible for running the new program, to build a team, which he has been doing throughout the year, bringing in “people who speak the language of Blackstone,” he says, including from TCV, Andreessen Horowitz, Carlyle, Vista Private Equity, NEA, and SoftBank .

Apparently, the group is now ready for business. It has already closed on two deals from existing pools of capital with Blackstone, including acquiring outright the mobile ad company Vungle. According to Korngold, two more term sheets “are being signed imminently.”

We talked with him last week for more information about what the group is shopping for, what size checks it is willing to write, and which firms it views as its biggest rivals for deals (and more). Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: You’ve been hiring throughout the year people who have large-scale growth equity backgrounds. Are many of them women?

JK: Blackstone is one of the most diverse organizations [in terms of] gender or ethnicity. In general, it’s a huge priority for the firm and within our group of 20 people, 40 percent are female, a number we hope to get to 50 percent. Hiring is still in process, but it’s a really healthy culture.

TC: How many people does Blackstone employ altogether?

JK: There are 2,600 altogether across 24 offices.

TC: Is your group investing a discreet pool of capital?

JK: At some point, we’ll have a dedicated pool of capital, but as a firm, we’ve been investing in growth equity for some time [so have relied on other funds within Blackstone to date].

TC: There’s no shortage of growth equity in the world right now. What is Blackstone building that’s so different?

JK: The sheer scale of the operation is different. We have nearly 100 operating professionals — employees of Blackstone — who were hired because they are functional experts — from pricing experts to process engineering experts to human capital and procurement and digital marketing experts — and who can advise our companies.

Also, Blackstone can holistically assist a company through [our] growth equity and real estate and procurement and debt [groups] and other related infrastructure support, enabling companies to fight way above their weight class.  We have 600,000 people across our portfolio, and that provides an interesting opportunity for our companies to cross pollinate [and to cross-sell to] one another.

Unlike most growth equity firms, we also have a significant number of data scientists who do three things: identify proprietary signals across asset classes to help instruct where we should be hunting; help our companies monetize their data; and help us in our diligence. They’ll access raw data feeds and almost see the matrix, if you will.

TC: How many data scientists are we talking about?

JK: A couple dozen [across Blackstone].

TC: Blackstone must be competing against fast-growing tech companies for data scientists. How do you convince them that work for an investing giant is the better gig?

JK: If you’re an intellectually curious individual, there are so many signals [coming through Blackstone] that it’s almost a proxy for the world. It’s like manna from heaven. It’s not like they’re doing a single-threaded approach. The nature of the challenges across our companies is so vast and so varying that whether you’re looking at a fast-growing retailer or a cell phone tower in another country,  the nature of the tasks is always changing.

TC: SoftBank seems to have shaken things up a bit when it came on to the scene, given the size checks it is writing. Your boss, Steven Schwarzman, who recently talked with us about this bigger new push into growth equity, made sure to note that there are few organizations that can write $500 million checks.

JK: [Laughs.] Everyone in Silicon Valley wants to talk about SoftBank. We celebrate a lot of what SoftBank has done. They’ve validated the thesis that there’s an opportunity for growth equity on a scale that hasn’t traditionally been available.

It’s similar to the way we’re set up. SoftBank was never meant to compete with the venture community; they’re competing with the capital markets, and as private companies look to stay private longer market, SoftBank wants to support their development.

TC: And . . .

JK: I think the reality is that a lot of businesses have unproven business models and unit economics, and they’re garnering massive amounts of capital from different constituents. It’s less about who is staying private longer but are they sustainable over the long run, whether public or private. I think a lot of companies right now now that have unproven business models have been flooded by cash at too small a scale where they aren’t ready to handle it, and it masks weaknesses.

TC: Where is that most acute, in your view?

JK: I see that at the smaller growth equity phase — the $25 million to $150 million [per firm per check] range — where most growth equity resides because you have every VC firm there now. Many of the growth funds that have moved downstream. You also have crossover funds like DST and Coatue and Tiger, along with corporate venture capital. That huge flood of capital has created these massive valuations and it has  compressed the due diligence involved.

If you look at Lyft and Uber — and Snap was in this category — the market is starting to speak. Public market shareholders are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt for a while but not indefinitely. You can’t feed the machine for growth’s sake.

TC: So what type of deals are you searching out?

JK: We won’t step into a situation where unit economics aren’t proven from day one. You won’t see us in a company that’s selling $1 for 80 cents and hoping someday that works. We’re Inherently more binary in profile. We’re capital-preservation minded while looking for asymmetric upside, and that’s where we have a disproportionate advantage. You’ll see us do deals where we can put our thumb on the scale, because of our real estate holdings or buyout assets or because portfolio for help with procurement costs or insurance or R&D or a company’s go-to-market strategy.

TC: What have you done that proves all these bells and whistles make a difference? 

JK: We have a couple of signed deals, including [the mobile ad company] Vungle [for a reported $750 million-ish], though we’re more often looking for growth-equity minority ownership positions. [Think] companies that are looking for a partner and not an owner. We’ll do growth buyouts but the vast majority will be significant minority positions.

We have a couple of other deals that will be signed imminently that we can’t discuss just yet.

TC: Are you hoping to take these companies public? Flip them to another private equity firm? Relatedly, do you have any thoughts about the public market and whether more companies should be going out?

JK: We’ll only look to an IPO if there’s a reason for it. Oftentimes, companies shouldn’t be public; sometimes, they should be, including if they need an acquisition currency or [to better establish their] branding. But the idea of, let’s rush to the door [is not our style].

TC: Who are your most direct competitors? Not Vista Private Equity, since it seems to prefer buying companies whole.

JK: Vista is going exclusively for control buyouts, massive turnarounds. It descends upon a company and says, ‘This is the playbook you will follow.’ It also uses a lot of leverage, where the vast majority or our [deals] are un-levered. We don’t use much debt. Vista and Silver Lake are much more competitors with each other.

TC: KKR then? Carlyle? 

KR: They’re also multi-asset managers, but as it relates to growth equity, we’ve really found ourselves in slightly more rarefied air. Blackstone has demonstrated that it can use its scale to create an operational advantage, and virtually no other company — or few — can contemplate checks like we can.

TC: What do you want for these checks, other than a minority position? How involved are you and what size stake, exactly, are you aiming to buy?

JK: We want to have a relevant voice, so we want to be in the boardroom, but there is no target range. It can be 10 or 20 or 30 percent. It can be 80 percent. Ideally you want to be the main outside pool of capital along with management team.

An explosive breach of contract lawsuit against former Sequoia Capital partner Michael Goguen has been dropped

Three-and-a-half years ago, a lawsuit hit the San Mateo, Ca. county courthouse that briefly attracted the attention of the worldwide venture capital community given its salacious nature. The defendant: longtime VC Michael Goguen, who’d spent 20 years with Sequoia Capital in Menlo Park, Ca. The plaintiff: a former intimate who described him through the filing as a “worse predator than the human traffickers.” She said in the filing that she would know, having become a “victim of human trafficking” at age 15 when she was “brought to America in 2001,” then “sold as a dancer to a strip club” in Texas, which is where she says first encountered Goguen.

What she wanted from the lawsuit was money that she said was owed to her by Goguen: $40 million over four installments that the lawsuit stated were for “compensation for the sexual abuse and [a sexual] infection she contracted from him.” According to her suit, Goguen agreed to these terms, paying Baptiste a first installment of $10 million before refusing to make further payments.

At the time, Goguen called the allegations “horrific” and suggested Baptiste was a spurned lover, saying they’d had a “10+ year romantic relationship that ended badly.” He also filed a cross complaint alleging extortion.

Today, that cross complaint lives on, but Baptiste’s case against Goguen was just dismissed by arbitrator Read Ambler, a retired judge who served 20 years with the Santa Clara County Superior Court and who wrote in a ruling filed yesterday in San Mateo that Baptiste’s failures to undergo medical examinations doomed her case, as did her failure to produce documents necessary in the discovery process.

“The record presented further establishes that Baptiste’s’ failures were willful,” Ambler writes. “Baptiste appears to believe that the information responsive to the discovery at issue is either not relevant, or with respect to the medical examinations, not permitted by law. While Baptiste is free to believe what she wants to believe, the orders are binding on Baptiste, and her failure to comply with the orders is unacceptable.”

Baptiste doesn’t currently have legal representation, though four sets of lawyers have represented her over time.

Patricia Glaser, a high-powered attorney who took on Baptiste’s case originally (and later agreed to represent Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein), asked to be relieved from the case five months later, citing “irreconcilable differences.” More recently, an L.A.-based couple that operates the Sherman Law Group in L.A. filed a motion to be relieved as Baptiste’s counsel, citing “irreconcilable differences and a breakdown in communication.”

Goguen’s attorneys say he will continue to pursue his counterclaims against Baptiste and looks forward to “complete vindication.”

Though Ambler never remarked on the merits or Baptiste’s claims, Goguen’s attorney Diane Doolittle further said today in a statement that: “Amber Laurel Baptiste’s sensationalized lawsuit against Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Goguen collapsed under the weight of its own falsehood yesterday, when a judge dismissed the case because of Baptiste’s repeated, egregious and willful misconduct. Over the course of this case, Baptiste perjured herself, concealed, destroyed and falsified key evidence, and demonstrated her contempt for the legal system by systematically violating numerous court orders.”

Baptiste could not be reached for comment.

Baptiste’s lawsuit against Goguen prompted Sequoia to part ways with him almost immediately. Later the very day that TechCrunch broke news of the suit in 2016, a Sequoia spokesman told us that while the firm understood “these allegations of serious improprieties” to be “unproven and unrelated to Sequoia” its management committee had nevertheless “decided that Mike’s departure was the appropriate course of action.”

Goguen, who sold an $11 million home in Atherton, Ca., in 2017, has spent much of his time in recent years at another home in Whitefish, Montana, where he has seemingly been wooing locals. An August story about Goguen in The Missoulian about a separate case describes him “known locally for philanthropic ventures.”

Continues the story: “Such donations have funded Montana’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and a Flathead group teaching girls to code. Two Bear Air, his northwestern Montana search and rescue outfit free to anyone who has needed it, has performed well over 500 missions and 400 rescues, according to executive director and chief pilot Jim Pierce. Goguen has personally completed 30 rescues, the Daily Inter Lake reported in February. The Flathead Beacon reports he was honored with the Great Whitefish Award earlier this year.”

Shipper, a platform for e-commerce logistics in Indonesia, raises $5 million

Indonesia has one of the fastest-growing e-commerce markets in the world, but the logistics industry there is still very fragmented, creating headaches for both vendors and customers. Shipper is a startup with the ambitious goal of giving online sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics.” The company has raised $5 million in seed funding from Lightspeed Ventures, Floodgate Ventures, Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator (Shipper is part of the accelerator’s winter 2019 batch), which will be used for hiring and customer acquisition.

Shipper was launched in 2017 by co-founders Phil Opamuratawongse and Budi Handoko, and is now used by more than 25,000 online sellers. Indonesia’s e-commerce market is growing rapidly, but online sellers still face many logistical hurdles.

The country is large (Indonesia has more than 17,500 islands, of which 600 are inhabited) and unlike the United States, where Amazon dominates, e-commerce sellers often use multiple platforms, like Tokopedia, Shopee, Bukalapak and Lazada. Smaller vendors also sell through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media. Once an order has been placed, the challenge of making sure it gets to customers starts. There are more than 2,500 logistics providers in Indonesia, many of whom only cover a small area.

“It is really hard for any one provider to do nationwide themselves, so the big ones usually use local partners to fulfill locations where they don’t have infrastructure,” says Opamuratawongse.

The startup’s mission is to create a platform that makes the process of fulfilling and tracking orders much more efficient. In addition to a package pick-up service and fulfillment centers, Shipper also has a technology stack to help logistics providers manage shipments. It is used to predict the best shipping routes and consolidate packages headed in the same direction and also provides a multi-carrier API that allows sellers to manage orders, print shipping labels and get tracking information from multiple providers on their phones.

When it launched three years ago, Shipper began by focusing on the last-mile for smaller vendors, who Opamuratawongse says typically keep inventory in their homes and fulfill about five to 10 orders per day. Since many give customers a choice of several logistics providers, that meant they needed to visit multiple drop-off locations every morning.

Shipper offers pick-up service performed by couriers (who Opamuratawongse says are people like stay-at-home parents who want flexible, part-time work) who collect packages from several vendors in the same neighborhood and distribute them to different logistics providers, serving as micro-fulfillment hubs. Shipper signs up about 10 to 30 new couriers each week, keeping them at least 2.5 kilometers apart so they don’t compete against each other.

The company began setting up fulfillment centers to keep up with vendors whose businesses were growing and were turning to third-party warehouse services. Shipper has established 10 fulfillment centers so far across Indonesia, including Jakarta, with plans to open a new one about every two weeks until it covers all of Indonesia.

Opamuratawongse says he expects the logistics industry in Indonesia to remain fragmented for the next decade at least, and perhaps longer because of Indonesia’s size and geography. Shipper will focus on expanding in Indonesia first, with the goal of having 1,000 microhubs within the next year and 15 to 20 fulfillment centers. Then the company plans to tackle other Southeast Asian countries with rapidly-growing e-commerce markets, including Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.