Logistics on-demand service GoGoVan became Hong Kong’s first billion-dollar startup via a merger last year, and now is doubling down on growth after raising $250 million in new capital.
The new round was led by InnoVision Capital, with participation from the Russia-China Investment Fund, Hongrun Capital and Qianhai Fund of Funds. Two other notable investors include Alibaba’s Cainiao logistics subsidiary — Alibaba is already an investor via its Hong Kong entrepreneurship fund — and 58 Daojia Group, the parent of the ’58 Suyun’ business that merged with GoGoVan.
There’s more capital coming soon it seems, with GoGoVan saying in an announcement that the $250 million is “the first phase of its new round of funding.” Despite reaching unicorn status via the merger, GoGoVan didn’t disclose a valuation for this new round.
The company plans to use the money to expand its business into new markets, and in particular India and Southeast Asia, having focused on China primarily to date. Together with 58 Suyun, GoGoVan claims to cover 300 cities with some eight million registered users and 2,000 staff.
The service itself is anchored around short distance logistics and trips, but GoGoVan CEO Steven Lam explained that the company plans to soon introduce a door-to-door option and other offerings that “simplify logistics and delivery services.”
GoGoVan’s main rival is Lalamove, a fellow Hong Kong-based logistics startup. Lalamove raised $100 million last year at a valuation of nearly $1 billion. While GoGoVan’s exit was its merger, Lalamove is looking to remain independent and it has begun thinking about an IPO, which could take place in Hong Kong, its head of international Blake Larson told TechCrunch.
GoGoVan and Lalamove are two of the last that remain standing from what was once a very cluttered field as the rise of Uber saw dozens of companies sprout up as an ‘Uber for logistics’ services. The secret to their survival? Getting deep into the Chinese market is one crucial factor, but from talking to the two companies over the years, both cast the ‘Uber for X’ buzzword aside and concentrated on working with SMEs and repeat business customers rather than the shallow (and fickle) consumer market.
Proportunity, a London-based startup and Entrepreneur First alumni, wants to help first time buyers get on the property ladder earlier or purchase a home more to their liking.
The company, which recently became an FCA authorised mortgage lender, claims to use machine learning to accurately forecast future house prices and the areas of London that will see the highest growth in the next few years. Based on confidence in this modelling, it will soon begin offering equity loans to boost your deposit when buying a first home.
Specifically, once Proportunity has used its technology to help identify a property for sale that both fits your needs and offers good house price growth prospects, the startup will offer an equity loan of up to 15 percent of the property’s price. You then combine this loan with the money you have already saved for a deposit so that you can apply for a mortgage with a lower loan-to-value ratio, which in turn will command a lower interest rate.
The way it works is quite similar to the U.K. government’s “Help To Buy” scheme, except it isn’t restricted to a new build and you have to pay monthly interest on the loan from the get-go. Like Help To Buy, when you sell the house or remortgage it in five years time, you have to repay the Proportunity equity loan at 15 percent of the current market price. Therefore, if the price of the house has gone up, the amount you pay back will have also increased. In the unlikelihood that the price has gone down, the startup loses money.
Overall, however, since a Proportunity loan is interest-only until you pay it back, the company says the combined monthly repayments are less than if you took out a 95 percent mortgage to buy the same home. And unlike shared ownership schemes, you don’t have to pay rent on the 15 percent of your home funded by a Proportunity loan.
More broadly Proportunity is attempting to solve a very London-centric problem: house prices are so high and continue to rise that by the time you save up for a 20 percent deposit to secure a mortgage you can afford, property prices in the area you want to buy will have increased enough to put it out of reach again. Or you’ll be left buying a smaller property.
“One of the biggest societal challenges we face is getting the next generation onto the housing ladder,” explains CEO Vadim Toader, who founded Proportunity with CTO Stefan Boronea. “The biggest reason this is hard is that it’s increasingly difficult to save up for a deposit, even for buyers with qualifying salaries. But what if we could use technology to give people a leg up onto the housing ladder? It all starts with forecasting”.
To put its machine-learning house price forecasting to the test, in July last year Proportunity worked with Post Office Money to help first time buyers identify the best areas to buy, not just in terms of affordability but also in terms of future growth. “This was insightful, as we learned that there are 200,000 fewer first time buyers per year than there used to be, and 70 percent cite deposits as their biggest issue. If we can help these people find deposits, we can reverse the tide”.
That, of course, is where the U.K. government’s own scheme is meant to kick in. However, Help To Buy can only support around 40,000 first time buyers, says Toader, partly because it has a limited budget and partly because it only addresses new properties.
“The interesting thing is that many of those left out have two great characteristics,” he says. “First they have a good income and excellent prospects, and secondly they want to buy in an area where we project property prices will grow significantly. The simple issue is they can not afford a 20 percent deposit. We believe our technology can help”.
To that end, Proportunity has secured £5 million in credit to begin making equity loans. The startup itself — which is part of EF cohort 7 — has raised £2.7 million in funding to bring its equity loans to market and further develop its price forecasting technology.
Backers include Global Founders Capital, Concrete VC (backed by Starwood Capital Group), Savills, EF, Trusted Insights, and Le Studio VC, along with angel investors Matt Robinson (Nested), Chris Mairs (EF) , Charlie Songhurst, Nicolas Berggruen, and Julian Critchlow.
Lastly, I’m told that half of the Proportunity team, including Toader himself, is taking out a Proportunity loan. “We’re going through the process ourselves, sitting in the customer’s shoes to better understand it and fix it before releasing it to them. [I] guess it also shows we’re eating our own dog food”.
Eatigo, a Southeast Asia-based dining service that describes itself as an ‘anti-Groupon’ for restaurants, had a busy 2017 that saw it expand into a number of markets including India. Now it is primed to continue that growth further still after it gobbled down a fresh serving of capital from TripAdvisor, the travel giant that it already counts as an investor.
Ok, no more food jokes, I promise…
The funding is undisclosed but Eatigo CEO and co-founder Michael Cluzel told TechCrunch it is ‘eight-digits.’ We do know that it takes Eatigo to over $25 million raised to date which, given that the startup had raised more than $15 million following the completion of its previous round, suggests that the amount is around the $10 million mark.
Eatigo was founded in Bangkok in 2013 and it is designed to help restaurants fill unused inventory by offering deals to customers at certain times of the day. The appeal to eaters is deals, but unlike group buying services such as Groupon, Eatigo encourages restaurants to manage their inventory and time so that they are filling their quiet hours for additional revenue not ramming people into restaurants for the sake of it. The latter scenario, of course, puts pressure on staff, reduces service quality and is generally not conducive to a good dining experience. It is also questionable whether discounts drive long-time loyalty, a cornerstone the Groupon of old was built on, but I digress.
The Eatigo service is present in six countries where it claims four million registered users and over 4,000 restaurants. That latter number ranges from high-end affairs, such as upscale hotel restaurants, to chain outlets and — my own personal favorite — street food outlets.
The important part here, besides the money, is that this new deal appears to signal a closer relationship between Eatigo and TripAdvisor, and particularly TripAdvisor’s The Fork subsidiary and its TripAdvisor Restaurants service.
The Fork, which the company got via a 2014 acquisition, is TripAdvisor’s expansion into food, allowing users to find information on availability and bookings on restaurants and in cities. Like Eatigo, it allows for advanced bookings at a discount but the service is squarely focused on Europe, having initially been founded in France. In that respect, it makes sense for the duo to collaborate.
“As we look to further our presence in the Asia Pacific region, we believe our latest strategic investment in Eatigo will continue to support a great business and strong management team. TripAdvisor’s continued partnership with Eatigo will help us both better serve millions of diners and restaurant owners who are increasingly turning to online channels,” said Bertrand Jelensperger, whos is senior VP of TripAdvisor Restaurants and the founder of TheFork, in a statement.
Cluzel, the Eatigo CEO, told TechCrunch that his company is looking to expand in Southeast Asia and the wider Asian market but, on the product side, it is preparing a new service that will “move beyond our original scope of doing just time-based discounts.”
What exactly that is — and how/whether it is tied to TripAdvisor or The Fork — he wouldn’t say at this point.
There’s more money flowing into Southeast Asia’s tech startup scene after Singapore’s Golden Equator Capital and Seoul-based Korea Investment Partners announced plans for a collaborative $88 million (SG$120 million) fund for the region.
The two investment firms will act as joint partners for the vehicle, which is expected to hit a first close before September and a final close by the end of 2018. Already, they claim to have 65 percent of the target capital committed by LPs.
The firms are aiming for the Series A and B spaces with a typical check size of between $1.5 million and $3.7 million for what will be known as the GEC-KIP Fund. It isn’t exactly clear what focus the fund will adopt for investments.
Southeast Asia often falls off the radar for investment in Asia, with the far larger countries of China and India typically getting the attention, but rising internet access among the region’s cumulative population of over 600 million signals growth potential. A recent report co-authored by Google forecasts Southeast Asia’s ‘internet economy’ reaching more than $200 billion by 2025, up from just $30 billion in 2015. A few unicorns, including ride-sharing companies Grab and Go-Jek, have also helped put it on the map for investors.
Speaking of investors, Golden Equator Capital is part of Golden Equator, a Singapore-based group of businesses that includes financial services, consulting, an incubator and, of course, investment funds. The firm has existing ties with Korea — via a Korea-focused health tech incubator launched last year — and its advisory team includes Taizo Son, head of Japanese VC firm Mistletoe and brother of SoftBank chairman Masayoshi Son.
Korea Investment Partners, meanwhile, manages 41 funds with more than $2 billion in assets under management worldwide.
“We are excited to embark on this cross-learning development with KIP who is a seasoned VC investor with a long, established track record across several markets such as US, China, and Korea,” Daren Tan, managing partner of Golden Equator Capital, said in a statement.
“Given the fragmented tech investment landscape in Southeast Asia, uniting our strengths and network with KIP further bolsters our position. So, when we invest, it is not just capital; we are essentially also lending our portfolio companies the collective expertise and strategic networks, to accelerate their growth and success in the long run,” Tan added.
I can remember when Southeast Asia was described as having a VC crunch just a few years ago, but today the landscape is far healthier in terms of available investment money.
GEC-KIP Fund is playing in the same field as a number of Southeast Asia-focused VCs, which include Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Monks Hill Ventures, Venturra Capital, Insignia Venture Partners and Vertex Ventures from Singapore sovereign fund Temasek. There are, of course, plenty of others beyond that small list.
Elon Musk seems not only intent on burning all the goodwill he earned for trying to help last week’s Thai cave rescue, but rolling around in its ashes, too. In a series of extraordinarily offensive, now deleted tweets, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO called a British diver who participated in last week’s dangerous rescue mission a “pedo guy,” adding in another tweet “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Musk’s tantrum was triggered by an interview the diver, Vern Unsworth, gave CNN International last Friday, in which he said Musk could stick the small submarine he had SpaceX engineers build “where it hurts.” Though the submarine was intended to help the 12 boys stranded with their soccer coach navigate flooded cave passageways, Unsworth, who helped plan the rescue operation and recruited other cave diving experts, said it “had absolutely no chance of working.”
Unworth added that Musk “had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5 foot 6 long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles. It wouldn’t hadn’t have made the first 50 meters into the cave from the dive start point.” When the reporter mentioned that Musk had gone into the cave on Tuesday, Unsworth said he was “asked to leave very quickly. And so he should have been.”
The rescue mission, made even more challenging by monsoon season, claimed the life of a Thai Navy seal before all boys were saved last week.
This is not the first time that Musk has clashed with a member of the cave rescue team. As confirmation came in that the last group of boys and their coach had been freed on July 10, the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn, told reporters that “although [Musk’s] technology is good and sophisticated it’s not practical for this mission.”
In response, Musk dismissed the credentials of Ostanakorn, who led the joint command center coordinating the operation and is former acting governor of Chiang Rai, the province where the cave is located. In a tweet he said Ostanakorn was “described inaccurately as ‘rescue chief'” and “is not the subject matter expert” (the Columbus Dispatch reports that Ostanakorn holds a Master’s degree from Ohio State University, where he studied geodetic engineering and surveying).
Though Musk’s dismissal of Ostanakorn brought him a round of criticism, many still gave him credit for his efforts. After all, engineering a submarine in a few days to save a group of children is an impressive and laudable feat. While Musk is known for going on strange Twitter rants, his attack on Unsworth is an entirely different stratosphere. In addition to defaming Unsworth in a particularly heinous way, the implication that a British diver would only go to Thailand, one of the world’s top diving destinations, for child sex tourism is problematic and arguably racist, as many people have pointed out.
Elon Musk implying that British expats who live in Thailand are all kiddie fiddlers?
Erm… wow… isn’t that kind of a little bit racist?
— Robert Percy (@astweetedbyRP) July 15, 2018
Sure, Elon Musk calling a diver who help rescue 12 boys a ‘pedo’ just because he lives in Thailand is insulting, inflammatory and borderline libelous, but let’s not forget that it is also horrifically racist.
— Bay Area for Bernie (@BayArea4Bernie) July 15, 2018
TechCrunch has contacted SpaceX for comment on Musk’s remarks.
So… apparently there’s been another kerfuffle on the Twitter about some asinine things that a certain wealthy, rocket-building, payment-revolutionizing, electric vehicle company-creating entrepreneur has written in tweets to millions of followers.
This billionaire is, by all accounts, incredibly difficult to work for, very visionary and … a bit thin-skinned for someone with such a habit of courting press.
— drew olanoff (@yoda) July 15, 2018
I’m not saying that’s his fault. He’s been shredded by hundreds of people in thousands of messages on a platform that’s given him millions of (fake and) real followers and a megaphone that would be powerful enough to change the world (or at least the world’s coverage of him) with a single bloviating bit of textual hot air.
And boy, as a billionaire entrepreneur, does this fella blow the hot air.
Wait… I am saying some of this is his fault.
That said, he’s done some truly amazing things for the world. AND IS A BILLIONAIRE.
With that in mind, here’re a few humble suggestions for him to keep in mind as he approaches the touchpad, keyboard, or any other tweet-enabling appliance as he looks to foray further into the wild feathered world of the Twitter-birds.
Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch
THINGS THAT ARE OKAY TO TWEET
THINGS THAT ARE NOT OKAY TO TWEET
Fella, you’re an incredibly powerful person with a significant, and rabid, following on a platform that isn’t known for rewarding perspicacity and reason (maybe using your platform you can change that?).
Typically, these days, you’ve been uniting more people in anger than you have behind your good intentions. As a public figure with an aggressive following, maybe work on increasing the peace?
There’s already one bloviating, egomaniacal, too-powerful, sycophant-encouraging, id and idiocy-inducing jerkface on Twitter. Let them keep that particular throne and maybe keep you keep the toxicity to yourself?
Netflix has been killing competitors with its original TV shows and movies. A Morgan Stanley survey released back in May had 39 percent of U.S. consumers naming Netflix as offering the “best original programming” among subscription video services, with everyone else eating its dust, including HBO, which nabbed 14 percent, Amazon Prime Video (5 percent) and Showtime Networks, with a measly 3 percent of the votes.
That could well change with the newest seven-part series by Sacha Baron Cohen, the English actor, comedian, screenwriter, and producer who has played fictional characters Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev, and Bruno, and who is back in brilliant form, including as Israeli anti-terrorist expert Col. Erran Morad.
If you doubt that the series — “Who is America” — is going to be the talk of the internet (and offline word), check out this clip streamed last night ahead of its premiere tonight at 10 p.m. EST. Among other things, it features former Congressman Trent Lott promoting putting guns in the hands of “law-abiding citizens, good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children and or highly trained preschoolers.“
The clip may well leave you speechless at first.
Once America had an unassailable advantage, an economic flywheel that spun off innovation and Fortune 500 companies like a perpetual-motion machine. Bring in the best, brightest, and most driven from around the world; educate them or their children at its universities; then watch them start companies, succeed wildly, give back to their alma maters, and recruit new talent as the virtuous cycle began again.
It hardly mattered whether these immigrants came in as students (think Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, and Steve Jobs’ father Abdul Fattah Jandali) or with their families (Sergey Brin and Jerry Yang) or as refugees (eg Alexis Ohanian’s father’s family) or as undocumented immigrants (eg Ohanian’s mother.) Meanwhile, the UK, thanks to its Commonwealth connections and universities like Oxbridge and Imperial College, did much the same on a smaller scale. It was a self-sustaining wealth-generation and nation-strengthening machine of gigantic proportions, and it would take colossal idiocy to want to interfere with it.
— Alexis Ohanian Sr. (@alexisohanian) January 31, 2017
Enter Brexit. Enter Donald Trump. Enter their implicit and explicit rejections of immigration, including serious barriers to and discouragement of legal and skilled immigration, such as H-1B visa holders and international students — along with the general sense of “you’re not welcome here” that they’re clearly doing their damnedest to convey.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, that other great immigrant nation, France, has been working overtime for the last four years to open both its economy and its borders to tech startups. I was skeptical of these efforts a couple of years ago, but two days ago I sat down with former Cisco CEO John Chambers and Accel partner Joe Schoendorf to talk tech in France, and they’ve convinced me that under President Macron, “everything has changed.”
It’s not just that Macron’s reforms have made it far easier to hire and fire in France, making labor costs far more understandable and predictable — although this is a huge deal and a major sea-change. It’s not just that France is offering easy-to-access French Tech visas to founders, employees, and investors alike, so that it’s never been easier for techies to live and work in France — which, as a former Paris resident myself, I can tell you is pretty great.
It’s not just access to a sizable pool of relatively inexpensive engineers. It’s not just openness across academia as well as the private sector 941% of France’s 75,000 Ph.D students are not French.) It’s not just Paris beginning to surpass London in investor interest generally, not just in technology.
It’s also the transformation of the French population as well as the government. 50% of French youth aged 18-24, and 70% of students at the École Polytechnique, France’s flagship technical university, want to go work for startups rather than enterprises — and their ambitions are now European and/or global, not merely French. There’s strength in depth there, too; Chambers compares the raw engineering talent at the Polytechnique to that at Stanford, and France is one Fields Medal away from overtaking the USA in total numbers won.
I can aver that all this is a massive change from when I lived in France a decade ago. Schoendorf says he can think of only one comparable example of a major developed democracy changing so much, in such a short time, as France over the last four years: the UK under Thatcher. Regardless of whether you lionize or demonize Thatcher, that gives you an idea of the scale of the transformation. (And it’s nationwide: 75% of France’s members of parliament are new, and there are twice as many women as ever before.)
I don’t want to pretend that Silicon Valley is at risk of being supplanted by the Île-de-France. The Valley is and will remain the sun at the center of tech’s solar system. But France has now graduated from “asteroid” to “planet,” and is well on its way to “gas giant.” Not least because of its spectacular timing: inviting immigrants just as the US and UK are in the midst of the spectacularly stupid process of dissuading them, and just as the Valley has gotten so expensive, courtesy of NIMBY housing paralysis, that leaders there are looking for any way to diversify to other locales.
Basically every SF/Bay Area tech leader who’s operating at nontrivial scale that I talk to these days is working on ways to get jobs out of the Bay Area (always) and US (frequently).
— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) July 3, 2018
All this is beginning to have a measurable effect. There were 274 French companies at the latest CES, up from 13 less than a decade ago. There were more than 700 VC investments in French tech companies last year, which rivals the UK, and more than 50 had American VC involvement. Also, I don’t want to put too much weight on anecdotal data, but two serious, impressive tech people I know have, independently, moved from America to Paris in the last few months.
My chief complaint two years ago was that the French government wanted startups to make their big enterprises better and more competitive, rather than wanting startups to become their big enterprises. That has changed. As Schoendorf says, “Macron sees the world’s five most valuable companies, all tech companies on the West Coast of America, and thinks: we need one of those.” Pascal Cagni, chairman of Business France, has a more accessible intermediary goal: a French “NATU”, meaning Netflix / AirBNB / Tesla / Uber.
And he’s right. France’s transformation into Europe’s primary technology power is real and ongoing, among all of government, academia, big business, and startups; but what they really need is a big hit and a cohort of successful entrepreneurs, a French equivalent of what the PayPal Mafia became. (Xavier Niel is having an enormous effect — see Ecole 42 and Station F, “the world’s largest startup facility” in southeast Paris — but he can’t do it alone.) If and when that happens, though, France will lead Europe for the foreseeable future … and help lead the globe, too.
Three e-mobility startups are accelerating into the U.S. motorcycle market.
You may see their machines zip by on American roads before the big two-wheel gas powered companies get EVs to showroom floors.
These startups could reboot U.S. motorcycle sales while shifting the global motorcycle industry toward electric.
Since the recession, America’s motorcycle sector has been in the doldrums. New bike sales have dropped roughly 50 percent since 2008—with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40. [Chart: MOTOSALES] Most of the market is now aging baby-boomers, whose “Live to Ride” days are winding down.
Two bright spots in the space are women and resales. Females are one of the few growing U.S. ownership market segments. And per an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study, total motorcycles on the road actually increased from 2008 to 2017, though nearly 75 percent of registrations are for bikes over 7 years old.
So Americans are buying motorcycles, but for some reason not choosing new ones.
On the e-moto front, two-wheel gas manufacturers have mostly stagnated around EV concepts. None of the big names—Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, BMW—offer a production electric street motorcycle in the U.S.
Harley Davidson jolted the industry in February by committing to produce an EV for sale by August 2019.
On U.S. e-motorcycle sales, Global Market Insights (GMI) recently tallied 2017 combined American e-scooter and moto sales at 245K units worth $155M. Following worldwide trends, GMI projects that to grow to 598K and $304M by 2024, with the share of U.S. e-motorcycles to scooters increasing.
The startups and motorcycles
Alta, Energica, and Zero have niche markets for their unique tech and design.
Italy’s Energica is targeting the high performance, higher priced superbike segment. On disrupting existing market leaders such as Ducati or Kawasaki, “Of course we want to do that,” CEO Livia Cevolini told me.
Energica offers three models in the U.S.: the EVA ($26,240), EVA ESSEESSE9 ($24,940) and top line 145 horsepower, 150mph EGO ($26,460).
All three share innovative features, including a patented cooling system to optimize performance of their motors and high energy lithium polymer batteries.
08-01-2017 Torino, calcio campionato serie a Tim, gara Juventus-Bologna, nella foto: .photo damiano fiorntini
Energica’s proprietary Vehicle Control Unit syncs to a digital dash and MYEnergica app. The VCU regulates everything from power output and preset riding modes to ABS and regenerative braking.
As a member of the ChargePoint EV network, Energica integrates the group’s 20 minute DC Fast Charging tech “because if want to ride Saturday with your sport bike friends nobody is going to wait 2 hours for you to charge,” said U.S. CEO Stefano Benatti.
He explained the company is expanding its American dealer network from San Francisco, to Chicago, Florida, and New York. Energica is also entering racing. Its EGO motorcycle was named the class bike for FIM’s 2019 Moto-e World Cup.
Brisbane, California based Alta Motors focuses primarily on producing electric powered off-road machines. Four of Alta’s five models—including the three that are street legal—are specialized for dirt riding. The MX and Redshift MXR motorcycles are full on motocross racers.
The startup has raised $45M and counts Tesla co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard among its investors.
From a design perspective Alta’s two-wheelers are distinctly minimalist and produce significant power to weight. “We pioneered a new approach to building 18650 based packs,” Chief Product Officer Marc Fenigstein told TechCrunch—referring to the lithium-ion battery cells used by Tesla.
Alta recently launched its second generation—waterproof, 350 volt, 66 pound—battery. “That pack gives us unique…range per pound for a battery pack and unique economics, not just for the world of electric motorcycles…but pretty much everything smaller than a passenger car,” he said.
Fenigstein estimated “the premium off-road motorcycle market is bigger than people think, at [roughly] $2BN.” He would not divulge Alta Motors revenue or sales figures.
Shortly after their EV commitment, Harley Davidson took an (undisclosed) equity stake in Alta, along with a board seat, and entered into a co-development partnership.
Alta’s CEO revealed Harley’s recent EV announcement “isn’t the program we’re working on”, but confirmed the Alta-HD partnership “should result in a motorcycle.”
Of the three startups, Scotts Valley, California based Zero Motorcycles has the widest market and model breadth. The company has six base models, three with dual sport capabilities, distribution in 30 countries, and had sales of $90M in 2017 (according to GMI—Zero wouldn’t confirm revenue data).
“We’re the number one full sized electric motorcycle manufacturer in the world. We sell more every year than all our competitors combined,” CEO Sam Pascheltold TechCrunch—though Zero did not provide exact figures.
Like Alta, Zero manufactures its EVs in the USA. The startup’s ZForce battery connects to an internal magnet driven motor. Both are governed by a proprietary Main Bike Board (MBB) processor “the brain…that houses all of our algorithms,” said Zero’s VP for Product Development Brian Wisman.
“The specific energy that’s achieved on Zero’s lithium ion batteries is far greater than anything achieved by automotive EVs right now,” he said.
Zero motorcycles connect via Bluetooth to an app that allows riders to monitor and adjust performance from devices. The company’s EV’s can be fast charged from charging stations or by plugging into the same home outlet that powers your toaster.
In addition to citizen motorcyclists, Zero has started specialized fleet sales to the U.S. military and police departments.
I got a chance to test models from all three companies. The most significant distinctions between their e-motos and gas two-wheelers are power delivery and no shifting.
Zero, Alta, and Energica’s machines are fully automatic—no clutch or gears.
Simply flick the on switch and twist the throttle to go. When you do an immediate and uninterrupted stream of voltage powered torque launches you forward. The wind is louder than the motor—though each e-motorcycle has a distinct sound—and when you stop there’s silence.
Energica’s big battery acceleration is akin to striking a lightning bolt to the pavement. Alta’s lightweight RedShift MXR is quick, nimble, and flight capable on a motocross track. And Zero’s SR feels distinctly balanced across power, performance, and rideability. I didn’t find myself misting gas motorcycles at any point of the tests.
The biz play
Energica, Alta, and Zero face their own steep climbs to profitability—and the e-moto space has already seen two flops in Mission Motorcycles’ collapse and Brammo sputtering out.
“We do have a burn rate. Like any sub-scale EV manufacturer such as Tesla, we are pre-profit,” said Zero CEO Sam Paschel. “The way to win is scale.”
And while these electric startups probably can’t revive new U.S. motorcycles sales to seven-figures annually—that would take 12 years of five percent growth—they could play a role in transforming the global motorcycle industry.
As their models close gaps on price, performance, weight, recharge times, and ride distance—Zero, Alta, and Energica could shift the market from gas to electric.
Their tech appeal and simplicity to ride could bring more first-time and younger riders into motorcycling, including women.
This — and Harley’s EV production commitment — could pressure the likes of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati to produce electric motorcycles sooner.
These factors (and regulatory tailwinds) could thrust Alta, Zero, and Energica into an active space for partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions. Their compact, lightweight technology has application for other non-auto, non-motorcycle e-mobility solutions.
Growing competitive pressure and a shift in two-wheel consumer preferences could also make Energica, Zero, and Alta acquisition targets for mainline motorcycle manufacturers.
That’s a lot of speculation, but the big gas manufacturers are apparently watching. “Since Harley’s EV announcement, three of the big motorcycle companies bought one of our bikes,” an exec from one of the startups told me on background.
“We’d like to think they’re just curious to ride our e-motos, but more than likely it’s to break them down and study the tech,” the exec said.
For the last few years now, BMW has wrestled with the question of what it’ll mean to be a luxury car manufacturer in the age of electric cars, autonomous driving and rapidly changing — and increasing — customer expectations. What, after all, makes something the “ultimate driving machine” when the driver eventually stops driving?
For BMW, the answer is a renewed focus on technology and the in-car experience it enables, without forgetting its heritage in performance cars. To discuss the state of the company’s transformation, not just in terms of its cars but also its business model, I sat down with BMW’s outspoken VP of Digital Products and Services Dieter May shortly after the company unveiled the latest version of its in-car operating system.
“We build digital products and services that are meant to help us differentiate our core product, the car and generate revenue,” May said. “But these digital services also provide us with channels and touch points that allow us to now have a direct relationship with the customer on the sales side and talk to the customer directly.”
In the car industry, however, the sales channel has traditionally been the dealership. That’s where you buy the car and that’s where you get it serviced. It’s the dealer who knows (ideally) who you are and what you want. The manufacturer’s role in this model is to build the car, maybe build a bit of a central online presence with a configurator so customers can get some idea of the car’s price — and get out of the way.
That’s not the future that May envisions, though. And neither is it one where the big tech companies like Apple and Google own the driver and the user experience.
“As we’re building the digital products in the car, we are also building out the car as a channel and touchpoint at the same time,” May noted. “We’ll have our app, a personal assistant etc. and with that, we can create a user profile and provide that to our sales teams. Today, virtually every car manufacturer can’t talk directly to the customers because the customer belongs to the dealer, and because the different business units, like after sales, financial services, etc., aren’t unified and all try to talk to the customer separately.”
So for BMW, digital experiences in the car are one thing — and you can expect to hear a bit more about this in the coming weeks and months — but the company is looking beyond this and how it can use this transformation to also create new business opportunities that go beyond maybe selling an in-car Spotify subscription for a few dollars. But what gets May most excited about this is the prospect of being able to talk to the customer throughout the ownership lifecycle. “That’s the cool part, because it allows me to keep the product ‘car’ fresh throughout the lifecycle and manage it like a device,” he said.
The move that May is hinting at here means that BMW wants to not just focus on selling cars but to create a model where it can extract some revenue from users throughout the car’s life. As an example, May noted that BMW may sell you a Mini with a charging package and, in addition, it’ll sell you a flat-rate subscription to charge it. “There are so many opportunities here, but you have to play it smart, both before somebody buys the car and after the sale.
If BMW wants to own the customer, though, that means dealerships have to change. “The dealers will have to grow into a different role over time,” May acknowledged. “We expect and hope that just as we will share data with the dealer, the dealers will share their data with us. A small piece of a larger cake is still better than nothing.”
Customers will still come to the dealer for their service needs, so BMW isn’t cutting them out completely, but the company definitely wants to own a larger part of the relationship with the customer. And at the end of the day, it’s the dealer who represents the manufacturer, whether that’s taking somebody on a test drive or helping the customer take delivery of a car.
“What’s most important for us — and everybody is talking about autonomous driving and electric vehicles and so on — but if we don’t become a customer-centric company, then we are destined to fail. The number of digital elements in our customers’ lives and in the car continues to increase, and if we don’t understand that, we’ve got a problem.”
As for its current in-car systems, May told me that BMW now has more than three million registered users for its ConnectedDrive system, but what’s maybe more important is that the number of user interactions is increasing significantly faster than that. What’s interesting to hear is that the way BMW thinks about these users is pretty much in line with any consumer internet company. The team tracks monthly, weekly and daily active users, for example, and is working to increase those engagement numbers with every update.
One problem car manufacturers have long suffered from is that cars stick around far longer than smartphones, and that the in-car technology can quickly seem out of date. Because it is betting on a connected car that is always connected to the cloud, BMW (and, to be fair, many of its competitors) is now able to update the in-car software. That’s true for new head units, but not necessarily for older ones, and fragmentation remains an issue — though with a standardized model for both BMW and its Mini brand, that’ll likely be less of a problem for newer cars than for those that launched two or three years ago.
“In the car industry, a lot of people think that everything has to be backward-compatible reaching back 20 years, but my take is that we have to be more like smartphone vendors,” said May.
Taking a page from the software industry, the BMW team often launches new features that are akin to minimal viable products. That’s not necessarily something the luxury car buyer is used to, of course, but it does allow the company to test new features and expand on them as they gain traction.
The next concrete step for BMW in this journey is to feature an interactive personal assistant in the car that knows about the customer. May believes this will drive a lot of usage. Although the exact details remain to be seen, the BMW team hinted that we’ll learn more in the fall.
Here is what you should take away from the state of the global venture capital market: late-stage deals dominated Q2.
Using projected data provided by Crunchbase, Crunchbase News reported that Q2 2018 marks new post-dot com highs for both VC deal and dollar volume around the world, the latter of which was propelled by a surge in late-stage deals (Series C and above).
The chart below plots growth in projected late-stage deal and dollar volume over time.
This remarkable growth in dollar volume — more than doubling since the same period in 2017 — has led to the late-stage deal market looming large over the venture landscape. For perspective, late-stage rounds accounted for about 42 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2017, but it made up 64 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2018.
To be clear, this isn’t a rising tide raising all ships. Worldwide, late-stage venture activity is intensifying at a more rapid clip than other venture funding stages, squeezing other stages toward the margins. We can see this happening in the chart below:
Two things are happening at once here: On one side, private equity deals with previously venture-backed companies — what we call “Tech Growth” — account for less of the action; on the other side of the spectrum, angels, seed investors and writers of Series A and Series B checks account for less of the total dollar volume over time.
As it happens, in Q2 seed and early-stage venture — despite reaching post-dot com highs in absolute terms — make up for a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last records we had readily available.
In the second quarter, seed and early-stage venture lost ground in relative terms, making up a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last for which records were available.
Private equity, on the other hand, is getting squeezed out because a certain class of venture capital firms are able to invest more capital into late-stage venture deals.
Venture capital shops — especially the well-established — are raising ever-larger funds at an increasing pace. Just as an example, three VC firms recently (Scale Venture Partners, Index Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners) announced $4 billion in fresh powder across six new funds.
In part, this pivot to larger funds is a strategic countermeasure against SoftBank and its behemoth $100 billion Vision Fund. The fund routinely leads (sometimes as the sole investor) late-stage venture capital rounds sized in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In order to compete with SoftBank for the best deals, many VC firms are raising big new funds. Capital pools earmarked for late-stage deals are growing deeper. Sequoia Capital’s third Global Growth Fund is expected to top out at $8 billion, whereas its second (announced in June 2017) was a comparatively paltry $2 billion.
So is there an end in sight for all this late-stage largesse? For the time being, not really.
On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.
Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.
At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.
LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.
Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.
Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.
The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)
LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.
Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.
The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.
All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.
The author with LMT Defense hardware.
This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.
Except this isn’t what will happen.
Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.
The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.
In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.
Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.
Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.
Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.
In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.
This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.
Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm
First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.
The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.
Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.
As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.
Startups making delivery and transport easier than ever are a hit with venture capitalists, so it’s not a surprise that young tech companies delivering home staples — living room sets, dining room tables, couches and more — are raising big dollars.
From 2010 through 2017, venture investors have outfitted U.S.-based furniture startups with a little over $1.1 billion in funding across 96 known rounds. But that funding has not been spread equally over time, as the following chart shows:
Total dollars funneled into U.S.-based furniture startups, according to Crunchbase, hit an all-time high of $432.7 million across 12 rounds in 2011. Wayfair, an e-commerce site dedicated to selling furniture, raised a significant $165 million Series A that year, accounting for more than a third of the total deal volume.
But while funding hasn’t surpassed 2011 levels, from that year through 2015, round counts steadily climbed. During this period, investments into seed and early-stage startups made up more than 70 percent of known deals.
Whether or not this cohort of seed and early-stage startups will act as fodder for late-stage investors is not yet clear. Before that happens, Stephen Kuhl thinks that there’s more work to be done.
Kuhl, the CEO of Burrow, a company that sells furniture over the internet, told Crunchbase News that “selling traditional furniture made in China or Mexico isn’t innovative, and as such we wouldn’t expect to see a lot of venture funding.” But that doesn’t mean that venture interest in the sector is doomed. Kuhl added that “a new company has to offer a unique product, experience and brand that is altogether [10 times] better than traditional offerings. Expect the money to follow the new brands that truly shake up the status quo.”
That may bear out. The funding data we examined tells one particular story: venture money has shown a preference for delivery and a consumer that doesn’t easily call the place they live in “home.”
For city dwellers, modular, utilitarian couches are taking hold. And it’s increasingly clear you don’t have to leave your couch to purchase one.
Let’s return to Burrow, which has raised a total of $19.2 million, according to Crunchbase. The startup has created a modular couch built for those who live in dense urban environments and may move often.
“Our customers are reflective of larger trends in the market. They’re more likely to be renters rather than homeowners,” Kuhl explained. “They’re likely to move multiple times over the course of a few years, and they crave thoughtful, high-quality goods.”
To account for this new type of customer, Burrow delivers each section of the couch in distinct packages. Burrow claims on its website that its direct to consumer business model and its ability to ship parts of couches, rather than one whole couch, removes “over 70 [percent] of standard shipping costs.” The couch also includes modern amenities such as a USB charger, and Burrow has also “launched an AR app that helps customers visualize a Burrow in their home,” according to Kuhl.
However, Burrow isn’t completely eschewing the showroom as part of its selling strategy. In a podcast interview with TotalRetail, Kuhl noted that the startup has “partner showrooms” in co-working spaces and other retail locations in more than 20 cities.
Of course, while modular design is helpful for city dwellers, there are those who enjoy a bit more of a personal twist. Interior Define, a Chicago-based startup, has raised $27.2 million to offer direct to consumer couches and dining room sets. And, according to Interior Define’s founder Rob Royer, its appeal is being driven by a new breed of consumers who are interested in brands that have “an authentic mission, deliver on a promised experience, and offer a real value proposition (not just a lower price).”
That said, both of these options still require that the furniture be owned — an unnecessary burden if you move often or just like fresh looks without the commitment. Through Feather, customers can subscribe to a whole living room, bedroom or dining room for as low as $35 a month. According to Crunchbase, the New York-based startup has raised $3.5 million from established venture firms such as Y Combinator and Kleiner Perkins.
There are also startups looking to simply help brands sell more furniture by using artificial intelligence and augmented reality. One such startup, Grokstyle, has raised $2.5 million for an app that identifies furniture by image as well as style and pricing preferences.
In general, streets, kitchens and even front doors are being claimed by venture-backed startups. What you sit on might as well be paid for, in part, by venture capitalists, too.
Fortnite Battle Royale has swept the gaming world. Alongside its 125 million users and record-breaking Twitch streams, the game has also drawn many competitive players away from their usual titles to try their hand at Battle Royale.
Today, that competitive play reaches at inflection point. At 4pm ET, Fortnite Battle Royale’s Summer Skirmish will kick off, with $8 million going to tournament winners over the course of the competition, with a whopping $250K going to the winners of today’s tournament.
This isn’t the first competitive Fortnite tournament we’ve seen. Celebrity Twitch streamer Ninja held a charity tournament in April, and Epic held a ProAm tournament combining competitive players and celebs who play Fortnite in June. Plus, sites like UMG and CMG have been holding smaller tournaments since Fortnite first rose to popularity. And then there are $20K Fortnite Friday tournaments for streamers held by UMG.
But today, the ante has most certainly been upped. This will be one of the highest paying Fortnite tournaments to date, and is yet just a small fraction of Epic Games’ promised $100 million prize pool for competitive play this year.
For some context, Dota 2 (previously the biggest competitive esports title out there) had a $25 million payout for the International Championship tournament in 2017, with the winners taking home $10.8 million. Call of Duty, one of the most popular titles over the last decade, is only paying out $1.5 million for its own Champs tournament this summer.
In other words, Fortnite is catching up quickly to the competitive gaming scene, not only in terms of talent but money. Epic Games’ Fortnite pulled in a record-breaking $318 million in June alone. In fact, Battle Royale is generating so much revenue for Epic that the company is now only taking a 12 percent share of earnings from its Unreal Marketplace.
But with that growth comes increased scrutiny. Though the company is passing along its fortunes to developers on the Unreal Engine and competitive players, some have noticed situations in which Epic might have been a bit stingy.
Fortnite should put the actual rap songs behind the dances that make so much money as Emotes. Black creatives created and popularized these dances but never monetized them. Imagine the money people are spending on these Emotes being shared with the artists that made them
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) July 13, 2018
The stream for Fortnite Summer Skirmish begins at 4pm ET and is embedded below:
Apple released a refreshed MacBook Pro this week and top among the new features is a tweaked keyboard. Apple says its quieter than the last version and in our tests, we agree. But iFixit found something else: thin, silicone barriers that could improve the keyboard’s reliability.
This is big news. Users have long reported the butterfly switch keyboard found in MacBook Pros were less reliable than past models. There are countless reports of dust and lint and crumbs causing keys to stick or fail. Personally, I have not had any issues, but many at TechCrunch have. To date Apple has yet to issue a recall for the keyboard..
iFixit found a thin layer of rubberized material covering the new butterfly mechanism. The repair outlet also points to an Apple patent for this exact technology that’s designed to “prevent and/or alleviate contaminant ingress.”
According to Apple, which held a big media unveiling for new models, the changes to the keyboard were designed to address the loud clickity-clack and not the keyboard’s tendency to get mucked up by dust. And that makes sense, too. If Apple held an event and said “We fixed the keyboards” it would mean Apple was admitting something was wrong with the keyboards. Instead Apple held an event and said “We made the keyboards quieter” admitting the past keyboards were loud, and not faulty.
We just got our review unit and will report back on the keyboard’s reliability after a day or two at the beach. Because science.
You should cringe when you read that hashtag. Because it’s a reminder that people are being socially engineered by technology platforms to objectify and spy on each other for voyeuristic pleasure and profit.
The short version of the story attached to the cringeworthy hashtag is this: Earlier this month an individual, called Rosey Blair, spent all the hours of a plane flight using her smartphone and social media feeds to invade the privacy of her seat neighbors — publicly gossiping about the lives of two strangers.
Her speculation was set against a backdrop of rearview creepshots, with a few barely there scribbles added to blot out actual facial features. Even as an entire privacy invading narrative was being spun unknowingly around them.
#PlanePrivacyInvasion would be a more fitting hashtag. Or #MoralVacuumAt35000ft
And yet our youthful surveillance society started with a far loftier idea associated with it: Citizen journalism.
Once we’re all armed with powerful smartphones and ubiquitously fast Internet there will be no limits to the genuinely important reportage that will flow, we were told.
There will be no way for the powerful to withhold the truth from the people.
At least that was the nirvana we were sold.
What did we get? Something that looks much closer to mass manipulation. A tsunami of ad stalking, intentionally fake news and social media-enabled demagogues expertly appropriating these very same tools by gamifying mind-less, ethically nil algorithms.
Meanwhile, masses of ordinary people + ubiquitous smartphones + omnipresent social media feeds seems, for the most part, to be resulting in a kind of mainstream attention deficit disorder.
Yes, there is citizen journalism — such as people recording and broadcasting everyday experiences of aggression, racism and sexism, for example. Experiences that might otherwise go unreported, and which are definitely underreported.
That is certainly important.
But there are also these telling moments of #hashtaggable ethical blackout. As a result of what? Let’s call it the lure of ‘citizen clickbait’ — as people use their devices and feeds to mimic the worst kind of tabloid celebrity gossip ‘journalism’ by turning their attention and high tech tools on strangers, with (apparently) no major motivation beyond the simple fact that they can. Because technology is enabling them.
Social norms and common courtesy should kick in and prevent this. But social media is pushing in an unequal and opposite direction, encouraging users to turn anything — even strangers’ lives — into raw material to be repackaged as ‘content’ and flung out for voyeuristic entertainment.
It’s life reflecting commerce. But a particularly insidious form of commerce that does not accept editorial let alone ethical responsibility, has few (if any) moral standards, and relies, for continued function, upon stripping away society’s collective sense of privacy in order that these self-styled ‘sharing’ (‘taking’ is closer to the mark) platforms can swell in size and profit.
But it’s even worse than that. Social media as a data-mining, ad-targeting enterprise relies upon eroding our belief in privacy. So these platforms worry away at that by trying to disrupt our understanding of what privacy means. Because if you were to consider what another person thinks or feels — even for a millisecond — you might not post whatever piece of ‘content’ you had in mind.
For the platforms it’s far better if you just forget to think.
Facebook’s business is all about applying engineering ingenuity to eradicate the thoughtful friction of personal and societal conscience.
That’s why, for instance, it uses facial recognition technology to automate content identification — meaning there’s almost no opportunity for individual conscience to kick in and pipe up to quietly suggest that publicly tagging others in a piece of content isn’t actually the right thing to do.
Because it’s polite to ask permission first.
But Facebook’s antisocial automation pushes people away from thinking to ask for permission. There’s no button provided for that. The platform encourages us to forget all about the existence of common courtesies.
So we should not be at all surprised that such fundamental abuses of corporate power are themselves trickling down to infect the people who use and are exposed to these platforms’ skewed norms.
Viral episodes like #PlaneBae demonstrate that the same sense of entitlement to private information is being actively passed onto the users these platforms prey on and feed off — and is then getting beamed out, like radiation, to harm the people around them.
The damage is collective when societal norms are undermined.
Social media’s ubiquity means almost everyone works in marketing these days. Most people are marketing their own lives — posting photos of their pets, their kids, the latte they had this morning, the hipster gym where they work out — having been nudged to perform this unpaid labor by the platforms that profit from it.
The irony is that most of this work is being done for free. Only the platforms are being paid. Though there are some people making a very modern living; the new breed of ‘life sharers’ who willingly polish, package and post their professional existence as a brand of aspiration lifestyle marketing.
Social media’s gift to the world is that anyone can be a self-styled model now, and every passing moment a fashion shoot for hire — thanks to the largess of highly accessible social media platforms providing almost anyone who wants it with their own self-promoting shopwindow in the world. Plus all the promotional tools they could ever need.
Just step up to the glass and shoot.
And then your vacation beauty spot becomes just another backdrop for the next aspirational selfie. Although those aquamarine waters can’t be allowed to dampen or disrupt photo-coifed tresses, nor sand get in the camera kit. In any case, the makeup took hours to apply and there’s the next selfie to take…
What does the unchronicled life of these professional platform performers look like? A mess of preparation for projecting perfection, presumably, with life’s quotidian business stuffed higgledy piggledy into the margins — where they actually sweat and work to deliver the lie of a lifestyle dream.
Because these are also fakes — beautiful fakes, but fakes nonetheless.
We live in an age of entitled pretence. And while it may be totally fine for an individual to construct a fictional narrative that dresses up the substance of their existence, it’s certainly not okay to pull anyone else into your pantomime. Not without asking permission first.
But the problem is that social media is now so powerfully omnipresent its center of gravity is actively trying to pull everyone in — and its antisocial impacts frequently spill out and over the rest of us. And they rarely if ever ask for consent.
What about the people who don’t want their lives to be appropriated as digital windowdressing? Who weren’t asking for their identity to be held up for public consumption? Who don’t want to participate in this game at all — neither to personally profit from it, nor to have their privacy trampled by it?
The problem is the push and pull of platforms against privacy has become so aggressive, so virulent, that societal norms that protect and benefit us all — like empathy, like respect — are getting squeezed and sucked in.
The ugliness is especially visible in these ‘viral’ moments when other people’s lives are snatched and consumed voraciously on the hoof — as yet more content for rapacious feeds.
Think too of the fitness celebrity who posted a creepshot + commentary about a less slim person working out at their gym.
Or the YouTuber parents who monetize videos of their kids’ distress.
Or the men who post creepshots of women eating in public — and try to claim it’s an online art project rather than what it actually is: A privacy violation and misogynistic attack.
Or, on a public street in London one day, I saw a couple of giggling teenage girls watching a man at a bus stop who was clearly mentally unwell. Pulling out a smartphone, one girl hissed to the other: “We’ve got to put this on YouTube.”
For platforms built by technologists without thought for anything other than growth, everything is a potential spectacle. Everything is a potential post.
So they press on their users to think less. And they profit at society’s expense.
It’s only now, after social media has embedded itself everywhere, that platforms are being called out for their moral vacuum; for building systems that encourage abject mindlessness in users — and serve up content so bleak it represents a form of visual cancer.
Human have always told stories. Weaving our own narratives is both how we communicate and how we make sense of personal experience — creating order out of events that are often disorderly, random, even chaotic.
The human condition demands a degree of pattern-spotting for survival’s sake; so we can pick our individual path out of the gloom.
But platforms are exploiting that innate aspect of our character. And we, as individuals, need to get much, much better at spotting what they’re doing to us.
We need to recognize how they are manipulating us; what they are encouraging us to do — with each new feature nudge and dark pattern design choice.
We need to understand their underlying pull. The fact they profit by setting us as spies against each other. We need to wake up, personally and collectively, to social media’s antisocial impacts.
Perspective should not have to come at the expense of other people getting hurt.
Additionally, I’ve not earned anything off of this. And do not wish to. The greatest gift I’ve been given – when I shouldn’t have received anything to begin with – is perspective.
— Rosey Blair (@roseybeeme) July 10, 2018
This week the women whose privacy was thoughtlessly repackaged as public entertainment when she was branded and broadcast as #PlaneBae — and who has suffered harassment and yet more unwelcome attention as a direct result — gave a statement to Business Insider.
“#PlaneBae is not a romance — it is a digital-age cautionary tale about privacy, identity, ethics and consent,” she writes. “Please continue to respect my privacy, and my desire to remain anonymous.”
And as a strategy to push against the antisocial incursions of social media, remembering to respect people’s privacy is a great place to start.