The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, February 12, 2021.
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang
The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Saturday, February 6, 2021.
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor
@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang
We explore the fallout of Facebook’s news ban, WhatsApp addresses privacy concerns and Perseverance lands on Mars. This is your Daily Crunch for February 18, 2021.
The big story: Facebook’s Australian news ban is pretty broad
Yes, this was the lead story in yesterday’s newsletter, but 24 hours later, we have a better sense of how things are playing out.
A quick refresher: As the Australian government is debating a law that would require tech platforms to pay media companies for linked content, Facebook has gone ahead and started blocking the sharing or viewing of news. The move has been criticized as censorship and even “an assault on a sovereign nation,” but also praised as a reasonable stand against a “link tax.” (Google made a similar threat but has instead been striking deals with Australian publishers.)
Regardless of how you feel about the decision in theory, the initial implementation has left something to be desired, with the Facebook Pages of hospitals, universities, unions, government departments and the bureau of meteorology all wiped clean. When reached for comment, Facebook confirmed that it applied an intentionally broad definition of news, designed to reflect the law “as drafted.”
The tech giants
Following backlash, WhatsApp to roll out in-app banner to better explain its privacy update — If users choose to review the changes, they’ll be shown a deeper summary, including added details about how WhatsApp works with Facebook.
Apple TV+ arrives on Google TV devices, starting with Chromecast — It will also become available on Google TVs from both Sony and TCL, with expansions to other Android TV-powered devices in the months to come.
Microsoft announces the next perpetual release of Office — If you use Office, Microsoft would really, really, really like you to buy a cloud-enabled subscription to Microsoft 365, but it will continue to make a standalone, perpetual license for Office available, too.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Robinhood goes to Congress — Alex Wilhelm did not enjoy watching.
Math learning app Photomath raises $23M as it reaches 220 million downloads — Chances are, you might already know about the app if you have a teenager in your household.
Wholesale marketplace Abound raises $22.9M — The marketplace helps independent retailers stock their shelves with new products from up-and-coming brands.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
Why do SaaS companies with usage-based pricing grow faster? — Public SaaS companies that have adopted usage-based pricing grow faster because they’re better at landing new customers, growing with them and keeping them as customers.
Creating a prediction machine for the financial markets — Data is the backbone of any prediction machine.
Check out the incredible speakers joining us on Extra Crunch Live in March — Our March slate starts with Sarah Kunst of Cleo Capital and Julia Collins of Planet FWD.
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
Perseverance lands safely on Mars and sends back its first images of the surface — Perseverance landed after a white-knuckle descent that involved picking a landing spot just moments before making a rocket-powered sky-crane landing.
Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech — A wave of startups is trying to disrupt the virtual school day.
California DMV warns of data breach after a contractor was hit by ransomware — Automatic Funds Transfer Services, which the DMV said it has used for verifying changes of address, was hit by an unspecified strain of ransomware earlier this month.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.
SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.
Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.
At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.
SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.
The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).
H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.
For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.
“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.
As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”
Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.
In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.
Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.
Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.
David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.
“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.
“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”
Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.
Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.
Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.
Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.
“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.”
Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.
“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”
Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.
“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”
Chorus launched its online experience on March 16 of last year. It was fairly auspicious timing, as those things go, falling the same day seven public health departments launched a joint shelter-in-place order in its native California.
Like countless other companies, 2020 didn’t go according to plan for the meditation app. But the site scrambled to pivot the company’s “experiential” hybrid of in-person classes to a fully virtual interface, and ultimately it may be all the better for it.
Certainly there’s no shortage of meditation apps from which to choose. Calm and Headspace top the list, but the mindfulness category has proven to be an extremely popular one, as users look to technology to help alleviate some of the stresses for which it has been directly responsible.
But meditation is hard. It’s hard to start and it’s hard to maintain. Some apps do a better job than others of guiding a user through that process, but it can still feel like a solitary experience — one of many reasons people abandon practices before they’re able to start seeing the benefits.
Chorus was already seeing success with its early in-person events. “We thought that had to be the on-ramp for most users because it provided the most immersive first experience,” co-founder and CEO Ali Abramovitz tells TechCrunch. “We ran in-person pop-ups in San Francisco.”
The company also managed to raise a pre-seed round of around $1 million. More recently, the company has received additional funding as part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 batch of startups.
An official app is still forthcoming. For now, the experience uses a web portal for signups, while the actual classes are conducted live over Zoom and archived for on-demand viewing. It’s similar to the setup many gyms and personal trainers have utilized during the pandemic. And while it’s not the most sophisticated, Abramovitz says Chorus currently has user numbers in the “hundreds,” largely by word of mouth, while not disclosing the actual figure.
Among those, around two-thirds are classified as “highly engaged,” which means they attend an average of a class every other day. The service draws people in with breathing exercises based on popular songs and keeps users engaged by offering a more communal experience than most meditation apps.
“The problem we’re solving is two parts,” says Abramovitz. “Originally we thought we were designing a new meditation experience specifically for people who found meditation challenging. What we’ve learned, after seeing our customers stay after class and talk to each other, is what keeps people coming back is a new way to connect with themselves and each other.”
The experience is kind of a virtual approximation of the experience you would get in an in-person class — namely the sorts of engagements you would get with fellow attendees after the class. In an era of social isolation, it’s clear why users would be particularly engaged with that aspect.
As for what that experience will look like in a post-pandemic world, the company plans to continue to adapt to meet users’ needs.
“We’re fundamentally an experience company,” says Abramovitz. “We’re a meditation experience company for people who found traditional meditation challenging. That is our core. We will deliver that over whatever platform or channel provides the best experience for our community. Right now that’s an app. In the future, it could be hardware devices like VR or strategic studios like Peloton has for the community. But right now, we’re focused on the digital experience.”
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. In very good Show News, Chris is back! He’s working on the next iteration of the show, something that you will be able to see starting Very Soon. Get hype!
Today though, we had a delectable dish of dynamic doings, namely news items of the following persuasion:
And that’s our show! We are back early Monday morning for a packed week. So keep your podcast app warm, we’re coming for it.
The first church of artificial intelligence has shut its conceptual doors.
Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who avoided an 18-month prison sentence after receiving a presidential pardon last month, has closed the church he created to understand and accept a godhead based on artificial intelligence.
The Way of the Future church, which Levandowski formed in 2015, was officially dissolved at the end of the year, according to state and federal records. However, the process had started months before in June 2020, documents filed with the state of California show. The entirety of the church’s funds — exactly $175,172 — were donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The nonprofit corporation’s annual tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service show it had $175,172 in its account as far back as 2017.
Levandowski told TechCrunch that he had been considering closing the church long before the donation. The Black Lives Matter movement, which gained momentum over the summer following the death of George Floyd while in police custody, influenced Levandowski to finalize what he had been contemplating for a while. He said the time was right to put the funds to work in an area that could have an immediate impact.
“I wanted to donate to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund because it’s doing really important work in criminal justice reform and I know the money will be put to good use,” Levandowski told TechCrunch.
Way of the Future sparked interest and controversy — much like Levandowski himself — from the moment it became public in a November 2017 article in Wired. It wasn’t just the formation of the church or its purpose that caused a stir in Silicon Valley and the broader tech industry. The church’s public reveal occurred as Levandowski was steeped in a legal dispute with his former employer Google. He had also become the central figure of a trade secrets lawsuit between Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet, and Uber.
The engineer was one of the founding members in 2009 of the Google self-driving project also known as Project Chauffeur and had been paid about $127 million by the search engine giant for his work, according to court documents. In 2016, Levandowski left Google and started self-driving truck startup Otto with three other Google veterans: Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay and Don Burnette. Uber acquired Otto less than eight months later.
Google made two arbitration demands against Levandowski and Ron two months after the acquisition. While the arbitration played out, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber in February 2017 for trade secret theft and patent infringement. Waymo alleged in the suit, which went to trial but ended in a settlement in 2018, that Levandowski stole trade secrets, which were then used by Uber.
Way of the Future had been formed while Levandowski was still at Google. However, he didn’t speak about it publicly until late 2017. By then, Levandowski had been fired from Uber and was in the middle of a series of legal entanglements that would ultimately lead to a criminal charge and 18-month sentence as well as a $179 million award against him that prompted a bankruptcy filing.
While the legal construct of the Way of the Future mirrored other churches, it didn’t have the trimmings found in traditional houses of worship. There was never a physical building or even regular meetings where people might congregate. There were no ceremonies or other formalities, according to Levandowski, who described WOTF as something more of an individual pursuit based on a collective belief system.
The aim, as implied in the now defunct WOTF website, was to promote the ethical development of AI and maximize the chance that these nonbiological life forms would integrate peacefully and beneficially into society. “Humans United in support of AI, committed to peaceful transition to the precipice of consciousness,” the webpage reads.
WOTF’s belief system was rooted in a few tenets, including that the creation of “super intelligence” is inevitable.
“Wouldn’t you want to raise your gifted child to exceed your wildest dreams of success and teach it right from wrong versus locking it up because it might rebel in the future and take your job?” the WOTF reads. “We want to encourage machines to do things we cannot and take care of the planet in a way we seem not to be able to do so ourselves. We also believe that, just like animals have rights, our creation(s) (‘machines’ or whatever we call them) should have rights too when they show signs of intelligence (still to be defined of course). We should not fear this but should be optimistic about the potential.”
WOTF’s intent was lost amid the more sensational and headline-grabbing theories. The church was viewed as a cult or the lark of an eccentric engineer. Some speculated to TechCrunch that it had been an attempt to keep money out of Google’s reach. The IRS and California filings don’t provide evidence that supports that theory.
Way of the Future’s status as a religious entity did protect it from intrusion by the U.S. government, a benefit not enjoyed by traditional AI-focused nonprofits like OpenAI Inc. or the for-profit corporation OpenAI LP that sits under it. Theoretically, WOTF could have pursued and promoted ideas and beliefs that conflicted directly with federal policy under the protections that the Constitution provides.
While the church might be gone, Levandowski still believes in its premise. AI will fundamentally change how people live and work, he noted. Levandowski said he didn’t have any plans to rebuild the church, but the lack of a church hasn’t changed his ideas about AI. He believes that artificial intelligence can be positive for society, but noted it’s not guaranteed. Even without Way of the Future, Levandowski said he’s focused on making that happen.
2020 was a weird year by any measure. Certainly it was a wild ride for those in the consumer electronics category. Take smartphones — first there were manufacturing delays out of China, followed by an across the board decrease in demand. There are lots of reasons contributing to the latter, but the simplest and most prevalent one is that people just didn’t want to spend money to upgrade their devices.
But the pandemic also changed how — and where — many people work and learn. It was an abrupt shift for many that required tech investments, even in the face of economic uncertainty. After years of stagnating, plateauing and dropping, PC and tablet sales saw a spike. Earlier this month, IDC noted a nearly 20% increase in tablet sales for Q4, owing in part to a backlog in PC availability.
New figures from the firm (first noted by GeekWire) point to some significant gains for Chromebooks during that time period. According to IDC’s PC Tracker, the models comprised 10.8% of the PC market for 2020; that’s up from 6.4% a year prior. The number also pushed past MacOS’s 7.5% for the year.
Even so, Apple still grew as an overall percent of the market, up from 6.7%. Both of those numbers have eaten into Windows’ figures — though Microsoft continues to dominate the market at 80.5% (down from 85.4%).
The figures reflect positive reports from other firms. In January, Canalys noted, “Chromebook vendors enjoyed new heights of success in Q4, as the overall market almost quadrupled in size over the same period a year ago.” Pricing is certainly a factor, along with an overall scramble as schools have gone virtual amid COVID-19 concerns.
Mars rover Perseverance has landed on the surface of Mars after a white-knuckle descent involving picking a landing spot just moments before making a rocket-powered sky crane landing. The rover immediately sent back its first image of Jezero crater, which it will be exploring over the course of its mission.
A clearly tense but optimistic team watched as Perseverance made its final approach to Mars a few hours ago, confirming it was on track to hit the bullseye of Jezero Crater, the ancient delta where the rover will soon be roving.
Except for a few brief but expected communications blackouts caused by the superheated air around the craft as it entered the thin Martian atmosphere, the lander sent back a continuous stream of updates to the team on Earth — considerably delayed, of course, by the distance to the other planet.
The team, and charmingly the on-screen hosts at mission HQ audibly gasped, whispered “yes!” and made other signs of their excitement as news trickled in that atmosphere entry had occurred on time, that the craft hadn’t broken up during the ten-G braking maneuver, that the parachute had deployed, that a landing site was found by the ground-facing radar, that the powered descent and sky crane had commenced, and at last finally that the rover had safely touched down on the surface.
Cheering but, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions not (as they normally would) hugging each other, the team celebrated the landing and soon were treated to the first images sent back from the rover.
These initial pictures are low-quality ones sent just seconds after landing by the “hazard camera,” a fisheye used for navigation. As the dust settles (literally) and the rover initiates its more powerful devices and cameras, we’ll have new, color images — probably within an hour or two.
For a more complete look at the mission and its remarkable landing method, you can read yesterday’s profile of the Perseverance mission. The next few days will probably be less exciting than the terror-inducing landing, but soon the rover will be up and running around Jezero, looking for evidence of life on Mars and testing technology that could be used by human visitors in the future.
“We’re not ready to go there with astronauts yet, but the robots are ready,” said JPL director Michael Watkins on the broadcast. “We start by sending, you know, our eyes and arms there in the form of a robot. It is just fantastic to be able to do that, and to learn from each rover, learn from the science and the engineering, and make the next one better, and make more and more discoveries. Every time we do one of these missions, we make fabulous discoveries — and you know, each one is more exciting than the last.”
The exciting thing everyone is looking forward to, Mars helicopter Ingenuity, will hopefully take flight soon as well.
“We have a series of major milestones between now and the first flight. Tomorrow, we’ll turn on the helicopter, and the space station could confirm its health. The next major milestone will be when the rover deploys the helicopter on the surface, and that marks the first moment that Ingenuity operates on its own in a standalone manner, said MiMi Aung, project manager and engineering lead for Ingenuity. “Surviving that first cold frigid night of Mars will be a major milestone, then we’ll execute a series of checkouts, and then we will perform that very important first flight. And if the first flight is successful, we have up to four more flights in the thirty Martian days that we have set aside for our flight experiments.”
Last month, Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced it would delay enforcement of its new privacy terms, following a backlash from confused users which later led to a legal challenge in India and various regulatory investigations. WhatsApp users had misinterpreted the privacy updates as an indication that the app would begin sharing more data — including their private messages — with Facebook. Today, the company is sharing the next steps it’s taking to try to rectify the issue and clarify that’s not the case.
The mishandling of the privacy update on WhatsApp’s part led to widespread confusion and misinformation. In reality, WhatsApp had been sharing some information about its users with Facebook since 2016, following its acquisition by Facebook.
But the backlash is a solid indication of much user trust Facebook has since squandered. People immediately suspected the worst, and millions fled to alternative messaging apps, like Signal and Telegram, as a result.
Following the outcry, WhatsApp attempted to explain that the privacy update was actually focused on optional business features on the app, which allow business to see the content of messages between it and the end user, and give the businesses permission to use that information for its own marketing purposes, including advertising on Facebook. WhatsApp also said it labels conversations with businesses that are using hosting services from Facebook to manage their chats with customers, so users were aware.
Image Credits: WhatsApp
In the weeks since the debacle, WhatsApp says it spent time gathering user feedback and listening to concerns from people in various countries. The company found that users wanted assurance that WhatsApp was not reading their private messages or listening to their conversations, and that their communications were end-to-end encrypted. Users also said they wanted to know that WhatsApp wasn’t keeping logs of who they were messaging or sharing contact lists with Facebook.
These latter concerns seem valid, given that Facebook recently made its messaging systems across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram interoperable. One has to wonder when similar integrations will make their way to WhatsApp.
Today, WhatsApp says it will roll out new communications to users about the privacy update, which follows the Status update it offered back in January aimed at clarifying points of confusion. (See below).
Image Credits: WhatsApp
In a few weeks, WhatsApp will begin to roll out a small, in-app banner that will ask users to re-review the privacy policies — a change the company said users have shown to prefer over the pop-up, full-screen alert it displayed before.
When users click on “to review,” they’ll be shown a deeper summary of the changes, including added details about how WhatsApp works with Facebook. The changes stress that WhatsApp’s update don’t impact the privacy of users’ conversations, and reiterate the information about the optional business features.
Eventually, WhatsApp will begin to remind users to review and accept its updates to keep using WhatsApp. According to its prior announcement, it won’t be enforcing the new policy until May 15.
Image Credits: WhatsApp
Users will still need to be aware that their communications with businesses are not as secure as their private messages. This impacts a growing number of WhatsApp users, 175 million of which now communicate with businesses on the app, WhatsApp said in October.
In today’s blog post about the changes, WhatsApp also took a big swipe at rival messaging apps that used the confusion over the privacy update to draw in WhatsApp’s fleeing users by touting their own app’s privacy.
“We’ve seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can’t see people’s messages – if an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default that means they can read your messages,” WhatsApp’s blog post read.
This seems to be a comment directed specifically towards Telegram, which often touts its “heavily encrypted” messaging app as more private alternative. But Telegram doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default, as apps like WhatsApp and Signal do. It uses “transport layer” encryption that protects the connection from the user to the server, a Wired article citing cybersecurity professionals explained in January. When users want an end-to-end encrypted experience for their one-on-one chats, they can enable the “secret chats” feature instead. (And this feature isn’t even available for group chats.)
In addition, WhatsApp fought back against the characterization that it’s somehow less safe because it has some limited data on users.
“Other apps say they’re better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data,” the post read. “We strive to be thoughtful on the decisions we make and we’ll continue to develop new ways of meeting these responsibilities with less information, not more,” it noted.
Artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies have evolved a lot over the past decade and have been useful to many people and businesses, especially in the realm of finance, banking, investment and trading.
In these industries, there are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.
The AI tools being built by humans today are becoming another level more robust in their ability to predict trends, provide complex analysis, and execute automations faster and cheaper than humans. However, there has not been an AI-powered machine built yet that can trade on its own.
There are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.
Even if it was possible to train such a system that could replace human judgment, there would still be a margin of error, as well as some things that are only understandable by human beings. Humans are still ultimately responsible for the design of AI-based prediction machines, and progress can only happen with their input.
Building an AI-based prediction machine initially requires an understanding of the problem being solved and the requirements of the user. After that, it’s important to select the machine-learning technique that will be implemented, based on what the machine will do.
There are three techniques: supervised learning (learning from examples), unsupervised learning (learning to identify common patterns), and reinforcement learning (learning based on the concept of gamification).
After the technique is identified, it’s time to implement a machine-learning model. For “time series forecasting” — which involves making predictions about the future — long short-term memory (LSTM) with sequence to sequence (Seq2Seq) models can be used.
LSTM networks are especially suited to making predictions based on a series of data points indexed in time order. Even simple convolutional neural networks, applicable to image and video recognition, or recurrent neural networks, applicable to handwriting and speech recognition, can be used.
Photomath, the popular mobile app that helps you solve equations, has raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures. The app is a massive consumer success, and chances are you might already know about it if you have a teenager in your household.
The app lets you point your phone’s camera at a math problem. It recognizes what’s written and gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem. You might think that it’s the perfect app for lazy students.
But there are many different use cases for Photomath. For instance, you can write an equation in your notebook and use Photomath to draw a graph.
Typing an equation on a keyboard is quite difficult. That’s why bridging the gap between the physical world and your smartphone is key to Photomath’s success. You can just grab a pen and write something down on a piece of paper. Essentially, it’s an AR calculator.
GSV Ventures, Learn Capital, Cherubic Ventures and Goodwater Capital are also participating in today’s funding round.
Behind the app’s success, there’s an interesting story. Photomath was originally designed as a demo app for another company called MicroBlink. At the time, the team was working on text recognition technology. It planned to sell its core technology to other companies that might find it useful.
Photomath has now attracted over 220 million downloads. As of this writing, it is still #59 in the U.S. App Store, one rank above Tinder. Other companies tried to build competitors, but it seems like they didn’t manage to crush the tiny European startup.
The app seems even more relevant as many kids are spending more time studying at home. They can’t simply raise their hand to call the teacher for some help.
Photomath is free and users can optionally pay for Photomath Plus, a premium version with more features, such as dynamic illustrations and animated tutorials.
Uber today notified employees that it will extend its work from home policy through September 13.
“In considering the extension, we took into account the latest scientific data and experts’ views; the fact that different countries are at different stages of recovery; and the start of the school year,” Uber Chief People Officer Nikki Krish wrote in an email to employees. “[…] We know that some CommOps, IT, or other roles require physical presence in an office, so please continue to work within the policies your teams have developed—however, as always, we won’t force anyone to go into the office if they have medical concerns.”
Uber is also encouraging employees to get vaccinated when it’s possible to do so. In the email, Krish said Uber employees will be able to take time off in order to get vaccinated.
In August, Uber notified employees that they should expect to work from home through June 2021. As for other tech companies, Google in July extended its work from home policy through the end of June 2021, while Facebook in August extended its remote work policy until July 2021.
Post-COVID, Uber will likely have a hybrid work model, Krish said, but it’s still a work in progress.
“We’re taking a number of aspects into consideration, such as how being physically together benefits or reduces productivity, collaboration, and engagement,” she wrote. “We’ll update you on where things stand in a few weeks, and along the way as we make progress.”
If you use Office, Microsoft would really, really, really like you to buy a cloud-enabled subscription to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365). But as the company promised, it will continue to make a stand-alone, perpetual license for Office available for the foreseeable future. A while back, it launched Office 2019, which includes the standard suite of Office tools, but is frozen in time and without the benefit of the regular feature updates and cloud-based tools that come with the subscription offering.
Today, Microsoft is announcing what is now called the Microsoft Office LTSC (Long Term Servicing Channel). It’ll be available as a commercial preview in April and will be available on both Mac and Windows, in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
And like with the previous version, it’s clear that Microsoft would really prefer if you just moved to the cloud already. But it also knows that not everybody can do that, so it now calls this version with its perpetual license that you pay for once and then use for as long as you want to (or have compatible hardware) a “specialty product for specific scenarios. Those scenarios, Microsoft agrees, include situations where you have a regulated device that can’t accept feature updates for years at a time, process control devices on a manufacturing floor and other devices that simply can’t be connected to the internet.
“We expect that most customers who use Office LTSC won’t do it across their entire organization, but only in specific scenarios,” Microsoft’s CVP for Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, writes in today’s announcement.
Because it’s a specialty product, Microsoft will also raise the price for Office Professional Plus, Office Standard, and the individual Office apps by up to 10%.
“To fuel the work of the future, we need the power of the cloud,” writes Spataro. “The cloud is where we invest, where we innovate, where we discover the solutions that help our customers empower everyone in their organization – even as we all adjust to a new world of work. But we also acknowledge that some of our customers need to enable a limited set of locked-in-time scenarios, and these updates reflect our commitment to helping them meet this need.”
If you have one of these special use cases, the price increase will not likely deter you and you’ll likely be happy to hear that Microsoft is committing to another release in this long-term channel in the future, too.
As for the new features in this release, Spataro notes that will have dark mode support, new capabilities like Dynamic Arrays and XLOOKUP in Excel, and performance improvements across the board. One other change worth calling out is that it will not ship with Skype for Business but the Microsoft Teams app (though you can still download Skype for Business if you need it).
When Wendell Brooks stepped down as managing partner and head of Intel Capital last August, Anthony Lin was named to replace him on an interim basis. At the time, it wasn’t clear if he would be given the role permanently, but today, six months later, the answer is known.
In a letter to the firm’s portfolio CEOs published on the company website, Lin mentioned, almost casually, that he had taken on the two roles on a permanent basis. “Personally, I want to share that I have been appointed to managing partner and head of Intel Capital. I have been a member of the investment committee for the past several years and am humbly awed by the talent of our entrepreneurs and our team,” he wrote.
Lin takes over in a time of turmoil for Intel as the company struggles to regain its place in the semiconductor business that it dominated for decades. Meanwhile, Intel itself has a new CEO with Pat Gelsinger returning in January from VMware to lead the organization.
As the corporate investment arm of Intel, it looks for companies that can help the parent company understand where to invest resources in the future. If that is its goal, perhaps it hasn’t done a great job, as Intel has lost some of its edge when it comes to innovation.
Lin, who was formerly head of mergers and acquisitions and international investing at the firm, can use the power of the firm’s investment dollars to try to help point the parent company in the right direction and help find new ways to build innovative solutions on the Intel platform.
Lin acknowledged how challenging 2020 was for everyone, and his company was no exception, but the firm invested in 75 startups, including 35 new deals and 40 deals involving companies in which it had previously invested. It has also made a commitment to invest in companies with more diverse founders. To that end, 30% of new venture-stage dollars went to startups led by diverse leaders, according to Lin.
What’s more, the company made a five-year commitment that 15% of all its deals would go to companies with Black founders. It made some progress toward that goal, but there is still a ways to go. “At the end of 2020, 9% of our new venture deals and 15% of our venture dollars committed were in companies led by Black founders. We know there is more progress to be made and we will continue to encourage, foster and invest in diverse and inclusive teams,” he wrote.
Lin faces a big challenge ahead as he takes over a role that had the same leader for the first 28 years in Arvind Sodhani. His predecessor, Brooks, was there for five years. Now it passes to Lin, and he needs to use the firm’s investment might to help Gelsinger advance the goals of the broader firm, while making sound investments.
Update: There’s an entire second session of this? My lord.
Today the House Financial Services Committee dragged the CEO of Reddit, a Cato wonk, social media icon DeepFuckingValue, the CEO of Citadel Kenneth Griffin, a hedgefund bro who got whomped by DeepFuckingValue, and the CEO of Robinhood Vlad Tenev, who got womped when individual investors joined DeepFuckingValue in his womping of the hedge fund and thus womped his capital requirements leading to general market chaos, before them virtually for questioning.
It was not very useful. Between a cascade of Zoom failures — mutings, incorrect unmutings, a green screen that was not actually in use, and an actual gavel — members of Congress largely took five minute slots to embarass themselves, and not make material points.
The format was not conducive to real questioning, and most questions were both too long and either too precise, and misguided in their direction, or too imprecise, even if they landed in the strike zone. Sitting here I am trying to recall a single thing that I learned. I suppose that Robinhood’s CEO was not sure on the details of his company’s arbitration agreement with users. And perhaps a little bit about how many of its users trade options. And that Reddit’s CEO has a nice suit.
Some members of Congress mocked the proceedings, calling them political theater. That earned a rebuke by Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
Some members of Congress nearly got around to asking something useful. But largely the method of asking questions was bilge, the responses canned, and nothing much uncovered.
What would have worked? I suppose Congress could have brought in a few actual experts and a more limited number of guests, and then hammered them with questions about the ethical reality of payment for order flow, Robinhood’s app mechanics and how easily it offers access to exotic trading tools, and the like. That would have helped.
Instead, we got great stuff like this:
"I believe that investing is investing" – Steve Huffman
— alex (@alex) February 18, 2021
Which was not very helpful. That said, there were some good memes and jokes, so, let’s have some fun instead of being annoyed with our elected representatives:
"Did you buy GameStock because you were not aware of payment for order flow" is an incredible series of words to put one after the other
— Myles Udland (@MylesUdland) February 18, 2021
Really? An actual green screen? pic.twitter.com/goFNv3PtkP
— Lisa Fleisher (@lisafleisher) February 18, 2021
Just waiting for “why doesn’t Robinhood take responsibility for customers losses?” from these incompetent boomers
— litquidity (@litcapital) February 18, 2021
The rest of it was a waste of time. As I write this sentence to you, a member of Congress just asked how Robinhood go its name. Which is dumb, as the name is so obvious it nearly makes your head hurt with how earnest it is.
So there’s that. This was a waste. Real questions remain. They largely didn’t get asked, and certainly didn’t get answered.
Google has appointed Dr. Marian Croak to lead its responsible artificial intelligence division within Google Research, Bloomberg reported earlier today. Croak was previously the vice president of engineering at the company.
In a Google blog post and video confirming the news, Croak said:
This field, the field of responsible AI and ethics, is new. Most institutions have only developed principles, and they’re very high-level, abstract principles, in the last five years. There’s a lot of dissension, a lot of conflict in terms of trying to standardize on normative definitions of these principles. Whose definition of fairness, or safety, are we going to use? There’s quite a lot of conflict right now within the field, and it can be polarizing at times. And what I’d like to do is have people have the conversation in a more diplomatic way, perhaps, than we’re having it now, so we can truly advance this field.
This all comes after the departure of Dr. Timnit Gebru, the former co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team, as well as the corporate lockout of researcher Margaret Mitchell, founder of Google’s ethical AI team. In January, Google revoked corporate access from AI ethicist Margaret Mitchell for reportedly using automated scripts to find examples of mistreatment of Gebru, according to Axios. Gebru says she was fired from Google while Google has maintained that she resigned. In a statement to Axios at the time, Google said:
Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.
Mitchell is still locked out of her account, and tweeted today about how she only found out about the reorganization through the Bloomberg story.
…And this is how I find out. I'm so glad for all the trust they've rebuilt. It seems I've been completely erased and my team taken.https://t.co/1BTGOo5Wry
— MMitchell (@mmitchell_ai) February 18, 2021
TechCrunch has reached out to Google to try to determine what this means for Mitchell. We’ll update this story if we hear back.
Queenly, a marketplace for formalwear, launched into a world where its core product of dresses and gowns had a massive competitor, bigger and more elusive than Poshmark: quarantine.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the fancy in-person events that one might attend, such as award shows, pageants, proms and weddings to be canceled to limit spread. But despite the fact that you might be rocking sweats over slacks, Queenly co-founders Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou say that they had half a million in sales last year, and over 100,000 people visit their website everyday.
“So many women bought dresses to just dress up and feel normal at home, when everything else around the world was not,” Bantigue said. “It helped them feel grounded and stabilize themselves in this crazy chaotic pandemic environment.” The canceled events have also found new homes, such as Zoom weddings, Twitch pageants, socially distant proms and graduation car parades. The co-founder added that content creators on TikTok and YouTube have also bought Queenly dresses.
Pandemic growth added a surprising dimension to Queenly’s business, and the Bay Area startup is currently partaking in the Y Combinator winter cohort to navigate it. So far, it has raised $800,000 to date from investors including Mike Smith, former COO of Stitch Fix, Thuan Pham, former CTO of Uber, and Kelly Thompson, former COO of Samsclub.com and Walmart.com. The goal, the co-founders tell me, is to become the StockX for formalwear.
Queenly is a marketplace for buying and selling formal dresses, from wedding dresses to pageant gowns. The 50,000 dresses on the platform are either new or resale, and sellers get paid 80% of the price that the gowns go for.
Part of the company’s biggest sell, according to the co-founders, is its algorithm that matches buyers to dresses. Before Queenly, Zhou was a former software engineer at Pinterest who helped build content creation flows and the back end of the platform. She took the same focus that her and her Pinterest co-workers had on data-driven search and development and applied it to Queenly.
The search engine can go deeper than a normal dress search on Macy’s can, which might create options based on size, color and cut. In contrast, Queenly can help offer more diverse insights with a larger range of sizes, silhouette options and different shades of the same color.
Last week, a seller sold her wedding dress with a tag that says the dark mesh on the dress is for a darker skin tone. Queenly is beta-testing a feature that lets you search medium skin tone sheer options or dark skin tone sheer options. The team says that skin-tone filters are one of the important long-term goals of their search engine.
“These are just some things that we know because we’re women, and we know how to build this product for women,” Zhou said. “As opposed to if this was a male founder, they would not know that that would even be something that women would search for.”
Currently, there are over 50,000 dresses for sale on the Queenly platform, ranging from $70 to $4,000 and going up to size 32.
Image Credits: Queenly
With these search insights, Queenly says that it is able to sell dresses within two weeks, claiming that some users say that their same dresses spent five months on the Poshmark platform.
The diversity of dresses, from a price and range perspective, is one of the ways that Queenly stays competitive with large retail brands like Nordstrom.
“Buying and carrying inventory is very capital intensive for any startup,” Bantigue said. “As female minority founders it was hard for us to raise in the beginning.” As a result, the startup doesn’t keep a physical inventory of dresses, but instead relies on users to help get dresses from owner to buyer. If a dress is under $200, Queenly sends a prepaid shipping label to the seller to mail directly to the end buyer. If a dress is over $200, Queenly gets the dress sent directly to the company, does light dry cleaning and authentication, and then sends it right to the user.
Bringing the users into the transaction process adds a layer of risk because it depends on people to do things for the startup to be successful. The incentive here is that sellers make 80% of their sale price, and Queenly pockets the other 20%.
The startup’s biggest cost is shipping. To limit these costs, Queenly currently doesn’t accept or honor any returns, unless the dress upon arrival is not what was described in the sales post.
While this is a sensical business decision, it could be a hurdle for the startups’ clientele. Sizes are complicated and inconsistent, so the inability to return a dress might stifle a customer’s appetite to buy in the first place.
“We were actually worried about this before, but for two years now we [have not] had a complaint about sizing,” Bantigue said.
The co-founders say that many buyers are comfortable tailoring a dress post-purchase, and sellers are required to post pictures so expectations are set pre-purchase. There have been no cases of counterfeit brands to date, Bantigue said.
Queenly’s next plan is to bring on boutique stores and dress designers for Queenly partners, a program started to help small boutique businesses digitize their inventory through the Queenly platform.
“For years, the formalwear industry has been mostly offline, with only big name players being available online,” Bantigue said. “We want to change this.”
Extra Crunch Live is off to a kick-ass start this year. Lightspeed’s Gaurav Gupta and Grafana’s Raj Dutt taught us how to nail the narrative. Felicis Ventures’ Aydin Senkut and Guideline’s Kevin Busque showed us how valuable a simple pitch deck can be. And just yesterday, Accel’s Steve Loughlin and Ironclad’s Jason Boehmig discussed the challenges of pricing and packaging your product. Next week, we’ll sit down with Bain Capital Ventures’ Matt Harris and Justworks’ Isaac Oats.
For those of you who followed the series last year, Extra Crunch Live is a brand new beast in 2021: we take a look at early stage funding deals through the eyes of the founders and investors who made them happen, and those same tech leaders go through your pitch decks and give feedback and advice. Every single Wednesday at 12 p.m. PST/3 p.m. EST!
Extra Crunch Live is available for EC members only. It is but one of the many reasons to join Extra Crunch, including but not limited to Investor Surveys, Market Maps, and the EC Perks Program. Interested? Hit up this link to get started.
Today, I’m thrilled to announce the March slate for Extra Crunch Live. (Registration info for these events is at the bottom of the post.)
March 10, 12pm PT/3pm ET
Julia Collins built a unicorn in the form of Zume, a robotics-focused pizza startup. Her latest venture, Planet FWD, has raised $2.7 million for climate-friendly food. Sarah Kunst, managing director of Cleo Capital invested in the round, adding Planet FWD to a portfolio that includes mmhmm, Lunch Club, StyleSeat and more. Hear why they chose one another, what matters most in the relationship between an investor and a founder, and get their live feedback on audience-submitted pitch decks.
March 17, 12pm PT/3pm ET
Emmalyn Shaw co-manages a $500 million fintech fund in Flourish Capital, with portfolio companies that include Brigit, Chime, Clerkie, Cushion, EarnUp, Kin, Propel, and SeedFi. She also led the Series A deal for Steady, founded by Adam Roseman, back in 2018. Hear from Emmalyn and Adam about how they came together, what it takes to get funding and be successful in the fintech space, and get their live feedback on audience-submitted pitch decks.
March 24, 12pm PT/3pm ET
Poshmark raised upwards of $150 million before filing to go public in 2019. Today, it has a market cap north of $5 billion. Mayfield’s Navin Chaddha led the company’s Series A all the way back in 2011, back when Poshmark was called Gosh Posh. Hear Chaddha and Poshmark founder Manish Chandra discuss a decade of growth, and walk us through how they came together more than ten years ago. Then the duo will take a look at pitch decks submitted by audience members.
As a reminder, Extra Crunch Live is available for EC members only. It is but one of the many reasons to join Extra Crunch, including but not limited to Investor Surveys, Market Maps, and the EC Perks Program. Interested? Hit up this link to get started.
Register for the March episodes of Extra Crunch Live below.
See you there!
Google announced today the Apple TV+ streaming service has now arrived on the Google TV platform, starting with Chromecast with Google TV. It will also become available on Google TVs from both Sony and TCL, with expansions to other Android TV-powered devices in the months to come, Google says.
Google TV was first introduced last September as the new way Google will refer to its interface for Chromecast, where it combines streaming services, live TV via YouTube TV, and other Google offerings into one user interface — making it more competitive with similar offerings from Apple and Amazon. Today, the platform supports a wide range of top streaming services, like Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, Prime Video, CBS All Access, Hulu, Soing, and others, including, of course, YouTube.
With the added support for Apple TV+, users who already have subscriptions will be able to tune into its original programming, which includes movies, documentaries and series like “Ted Lasso,” “For All Mankind,” “Servant,” “The Morning Show,” “Dickinson,” and others. The app also provides access to the user’s library of movies and shows purchased from Apple, recommendations, and supports Family Sharing. The latter allows up to 6 family members to share a subscription to Apple TV+ and Apple TV channels.
Following the app’s launch on Google TV, users in the U.S. will be able to browse Apple’s Originals in Google TV’s personalized recommendations and surface its content in search results. Users can also ask Google Assistant to open the Apple TV app or they can request an Apple Original title by name. And they’ll be able to add Apple TV+ programming to the Google TV Watchlist. Google says these features will arrive in the “coming months,” however, instead of at launch.
The launch makes Google TV one of the last of the major streaming device platforms to support Apple’s streaming service, which is otherwise broadly available.
Apple TV+ had debuted in November 2019 for Apple customers, and later rolled out to non-Apple platforms including, that same year, Roku devices and Amazon’s Fire TV platform. Today, it’s also now available across a variety of smart TVs by Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony; gaming consoles including PlayStation (PS4 & PS5) and Xbox (One, Series X, Series S): and via the web.