“The Platform” is not a subtle movie.
That’s true of its approach to horror, with intense, bloody scenes that prompted plenty of screaming and pausing from your hosts at the Original Content podcast. It’s also true of its thematic material — right around the time one of the characters accuses another of being communist, you’ll slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Oh, it’s about capitalism.”
The new Netflix film takes place in a mysterious prison, with two prisoners on each level (they’re randomly rotated each month). Once each day, a platform laden with delicious food is lowered through the prison. If you’re on one of the top levels, you feast. If you’re further down, things are considerably more grim, and can become downright gruesome as the month wears on.
“The Platform” is a hard movie to sit through, and it has other faults, like an irritatingly mystical ending. But it’s certainly memorable, and even admirable in its dedication to fully exploring both the logistical and moral dimensions of its premise.
You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)
And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:27 “The Platform” review
17:29 “The Platform” spoilers
[Editor’s note: Want to get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that startups can use by email? Subscribe here.]
There are a few online productivity stocks booming, and a few popular remote-first product companies still announcing funding rounds amid a huge new wave of unicorn layoffs. But what about the previously white-hot software-as-a-service category overall?
Pullbacks in spending are expected in general, obviously, which means higher churn and slower growth for major SaaS companies. An informal peer survey put together by Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta indicates that many leading execs in the space expect churn to head to double digits in the near future, Alex Wilhelm learned while researching the topic this week for Extra Crunch.
But, the effects of so much of the world going remote could end up still being a bigger lift for many companies large and small. George Kurtz, CEO of publicly traded cybersecurity company Crowdstrike, expects global growth as mainstream businesses everywhere get serious about remote for the first time.
Meanwhile, fresh index data from Profitwell seems to already show a bit of a rebound in subscriptions following weeks of drops, which Alex digs into separately. It’s probably too soon to be hopeful, but anecdotally Extra Crunch’s own growth has gotten back to its previously strong footing in the last few weeks (thanks for the support, everyone).
He also caught up with Mary D’Onofrio, an investor with Bessemer Venture Partners about how to value a startup during a downturn. She also pointed out that many of the losses you’re seeing are relative. “We’re just reverting back to historical cloud software multiples. Historically if you look at the emerging cloud index basket, it’s traded at seven times forward [revenue]. Right now we’re trading at eight times forward [revenue].” At least for many companies in the space, things are still not so bad.
We’ve been writing a daily-ish series of articles about the state of startup investing in the face of COVID-19. First up, Danny Crichton breaks down “the denominator effect” on TechCrunch, where a limited partner is required through their own funding agreements to allocate a mix of equities beyond startups and rebalance based on the circumstances. When the other portions lose too much (such as, say, public stocks), LPs then have to pull back on the amount of money they can have in venture capital firms… thereby leaving those firms short of money for startups. Where is this going? “If the markets happen to rapidly recover, they might quickly reopen their investments in VC and other alternative assets,” Danny writes. “But if the markets stay sour for longer, then expect further downward gravitational pull on the VC asset class as portfolio managers reset their portfolios to where they need them. It’s the tyranny of fifth grade mathematics and a complex financial system.”
How can venture firms navigate this daunting terrain? Connie Loizos checks in for TechCrunch with Aydin Senkut of Felicis Ventures (“now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a firm launched), Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures (find some family offices who are going to be less orthodox in general and potentially less affected) and Eva Ho of Fika Ventures (don’t get discouraged, but use the additional challenge to really reflect about this career choice).
Check out additional coverage over on Extra Crunch, including a quick survey of other investors about their approaches, an interview with a venture debt lender, and a look at the trends in funding going back to last year.
Why is TikTok able to dominate the charts in the face of giant competitors? As millions sit at home using the app, Josh Constine dives into why it is likely to continue beating incumbent consumer products from companies like Alphabet and Facebook (or consumer startups). It’s what he calls the “content network effect,” as he detailed on TechCrunch:
Facilitating remixes offers a way to lower the bar for producing user generated content. You’d don’t have to be astoundingly creative or original to make something entertaining. Each individual’s life experiences inform their perspective that could let them interpret an idea in a new way. What began with someone ripping audio of two people chanting “don’t be Suspicious, don’t be suspicious” while sneaking through a graveyard in TV show Parks and Recreation led to people lip syncing it while trying to escape their infant’s room without waking them up, leaving the house wearing clothes they stole from their sister’s closet, trying to keep a llama as a pet, and photoshopping themselves to look taller. Unless someone’s already done the work to record an audio clip, there’s nothing to inspire and enable others to put their spin on it.
Healthtech in the time of COVID-19
While most people reading this newsletter have probably been experiencing the worldwide remote-first switch, an equally momentous set of changes are sweeping health care as medical systems try to get a grip on the pandemic. We had just published a big survey of leading digital health investors in December, but now is the time for an update. We checked in with:
Here’s CRV’s Spohn, summing the situation up nicely: “COVID-19 is driving opportunities, notably the rapid adoption of telehealth/virtual care by clinicians and patients, clinical trials in the cloud, as well as renewed focus on rapid point-of-care diagnostics. With virtual care, we’re seeing a decade of acceleration happening in a matter of weeks. Up until this point, there has been high-activation energy to conduct a first “eVisit” because the alternative (in-person care) was so well-established and largely available.”
How are you holding up? Are you keeping up? And most importantly, are you hydrating yourself? There’s so much news lately that we’re all falling a bit behind, but, hey, that’s what Equity is for. So, Natasha, Danny, and Alex got together to go over a number of the biggest stories in the worlds of private companies.
A warning before we get into the list, however. We’re going to be covering layoffs for a while. Don’t read more into that beyond a note to this unfortunate situation. We try to talk about the most important news, not what brings delight or joy to our hearts (because if that was the case, we would be all over mega-rounds). That in mind, here’s this week’s rundown….
Under new guidance issued by the Small Business Administration it seems non-profits and faith-based groups can apply for the Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to keep small business afloat during the COVID-19 epidemic, but most venture-backed companies are still not covered.
Late Friday night, the Treasury Department updated its rules regarding the “affiliation” of private entities to include religious organizations but keep in place the same rules that would deny most startups from receiving loans.
(b) If you are a faith-based organization, *no affiliation rules apply to you,* because the SBA just said so. Out of nowhere. At like 10pm on a Friday night.
— Doug Rand (@doug_rand) April 4, 2020
The NVCA and other organizations had pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to clarify the rules regarding startups and their potential eligibility for loans last week. And House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy even told Axios that startups would be covered under the revised regulations.
2/ There are rumors that the PPP Loan program may still fix the Affiliate Rule next week. Until fixed, it's nearly impossible for most VC-backed startups to apply because it would require huge legal lift to amend all of the charters of these companies to change control provisions
— Mark Suster (@msuster) April 4, 2020
At its essence, the issue for startups seems to be centered on the board rights that venture investors have when they take an equity stake in a company. For startups with investors on the board of directors, the decision-making powers that those investors hold means the startup is affiliated with other companies that the partner’s venture firm has invested in — which could mean that they’re considered an entity with more than 500 employees.
“[If] there’s a startup that’s going gangbusters right now, they shouldn’t apply for a PPP loan,” wrote Doug Rand, the co-founder of Seattle-based startup Boundless Immigration, and a former Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, in a direct message. “But most startups are getting killed because, you know, the economy is mostly dead.”
The $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump was designed to help companies that are adversely affected by the economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak in the US and their employees — whether those businesses are directly affected because their employees can’t leave home to do their jobs or indirectly, because demand for goods and services has flatlined.
While some tech startups have seen demand for their products actually rise during these quarantined days, many companies have watched as their businesses have gone from one to zero.
The sense frustration among investors across the country is palpable. As the Birmingham-based investor, Matt Hottle, wrote, “After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the SBA PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.”
After 4 days of trying to help 7 small businesses navigate the @SBAgov PPP program, the program went to shit on launch. I’m contemplating how many small businesses, counting on this money, are probably locked out. I feel like I/ we failed them.
— Matt Hottle (@MattRedhawk) April 4, 2020
And although the rules around whether or not many startups are eligible remain unclear, it’s probably wise for companies to file an application, because, as the program is currently structured, the $349 billion in loans are going to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis, as Suster flagged in his tweets on the subject.
General Catalyst is advising its companies that are also backed by SBIC investors to apply for the loans, because that trumps any other rules regarding affiliation, according to an interview with Holly Maloney Burbeck, a managing director at the firm.
And there’s already concerns that the money could run out. In a tweet, the President announced that he would request more money from Congress “if the allocated money runs out.”
I will immediately ask Congress for more money to support small businesses under the #PPPloan if the allocated money runs out. So far, way ahead of schedule. @BankofAmerica & community banks are rocking! @SBAgov @USTreasury
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2020
“Congress saw fit to allow Darden to get a forgivable small business loan—actually a taxpayer-funded grant—for like every Olive Garden in America. But Congress somehow neglected to provide comparable rescue measures for actual small businesses that have committed the sin of convincing investors that they have the potential to employ a huge number of people if they can only survive,” Rand wrote in a direct message. “The Trump administration has full authority to ride to the rescue, and they did… but only for large religious organizations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
As cases in the United States skyrocket, one of the most foreboding possibilities of COVID-19’s rapid growth is the potential to overwhelm hospital capacity. Hospitals in cities like New York are already underwater, relying on hospital boats (“70,000 ton message[s] of hope and solidarity”) to keep them afloat, and on retired providers as well as prematurely graduated medical students to staff those beds.
In tandem, telehealth has rapidly evolved from a “nice to have” to a “need to have” for U.S. health systems.
This timing is prescient, as the technologies for telehealth have existed for several decades (at varying levels of sophistication) with modest uptake to-date. From 2005 to 2017, only one out of every 150 doctor visits and one in every 5,000-10,000 specialist visits were conducted via telemedicine.
A major catalyst to uptake was the federal government’s announcement two weeks ago that restrictions on the use of telehealth for Medicare would be temporarily lifted. That policy change included expanding coverage across specialties and settings; waiving co-payments; and loosening HIPAA privacy requirements (such as prohibiting ubiquitous teleconferencing technologies like Apple’s FaceTime).
Accordingly, telehealth—overnight(ish)—is finally mainstream.
At America’s largest health systems, adoption of telehealth has accelerated rapidly: at Massachusetts General Hospital, the weekly number of virtual appointments has multiplied 10-20 times in the past weeks, while at NYU Langone Health, staffing was increased fivefold to handle the rush of new appointments. Teladoc, the U.S.’s largest virtual-care provider, is now reporting over 100,000 appointments weekly.
The proliferation of telehealth via pioneering health systems has spawned unique use cases rarely seen before in the landscape of U.S. healthcare.
These use cases cut across numerous settings: emergent care, intensive care, triage, and monitoring, to name a few. Outside the hospital setting, domestic initiatives such as Houston’s Project Emergency Telehealth and Navigation (ETHAN) has provided a precedent for the use of telemedicine by paramedics and EMTs in first-response. These sorts of programs have actively been pioneered by startups such as RapidSOS in response to COVID-19.
At the gateway to the hospital (the emergency room), building on work by Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, health systems including Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Health, and Providence Health have adopted programs for tele-intake to minimize contact between providers and patients under investigation (PUIs) for COVID-19.
Upon admission to the hospital, telehealth is being used for monitoring patient status while also ensuring the safety of health providers. Such technologies are proving exceptionally important given wide-scale shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).
At Washington State’s Providence Regional Medical Center Everett (the site of the first COVID-19 case in America), programs for telemonitoring of ICU patients were built from the ground up in six weeks. Startups like EarlySense are combining multimodal sensors with audiovisual capabilities to enable remote detection and evaluation of clinical deterioration on non-intensive wards.
Following discharge from the emergency room or the inpatient units of the hospital, telescreening tools like TytoCare are enabling physicians to conduct exams and deliver care remotely that previously would have required in-person contact. In the case of discharge from the emergency room—given the volatile clinical course of COVID-19—methods for streamlined and regular check-ins are critical to monitor symptoms and guide the need for more intensive treatment.
Likewise, given recovery from the disease can potentially be tumultuous (especially after ICU care), these technologies are essential for mitigating what has been deemed the “post-hospital syndrome” and ensuring long-term health after discharge from inpatient care.
While the near-overnight expansion of telehealth in diverse forms is positive news, barriers remain to its widespread dissemination in this country. To move from the prototyping stage at the meccas of modern medicine to a widely useful tool across healthcare settings, telehealth must seek to solve what has been deemed the “last mile problem.”
The last mile refers to the non-technological, practical elements of local care delivery. As with telehealth, when these practical elements of care delivery are inadequately addressed, they inhibit providers from implementing new technologies for patients. In the case of telehealth, the last mile can be grouped into four domains: those related to (a) coverage and reimbursement (b) legal concerns (c) clinical care and (d) social challenges. The federal government’s policy change this month took major steps forward to resolve some legal concerns, including limitation of tort liability and allowing common teleconferencing platforms that may not be strictly HIPAA compliant.
However, considerable obstacles to the uptake of telehealth persist across the other three domains, especially for the 86.5% of Americans not on Medicare. To effectively combat COVID-19, telehealth must also reach these 281 million individuals in the under-resourced nooks and crannies of the U.S. As the virus becomes more pervasive across the country, rural health systems are depending heavily on these technologies to manage the imminent surge of cases.
In terms of coverage for patients, only 36 states mandated coverage of telehealth services in insurance plans as of April 2019. For those with mandatory coverage, out-of-pocket copays typically ranged $50-80 per appointment. Alternatively, certain plans waived copays, but only following an annual fee for premium services—premiums which may well rise going forward.
All of these costs will hinder the use of telehealth in non-Medicare patients amidst the present outbreak.
While in the past two weeks, some private insurers such as United Healthcare (covering 45 million Americans), Humana (39 million), and Aetna (13 million) waived copays on telehealth services, the privates covering the remaining hundreds of millions of Americans must follow quickly. States can help accelerate this by following the lead of Massachusetts, which last month required all insurers to cover telehealth.
In terms of reimbursement to providers, only 20% of states required payment parity for telehealth to ensure—if telehealth was covered at all—it is remunerated at rates approximating in-person visits for similar diagnoses. This disparity has made adoption of telehealth undesirable and/or untenable for health systems, since the reimbursement rates for telehealth average 20-50% lower than for comparable in-person service.
The challenges to adoption of telehealth are further heightened for independent practices, who must pay subscription fees to use standard telehealth platforms, but simultaneously experience revenue decreases of some 30% upon integrating telehealth. To make adoption of telehealth financially feasible for health systems and individual practices amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, states once again should follow Massachusetts in seizing the opportunity to enforce payment parity by private insurers.
Finally, in terms of clinical care, issues abound in the minutia of how and where telehealth can be performed. In terms of how telehealth is performed: while these services should integrate with the existing workflows of clinical practice, insurance rules currently hinder this. For example, e-visits and check-ups are only permitted for “existing” patients rather than for new patients presenting with mild symptoms or fleeting concerns, who may not require a full work-up (this is the case even under the recent CMS policy).
Moreover, asynchronous methods such as “store-and-forward” consultations and remote patient monitoring—exactly the sort of efficient and highly-scalable pathways integral to the flexible provision of care to the dispersed masses—are restricted in most states.
Additionally, where telehealth can be conducted is hamstrung by “origination site” policies banning these services in patient homes but for a select few conditions (such as stroke assessment and opiate rehabilitation). Such arbitrary, excessive regulations make the widespread utilization of telehealth unrealistic. Also, state-by-state licensing requirements prevent physicians from providing care across borders (for reasons rooted in nineteenth-century concerns of medical quality gaps between states).
To promote the care of COVID-19 patients in epicenter regions, states should follow the lead of New York and Florida to suspend out-of-state licensing bans, allow license transferability, or at least expedite licensing through “licensure compacts” in allied states.
Finally, in terms of social challenges, considerable access disparities exist between demographic groups. For example, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s 2018 survey, vulnerable populations such as the elderly were 21% less likely to have internet access and almost 50% less likely to conduct videocalls; the poor were 34% less likely to communicate with doctors online; and other demographic minorities (such as Hispanic ethnicity or lower educational attainment) were also less likely to have access to and/or use telehealth technologies.
Since these populations are more likely to face the sorts of comorbid conditions and social determinants of health that heighten mortality from COVID-19—and less likely to have levels of health literacy allowing them to reduce their risk of transmitting infectious diseases like coronavirus—inequalities in telehealth access bear important implications on the country’s ability to flatten the curve of COVID-19.
One of the single best interventions to augment access for these individuals is expanding the scope of practice of non-physician health providers. These providers have their wings clipped by arcane laws fiercely defended by state medical associations that require their “supervision” by physicians for most cases of patient care. This is despite analyses since the 1980s exhibiting the capability for non-physician healthcare providers (such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants) to provide services as high quality as those of physicians.
Liberating various allied health practitioners (including also registered nurses, pharmacists, dentists, paramedics, and social workers) to screen, diagnose, treat, and prescribe with increased autonomy would undergird telehealth’s capabilities as a “force multiplier” in the setting of COVID-19. They can also unleash the potential of startups such as The MAVEN Project which provide platforms for peer-to-peer consults between specialty and generalist health providers in emergency settings.
In geographically dispersed states such as California—where allied health providers are expected to provide half of all primary care appointments by 2030—these policies are especially vital. Bills designed to facilitate these programs like the California Assembly Bill 890 that remains stalled should be endorsed to protect patients across the state from the insidious diffusion of COVID-19.
In summary, the early responses by federal and state agencies to COVID-19 have made progress to promote the uptake of telehealth. However, as the virus expands its siege across the country, more comprehensive solutions are urgently needed to equip the creators, users, and beneficiaries of telehealth with the arsenal they desperately require to vanquish this invisible enemy. Accordingly, pen-and-paper may be the most important technologies for bolstering telehealth today. Letters to senators, in the near-term, may be the most potent ammunition we’ve got.
It’s no secret that adaptability has become a critical trait for knowledge workers. To stay on top of a rapidly evolving world, we must assess new situations, make intelligent decisions and implement them effectively.
A 2014 research report by Barclays indicated that 60% of employers say adaptability has become more important during the last decade, and BBC called adaptability the “X factor” for career success in an era of technological change.
But even the most intrepid executive, entrepreneur or freelancer would be forgiven for struggling to adapt to a global pandemic. The impact of coronavirus has been unrelenting: hospitals at capacity, students sent home, conference cancellations, sold out inventory, markets in free fall and cities under lockdown.
Not just start-ups. Every big company, every nonprofit, every government organization, and most people too
— Bob Sutton (@work_matters) March 16, 2020
This moment requires us to learn new skills, develop new habits and let go of old ways of working. In the book “Range,” there’s a chapter about “dropping familiar tools” that details how experienced professionals will overlearn specific behavior and then fail to adapt to a new circumstance. This mentality affected everyone from firefighters to aviation crews to NASA engineers, often with deadly results, and underscores how hard it can be to adapt to change.
To help us cultivate adaptability in this unprecedented moment, I sought answers in unexpected places. Here’s what I learned.
Adaptability is required first and foremost when circumstances change. It’s easy to get attached to certain outcomes, especially when they’ve been planned long in advance or have significant emotional weight.
Due to coronavirus, a couple I know is postponing their wedding originally set for April. Having tied the knot only a year ago myself, I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be for them. But it was the right decision; demanding that the show go on would have been dangerous for their families, friends and the public at large.
I recently spoke with my friend Belinda Ju, an executive coach with a longstanding meditation practice. Non-attachment is a core concept of Buddhism, the spiritual path she’s followed for many years, and I wanted her thoughts on how that idea might help us adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
“Attachment doesn’t work because certainty doesn’t work. You can’t predict the future,” she explained. Being attached to something means “seeing the world through a false lens. Nothing is fixed.” For Ju and her clients, non-attachment doesn’t mean giving up on goals — it means focusing on what you can control.
“You might have a fixed goal of needing to raise X million dollars to keep your team afloat,” she said. “But in the age of coronavirus, investors might be slower to respond. So what are the levers in your control? What are the options you have and the pros and cons to each one?”
Her points hit home for me. As a NYC-based startup founder, I was preparing to make several trips to the West Coast to raise the next round for my company, Midgame, a digital party host for gamers.
I like pitching in person, but that’s obviously not going to happen, so I need to embrace video calls as my new reality. By doing that, I can get to stocking up on coffee, cleaning up my work space and setting up a microphone so when I do pitch over video, I’m bringing my A game.
Another way to think about adaptability is that it’s the ability to improvise. In theater, improv performers can’t rely on prewritten lines, and have to react in real time to suggestions from the audience or the words and actions of their scene partners.
“ ‘Playing the scene you’re in’ is a principle from improv which means to be present to the situation you’re in.”
That’s what Mary Lemmer told me. As an entrepreneur and VC who spent a stint at The Second City improv theater in Chicago, Lemmer knows a thing or two about having to adapt. Today, she brings her insights to corporations through training and workshops.
She explained that as an improv performer, you may start a scene with a certain idea in mind of how it will go, but that can quickly change. “If you’re not present,” she said, “then you’re not actively listening and because there’s no script, you’ll miss details. That’s when scenes fall apart.”
When I was a PM at Etsy and we had a major launch, we’d get engineering, dev ops, product, marketing and customer support together in a room to talk through the final event sequencing. These weren’t always the most exciting meetings and it was easy to get distracted by email or chat. One time engineering announced a significant last-minute issue that almost slipped through the cracks. Luckily, someone piped up with a clarifying question and we were all able to work together to minimize the issue.
Lemmer argues that in improv, like in business, you can’t make assumptions about people or situations. “We see this a lot in board meetings. People start to assume ‘Sally’ will always be the proactive one or ‘Jim’ will always be the naysayer and tune out.”
This is kind of attitude is problematic in a stable environment, but downright dangerous in an unstable situation where new data and events can quickly open up a new set of challenges and opportunities.
Early on, some experts thought the coronavirus crisis would stabilize globally by April. In early February, S&P Global stated that in the “worst-case scenario,” the virus would be contained by late May. A month later, that prediction already looked wildly optimistic.
Experts are saying now that cases may peak in May or June, which means everyone should be hunkering down for eight or more weeks of social distancing and isolation. A COVID-19 vaccine just started human trials, but testing in large enough sample sizes to identify side effects and then ramping up large-scale production still might not be fully available for more than a year.
In other words, dealing with this virus is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A marathon no one signed up for.
Someone who knows a lot about this topic is Jason Fitzgerald. A 2:39 marathoner, Fitzgerald now helps people run faster and healthier as an author and coach.
When we spoke over the phone, he pointed out that running, unlike say basketball or gymnastics, is a sport where “you have to voluntarily want to experience more and more discomfort.”
Fitzgerald calls this ability to endure “mental toughness,” and it’s a skill we all can build. For runners, it requires doing workouts that scare them, putting in mileage that’s higher than they have in the past and racing regularly. It’s also about accepting and even embracing the pain of running hard.
The same is true for adaptation. We can train ourselves to respond better to change (we’re all getting lots of practice right now!), but developing new habits and working in new ways is always uncomfortable. As decorated cyclist Greg LeMond once said, “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”
We also have to recognize that we won’t get it right every time. “The more that we get comfortable with poor performances, the more we can learn from them,” Fitzgerald said, noting that he’s had his share of bad races, including failing to finish an ultramarathon in 2015. “Sometimes you dwell on a bad race for a couple days, but then you have to just forget about it and move on with your training.”
Many of us are reeling from more cancellations, suspensions and complete one-eighties in the last month than in the last five years. But we can’t let ourselves stay bogged down by our feelings of frustration or disappointment. We accept our new reality, learn what we can from it, and keep going.
It’s clear that the people who can let go of their past plans and embrace the new environment ahead will thrive. Already we’re seeing companies pivot from live events to online webinars, and remote-first workplaces becoming the new normal. Shares of Zoom have risen even as the stock market has taken a beating and I’m sure other winners will emerge in the coming weeks and months.
But adaptability doesn’t just matter for individuals or even companies, it matters for governments. For China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, thanks to aggressive testing and quarantining efforts, life is returning, somewhat, to normal. New cases are on the decline and there’s hope of life returning to normalcy in the near future. Countries that bungled their response to the disease progression, including Italy, Spain, the U.K. and the United States, are now facing increasingly dire consequences.
Whether you want to survive a global pandemic, reach the next phase in your career or be selected on a mission to Mars, it’s hard to overstate the importance of adaptability in getting there.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.
The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.
This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry — or rather, the boost many apps are receiving as a result. In fact, the first quarter saw consumer spending hit record levels in Q1 as everyone was staying indoors. But as some apps shoot up the charts, scrutiny over their practices increases. This week saw No. 1 app Zoom defending itself against a host of complaints over security issues, for example, while social video app Houseparty defended itself against a possible smear campaign. There’s also a new app from the Pinterest CEO for tracking the spread of COVID-19.
Also this week: more leaks about the new version of iOS, Apple bought Dark Sky, Niantic pivoted, TikTok moved up the charts and more.
Hours after security researchers at Citizen Lab reported that some Zoom calls were routed through China, the video conferencing platform has offered an apology and a partial explanation.
To recap, Zoom has faced a barrage of headlines this week over its security policies and privacy practices, as hundreds of millions forced to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic still need to communicate with each other.
The latest findings landed earlier today when Citizen Lab researchers said that some calls made in North America were routed through China — as were the encryption keys used to secure those calls. But as was noted this week, Zoom isn’t end-to-end encrypted at all, despite the company’s earlier claims, meaning that Zoom controls the encryption keys and can therefore access the contents of its customers’ calls. Zoom said in an earlier blog post that it has “implemented robust and validated internal controls to prevent unauthorized access to any content that users share during meetings.” The same can’t be said for Chinese authorities, however, which could demand Zoom turn over any encryption keys on its servers in China to facilitate decryption of the contents of encrypted calls.
Zoom now says that during its efforts to ramp up its server capacity to accommodate the massive influx of users over the past few weeks, it “mistakenly” allowed two of its Chinese datacenters to accept calls as a backup in the event of network congestion.
From Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan:
During normal operations, Zoom clients attempt to connect to a series of primary datacenters in or near a user’s region, and if those multiple connection attempts fail due to network congestion or other issues, clients will reach out to two secondary datacenters off of a list of several secondary datacenters as a potential backup bridge to the Zoom platform. In all instances, Zoom clients are provided with a list of datacenters appropriate to their region. This system is critical to Zoom’s trademark reliability, particularly during times of massive internet stress.”
In other words, North American calls are supposed to stay in North America, just as European calls are supposed to stay in Europe. This is what Zoom calls its datacenter “geofencing.” But when traffic spikes, the network shifts traffic to the nearest datacenter with the most available capacity.
China, however, is supposed to be an exception, largely due to privacy concerns among Western companies. But China’s own laws and regulations mandate that companies operating on the mainland must keep citizens’ data within its borders.
Zoom said in February that “rapidly added capacity” to its Chinese regions to handle demand was also put on an international whitelist of backup datacenters, which meant non-Chinese users were in some cases connected to Chinese servers when datacenters in other regions were unavailable.
Zoom said this happened in “extremely limited circumstances.” When reached, a Zoom spokesperson did not quantify the number of users affected.
Zoom said that it has now reversed that incorrect whitelisting. The company also said users on the company’s dedicated government plan were not affected by the accidental rerouting.
But some questions remain. The blog post only briefly addresses its encryption design. Citizen Lab criticized the company for “rolling its own” encryption — otherwise known as building its own encryption scheme. Experts have long rejected efforts by companies to build their own encryption, because it doesn’t undergo the same scrutiny and peer review as the decades-old encryption standards we all use today.
Zoom said in its defense that it can “do better” on its encryption scheme, which it says covers a “large range of use cases.” Zoom also said it was consulting with outside experts, but when asked a spokesperson declined to name any.
Bill Marczak, one of the Citizen Lab researchers that authored today’s report, told TechCrunch he was “cautiously optimistic” about Zoom’s response.
“The bigger issue here is that Zoom has apparently written their own scheme for encrypting and securing calls,” he said, and that “there are Zoom servers in Beijing that have access to the meeting encryption keys.”
“If you’re a well-resourced entity, obtaining a copy of the Internet traffic containing some particularly high-value encrypted Zoom call is perhaps not that hard,” said Marcak.
“The huge shift to platforms like Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic makes platforms like Zoom attractive targets for many different types of intelligence agencies, not just China,” he said. “Fortunately, the company has (so far) hit all the right notes in responding to this new wave of scrutiny from security researchers, and have committed themselves to make improvements in their app.”
Zoom’s blog post gets points for transparency. But the company is still facing pressure from New York’s attorney general and from two class-action lawsuits. Just today, several lawmakers demanded to know what it’s doing to protect users’ privacy.
Will Zoom’s mea culpas be enough?
Facebook’s WhatsApp is in the midst of a lawsuit against Israeli mobile surveillance outfit NSO Group. But before complaining about the company’s methods, Facebook seems to have wanted to use them for its own purposes, according to testimony from NSO founder Shalev Hulio.
Last year brought news of an exploit that could be used to install one of NSO’s spyware packages, Pegasus, on devices using WhatsApp. The latter sued the former over it, saying that over a hundred human rights activists, journalists and others were targeted using the method.
Last year also saw Facebook finally shut down Onavo, the VPN app it purchased in 2013 and developed into a backdoor method of collecting all manner of data about its users — but not as much as they’d have liked, according to Hulio. In a document filed with the court yesterday he states that Facebook in 2017 asked NSO Group for help collecting data on iOS devices resistant to the usual tricks:
In October 2017, NSO was approached by two Facebook representatives who asked to purchase the right to use certain capabilities of Pegasus, the same NSO software discussed in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.
The Facebook representatives stated that Facebook was concerned that its method for gathering user data through Onavo Protect was less effective on Apple devices than on Android devices. The Facebook representatives also stated that Facebook wanted to use purported capabilities of Pegasus to monitor users on Apple devices and were willing to pay for the ability to monitor Onavo Protect users. Facebook proposed to pay NSO a monthly fee for each Onavo Protect user.
NSO declined, as it claims to only provide its software to governments for law enforcement purposes. But there is a certain irony to Facebook wanting to employ against its users the very software it would later decry being employed against its users. (WhatsApp maintains some independence from its parent company but these events come well after the purchase by and organizational integration into Facebook.)
A Facebook representative did not dispute that representatives from the company approached NSO Group at the time, but said the testimony was an attempt to “distract from the facts” and contained “inaccurate representations about both their spyware and a discussion with people who work at Facebook.” We can presumably expect a fuller rebuttal in the company’s own filings soon.
Facebook and WhatsApp are, quite correctly, concerned that effective, secret intrusion methods like those developed and sold by NSO Group are dangerous in the wrong hands — as demonstrated by the targeting of activists and journalists, and potentially even Jeff Bezos. But however reasonable Facebook’s concerns are, the company’s status as the world’s most notorious collector and peddler of private information makes its righteous stance hard to take seriously.
The massive surge of COVID-19-related layoffs has put tech in a unique position. While the startup world is facing layoffs itself, it is also trying to help get people back to work.
Back at the end of 2019, the SoftBank-backed belt-tightening period led to a flurry of crowdsourced spreadsheets with employee names from companies like Oyo, WeWork, Zume and more. The spreadsheets popped up as a bet on the network effect, with the ultimate goal of hoping the sheets land in the hands of a recruiter looking to hire one of hundreds laid off. Now, as COVID-19 cripples the economy, layoffs have surged dramatically past that one period.
On one end, we’ve reported on numbers of tech companies cutting staff, from Oyo, to ZipRecruiter, to TripActions. But on the other, brighter end, we’ve also seen the rise of platforms to connect those laid off and pledges from employers to not fire any employees during this trying time.
In a world where people are laid off on Zoom, tech’s efforts to give community, and a course of action, to those laid off is undeniably important.
So many start-ups have done or are planning layoffs that at this point it would be easier to list the ones that *haven't* cut staff.
So here are some places trying to help laid off employees:
— erin griffith (@eringriffith) April 2, 2020
The current climate of the pandemic, and the massive unemployment that has resulted, means that a spreadsheet with a long list of employee names and unverified contact information doesn’t cut it.
Shannon Anderson, the director of talent at Madrona Venture Group in Seattle, saw her firm’s portfolio companies struggling with layoffs and the changing economy. Two of the portfolio companies, Textio and Rover, laid off staff, along with a number of other companies.
“We wanted to anticipate a reduction in force across the ecosystem,” said Anderson. “It’s a global problem.”
So, to help boost the network of those laid off, Anderson reached out to a number of HR leaders, including Chris Brownridge, the founder of Silver Lining, a job platform for those who have been laid off. He started Silver Lining after he shut down his startup last summer and had to lay off his staff of 20.
“I felt the pain [of layoffs] from the employer side, and it is painful for the employer, especially when you care about [your workers],” he said back in January. “I don’t want to keep seeing spreadsheets thrown around; I think that is not the right answer. We need a standardized way to deal with it, with a community behind it.”
Silver Lining is a platform that lets candidates submit profiles for recruiters from top companies to review. Job seekers on the site range from architects, UX designers, engineers, community managers and more.
Then COVID-19 spread across the world, forcing people to stay home and spend less. The economy’s downturn unevenly impacted companies around the world: where layoffs exist for the travel sector, usage surges exist for the remote work companies. But as a whole, the labor force is struggling, with 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment just last week alone.
Madrona said it is donating a portion of its budget to help Silver Lining offer more services to those laid off. The firm declined to share the total amount of the donation.
Silver Lining will also now offer coaching, resume writing and emotional support to folks on the platform, Brownridge says. Thanks to donations from Madrona, Skytap, Bandwidth, Voodle, Female Founders Alliance and more, the site is free to use.
The uptick in layoffs has led Boston-based Drafted, a referral startup, to launch a product called the Layoff Network to help those who have been laid off. The startup previously was sending out a newsletter, Layoff List, of weekly list of layoffs with spreadsheets hyperlinked. During the SoftBank layoffs, Olivia Clark, the creator of the newsletter, noticed a surge in traffic — more than 1,000 recruiters subscribed.
Now she says traffic is “up 2,000%” and, in just two weeks, Drafted’s engineering team has productized that newsletter into a job search network.
The Layoff Network connects with recruiters people who have been recommended by their colleagues and “endorsed” for their skills. If you’re laid off, you can sign up and create a profile and ask a previous employer or colleague to recommend you. Clark says this is similar to LinkedIn’s “endorse” feature to make sure the people are credible.
Once the person has been endorsed, they will be added to a talent feed. That is where recruiters can search for nominees, job titles, companies or locations. Unlike a spreadsheet, this is clearly easier to navigate and adds another layer of human touch.
Clark says that the platform will be free for individuals who have been laid off, and who are recruiting or hiring. Drafted has a paid enterprise level that is for organizations that are conducting mass layoffs and want to provide support for former employees.
The grassroots efforts are vast and diverse. Here’s a list that posts companies that are actively hiring. Here’s a list for Canadian tech workers, and one for Colorado’s tech scene. And here’s a live tracker of startups that have issued layoffs, started by the team over at Human Interest, a startup that has nothing to do with layoffs.
Megan Murphy, who created Chicago Superstars for those laid off from the Chicago tech scene, has not received donations or support yet. As the number of unemployed people increases, Murphy says she’s noticing a lack of clarity on which companies are hiring, and which job postings are still active. If a company was hiring for a position in January, it might not be anymore (to help keep costs down).
“I can’t waste time crafting cover letters and custom resumes for jobs that won’t actually move forward,” she said. “There are tons of crowdsourced tools trying to flag who’s actually hiring still, while others are trying to flag who’s instituted a hiring freeze or laid people off, and in the meantime, company career pages aren’t up to date. We need one source of truth — and right now nobody’s really set up to do that.”
1575 Remote Jobs From 100+ Companies Hiring Remotely: https://t.co/pMk38QwvDX
— Brianne Kimmel (@briannekimmel) March 24, 2020
For now, Murphy says she’s getting creative in her own search, and asking for others to do the same. “Virtual communities and experiences are about to be more important than ever.” She notes guerrilla Slack channels and Reddit as an example of organic communication.
As for how she’s able to keep up with the demand of people needing help for their next job? Murphy, who is looking for a job herself after getting laid off, says she has fewer interviews from potential employers, so she’s been able to help those reaching out.
The work done by these entrepreneurs scratches at the same hope that lies within the hundreds of lines of contact information within a crowdsourced layoff spreadsheet: a need for a community in a trying time. And these days, more than most, remind us of the power of having a group of people together in the first place.
People seem to love the concept of the battle pass.
Largely popularized by Fortnite, battle passes reward players for playing well, and playing often. The better you do, the more XP you earn; the more XP you earn, the more stuff (new looks for your character, or victory dances to fire off at the end of a gunfight) you unlock. Willing to cough up a few bucks for an optional “premium” battle pass? That’ll open up a whole new set of rewards. The model has made its way into countless games over the last couple years, from PUBG to Rocket League.
Zelos, an LA-based company out of Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch, is aiming to make that same concept work across multiple games. Tackle challenges in one game, earn rewards for another — or use your points to buy new games altogether.
Each day, Zelos offers up a handful of challenges across each of the games it supports, like dealing 10,000 damage in League of Legends or getting 5 kills with Wraith in Apex. Completing a challenge earns you “zips”; most challenges I’ve seen will earn the player somewhere between 15 and 150 zips, depending on how tough it is to pull off.
Once you’ve pooled up a pile of zips, they can be redeemed for all sorts of virtual goodies. The more something would cost otherwise, the more zips it’ll require. 60,000 zips, for example, gets you a $5 Steam gift card —or 90,000 zips for $10 worth of Apex Coins. Once you get into the 50,000-200,000 zip range, you can redeem them for digital download codes for games like Rainbow Six Siege, Monster Hunter: World, and Tabletop Simulator. Getting the good stuff can mean completing a lot of challenges, but remember: these are games people are playing anyway.
In addition to zips, each challenge earns the player a bit of EXP. EXP levels up your Zelos profile; with each level, you unlock a bundle of zips, additional challenges, and items for your Zelos avatar.
Zelos is currently issuing challenges and tracking stats across seven games: Fortnite, Apex, League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, DOTA 2, Counter Strike: GO, and Clash Royale. Stat tracking works a bit better in some games than it does in others, depending on how open a game’s developers are with the data. With League of Legends, for example, they’re able to ping Riot Games’ dedicated API for a rich backlog of match data; with Apex, on the other hand, they’re limited to pulling stats based on a handful of unlockable trackers players can flip on between matches.
Zelos co-founder Jeffrey Tong tells me they’re focused on ensuring they stay above board with the data they pull, making sure they comply with each provider’s ToS. That makes sense, of course: getting on a developer’s bad side could mean losing access to the data firehouse, in turn squashing Zelos’ ability to support a game. The more popular games Zelos can support, the better the whole idea works.
So if they’re giving stuff away based on challenges in games they themselves aren’t selling.. how will they make money? The same way the aforementioned games do: a premium battle pass. Tong tells me that they’re currently testing a subscription-based battle pass that’ll unlock new challenges, more prizes, and increase the rate at which points are earned.
This isn’t Tong’s first foray into the gaming space; he previously built and sold OverStats, an analytics system for tracking a player’s esports stats over time. Co-founder Derek Chiang, meanwhile, was previously a senior software engineer at the decentralized computing company Dfinity.
Tong tells me they raised $2.8M in the days after YC demo day, eyeing expansion of the platform, supported games, and their team. The Zelos team is currently three people, with plans to hire another “six or seven” in the coming weeks. They’re currently seeing over 50,000 weekly active users, with 55% of their users playing 2 or more games on the platform.
Sick of sharing those generic Zoom video call invites that all look the same? Wish your Zoom link preview’s headline and image actually described your meeting? Want to protect your Zoom calls from trolls by making attendees RSVP to get your link? ZmURL.com has you covered.
Launching today, ZmURL is a free tool that lets you customize your Zoom video call invite URL with a title, explanation, and image that will show up when you share the link on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. zmurl also lets you require that attendees RSVP by entering their email address so can decide who to approve and provide with the actual entry link. That could stop Zoombombers from harassing your call with offensive screenshared imagery, profanity, or worse.
“We built zmurl.com to make it easier for people to stay physically distant but socially close” co-founder Victor Pontis tells me. “We’re hoping to give event organizers the tools to preserve in-person communities while we are all under quarantine.”
Zoom wasn’t built for open public discussions. But with people trapped inside by coronavirus, its daily user count has spiked from 10 million to 200 million. That’s led to new use cases from cocktail parties to roundtable discussions to AA meetings to school classes.
That’s unfortunately spawned new problems like “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors tracking down public Zoom calls and bombarding them with abuse. Since then, the FBI has issued a warning about Zoombombing, the New York Times has written multiple articles about the issue, and Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has apologized.
Yet Zoom has been slow to adapt it features as it struggles not to buckle under its sudden scale. While it’s turned on waiting rooms and host-only screensharing by default for usage in schools, most people are still vulnerable due to Zoom’s permissive settings and reused URLs that were designed for only trusted enterprise meetings. Only today did Zoom concede to shifting the balance further from convenience to safety, turning on waiting rooms by default and requiring passwords for entry by Meeting ID.
Meanwhile, social networks have become a sea of indistinguishable Zoom links that all show the same blue and white logo in the preview with no information on what the call is about. That makes it a lot tougher to promote calls, which many musicians, fitness instructors, and event producers are relying on to drive donations or payments while their work is disrupted by quarantines.
ZmURL’s founders during their only in-person meeting ever
Luckily, Pontis and his co-founder Danqing Liu are here to help with zmurl. The two software engineers fittingly met over Zoom a year ago and have only met once in person. Pontis, now in San Francisco, had started bike and scooter rental software companies Spring and Scooter Map. Liu, from Beijing but now holed up in New York, had spent five years at Google, Uber, and PlanGrid before selling his machine learning tool TinyMind.
The idea for ZmURL stemmed from Danqin missing multiple Zoom events he’d wanted to attend. Then a friend of Pontis was laid off from their yoga instructor job, and they and their colleagues were scrambling to market and earn money from hosting their own classes over Zoom. The duo quickly built a beta with zero money raised and tested it with some yoga gurus who found it simplified promoting events and gathering RSVPs. “We’re all going through a tough time right now. We see zmurl as our opportunity to help” Pontis tells me.
To use the tool, you generate a generic meeting link from Zoom like zoom.us/ji/1231231232 and then punch it into ZmURL. You can upload an image or choose from stock photos and color gradients. Then you name you event, give it a description, and set the time and date. You’ll get a shorter URL like https://zmurl.com/smy5m or you can give it a custom one like zmurl.com/quidditch.
When you share that URL, it’ll show your image, headline, and description in the link preview on chat apps, social networks and more. Attendees who click will be shown a nicely rendered event page with the link to enter the Zoom call and the option to add it to their calendar. You can try it out here, zmurl.com/aloha, as the startup is hosting a happy hour today at 6pm Pacific.
Optionally, you can set your ZmURL calls to require an RSVP. In that case, people who click your link have to submit their email address. The host can then sift through the RSVPs and choose who to email back the link to join the call. If you see an RSVP from someone you don’t recognize, just ignore it to keep Zoombombers from slipping inside.
Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be any other tools for customizing Zoom call links. Zoom paid enterprise customers can only set up a image and logo-equipped landing page for their whole company’s Zoom account, not for specific calls. For now, ZmURL is completely free. But the co-founders are building out an option for hosting paid events that collect entry fees on the RSVP site while ZmURL takes a 5% cut.
Next, ZmURL wants to add the ability to link your Zoom account to its site so you can spawn call links without leaving. It’s also building out always-on call rooms, recurring events, organizer home pages for promoting all their calls, an option to add events to a public directory, email marketing tools, and integrations with other video call platforms like Hangouts, Skype, and FaceTime.
Pontis says the biggest challenge will be learning to translate more of the magic and business potential off offline events into the world of video calling. There’s also the risk that Zoom will try to intercede and force ZmURL to desist. But it shouldn’t, at least until Zoom builds all these features itself. Or it should just acquire ZmURL.
We’re dealing with an unprecedented behavior shift due to shelter-in-place orders that threaten to cripple the world economy and drive many of us crazy. Whether for fostering human connection or keeping event businesses afloat, Zoom has become a critical utility. It should accept all the help it can get.
As capable as robots are, the original animals after which they tend to be designed are always much, much better. That’s partly because it’s difficult to learn how to walk like a dog directly from a dog — but this research from Google’s AI labs make it considerably easier.
The goal of this research, a collaboration with UC Berkeley, was to find a way to efficiently and automatically transfer “agile behaviors” like a light-footed trot or spin from their source (a good dog) to a quadrupedal robot. This sort of thing has been done before, but as the researchers’ blog post points out, the established training process can often “require a great deal of expert insight, and often involves a lengthy reward tuning process for each desired skill.”
That doesn’t scale well, naturally, but that manual tuning is necessary to make sure the animal’s movements are approximated well by the robot. Even a very doglike robot isn’t actually a dog, and the way a dog moves may not be exactly the way the robot should, leading the latter to fall down, lock up, or otherwise fail.
The Google AI project addresses this by adding a bit of controlled chaos to the normal order of things. Ordinarily, the dog’s motions would be captured and key points like feet and joints would be carefully tracked. These points would be approximated to the robot’s in a digital simulation where a virtual version of the robot attempts to imitate the motions of the dog with its own, learning as it goes.
So far, so good, but the real problem comes when you try to use the results of that simulation to control an actual robot. The real world isn’t a 2D plane with idealized friction rules and all that. Unfortunately, that means that uncorrected simulation-based gaits tend to walk a robot right into the ground.
To prevent this, the researchers introduced an element of randomness to the physical parameters used in the simulation, making the virtual robot weigh more, or have weaker motors, or experience greater friction with the ground. This made the machine learning model describing how to walk have to account for all kinds of small variances and the complications they create down the line — and how to counteract them.
Learning to accommodate for that randomness made the learned walking method far more robust in the real world, leading to a passable imitation of the target dog walk, and even more complicated moves like turns and spins, without any manual intervention and only little extra virtual training.
Naturally manual tweaking could still be added to the mix if desired, but as it stands this is a large improvement over what could previously be done totally automatically.
In another research project described in the same post, another set of researchers describe a robot teaching itself to walk on its own, but imbued with the intelligence to avoid walking outside its designated area and to pick itself up when it falls. With those basic skills baked in, the robot was able to amble around its training area continuously with no human intervention, learning quite respectable locomotion skills.
The paper on learning agile behaviors from animals can be read here, while the one on robots learning to walk on their own (a collaboration with Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology) is here.
When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.
Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.
Look at the biggest tech companies in the world from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.
Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie, and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.
“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.
In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusmano, Yoffe and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”
From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.
Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.
Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014 said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.
If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies
That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.
As of this writing, nearly a million people globally have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 50,322 have died. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, consumers and profiteers are hoarding supplies and some service workers have launched strikes while many others have been let go. In the world of micromobility, we’ve seen Bird lay off hundreds of employees and Lime is reportedly gearing up for layoffs of its own.
Ride Report creates software that enables cities to better work with micromobility operators and has a bird’s-eye view on the industry. In a conversation with TechCrunch, CEO William Henderson outlined some of the trends that have emerged and what we can expect for micromobility operators amid the pandemic — and once it’s over.
“All of this came at a really hard time for micromobility,” he tells TechCrunch. “It couldn’t really have occurred at a worse time in some ways.”
That’s because there was already a lot of pressure on startups in the space to reach profitability on an accelerated timeline, Henderson says. While winter is notoriously known as a rough time, the environment in this pandemic is “micromobility winter on steroids.”
Over the last month, companies have paused operations in cities and started laying off people. Operators Bird and Lime, for example, paused operations across the board last month.
Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.
The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs.
Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.
The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.
The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.
Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”
The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.
NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.
But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues.
Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.
Stocks fell in regular trading Friday, as all major American indices fell in the wake of a broadly negative jobs report. With more than 700,000 jobs lost in the March data, unemployment in the United States rose from 3.5% to 4.4%.
The markets have been bracing for widespread job losses due to the continued fallout from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus that has prompted local, county and state officials throughout the U.S. and Europe to issue stay-at-home orders. Those directives have forced bars, restaurants, gyms and other non essentials businesses to close.
While the market had expected a wave of job losses, stocks fell as those figures surpassed expectations. Selloffs were further spurred by this troubling recognition: Friday’s figures only account for unemployment-insurance claims individuals filed in the first two weeks of March, before most of the COVID-related layoffs began.
This was unlike Thursday, when negative data led to market gains.
Here are the day’s raw results:
Shares of SaaS and cloud companies tracked by the Bessemer cloud index fell as well, while cryptocurrencies were roughly flat in the 24 hours period ending with the close of equity trading.
There were standouts, however. Shares of Tesla held onto some of their after-hours gains recorded yesterday, closing the day up 5.62% to close at $408.01 as the company continued to ride its positive report that it had delivered more vehicles than expected. Bill.com, a recent SaaS IPO managed gains as well, closing the day up 2.71%. It was somewhat hard to find exceptions to the selloff; most companies lost ground in the face of a worse-than-expected economic data.
Every sector saw downward pressure Friday, with the exception of energy and consumer products, which saw a bit of a lift. Oil futures had one of its best days on record, after Russian President Vladimir Putin said global cuts of around 10 million barrels a day are possible.
Airlines were also hit Friday after the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered the industry to provide refunds on any flights that companies had canceled. While airlines stocks recovered, they all closed in negative territory. United Airlines fell 2.28% to close at $22.88, American Airlines declined 6.8% to $9.38 and Delta Airlines dropped 0.88% to $22.48.
Since 2016, social media companies have faced an endless barrage of bad press and public criticism for failing to anticipate how their platforms could be used for dark purposes at the scale of populations—undermining democracies around the world, say, or sowing social division and even fueling genocide.
As COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, those same companies may face a respite from focused criticism, particularly with the industry leveraging its extraordinary resources to pitch in with COVID-19 relief efforts as the world looks to tech upstarts, adept at cutting through red tape and fast-forwarding scientific progress in normal times, while government bureaucracies lag. But the same old problems are rearing their ugly heads just the same, even if less of us are paying attention.
On YouTube, new report from The Guardian and watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a batch of videos promoting fake coronavirus cures are making the company ad dollars. The videos, which promoted unscientific methods including “home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe levels of over-the-counter supplements like vitamin C” as potential treatments for the virus, ran ads from unwitting advertisers including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and Facebook. In Facebook’s case, a banner ad for the company ran on a video suggesting music that promotes “cognitive positivity by using subtle yet powerful theta waves” could ward off the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube prohibited ads on any videos related to the coronavirus. In mid-March, as the real scope of the event became clear, the company walked that policy back, allowing some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded that policy to allow ads for any videos that adhere to the company’s guidelines. One the major tenets in those guidelines forbids the promotion of medical misinformation including “promotion of dangerous remedies or cures.” Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being flagged by a journalist.
This example, and the many others like it, calls into question how to judge major tech platforms during these exceedingly strange times. Social media companies have been uncharacteristically transparent about the shifts the pandemic is creating within their own workflows. On a call in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that users can expect more “false positives” as the company shifts to rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to filter what belongs on the platform and what does not with its army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid leave. The work of sorting through a platform’s most unsavory content—child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech and the like—is not particularly portable, given its potential psychological and legal ramifications.
YouTube similarly warned that it will “temporarily start relying more on technology” to fill in for human reviewers, warning that the automated processes will likely mean more video removals “including some videos that may not violate policies.” Twitter noted the same new reliance on machine learning “to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content,” though the company will offer an appeals process that loops in a human reviewer. Companies offered fewer warnings about what might fall through the cracks in the interim.
What will become of moderation once things return to normal, or, more likely, settle on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task, obviating the need for human reviewers once and for all? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies have a fresh appreciate for the value of human efforts and bring more of those jobs in-house, where they can perform their bleak work with more of the sunny perks afforded to their full-time counterparts? Like most things examined through the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the outcomes are hazy at best.
If the approach to holding platforms to account was already piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reporting, anecdotal tweets and official corporate post-mortems, the truth will be even more difficult to get at now, even as the coronavirus pandemic provides countless new deadly opportunities for price-gougers and myriad bad actors to create chaos within chaos.
We’ve seen deadly consequences already in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol—an idea they got “in messages forwarded and forwarded again” amplifying a tabloid story that suggested the act could protect them from the virus. Most consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the lives they impact and unreported due to tighetened newsroom resources and perhaps even more constricted attention spans.
Much has been written about the coronavirus and the fog of war, most of it rightly focused on scientific research pressing on as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating on-the-ground reality in hospitals and health facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients while life-saving supplies dwindle. But the crisis of viral misinformation—and deliberately-sown disinformation—is its own fog, now intermixing with an unprecedented global crisis that has entirely upended business and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This as the world’s foremost power heads into a completely upended presidential election cycle—its first since four years ago, when an unexpected election outcome coupled with deep U.S.-centrism in tech circles revealed nefarious forces at play just under the surface of the social networks we hadn’t thought all that much about.
In the present, it will be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad outcomes would have happened anyway. To sort those causes out, we’ll have to take a company’s word for it, a risky kind of credulity that already offered mixed results in normal times. Even as we rely on them now more than ever to forge and nurture connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in daily remain black boxes, inscrutable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-shattering times, the only thing to expect is change.
With movie theaters largely closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney is pushing back its slate of upcoming films. And at least one movie won’t be making it into theaters at all, with “Artemis Fowl” heading straight to streaming instead.
The company announced today that that the film will debut exclusively on Disney+, and that the release date will be revealed soon.
All of the Hollywood studios are scrambling to adapt to the theatrical closures. NBCUniversal broke the theatrical window by releasing “The Hunt,” “The Invisible Man” and “Emma” as streaming rentals while they were ostensibly still in theaters, and it will release “Trolls World Tour” digitally on April 10 — the same day as its official theatrical release.
Other studios followed suit. There were also reports that Paramount struck a deal to debut the Kumail Nanjiani/Issa Rae comedy “The Lovebirds” on Netflix instead of in theaters, but there’s been no announcement or release date yet.
Disney, meanwhile, already brought “Frozen 2” to Disney+ early, then took more aggressive steps for the Pixar film “Onward,” which went on-sale digitally just a few weeks after its release in theaters, and is launching on Disney+ today.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Artemis Fowl” tells the story of a young criminal mastermind of the same name, and it’s based on a series of young adult fantasy novels by Eoin Colfer. It was originally scheduled for release on August 9, 2019, before being delayed until May 29 of this year.
So why not delay it again, as Disney is doing with other films? It may simply be less of a sure bet in theaters than “Mulan,” “Black Widow” or even “Jungle Cruise.”
“Director Kenneth Branagh and his spectacular cast take viewers right into the vibrant, fantasy world of the beloved book, which fans have been waiting to see brought to life onscreen for years,” said Disney+ President of Content and Marketing Ricky Strauss. “It’s great family entertainment that is the perfect addition to Disney+’s summer lineup.”
Google today announced that it will temporarily roll back the changes it recently made to how its Chrome browser handles cookies in order to ensure that sites that perform essential services like banking, online grocery, government services and healthcare won’t become inaccessible to Chrome users during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The new SameSite rules, which the company started rolling out to a growing number of Chrome users in recent months, are meant to make it harder for sites to access cookies from third-party sites and hence track a user’s online activity. These new rules are also meant to prevent cross-site request forgery attacks.
Under Google’s new guidance, developers have to explicitly allow their cookies to be read by third-party sites, otherwise, the browser will prevent these third-party sites from accessing them.
Since this is a pretty major change, Google gave developers quite a bit of time to adapt their applications to it. Still, not every site is ready yet and so the Chrome team decided to halt the gradual rollout and stop enforcing these new rules for the time being.
“While most of the web ecosystem was prepared for this change, we want to ensure stability for websites providing essential services including banking, online groceries, government services and healthcare that facilitate our daily life during this time,” writes Google Chrome engineering director Justin Schuh. “As we roll back enforcement, organizations, users and sites should see no disruption.”
A Google spokesperson also told us that the team saw some breakage in sites “that would not normally be considered essential, but with COVID-19 having become more important, we made this decision in an effort to ensure stability during this time.”
The company says it plans to resume its SameSite enforcement over the summer, though the exact timing isn’t yet clear.
The world’s population is aging, but the needs of elderly people are still being underserved. A United Nations report found that older people make up more than one-fifth of the population in 17 countries, and by 2100, a majority of the world’s population, or 61%, will be aged 60 and above.
One of the most urgent needs for families is caregiving, with demand outstripping the pool of qualified providers. This means many people in their thirties and forties are now part of the “sandwich generation,” juggling jobs and child care while looking after elderly relatives. This creates both an opportunity and challenge for tech startups and investors in almost every market around the world.
In Southeast Asia, Homage is addressing the issue with a platform that takes a curated approach to pairing caregivers and families, using a combination of in-person screening and its matching engine to make the process more efficient. Currently operating in Singapore and Malaysia, the startup announced earlier this year that it will use its Series B funding to expand into five new countries in the region.
Backed by investors, including HealthXCapital, Golden Gate Ventures and EV Ventures, Homage was co-founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Gillian Tee, who grew up in Singapore and was inspired by her family’s own experiences looking for caregivers. Tee says she wanted to build a platform that would make the process of matching caregivers and clients easier, and be scalable into different markets.
“It’s not the easiest space to be in, and I would say that you do need to want to be intentionally working in this space, rather than just falling into it. It goes hand in hand,” she told TechCrunch. “We found that there is a huge market opportunity, but why we’re doing it goes way beyond that.”