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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Lina Khan’s timely tech skepticism makes for a refreshingly friendly FTC confirmation hearing

By Devin Coldewey

One never knows how a confirmation hearing will go these days, especially one for a young outsider nominated to an important position despite challenging the status quo and big business. Lina Khan, just such a person up for the position of FTC Commissioner, had a surprisingly pleasant time of it during today’s Senate Commerce Committee confirmation hearing — possibly because her iconoclastic approach to antitrust makes for good politics these days.

Khan, an associate professor of law at Columbia, is best known in the tech community for her incisive essay “Amazon Antitrust’s Paradox,” which laid out the failings of regulatory doctrine that have allowed the retail giant to progressively dominate more and more markets. (She also recently contributed to a House report on tech policy.)

When it was published, in 2018, the feeling that Amazon had begun to abuse its position was, though commonplace in some circles, not really popular in the Capitol. But the growing sense that laissez-faire or insufficient regulations have created monsters in Amazon, Google, and Facebook (to start) has led to a rare bipartisan agreement that we must find some way, any way will do, of putting these upstart corporations back in their place.

This in turn led to a sense of shared purpose and camaraderie in the confirmation hearing, which was a triple header: Khan joined Bill Nelson, nominated to lead NASA, and Leslie Kiernan, who would join the Commerce Department as General Counsel, for a really nice little three-hour chat.

Khan is one of several in the Biden administration who signal a new approach to taking on Big Tech and other businesses that have gotten out of hand, and the questions posed to her by Senators from both sides of the aisle seemed genuine and got genuinely satisfactory answers from a confident Khan.

She deftly avoided a few attempts to bait her — including one involving Section 230; wrong Commission, Senator — and her answers primarily reaffirmed her professional opinion that the FTC should be better informed and more preemptive in its approach to regulating these secretive, powerful corporations.

Here are a few snippets representative of the questioning and indicative of her positions on a few major issues (answers lightly edited for clarity):

On the FTC getting involved in the fight between Google, Facebook, and news providers:

“Everything needs to be on the table. Obviously local journalism is in crisis, and i think the current COVID moment has really underscored the deep democratic emergency that is resulting when we don’t have reliable sources of local news.”

She also cited the increasing concentration of ad markets and the arbitrary nature of, for example, algorithm changes that can have wide-ranging effects on entire industries.

Lina Khan, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) nominee for U.S. President Joe Biden, speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C.

Image Credits: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg / Getty Images

On Clarence Thomas’s troubling suggestion that social media companies should be considered “common carriers”:

“I think it prompted a lot of interesting discussion,” she said, very diplomatically. “In the Amazon article, I identified two potential pathways forward when thinking about these dominant digital platforms. One is enforcing competition laws and ensuring that these markets are competitive.” (i.e. using antitrust rules)

“The other is, if we instead recognize that perhaps there are certain economies of scale, network externalities that will lead these markets to stay dominated by a very few number of companies, then we need to apply a different set of rules. We have a long legal tradition of thinking about what types of checks can be applied when there’s a lot of concentration and common carriage is one of those tools.”

“I should clarify that some of these firms are now integrated in so many markets that you may reach for a different set of tools depending on which specific market you’re looking at.”

 

(This was a very polite way of saying common carriage and existing antitrust rules are totally unsuitable for the job.)

On potentially reviewing past mergers the FTC approved:

“The resources of the commission have not really kept pace with the increasing size of the economy, as well as the increasing size and complexity of the deals the commission is reviewing.”

“There was an assumption that digital markets in particular are fast moving so we don’t need to be concerned about potential concentration in the markets, because any exercise of power will get disciplined by entry and new competition. Now of course we know that in the markets you actually have significant network externalities in ways that make them more sticky. In hindsight there’s a growing sense that those merger reviews were a missed opportunity.”

(Here Senator Blackburn (R-TN) in one of the few negative moments fretted about Khan’s “lack of experience in coming to that position” before asking about a spectrum plan — wrong Commission, Senator.)

On the difficulty of enforcing something like an order against Facebook:

“One of the challenges is the deep information asymmetry that exists between some of these firms and enforcers and regulators. I think it’s clear that in some instances the agencies have been a little slow to catch up to the underlying business realities and the empirical realities of how these markets work. So at the very least ensuring the agencies are doing everything they can to keep pace is gonna be important.”

“In social media we have these black box algorithms, proprietary algorithms that can sometimes make it difficult to know what’s really going on. The FTC needs to be using its information gathering capacities to mitigate some of these gaps.”

On extending protections for children and other vulnerable groups online:

Some of these dangers are heightened given some of the ways in which the pandemic has rendered families and children especially dependent on some of these [education] technologies. So I think we need to be especially vigilant here. The previous rules should be the floor, not the ceiling.


Overall there was little partisan bickering and a lot of feeling from both sides that Khan was, if not technically experienced at the job (not rare with a coveted position like FTC Commissioner), about as competent a nominee as anyone could ask for. Not only that but her highly considered and fairly assertive positions on matters of antitrust and competition could help put Amazon and Google, already in the regulatory doghouse, on the defensive for once.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Amazon announces $250 million venture fund for Indian startups

By Manish Singh

Amazon on Thursday announced a $250 million venture fund to invest in Indian startups and entrepreneurs focusing on digitization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the key overseas market.

The announcement comes at a time when the American e-commerce group, which has previously invested over $6.5 billion in its India business, faces heat from government bodies, and the small and medium-sized businesses that it purports to serve.

Through the new venture fund, called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund, Amazon said it wants to invest in startups that focus on helping small businesses come online, sell online, automate and digitize their operations, and expand to customers worldwide.

Agriculture and healthcare are two additional areas Amazon is focusing on with its new venture fund, but it said it is open to looking at tech startups from other sectors if their work intersects with SMBs.

In the agri-tech sector, Amazon is looking to invest in Indian startups that are using technology to make agri-inputs more accessible to farmers, provide credit and insurance to farmers, reduce food wastage, and improve the quality of produce to consumers. In the healthcare sector, Amazon said it will invest in startups that are enabling healthcare providers to leverage telemedicine, e-diagnosis, AI powered treatment recommendations.

The announcement was made at Amazon’s annual event, called Sambhav, that focuses on India-based SMBs. At the virtual event, Amazon also unveiled ‘Spotlight North East’, an initiative to bring 50,000 artisans, weavers and small businesses online from the eight states in the North East region of India by 2025 and to boost exports of key commodities like tea, spices and honey from the region.

In the first edition of Sambhav last year, Amazon announced it would be investing $1 billion to help digitize 10 million small and medium sized businesses. Amazon said earlier this month that it had created 300,000 jobs in India since January 2020, and enabled exports for Indian-made goods worth $3 billion.

The company said more than 50,000 offline retailers and neighborhood stores — called kirana locally — are using Amazon marketplace and about 250,000 new sellers have also joined the platform. The company said today it aims to onboard 1 million offline retailers and neighbourhood stores by 2025 through the Local Shops on Amazon program.

Not far from Sambhav’s first event last year, which was attended by Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the street and expressed their concerns about what they alleged was unfair practices employed by Amazon to crush them.

A similar protest was seen today. You can hear some of their stories here. It’s an ongoing challenge for Amazon, which has long struggled to stay out of controversy in India.

An influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country in February this year after a report claimed that the American e-commerce group had given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers in India, publicly misrepresented its ties with those sellers and used them to circumvent foreign investment rules in the country.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) “demanded” serious action from the Indian government against Amazon following revelations made in a Reuters story. “For years, CAIT has been maintaining that Amazon has been circumventing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] laws of India to conduct unfair and unethical trade,” it said.

Several international technology giants including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in Indian startups in recent years. Amazon, too, has backed a number of firms including ride-hailing startup Shuttl, and consumer brand MyGlamm. Last month, it acquired retail startup Perpule for about $20 million.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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Amazon’s latest Echo Buds are a shameless Apple knockoff

By Matt Burns

This is Amazon’s latest hardware product: The redesigned Alexa earbuds. TechCrunch covered the announcement here, where the specs and capabilities are listed. I’m sure they work fine, too, but the case design is a blatant rip-off of Apple’s AirPod Pros.

This is just lazy.

Amazon has a long history of selling and promoting lookalikes, copycats and clones of other products. Likewise, the retailer sued third-party sellers for doing the same thing. Amazon also has been accused of investing in companies and later producing clones of the products. In 2020 CEO Jeff Bezos testified on this subject in front of a congressional hearing where he couldn’t guarantee the company would end this process. Often the products Amazon copies come from small startups without the resources to fight a giant like Amazon.

Last month California-based Peak Design took to YouTube to protest Amazon’s unabashed copy of one of Peak’s top products. As Peak points out, Amazon’s take is a cheap knockoff made from lower-quality materials and without Peak Design’s ethical manufacturing. The video quickly went viral, amassing over 4.5 million hits and highlighting Amazon’s shady practices.

For the latest Echo Buds, Amazon copied a market leader instead of a small startup. To recap, Amazon, a company worth over a trillion dollars, just released a product that looks essentially identical to a top-selling product from Apple, a company worth 2 trillion dollars.

The Echo Buds are much less expensive than Apple’s $250 AirPod Pros, too. The standard Echo Buds costs $100, and the version with wireless charging runs $120. It’s important to note the wireless buds themselves do not look like AirPods. Amazon only copied the ubiquitous AirPod Pro case.

The consumer is the loser here. With more resources than many countries, Amazon can produce world-class products, yet it decided to copy a rival’s market-leading product. In the end, it’s easier (and cheaper) to follow trends than become a trendsetter.


Peak Design takes on Amazon

Amazon’s Alexa earbuds return with a smaller design and wireless charging

By Brian Heater

It’s been about a year and a half since Amazon released the first Echo Buds. I reviewed them when they arrived, and they were, I don’t know, fine, I guess. They were a bit on the cheap side, facing some stiff competition in the category and, honestly, the idea of wearing Alexa on my head still isn’t super exciting to me.

But for a first attempt at the space, they weren’t bad. And now the company’s giving it a second go, with some tweaks to the original formula. Top of the list is a redesign that shrinks them 20% and makes them a bit lighter weight. The nozzle is smaller, which should make them more comfortable for longer periods, coupled with four ear tip sizes. The headphones are rated IPX4 for sweat and weather resistance.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon has moved on from the predecessor’s Bose noise canceling to its own proprietary tech, which it says can effectively double V1. There’s also an optional case that supports wireless charging via Qi, à la AirPods. The white case, in particular, looks…rather familiar.

That case runs an extra $20 over the $120 asking price for the USB-C case. Though Amazon’s running a limited-time deal to get the standard for $100 and the wireless charging version for $120. They’re also throwing in six months of Amazon Music Unlimited and Audible Plus. The new buds are also available in white. They’re up for preorder today and start shipping in May.

Image Credits: Amazon

Future software updates will bring a new VIP Filter to the headphones. Introduced on the Echo Frames, the feature lets users filter notifications from select senders. In addition to Alexa, the buds can also be set to access Siri or Google Assistant.

Risk startup LogicGate confirms data breach

By Zack Whittaker

Risk and compliance startup LogicGate has confirmed a data breach. But unless you’re a customer, you probably didn’t hear about it.

An email sent by LogicGate to customers earlier this month said on February 23 an unauthorized third-party obtained credentials to its Amazon Web Services-hosted cloud storage servers storing customer backup files for its flagship platform Risk Cloud, which helps companies to identify and manage their risk and compliance with data protection and security standards. LogicGate says its Risk Cloud can also help find security vulnerabilities before they are exploited by malicious hackers.

The credentials “appear to have been used by an unauthorized third party to decrypt particular files stored in AWS S3 buckets in the LogicGate Risk Cloud backup environment,” the email read.

“Only data uploaded to your Risk Cloud environment on or prior to February 23, 2021, would have been included in that backup file. Further, to the extent you have stored attachments in the Risk Cloud, we did not identify decrypt events associated with such attachments,” it added.

LogicGate did not say how the AWS credentials were compromised. An email update sent by LogicGate last Friday said the company anticipates finding the root cause of the incident by this week.

But LogicGate has not made any public statement about the breach. It’s also not clear if LogicGate contacted all of its customers or only those whose data was accessed. LogicGate counts Capco, SoFi, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City as customers.

We sent a list of questions, including how many customers were affected and if the company has alerted U.S. state authorities as required by state data breach notification laws. When reached, LogicGate chief executive Matt Kunkel confirmed the breach but declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation. “We believe it’s best to communicate developers directly to our customers,” he said.

Kunkel would not say, when asked, if the attacker also exfiltrated the decrypted customer data from its servers.

Data breach notification laws vary by state, but companies that fail to report security incidents can face heavy fines. Under Europe’s GDPR rules, companies can face fines of up to 4% of their annual turnover for violations.

In December, LogicGate secured $8.75 million in fresh funding, totaling more than $40 million since it launched in 2015.


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Berlin Brands Group raises $240M to buy and scale up third-party Amazon Marketplace brands

By Ingrid Lunden

The race is on for companies building e-commerce empires by rolling up smaller, promising businesses that sell via Amazon and other marketplaces and growing by using some economies of scale to operate them as one. In the latest development, Berlin Brands Group has raised $240 million that it says it will be using to acquire smaller but promising enterprises in Europe and North America — specifically the U.S. — that are already making between $1 million and $100 million in sales via marketplaces like Amazon.

The funding is coming in the form of debt, not equity, and it is coming specifically from UniCredit, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, BBG founder and CEO Peter Chaljawski said in an interview. BBG is profitable and earlier this year it committed more than $300 million off its balance sheet for buying up and operating companies, and so with this debt round, it now has $540 million for that purpose.

“We’re in a wonderful situation with a proven business model, and this is the cheapest money you could get,” he said of the decision to go for debt, a choice often made by startups that are in capital-intensive modes but either reluctant or do not need to give up equity to raise capital to scale if they are generating cash. In the case of BBG it’s the latter, since the company is profitable. “This is better than equity. BBG does not have any debt as of 2020, and we had cash on hand for our first acquisitions, 20 brands that we bought in cash from our balance sheet. Now we want to accelerate that even more.”

BBG has to date mostly built its business around starting up and scaling its own in-house brands that sell on Amazon and elsewhere — starting first with home audio equipment, coming out of Chaljawski’s own interests in sound technology from a previous life as a budding dance music DJ. Its brands include Klarstein (kitchen appliances), auna (home electronics and music equipment), Capital Sports (home fitness) and blumfeldt (garden).

In a big move to scale and build out what it’s established itself, last year BBG shifted over to the roll-up model: leveraging a more buying power to cut better deals with manufacturers and other suppliers, consolidating some of the other functions like marketing, and providing a more comprehensive set of analytics around what is selling best, who is buying, how best to market an item, and more. It says it has 1.3 million square feet of warehouse space in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and is one of the biggest Amazon sellers in Europe today.

The basic idea of rolling up businesses that sell on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) has been around for years in fact, but the notable and more recent shift is that it has taken on a startup profile in part because of how some of the latest entrants are leveraging big data analytics, the latest innovations in manufacturing and logistics technology and a founder-led, e-commerce ethos to grow the model.

“Without data, you would go nowhere in this business,” Chaljawski said. “But on top of that, there is something you can’t pull from market data — a toolbox of manufacturing and engineering expertise that we use to evaluate products.” He says that BBG’s data scientists build algorithms that millions of products, and hundreds of thousands of sellers, to produce the data that it uses both to source potential acquisitions and to run the business.

U.S. players like Thrasio — which itself closed a $1.2 billion Series C for the same purposes: rolling up and scaling — have led the charge. But in recent months we’ve seen a number of others also move into the space, buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from investors very keen to ride the e-commerce wave and the vision of tapping into some of the economies of scale and the marketplace model that have been such a juggernaut for Amazon.

It’s a two-sided marketplace, and Amazon has focused primarily on earning money from operating the marketplace itself and sales to consumers, so that leaves a huge opportunity on the table for someone else (or as it happens, many others) to tackle the opportunity to address the needs and services of the other side of that marketplace: the sellers.

In addition to BBG and Thrasio, others in the same space include Branded, which launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding earlier this year; SellerXHeydayHeroesPerch, among several others. Even removing the very-highly capitalized Thrasio and BBG from the equation, these companies have collectively raised or committed from their own balance sheets hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up small but promising third-party merchants.

If that sounds like a crowded market, well, it probably is. These are also startups, after all, and so the chances that some of these roll-up consolidators will not be that skilled at running multiple companies — with their disparate supply chains, customer bases, replacement cycles and marketing strategies — are as risky as in any other area of e-commerce startup interest.

On the other hand, though, there are a lot of opportunities to play for here.

By one estimate, there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, a number that appears to be growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Out of those, Thrasio estimates that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) that are making $1 million or more per year in revenues.

We have pointed out before that within that bigger number of merchants, there are a huge amount of clones and companies of questionable quality. What is interesting is that there are distinct companies, built around more originality and flair, swimming in that sea: some of them have broken through and floated, while others that have not.

So for a company like BBG, the opportunity lies in the fact that for many of these smaller but promising merchants, they have not been built with longer-term growth visions in place. The merchants might not be prepared for the kind of scaling, investment or operational commitment that would need to be made to keep their businesses going, or they simply don’t have the appetite for it. BBG’s selling point — as it is with others in this space — is that they do.

And BBG’s added pitch is that they can help open another door, to Europe. In the region, Amazon on average has about a 10% market share of marketplaces, BBG estimates, with regional players accounting for more marketplace activity than in the U.S. BBG not only has the links into selling on these other marketplaces, but the promise is that it can help improve how a brand will sell on Amazon itself in the region, given its traction in the market already. Conversely, it hopes to do the same for European brands by giving them a better window into selling in the U.S.

Looking ahead, BBG may well tap an equity round in the near future to bring on investors to shape its own growth and set a valuation for the company, Chaljawski said. He also is realistic about the profusion of companies like his, and is “sure” there will be some casualties down the road. He also believes that we may start to see some emerge around specific verticals as an alternative.

“Yes, I’m sure consolidation will happen, but I also think that we’ll see some specialization, with roll-ups focusing on one vertical or another. I think it will be a mix,” he said.

A ‘more honest’ stock market

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.

I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.

I wrote about the history and legacy of CryptoPunks, a vibrant $200 million NFT marketplace built around trading pixelated characters. There are only 10,000 of them and owning the cheapest one will cost you about $30k. https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 8, 2021

This picture sold for a $1.05 million.

I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.

A telling quote from my reporting:

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.

Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.

Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.

Read the full thing.


an illustration of a cardboard ballot box with an Amazon smile on the front

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.

Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.

Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.

Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.

Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.

Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.

So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”

Until next week,
Lucas M.

And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Daily Crunch: Amazon beats back union push

By Anthony Ha

Efforts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama appear to have failed, Facebook takes down fake review groups and a monkey plays Pong with its brain. This is your Daily Crunch for April 9, 2021.

The big story: Amazon beats back union push

Union organizers lost a much-publicized election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, with more than half of the 3,215 ballots cast ultimately voting against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a blog post. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

However, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum suggested that there will “very likely” be a rerun election, and his organization is demanding “a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election.”

The tech giants

Facebook takes down 16,000 groups trading fake reviews after another poke by UK’s CMA — The CMA has been leaning on tech giants to prevent their platforms from being used as marketplaces for selling fake reviews.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain — A macaque named Pager was eventually able to control the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.

Mortgage is suddenly sexy as SoftBank pumps $500M in Better.com at a $6B valuation — The COVID-19 pandemic and historically low mortgage rates fueled an acceleration in online lending.

SnackMagic picks up $15M to expand from build-your-own snack boxes into a wider gifting marketplace — The company hit a $20 million revenue run rate in eight months and turned profitable in December.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

So you want to raise a Series A — Kleiner Perkins’ Bucky Moore shares sector-agnostic advice.

How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup — Jorge Torres and Adam Carrigan of MindDB tell their funding story.

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup — From building out Facebook’s first office in Austin to putting together most of Quora’s team, Bain Capital Ventures managing director Sarah Smith has done a bit of everything when it comes to hiring.

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RWDSU head says rerun election ‘very likely’ following Amazon union vote loss

By Brian Heater

However the outcome of today’s vote count turned out, there was one thing we knew for certain: it wasn’t going to mark the end of the battle between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. With voting having broken overwhelmingly in Amazon’s favor, the union was quick to challenge the results.

The RWDSU was quick to offer TechCrunch a statement from President Stuart Appelbaum after no votes broke the 50% threshold, noting, “We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election.”

Amazon, unsurprisingly, was quick to take a victory lap. In a blog post credited to “Amazon Staff,” the company writes:

Thank you to employees at our BHM1 fulfillment center in Alabama for participating in the election. There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard. In the end, less than 16% of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union. It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.

While the company was quick to state that the election is “over,” the RWDSU is hopeful, both in terms of future organizing at the Bessemer warehouse and for what the movement will mean for unionizing efforts at Amazon, going forward.

In a press conference held earlier today, Appelbaum suggested that Amazon told workers that they would have to vote against the union if they wanted to keep their jobs.

“We believe a rerun election is going to be very likely,” the union president told media. “I think that if Amazon considers this a victory, they may want to reconsider it. At best, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Look at what happened during this period. We exposed atrocious working conditions at Amazon for everybody to see.”

Appelbaum’s comments seem to refer, in part, to numerous reports of workers urinating in bottles over concerns about stringent quotas. In the midst of an aggressive social media campaign at the apparent behest of CEO Jeff Bezos, the company initially denied reports, before conceding they may apply to some drivers. Amazon was quick to deflect blame to broader industry issues, however.

“Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union,” the company added in its post. “Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”

A key part to the RWDSU’s challenge is a ballot box the company reportedly pressured the USPS to install, in defiance of a National Labor Relations Board ruling. Appelbaum said the box “creates the impression of surveillance.”

He added that the union has already been in communication with workers at other Amazon facilities, explaining, “We have already started talking to workers at other facilities, as well, before this election.”

Update: Amazon has offered the following statement about the ballot box, “We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy. The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox—which only the USPS had access to—was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”

Amazon defeats warehouse union push, RWDSU challenges results

By Brian Heater

Efforts to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse were defeated by a wide margin in the second day of vote counting. More than half of the 3,215 votes cast broke in in factor of the retailer. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would have served as the workers’ union, had the vote past, was quick to challenge the results.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement offered to TechCrunch,

Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote. Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union.

That’s why they required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union. That’s why they flooded the internet, the airwaves and social media with ads spreading misinformation. That’s why they brought in dozens of outsiders and union-busters to walk the floor of the warehouse. That’s why they bombarded people with signs throughout the facility and with text messages and calls at home. And that’s why they have been lying about union dues in a right to work state. Amazon’s conduct has been despicable.

This initial defeat represents a large setback in the biggest unionization push in Amazon’s 27 year history. What might have represented a sea change for both the retail giant and blue collar tech workers has, for now, been fairly soundly defeated.

Amazon has, of course, long insisted that it treats workers fairly, making such union efforts unnecessary. The company cites such standards as a $15 an hour minimum wage, a factor the company initial pushed back on, but ultimately instated after pressure from legislators.

Breaking….

NLPCloud.io helps devs add language processing smarts to their apps

By Natasha Lomas

While visual ‘no code‘ tools are helping businesses get more out of computing without the need for armies of in-house techies to configure software on behalf of other staff, access to the most powerful tech tools — at the ‘deep tech’ AI coal face — still requires some expert help (and/or costly in-house expertise).

This is where bootstrapping French startup, NLPCloud.io, is plying a trade in MLOps/AIOps — or ‘compute platform as a service’ (being as it runs the queries on its own servers) — with a focus on natural language processing (NLP), as its name suggests.

Developments in artificial intelligence have, in recent years, led to impressive advances in the field of NLP — a technology that can help businesses scale their capacity to intelligently grapple with all sorts of communications by automating tasks like Named Entity Recognition, sentiment-analysis, text classification, summarization, question answering, and Part-Of-Speech tagging, freeing up (human) staff to focus on more complex/nuanced work. (Although it’s worth emphasizing that the bulk of NLP research has focused on the English language — meaning that’s where this tech is most mature; so associated AI advances are not universally distributed.)

Production ready (pre-trained) NLP models for English are readily available ‘out of the box’. There are also dedicated open source frameworks offering help with training models. But businesses wanting to tap into NLP still need to have the DevOps resource and chops to implement NLP models.

NLPCloud.io is catering to businesses that don’t feel up to the implementation challenge themselves — offering “production-ready NLP API” with the promise of “no DevOps required”.

Its API is based on Hugging Face and spaCy open-source models. Customers can either choose to use ready-to-use pre-trained models (it selects the “best” open source models; it does not build its own); or they can upload custom models developed internally by their own data scientists — which it says is a point of differentiation vs SaaS services such as Google Natural Language (which uses Google’s ML models) or Amazon Comprehend and Monkey Learn.

NLPCloud.io says it wants to democratize NLP by helping developers and data scientists deliver these projects “in no time and at a fair price”. (It has a tiered pricing model based on requests per minute, which starts at $39pm and ranges up to $1,199pm, at the enterprise end, for one custom model running on a GPU. It does also offer a free tier so users can test models at low request velocity without incurring a charge.)

“The idea came from the fact that, as a software engineer, I saw many AI projects fail because of the deployment to production phase,” says sole founder and CTO Julien Salinas. “Companies often focus on building accurate and fast AI models but today more and more excellent open-source models are available and are doing an excellent job… so the toughest challenge now is being able to efficiently use these models in production. It takes AI skills, DevOps skills, programming skill… which is why it’s a challenge for so many companies, and which is why I decided to launch NLPCloud.io.”

The platform launched in January 2021 and now has around 500 users, including 30 who are paying for the service. While the startup, which is based in Grenoble, in the French Alps, is a team of three for now, plus a couple of independent contractors. (Salinas says he plans to hire five people by the end of the year.)

“Most of our users are tech startups but we also start having a couple of bigger companies,” he tells TechCrunch. “The biggest demand I’m seeing is both from software engineers and data scientists. Sometimes it’s from teams who have data science skills but don’t have DevOps skills (or don’t want to spend time on this). Sometimes it’s from tech teams who want to leverage NLP out-of-the-box without hiring a whole data science team.”

“We have very diverse customers, from solo startup founders to bigger companies like BBVA, Mintel, Senuto… in all sorts of sectors (banking, public relations, market research),” he adds.

Use cases of its customers include lead generation from unstructured text (such as web pages), via named entities extraction; and sorting support tickets based on urgency by conducting sentiment analysis.

Content marketers are also using its platform for headline generation (via summarization). While text classification capabilities are being used for economic intelligence and financial data extraction, per Salinas.

He says his own experience as a CTO and software engineer working on NLP projects at a number of tech companies led him to spot an opportunity in the challenge of AI implementation.

“I realized that it was quite easy to build acceptable NLP models thanks to great open-source frameworks like spaCy and Hugging Face Transformers but then I found it quite hard to use these models in production,” he explains. “It takes programming skills in order to develop an API, strong DevOps skills in order to build a robust and fast infrastructure to serve NLP models (AI models in general consume a lot of resources), and also data science skills of course.

“I tried to look for ready-to-use cloud solutions in order to save weeks of work but I couldn’t find anything satisfactory. My intuition was that such a platform would help tech teams save a lot of time, sometimes months of work for the teams who don’t have strong DevOps profiles.”

“NLP has been around for decades but until recently it took whole teams of data scientists to build acceptable NLP models. For a couple of years, we’ve made amazing progress in terms of accuracy and speed of the NLP models. More and more experts who have been working in the NLP field for decades agree that NLP is becoming a ‘commodity’,” he goes on. “Frameworks like spaCy make it extremely simple for developers to leverage NLP models without having advanced data science knowledge. And Hugging Face’s open-source repository for NLP models is also a great step in this direction.

“But having these models run in production is still hard, and maybe even harder than before as these brand new models are very demanding in terms of resources.”

The models NLPCloud.io offers are picked for performance — where “best” means it has “the best compromise between accuracy and speed”. Salinas also says they are paying mind to context, given NLP can be used for diverse user cases — hence proposing number of models so as to be able to adapt to a given use.

“Initially we started with models dedicated to entities extraction only but most of our first customers also asked for other use cases too, so we started adding other models,” he notes, adding that they will continue to add more models from the two chosen frameworks — “in order to cover more use cases, and more languages”.

SpaCy and Hugging Face, meanwhile, were chosen to be the source for the models offered via its API based on their track record as companies, the NLP libraries they offer and their focus on production-ready framework — with the combination allowing NLPCloud.io to offer a selection of models that are fast and accurate, working within the bounds of respective trade-offs, according to Salinas.

“SpaCy is developed by a solid company in Germany called Explosion.ai. This library has become one of the most used NLP libraries among companies who want to leverage NLP in production ‘for real’ (as opposed to academic research only). The reason is that it is very fast, has great accuracy in most scenarios, and is an opinionated” framework which makes it very simple to use by non-data scientists (the tradeoff is that it gives less customization possibilities),” he says.

Hugging Face is an even more solid company that recently raised $40M for a good reason: They created a disruptive NLP library called ‘transformers’ that improves a lot the accuracy of NLP models (the tradeoff is that it is very resource intensive though). It gives the opportunity to cover more use cases like sentiment analysis, classification, summarization… In addition to that, they created an open-source repository where it is easy to select the best model you need for your use case.”

While AI is advancing at a clip within certain tracks — such as NLP for English — there are still caveats and potential pitfalls attached to automating language processing and analysis, with the risk of getting stuff wrong or worse. AI models trained on human-generated data have, for example, been shown reflecting embedded biases and prejudices of the people who produced the underlying data.

Salinas agrees NLP can sometimes face “concerning bias issues”, such as racism and misogyny. But he expresses confidence in the models they’ve selected.

“Most of the time it seems [bias in NLP] is due to the underlying data used to trained the models. It shows we should be more careful about the origin of this data,” he says. “In my opinion the best solution in order to mitigate this is that the community of NLP users should actively report something inappropriate when using a specific model so that this model can be paused and fixed.”

“Even if we doubt that such a bias exists in the models we’re proposing, we do encourage our users to report such problems to us so we can take measures,” he adds.

 

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

By Rita Liao

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

Counting strongly favors Amazon in warehouse union vote

By Brian Heater

It’s been a little over a week since union voting concluded for Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Things have been fairly quiet in the eye of the storm for most of it. That changed today, however, as vote counting began in earnest. Thus far, things are breaking pretty dramatically in the company’s favor, following a hard-fought anti-union campaign.

As of the end of the day, no votes have more than doubled the yeses, at 1,100 to 463. With counting resuming — and likely concluding — tomorrow, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would potentially serve as the worker’s union, is decrying the company’s tactics.

“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard.”

The comments appear to be as much about actions the company has taken during the campaign as it is bracing for a likely challenge to the results. The numbers constitute around half of the 3,215 ballots that are being counted. They put Amazon around 500 no votes away from defeating union efforts.

We have reached out to the company for a response to Appelbaum’s comment, but have not heard back. In a comment offered to TechCrunch last month, the company had less than stellar words about Appelbaum, calling the union head the “Chief Disinformation Officer,” adding that “in an attempt to save his long declining union, [he] is taking alternative facts to a whole new level.”

Regardless of the final count, this process is likely to be drawn out. Among the complaints are reports that the company pushed the USPS to install an illegal ballot box, breaking National Labor Relations Board rulings in the process.

 

Labor relations board sides with Amazon employees over firings

By Brian Heater

Last year, Amazon fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. The pair of employees had been among the company’s most outspoken critics on staff, openly taking Amazon to task for environmental and labor issues.

This week, the National Labor Relations Board determined that the pair’s firing was an illegal form of retaliation. Speaking with The New York Times, Cunningham noted that the board would issue a more public criticism of Amazon’s action if the company does not take steps to address the issue.

Amazon tells TechCrunch that the decision was not a direct result of the pair’s criticism, but rather a product of other, unstated polices. “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” a spokesperson says. “We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”

Cunningham, meanwhile, called the decision a “moral victory.”

The news came amid widescale ramp-ups as Amazon was declared an essential service while COVID-19 bore down on the U.S. in April. Two weeks prior, the company opened a massive fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, which has become the focal point of yet another labor battle for the online retail giant.

The warehouse is currently ground zero for the largest unionizing effort in the company’s history. The National Labor Relations Board is tasked with ballot counting, which kicked off on Tuesday of last week. In the final days of voting, the company made an aggressive social media push against union allies, though it has since walked it back some, including a soft apology for comments surrounding reports that employees regularly pee in bottles to meet stringent quotas.

In addition to its rulings on Cunningham and Costa, the NLRB has also found for Amazonians United co-founder, Jonathan Bailey.

Update: The company provided TechCrunch an additional statement, “We disagree with these preliminary findings. We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against our internal policies, all of which are lawful. We terminated these employees not for the reasons cited in the preliminary finding, but because they repeatedly violated internal policies.”

 

Amazon addresses pee bottle denial tweet

By Brian Heater

Amazon kicked off the holiday weekend by backtracking slightly on a social media offensive that unfolded in the waning days of a historic unionization vote. The earlier  comments reportedly arrived as Jeff Bezos was pushing for a more aggressive strategy.

Along with taking on Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the Amazon News Twitter account went toe to toe with Congressman, Mark Pocan. The Wisconsin Democrat cited oft-reported stories of Amazon workers urinating in bottles in reaction to comments from Consumer CEO, Dave Clark.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” the account asked. “If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”

1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.

— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021

The Congressman’s initial response was pithy and to the point: “[Y]es, I do believe your workers. You don’t?”

Subsequent reports have served to cement those stories. One called the urination issue “widespread” among Amazon drivers, adding that defecation had also, reportedly, become a problem. Last night, the company offered a mea culpa of sorts, saying it “owe[s] an apology to Representative Pocan.”

Things break down a bit from there. Amazon’s apology acknowledges that workers peeing in bottles is a thing, but appears to imply that it’s limited to drivers and not the fulfillment center staff at the center of this large scale unionization effort. From there, the company adds that drivers peeing in bottles is an “industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon.”

The company helpfully includes a list of links and tweets that are, at very least, an indictment of the gig economy and the treatment of blue collar workers, generally. Essentially, Amazon is admitting to being a part of the problem, while working to spread the blame across an admittedly faulty system.

Reports of workers urinating in bottles also go beyond drivers, including stories of warehouse employees resorting to the act in order to meet stringent quotas.

“A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time,” company writes in the post attributed to anonymous Amazon Staff. “If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we’ll work to fix it.”

Union vote counting for the company’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse began last week. Results could have a wide-ranging impact on both Amazon and the industry at large.

Backflip offers an easier way to turn used electronics into cold, hard cash

By Jonathan Shieber

Mike Barile spent two years and racked up nearly $20,000 in credit card debt to bring his first startup, Backflip, to life.

The former management consultant had spent years toiling in the startup grind, first at Uber, then, after taking a coding academy bootcamp through AppAcademy (where Barile met his co-founder, Adam Foosaner), at Google and at a failed cryptocurrency startup.

Burned by the crypto experience, Barile was casting about for his next thing, and trying to find a way to scrape up some rent money, when he hit on the idea for Backflip. The experience of selling electronics online was still shady and Barile and Foosaner thought there had to be a better way.

That way became Backflip. It offers customers cash on delivery for their used electronics — anything from Androids to Xboxes and Apple devices to Game Boys.

When I first started working on backflip back in March 2019, I met this kid named Chris and he wanted to buy some of my old iPhones. He had been a student at USF and as a side hustle he started buying used devices and would refurbish them and then either sell them himself or sell them to an official reseller,” said Barile. “Chris started making so much money he dropped out of school. That was a ‘holy shit’ moment. He can make a lot of money doing this and he’s doing a really good thing.”

The problem, said Barile, was safety. “He’s got all these devices he’s acquiring paying cash for and he’s driving all around town… Everyone who works in the [refurbish and resell] industry has at least one story about getting robbed at gunpoint.”

Backflip solved that problem by being the intermediary between buyers and sellers and taking a small commission for managing the transaction.

The company raised its first money at the end of 2019, but before that, Foosaner and Barile lived off of credit and used electronics.

So far, Backflip has facilitated the exchange of roughly 3,000 devices. The company handles everything from wiping a device and ensuring its quality to finding a buyer for the electronics. The company pays out roughly $150 per device and has deposited a little over $500,000 with users of the service, according to data provided by the company.

“We did all sorts of stuff to get our first few users,” said Barile. We posted ads on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. We started experimenting at the end of the summer with the most bare-bones mobile app kind of thing. At that point it was just Adam and I,” Barile said.

Starting now, Backflip is working with UPS stores to provide in-person drop-off and packaging centers for the used electronics. Over time, Barile sees those services expanding to offer cash on delivery. “The experience will be similar to an Amazon return,” he said. “Except we’ll be paying you.”

Currently about half of the company’s inventory is used handsets and mobile devices, but Barile said that could drop to a third of inventory as word spreads about the hundred-odd pieces of electronics that Backflip is willing to accept.

“Unlike other resale options, Backflip prioritizes the user’s time and convenience,” said Foosaner in a statement. “Forget the back-and-forth of negotiating over price and scheduling a meetup. We’re here to do all the work for the seller and make sure they get paid fairly and quickly. Backflip users can know that they’re getting the most for their devices without having to do anything other than bring them to The UPS Store or box them up at home.”

The connection to the refurbishing community started early for Barile, whose mother had a side business called “Stone Cottage Workshop” where she was flipping refurbished furniture on eBay and at local thrift stores near Barile’s bucolic New Jersey hometown.

“We want to build the Amazon of making things disappear from your apartment,” Barile said. 

QuikNode is building a blockchain developer cloud platform to compete with AWS

By Lucas Matney

As hot as the blockchain space appears to be these days, it’s still far from simple to get a decentralized application reliably up-and-running. The NFT boom and rising cryptocurrency prices have brought more attention to applications running on the blockchain, but the dominant cloud service platforms aren’t quite ready to make a full-commit to the needs of these developers.

QuikNode, which recently raised funding from Y Combinator and is in the process of wrapping its seed funding, has been building out a Web3 cloud platform for blockchain developers that can help them create and scale applications. The startup seems to be further along than most of its fellow YC batch mates, founded back in 2017.

At the moment, running a decentralized app can involve a lot of base infrastructure headaches that take developer attention away from their actual products. The initial setup can require days worth of downloads to sync to these networks for the first time while maintenance costs can also be high, the startup says. QuikNode allows app developers to rent access to nodes that let them operate on the blockchain network of their choice, enabling them to sidestep maintaining and monitoring their own node.

Alongside node management and maintenance, QuikNode’s product integrates developer tools and analytics to simplify running a decentralized app. The challenge for QuikNode will likely be maintaining an edge here in the shadow of cloud giants if the decentralized app market grows to a sizable (and consistent) presence on the web. QuikNode is itself a customer of these large cloud companies, opting to focus on software rather than building up physical data centers, nevertheless they’re still directly competing with these big players.

“I think we have about two years on Amazon, we’re on their radar,” CEO Dmitry Shklovsky tells TechCrunch.

For the time being, QuikNode’s small size gives it a distinct pricing advantage compared to nascent programs from other cloud providers. Plans start at just $9 for users launching the most basic applications, with structured plans increasing depending on the amount of “method calls” being performed. Renting a dedicated node is $300 per month. From there, the startup offers several chain-specific add-ons with options like Archive mode that give applications access all historical value states inside smart contracts on the network or Trace mode, which lets developers request nodes to re-execute transactions.

The team currently operates over 1,000 nodes and has around 400 customers. As QuikNode aims to scale their customer base, Shklovsky says that one of the best paths to customer acquisition have been guides educating decentralized app developers on how to connect to the most popular networks. 

Currently, the largely Miami-based team supports networks on six chains including Ethereum, Bitcoin, xDai, Binance Smart Chain, Polygon and Optimism.

Thrasio raises $100M for its Amazon roll-up play, appoints retail CFO for its next steps

By Ingrid Lunden

Thrasio, an early mover and leading player in the wave of startups emerging to consolidate and scale companies that sell their goods mainly via Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised some more funding and is making a key executive appointment to do some scaling of its own. The company, which to date has acquired and consolidated some 6,000 products selling on Amazon, has picked up $100 million, and alongside that it’s announcing a new CFO, retail vet Bill Wafford, as it eyes up its next steps, including a public listing.

The $100 million is an extension to Thrasio’s Series C — a round that saw a $750 million injection only about 6 weeks ago, and a previous close of $260 million last July.

Josh Silberstein, who is the co-founder and co-CEO with Carlos Cashman, said Thrasio is not disclosing valuation except to note that it is 50% higher than the it was a month ago for Thrasio, which is profitable on $100 million in revenues last year, he said.

For some context, when we reported on the $750 million round, we noted that the valuation was potentially between $3 billion and $4 billion. All a spokesperson would tell us at the time was that it was “less than $10 billion” although a debt round in January put the valuation at around $3 billion.

It has now raised $1.85 million in equity and debt.

Silberstein said the latest $100 million is coming from previous backers that didn’t get the allocation they hoped for in the previous financing. The list of past backers includes Oaktree, Advent, Peak6, Western Technology Investment, and Jason Finger, the co-founder of one of the early players in food delivery startups, Seamless.

Giving insiders are little more of a share also seems to hint at the fact that the company looks to be preparing for its next steps as a business, which might include a public listing via a SPAC or a more traditional IPO route.

“We are engaged in conversations where valuation where may once again become a topic so holding off on additional commentary for now,” said Silberstein in response to the question. “We’ve reached a point that there are legal consequences to being anything other than vague.”

As part of that process, Wafford is coming on as CFO from a previous role as CFO at JC Penney and before that, CFO of Vitamin Shoppe, in a longer resume that also includes finance roles at retailers like Walgreens and Target. (Sidenote: Wafford’s time at Walgreens included running Walgreens Venture Capital, and it crossed over with the period when Walgreens inked its ultimately disastrous deals with Theranos, although it seems that deal was made with a different division of the company than the one he oversaw.) He is replacing Joe Falcao, a longtime employee of the company, who is taking a role as SVP, Finance and Treasurer, to scale the company’s treasury, tax, and international finance functions.

Wafford’s experience across a range of bigger brick-and-mortar retailers that work with and partner with smaller brands across a number of categories from fashion to health and household goods is notable, in that it’s an analogue of what Thrasio is essentially building in the online world, where its 6,000-plus brands run the gamut from a therapeutic sock maker, to a company that has developed a spray to remove pet odors and stains, to a high-end kitchen goods maker.

“Thrasio’s trajectory and the speed at which it has achieved growth is impressive to say the least, especially how they’ve capitalized on the market changes that have occurred over the last twelve months,” said Bill Wafford, CFO, in a statement. “I’ve been delighted to discover an energizing, team-minded culture that embraces experimentation and adaptability. I’m thrilled to take on the role to prepare the organization for its next phase of growth.”

By one estimate there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, a number that appears to be growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Thrasio’s business model is based around the premise that most of them are not that well prepared to scale when and if the most successful of this lot see their products take off.

Silberstein and Thrasio estimate that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) that are making $1 million or more per year in revenues.

“What happens when you get into that price range is that it gets hard to grow your business and manage it,” he said, citing SEO, marketing, and supply chain management as some of the challenges. “That means as you grow from $1 million to $10 million, the margins would decrease and it gets even harder to make returns. We simply observed that reality that all these great companies had reached a point between a lack of access to capital and simply not being able to keep doing what they do. We thought, if we acquire 10-20 of these we would have the scale to build best in breed supply chain, marketing, and so on. We would fix the problem.”

It realised quickly, though, that there was an opportunity to take that even further and make that the business itself. And so Thrasio has been building a huge analytics engine that digs into Amazon data and a lot more to determine which companies are interesting, how to help them sell better, and eventually to conceive of even bigger businesses outside of the Amazon ecosystem, covering other marketplaces, other sales channels and direct D2C sales.

It hasn’t been the only one. Possibly spurred by Thrasio’s success we’ve seen launches and major funding for a plethora of these roll-up plays. Branded launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding earlier this year, and others including Berlin Brands GroupSellerXHeydayHeroesPerch and more — collectively raising or committing from their own balance sheets well over $1 billion in aid of their own efforts to buy up small but promising third-party merchants.

With Amazon only getting bigger by the day, and the challenge of weeding out quality from quite a lot of me-too knock-offs also growing, there is a clear role for improving discoverability and connecting consumers to the most interesting products, and helping those products succeed. At the same time, it will be worth watching how the roll-ups themselves grow and if they manage to deliver on all that they are promising to the brands they are buying, and to their investors.

Apple adds two brand new Siri voices and will no longer default to a female or male voice in iOS

By Matthew Panzarino

Apple is adding two new voices to Siri’s English offerings, and eliminating the default ‘female voice’ selection in the latest beta version of iOS. This means that every person setting up Siri will choose a voice for themselves and it will no longer default to the voice assistant being female, a topic that has come up quite a bit with regards to bias in voice interfaces over the past few years.

The beta version should be live now and available to program participants.

I believe that this is the first of these assistants to make the choice completely agnostic with no default selection made. This is a positive step forward as it allows people to choose the voice that they prefer without the defaults bias coming into play. The two new voices also bring some much needed variety to the voices of Siri, offering more diversity in speech sound and pattern to a user picking a voice that speaks to them.

in some countries and languages Siri already defaults to a male voice. But this change makes the choice the users’ for the first time.

“We’re excited to introduce two new Siri voices for English speakers and the option for Siri users to select the voice they want when they set up their device,” a statement from Apple reads. “This is a continuation of Apple’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.”

The two new voices use source talent recordings that are then run through Apple’s Neural text to speech engine, making the voices flow more organically through phrases that are actually being generated on the fly.

I’ve heard the new voices and they sound pretty fantastic, with natural inflection and smooth transitions. They’ll be a welcome addition of choice to iOS users. I’ll embed some samples here after the beta drops.

This latest beta also upgrades the Siri voices in Ireland, Russia and Italy to Neural TTS, bringing the total voices using the new tech to 38. Siri now handles 25 billion requests on over 500M voices and supports 21 languages in 36 countries.

The new voices are available to English speaking users around the world and Siri users can select a personal preference of voice in 16 languages.

It seems very likely that these two new voices are just the first expansion in Siri’s voice selections. More diversity in voice, tone and regional dialect can only be a positive development for how inclusive smart devices feel. Over the past few years we have finally begun to see some movement from Amazon, Google and Apple to aggressively correct situations where the assistants have revealed bias in their responses to queries that use negative or abusive language. Improvements there, as well as in queries on social justice topics and overall accessibility improvements are incredibly key as we continue to see an explosion of voice-first or voice-native interfaces. These kinds of choices matter, especially at a scale of hundreds of millions of people.

 

Article updated to note that in some countries and languages Siri currently defaults to a male voice. 

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