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Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

A former chaos engineer offers 5 tips for handling online disasters remotely

By Walter Thompson
Kolton Andrus Contributor
Kolton is co-founder and CEO of Gremlin, the chaos engineering company helping the world build a more reliable internet.

I recently had a scheduled video conference call with a Fortune 100 company.

Everything on my end was ready to go; my presentation was prepared and well-practiced. I was set to talk to 30 business leaders who were ready to learn more about how they could become more resilient to major outages.

Unfortunately, their side hadn’t set up the proper permissions in Zoom to add new people to a trusted domain, so I wasn’t able to share my slides. We scrambled to find a workaround at the last minute while the assembled VPs and CTOs sat around waiting. I ended up emailing my presentation to their coordinator, calling in from my mobile and verbally indicating to the coordinator when the next slide needed to be brought up. Needless to say, it wasted a lot of time and wasn’t the most effective way to present.

At the end of the meeting, I said pointedly that if there was one thing they should walk away with, it’s that they had a vital need to run an online fire drill with their engineering team as soon as possible. Because if a team is used to working together in an office — with access to tools and proper permissions in place — it can be quite a shock to find out in the middle of a major outage that they can’t respond quickly and adequately. Issues like these can turn a brief outage into one that lasts for hours.

Quick context about me: I carried a pager for a decade at Amazon and Netflix, and what I can tell you is that when either of these services went down, a lot of people were unhappy. There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem. I can also tell you that working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

There are many articles about best practices aimed at a general audience, but engineering teams have specific challenges as the ones responsible for keeping online services up and running. And while leading tech companies already have sophisticated IT teams and operations in place, what about financial institutions and hospitals and other industries where IT is a tool, but not a primary focus? It’s often the small things that can make all the difference when working remotely; things that seem obvious in the moment, but may have been overlooked.

So here are some tips for managing incidents remotely:

There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem… working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

Dear Sophie: How do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my options?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Most “Dear Sophie” columns are only accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

If I’m selected in this year’s lottery, how do we craft a strong H-1B petition? If I’m not selected, what are my other options?

— Hoping in Hayward

Dear Hoping:

Thank you for asking the questions that are on the minds of many H-1B first-timers. Don’t worry! Several options exist if you’re not selected.

It’s really important, especially for early-stage companies, to work with experienced attorneys to guide them through this process. Now that USCIS has changed it’s system, if you’re already selected, then having a great attorney is really important to mitigate any remaining risk in the rest of the process. There are lots of wonderful, experienced immigration lawyers out there to choose from.

This year’s new H-1B online lottery registration process ended on March 20. By March 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will notify companies whose H-1B candidates have been selected.

If USCIS selects you, your sponsoring employer will have 90 days to submit a complete H-1B petition. Employers can file an H-1B petition up to six months before a candidate’s intended start date.

Sophie Alcorn Alcorn Immigration Law Silicon Valley San Francisco 03

Immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn

It’s great that you’re already here in the U.S. H-1B candidates living outside of the U.S. seeking consular processing may face delays coming here for their employment start date depending on when coronavirus-related consulate closures and travel restrictions are lifted. These situations need to be addressed individually.

If meeting a deadline during any step of the process becomes difficult or impossible due to COVID-19, it’s possible to request special handling from the government. The federal government grants extensions under special circumstances, such as floods and hurricanes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a special circumstance.

Because COVID-19 is prompting policy and procedural changes with little or no warning, I recommend consulting an immigration attorney for assistance.

If you haven’t already, assemble the necessary documents as soon as possible. Obtaining documents may take longer now that most universities and companies are closed due to the pandemic.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms.

Your sponsoring employer will need to assemble documents that demonstrate the appropriate policies and cash flow to hire you. Startups need to be extra careful to meet all the requirements. You should have easily accessible:

  • Current resume
  • Transcripts
  • Diplomas and certificates
  • Passports used to enter U.S.
  • Past immigration documents (I-20, DS-2019, I-797, etc.)

A Labor Condition Application (LCA) approved by the U.S. Department of Labor is required with all H-1B petitions. For the LCA, your startup must promise to pay at least the prevailing wage to you and ensure that your employment conditions won’t negatively affect other workers.

If this is a startup and it’s the company’s first H-1B, it must get its Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) verified by the Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification before starting. That process typically takes a week or so. Timing is key to filing an LCA. Keep in mind that the Labor Department typically makes a decision on whether to certify an LCA within seven business days.

Employers do not need to submit evidence to the Labor Department for an LCA, but they must post a copy of the H-1B notification, which can be done electronically, as well as keep all supporting documents in a file and make it available for public viewing.

The employer will also need to fill out Form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker), and assemble compelling evidence and supporting documents. Check and double check the form and your documents to avoid mistakes and omissions, which can prompt USCIS to deny a petition. Make sure the info contained in the LCA matches Form I-129. Remember to include all required signatures.

USCIS recently announced that scanned or photocopied signatures will be allowed on all documents and petitions during the COVID-19 emergency. Make sure you pay the proper fees and send your package to the correct address with a way to track that package.

USCIS recently announced the temporary suspension of premium processing for H-1B petitions. The agency expects to resume premium processing for individuals changing status from an F-1 student visa by May 27, and all others by June 29. For an extra fee, premium processing enables employers to receive a decision on a petition within 15 days. Without premium processing, the USCIS California Service Center is currently taking two to four months.

If you don’t get selected in the H-1B lottery, relax! Your startup can sponsor you for an H-1B again next year because there’s no limit on the number of years you can be entered in the lottery, whether you’re inside or outside the U.S. and whether you’re currently employed by them or not. In the meantime, several other visa options exist for individuals like you who qualify for an H-1B:

  • O-1A Visa: If have “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, education or business, you could be eligible for an O-1A. However, the bar for qualifying for an O-1A is higher than for an H-1B.
  • J-1 Visa: Most employers cannot directly sponsor an individual for a J-1 visa, which is a work-and-study visitor exchange program. The U.S. State Department designates public and private sponsor organizations to supervise the exchange programs and application process that can be used to support a J-1 at a specific company.
  • L-1 Visas: If your employer has an office outside of the U.S. — or you can set up one for them — and you can work in that overseas office for 12 months or more, your employer can then transfer you back to the U.S. under an L-1A visa for executives and managers or an L-1B visa for employees with specialized knowledge. No annual quotas exist for L-1 visas, and these visas are “dual intent” and can lead to a green card.
  • F-1 Visa: You could become a full-time student at an accredited college or university under an F-1 visa. Some graduate programs require Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or allow Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both training programs enable students to gain work experience in their field of study.

The following options are available to you if you’re a citizen of Chile, Singapore, Australia, Canada or Mexico:

  • H-1B1 Visa: If you’re a citizen of Chile or Singapore, you’re eligible for an H-1B1. Each year, 1,400 H-1B1 visas are reserved for Chileans and 5,400 are reserved for Singaporeans. Rarely are those visas exhausted.
  • E-3 Visa: If you’re an Australian national, you’re eligible for an E-3 for “specialty occupation” professionals who have specialized theoretical or practical knowledge. An LCA is required. A maximum of 10,500 E-3 visas is available annually, but they rarely are exhausted.
  • TN Visa: If you’re from Canada or Mexico, you could work temporarily under a TN (Treaty National) visa for certain occupations. TN visas have no annual quota and allow for unlimited extensions as long as the employer and conditions of employment remain the same.

Fingers crossed that you get selected in the lottery!

All my best,

Sophie


Have a question? Ask it here; we reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and or space. The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer here. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major podcast platforms; if you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Attract, engage and retain employees in the new remote-work era

By Walter Thompson
Irene DeNigris Contributor
Irene DeNigris, chief people officer of iCIMS, has a passion for cultivating a highly engaged, high-performance culture.

When looking for answers, where do people first turn? For many, it’s Google.

During the first half of March, we saw Google searches for “work from home” reach a 12-month high, garnering at least 50% more search interest than the anticipated peak, which usually occurs within the first week of January. This number will continue to grow as outside circumstances evolve.

This search behavior reflects the world around us. Today, employees and employers alike are grappling with the new norm — at least for the short-term — which is working remotely. While having a remote-ready model in place was once viewed as a competitive advantage to attract talent, it’s now a must-have to keep organizations afloat.

With vacant positions costing organizations around $680 daily, the impact that interrupted recruiting efforts can have on a business’ bottom line is jarring. As such, HR professionals were early adopters of successful remote communication practices, learning lessons that can be applied across the business to successfully make personal connections without being in-person. Employers are doing all they can to address their existing employee base at this critical time, while also working hard to maintain their hiring efforts.

Having the right technology in place to sustain work-from-home practices is more important now than ever before. There are four steps that employers can take to successfully integrate and adapt successful virtual hiring technologies into their business continuity plans, considering all outside circumstances, and without sacrificing their productivity and unique company culture.

Prepare and plan. Employers have an obligation to provide their people with clear direction in times of disruption.

When is it time to stop fundraising?

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe, and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

No one wants to prepare for their fundraising round to fail. Many founders spend months (or even years) getting their businesses to a point where they’re ready to pitch investors. But there are times when, no matter how hard you try, you’re just not going to be able to close a deal.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the entire VC community is in a state of uncertainty, and there is no clear answer when it comes to the question, “can I still raise funds for my company?” However, there’s hope for early-stage startups. We used the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to track Pitch Deck Interest among investors and found that last week, despite seismic changes across the country, pitch deck interest has only been 11.6% lower than the same week in 2019 so far.

We will be monitoring the Pitch Deck Interest Metric in the coming weeks, but if you’re an early-stage startup and you were planning to raise, there is still opportunity to come away with a term sheet. But if things don’t go as planned, how do you know if it’s time to give up or if you just need to push through?

According to recent DocSend data, you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s time to call it quits. While the average founder who was successful in fundraising contacted 63 investors during their process, startups that weren’t able to raise funds stopped at 27. Why stop? Because the founder listened to the feedback they were getting. If you hear the same concern or piece of feedback twice you should take it to heart, but if you hear it three times you probably need to stop and rethink things.

time spent reading pitch decks

The Pitch Deck Interest Metric declined 11.6% compared to the same week in 2019

According to our study on the fundraising process of pre-seed startups, founders who were unsuccessful in raising had just nine meetings. That should give you enough feedback to know if you have a deal breaker in your deck.

But negative feedback doesn’t mean all is lost. In fact, of startups studied in the 2020 DocSend Startup Index, 86% reported that they were going to try to fundraise again after addressing the feedback they’d received.

Now might be the perfect time to rethink your fundraising approach

By Walter Thompson
Russ Heddleston Contributor
Russ is the co-founder and CEO of DocSend. He was previously a product manager at Facebook, where he arrived via the acquisition of his startup Pursuit.com, and has held roles at Dropbox, Greystripe, and Trulia. Follow him here: @rheddleston and @docsend

Many founders will have kicked off the new year with a new fundraising round. According to the data we shared last year, March, October and November were the months when VCs were reviewing the most decks.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has ground to a halt many industries, and there are even warnings that this will affect the next two quarters in regards to fundraising.

We’ve reviewed the data in our 2020 DocSend Startup Index and we’ve begun tracking the Pitch Deck Interest Metric. With San Francisco under a shelter-in-place order and many VCs scrambling to adjust their processes to an all-remote world, we saw pitch deck interest drop 11.6% when compared to the same week in 2019. While there has been a drop in interest so far, there is still a lot of activity, and VCs seem to still be reading pitch decks.

We will be monitoring the Pitch Deck Interest Metric in the coming weeks, but if you’re an early-stage startup and are in the middle of your fundraise, or are about to fundraise, there are some things you can do to help insure your startup is ready for funding before you meet with any (more) investors.

time spent reading pitch decks

The Pitch Deck Interest Metric declined 11.6% compared to the same week in 2019

Expectations have shifted and will continue to do so

If you were about to kick off a fundraising round, you should have been prepared to contact 50 or more investors, have 20-30 meetings and spend somewhere around 20 weeks before you signed your term sheet. That’s a lot of time and energy to invest, especially when the economy is poised for a downturn and you’re most likely needed in other parts of your business.

If you’ve already started your round and are wondering if you should push through, I’ve written a piece on knowing when to quit and recalibrate versus when to push through (Extra Crunch membership required).

Many factors play into navigating a successful fundraising round, and the expectations of investors are constantly changing — specifically when it comes to the pre-seed round.

Investors are now looking for market-ready products and want to see pitch decks that feature the content they’re expecting. We expect to see this focus intensify over the coming months as VCs have more time to spend not just to review pitch decks, but on due diligence for companies in which they plan to invest. Our new report outlines advice for pre-seed startups that are looking to adjust their fundraising strategy.

Focus on an MVP, not just a great PowerPoint

Our analysis reveals a shift in the level of readiness required by institutional investment to receive pre-seed funding. In the past, pre-seed startups could get by with just an MVPP (Minimum Viable PowerPoint). But now, investors are placing their bets on pre-seed startups that have already entered the market and developed an alpha, beta or shipping product.

In fact, 92% of companies with successful pitch decks had either an alpha, beta or shipping product, where only 68% of companies with unsuccessful pitch decks presented the same type of product readiness.

stage of product development mvp vs mvpp

As the economy moves closer to a downturn we can expect VCs to be more cautious with their investments. The current data already shows a preference for companies that have live products; it’s worth the time and effort to be product-ready coming into a pre-seed round or if you’re a startup ready to tackle the round again with a fresh perspective.

Rethink your deck

That said, even if you do have an MVP, rethinking your pitch deck may be something else to consider. Here’s a good test. Using your pitch deck, spend three to four minutes (that’s all the time you’ll get from a VC) to pitch your business to a friend or family member who knows nothing about your business. Afterward, ask them for a one-sentence description of your company. If they’re not clearly describing what your company does and the problem it’s trying to solve, you probably need to rethink your pitch deck.

According to our recent report, a “less is more” attitude toward creating a compelling pitch deck for meetings could mean more success in pre-seed fundraising.

Your pitch deck will be your main calling card right now. As community events are being replaced with online gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can expect to see less one-to-one engagement at these events. So pitching a VC in person is not likely to happen anytime soon. Whether you’re sending them a cold email, or getting a warm intro from a portfolio company, you’re going to need to lead with your pitch deck.

Despite the product taking a more prominent role in the fundraising round, the pitch deck is still a focal point and should be tailored to tell your story in the most effective way, as investors are spending less time evaluating them. On average, investors are spending just 3 minutes and 21 seconds on the pitch deck and the average deck is just 20 slides.

If you are in the process of reevaluating your pitch deck, it could be helpful to make sure your slides feature the right content in the right order. Investors spend nearly 50% more time on the product slides in successful pitch decks and over 18% longer on the business model in unsuccessful pitch decks. Additionally, investors spent more time on solution slides in successful decks than unsuccessful decks.

time spent on successful decks

It’s a numbers game… to a certain extent

Another area that could benefit from reevaluation is the number of investors contacted, meetings held and the number of weeks spent in a funding round. Generally speaking, the average amount of investors contacted for successful fundraising rounds is 56, resulting in 26 meetings. On average, successful pre-seed startups will spend 20.5 weeks on fundraising.

When it comes to fundraising, there are diminishing returns for investor outreach. You shouldn’t need to send your deck to more than 60-70 investors and have more than 20-30 meetings. If you’re doing more than that, the ROI on your time just isn’t worth it. Because the current crisis is affecting VCs’ willingness to invest, you’re better off finding a small list of investors who are active and targeting your pitch to them. If you’ve reached out to more than 70 investors, but you’re still faced with a wall of “nos” you’re better off pausing your fundraising and addressing the feedback you’ve received so far. For more on when you should quit and reevaluate versus push through you can read my article here (Extra Crunch membership required).

how long does a pre seed round take

Another area pre-seed startups should evaluate is the number of founders of a company. Our data shows investors still prefer teams of two-three founders, though our data shows that being a solo founder is preferable to having too many founders. For teams of five founders, they averaged earning $195,085 while founding teams of three garnered $511,522.

This may be the right time to find a co-founder. With many people working from home or out of work, this could be the opportunity to take your idea and bring on the technical founder you need. There are online groups and events popping up everywhere in response to social distancing. If you’re worried being a solo founder is going to hold you back, you may want to invest time in those new communities.

meetings and amount raised

Get some perspective

For many startups, especially if you are not in Silicon Valley where a substantial amount of funding happens, the process of fundraising can be very opaque. DocSend’s purpose in analyzing this data is to bring some transparency to the process. This in turn provides perspective.

But what founders should do, if they haven’t done so already, is to get some additional perspective. Talk to experts outside your immediate circle of influence. Don’t have a mentor or advisors? Find them. Get a different take on your product idea or the market conditions. Especially now that community events are going virtual, location doesn’t have to hold you back from joining the startup community and finding people to offer feedback on your product or company.

Fundraising is both an art and science. Combining the insights from our data with the benefit of your own community can help you get back on your feet and pitching your company with hopefully a better outcome.

Not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys

By Walter Thompson
Barbara Sprenger Contributor
Barbara Sprenger does double duty as CEO of The Satellite Centers, a network of flexible workspaces, and Satellite DeskWorks, cloud-based software to manage co-work spaces, executive suites and corporate flexible space.

All co-working isn’t WeWork . And not all entrepreneurs are 30-year-old guys.

I know this well, having built my first startup in the mid-1980s after a potential employer said women wouldn’t be accepted in technical sales. Within five years, their large computer manufacturing business was gone, but we were selling our products around the world.

About twelve years ago, my partner and I saw how the workplace was changing as laptops and WiFi allowed people to work anywhere. At the same time, endless commutes and long office hours were separating families, generating excess CO2 emissions and making work-life balance almost impossible.

We understood that enabling people to work close to home, rather than in their home, could address these issues while reducing isolation and distractions. We could apply our startup, manufacturing, building and operations backgrounds to this problem to develop automated, welcoming workspace centers in neighborhoods and small-town cores, and we could make this replicable.

This was 2008 — nearly a decade before Masayoshi Son plowed billions into WeWork with the directive to be crazier, go bigger. Our model was very different from WeWork’s model of large centers in large cities that primarily targeted large corporations. It was more than a real estate play and with an interesting problem to solve: community focused centers were valuable to regular people, but could these be created sustainably and profitably over the long term?

We thought it could. So we built it.

The crux of what we developed was smaller, replicable, technologically-enabled and automated centers, outside big cities, that could meet the needs of their members and do it profitably and with minimal staffing. We developed our co-working management software, Satellite Deskworks, along with our now patented tracking and automation, to run any type of shared use center, and to do it simply, intuitively, and comprehensively.

I do not get funded. Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man.

With the model proven, we began working on funding to scale the enterprise. The business plan, slide deck and pro forma were written. The pitches started, all the while running and growing the business from personal and generated funds. More pitches. And more pitches. Clearly we weren’t making it interesting enough. Or it was too early. Or the people with funds didn’t understand how important this was for the vast majority of workers and their local communities. Or perhaps there was just something wrong with us, since the business was already working.

Some of the pitch meetings felt like walking through the looking glass: One VC group provided us with an internal sponsor who advised us to only talk about software. Then his associate took over and said that advice was all wrong: our strength was in the combination of real-world and software.

On pitch day, before our presentation, a single-function app was pitched — just an idea, no product. It got funded. Subsequently, even though we had three profitable centers and several software clients, I was told that we weren’t far enough along to validate the market. Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back as an expert on co-working to explain this emerging industry to them. But, again, no funds were forthcoming.

Over and over again, I’d be told that the presentation was spot-on, and yet, no funds.

I’m an older woman. I got my undergraduate degree at 43 years old and a masters at 46. I had started, run and sold my first startup to a large multinational by the time I was 40. I am good at what I do; I build and scale businesses.

Another group declined to fund us, then a year later asked me back, as an expert on co-working, to explain this newly emerging industry to them.

But I do not get funded.

This is not a complaint. This is a fact. I understand what happened at those pitches. Despite our scalable, successful business model, the decision makers were trying to gauge what others at the table would do, how they would perceive me. And the double-whammy of being older and a woman was a bridge too far.

Like picking at a scab, I talk to people knowledgeable in venture who nod their heads at the idea that I’d have trouble getting funded, no matter how well the model worked or the software functioned.

Several guys — without cynicism — suggested that I get a 30-year-old front man. But instead, I focused on growing my business organically, perhaps missing the opportunity to truly scale something that communities of all sizes need.

There is a serious flaw in how businesses are funded, and it is the same discussion we had twenty and thirty years ago about who was at the table in managing businesses.

Vibrant, innovative concepts and businesses are frequently started by people who aren’t happy with their options inside the box of the corporate world. 45% of small business owners are from minority ethnic groups. Women start businesses at twice the rate of men, yet female founders got 2% of VC dollars in 2017. Black women are the most educated group in the U.S., yet they receive about 0.2% of VC funding.

Older founders are seen as less dynamic, less adventurous, while the reality is that half the startups in the U.S. are by people over 50 — and older entrepreneurs are actually more likely to succeed.

Despite the fact that many acknowledge this as a problem, the solutions seem elusive. But they shouldn’t be. Corporations are stronger because of bringing diversity to boards, and the VC model would be stronger by employing many of the same tactics. The likelihood that funded startups will succeed increases by appealing to a broader audience, and the best way to do that is to fund a broader segment of entrepreneurs. Although these shouldn’t be new concepts, let me propose a few ideas:

Set up and support funds at an intermediate level. There is a crying need for funding in the $1 million – $3 million range, particularly for women- and minority-owned businesses. We know how to successfully bootstrap, but however good we are, it takes investment to scale.

If you measure it, you get it. Set up metrics. 10% of your board will be women within a year, 30% within three years, and 50% within six years. Set up similar metrics for ethnic and racial diversity. Set a goal for the percentage of your portfolio that will be minority- and women-owned startups each year over the next five years. And measure the performance of these startups against the past portfolio.

Increase the diversity of VC management and boards. By including decision-makers at the table from a broad range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and genders, the industry should get to a more diverse portfolio with a greater likelihood of overall success.

Get to critical mass. Token diversity accomplishes little. You need enough people to truly provide a voice and echo. It’s easy to ignore a single voice from a different perspective. Research has shown that for a group to even hear a woman’s voice in a meeting at least 30% of that group needs to be women.

So, yes, I walk into the VC pitch rooms, and I know I’m not walking out with funding. No one is going to wire me a generous seed round and tell me to go break things.

Because of who I am and how this particular world perceives me, I have to build a business that works, that stands on its own from the beginning. This is not the end of the world. Businesses should work.

But the VC model needs to work, too.

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

By Danny Crichton
Josh Nadeau Contributor
Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

Canceled conferences will force startups to focus on scalable lead generation

By Walter Thompson
Dan Wheatley Contributor
Dan Wheatley is CEO/co-founder of StraightTalk Consulting, a SaaS operations and growth consultancy that works with B2B founders to implement long-term, data-driven growth strategies.

Described by Sequoia Capital as the black swan event of 2020, the long-term economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on startups is still to be seen. However, one effect which is sure to disrupt the MO of many early-stage startups is the cancellation of events and conferences.

According to Forbes, more than 35.3 million people who were planning to attend an event have been forced to change their plans in recent months. And while some might lament being forced to leave their Metallica T-shirts and 2020 Summer Olympics flags in the cupboard, many startup founders are biting their nails at the prospect of lost leads and connections from events and conferences.

The silver lining: Forcing founders to wean themselves off conferences and events as a “go-to” business development tactic might not be a bad thing in the long run.

Based on my experience, many early-stage startups waste lots of time and resources doing the rounds at events without clear aims, using up lots of the founder’s time, without driving much business value. At an early stage in a startup’s journey, every tactic used needs to drive real ROI and ultimately be driving new business opportunities.

So let’s look at why missing out on events might not be the end of the world, and how startups can focus their time, energy and resources on more scalable and consistent lead-gen activities.

What’s my beef with startup events and conferences?

It is worth clarifying early on that conferences and events can provide valuable ROI in terms of lead generation and business development to startups that approach them in the right way.

The silver lining: Forcing founders to wean themselves off conferences and events as a “go-to” business development tactic might not be a bad thing in the long run.

Getting involved in events as speakers, taking part in panels or showcasing projects via pitch competitions offers the “Golden Ticket” that grants access to the speaker’s lounge, side events and dinners. This facilitates conversations with the most important investors, journalists and potential partners and clients in attendance on a level setting, rather than having to bustle for attention with the rest of the masses on the conference floor.

Aside from increasing the probability of real business development opportunities, taking part in a conference normally includes a free ticket, if not accommodation and travel costs being covered too.

On the flip side, in my experience, going to startup events and conferences as a lowly attendee offers very little tangible ROI, and can accumulate into a considerable expense too. However, as Forbes contributor Sophia Matveeva puts it, even a $10 event is expensive if it doesn’t offer ROI, “because the opportunity cost of events is not just money, it is also time.”

The value of attending events has to be assessed in relation to the time commitment required. If a meetup lasts three hours and includes an hour’s travel, and a large conference is a full-day commitment or even two days in a different location, the opportunity cost of the conference should be carefully weighed against time that could be invested in other lead-generation activities.

Can we approach events/conferences in a data-driven manner?

Unless founders track and assess the ROI from events in the same way as they would any other lead-generation tactic, the chances are that a pocketful of useless business cards and some branded swag (and possibly a hangover) will be the only returns from the time and resources invested.

Unless founders track and assess the ROI from events in the same way as they would any other lead-generation tactic, the chances are that a pocketful of useless business cards and some branded swag (and possibly a hangover) will be the only returns from the time and resources invested.

So how can we assess the value of events in the same way as we would, for example, paid ads? First, founders should be placing metrics on each individual event, such as:

1) Source of lead: Was this via speed-networking, or by reaching out via an event app?
2) Customer acquisition cost (CAC): What were the total costs of this event? Yes, beers count.
3) The number of leads: Only count warm leads. Business-card confetti at speed-networking doesn’t count.
3) The number of those leads closed: How many paying customers did this event lead to?
4) Lifetime value (LTV): How big were these tickets?
5) Sales cycle: How long did the lead take to close?

Assessing the value of particular events via metrics is possible, but it would take a long time. Founders would need to record data over the course of a year, allowing them to highlight which events on the calendar offer the highest chances of returns for the next year. However, the reality is that this requires time and resources, which many early-stage companies simply don’t have. Testing the effectiveness of events also requires trying different tactics, including:

  • Paying for a booth
  • Becoming a sponsor
  • Increasing the number of representatives in attendance
  • Paying for a ticket with increased access to side events, etc.

Testing these tactics makes sense for larger-ticket businesses that can expect $50,000+ returns from successful events. But for startups, the chances are that after blasting through lots of time and resources, they will most likely only highlight one of the 10 conferences they attended that offered real ROI. For any other lead-generation activity, this would be considered a massive failure.

Why aren’t events scalable lead-gen activities?

Making lead generation scalable requires monitoring the success rate of different tactics, doubling down (scaling) the activities that are working and putting fewer resources behind those that are not.

This requires founders to be in control of the levers in the sense that they have the ability to add more, reduce or adjust the scale at which different activities are utilized.

This is not really the case for events, for a number of reasons:

  1. Conference organizers control the content tracks/side-events/activities that take place during the events themselves. Unless they are organizers/sponsors, founders have few ways to exert influence at the events they attend.
  2. Even if a founder does highlight a certain event that brings in lots of leads, there are still a limited number of events that offer access to the right target audiences and cover themes related to particular verticals/niches within their geographic region.

Focus on more scalable lead-gen activities

In my opinion, it makes more sense to focus on lead-generation activities that offer startups more control. There are many different ways for startups to experiment with different tactics within more established inbound and outbound techniques:

Inbound lead generation:

  • Content marketing: Monitoring traction of webinar versus e-book, long-form versus short-form
  • Blogging: Trying different content formats, keywords and themes
  • SEO: Changing keywords, titles, themes and user intent
  • Paid ads: Testing different platforms, target users, content styles and themes

Outbound lead generation:

  • Direct emails: Sending emails at different times, including different content formats
  • Targeted social media messaging: Targeting different positions in a company, on different platforms
  • Cold calling: Using different amounts of representatives, targeting different target users

With the aforementioned techniques, there are fewer limits on how many different variations of these techniques startups can experiment with. They are also a lot more flexible in terms of scalability, meaning startups can invest as much or as little in each technique as they please. You can spend $10 on paid ads, or $1,000. You can have two sales representatives, or 200.

When deciding how to best spend lead-generation budgets, founders should ask themselves:

  1. Can I control the levers? i.e. the tactics I am using within these tactics.
  2. Can I scale to the capacity I need to; is there room for exponential growth?
  3. Can I control the rate of scale over time?

The final point is arguably the most important, but often overlooked. Startups need to be able to control the pace at which they scale, meaning they can increase activity when things are going well, but also reduce activity if things aren’t working out, or — in the case of COVID-19 — if the company needs to tighten its belt due to unforeseen, or uncontrollable circumstances.

The best way to drive sustainable growth is by establishing sustainable internal systems and processes. If you think of a business as an engine, we don’t know what the machine can handle until we test its capabilities. We have to be able to scale processes, as this is where we will find the weaknesses in the system. However, we also need to be able to back off when we do find the weaknesses without causing further damage.

Startups need to “stress-test” lead-generation techniques gradually. If a startup is investing $100 in paid media and achieving five sales-qualified leads (SQLs) per month. The next step is not to go “hey, it’s working,” and chuck $1,000 at it. The sensible next step would be to scale up the tactic by investing $200 and aiming for 10 SQLs per month.

Summing up

So, with events and conferences canceled for the foreseeable future, and a high probability that many event organizers will not be able to recover from their losses this year, startups should use this forced pause to re-assess their processes and strategies.

As they say, slow but steady wins the race. The end goal should always be to achieve consistency in processes that are scalable. When startups approach processes in a data-driven, consistent manner, it offers the chance to scale exponentially over time.

The future of collectibles is digital

By Walter Thompson
Ryoma Ito Contributor
Ryoma Ito is co-founder of MakersPlace, a community empowering the world's digital creators. In prior roles, he co-founded a B2B e-commerce subscription business servicing 100k+ online merchants, was VP of Product at Specialdeals and was employee No. 1 at two venture-backed startups, one of which was acquired by Groupon.

The estimated size of the global collectibles market is $370 billion.

People have an innate propensity to collect, which drives purchases of collectible goods like art, games, sports memorabilia, toys and more. But given that the world is rapidly adopting digital each day, how likely is it that this market can continue to grow as is?

Won’t this primarily physical market have little choice but to evolve with the times?

With an increase in digital adoption, a step-function innovation is emerging; digital collectibles. The new medium is gaining in popularity and its influence is spreading relatively quickly.

The potential impact on the cryptocurrency landscape, while seemingly unrelated, is quite profound. Businesses already present in the collectibles market have new offerings, demographics and economic impacts to take into account. Even household brands are acknowledging their significance and building strategies around them.

Image by Christian Braun via hobbyDB

Digital collectibles have taken a foothold and are well on their way to increase their presence in our daily lives.

What is a digital collectible?

Why key performance indicators are crucial amidst a (public health) crisis

By Danny Crichton
Eli Cahan Contributor
Eli Cahan is a medical student at NYU on leave to complete a master’s in health policy at Stanford as a Knight-Hennessey Scholar. His research addresses the effectiveness, economics, and ethics of (digital) health innovation.

Day after day, the burden of COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2 mounts further. As of this writing, nearly 400,000 patients worldwide were confirmed for the disease, including over 46,000 cases spanning every state in this country.

In tandem with this mounting burden, due to numerous fumbles over the past 10 weeks, the U.S. has faced significant bottlenecks in the production of diagnostic testing and imposed substantive red tape to deter testing. As more diagnostic tests have come online, the rate of “confirmed cases” — the key performance indicator (KPI) being monitored by decision-makers across the country — continues to accelerate. 

Why businesses love KPIs

Leaders of startups are familiar with the attention paid towards KPIs such as profit margins, burn rates, net dollar retention rate, and customer acquisition costs. These metrics, when chosen appropriately, allow leaders to continuously take the pulse of their companies and take action in response.

Along these lines, Phil Nadel has written on TechCrunch that founders “cannot hope to grow a company in any meaningful way without…KPIs…[b]ecause KPIs, if constructed correctly, give management and potential investors a cold, analytical snapshot of the state of the company, untainted by emotion or rhetoric” (emphasis added).

Conversely, when misconstructed, misconstrued or overlooked, KPIs can cause organizations to crash and burn. This phenomenon has been deemed “surrogation,” or reflecting the potential for critical thinking around strategy to be subverted by elevation or suppression of a single number. For example, maximizing profit margin can hurt the quality of goods/services, and maximizing lifetime value (LTV) can negatively impact customer experience by, say, encouraging the use of shady cross-selling or up-selling techniques that are harmful in the long-term to customers (as was the case at Wells Fargo after the financial crisis).

Taken too far, wrongly-selected KPIs can cause organizations to suffer profoundly, such as with Uber’s patchy quality standards for driver recruitment leading to innumerable controversies around customer experience. And while consistently poor quarterly failures in the boardroom can lead to organization crises, they do not bear remotely the same stakes as public health crises.

The primary KPI for COVID-19 has been an unreliable figure in the U.S.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary KPI tracked by U.S. leaders has been the number of confirmed cases of the disease. Yet epidemiologists monitoring the outbreaks have become increasingly frustrated with the meandering pace of actions taken by U.S. decision-makers. The core of the mismatch between actions desired by scientists and those (not) taken by policymakers lies in misinterpreting the “denominator.” In other words, misconstruing the pandemic’s primary KPI.

The denominator refers to the formula from which mortality rates are calculated — the number of deaths divided by the number of cases. While this seems to be straightforward algebra, the devil is in the details. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Chinese government has waffled on their definition of “confirmed cases”: deciding ultimately to go with a definition (positive only if laboratory-confirmed, regardless of symptoms or other tests) that may suppress the real number. Analogously, diagnostic testing snafus in the U.S. suggest that the number of “confirmed cases” here is simply not reliable. Both of these stand in stark contrast to countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, both of which swiftly diverted resources to scale up, broaden, and fully report testing.

Predictably, these snafus have led to diagnosis of disproportionately severe cases thus far in the U.S.: with the exception of NBA players and movie stars, only highly symptomatic individuals have been eligible to receive testing (due to clinical red tape), able to receive testing (due to shortages), and subsequently confirmed. This selection bias of severe cases implies that overall case number — the true denominator — is markedly underestimated. Accordingly, since the beginning of February, epidemiologists have been vocal that “simple counts of the number of confirmed cases can be misleading indicators of the epidemic’s trajectory.”

Relying on confirmed cases as the primary KPI may have delayed and misled critical action

A timeline of COVID-19’s progression in the U.S. illustrates the impact of using confirmed cases as the country’s primary KPI for public health response.

On January 22, President Trump stated that “we have [SARS-CoV-2] totally under control, it’s one person [confirmed].” On February 25, with 53 confirmed, he claimed that “the coronavirus…is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it.” The following day, the president declared that “the risk to the American people remains very low.” On March 6, with 227 confirmed, he shared that “I think we’ve done a tremendous job of keeping [the number of confirmed cases] down.” And just one week ago on March 17, the president praised West Virginia as the single state without any cases, hailing “Big Jim, the governor…must be doing a good job.” 

By the end of that day, the praise no longer held. Reports later emerged that the reason West Virginia had no cases for so long was related to the fact that the state was ill-equipped, and perhaps resistant, to performing testing that might come back positive.

With confirmed cases on U.S. soil as the North Star for decision-making — despite “the system blinking red” on other dimensions — early decisions to take vital preventive actions were punted. It wasn’t until March 13 (over seven weeks after the first confirmed U.S. case) that the president declared a national emergency. And even as 70 million Americans were under lockdown as of March 20, 47 states maintained few restrictions for social distancing (which remains the only intervention currently with proven effectiveness against COVID-19). Those under lockdown permit leaving for “essential” tasks, which itself is fuzzily-defined.

Moreover, emerging evidence suggests that mild (“subclinical”) cases — exactly the ones that have not been tested — may be driving community spread of the virus. Nonetheless, focus on confirmed cases as principal KPI has elicited few interventions against these “below the surface” cases. Domestic travel restrictions by foot, bike, car, bus, train, and plane remain mostly limited. Spring breakers continue to party at Miami Beach’s hookah shops and Nashville’s honky-tonks. 

Simultaneously, numerous universities — sensitive to the fact that college dormitories are amongst the highest risk settings for contracting an infection — suspended classes and evacuated their students. However, these moves overlook the fact that college students are amongst the least likely to manifest symptoms. As such, by seeking to prevent any confirmed cases on their campuses, these universities may have ushered the virus into the homes of parents and grandparents in innumerable local communities across the U.S.

Alternative KPIs for COVID-19 can help get the U.S. back on track

If the wrong KPI created this mess, then the right KPI(s) are urgently needed to begin fixing it.

For starters, risk stratification is desperately required. Rather than resorting to black-and-white measures of infected versus uninfected, risk spectra can better characterize the threat faced by specific individuals, communities, states, and countries.

For example, mortality risk can be quantified and monitored. Elderly individuals and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at the highest risk of severe infection. By deriving and pooling individual risks, the relative threat to communities can be evaluated: encouraging high-risk communities to take more immediate and more proactive preventive action. Florida, for instance, could benefit from this kind of measurement: 27% of the state’s residents population are elderly, but thus far shockingly few individuals have been tested for coronavirus in retirement communities like the Florida Keys (where 75 people had been assessed as of March 24 amidst the height of Spring Break). This could lead to protective policies like visitation restrictions and hygiene guidelines.

Additionally, transmission risk can be a useful KPI. Certain demographic groups, like students and healthcare workers, are at much higher risk of propagating the virus — with or without the presence of symptoms. Individuals with exposure to the virus in confined spaces (such as cruise ships or airplanes) also have much higher transmission risk. Scoring metrics could be adapted from other infectious diseases to help policymakers better visualize and prevent transmission in their communities. This could encourage prospective procedures like contact tracing and symptom monitoring.

Designating mortality risk (for vulnerable patients) and transmission risk (to vulnerable patients) as KPIs could provide much more granularity to decision-makers than can confirmed cases alone. Including these collectively on a dashboard will generate insights and stimulate further actions than relying on a single narrow, fallible KPI. 

And of course, these are only two (reductive) examples of potentially useful metrics for public health responders. Far more diverse forms of metrics are possible. These are often pioneered, unsurprisingly, by startups — such as in the case of Kinsa Health, a producer of smart thermometers. The company’s temperature geo-maps are already providing a leading COVID-19 indicator for local decisionmakers, as they have previously for the seasonal flu (compared to CDC models).

In healthcare and beyond, new KPIs will prove critical moving forward

As far as COVID-19 goes, the steps our country needs to take are fairly clear. An analysis by researchers at Imperial College London’s COVID-19 Response Team suggested that near-universal social distancing measures are the only tool available to prevent “hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over.” Countries that continue to be ravaged by the virus (such as Iran and Italy) enacted social distancing interventions excessively late. As the trajectory of the infection curve in the U.S. closely mirrors these countries (despite probable underestimates of case burden), more universal measures are sorely needed. Better healthcare KPIs can help us understand the next steps we need to take.

As far as the startup community goes, there is much to learn from this situation. A proverb in medicine advises: “during a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.” Since startups may face numerous crises (in the business sense) amidst the economic convulsions of COVID-19, composure will be essential to guide decisions under pressure. Meaningful KPIs are the stethoscopes, tourniquets, and barometers that enable startups to take their own pulse—and to rapidly commence any resuscitation that may be required.

Another medical proverb dictates that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Prescient leaders of startups would be well-served by seeking the tools for prevention sooner rather than later.

What we’ve learned from building 40,000+ links for clients

By Walter Thompson
Amanda Milligan Contributor
Amanda Milligan is the marketing director at Fractl, a prominent growth marketing agency that’s helped Fortune 500 companies and boutique businesses alike earn quality media coverage, backlinks, awareness and authority.

Since our agency opened in 2012, we’ve learned a lot about how to build quality links through content marketing.

The industry has evolved for a variety of reasons, including Google’s algorithm updates and the state of digital media. We’ve had to change along with them.

Over the years, we’ve completely revamped the way we develop content ideas, report on results, identify pitch targets — everything except for our core belief: a combination of content marketing and digital PR is the best way to build top-tier links.

I want to share three of our biggest insights from our experiences adapting so you don’t have to start from scratch or wonder which of your processes needs an update.

Instead, you can get to building the best backlinks you can.

Building the best links requires original research

Dear Sophie: How is COVID-19 affecting immigration?

By Walter Thompson
Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

“Dear Sophie” is an advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

There’s a lot of misinformation going around the internet on immigration right now. Can you provide a clear explanation of how immigration policies are shifting in response to COVID-19?

— Overwhelmed in Palo Alto

Coordinated response required to optimize telehealth during COVID-19 pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Eric Perakslis Contributor
Eric Perakslis, PhD is a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University, Lecturer, Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and Innovation Advisor to Médecins Sans Frontières. He has significant experience leading technology efforts in infectious disease outbreaks.

As the COVID-19 epidemic scales exponentially across the United States, calls for expended use of telehealth, innovative technology solutions and optimization of life-saving critical care hospital beds clearly highlight unmet needs in the American healthcare system.

Based on lessons from both recent Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), those of us who are experienced in outbreak response know that the difference between success and failure in responding to the current pandemic will depend equally on what is done and how it is done.

As a nation that prides itself on independence, innovation and ingenuity, the United States must understand that ill-considered heroics can cost lives and that a coordinated response is the best response. That is, if the measure of success is the number of lives saved.

Solutions must be conceived, built and deployed on the ground

One of the first rules of humanitarian and disaster response is that the boots on the ground (BOTG) must be in control. When it comes to technology delivery, this has multiple essential implications. First, the ultimate arbiter of requirements is the field team. The last thing patients or front-line responders need is programmers sitting at home writing code and arguing with health workers in the trenches about functions and features. It never works. Even when agreement is perceived via remote conversations, the reality on the ground may be different or may change instantly, negating previously agreed-upon specifications.

My own personal experience with these hard facts occurred toward the end of the West African EVD outbreak.

In May of 2015, as the case count was trending toward zero and our efforts turned to rebuilding local health systems that had been devastated early in the outbreak, I was writing apps that would enable the proper triage of a possible Ebola patient. These apps were somewhat complex algorithmically but had to be presented graphically to make this process as easy as taking a fast-food order.

This is not difficult—the apps are menu-driven and graphical. Workers simply input symptoms by selecting pictures and the menu walks them through the process. I spent several weeks building and testing the apps based on forms that had been emailed to me directly from the clinic.

When I arrived a week later, however, the people who had emailed me the material I used to develop the apps told me that that the forms were incorrect and they had never seen them before. Having anticipated this possibility, I spent the next 36 hours completely re-writing the apps and the project was highly successful.

My lesson? The time I spent coding apps remotely from emailed specs was wasted; I should have traveled earlier and built the apps on the ground. They would have been correct the first time and the project could have started at least two weeks earlier.

Use privacy-preserving technologies at the outset

The humanitarian response sector operates with a deep understanding that all interventions in crisis settings have corresponding risks to the immediate victims as well as to the responders. Key to mitigating these risks are ethical frameworks that protect all parties from immediate and longer-term consequences. As new procedures and technologies are quickly deployed against COVID-19, there is neither reason nor excuse to jeopardize patient privacy or expose healthcare workers and institutions to additional liability risk.

Because data sharing is essential to combating this pandemic, privacy-preserving technologies should be employed at the outset of implementing any technical solutions. For example, tokenization is a well-understood privacy-preserving technique for facilitating data sharing. A good start would be to automatically tokenize every COVID-19 test result, thereby enabling detailed data sharing across various response capabilities.

Importantly, digital health tools contain the inherent capacity to ensure ethical medical intervention. In light of this, any calls to weaken patient protections for the sake of technological priorities must be viewed both skeptically and critically.

Focus on consistent, automated and standardized data collection

Even in a public health emergency, consistent if not fully standardized data collection is a necessity, not a luxury.

The West African EVD outbreak that struck Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone outpaced the ability of any one government to stop it. This necessitated that the World Health Organization (WHO) play a coordinating role — one that proved highly beneficial. Although the WHO’s response was not perfect, it nevertheless included the publication of a strategic plan that included communications strategies, training on personal protective equipment, case definitions and medical and epidemiological data collection and management standards.

Activities were coordinated across 60 specialized Ebola treatment units that were capable of providing approximately 3,000 beds for Ebola care in the three countries most affected by the outbreak. Further, more than 40 organizations and 58 foreign medical teams deployed an estimated 2,500 international personnel as well as thousands of local staff.

The United States is already at this scale of response for the COVID-19 pandemic, and we anticipate continued exponential growth. Given the magnitude of current and future challenges to healthcare and public health systems and resources, adopting a common approach to data collection and sharing is essential. Such a step need not be difficult: a simple digital questionnaire comprising 5-10 questions and employed during every telehealth session would afford substantial insights into the presentation, triage, treatment and follow-up of the disease.

In Sierra Leone we did this with inexpensive Android apps that ensured high-quality data collection and availability. The key to the success of this effort was that the coordinated response effort provided standard definitions, questionnaires and data management requirements that were employed with surprising efficacy and consistency across a decentralized multinational response.

If we standardize data collection via a simple triage app or case report form, people will use them, regardless of the format—especially if data collection can be done by nonclinical staff, thus allowing doctors and nurses to devote more of their precious time to patient care.

Make use of all “free” metadata and technology capabilities

Another essential lesson from the experience of responding to outbreaks in low-resource settings is to “use all parts of the animal.” For example: when we replaced or supplemented paper contract tracing with digital data collection, accuracy and reliability were improved thanks to the other “free” capabilities already available with the mobile devices. The global positioning system (GPS) capabilities of the cheap Android phones we used provided exact geolocation coordinates.

Video recording captured and documented complex consent discussions in multiple languages with village chieftains. Training videos could be reviewed on-demand and repeatedly by rapidly-trained workers who were rushing into complex and potentially dangerous situations.

As we spin up our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to apply this type of thinking about the exploitation of native technology features and metadata to telehealth capabilities. Starting with the foundation of privacy-preserving tools and techniques, the IP addresses, duration, and timestamps of telehealth sessions could be used to establish a real-time dashboard of medical consults for every state, region, and town.

Overlaying tokenized COVID-19 test results could provide a view of disease incidence at a city-block level of detail that would improve the certainty of risk determination and treatment recommendations. In low-resource settings, which the United States is quickly becoming, taking a “waste not, want not” approach to technologies and metadata is essential.

Use pre-existing, purpose-built toolsets

Among the most painful lessons from the West African Ebola outbreak were the importance of time and the understanding that smaller interventions deployed earlier would have prevented major systemic stresses later. Many efforts to deliver technology solutions started from scratch and took too long to build and deploy. Amid the demands of the current pandemic, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting these lessons.

There are already specialized, fit-for-purpose toolsets available for infectious disease outbreaks. CommCare by Dimagi, for example, is an open-source Android platform that has COVID-19-specific contact tracing applications and other toolsets ready to deploy. All parties seeking to obtain or deliver technology solutions should consult experts and seek off-the-shelf solutions BEFORE anyone writes a single line of code.

Patients are waiting, and the “when” may be more important than the “how.” Or, in other words: smaller solutions delivered when needed beat grand solutions delivered after the need has passed.

The battle with the current pandemic is being fought in clinics, doctor’s offices, hospitals and via telehealth sessions as I write this, and there is no time to waste. The people on the front lines are our “boots on the ground.” Let’s get them every tool they need as quickly and effectively as we can.

Monitoring is critical to successful AI

By Walter Thompson
Amit Paka Contributor
Amit Paka is co-founder and chief product officer at Fiddler Labs, an explainable AI startup that enables enterprises to deploy and scale risk- and bias-free AI applications.
Krishna Gade Contributor
Krishna Gade is co-founder and CEO at Fiddler Labs, an explainable AI startup that enables enterprises to deploy and scale risk- and bias-free AI applications.

As the world becomes more deeply connected through IoT devices and networks, consumer and business needs and expectations will soon only be sustainable through automation.

Recognizing this, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being rapidly adopted by critical industries such as finance, retail, healthcare, transportation and manufacturing to help them compete in an always-on and on-demand global culture. However, even as AI and ML provide endless benefits — such as increasing productivity while decreasing costs, reducing waste, improving efficiency and fostering innovation in outdated business models — there is tremendous potential for errors that result in unintended, biased results and, worse, abuse by bad actors.

The market for advanced technologies including AI and ML will continue its exponential growth, with market research firm IDC projecting that spending on AI systems will reach $98 billion in 2023, more than two and one-half times the $37.5 billion that was projected to be spent in 2019. Additionally, IDC foresees that retail and banking will drive much of this spending, as the industries invested more than $5 billion in 2019.

These findings underscore the importance for companies that are leveraging or plan to deploy advanced technologies for business operations to understand how and why it’s making certain decisions. Moreover, having a fundamental understanding of how AI and ML operate is even more crucial for conducting proper oversight in order to minimize the risk of undesired results.

Companies often realize AI and ML performance issues after the damage has been done, which in some cases has made headlines. Such instances of AI driving unintentional bias include the Apple Card allowing lower credit limits for women and Google’s AI algorithm for monitoring hate speech on social media being racially biased against African Americans. And there have been far worse examples of AI and ML being used to spread misinformation online through deepfakes, bots and more.

Through real-time monitoring, companies will be given visibility into the “black box” to see exactly how their AI and ML models operate. In other words, explainability will enable data scientists and engineers to know what to look for (a.k.a. transparency) so they can make the right decisions (a.k.a. insight) to improve their models and reduce potential risks (a.k.a. building trust).

But there are complex operational challenges that must first be addressed in order to achieve risk-free and reliable, or trustworthy, outcomes.

5 key operational challenges in AI and ML models

Electric vehicles are changing the future of auto maintenance

By Walter Thompson
Reilly Brennan Contributor
Reilly Brennan is a general partner at Trucks Venture Capital and a lecturer at Stanford.

Moving from internal combustion to electric power does more than reduce tailpipe emissions: it will fundamentally shatter today’s auto maintenance and service sector.

The decline is mathematical. With one-fifth the number of powertrain parts and an almost total elimination of oil (a), the typical automotive dealer will suffer 35% declines in maintenance and service revenue, or roughly $1,300, for an EV versus an internal combustion engine vehicle over a five-year period (b).

But this disruption is not even. Two of the top three maintenance items — oil changes and brake service (24% and 5%, respectively, of all maintenance transactions in the U.S. market) — are reduced or eliminated entirely by the move to EVs (c).

Why are brakes impacted? EVs often use a process called regenerative braking, which slows vehicles down while also saving energy. The reduced wear on pads and rotors is striking: some Toyota Priuses are still operating on their first set of brake pads after more than 100,000 miles of use, whereas you’d normally assume pads would be replaced after about 30,000 miles.

EVs eat tires faster

One of the beneficiaries of electrification will be tires, with multiple positive tailwinds: cars are driven more each year. Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is 3.25 trillion annually in the U.S. and is growing at about 1% year over year. Because consumers are keeping cars longer (11.1 years on average), this results in more replacement tires consumed throughout the ownership period (d,e).

The other significant growth lever for tires is the secondary effect of the powertrain: EVs consume tires at a much higher rate than internal combustion vehicles. They’re heavier and create near-instant torque off the line. You don’t need to hunt for long to find a Tesla owner who’s replaced their tires after a mere 10,000 miles. One of our portfolio companies, Zohr, an on-demand tire replacement service, sees its EV customers coming back for tire replacements 30% more frequently than traditional internal combustion vehicle owners. While EVs have less of a need to visit a service shop, they’ll need tire replacement more often.

Tires are also a key line of defense in maintaining high fleet uptimes. Aperia Technologies, another of our tire investments, can auto-inflate commercial tires from inside the wheel itself. Keeping a tire optimally inflated reduces heating and flexing in the sidewall, a primary cause for blowouts. This prevents severe accidents, expensive road service calls ($600+) and fines for late delivery.

For opportunities in the tire market, we are keeping an eye on convenience and efficiency. But we’re also interested in how that impacts the tire distribution ecosystem. This could translate into a service business (like Zohr, or Costco) white labeling its own tires, offering them on a subscription model or offering a guaranteed uptime policy. We believe this will take hold in both commercial and passenger vehicles, although possibly on different time horizons.

Glass and visibility

The core growth drivers of the glass category are similar to tires (increased VMT and vehicle age). We include all visibility products (windshield glass, wipers, cleaning fluids, headlights and bulbs) in this grouping, as they are increasingly tied to on-board technology like sensors and cameras. As more vehicles add sensors for advanced driver assistance features (ADAS), they won’t operate unless they’re kept clean. One of our companies, Seeva, was designed around visibility and sensor cleaning as a core enabling technology of tomorrow’s vehicles.

Electric vehicles also have more demanding cooling needs. They need to be incredibly efficient when cooling the cabin, careful not to impact vehicle range. The first line of defense against these thermal losses are more efficient glass structures and materials. Coupled with the increasing trend of larger windshields and moonroofs — note Tesla’s Model X panoramic glass costs $2,300 to replace — we’re entering an era of big, beautiful and expensive visibility.

Visibility is one of the most exciting areas for innovation and investment. Frankly, it’s always been a profit center for suppliers like Valeo (which makes things like wiper arms, blades and motors) and chemical companies that sell consumables like washer fluids. Technology is likely to drive down the profits of those traditional areas — consider how a thin film or hard coating might mean fewer sprays of fluid and fewer passes of a wiper blade — but will increase overall the total amount of profit potential across the whole vehicle.

This is due to the far greater surface area we now consider to be the domain of visibility — what used to only mean the windshield and headlights will soon mean dozens of sensors and surfaces that require clear, machine-verified visibility.

The automobile business is highly interdependent, and no more so is this felt than the $500 billion after-service market (f). We expect more big investments across tires and visibility in the years to come. And you can bet that entrepreneurs who previously found fortune in quick lube shops will shift to tires and glass as the market moves beneath them.

Citations:

a) Parts comparison ICE vs EV (P115)
b) AlixPartners
c) NPD study
d) Moving 12-Month Total Vehicle Miles Traveled, U.S. Department of Transportation Traffic Trends
e) IHS Market study on car ownership length
f) Size of after-service market

Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, will join TechCrunch onstage for TC Sessions: Mobility, a one-day conference on May 14, 2020 at the California Theater in San Jose, Calif. that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon.

Optimize employee onboarding to better retain top talent

By Walter Thompson
Kelly Kinnard Contributor
Kelly Kinnard is the VP of talent at Battery Ventures, a global technology investment firm. She is based in San Francisco.

I once showed up for my first day at a new job only to find that my desk hadn’t been cleaned out — or even dusted. I spent my first hours at work finding the kitchen, unearthing cleaning supplies, wiping down my desk and sorting through (aka throwing out) someone else’s files.

How do you think I felt about my decision to take that job? What if I told you this has happened to me at every single tech job I’ve ever taken, at big and small companies? And, incredibly, it keeps happening to new hires at tech startups every day.

Gallup found that only 12% of U.S. employers do a great job of employee onboarding — the rest are lackluster or downright bad.

A good employee onboarding program can improve employee retention by as much as 25% and make new hires 69% more likely to stick with an employer for three years. In an incredibly tight market for hiring tech talent, retention matters a lot. But onboarding is unfortunately an after-thought for busy tech companies today, which are scaling so rapidly, they often think the recruiting process ends once a sought-after hire accepts the offer.

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook can spend lavishly on employee onboarding (in addition to offering sky-high salaries, of course). But any company, big or small, can create a five-star onboarding experience without breaking the bank. Below are some suggestions that can help your company get new employees engaged from their first day — and, most importantly, help them stick around for your startup’s journey.

1. Start the onboarding process before your new hire shows up

Break-even ads can generate free brand awareness

By Walter Thompson
Julian Shapiro Contributor
Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing team that trains startups in advanced growth, helps you hire senior growth marketers and finds you vetted growth agencies. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated many of the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this growth report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of 1,000 startup founders and VPs of growth from later-stage companies. We have 400 YC founders, plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo and Ritual.

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group or marketing training program.

Without further ado, on to our community’s advice.


How Gmail decides which emails go to spam

Will ‘New Retail’ help D2C brands succeed offline?

By Walter Thompson
Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the co-founder of PipeCandy, an online merchant graph company that discovers and analyzes business and consumer perception metrics about D2C brands and e-commerce companies.

In my day job as founder of PipeCandy, where we discover and track online retailers and D2C brands, I speak to founders and the support ecosystems they depend on for growth. The large fashion retailers and leading commercial retail real estate companies vying for the attention of D2C brands take our help in discovering them.

There is so much going on in the “taking D2C brands offline” space that there are companies dedicated to doing just that. But the dynamic is a bit like my kid trying to postpone preparing for exams until the moment of reckoning comes and she realizes that no amount of reading Harry Potter is going to alter reality.

The reason for the existence of Retail as a Service (RaaS) revolves around the premise that wholesale channels are not conducive for D2C brands. The reality, though, is that D2C brands will eventually embrace wholesale. I am unsure where that would leave RaaS.

We explore some inconvenient questions. Retail as a Service is great for brands to test ideas. But are they going to make venture-scale money? Most of these companies run on VC dollars.

Sustainable microgrids are the future of clean energy

By Danny Crichton
Alex Behrens Contributor
Alex is a research analyst and blogger focused on future technologies in transportation, energy, automation, and decentralization. He has experience in data and operations at Fortune 500 companies and tech startups and has been a regular contributor at Seeking Alpha, Spend Matters, Metal Miner, and other publications.

Across the U.S., sustainable microgrids are emerging as a vital tool in the fight against climate change and increasingly common natural disasters. In the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, the traditional energy grid in many parts of the country is struggling to keep the power flowing, causing outages that slow local economies and ultimately put lives at risk.

Microgrids — power installations that are designed to run independently from the wider electricity grid in emergency situations — have been around for decades, but until the turn of the century, relied almost exclusively on fossil fuels to generate power. While it’s taken another 20 years for solar panels and battery storage costs to fall far enough to make truly sustainable microgrids an economic reality, a recent surge in interest and installations have shown that they’ve reached an inflection point and could very well be the future of clean energy.

Take Santa Barbara, where the Unified School District voted unanimously in November to allocate over $500,000 to study and design microgrid installations for schools around the county. A preliminary assessment by the Clean Coalition identified more than 15 megawatts of solar generation potential across 18 school sites.

These solar-plus-battery-storage microgrids would greatly enhance the ability of chosen schools to serve communities during natural disasters or power outages, like the ones induced by California’s PG&E electric utility that affected hundreds of thousands of residents last October. The sites will provide a place to coordinate essential emergency services, store perishable food, and provide residents with light, power, and connectivity in times of distress.

A completed feasibility study for the microgrid installations is expected in June, and while initial estimates put the final cost around $40 million, long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) will allow the school district to have the sites set up for free and paid for over time via its normal electric bill — at a cost no greater than grid power. Agreements like these have only become economically viable in the last few years as renewable energy generation costs have continued to fall, and are a major driver of the microgrid boom.

At the end of January, Scale Microgrid Solutions received a commitment for $300 million in funding from investment firm Warburg Pincus. Microgrids today are typically designed and installed to the unique specifications of individual customers. Scale Microgrid Solutions instead provides modular microgrid infrastructure built using shipping containers that combine solar and battery storage with control equipment and backup gas generation.

These modules enable faster deployment and provide a viable option for customers or institutions seeking microgrid capabilities in the $15 million price range. The first modular microgrids were launched in May 2019 with financing provided by Generate Capital, a financing firm focused on advanced, clean-energy technology investments.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of the country, successive disasters are already proving the value of solar-plus-storage microgrids in Puerto Rico. In 2017, Hurricane Maria catastrophically damaged the centralized electricity grid in the U.S. territory and left many without power for more than a year.

A project funded by the Rocky Mountain Institute, Save The Children, and Kinesis Foundation installed solar-plus-battery-storage microgrids at ten schools in the mountainous central regions of the island, designed to provide energy for on-site libraries, kitchens, and water pumps indefinitely during power outages. The installations were completed in December 2019, just weeks before a series of earthquakes that began in January endangered the island’s already sluggish economic recovery. The RMI Island Energy Program told Microgrid Knowledge that while grid power around several of the sites had gone down, the microgrids had continued to operate successfully and provide critical services.

Microgrids go beyond schools though. Several communities are also linking together solar-and-storage systems mounted on their homes, employing inverters and controllers that have only become efficient and affordable in the last few years to create ‘community microgrids’ that share power among the participants to supplement or replace grid energy.

In January, Australian startup Relectrify closed $4.5 million in Series A funding to continue refining their inverter and battery-management technology that increases battery lifespan by as much as 30 percent while reducing operational costs. Relectrify tech also allows large batteries from electric cars — including Tesla’s wildly popular offerings — to be repurposed after they are no longer reliable enough for use in EVs, opening up an enormous pool of second-hand batteries to be repurposed for growing microgrid storage demand.

Programs like these are attractive not just because they offer resilience and independence from grid power often produced with fossil fuels, but because they are increasingly the cheaper option for energy consumers. Residential retail energy prices in Puerto Rico were as high as 27 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) in 2019, while the calculated cost from home solar-plus-battery-storage systems fell as low as 24 cents in good conditions.

The cost of solar installations has plummeted 90 percent in the past decade according to the research firm Woods Mackenzie. At the same time, the early effects of a warming climate and associated natural disasters have started to take a toll on American energy infrastructure already struggling to keep pace with regular maintenance and demand growth. Impacted communities have already seen the value of microgrids and are racing to adopt them, even as many larger utility providers look to natural gas or other partial solutions that rely on the aging centralized power grid.

The greatest impact of these early sustainable microgrids may reach beyond the emergency power they provide to nearby residents. They offer a glimpse of a radically different way for communities and energy consumers to think about how power is produced and used. In community microgrid systems, residents have a concrete, practical connection to their source of energy and are asked to work together with their friends and neighbors to control their energy demand so there is enough to go around.

Such a system stands in stark contrast to the power grid of today, where peak demand facilities are routinely called upon to burn some of the most environmentally harmful fuels to accommodate demand with few if any social or technological limitations. Sustainable microgrids are finally becoming truly affordable, and in the process are beginning to change the way we think about energy consumption and resilience.

GM reveals ‘Ultium,’ the heart of its EV strategy

By Kirsten Korosec
Ed Niedermeyer Contributor
Ed Niedermeyer is an author, columnist and co-host of The Autonocast. His book, Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, was released in August 2019.

GM revealed Wednesday a new electric architecture that will be the foundation of the automaker’s future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover that will come to market next summer.

This modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front, rear and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also on Wednesday showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced or revealed in public, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq.

The Celestiq will be hand-built in the Detroit area, GM President Mark Reuss said, joining a large electric SUV in Cadillac’s future lineup. A pair of future Buick crossovers showed that brand’s styling moving in a decidedly Tesla-inspired direction, while a mid-sized Chevrolet crossover hinted at a more affordable option in GM’s otherwise premium-focused future EV lineup.

Using a single architecture for such a wide variety of vehicles provides much-needed scale and capital-efficiency to what has been a small-volume and profitability-challenged EV market. GM sees this scale driving reductions in the cost and complexity of its battery packs, eliminating 80% of the pack wiring compared to the current Chevrolet Bolt and enabling it to drive battery cell costs below the $100/kWh level.

At the heart of the new modular architecture will be large-format pouch battery cells manufactured as part of a joint manufacturing venture between LG Chem and GM. The companies announced in December plans to mass produce battery cells for GM’s electric vehicles at a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

While the automaker has used LG Chem as a lithium-ion and electronics supplier for at least a decade, the joint venture marks a shift that aims to accelerate the automaker’s ability to win in the electric vehicle space.

GM’s relationship with LG Chem has produced a new Nickel Cobalt Manganese Aluminium (NCMA) battery cell, which the automaker says will have the lowest cobalt content of any large-format pouch cell. The flat, rectangular pouch cells allow GM to stack batteries vertically, enabling more packaging flexibility and interior space than the cylindrical cells favored by Tesla, Rivian and others.

GM and LG Chem will break ground on the new $2.3 billion joint venture plant this spring, where they will have annual production capacity of 30 gigawatt hours of these cells, with room to expand. The two firms said they will work together to eventually drive all cobalt and nickel out of its cell chemistries, develop electrolyte additives that heal cell degradation and explore solid-state cell options.

The initial wave of electric vehicles from GM will be led by an updated version of the Chevrolet Bolt later this year, followed by a Bolt EUV crossover next summer that will be the first vehicle outside of the Cadillac brand to feature the hands-free SuperCruise driver assistance system. GM will reveal two new premium electric SUVs later this year, the GMC HUMMER EV that will begin production in 2021 and the Cadillac Lyriq, which will follow it to market in 2022.

GM’s new EV architecture enables Level 2 and DC fast charging, with up to 100 miles of range available in the first 10 minutes of charging. But rather than launching its own in-house fast-charging network, GM is aggregating public charger networks like ChargePoint and EVgo into its myChevrolet mobile app and enabling in-app payment at EVgo chargers. GM is also partnering with Qmerit to provide accredited home charger installation, because 80% of EV customers charge at home, the company said.

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