French startup Qwant, whose non-tracking search engine has been gaining traction in its home market as a privacy-respecting alternative to Google, has made a change to its senior leadership team as it gears up for the next phase of growth.
Former Mozilla Europe president, Tristan Nitot, who joined Qwant last year as VP of advocacy, has been promoted to chief executive, taking over from François Messager — who also joined in 2018 but is now leaving the business. Qwant co-founder, Eric Leandri, meanwhile, continues in the same role as president.
Nitot, an Internet veteran who worked at Netscape and helped to found Mozilla Europe in 1998, where he later served as president and stayed until 2015 before leaving to write a book on surveillance, brings a wealth of experience in product and comms roles, as well as open source.
Most recently he spent several years working for personal cloud startup, Cozy Cloud.
“I’m basically here to help [Leandri] grow the company and structure the company,” Nitot tells TechCrunch, describing Qwant’s founder as an “amazing entrepreneur, audacious and visionary”.
Market headwinds have been improving for the privacy-focused Google rival in recent years as concern about foreign data-mining tech giants has stepped up in Europe.
Last year the French government announced it would be switching its search default from Google to Qwant. Buying homegrown digital tech now apparently seen as a savvy product choice as well as good politics.
Meanwhile antitrust attention on dominant search giant Google, both at home and abroad, has led to policy shifts that directly benefit search rivals — such as an update of the default lists baked into its chromium engine which was quietly put out earlier this year.
That behind the scenes change saw Qwant added as an option for users in the French market for the first time. (On hearing the news a sardonic Leandri thanked Google — but suggested Qwant users choose Firefox or the Brave browser for a less creepy web browsing experience.)
“A lot of companies and institutions have decided and have realized basically that they’ve been using a search engine which is not European. Which collects data. Massively. And that makes them uncomfortable,” says Nitot. “They haven’t made a conscious decision about that. Because they bring in a computer which has a browser which has a search engine in it set by default — and in the end you just don’t get to choose which search engine your people use, right.
“And so they’re making a conscious decision to switch to Qwant. And we’ve been spending a lot of time and energy on that — and it’s paying off big time.”
As well as the French administration’s circa 3M desktops being switched by default to Qwant (which it expects will be done this quarter), the pro-privacy search engine has been getting traction from other government departments and regional government, as well as large banks and schools, according to Nitot.
He credits a focus on search products for schoolkids with generating momentum, such as Qwant Junior, which is designed for kids aged 6-12, and excludes sex and violence from search results as well as being ad free. (It’s set to get an update in the next few weeks.) It has also just been supplemented by Qwant School: A school search product aimed at 13-17 year olds.
“All of that creates more users — the kids talk to their parents about Qwant Junior, and the parents install Qwant.com for them. So there’s a lot of momentum creating that growth,” Nitot suggests.
Qwant says it handled more than 18 billion search requests in 2018.
A growing business needs money to fuel it of course. So fundraising efforts involving convertible bonds is one area Nitot says he’ll be focused on in the new role. “We are raising money,” he confirms.
Increasing efficiency — especially on the engineering front — is another key focus for the new CEO.
“The rest will be a focus on the organization, per se, how we structure the organization. How we evolve the company culture. To enable or to improve delivery of the engineering team, for example,” he says. “It’s not that it’s bad it’s just that we need to make sure every dollar or every euro we invest gives as much as possible in return.”
Product wise, Nitot’s attention in the near term will be directed towards shipping a new version of Qwant’s search engine that will involve reengineering core tech to improve the quality of results.
“What we want to do [with v2] is to improve the quality of the results,” he says of the core search product. “You won’t be able to notice any difference, in terms of quality, with the other really good search engines that you may use — except that you know that your privacy is respected by Qwant.
“[As we raise more funding] we will be able to have a lot more infrastructure to run better and more powerful algorithms. And so we plan to improve that internationally… Every language will benefit from the new search engine. It’s also a matter of money and infrastructure to make this work on a web scale. Because the web is huge and it’s growing.
“The new version includes NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology… for understanding language, for understanding intentions — for example do you want to buy something or are you looking for a reference… or a place or a thing. That’s the kind of thing we’re putting in place but it’s going to improve a lot for every language involved.”
Western Europe will be the focus for v2 of the search engine, starting with French, German, Italian, Spanish and English — with a plan to “go beyond that later on”.
Nitot also says there will also be staggered rollouts (starting with France), with Qwant planning to run old and new versions in parallel to quality check the new version before finally switching users over.
“Shipping is hard as we used to say at Mozilla,” he remarks, refusing to be fixed to a launch date for v2 (beyond saying it’ll arrive in “less than a year”). “It’s a universal rule; shipping a new product is hard, and that’s what we want to do with version 2… I’ve been writing software since 1980 and so I know how predictions are when it comes to software release dates. So I’m very careful not to make promises.”
Developing more of its own advertising technologies is another focus for Qwant. On this front the aim is to improve margins by leaning less on partners like Microsoft .
“We’ve been working with partners until now, especially on the search engine result pages,” says Nitot. “We put Microsoft advertising on it. And our goal is to ramp up advertising technologies so that we rely on our own technologies — something that we control. And that hopefully will bring a better return.”
Like Google, Qwant monetizes searches by serving ads alongside results. But unlike Google these are contextual ads, meaning they are based on general location plus the substance of the search itself; rather than targeted ads which entail persistent tracking and profiling of Internet users in order to inform the choice of ad (hence feeling like ads are stalking you around the Internet).
Serving contextual ads is a choice that lets Qwant offer a credible privacy pledge that Mountain View simply can’t match.
Yet up until 2006 Google also served contextual ads, as Nitot points out, before its slide into privacy-hostile microtargeting. “It’s a good old idea,” he argues of contextual ads. “We’re using it. We think it really is a valuable idea.”
Qwant is also working on privacy-sensitive ad tech. One area of current work there is personalization. It’s developing a client-side, browser-based encrypted data store, called Masq, that’s intended to store and retrieve application data through a WebSocket connection. (Here’s the project Masq Github page.)
“Because we do not know the person that’s using the product it’s hard to make personalization of course. So we plan to do personalization of the product on the client side,” he explains. “Which means the server side will have no more details than we currently do, but on the client side we are producing something which is open source, which stores data locally on your device — whether that’s a laptop or smartphone — in the browser, it is encrypted so that nobody can reuse it unless you decide that you want that to happen.
“And it’s open source so that it’s transparent and can be audited and so that people can trust the technology because it runs on their own device, it stores on their device.”
“Right now it’s at alpha stage,” Nitot adds of Masq, declining to specify when exactly it might be ready for a wider launch.
The new CEO’s ultimate goal for Qwant is to become the search engine for Europe — a hugely ambitious target that remains far out of reach for now, with Google still commanding in excess of 90% regional marketshare. (A dominance that has got its business embroiled in antitrust hot water in Europe.)
Yet the Internet of today is not the same as the Internet of yesterday when Netscape was a browsing staple — until Internet Explorer knocked it off its perch after Microsoft bundled its rival upstart as the default browser on Windows. And the rest, as they say, is Internet history.
Much has changed and much is changing. But abuses of market power are an old story. And as regulators act against today’s self-interested defaults there are savvy alternatives like Qwant primed and waiting to offer consumers a different kind of value.
“Qwant is created in Europe for the European citizens with European values,” says Nitot. “Privacy being one of these values that are central to our mission. It is not random that the CNIL — the French data protection authority — was created in France in 1978. It was the first time that something like that was created. And then GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] was created in Europe. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a matter of values and the way people see their life and things around them, politics and all that. We have a very deep concern about privacy in France. It’s written in the European declaration of human rights.
“We build a product that reflects those values — so it’s appealing to European users.”
After 13 years at the helm of video advertising company Eyeview, founder Oren Harnevo is stepping down as CEO.
The company’s new chief executive is Rob Deichert, who was most recently COO at digital advertising company 33Across. The company is also announcing two other new hires — Sean Simon as senior vice president of sales and Risa Crandell as vice president of sales.
Harnevo, meanwhile, will remain on Eyeview’s board of directors.
“It’s been a long and incredible ride for the last 13 years since I co-founded Eyeview, and I feel it’s time to let a new leader help propel Eyeview to its next chapter,” he said in a statement. “2019 has been a great year for Eyeview. With strong revenue growth, and seasoned additions to our leadership team, it’s the perfect time to bring on [ad] industry veterans like Rob, Sean and Risa to accelerate our business as I depart to work on my next venture while supporting Eyeview on the board of directors.”
Deichert acknowledged that it can be challenging to step into the shoes of a company’s founder, but he said he consulted with Harnevo before taking the job.
“I was just emailing with him today,” he added. “He’s going to be a great partner going forward.”
Deichert also said he has a standard on-boarding process when he joins a new company, which involves holding 30-minute, one-on-one meetings with every single person. (In this case, that means holding nearly 100 meetings.)
And while Eyeview has been around for more than a decade, Deichert suggested that there’s still plenty of room for its “outcome-based video marketing” (its specialty is video ads that are personalized based on viewer data) to grow.
In particular, he predicted that as direct-to-consumer brands are “maxing out on Facebook,” they’ll start turning back to traditional ad channels like television. With Eyeview, they can do that without losing the measurement and customization of online video.
Andreessen Horowitz has led a $15 million Series A in US-based job matching platform for nursing vacancies, Incredible Health. Other investors in the funding round include NFX, Obvious Ventures, Precursor Ventures and Gingerbread Capital. To date the recruitment startup has raised a total of $17M.
The California startup’s pitch to nursing professionals and hospitals is faster and more efficient hiring via proprietary matching algorithms which replace the need for hospitals to manually sift applications. Instead the platform matches job seekers to nursing vacancies based on criteria supplied by both sides of its network.
Why focus on nurses? The startup cites a statistical claim that by 2024 the US will have a shortage of a million nurses — which it argues poses a risk of financial loss to hospitals, as contractors cost more to employ, while also contending that a growing number of unfilled nursing vacancies risks the quality of care hospitals are able to offer patients.
It launched its recruitment platform in late 2017 and has so far limited its range to California, with 150+ hospitals in the region signed up and an undefined “thousands” of nurses on board.
The Series A funding will be going towards accelerating national scaling in the US.
As well as VC backers, Incredible Health’s Series A includes participation from a number of individual investors hailing from the hiring space — including Hired founder, Matt Mickiewicz; Steve Goodman, founder of Bright.com (acquired by LinkedIn); and Pete Kazanjy, founder of Talentbin (acquired by Monster) .
“We look at at least 40-50 different criteria, including location preferences, licenses and skills,” says co-founder and CEO Iman Abuzeid who has a background as a medical doctor. Her co-founder and CTO, Rome Portlock, who comes from a family of nurses, is an MIT alum — where he studied computer science.
“We work with each hospital individually to understand their key needs so we can customize their algorithms, enabling personalized matches that don’t waste the recruiter’s time,” Abuzeid adds. “We also find out the nurse’s preferences through automated methods.
“At the end of the day, a hospital recruiter or hiring executive does not want to see 200 candidates in their app, they want to see 12 that are the right fit. Same with the nurses — they don’t want to hear from 76 employers, they want to hear from three that are the right fit.”
Incredible Health’s claim for its approach is that it yields 3x faster recruitment vs the national average — saying hires via its platform take 30 days or less instead of up to 90 days on average.
It also makes a further claim of 25x “hiring efficiency” for hospitals as a consequence of its matching algorithms taking over much of the hiring admin. This is based on data from hospitals which, prior to using its platform, had to review an average of 500 applicants to fill a single position vs the matching tech cutting that to an average of just 20.
Nurses don’t apply to jobs on Incredible Health’s platform; it’s up to hospitals to apply to nursing professionals the algorithm deems a suitable match for a job vacancy.
Hospitals can’t browse all available nurses; they only see candidates the algorithm selects for them — so, as with nurses, they’re trading wider visibility of the job market for algorithmic matches based on non-disclosed “proprietary” criteria.
Incredible Health sells that reduction of agency as an efficiency saving to both sides of its network.
“Rather than completing an application for every potential employer — a process which takes an average of 45 minutes per application — nurses who use Incredible Health complete one profile — a process that takes less than 5 minutes. That profile is then used to screen and custom-match them to multiple great job opportunities,” says Abuzeid, adding when asked about criteria that nurses have to provide “data like their job preferences, experience and skill set, and also their education and licensing” as part of the onboarding profile-building process.
For nurses this load-lightening switch from active jobseeker to passive platform lurker — i.e. once they’ve created their profile — is how Incredible Health hopes to woo healthcare workers away from traditional job boards (such as specialist nursing vacancies board Indeed).
Its marketing thus leans heavily on claims that nurses just need to spend a few minutes creating a profile and then watch as the great job offers to roll in.
It also claims nurses who find employment through its two-sided platform score on average a 17% salary increase and a 15% reduction in commute time.
Though all these figures are derived from an unknown number of nurses working across a subset of hospitals in a single US state — so it remains to be seen how claimed perks get squeezed as the platform scales its national range and necessarily opens up to a wider pipeline of nursing professionals.
For now, Incredible Health also says its focus is on building a career marketplace for nursing professionals to connect them with “permanent, well-paid hospital jobs”, rather than dealing with travel and temp nurses.
Again, whether it’s able to maintain focus on what one investor calls “high value health care workers” and the claimed high quality permanent jobs as the business scales will also be one to watch.
Commenting on the Series A, Andreessen Horowitz managing partner Jeff Jordan told us: “Incredible Health’s mission is to help health care professionals live better lives and do their best work. They’ve seen strong early success helping to match these health care professionals with hospitals throughout California, and are beginning to expand their solution nationally. We look forward to supporting their efforts to building a game-changing health care employment marketplace.”
Part of the funding will go on expanding from a pure hiring platform — to what the startup bills as a “community for health care professionals as they advance their careers” — in a clear bid to nurture and expand its candidate pool so it can be responsive to platform needs.
“High caliber nurses are out there, but employers have a hard time hiring them through traditional methods like job boards and recruiting agencies because those methods rely almost exclusively on human engagement — not technology — to scour through applications, licenses and experience — and manually vet and qualify them for jobs,” Abuzeid tells TechCrunch, dubbing the job-board competition “outdated methods”.
As well as offering a “streamlined” hiring process for nursing roles, as she puts it, she notes the platform automates “entire parts of the screening and vetting process” — meaning “we’re able to deliver high-quality nurses at scale”.
That said, there’s still manual work involved — with the startup noting on its website that staff may contact nurses to “make sure you’re presenting yourself in the best way possible to top hospitals”, as well as telling hospitals that candidates are pre-screened for “licenses, experience, responsiveness, and more” (though at least some, if not all, of that vetting is automated).
Like any platform startup, Incredible Health is hoping to channel network effects to its advantage — including by feeding data back in to improve matching algorithms.
“Our system gets more effective the more who use it,” Abuzeid tells us. “The first [effect] is a traditional marketplace network effect: More nurses has attracted more hospitals, and more hospitals has attracted more nurses. And then, there’s the data network effect: The more each side uses it, the ‘smarter’ our algorithms get, too.”
Each hospital onboarded onto the platform brings with it a range of needs “advancing our system’s performance abilities”, she adds.
While algorithmic recruitment can clearly speed up the business of matching candidates to relevant jobs — a factor evident in the sheer number of job matching startups now playing in different sectors — it inevitably entails a loss of control for both sides of the employer-applicant divide.
Depending on matching criteria used there could be potential for gender and/or racial bias to creep into automated selections — bias that would be difficult for hospitals to detect since they’re only able to view a subset of candidates deemed a match, rather than the entire available pool at the time.
However Abuzeid dismisses the idea that there’s any risk of bias in Incredible Health’s approach.
“We operate successfully in a very regulated industry,” she says. “Because potential employees are assessed on their skills, experience and certifications, the technology weeds out biases typically found in processes which are largely human-powered.”
On the business model front, Incredible Health is charging hospitals what it bills as a “simple, flat fee pricing regardless of level, experience or location” — which it touts as “cheaper and more scalable than traditional recruiting agencies”.
“Traditional recruiting agencies are very expensive, because they don’t use technology in their screening and matching processes. It’s all people powered and can cost $20,000-$30,000 per single hire,” Abuzeid claims.
As for rival (lower fee) legacy job boards, she argues they offer “quantity, not quality and require lots of work for nurses and employers to find a good fit” — claiming this old school method results in “really low hiring rates at 0.2%”.
Mark Hurd, one of two CEOs leading the database software giant Oracle, is taking a leave of absence owing to health reasons, he told employees in a letter today. Oracle has not specified what Hurd’s health issue is or how long he is expected to be away.
Hurd joined Oracle nine years ago, after spending five years with Hewlett-Packard where he was CEO, president, and, ultimately, board chairman, all roles from which he was pressured to resign in 2010 after submitting inaccurate expense reports designed to conceal what H-P described at the time as his “close personal relationship” with a female contractor who helped with H-P’s marketing.
The news shocked many outsiders given Hurd’s performance, which saw the shares of H-P double on his watch, though the board suggested that it had little choice after the contractor’s lawyer, celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, contacted the company, charging sexual harassment. (“This was a necessary decision,” said then-director Marc Andreessen at the time.)
Hurd left with $12,224,693 in severance. The very next month, Larry Ellison, a friend of Hurd, named him the co-president of Oracle, the company Ellison had himself founded in the summer of 1977. Said then-CEO Ellison in a statement relating to the move, “Mark did a brilliant job at H-P, and I expect he’ll do even better at Oracle. There is no executive in the I.T. world with more relevant experience than Mark.”
Indeed, when Ellison stepped down as the CEO of Oracle in 2014 to become the company’s chief technology officer instead, he promoted to Hurd to the role of CEO, a role he has since shared with Oracle’s former CFO, Safra Catz.
With Hurd’s departure for now, Catz will become the sole CEO of Oracle. Ellison, who remains the company’s CTO, is also expected to take on some of Hurd’s responsibilities, says CNBC.
Hurd, who attended Baylor University in Waco, Tex., on a tennis scholarship and reportedly dabbled on the professional tennis circuit immediately after graduating, began his career at NCR Corp., where he was promoted to chief operating officer 22 years into his tenure with the company, and to the role of CEO the following year, in 2003.
Two years later, H-P brought him aboard.
In at statement today, Ellison tried to reassure Oracle investors, writing that “Oracle has an extremely capable CEO in Safra Catz and an extraordinarily deep team of executives, many with long tenure at Oracle.” Added Catz, “Mark was extremely engaged with the business through the end of our just completed Q1, but now Mark needs to focus on his health.”
Oracle released its quarterly financial results as it announced Hurd’s departure, revealing that it missed Wall Street estimates slightly. The stock, which fell 2.7 percent in after-hours trading, has recovered as of this writing.
This story is developing. In the meantime, Hurd’s full note to employees follows:
To all my friends and colleagues at Oracle,
Though we all worked hard together to close the first quarter, I’ve decided that I need to spend time focused on my health. At my request, the Board of Directors has granted me a medical leave of absence. As you all know, Larry, Safra and I have worked together as a strong team, and I have great confidence that they and the entire executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we will showcase at the upcoming OpenWorld.
I love Oracle and wish you all success during my absence.
Brexit has taken over discourse in the UK and beyond. In the UK alone, it is mentioned over 500 million times a day, in 92 million conversations — and for good reason. While the UK has yet to leave the EU, the impact of Brexit has already rippled through industries all over the world. The UK’s technology sector is no exception. While innovation endures in the midst of Brexit, data reveals that innovative companies are losing the ability to attract people from all over the world and are suffering from a substantial talent leak.
It is no secret that the UK was already experiencing a talent shortage, even without the added pressure created by today’s political landscape. Technology is developing rapidly and demand for tech workers continues to outpace supply, creating a fiercely competitive hiring landscape.
The shortage of available tech talent has already created a deficit that could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth by 2028, stifling innovation. Now, with Brexit threatening the UK’s cosmopolitan tech landscape — and the economy at large — we may soon see international tech talent moving elsewhere; in fact, 60% of London businesses think they’ll lose access to tech talent once the UK leaves the EU.
So, how can UK-based companies proactively attract and retain top tech talent to prevent a Brexit brain drain? UK businesses must ensure that their hiring funnels are a top priority and focus on understanding what matters most to tech talent beyond salary, so that they don’t lose out to US tech hubs.
Uber has laid off 435 employees across its product and engineering teams, the company announced today. Combined, the layoffs represent about 8% of the organization, with 170 people leaving the product team and 265 people leaving the engineering team.
The layoffs had no effect on Eats, which is one of Uber’s top-performing products, and Freight, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Meanwhile, the company is lifting the hiring freeze on the product and engineering teams that has been in effect since early August, according to the source.
“Our hope with these changes is to reset and improve how we work day to day — ruthlessly prioritizing, and always holding ourselves accountable to a high bar of performance and agility,” an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch. “While certainly painful in the moment, especially for those directly affected, we believe that this will result in a much stronger technical organization, which going forward will continue to hire some of the very best talent around the world.”
Of those laid off, more than 85% are based in the U.S.; 10% are in Asia-Pacific and 5% are in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to the source.
The layoffs came after Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi asked every member of his executive leadership team if they were to start from scratch, would their respective organizations look the way they do today?
“After careful consideration, our Engineering and Product leaders concluded the answer to this question in many respects was ‘no,’ ” the spokesperson said.
Those leaders are Chief Product Officer Manik Gupta and CTO Thuan Pham. They looked at team size, identified duplicate roles and overlapping work, as well as individual performance to determine who would be laid off, the source said. That’s how they landed on focusing more on the design and research teams from the product side.
“Previously, to meet the demands of a hyper-growth startup, we hired rapidly and in a decentralized way,” the spokesperson said. “While this worked for Uber in the past, now that we have over 27,000 full-time employees in cities around the world, we need to shift how we design our organizations: lean, exceptionally high-performing teams, with clear mandates and the ability to execute faster than our competitors.”
These layoffs come shortly after Uber laid off 400 people from its marketing team. In Q2 2019, Uber lost more than $5 billion — its biggest quarterly revenue loss to date — though a chunk of its losses were a result of stock-based compensation expenses for employees following the company’s IPO in May. While it may seem these layoffs are in response to those quarterly losses, Uber says the conversations have been ongoing.
As Uber lays off its W-2 employees, it’s simultaneously investing in ensuring its 1099 independent contractors remain classified in that way. In light of gig worker protection bill AB-5 advancing through the California legislature, Uber, along with Lyft and DoorDash, put $30 million toward a 2020 ballot initiative that would enable them to keep their drivers as independent contractors. If AB-5 passes, Uber would see a significant uptick in costs.
Uber is currently trading at $33.14 per share, well below its IPO pricing of $45.
Here’s Uber’s full statement:
Our CEO has asked everyone on our management team a simple but important question: if we started from scratch, would we design our organizations as they stand today? After careful consideration, our Engineering and Product leaders concluded the answer to this question in many respects was no. Previously, to meet the demands of a hyper-growth startup, we hired rapidly and in a decentralized way.
While this worked for Uber in the past, now that we have over 27,000 full-time employees in cities around the world, we need to shift how we design our organizations: lean, exceptionally high-performing teams, with clear mandates and the ability to execute faster than our competitors.
Today, we’re making some changes to get us back on track, which include reducing the size of some teams to ensure we are staffed appropriately against our top priorities. These were incredibly difficult calls as it means some of our employees no longer have a role, specifically around 170 people in our Product group and 265 people in Engineering, which is roughly 8 percent of those two orgs.
Our hope with these changes is to reset and improve how we work day to day—ruthlessly prioritizing, and always holding ourselves accountable to a high bar of performance and agility. While certainly painful in the moment, especially for those directly affected, we believe that this will result in a much stronger technical organization, which going forward will continue to hire some of the very best talent around the world.
This fall, nearly half a million international students will begin or return to STEM degree programs at U.S. colleges and universities. If you’re among them, congratulations — look forward to being wooed by talent-hungry U.S. tech firms when you graduate. But there’s bad news, too: Under current immigration rules, switching from a student visa to an employment visa can be tricky, so it’s important to understand what’s required and how the latest policy upheavals could impact your journey.
In theory, it’s a great time to be a STEM graduate. U.S. STEM jobs are expected to grow by nearly 11% — or about 10.3 million positions — between 2016 and 2026, faster than all U.S. occupations. In practice, however, it can be tough for international students to secure permanent residence in the United States. The H-1B skilled-worker visa system is badly clogged; a federal lawsuit could slam the door on many STEM graduates, and the White House is shaking up both the skilled-worker and student visa systems.
But don’t despair: There’s still a pathway to a future in the United States — you just might face a bumpy ride. Whether you’re starting your studies or preparing to graduate, it’s crucial to understand your options.
An employment-based green card requires an executive-level job, a truly extraordinary résumé, or an employer willing to pony up thousands of dollars in fees and labor-certification costs. Because it’s hard to get a green card, most international STEM students aim for an H-1B visa, which lets you work for a specified U.S. employer for up to six years. It’s not a permanent solution, but it can be a useful launchpad for your career.
Even getting an H-1B isn’t easy, though. There’s a hard cap on H-1Bs: This year, there were more than 200,000 applicants vying for just 85,000 visas. Recipients are selected via lottery, and while you could land an H-1B on your first attempt, many tech workers have to try again — and again, and again — before they finally get lucky.
In the meantime, international students typically start out using the temporary work authorization through their student visa until they transfer to an H-1B.
Let’s dig into the details of what’s allowed under your student visa:
The F-1 student visa is one of the main on-ramps to the U.S. tech sector for foreign-born workers. That’s largely thanks to Bush- and Obama-era changes that expanded the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows F-1 holders to work at American companies after graduating, from 12 to 36 months.
Graduates with multiple STEM degrees (such as a bachelor’s and master’s degrees) can also chain together their OPT periods, working for up to six years in total before switching to another visa. That’s great news because each year of OPT is another chance to play the H-1B lottery, increasing your odds of winning a visa.
To use OPT, you’ll need to get a work permit (“Employment Authorization Document,” or EAD) as you near graduation. You’ll also need to file for visa extensions in order to make the most of your OPT entitlement.
Similar to the F-1, the J-1 visa is designed for students involved in cultural exchange programs or who receive substantial funding from governments or institutions.
As a J-1 student, you won’t get OPT but 18 months of Academic Training (AT). Any internships or jobs you take during your studies will count toward your AT allotment, so it’s possible to finish your degree with less than 18 months of work authorization remaining. And while a second 18-month AT period is available for postdoctoral research, there’s no automatic extension for STEM degree holders: Once your 18 months are up, you’ll need to leave the United States.
There’s another catch: Many J-1 visas come with a home residency requirement (HRR), requiring holders to return to their home country for two years before seeking a work-based or family-sponsored U.S. visa — that or apply for an HRR waiver.
The M-1 visa is used by students at technical and vocational schools, not academic programs. As student visas go, it’s very restrictive: You won’t be able to work off-campus and can’t work for more than six months. You also won’t be able to switch to an F-1 visa and won’t find it easy to transition to an H-1B. If you hope to stay in the United States long-term, think carefully about whether an M-1 is right for you.
If you don’t have a job offer, there are other ways to stay in the United States after finishing your studies. One popular option is to enter a graduate program: Getting a master’s degree could extend your student visa by a year or two, while upgrading to a PhD program could get you several additional years. In fact, an advanced U.S. degree under your belt effectively doubles your chances of getting an H-1B in the same lottery.
If you can’t find work and don’t want to keep studying, you’ll need existing family ties to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). If you’re the direct relative of one (for example, a spouse or child), then things are relatively easier: You have a clear path toward a family-based green card, allowing you to live and work permanently in the United States. That’s true even if you’ve become a family member through marriage: You’ll be able to obtain a marriage-based green card more quickly and easily than an H-1B or other employment-based green cards.
If you’re the spouse or child of someone on a temporary visa, such as an H-1B or O-1 visa holder, you can usually obtain a dependent’s visa. Such visas often allow you to study, but you won’t qualify for OPT after graduating. It’s also getting harder for H4 visa holders to obtain work permits, so don’t count on using a dependent’s visa to launch your career in Silicon Valley. In many cases, OPT is still a better springboard to an H-1B or green card.
If the person who claims you as a dependent applies for permanent residence, you may be able to get a green card through “derivative” benefits, meaning their green card eligibility trickles down to you.
Whatever immigration status you currently have or want to get, you’ll need to plan ahead. In some cases, you might need to start planning your next step almost as soon as you begin your studies, in order to make sure you aren’t left without a valid visa.
Whatever your plans, remember that immigration rules are constantly changing — and seldom in ways that benefit new immigrants. If you can, file your visa or green card application right away to avoid nasty surprises.
It’s important not only to understand your current visa but also to recognize that the U.S. immigration system is in flux — and many of the planned changes spell bad news even for immigrants with advanced degrees and vitally needed skills.
The new public charge rule, for instance, will make it harder to get a green card if you’ve used public benefits and allows the U.S. government to deny your application if they suspect you’ll fall on hard times in the future. For STEM grads with solid job offers, that might not seem like a major concern, but the new rule will apply even to those on temporary visas, including H-1Bs, who wish to extend or change their immigration status. At the least, it’s a sign of how much harder the immigration process is getting.
The Trump administration is also targeting students with a new “unlawful presence” rule that imposes tough punishments for minor violations of student visa terms. Fortunately, the rule is tied up in court, but if it goes through, it could lead to lengthy bans on future work visas if you overstay on your student visa, work in ways that aren’t authorized, or otherwise fail to play by the rules.
Such changes underscore the importance of doing your own due diligence and not simply relying on your college or employer to steer you right. Figuring out your immigration options can feel overwhelming — but as the many thousands of foreign-born STEM graduates who’ve successfully built careers in the United States can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.
Have a question about the complex and shifting immigration process? Boundless can help. Please send your immigration-related questions to our resident immigration expert, Anjana Prasad, at email@example.com. We will consider your question for a future column on the Boundless blog.
According to the official announcement, this is a new position reporting directly to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. Stankey will take on the new position on October 1 while continuing to serve as WarnerMedia CEO.
“Now is the time to more tightly align our collection of world-class content, scaled consumer relationships, technical know-how and innovative advertising technology,” Stephenson said in a statement. He also described Stankey — who’s been at AT&T since 1985 — as “an outstanding executive who has led nearly every area of our business, helped shape our strategy and excelled at operations throughout his career.”
The company also announced that Jeff McElfresh will become CEO of AT&T Communications, replacing John Donovan, who is retiring. (FYI: TechCrunch is owned by AT&T competitor Verizon.)
These shifts come as WarnerMedia is preparing to launch its big streaming play HBO Max next year. The service will include HBO proper, along with other streaming content. It also comes after some notable departures at WarnerMedia, including HBO’s Richard Plepler and Kevin Tsujihara of Warner Bros.
Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Calm, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Slack, Uber, WeWork, and Zeus Living sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.
This week’s edition features two finance experts with experience from Calm, AdRoll, Morgan Stanley, Change.org, Zeus Living, and Duda. Listen in as they unpack how to build a career in finance at a tech startup and how founders should be thinking about hiring and managing this function.
Stephanie Hsiung is the CFO of Duda, a new and exciting enterprise website builder. Prior to taking the CFO role at Duda, Stephanie served as the VP of Finance at Calm, the leading meditation and mental wellness app and recent unicorn. She was also previously the VP of Finance at Change.org, and was at AdRoll before that.
Mark Kang is the Head of Finance at Zeus Living, which is one of the fastest-growing providers of furnished housing for business travelers. He brings experience from venture capital, banking at Morgan Stanley, where he managed IPOs, and also spent time at Barclays.
Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of tech, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.
Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.
Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies building stuff people need, solutions to very hard problems. Companies he’s invested in include Andela, Clearbit, Kudi, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Solugen, and Vicarious Surgical.
If you’re interested in starting or accelerating your marketing career, or how to hire and manage this function, you can’t miss this episode!
The Operators features insiders from companies like Airbnb, Brex, Calm, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Slack, Uber, WeWork, and Zeus Living sharing their stories and tips on how to break into fields like marketing and product management. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs on how to hire and manage experts from domains outside their own.
In Episode 6, we’re talking about finance. Neil interviews Stephanie Hsiung, the CFO of Duda, a new and exciting enterprise website builder, and Mark Kang, the Head of Finance at Zeus Living, one of the fastest-growing providers of furnished housing for business travelers.
Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to the Operators, where we talk to entrepreneurs and executives from leading technology companies like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Calm about how to break into a new field, how to build a successful career, and how to hire and manage talent beyond your own expertise.
We skip over the lofty prognostications from venture capitalists and storytime with founders to dig into the nuts and bolts of how it all works. Hear from the people doing the real day to day work, the people who make it all happen, the people who know what it really takes… The Operators.
Today we’re talking to two finance experts with experience in investment banking and billion-dollar tech startups. I’m your host, Neil Devani and we’re coming to you from Digital Garage here in downtown San Francisco.
Joining me today is Stephanie Hsiung, CFO of Duda, an enterprise website builder, and formerly the VP of finance at Calm, the leading meditation and mental wellness app. She was also the VP of Finance at Change.org and AdRoll before that.
Also joining us is Mark Kang, Head of Finance at Zeus Living, a rising provider of furnished housing for business travels. They have 1400 homes under management in four major metro areas. Mark has experience as a venture capitalist as well and was previously a banker at Morgan Stanley and Barclays. Stephanie and Mark, thank you for joining us.
Stephanie Hsiung: Thank you for having us.
Mark Kang: Yes, thanks for having us.
John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, announced today his plans to retire effective October 1, 2019. Donovan has for the past two years led AT&T’s largest business unit, which services 100 million mobile, broadband and pay-TV customers in the U.S., as well as millions of business customers, including nearly all the Fortune 1000.
The news comes amid several big changes in that business unit itself, and more in the broader telecom industry.
For starters, AT&T had just rebranded its over-the-top streaming service DIRECTV NOW to AT&T TV NOW, and just last week rolled out a brand-new TV service, AT&T TV, in 10 test markets.
While DIRECTV NOW (aka AT&T TV NOW) is meant to compete with other over-the-top streaming services like Dish’s Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV and others, the new AT&T TV is a more conventional — though still “over-the-top” — option that can work with any broadband connection.
However, it locks in customers to two-year contracts, requires a set-top box and has packages that range from $60-$80 per month, much like a traditional TV subscription.
Elsewhere at AT&T, its WarnerMedia division is working a streaming service of its own, HBO Max, which is meant to battle more directly with premium offerings, like Disney+ or Apple TV+, for example. AT&T also operates a low-cost streaming service, Watch TV.
And the company continues to offer pay-TV offerings like DIRECTV (satellite service) and U-verse (cable).
It seems AT&T is due to consolidate these efforts at some point, and Donovan’s departure could signal some changes on that front, perhaps. Plus, as The WSJ reported, Donovan and WarnerMedia head John Stankey had a strained relationship at times. That could because HBO Max will end up competing with other AT&T offerings and services, the report suggested.
In addition to its various streaming ambitions, AT&T is also starting to roll out 5G, a move Donovan spearheaded. The company is also preparing for competition from new players, including what arises from a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, and from Dish’s plans to enter the wireless market.
Donovan had been CEO of AT&T Communications for two years, after having joined the company as CTO in 2008. Prior to his CEO role starting in July 2017, he had been promoted to AT&T’s chief strategy officer and group president — AT&T Technology and Operations.
He previously worked at Verisign, Deloitte Consulting and InCode Telecom Group.
Donovan, 58, was nearing the company’s retirement age of 60, but his departure was still unexpected, The WSJ also said.
“It’s been my honor to lead AT&T Communications during a period of unprecedented innovation and investment in new technology that is revolutionizing how people connect with their worlds,” said John Donovan, in a statement. “All that we’ve accomplished is a credit to the talented women and men of AT&T, and their passion for serving our customers. I’m looking forward to the future – spending more time with my family and watching with pride as the AT&T team continues to set the pace for the industry.”
“JD is a terrific leader and a tech visionary who helped drive AT&T’s leadership in connecting customers, from our 5G, fiber and FirstNet buildouts, to new products and platforms, to setting the global standard for software-defined networks,” added Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and CEO. “He led the way in encouraging his team to continuously innovate and develop their skill sets for the future. We greatly appreciate his many contributions to our company’s success and his untiring dedication to serving customers and making our communities better. JD is a good friend, and I wish him and his family all the best in the years ahead.”
Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon by way of Verizon Media Services. This does not influence our reporting.
Online education startup Udacity has hired former LendingTree executive Gabriel Dalporto as its new CEO, an appointment that follows months of layoffs and a restructuring directed by the company’s co-founder and executive chairman Sebastian Thrun.
Dalporto comes to Udacity after seven years at LendingTree, where he served in numerous positions, including chief marketing officer and chief financial officer. Dalporto stepped down as CFO in 2017 to join the company’s board and become executive advisor to the CEO. Dalporto left the executive advisor job in 2018, but remains on the board.
Thrun, who stepped in as CEO after Vishal Makhijani left the top post in October 2018, will stay on as executive chairman.
“He’s extremely strategic and pragmatic,” Thrun said in a recent interview, describing Dalporto.
Dalporto is known for his turnaround skills. But the new CEO says his focus at Udacity won’t be slashing costs and other activities often associated with that skill set.
“I was hired as a growth executive; I was not hired to be a turnaround executive,” Dalporto told TechCrunch.
Dalporto isn’t ready to provide details of his plans as CEO. Monday is his first day at the startup. But he will likely focus on growth areas such as the startup’s enterprise and government programs, as well as retaining and recapturing students into the Udacity ecosystem. Udacity’s enterprise clients include AT&T, Airbus, Audi, BMW, Capital One, Cisco and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It also has government relationships with Australia, the MENA region and New Zealand.
Dalporto is coming into a startup that is leaner and more productive, in terms of launching new nanodegrees, than it was a year ago. It’s also cash-flow positive, according to Thrun, who has spent 2019 revamping the company.
When Thrun took over the CEO post, he found a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own bureaucracy. Udacity, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision, was struggling because of runaway costs and other inefficiencies. Its nanodegree programs, which had grown in 2017, became sluggish in 2018.
Staff reductions soon followed as Thrun sought to get a handle on costs. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant. Thrun then cut further in April. About 20% of the staff was laid off and operations were restructured in an effort to bring costs in line with revenue without curbing growth. The company streamlined its marketing efforts and downsized and consolidated office space. As of April, the startup employs 300 full-time equivalent employees and about 60 contractors.
Other changes included the launch of a global technical mentoring program, switching its direct-to-student business from fixed to monthly subscription pricing to incentivize individuals to move through courses faster. Lalit Singh, who joined Udacity in February as chief operating officer, has been critical to the turnaround, according to Thrun.
Its productivity has also improved. In first six months of 2019, Udacity launched 12 new nanodegree programs compared to just 8 in all of 2018.
“In the three months since we’ve initiated these changes, the consumer business has grown by more than 60%,” Thrun wrote in a blog post Monday announcing the changes.
Udacity’s enterprise and government programs have also grown, with bookings increasing by more than 100% year over year.
CEO Jeremy OBriant never intended to create Torch, an agile growth marketing agency based in San Francisco. He started his career as a CPA, but after leading a growth team at Sidecar and running growth projects on his own, forming Torch was the most obvious thing to do. He now leads a team that implements “agile growth,” an iterative approach that involves setting clear goals and running smaller experiments over the course of monthly sprints. Learn more about their approach to growth, their ideal client, and more.
“Torch offers custom solutions to whatever you need. They are fast and deliver on what they promise. They are also scrappy and willing to try stuff to solve unique needs.” Head of Product in SF
“We aim to be the thought leaders of Agile Growth. We didn’t invent the term, but we are certainly becoming the leading voice of the process in the growth marketing world. Agile simply means being able to move quickly and with ease. We start with clearly defined business goals and prioritize growth tactics based on the impact, cost, and efficiency. Then collaborate with growth teams to execute a handful of items in recurring growth sprints, typically on a monthly cadence.”
“Our ideal partner has product-market fit, is redefining their category, and is ready to scale in a sustainable way. We are very strategic in the types of businesses we work with and steer clear of doing narrow prescriptive tactics. We love to collaborate with partners that are open to taking a fresh strategic look at their entire growth stack and embrace the agile approach to discover the right strategy for their unique situation.”
Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.
Yvonne Leow: Tell me about your background and how you became a growth marketer.
Jeremy OBriant: People are often surprised when I tell them I started my career as a CPA. I ended up working in the trenches on several M&A deals and heard lots of founding stories from entrepreneurs.
HP Inc. href="https://press.ext.hp.com/us/en/press-releases/2019/hp_announces_ceo_succession.html">announced this afternoon that Dion Weisler is stepping down as president and CEO. The executive cited a “family health matter” in his decision, noting that he will be returning home to Australia.
The company already has a successor lined up, as its president of Imaging, Printing and Solutions, Enrique Lores, got unanimous approval from its board of directors. Lores will be assuming the top spot on November 1.
“Enrique is an inspiring and proven business leader and is the right person to lead HP into the future. Since the time of separation, the board has had an ongoing and diligent succession planning process that included vetting and benchmarking internal and external candidates,” board of directors chair Chip Bergh said in a statement. “Through this rigorous process, Enrique emerged as the board’s unanimous choice as successor and we are confident he will build on the company’s progress and capitalize on new opportunities.”
Meantime, Weisler is set to stay on the company’s board of directors through HP’s next shareholder meeting in order to “ensure a seamless transition.” That will keep him around through January of 2020. Weisler joined the company in 2012, becoming CEO in 2015 when HP split from HP Enterprise.
Lores’s history with the company reaches back much further. As HP notes, he joined the staff 30 years back as an engineering intern.
“Thirty years ago, I was drawn to HP by the company’s unique ability to bring out the best of humanity through the power of technology,” Lores said in a statement. “The opportunities ahead are vast and the need for us to keep reinventing is more important than ever. I continue to be inspired by our customers, partners and employees, who are turning bold ideas into meaningful innovations. This is where we will set our sights for the future.”
The news arrived as part of the Bay Area-based printing company’s third quarter earnings.
Overstock .com announced today that CEO Patrick Byrne has resigned from his role as chief executive and board member. Another board member, Jonathan Johnson, will be taking over as Overstock’s interim CEO.
This follows the company’s eyebrow-raising press release earlier this month titled “Overstock.com CEO Comments on Deep State, Withholds Further Comment,” in which Byrne said he was confirming reports by journalist Sara Carter.
“Starting in 2015 I (operating under the belief that I was helping legitimate law enforcement efforts) assisted in what are now known as the ‘Clinton Investigation’ and the ‘Russian Investigation’ (in fact, I am the notorious ‘missing Chapter 1’ of the Russian investigation),” he wrote, going on to say that this was “the third time in my life I helped the Men in Black.”
Byrne and his attorney subsequently said that these comments were tied to his “romantic” relationship with Maria Butina, and that he wanted to shed light on the way federal law enforcement investigated Butina (who’s been accused of working as a Russian agent, and who is currently in prison after pleading guilty to a lesser charge).
Since then, the publicly traded e-commerce company has seen its stock price tumble.
Today’s announcement also takes the form of a letter from Byrne, in which he said he “came forward in as carefully and well-managed fashion” as he could, but that it’s still had a detrimental effect on the company.
“Though patriotic Americans are writing me in support, my presence may affect and complicate all manner of business relationships, from insurability to strategic discussions regarding our retail business,” Byrne said. “Thus, while I believe that I did what was necessary for the good of the country, for the good of the firm, I am in the sad position of having to sever ties with Overstock, both as CEO and board member, effective Thursday August 22.”
Byrne’s letter ends on an optimistic note about Overstock’s future, pointing to both its retail business and “blockchain assets that seem poised to revolutionize capital markets, finance, and governance for the poor.”
As of 12:51pm Eastern, Overstock shares are up 8.5% since the start of trading.
If you’re like me, chances are good you just distractedly clicked on this article while scrolling through your feed in, or while waiting for, a Lyft. Maybe, like me, you need that app to get to back-to-back meetings in different locations today, as you’re well on your way to at least a 60-hour workweek between the various things you do. Maybe you’re exhausted. Maybe the ride you just took, zoning out on your phone in an Uber on Quiet Mode, was actually a lifesaver.
And as you settle into each new driver’s backseat, en route to each new destination in your crazy busy life, maybe, like me, you find yourself somewhat unwittingly implicated in one of the most contentious ethical struggles of this generation – a struggle with profound implications for the future of work.
Yesterday, California-based advocacy organizations Gig Workers Rising and Mobile Workers Alliance announced that a caravan of Uber and Lyft drivers will drive from SoCal through San Francisco to Sacramento, next Monday, August 26 through Wednesday, August 28th. Over 200 drivers in more than 75 cars plan to drive south to north, with more drivers joining along the way, to take dramatic action in advocating for California State Legislature bill AB5, and for a drivers union.
With AB5 almost certain to pass the CA Senate, this coming week presents a crucial moment in the history of gig work and tech more broadly: an opportunity for drivers to demonstrate the efficacy of 21st century labor modes of organizing, even as Uber and Lyft continue ramping up efforts to kill AB5, drop pay rates, and generally mistreat drivers.
For the first time, drivers will use their sole work tool, their cars, to demonstrate publicly (and likely disruptively, though I have no knowledge of the precise actions planned at this time) at key locations like outside Uber’s HQ in downtown San Francisco and the Capitol steps in Sacramento.
I recently had the chance to speak with Annette Rivero, one of the drivers and an organizer of the protest efforts. At the time we spoke, I didn’t know anything about Annette, not even whether she would allow me to use her last name. But this 37-year-old mother of five, a straight-A student and full-time-plus Lyft/Uber driver, told me the story of her life and career, without hesitation, even as it raised what I worried could be the possibility of retaliation against her and her colleagues.
As Annette opened up to me about drivers work conditions and their mental and physical health struggles, I found myself thinking that her family’s story puts human faces on and likely represents the trendline of an industry that, in only a decade, has moved a hundred billion dollars and given new meaning to the word “disrupt.”
I hope everyone with a stake in these issues – whether you work in tech or VC or just occasionally use your smartphone to summon a ride – will read her words and think about where all of us are headed, together.
Greg Epstein: Annette, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me for this TechCrunch series exploring technology and ethics, and what it might mean to use technology ethically and humanistically today. Can you share your full name or is that not something that you’re comfortable sharing? Either way is fine.
Annette Rivero: My name’s Annette Rivero.
Epstein: How old are you?
Rivero: I am 37.
Epstein: And what do you do for your work that you’re connected with what we’re speaking about?
Epstein: How long have you been doing that?
Rivero: About two years.
Epstein: Full-time, or how does your schedule work?
Rivero: Right now I’m driving full-time, so I drive about eight to nine hours and I try to drive every day.
Epstein: Seven days a week?
Epstein: You’ve been trying to do that for a long time?
Rivero: All summer I’ve been really trying. I mean, of course things happen and there’s always one or two days maybe where I don’t get to, but it’s definitely my goal because I only make $150 a day. So, if I miss a day, I try to work longer on the other days.
Epstein: That’s about 60 hours a week or so.
Epstein: Wow. You’re a very hard worker, Annette.
Rivero: Oh, thanks.
Epstein: And you live somewhere in California?
Rivero: I live in San Jose, so South Bay area.
Epstein: So, you’re driving 60 hours a week or so, working for a tech company not far from the global epicenter of tech.
Rivero: That’s right.
Epstein: You must get a fair number of tech people in your car with you.
Rivero: Yes, I do.
Epstein: I’ll ask you more about yourself in a moment, but please tell me what you’re involved in and how we got connected for this interview.
Rivero: Around April, or May, I got involved with a group called Gig Workers Rising. I was very frustrated with some of the things going on between me and Uber. I was looking for somebody I could confide in, exchange stories, because I felt very alone, so I signed up with their Facebook group. They invited all their new members to a conference call, which I joined, and then from there they invited us to do a health survey to talk about the problems that we have with our health as far as rideshare goes. From there I’ve been at pretty much every action and meeting.
What we’re trying to do is let everyone know what’s going on. What the drivers are going through, the decreases in pay in contradiction to the increases in rates, and really let people know that they’re kind of manipulating the system to gain profits, but they’re taking those profits from people by paying extremely low rates.
Epstein: You mentioned a health survey: how are you doing health-wise?
Rivero: [When] that was all happening, I was extremely stressed; my anxiety was through the roof and I was probably pretty depressed because my situation was looking very bleak. They had already cut the surge at the end of last year, which probably cut rates about 40% at least. Then in the beginning of this year they cut the bonuses. A combination of those things cut the money I was making per week by two thirds. I was making about $1,500 working probably less than 40 hours. And now I work about 60 hours and I’m making barely a thousand dollars. I do feel better [now], but I think I feel better because I have a community of drivers that I work with and I talk to on a daily basis. And I am working on this project to bring light to the situation. I feel more empowered than I did before.
Epstein: Feeling empowered and being connected with people who are working together for the same cause is, generally speaking, a positive factor in health. I’m glad to hear that.
Epstein: Can you tell me about the demonstration you’re about to participate in?
Rivero: Right now we’re preparing for an action to unite all the drivers in California from the north end to the south end and in the middle, which is something we haven’t been able to demonstrate yet. But [we are] going to show it’s not just one area.
We may have differences but we have one thing that’s the same and that is dissatisfaction with the way things are going with rideshare right now. Everything that’s going on is not okay and all drivers across the state have just had it. They’re just done with what’s going on. So, without giving too many details, we will be in pretty big cities throughout the state and we will be making sure that we’re seen.
Epstein: At this point it’s been announced you’ll be stopping in L.A., San Francisco and Sacramento.
Rivero: As far as what we will do in those cities, we want to keep that under wraps. But yes, we are caravaning from LA to Sacramento, and at each stop we will take an action, not just with the [driver] community but other important people in those cities.
Epstein: Sounds like whatever actions you and your colleagues are going to take are going to be the sorts of things that have never quite happened before. People interested in this issue are probably going to want to see what you all are going to do next week, huh?
Rivero: Yeah, definitely. And our message is definitely focused on not just legislators but the Senate and then Governor Newsom, because they’re our next targets — to get their attention, let them know what’s going on and how we feel. We know they’ve already heard some, but we’re trying to really drill it in.
Epstein: Gig Workers Rising is working specifically on this bill, California AB5, with regard to the status of employees and independent contractors and what rights and obligations companies like Uber and Lyft have towards contractors like yourself. What do you want to say about the bill in particular?
Rivero: All [AB5] is doing is defining even more what it means to be an employee and what it means to be an independent contractor. It doesn’t do anything else in my opinion. If there was something on the table about creating the appropriate protections, that applied more to gig workers for lack of a better word, I’m sure everybody would be looking at that.
But there isn’t, so this is what we have. And instead of having people working without protections and for extremely low labor costs, we have to do something. Because there’s a lot of people out there who are barely making it, barely surviving, can’t even put food on the table, can’t even afford healthcare.
And these companies should be held accountable for it. They should be held responsible for it.
It’s their responsibility as a business owner to give back to the community, not just take from the community. Redefining these two things is just going to help make that happen.
Epstein: I don’t mind saying I completely agree with you. If these companies want to exist, they don’t just have a right to exist purely to make their executives rich. We, the people, can take that right away from them by forcing them to shut down, unless they can show that their business model is actually decent for the human beings involved in it.
Rivero: Right. I wish more people felt the way you just worded that. People just don’t understand the power they have.
Epstein: Would you feel comfortable sharing a bit more about yourself, like who you are beyond working for Lyft and Uber, and how you got involved in driving for them originally?
Rivero: I basically worked in healthcare for about 14 years. I’m one of those people where I work hard and it doesn’t matter how much money I make, as long as the work makes me feel good. I work really hard. Throughout the years, I’ve learned many things about healthcare billing.
So, I got to a place where I was doing various things in one position, but didn’t feel like I was getting paid what I should have been paid, even though that’s contradictory to what I just said. I felt like I could be a manager and make more money so I can take care of my kids, send them to school.
And my parents are getting older. So I was thinking, I can also help both of my parents start to retire, because they’re not getting younger and they’re getting sicker.
So, I made a very scary decision to leave my job at Stanford where I was making about $80,000 a year. I decided to go back to school. Some people call me crazy, but I just feel like I’m worth more than that, and I think I could’ve made more than that. So I went back to school full-time to get my degree in business management.
Epstein: When was this?
Rivero: This was about two and a half years ago.
Epstein: So, you were making $80,000 a year or so working in the healthcare system at Stanford University Hospital, essentially? Before that had you gone to college or no?
Epstein: And you grew up in the San Jose area, or somewhere else?
Rivero: Half of my life, I grew up in San Jose and then the other half I grew up in a small town called Hollister, an hour South of here. I always wanted to go back to school and it was just such a big thing for me and then I just felt like it was now or never.
Because the situation I was in, we lived in an apartment that was affordable and I had money saved up. It wasn’t impossible. But once I started driving about six months in, or maybe within those first six months, I started to notice a subtle decrease in pay, and it was so subtle, you could hardly tell.
Epstein: You started driving while you were going to school full-time, to put yourself through school?
Rivero: I only had to work about six hours a day.
Epstein: Only! You were working six hours a day and then you would go to class or study?
Rivero: Yeah. And I was only working like four, maybe five days, making more money then than I’m making now. And the classes I did take, I did get straight A’s, so thank you. It was possible. It’s not like something I made up or fabricated. And a lot of people were doing it.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who drove and were going to school or went on elaborate vacations, making extra money off of Uber and Lyft. But you can’t do that now. It’s not possible.
Epstein: You were driving five, six hours a day, studying and getting straight A’s, and did you have a family?
Rivero: One of our kids is already grown, but we have four that we’re raising.
Epstein: What does your partner do during the day?
Rivero: He is a warehouse manager for a plumbing company; he works anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day.
Epstein: You are obviously both extremely hard workers, trying to better your lives. This is very impressive.
Rivero: Thank you.
Epstein: Tell me how it started to get worse.
Rivero: To break it down a little bit, when you first start on, they give you really great bonuses. Then, little by little, they make changes to your bonus amount.
They’ll either lower the amount that you receive or they’ll increase the rides. So gradually you don’t notice, but the amount extra you’re getting per ride is lowering.
After that, [rates] started to decrease, and surge rates changed. What they used to do is a multiplier So, if there is a ride I usually do that I can make $8 off of and there was a surge during that time, then it would say ‘times two.’ That means I would make $16 off of that ride.
Today, they put a dollar amount instead; let’s say they just put $2. That means that I’m only going to make an extra $2 on that eight, from making $16 during surge to $10 during surge. And a majority of rides are during those times of surge, before work and school, when everyone’s trying to get somewhere, after work and school when everyone’s trying to get home, or on weekends when everybody’s partying.
Epstein: Which means drivers like you have to work at some of the times when it would be most convenient to be with your families. I just last week did another column largely about the effects of people having to be constantly available that way.
Rivero: Right. I can’t always work those times because I need to be with my family. So, instead of making a little more money during those times when it’s busier, I have to work slow times and make less money. But the reason we’re making less money is because the system is oversaturated with drivers, and that’s been done intentionally.
They were giving out really large bonuses to get drivers on board. I recruited my dad and made $500 for recruiting him. They’re constantly having new drivers recruited and now they have so many drivers, they don’t have to pay a surge anymore.
Because there’s more than enough drivers on the road at all times. Which brings me to another point, which is they’re charging riders for high demand rates when it’s not even necessary because they have so many drivers on the road. They don’t need to charge high rates. There’s somebody around the corner.
Epstein: I stopped using Uber for ethical reasons, but I use Lyft. I live someplace where it’s really hard to get from my house to work with public transportation and I work three or more jobs while spending a lot of time with my young kid, so I’m constantly running from one place to another and I definitely don’t have time to park a car.
it’s amazing: no matter where I am, or when, there’s always a car within a few minutes. And I take all these rides and almost never get the same driver twice. And I go to other cities or states, even remote areas: there are Lyft drivers everywhere.
It’s amazing how many people, like yourself, they’ve put out onto the road. What is that like for you? What have you heard from colleagues or friends through Gig Workers Rising, about what this is like for them?
Rivero: A couple of friends can’t afford their medication. One of them has high blood pressure. I could lose a friend because he can’t afford his high blood pressure medicine, because he doesn’t make enough. But he doesn’t qualify for Medi-Cal because we have to file all that money we’re paying Uber and Lyft on our taxes.
It looks like we’re making all this money, but we’re not. I have another friend who had kidney failure last year because drivers don’t want to drink water. They don’t want to have to stop to go to the bathroom because then that stops them from making money.
Epstein: What do you do about stopping to go to the bathroom, Annette?
Rivero: When I drop the kids off in the morning at 7:15, I’ll have one coffee and I’ll probably have to go to the bathroom once. So I’ll stop either at a Starbucks, a grocery store, or a Target. Then I don’t eat until I get home, which is when I pick up the kids at 3:45 and then I take them home.
Epstein: So, you’re driving around all that time on one or two coffees, no water, and no food?
Rivero: That’s right.
Epstein: First of all, I’m concerned for you. It’s not particularly healthy to sit in a car for eight or nine hours a day. Do you stretch much?
Rivero: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll get out of the car. When people need help, I’ll get out and help them. If I’m-
Epstein: I’m always telling my drivers to get up and stretch because it’s really bad for a person to sit without even stretching their legs for eight, nine hours a day. But then… I say this with a smile and I actually really trust you, you seem like an amazing person. But, are you being safe out there? I mean, all those hours without eating or hydrating, that doesn’t seem like the best mindset to be driving in.
Rivero: I have a goal, every day, to make $150. [Recently,] at the end of [the night] I needed 30 more dollars, and I was like, “Okay, I’m tired and I want to stop.” But I wasn’t at the point where I was dangerously tired. When I say dangerously tired, I mean I have a migraine, my eyes are getting blurry, or I’m so tired I’ve made a mistake, like I was at the light and I could have turned right but I just wasn’t paying attention.
Something small like that. I’ve never caused an accident. I’m not irresponsible in that way, but I notice the subtle things about myself when I know it’s time to go home.
But yeah, without a doubt there are drivers out there who are driving beyond that moment when they realize they shouldn’t be driving. They’re driving anywhere from 10, maybe 14, maybe even 16 hours a day.
And the ones sleeping in their car don’t really sleep. How do you sleep in your car?
Epstein: Are a lot of drivers sleeping in their cars, in your experience?
Rivero: I know a lot of drivers sleep in their car.
Epstein: How do you know that?
Rivero: Well, friends. My dad sleeps in his car. My dad’s too proud to come sleep at my house, but he’ll stay in his car. And he’s not sleeping.
Epstein: Why? Because he doesn’t have someplace to go?
Rivero: He lives in Los Banos, about an hour and a half away. Not only that, he can’t really afford the gas to keep going back and forth every night.
Epstein: Right — if you’re driving Lyft or Uber, almost by definition you can’t afford to live in a high rent area, but of course most rides are in high rent areas. So almost by design, most of the drivers are living far away from where they’re working, and when you get them so exhausted that they can’t drive home, it sounds like they’re essentially living out of their cars for how many days a week.
Rivero: Exactly. I also know another person who, from the loneliness of sleeping in their car and just the loneliness of not talking to anybody, because drivers don’t talk to each other really. He became-
Epstein: Yeah. And there’s even this new… What is the mode again for Uber?
Rivero: Oh, the quiet mode?
Epstein: Can I just say that I find that disgusting? You’re going to make me work for how much? And then you’re going to act like you have the right to just tell me I’m a nuisance to you and don’t talk to you?
Rivero: I understand sometimes people want to just not say anything, but it’s the way that it’s been done that’s terrible. It’s really about why can’t people communicate and just say, “You know what? I’m so sorry but I’m exhausted today. I had a really long day,” or whatever.
You don’t even have to explain. You just have to say, “Do you mind if we just not conversate right now? Just not up for it.”
Epstein: Yes. Suck it up and use your words to say that you don’t want to use your words, bro.
Rivero: Exactly. And that’s how we’re treated on a daily basis from, not all riders, but there are riders that treat us that way.
Epstein: Anyway, I interrupted you earlier. We were talking about you and other drivers risking their health, some people risking the health of others on the road. People certainly putting their mental health at risk is something that I hear here: there’s a lot of loneliness, isolation.
Rivero: The person I was talking about that was lonely actually had a drug addiction: coke. And the coke was initially to stay awake, then became a bad habit because they were lonely and depressed and then they couldn’t stop.
Epstein: And that person’s still out there driving?
Rivero: Not at the moment. Money all went to the coke and they couldn’t pay the bills. Got a ticket, lost a license.
Epstein: Still, what I’m hearing is that these kinds of situations that people are being put into make that kind of story, and its dangers, more likely.
Rivero: Yes. Yes.
Epstein: So, now you’re part of a group taking action to try to bring about some change. What do you most want people to think about and feel when they see you and your fellow drivers, your fellow gig workers, your fellow human beings driving across the state of California and demonstrating next week?
Rivero: I want everybody to think about where they work and to imagine that one day they walk in and their boss tells them, “We’re going to make you an independent contractor today. Congratulations. You get to set your own schedule. You get to have the flexibility you want, but we’re no longer going to pay you your benefits, your retirement plan, or anything else we gave you as an employee.”
Because I have security guards in my building at home, who are independent contractors, who I thought were employees collecting benefits. Companies like Bench, who provide accounting and bookkeeping services, [have] admitted they want to provide the cheapest and fastest service possible.
What that’s going to do is put businesses out of business in [those industries], and they’re not going to be the last. So, I want people to think about their jobs; they could be next if we don’t put a stop to [the current practices of] Uber and Lyft, because they’re the example of where we’re going.
Epstein: There are certainly many billions of dollars involved in Uber and Lyft and a lot of relatively wealthy people feel that they have something riding on the success of those companies.
Is there anything else that you want to share in gearing up for these actions next week?
Rivero: Just that AB5 doesn’t take away anybody’s flexibility, it’s the companies that take away the flexibility. Because I know that that’s something that everyone’s stuck on right now, and it’s a lie. There’s no truth to it.
Epstein: The last question I ask at the end of all of my TechCrunch interviews about technology and ethics is, how optimistic are you about our shared human future? About the future that we all share together, as human beings?
Rivero: That’s a day by day question because I feel like things change so much. Some days it just feels like we go five steps back. Right now, in my world, we’ve gone way back. It’s just evolving. So I really can’t give a defined answer.
Epstein: That’s a good answer, regardless. Thank you very much.
The first day of work at a new job can be very stressful. The unfamiliar surroundings and onslaught of new material can cause new hires some degree of discomfort. But sometimes the atmosphere at the new company can be welcoming and can help counteract the stress.
Different companies have their own traditions to help make this transition period more comfortable and memorable for new hires. Some of these traditions include:
Usually, only employees can experience these traditions. But there’s one new-hire tradition that has become extremely popular and often highly publicized: the “welcome kit”.
Welcome kits usually contain a hodgepodge of items that employees will need on the job (pens, notebooks, books, etc.) and things to make employees feel welcome (clothing, stickers, water bottles, or more unusual items — often with the company name or logo on them).
To get a sense of how different companies handle their kits, we talked to four successful startups about their welcome kits in the article below, followed by our look at a dozen more:
This article is based on the personal welcome kit collection of Vladimir Polo, founder of AcademyOcean. AcademyOcean is a tool for interactive onboarding and training (and Vladimir Polo is a fan of welcome kits).
There has long been a stigma associated with therapy and mental health coaching, a stigma that is even more pronounced in the business world, despite considerable evidence of the efficacy of these services. One of the organizations that has set out to change this negative association is Torch, a startup that combines the therapeutic benefits of executive coaching with data-driven analytics to track outcomes.
Yet, as Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough explains in this Breaking Into Startups episode, the startup wasn’t initially a tech-oriented enterprise. At first, Yarbrough drew on his years of experience as a marriage and family counselor as he made the transition into executive coaching, even referring to the early iterations of Torch as little more than “a matchmaking service between coaches and professionals.”
In time, Yarbrough identified a virtually untapped market for executive coaching — one that, by his estimate, could amount to a $15 billion industry. To demonstrate to investors the great potential of this growing market, he first built up a clientele that provided Torch with sufficient recurring revenue and low churn rate.
Only then was Yarbrough able to raise a $2.4 million seed round from Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and other investors, convincing them that data analytics software could enhance the coaching process — as well as coach recruitment — enough to effectively “productize feedback,” as he puts it.
For Yarbrough and Torch, “productizing feedback” involves certain well-known business strategies that complement traditional coaching methods. For instance, Torch’s coaching procedure includes a “360 review,” a performance review system that incorporates feedback from all angles, including an employee’s manager, peers, and other people within an organization who have knowledge of the employee’s work.
The 360 review is coupled with an OKR platform, which provides HR departments and other interested parties with the metrics and analytics to track employee progress through the program. This combination is designed to promote the development of soft skills, which in turn drive leadership.
Torch has achieved considerable success, landing several influential clients in the tech sector through its B2B approach. But Yarbrough is clear that his goal with the company is to “democratize” access to professional coaching, in hopes of providing the same kind of mental health counseling and support to employees in all levels of an organization.
In this episode, Yarbrough discusses the history and trajectory of Torch, his experience scaling a company many considered unscalable, and the methods he uses to manage his own emotional and mental health as the CEO of an expanding startup. Yarbrough offers insights into the feelings of anxiety and dread common among entrepreneurs and provides a close look at how he has found business and personal success with Torch.
Breaking Into Startups: There’s a difference between a mentor and a coach. Today, I want to talk about that difference and in addition to the intersection between business and psychology, What Cameron Yarbrough, CEO of Torch and Founder of Well Clinic.
If you’re someone that is looking for a mentor or a coach as you break into tech, or if you just want to be surrounded by peers, make sure you download the Career Karma app by going to www.breakingintostartups.com/download.
On today’s episode, you’re going to understand the importance of therapy, mental health and coaches, as well as how historically, it has been inaccessible to people and how Cameron is using his background to democratize this for the world.
If this is your first time listening to the Breaking Startups Podcast, make sure you leave a review on iTunes and tell your friends. Listen to it on Soundcloud and talk about it on Spotify. If you have any feedback for us, positive or negative, please let us know. Without further ado, let’s break-in.
Cameron Yarbrough is the CEO of Torch. He’s one of the best executive coaches in the world. Not only are we going to be talking about coaching and mentoring for executives, but we’ll also be talking about coaching in general for everyone. We’re going to go into how he created his company.
Upfront Ventures, the 23-year-old, LA-based venture capital firm, is gearing up for far more deal-making.
In addition to filing paperwork with the SEC this summer to raise its third growth-stage investment fund (it is also investing a $400 million early-stage fund and probably announcing another soon), the firm just added two new general partners to its line-up of investors.
One of them, Michael Carney, joined Upfront as a principal in 2015, after working as an editor at the news site Pandodaily, and, before that, working as an investor and analyst at a boutique merchant bank called Worldvest.
The firm’s second new general partner is Aditi Maliwal, who has also circled in and out of investing before, including stints as an associate with Crosslink Capital and, more recently, spending several years with Google, where Maliwal worked in corporate development before becoming a project manager.
We talked with both this week to congratulate them, as well as to learn more about where they’ll be shopping — and from where.
For her part, Maliwal, who begins work at Upfront next month, says the idea is for her to eventually open a San Francisco office, though for now, she’ll be operating from the Bay Area out of a space that’s yet to be determined and spending every Monday or every other Monday down in L.A. with the rest of the team.
She got to know Upfront through another general partner, Kara Nortman, who joined Upfront in 2014 and who Maliwal would continue to see at events, as well as on the occasional trip to L.A. to see extended family. Maliwal says she also says she would observe on her trips that the “ecosystem in L.A. has really grown from 2014 to where it is today. I think the Bay Area continues to see how important it is, too.”
As for becoming an investor again, Maliwal says she was always interested in becoming a VC, thanks in part to a class taught at Stanford by renowned venture capitalist Heidi Roizen VC that inspired her. She says spending time with founders in her husband’s business school class at Stanford this past year whet her appetite anew. “There are four or five companies I’m close to and they’re good friends and when I was up at 11 pm working on a company idea with one of them earlier this year, I just realized that this is what gives me a lot of energy and this is a space I want to [get involved in again].”
She says she’ll mostly be focusing on business to business to consumer models, as well as SaaS applications, fintech, and, when the opportunity arises, consumer products. More broadly speaking, says Maliwal, she hopes to serve as a bridge for Bay Area startups looking for a foothold in the L.A. market and vice versa.
Meanwhile, Carney is, and will remain, more focused on later-stage bets that Upfront funded early on and whose success the firm wants to ensure (to the extent that any firm can).
Understandably, he sounds excited — still — about the work.
“In 2012, [when I was at Pandodaily] L.A. was crossing and inflection point, with a number of second- and third-time founders coming out of later-stage marquee companies. When I joined Upfront, it felt similar. It was an incredible platform, it was a year or two after the firm was rebranded [from GRP Ventures] and Kara had been there less than a year and [fellow general partner] Greg [Bettinelli] had been there maybe two years. The team was kind of maturing and I feel lucky to join when I did.”
Carney suggests the opportunities have only grown stronger, in his view of the later-stage world. “We’re definitely seeing [greater bifurcation] between the haves and have nots, with companies that can break out as clear leaders tending to have access to larger amounts of capital than in past years. For the best of the best, the conditions remain as favorable as possible, while it’s gotten harder for companies to raise capital that fail to hit those growth rates, even in good times.”
Being able to recruit employees from roles at top companies in the Bay Area is just one reason solid L.A. companies have attained more momentum. “I think that owes to the maturation of the L.A. ecosystem. I think people are drawn to L.A. because Silicon Valley, for all its incredible success in the tech sector, is an industry town and L.A. has a more diverse economy and ecosystem. But also, five years ago, people would ask themselves, ‘If this new role [in L.A.] doesn’t work out, what do I do next?’ And I think the answer to that question is much clearer and more positive today.”
According to Upfront, 40 percent of its initial checks are written to companies based in L.A., though it has bets in other parts of the U.S. and world. Some of the best-known deals in its current portfolio include the scooter company Bird, the sneaker marketplace GOAT, and the online resale store ThredUp. Upfront was also an investor in Ring, the smart doorbell company acquired early last year by Amazon for $1 billion.
In addition to Maliwal, Carney, Nortman and Bettinelli, the firm is managed by general partners Kobie Fuller, Kevin Zhang, Mark Suster and founder Yves Sisteron.
The phrase “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” was originally meant sarcastically.
It’s not actually physically possible to do — especially while wearing Allbirds and having just fallen off a Bird scooter in downtown San Francisco, but I should get to my point.
This week, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services Office, repeatedly referred to the notion of bootstraps in announcing shifts in immigration policy, even going so far as to change the words to Emma Lazarus’s famous poem “The New Colossus:” no longer “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
We’ve come to expect “alternative facts” from this administration, but who could have foreseen alternative poems?
Still, the concept of ‘bootstrapping’ is far from limited to the rhetorical territory of the welfare state and social safety net. It’s also a favorite term of art in Silicon Valley tech and venture capital circles: see for example this excellent (and scary) recent piece by my editor Danny Crichton, in which young VC firms attempt to overcome a lack of the startup capital that is essential to their business model by creating, as perhaps an even more essential feature of their model, impossible working conditions for most everyone involved. Often with predictably disastrous results.
It is in this context of unrealistic expectations about people’s labor, that I want to introduce my most recent interviewee in this series of in-depth conversations about ethics and technology.
Mary L. Gray is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. One of the world’s leading experts in the emerging field of ethics in AI, Mary is also an anthropologist who maintains a faculty position at Indiana University. With her co-author Siddharth Suri (a computer scientist), Gray coined the term “ghost work,” as in the title of their extraordinarily important 2019 book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass.
Ghost Work is a name for a rising new category of employment that involves people scheduling, managing, shipping, billing, etc. “through some combination of an application programming interface, APIs, the internet and maybe a sprinkle of artificial intelligence,” Gray told me earlier this summer. But what really distinguishes ghost work (and makes Mary’s scholarship around it so important) is the way it is presented and sold to the end consumer as artificial intelligence and the magic of computation.
In other words, just as we have long enjoyed telling ourselves that it’s possible to hoist ourselves up in life without help from anyone else (I like to think anyone who talks seriously about “bootstrapping” should be legally required to rephrase as “raising oneself from infancy”), we now attempt to convince ourselves and others that it’s possible, at scale, to get computers and robots to do work that only humans can actually do.
Ghost Work’s purpose, as I understand it, is to elevate the value of what the computers are doing (a minority of the work) and make us forget, as much as possible, about the actual messy human beings contributing to the services we use. Well, except for the founders, and maybe the occasional COO.
But if working people are supposed to be ghosts, then when they speak up or otherwise make themselves visible, they are “haunting” us. And maybe it can be haunting to be reminded that you didn’t “bootstrap” yourself to billions or even to hundreds of thousands of dollars of net worth.
Sure, you worked hard. Sure, your circumstances may well have stunk. Most people’s do.
But none of us rise without help, without cooperation, without goodwill, both from those who look and think like us and those who do not. Not to mention dumb luck, even if only our incredible good fortune of being born with a relatively healthy mind and body, in a position to learn and grow, here on this planet, fourteen billion years or so after the Big Bang.
I’ll now turn to the conversation I recently had with Gray, which turned out to be surprisingly more hopeful than perhaps this introduction has made it seem.
Greg Epstein: One of the most central and least understood features of ghost work is the way it revolves around people constantly making themselves available to do it.
Mary Gray: Yes, [What Siddarth Suri and I call ghost work] values having a supply of people available, literally on demand. Their contributions are collective contributions.
It’s not one person you’re hiring to take you to the airport every day, or to confirm the identity of the driver, or to clean that data set. Unless we’re valuing that availability of a person, to participate in the moment of need, it can quickly slip into ghost work conditions.
“I think it is the right time for the company to have a leadership change,” he said. “I have been stepping back more and more, so it’s a natural progression, with a bunch of managers here taking on larger roles as I move on.”
In addition to Weiner (who’s been at Jun Group since 2003), other Jun Group executives taking on new roles include Mishel Alon becoming COO, Leslie Bargmann becoming vice president of client services and Jeremy Ellison becoming vice president of technology.
Reichgut, meanwhile, said he’s “stepping back entirely to focus on artwork and writing and community service after a long, long career.”
Looking ahead, Weiner he plans to double down on Jun Group’s approach to advertising, where it builds custom audience segments by polling users in its network, then shows video ads and branded content to interested viewers.
“Our primary motivation is to evangelize that format,” he said. “As you know, most advertising is interruptive and consumers don’t like that kind of advertising very much — in some cases, they’re annoyed by it . This value exchange flips the advertising paradigm on its head. By choosing to engage with advertising, they are getting something amazing in return.”