We have an amazing slate of speakers stopping by TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, including two full days scheduled for the debut of our Extra Crunch stage, which will focus on how founders can overcome the challenges they face through discussions of tactics with some of the most successful founders and leaders in our industry.
Want to learn how to raise your first dollars with Russ Heddleston at DocSend? How to get into Y Combinator with YC CEO Michael Siebel? How to iterate your product with the chief product officers of Uber, Tinder, Okta, and Instagram? How to evaluate talent with Ray Dalio? These and almost two dozen more panels are waiting for attendees on the EC stage.
Growth expert Julian Shapiro of BellCurve.com launched a new series of articles for Extra Crunch members on how to grow your startup using battle-tested growth hacks and techniques from heads of growth across Silicon Valley. His first piece came out on Friday on how to work with influencers, and now in this second edition, he investigates advertising and how to evaluate the value of PR firms.
How to make Snapchat ads profitable
Based on insights from Tim Chard.
- Snap has niche audiences you’ll want to take advantage of. Examples include “people with digestive issues.” Facebook doesn’t have that. Plus, ad clicks on Snap can be cheap ($0.30 USD isn’t uncommon).
- However, Snap traffic typically converts poorly once it arrives on your site or app.
- Here’s a technique to mitigate that: cross-target your Snap traffic. Meaning, use unique UTM tags on your Snap ad links. Then, in Facebook/Instagram, detect that unique UTM to create a custom audience of Snap visitors. Finally, retarget those visitors with FB/IG ads, which tend to convert much better than Snap.
In Julian’s third edition of the Growth Report, he offers even more tips on how to increase open rates, whether you should use Bing Ads(!), and whether and how to handle multi-touch attribution.
People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.
And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.”
This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.
But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, in her early 20’s, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.
Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.
Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions.
That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when tech leader Sabrina Hersi Issa, founder of Being Bold Media, decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, and has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).
Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.
As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”
From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.
But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.
Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration.
Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?
Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.
Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing.
Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?
Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.
From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.
Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage.
Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.
I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”
It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.
I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.
Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?
Fair, the $1.2 billion startup backed by SoftBank that has built a smartphone-based car leasing platform that lets people takes cars for as little as one month, is making another acquisition in the ongoing consolidation of the short-term car rental market. It’s picking up Canvas, another platform for leasing cars, from its owner Ford Motor Credit, a division of the car giant Ford Motor Company that provides leasing and financing to dealers and customers.
The price and other financial details were not disclosed, but we have confirmed with Fair’s co-founder Scott Painter that it will give Ford an equity stake in his startup, so there are at least some shares involved. Canvas is a similar kind of business to Fair’s but significantly smaller.
Fair has about 45,000 subscribers currently in the U.S., with 3.2 million downloads across 30 markets, while Canvas has only around one-tenth of that (3,800 to be exact: one possible reason that Ford decided not to hold on to it) across San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas. While Canvas offered leases starting at three months, Fair’s start at one month, although Painter said that the average they have found are that consumers take cars for about 18 months, while those leasing for ridesharing use them on average for 12.
The Canvas business will continue to operate, but it will gradually switch over to the Fair brand in the coming months. Those who are currently on Canvas contracts will be given the option to switch over to Fair as those deals come up for renewal.
We have confirmed that Ford is not investing further into Fair with this acquisition — not yet, at least. “This is an opportunity to build a relationship,” he said.
While equity funding is always something that Fair is looking at, he added, the company more immediately is planning to announced further debt funding next week, he said. Fair raised hundreds of millions in debt and equity to date to expand to new cities and buy in more vehicles.
Fair is picking Canvas’s employees, technology and business in the deal, Painter said. The team will stay in San Francisco, where they are currently based, to help Fair expand its operations in the Bay Area and continue hiring. “It’s an important market for us for engineers and developers,” he added. This is Fair’s third acquisition, following Xchange Leasing, the leasing business of Uber, for about $400 million; and of rental car service Skurt, for about $50 million.
The move to Fair will be Canvas’s third home under its third brand.
The company was originally founded as ZephyrCar to tap the opportunity of providing cars to Uber and Lyft drivers among other lease markets. It then rebranded as Breeze to double down on ridesharing. Then, as those rideshare companies explored other options for leasing (including Uber’s own unprofitable foray into Xchange Leasing), it shut down, at which point the team and other assets were picked up by Ford and rebranded as Canvas. At that point, the company shifted to a more specific consumer focus to lease Ford, Lincoln, and eventually other makes of cars.
Over that time, it’s amassed a lot of knowledge and data about car leasing and building that into more efficient, on-demand services, a contrast with many of the traditional leasing services in the market today.
“Canvas’ mission is to provide customers with flexible access to the vehicle of their choice for an affordable monthly payment,” said Ned Ryan, CEO of Canvas, in a statement. “Our strong synergies with Fair make this a natural fit.”
Ford’s move was part of the automaker’s efforts to explore the future of transportation: we’re in the middle of a tectonic shift in the automotive industry where new innovations like ridesharing and autonomous vehicles, along with changing consumer demands, have changed the game when it comes to simply making and selling vehicles.
As Painter characterizes it, Ford’s ownership of Canvas was partly about exploring all of that — something that it will now continue to do as a shareholder of Fair.
“Canvas built an impressive business and we learned a lot about subscription services, fleet management and the technology that underlies both,” said Sam Smith, executive vice president of strategy and future products at Ford Credit, in a statement. “We are proud of the work that was done in support of Canvas and we wish the entire team the best of luck.”
Ford’s competitors — including GM, Daimler and more — have also made big investments and acquisitions in an effort to better understand the shifts, and to hopefully keep a sizeable business alive in the future, a pattern that is likely to continue.
“I think if you’re a carmaker today, you have to think about how the world is changing and how to serve consumers given the rise of smartphones and the changing business models of the automotive industry,” said Painter.
AirDrop, Apple’s proximity-based, built-in file sharing feature and home to teen meme exchanges, is getting an upgrade with the new iPhones. At Apple’s iPhone press event on Tuesday, the company introduced the iPhone 11 line of devices, which include a new Apple -designed U1 chip that uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness. This will offer a number of improvements to the iPhone’s capability, but Apple is starting with upgraded AirDrop functionality as a more practical use case.
With the U1 chip and iOS 13, you’ll be able to point your iPhone towards someone else’s and AirDrop will prioritize that device in the list of possible AirDrop recipients. This will help to speed up the AirDrop process, which today can still be uncumbersome at times — especially at places where there are a lot of people gathered, like a concert or business convention, for example.
What’s particularly interesting about the U1’s ultra wideband technology is that it’s also what’s rumored to power the forthcoming Apple Tag devices, which were not announced at yesterday’s event.
Apple Tag, it’s been reported, will be a competitor to the lost item tracker Tile which allows you to attach a small tag to items you need to keep up with — like your keys, wallet or bag, for example. Tile leverages Bluetooth and a crowdsourced network of Tile owners running its app on their device to help find missing items. Apple Tag is said to work similarly, via Apple’s Find My app, but will also feature ultra wideband tech.
More recently, references to Apple’s Tile competitor were also spotted in iOS 13 code by MacRumors.
Though Apple didn’t make any announcements about the product, it does seem to hint on the website that AirDrop upgrades are only the first of many enhancements that will come about thanks to the U1 chip, by saying: “And that’s just the beginning.”
Presumably, whatever that statement is actually referring to will be released further down the road, perhaps as soon as its next big press event.
Here’s something the hermetically sealed iPhone can’t do: Score a perfect 10 for repairability.
The Fairphone 3, which was released in Europe last week with an RRP of €450, gets thumbs up across the board in iFixit’s hardware Teardown. It found all the internal modules to be easily accessible and replaceable — with only basic tools required to get at them (Fairphone includes a teeny screwdriver in the box). iFixit also lauds visual cues that help with disassembly and reassembly, and notes that repair guides and spare parts are available on Fairphone’s website.
iFixit’s sole quibble is that while most of the components inside the Fairphone 3’s modules are individually replaceable “some” are soldered on. A tiny blip that doesn’t detract from the 10/10 repairability score
Safe to say, such a score is the smartphone exception. The industry continues to encourage buyers to replace an entire device, via yearly upgrade, instead of enabling them to carry out minor repairs themselves — so they can extend the lifespan of their device and thereby shrink environmental impact.
Dutch startup Fairphone was set up to respond to the abject lack of sustainability in the electronics industry. The tiny company has been pioneering modularity for repairability for several years now, flying in the face of smartphone giants that are still routinely pumping out sealed tablets of metal and glass which often don’t even let buyers get at the battery to replace it themselves.
To wit: An iFixit Teardown of the Google Pixel rates battery replacement as “difficult” with a full 20 steps and between 1-2 hours required. (Whereas the Fairphone 3 battery can be accessed in seconds, by putting a fingernail under the plastic back plate to pop it off and lifting the battery out.)
The Fairphone 3 goes much further than offering a removable backplate for getting at the battery, though. The entire device has been designed so that its components are accessible and repairable.
So it’s not surprising to see it score a perfect 10 (the startup’s first modular device, Fairphone 2, was also scored 10/10 by iFixit). But it is strong, continued external validation for the Fairphone’s designed-for-repairability claim.
It’s an odd situation in many respects. In years past replacement batteries were the norm for smartphones, before the cult of slimming touchscreen slabs arrived to glue phone innards together. Largely a consequence of hardware business models geared towards profiting from pushing for clockwork yearly upgrades cycle — and slimmer hardware is one way to get buyers coveting your next device.
But it’s getting harder and harder to flog the same old hardware horse because smartphones have got so similarly powerful and capable there’s precious little room for substantial annual enhancements.
Hence iPhone maker Apple’s increasing focus on services. A shift that’s sadly not been accompanied by a rethink of Cupertino’s baked in hostility towards hardware repairability. (It still prefers, for example, to encourage iPhone owners to trade in their device for a full upgrade.)
At Apple’s 2019 new product announcement event yesterday — where the company took the wraps off another clutch of user-sealed smartphones (aka: iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) — there was even a new financing offer to encourage iPhone users to trade in their old models and grab the new ones. ‘Look, we’re making it more affordable to upgrade!’ was the message.
Meanwhile, the only attention paid to sustainability — during some 1.5 hours of keynotes — was a slide which passed briefly behind marketing chief Phil Schiller towards the end of his turn on stage puffing up the iPhone updates, encouraging him to pause for thought.
“iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 are made to be designed free from these harmful materials and of course to reduce their impact on the environment,” he said in front of a list of some toxic materials that are definitely not in the iPhones.
Stuck at the bottom of this list were a couple of detail-free claims that the iPhones are produced via a “low-carbon process” and are “highly recyclable”. (The latter presumably a reference to how Apple handles full device trade-ins. But as anyone who knows about sustainability will tell you, sustained use is far preferable to premature recycling…)
“This is so important to us. That’s why I bring it up every time. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of this,” Schiller added, before pressing the clicker to move on to the next piece of marketing fodder. Blink and you’d have missed it.
If Apple truly wants to push the boundaries on sustainability — and not just pay glossy lip-service to reducing environmental impact for marketing purposes while simultaneously encouraging annual upgrades — it has a very long way to go indeed.
As for repairability, the latest and greatest iPhones clearly won’t hold a candle to the Fairphone.
Brianne Kimmel had no trouble transitioning from angel investor to general partner.
Initially setting out to garner $3 million in capital commitments, Kimmel, in just two weeks’ time, closed on $5 million for her debut venture capital fund Work Life Ventures. The enterprise SaaS-focused vehicle boasts an impressive roster of limited partners, too, including the likes of Zoom chief executive officer Eric Yuan, InVision CEO Clark Valberg, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Cameo CEO Steven Galanis, Andreessen Horowitz general partners’ Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, Initialized Capital GP Garry Tan and fund-of-funds Slow Ventures, Felicis Ventures and NFX.
At the helm of the new fund, Kimmel joins a small group of solo female general partners. Dream Machine’s Alexia Bonatsos is targeting $25 million for her first fund. Day One Ventures’ Masha Drokova raised an undisclosed amount for her debut effort last year. Sarah Cone launched Social Impact Capital, a fund specializing in impact investing, in 2016, among others.
Meanwhile, venture capital fundraising is poised to reach all-time highs in 2019. In the first half of the year, a total of $20.6 billion in new capital was introduced to the startup market across more than 100 funds.
For most, the process of raising a successful venture fund can be daunting and difficult. For well-connected and established investors in the Bay Area, like Kimmel, raising a fund can be relatively seamless. Given the speed and ease of fund one in Kimmel’s case, she plans to raise her second fund with a $25 million target in as little as 12 months.
“The desire for the fund is to take a step back and imagine how do we build great consumer experiences in the workplace,” Kimmel tells TechCrunch.
Kimmel has been an active angel investor for years, sourcing top enterprise deals via SaaS School, an invite-only workshop she created to educate early-stage SaaS founders on SaaS growth, monetization, sales and customer success. Prior to launching SaaS School, which will continue to run twice a year, Kimmel led go-to-market strategy at Zendesk, where she built the Zendesk for Startups program.
“You start by advising, then you start with very small angel checks,” Kimmel explains. “I reached this inflection point and it felt like a great moment to raise my own fund. I had friends like Ryan Hoover, who started Weekend Fund focused on consumer, and Alexia is one of my friends as well and I saw what she was doing with Dream Machine, which is also consumer. It felt like it was the right time to come out with a SaaS-focused fund.”
Emerging from stealth today, Work Life Ventures will invest up to $150,000 per company. To date, Kimmel has backed three companies with capital from the fund: Tandem, Dover and Command E. The first, Tandem, was amongst the most coveted deals in Y Combinator’s latest batch of companies. The startup graduated from the accelerator with millions from Andreessen Horowitz at a valuation north of $30 million.
Dover, another recent YC alum, provides recruitment software and is said to be backed by Founders Fund in addition to Work Life. Command E, currently in beta, is a tool that facilities search across multiple desktop applications. Kimmel is also an angel investor in Webflow, Girlboss, TechCrunch Disrupt 2018 Startup Battlefield winner Forethought, Voyage and others.
Work Life is betting on the consumerization of the enterprise, or the idea that the next best companies for modern workers will be consumer-friendly tools. In her pitch deck to LPs, she cites the success of Superhuman and Notion, a well-designed email tool and a note-taking app, respectively, as examples of the heightened demand for digestible, easy-to-use B2B products.
“The next generation of applications for the workplace sees people spinning out of Uber, Coinbase and Airbnb,” Kimmel said. “They’ve faced these challenges inside their highly efficient tech company so we are seeing more consumer product builders deeply passionate about the enterprise space.”
But Kimmel doesn’t want to bury her thesis in jargon, she says, so you won’t find any B2B lingo on Work Life’s website or Instagram.
She’s focusing her efforts on a more important issue often vacant from conversations surrounding investment in the future of work: diversity & inclusion.
Kimmel meets with every new female hire of her portfolio companies. Though it’s “increasingly non-scalable,” she admits, it’s part of a greater effort to ensure her companies are thoughtful about D&I from the beginning: “Because I have a very focused fund, it’s about maintaining this community and ensuring that people feel like their voices are heard,” she said.
“I want to be mindful that I am a female GP and I feel honored to have that title.”
Not all venture firms are long for this world. Though they tend to shut down exceedingly quietly, it sometimes happens when the returns just aren’t compelling or a firm grows too fast or there’s infighting or there’s not a solid succession plan.
Foundation Capital, founded in 1995, had its own kind of reckoning in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, owing to a little bit of all of these things.
Like a lot of firms that had begun to raise ever-bigger funds with ever-bigger teams, the once-small firm closed its sixth fund with $750 million in capital commitments in 2008 before it was forced to scale back dramatically, closing its seventh fund with $282 million in 2013 with a whopping eight general partners (then parting ways with half of those individuals), closing its eighth fund with $325 million in late 2015 and doing what it could to right the ship.
It plainly pulled it off. Today, the firm is announcing that it has closed its ninth fund with $350 million in capital commitments and the smallest pool of active general partners it has had in years: Ashu Garg, who joined Foundation in 2008 after spending the previous four years at Microsoft; Charles Moldow, who joined the firm in 2005, after spending the previous five years as a senior vice president at TellMe Networks (later acquired by Microsoft); and Steve Vassallo, who joined the outfit in 2007 after spending a couple of years as a VP of product and engineering at a social network co-founded by Marc Andreessen, called Ning.
A fourth general partner with Foundation’s previous funds, Paul Holland, who joined Foundation in 2001, continues to manage out his investments.
Some notable exits were surely helpful for the trio, including the IPOs of Sunrun (2015), LendingClub (2014), TubeMogul (2014) and Chegg (2013). But we’re guessing Foundation’s newer bets intrigued limited partners even more.
Among some of the firm’s most interesting deals: the biomaterials company Bolt Threads, which is growing artificial spider silk and closed its Series D round last year; Fair, the fast-growing car subscription app that has already locked down at least $1.6 billion in equity and debt funding; and Cerebras, a next-generation silicon chip company that launched publicly last month after almost three years of quiet development, surprising many with its very large and very fast processor, which houses 1.2 trillion transistors, 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory and 400,000 processing cores across its 46,225 square millimeters.
In fact, the last was incubated at Foundation’s office, and it isn’t the only company to get its start with the help of the firm. Another example of a de novo investment is States Title, an insure-tech platform that was founded in 2016 and has gone on to raise $106.6 million, according to Crunchbase.
Starting from scratch is a “more repeatable and sustainable way of building ownership in a company,” explains Moldow. By “putting teams together with a bunch of ideas,” Foundation can “build companies from whole cloth” rather than “play the auction game where prices keep getting crazier and crazier.”
Foundation’s broader staff includes partner Joanne Chen, who joined Foundation in 2014 and focuses on enterprise and AI; partner Rodolfo Gonzalez, who joined the firm in 2013 and focuses on fintech, Latin America, and crypto; and the firm’s newest partner, Li Sun, who is helping to spearhead the firm’s frontier tech practice.
The firm tends to make between 10 and 12 new investments each year, writing checks from $6 million to $10 million typically as part of a Series A deal, though it will invest as little as a few thousand dollars in the right opportunity.
As for later-stage investments, the firm does not have an opportunity fund currently, nor does it assemble special purpose vehicles, which are basically pop-up funds that come together to make an investment in a single company. Instead, says Vassallo, it facilitates direct investments into companies for its limited partners.
We get the impression that could change at some point. Indeed, the new, smaller Foundation Capital seems very focused on trying out a lot of new things.
As Moldow says, “At one point, we had nine GPs and $750 million [in fresh capital to invest]. The evolution [to the firm’s current iteration] took a lot of work. At first it was, how do you fix this? In the last five to seven years, it has been, how do we excel at this?”
Pictured above, from left to right: Charles Moldow, Steve Vassallo and Ashu Garg.
The Volocopter 2X air taxi vehicle is now the first electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) craft to fly at an international airport, fully integrated into the same airspace as other commercial passenger craft. It performed this key milestone flight at Helsinki International Airport, in a demonstration mission that showed it successfully integrated with both traditional air traffic management, and air traffic management systems designed specifically for aircraft with no pilot on board controlling the vehicle manually.
The test is intended to show that air traffic management systems which are designed for both traditional piloted flight and autonomous aircraft, including air robotaxis, can operate in concert with one another, even in areas with dense sky traffic – including over cities in future.
Volocopter, which recently unveiled a new version of its eVTOL which it intends to be the version that goes into commercial service once it launches for paying customers, ran tests at Helsinki airport along with AirMap, Altitude Angel and Unifly, all providers of air traffic management services for unpiloted aerial craft. Through the test, they determined that the Volocopter systems work well with each provider, which is a key step towards gaining certification for commercial flight.
The German startup will be flying its 2X vehicle at an event in Stuttgart on September 14, but its next major milestone will be unveiling the new VoloCity commercial craft and its prototype VoloPort take-off and landing facility in Singapore later this year.
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.
The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission, which ended in 2017, as noted by Space.com. It’s not an overall record, as geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.
The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever-increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments that can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much, as that’s just about everything involved in space flight.
There’s no crew on board operating X-37B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.
NASA began the X-37 program in 1999; it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force in 2004. The X-37B has flown four times; in total, the first four missions have completed 2,085 days in space.
Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about the flurry of IPO filings. Before that, I noted the differences between raising cash from angels vs. traditional venture capitalists.
Venture capitalists look for companies poised to disrupt markets untouched by innovative technology. Believe it or not, a very small percentage of jewelry shopping is done online, which means there’s a big opportunity — for the right team — to bring jewelry buyers and sellers to the 21st century.
Enter Pietra, a new startup that’s just raised $4 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen (Substack & Hipcamp investor). Robert Downey Jr.’s VC fund Downey Ventures and Will Smith’s fund Dreamers Fund also participated, as did Hollywood manager Scooter Braun, Michael Ovitz and supermodel Joan Smalls.
I spoke to the founding team, which includes Uber alum Ronak Trivedi and Ashley Bryan, who hails from fashion e-commerce site Moda Operandi. The pair bring a healthy mix of technology and fashion expertise to the mix. Trivedi tells TechCrunch he’s drawn on his Uber experience to recruit engineers from top tech companies and to advocate for fast growth. Meanwhile, Bryan has leveraged her fashion industry connections to establish relationships with luxury designers.
“Fashion is typically really under-resourced in terms of tech,” Bryan tells TechCrunch. “[The fashion industry] is great at the creativity part but it’s tough, especially with jewelry because you really have to put up a lot of capital.”
Pietra’s plan is to create a high-end marketplace for consumers to connect with jewelry designers. To do this, the team has adopted the standard marketplace approach, taking a 30% marketplace fee from sellers, as well as a 7% fee from buyers commissioning jewelry on the platform.
“Whether you do custom jewelry or engagement jewelry or you do jewelry for celebrities like Drake, you can come on Pietra and connect with a global marketplace,” says Trivedi.
The jewelry market is expected to be worth more than $250 billion by 2020, according to McKinsey research. And where there’s a billion-dollar market, there are VCs.
“Even though gemstones and jewelry have been at the center of art, commerce, and culture since the dawn of human civilization — going from stone jewelry created 40,000 years ago in Africa to the trade routes between East and West to Fifth Avenue in New York to the Instagram feed on your phone — the technology for discovering, designing, and purchasing jewelry online hasn’t evolved much at all,” writes a16z’s Chen, who overlapped with Trivedi during his Uber tenure.
Pietra completed its official launch this week. It has 100 designers on the platform and counting, along with what the founders say is a lengthy waitlist.
This week I published a long feature on the state of seed investing in the Bay Area. The TL;DR? Mega-funds are increasingly battling seed-stage investors for access to the hottest companies. As a result, seed investors are getting a little more creative about how they source deals. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and everyone wants a stake in The Next Big Thing. Read the story here.
Y Combinator graduated another batch of 200 companies this week. We were there both days, taking notes on each and every company. To make things easy on you, I’ve put together the ultimate YC reading list:
Here’s a look at some of the profiles we’ve written on the S19 companies:
We recorded two great episodes of Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital podcast, this week. The first was with YC CEO Michael Seibel, in which he speaks to trends at the seed stage of investing, changes at the accelerator program, including its move to San Francisco and more. You can listen to that one here. Plus, we had on Unusual Ventures co-founder and partner John Vrionis, who talked to us about direct listings versus IPOs and the future of DoorDash and Airbnb. You can listen to that one here.
Contributors Tyler Elliston and Kevin Barry share advice for B2B companies: “Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of B2B companies apply ineffective demand generation strategies to their startup. If you’re a B2B founder trying to grow your business, this guide is for you. Rule #1: B2B is not B2C. We are often dealing with considered purchases, multiple stakeholders, long decision cycles, and massive LTVs. These unique attributes matter when developing a growth strategy. We’ll share B2B best practices we’ve employed while working with awesome B2B companies like Zenefits, Crunchbase, Segment, OnDeck, Yelp, Kabbage, Farmers Business Network, and many more.” Read the full story here. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
The UK’s health data watchdog, the National Data Guardian (NDG), has published correspondence between her office and the national privacy watchdog which informed the ICO’s finding in 2017 that a data-sharing arrangement between an NHS Trust and Google-owned DeepMind broke the law.
The exchange was published following a Freedom of Information request by TechCrunch.
In fall 2015 the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind signed a data-sharing agreement which saw the medical records of 1.6 million people quietly passed to the AI company without patients being asked for their consent.
The scope of the data-sharing arrangement — ostensibly to develop a clinical task management app — was only brought to light by investigative journalism. That then triggered regulatory scrutiny — and the eventual finding by the ICO that there was no legal basis for the data to have been transferred in the first place.
Despite that, the app in question, Streams — which does not (currently) contain any AI but uses an NHS algorithm for detecting acute kidney injury — has continued being used in NHS hospitals.
DeepMind has also since announced it plans to transfer its health division to Google. Although — to our knowledge — no NHS trusts have yet signed new contracts for Streams with the ad giant.
In parallel with releasing her historical correspondence with the ICO, Dame Fiona Caldicott, the NDG, has written a blog post in which she articulates a clear regulatory position that the “reasonable expectations” of patients must govern non-direct care uses for people’s health data — rather than healthcare providers relying on whether doctors think developing such and such an app is a great idea.
The ICO had asked for guidance from the NDG on how to apply the common law duty of confidentiality, as part of its investigation into the Royal Free NHS Trust’s data-sharing arrangement with DeepMind for Streams.
In a subsequent audit of Streams that was a required by the regulator, the trust’s law firm, Linklaters, argued that a call on whether a duty of confidentiality has been breached should be judged from the point of view of the clinician’s conscience, rather than the patient’s reasonable expectations.
Caldicott writes that she firmly disagrees with that “key argument”.
“It is my firm view that it is the patient’s perspective that is most important when judgements are being made about the use of their confidential information. My letter to the Information Commissioner sets out my thoughts on this matter in some detail,” she says, impressing the need for healthcare innovation to respect the trust and confidence of patients and the public.
“I do champion innovative technologies and new treatments that are powered by data. The mainstreaming of emerging fields such as genomics and artificial intelligence offer much promise and will change the face of medicine for patients and health professionals immeasurably… But my belief in innovation is coupled with an equally strong belief that these advancements must be introduced in a way that respects people’s confidentiality and delivers no surprises about how their data is used. In other words, the public’s reasonable expectations must be met.”
“Patients’ reasonable expectations are the touchstone of the common law duty of confidence,” she adds. “Providers who are introducing new, data-driven technologies, or partnering with third parties to help develop and test them, have called for clearer guidance about respecting data protection and confidentiality. I intend to work with the Information Commissioner and others to improve the advice available so that innovation can be undertaken safely: in compliance with the common law and the reasonable expectations of patients.
“The National Data Guardian is currently supporting the Health Research Authority in clarifying and updating guidance on the lawful use of patient data in the development of healthcare technologies.”
We reached out to the Royal Free NHS Trust and DeepMind for comment on the NDG’s opinion. At the time of writing neither had responded.
In parallel, Bloomberg reported this week that DeepMind co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman, is currently on leave from the company. (Suleyman has since tweeted that the break is temporary and for “personal” reasons, to “recharge”, and that he’s “looking forward to being back in the saddle at DeepMind soon”.)
The AI research company recently touted what it couched as a ‘breakthrough’ in predictive healthcare — saying it had developed an AI model for predicting the same condition that the Streams app is intended to alert for. Although the model was built using US data from the Department of Veterans Affairs which skews overwhelmingly male.
As we wrote at the time, the episode underscores the potential value locked up in NHS data — which offers population-level clinical data that the NHS could use to develop AI models of its own. Indeed, a 2017 government-commissioned review of the life sciences sector called for a strategy to “capture for the UK the value in algorithms generated using NHS data”.
The UK government is also now pushing a ‘tech-first’ approach to NHS service delivery.
Earlier this month the government announced it’s rerouting £250M in public funds for the NHS to set up an artificial intelligence lab that will work to expand the use of AI technologies within the service.
Last fall health secretary, Matt Hancock, set out his tech-first vision of future healthcare provision — saying he wanted “healthtech” apps and services to support “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.
So there are certainly growing opportunities for developing digital healthcare solutions to support the UK’s National Health Service.
As well as — now — clearer regulatory guidance that app development that wants to be informed by patient data must first win the trust and confidence of the people it hopes to serve.
New York-based startup Tastemakers has raised a $1 million seed-round — led by Precursor Ventures — for its business that connects Africa adventures to global consumers.
Tastemakers’ platform curates, prices, and lists African travel and cultural experiences—from paragliding tours to wine-tasting to concerts.
The startup generates revenues by taking a 20% commission on each transaction. Community managers in Africa screen and select experiences that go up on the site.
Tastemakers will use the investment to grow the number of experiences offered from 200 to 10,000 and build out machine learning capabilities to better match suppliers, experiences, and clients—CEO and founder Cherae Robinson told TechCrunch.
She likened the site to an Airbnb for commoditizing and connecting people to Africa travel experiences at scale.
On the startup’s addressable market, Robinson references a segment of culture curious travelers: people who are travelling to experience things such foreign art, food, music, or dance workshops.
“We looked at who’s doing these kinds of tours and and the number of people booking…and we found that globally, based on triangulating that, there are about 700 million people globally booking culture forward experiences,” said Robinson.
For different reasons—from negative stereotypes or the difficulty of identifying tourist options in Africa—most of these excursions are occurring in other parts of the world, according to Robinson.
She sees Tastemakers’ value proposition as the site that can bring a greater percentage of these culture travelers to Africa.
On revenue potential, Robinson is pretty up front on numbers and goals. “If we can capture 1% of that [700 million] market in the next five years that’s $2.2 billion generated on our platform,” she said, noting an average booking cost of $308. She believes Tastemakers could hit those figures by 2025—and by applying their 20 percent commission—reach income of $434 million.
“I just had a sense that Africa was having a moment, and whether its Black Panther or more startups that have a foot in Africa, that there were more people interested in going to Africa,” he told TechCrunch.
“And it’s not like going to New York City…You have providers that are hard to find and hard to book..that are not super well marketed. If you can become an aggregator and curator of those, you could effectively become the largest source of lead generation,” Hudson said.
Tastemakers is looking at ancillary partnership and revenue share opportunities. It uses Stripe and WorldRemit to process mobile payments for transactions on the site and has done promotional partnerships with Uber Africa. The startup also counts Kempinski Hotels as its biggest lodging partner.
Tastemakers also offers advisory services to sellers on the site, to better determine price-points and on marketing their travel experiences more effectively online.
CEO Cherae Robinson is clear about the company’s for-profit status, but sees upside for Africa beyond generating business from tourism. “I strategically don’t brand Tastemakers as a social impact startup…but we’re driving benefits of the sharing economy to diverse populations both in Africa and in underrepresented communities in the technology and tourism sectors,” she said.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Tastemakers has closed a $1M round and is in the process of raising $1.4M total for the round.
Apple is getting ready for its usual fall iPhone launch event, which is rumored to be happening September 10, though the event hasn’t been officially confirmed this year. A new report from Bloomberg offers a preview of the lineup of hardware products Apple is looking to debut this year. There are new iPhones, of course, including a new iPhone Pro model that replaces the XS line and adds a third, wider angle rear camera (which has been rumored previously), and a refreshed iPhone XR at the entry level that will also get a second, optical zoom camera.
These new iPhone Pros would pack a lot of other updates besides, though they’ll look visually similar beyond the changed camera module. They’ll offer wireless charging for AirPods with the Qi-enabled wireless charging case, for instance, for a quick top-up when you’re the road, and they’ll also get new matte finishes on some models versus the glossy look common to all iPhone models today. Updated Face ID will offer unlocking at more angles, and they’ll pack “dramatically” better water resistance, as well as improved shatter resistance to shrive drops.
Also new this year, though not necessarily debuting at the same event, will be a new MacBook Pro with a display size somewhere over 16 inches, which Bloomberg reports will still manage to be similar overall in physical footprint to the current 15-inch MacBook Pros, thanks to a new bezel. There are also plans to roll out new AirPods, with a higher price tag but also added water-resistance and noise-canceling features that the current AirPods lack.
On the iPad side, Apple will refresh its iPad Pro this year, with updated versions of the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models that will get spec bumps, plus better cameras, but otherwise remain the same in terms of form factor. The entry-level iPad will also get an update, with a screen size increase from 9.7 inches to 10.2 inches, which could mean that it also slims down its bezel and does away with the dedicated Home button, though Bloomberg doesn’t make mention of how it will actually change to accommodate the larger display size.
Apple Watch will also be updated, with the same case design introduced last year, but with at least new case finishes, which have leaked via the watchOS 6 update as coming in titanium and ceramic.
Other planned updates in the report include details about the iPhone to follow in 2020, which it says will offer a rear-facing 3D camera, as well as 5G network support. The HomePod will also apparently get a sequel next year — a smaller version that will likely be a lot more affordable versus the current $300 speaker.
Nearly 200 startups have just graduated from the prestigious San Francisco startup accelerator Y Combinator . The flock of companies are now free to proceed company-building with a fresh $150,000 check and three-months full of tips and tricks from industry experts.
As usual, we sent several reporters to YC’s latest demo day to take notes on each company and pick our favorites. But there were many updates to the YC structure this time around and new trends we spotted from the ground that we’ve yet to share.
Does the traditional VC financing model make sense for all companies? Absolutely not. VC Josh Kopelman makes the analogy of jet fuel vs. motorcycle fuel. VCs sell jet fuel which works well for jets; motorcycles are more common but need a different type of fuel.
A new wave of Revenue-Based Investors are emerging who are using creative investing structures with some of the upside of traditional VC, but some of the downside protection of debt. I’ve been a traditional equity VC for 8 years, and I’m now researching new business models in venture capital.
I believe that Revenue-Based Investing (“RBI”) VCs are on the forefront of what will become a major segment of the venture ecosystem. Though RBI will displace some traditional equity VC, its much bigger impact will be to expand the pool of capital available for early-stage entrepreneurs.
This guest post was written by David Teten, Venture Partner, HOF Capital. You can follow him at teten.com and @dteten. This is part of an ongoing series on Revenue-Based Investing VC that will hit on:
RBI structures have been used for many years in natural resource exploration, entertainment, real estate, and pharmaceuticals. However, only recently have early-stage companies started to use this model at any scale.
According to Lighter Capital, “the RBI market has grown rapidly, contrasting sharply with a decrease in the number of early-stage angel and VC fundings”. Lighter Capital is a RBI VC which has provided over $100 million in growth capital to over 250 companies since 2012.
Lighter reports that from 2015 to 2018, the number of VC investments under $5m dropped 23% from 6,709 to 5,139. 2018 also had the fewest number of angel-led financing rounds since before 2010. However, many industry experts question the accuracy of early-stage market data, given many startups are no longer filing their Form Ds.
John Borchers, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Decathlon Capital, claims to be the largest revenue-based financing investor in the US. He said, “We estimate that annual RBI market activity has grown 10x in the last decade, from two dozen deals a year in 2010 to upwards of 200 new company fundings completed in 2018.”