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Let’s stop COVID-19 from undoing diversity gains

By Walter Thompson
Rachel Sheppard Contributor
Rachel Sheppard is the director of global marketing at global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute and co-founder of the Female Founder Initiative.

Any disaster will have its harshest repercussions on people who were already marginalized. It’s unsurprising, then, that when it comes to jobs and businesses, the COVID-19 lockdown is impacting women and ethnic minorities more than anyone else.

In April, unemployment shot up to 15.5% among women, 2.5% higher than for men. The rate was also higher among African Americans and Latinx people than for white people, with Latinx reaching a record 18.9% unemployment.

Women, especially from more disadvantaged backgrounds, are going to be taking the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities at home during the pandemic, making them more vulnerable to job cuts. At the same time, underrepresented employees in general may feel more marginalized than ever as job security is put on the line.

It’s been hard to get to where we are on diversity and inclusion. Slowly but surely, diversity and inclusion have become a highly visible element of any company. But as COVID-19 turned up the pressure for businesses around the world, that progress came under threat as D&I initiatives took a back seat. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests reignited D&I efforts in magnitude, but how can we ensure that, as time passes, those efforts are maintained with energy and determination?

This may be the shock to the system that will make business leaders realize that diversity is not an accessory or PR stunt — it is an integral part of the daily lives of each and every member of your team. Today’s consumers and your co-workers demand socially conscious companies, which is why D&I is vital to making any startup a well-rounded business. It’s also imperative for supporting economic recovery on a larger scale. Forgetting to preserve and improve D&I as we battle through COVID-19 will not only set us back years in terms of equality, it will worsen our collective chances of getting through this turbulence unscathed.

D&I matters to your business’ survival

It’s understandable that most startups today will be in survival mode. But D&I cannot be cast aside as a nonessential part of your business. It’s quite the opposite. More diversity is a known indicator for better economic performance and improves a business’ chances of thriving through a recession.

We often hear about how diversity means more innovation in a company. Consider just how important this is today. Facing a crisis with no precedent, weighing up a variety of insights and solutions is vital to finding an intelligent lockdown strategy. As business leaders, we need to know what the world around us looks like right now, and that means knowing what people of all backgrounds are experiencing.

We also can’t afford to not take into consideration the long-term effects of today’s actions. Survival can’t mean usurping what your company stands for. If you sacrifice diversity now, you might retain employees for the time being, because they’re scared of being jobless. But you will have undermined the trust that your workers place in you and you will be sure to lose them far more easily once the situation eases. This is very true for customers too — the crisis is driving the public to support purpose-driven and diverse businesses more than ever, and you will be left out if you don’t meet those values.

Even if you’re not hiring, work on diversity and inclusion

So how can a startup keep diversity a priority in this strange new world? Sure, you may not be hiring, but that’s not the only way to improve diversity. Take this time to revisit your internal culture. The virus is forcing us to see our business from different angles — we’re looking into the homes of our co-workers, hearing about the personal issues affecting their work lives and about the work issues affecting their personal lives. Let’s make sure your company culture is not part of the problem.

You need to be accessible. Are some of your employees scared to speak up about their issues? Is there a big morale problem that you haven’t been able to alleviate? If so, then you need to work on making your workspace more inclusive, open and friendly. This is more than building up team spirit with morning coffee Zoom get-togethers and after-work networking. It’s about weeding out any systems that bring repercussions to people who voice their concerns; it’s about encouraging them to do so; it’s about recognizing every member of a team and every person in a meeting, not just the executives present.

The lockdown has shown that many people can work remotely, effectively. Can you use this in future to give employees a greater chance of success — perhaps those who live far from the office, or who have children or elderly relatives to care for? Many HR departments are probably focusing efforts away from hiring at the moment and could instead be put in charge of employee success, which means identifying and addressing the unique concerns of each of your staff (you might even consider assigning a full-time staff member to this role).

This is key to making your company a welcoming place for underrepresented employees who are often more wary of their circumstances than their co-workers, both now and in the future. It will help them grow and want to stay in the company, as well as attract a more diverse employee pool in the future.

In case you are hiring, there are innovative solutions to help you attract more diverse applicants to your company. Joonko’s technology integrates to your applicant tracking system to boost the visibility of underrepresented potential hires. Pitch.Me aims to tackle bias by presenting candidate profiles anonymously, including only relevant information about experience and skills but with no information regarding gender, age or ethnic background. Services like DiTal help tech businesses connect with potential employees from diverse backgrounds.

Reassess what internal success looks like

Before COVID-19, the key performance indicators for your business might have been the number of sales per rep, or the number of leads generated in a week. Those quotas are now unrealistic, and more importantly, they’ll be tougher to reach for employees with less time on their hands. That means people with more caregiving responsibilities — often women — or with less disposable income, and statistics show that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be affected by the virus.

You have to create a work environment in which people with less time and resources can still achieve their professional goals. We typically hear that 80% of the most valuable work takes up 20% of a team’s time; well, let’s make sure your staff is focusing most of their efforts on that 20% of valuable energy. Build a new business plan that reassesses what the company needs to achieve in the near future, and set new metrics that hyperfocus on that bottom line. Think about how important it is to each of your co-workers’ morale to be able to meet their goals day in day out, despite today’s challenges. Furthermore, being adaptable for the benefit of your staff is an admirable quality that will not easily be forgotten.

An important note — helping everyone reach success means giving everyone the resources to do so. No one in your company should be unequipped to this “new normal,” which means good laptops or devices and speedy internet. Don’t hesitate to invest in people who need it.

Prioritize career development

Career development is vital for underrepresented employees, for whom upward mobility is always harder. People from minority backgrounds tend to have less robust business networks, exactly because they are the minority in the business world. We can never stop fighting this vicious cycle.

So take a look at your team and think about who you can help ascend in their career. Prioritize underrepresented people now because they are more likely to get hit harder by the lockdown and have a tougher recovery. Even if you don’t see it from an altruistic perspective, including underrepresented employees in your leadership now will lead to better economic local recovery and improved outcomes for your company.

One option is sponsorship programs in which you or other senior leaders advocate on behalf of selected employees (as well as acting as their mentors). Think of it as equally distributing the networks and influence accumulated by business leaders among a more diverse pool of people.

Bring diversity into your brand

We’ve looked inward, now let’s look outward. How can you change how your industry looks, even in times of crisis. To reach the huge visible changes we’ve seen in, for example, branding in the fashion industry, took influential people making decisions at powerful tables. But it would be ironically easy to see things regress to a more heterogeneous state.

Stopping this from happening means making those big decisions yourself, and uniting others in joining you. Leverage your brand and bring your internal diversity to the forefront of everything you do — the mentors who give their time to startup organizations, the speakers you put forward for online events. Make a conscious push for your external marketing to display as much diversity as possible, especially amid fears that the advertising space will compromise its diversity standards in response to COVID-19.

Support other underrepresented founders

If you have the resources, help struggling founders get through the lockdown. There may be small or mid-sized women or minority-led companies within your community that need your support. If you’re sending employees care packages and gifts, make the extra effort to source them from underrepresented local businesses. It’s not hard to do — there are organizations that can help you connect to such companies around the United States, such as Women Owned’s business directory and Help Main Street.

Large companies can work with Hello Alice to directly fund smaller companies founded by every underrepresented group in the United States, from veterans to LGBTQ+. IFundWomen is a large network of women-founded businesses you can choose to fund — or join — and it has a wing specifically for businesses owned by women of color. As a business leader you can always be seeking out diverse founders to collaborate with; For example, check out this amazing list of Latinx founders catering to the United States’ enormous Latinx markets, as well as finding solutions to improve diversity in business.

The NAACP has fought for equal rights for people of color for over a century. You can support them and their ongoing work, which ranges from campaigning for crucial reforms to spotlighting emerging Black-owned businesses.

Now’s not the time to slack on diversity. As tempting as it might be to think of it as an accessory, it’s just as vital now for your business to get through the pandemic and to stop your entire industry from losing decades of hard-earned progress in building a more equal society.

Are virtual concerts here to stay?

By Eric Peckham

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the music industry to experiment seriously with virtual concerts.

Historically, musicians and their managers have been careful about challenging the traditional concert model that became their main source of income as revenue from album sales disappeared.

Is the current surge of virtual concerts here to stay or will it be abandoned as soon as large in-person gatherings are permitted again and the novelty of concerts in Fortnite wears off?

For the middle tier of recording artists, virtual concerts are shaping up to be a worthwhile part of their business portfolio, generating healthy income and engaging a geographically dispersed base of core fans. For the top tier of artists — those who perform in stadiums and arenas — the opportunity cost of virtual concerts doesn’t make financial sense to do very often once in-person concerts return. That said, a couple such performances each year can unlock a lot of the untapped potential revenue from fans who can’t attend their normal concerts.

Virtual concerts are having their moment

There’s no opportunity cost to trying a virtual concert during a pandemic. Artists aren’t performing, touring, shooting videos or even doing in-person sessions with songwriters. With everyone stuck at home, fans will forgive a disappointing attempt at performing online and artists have time to experiment. Live Nation, the dominant concert promotion and venue management company, has even converted its site to curating a schedule of virtual performances.

Virtual concerts have been growing in three formats: video streaming platforms, within the virtual worlds of video games and virtual reality.

Concerts via video

Why I flip-flopped on opposing remote work

By Walter Thompson
David Cancel Contributor
David Cancel, a five-time entrepreneur and author of the book "Conversational Marketing," is CEO and founder of Drift.
More posts by this contributor

Most people would agree that a chief revenue officer is a pretty significant hire, but I have yet to meet mine in person. Right now, our only face-to-face interaction is over video. In fact, that’s how our relationship began — like many business leaders during this pandemic, I had to hire Todd through a series of video calls.

The pandemic has caused me to question and reevaluate many of my own assumptions. This not only led me to hire our CRO remotely, but it is ultimately why I also decided to allow employees to work from home until 2021.

While it’s tempting to call this a pivot, those who have worked with me would probably describe it more accurately as a flip-flop. I used to believe that you could build an in-person culture or a remote work culture, but that a hybrid of the two was destined to fail.

The realities of COVID-19 have not just changed my outlook, but transformed the way I think about how work should get done —and how leaders need to show up for their team, even if they can’t “show up” in any physical sense.

The remote work debate changed in an instant

Before the pandemic, the debate over remote work revolved around its perceived impact on productivity, collaboration, employee engagement and culture.

Walmart partners with Tribeca to turn 160 store parking lots into drive-in theaters

By Brian Heater

Just ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, Walmart announced a partnership with Tribeca Enterprises (most notably the purveyors of the film festival of the same name) that’s set to convert 160 store locations into makeshift drive-in movie theaters.

The move is an extension of the existing Tribeca-led Drive-In program that has already announced events for a handful of cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Seattle and Arlington, Texas, with help from IMAX and AT&T. The Hollywood Reporter has a bit more detail about the new initiative. Details are still pretty thin, but the involvement of such a ubiquitous retailer could help extend the program to communities outside of the aforementioned urban centers.

Starting in August at select Walmart stores, we’re partnering with @Tribeca and rolling out the red carpet for drive-in movie premieres, complete with car-side 🍿and 🥤service. Stay tuned for more details. See you at the movies!

— Walmart (@Walmart) July 1, 2020

Walmart Drive-In follows a number of smaller scale initiatives that have helped the largely extinguished category see a resurgence as consumers are understandably wary of returning to an indoor theater experience as COVID-19 continues to spike across the country. Most theaters have relied on older films — in fact, Jurassic Park recently hit number one at the U.S. box office nearly 30 years after its release on the strength of the new trend.

The Walmart screenings are set for August through October, with Tribeca at the helm of the film selection. No word yet on the schedule, but Tribeca’s previously announced selection includes Selena, The Bodyguard, Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Jerry Maguire, Space Jam, Love & Basketball, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, Mean Girls, Superbad, Girls Trip, Bridesmaids, Talladega Nights, The Fast and The Furious, Goldfinger, Casino Royale,  Inside Out, The Lego Movie and Spy Kids.

High-flying IPOs for Lemonade and Accolade may encourage other unicorns to go public

By Alex Wilhelm

If you’d predicted in late March and early April that Q3 would kick off with a wide-open IPO market and receptive investors, I doubt anyone would have believed you. If you suggested that valuations would look pretty good as well, you might even have been laughed at.

And yet, here we are.

The Exchange is a daily look at startups and the private markets for Extra Crunch subscribers; use code EXCHANGE to get full access and take 25% off your subscription.

Yesterday Lemonade and Accolade priced above their expected ranges, with Lemonade pricing above its raised range and Accolade selling more shares than expected. It’s hard to read the moves as anything other than the market demanding growth-oriented equities and not worrying too much about profitability.

Or more precisely: it’s the golden moment to go public for unprofitable unicorns seeking liquidity but worried about defending their private-market valuations. This sentiment is backed up by Agora’s solid pricing and explosive debut in recent days.

How long this public market moment will last is not clear. With the United States recording 50,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day yesterday and the national economy beginning to slow once again, perhaps the window is short. Perhaps not — we were wrong before about the IPO market in 2020, so let’s not get too hasty to make more predictions — but it is clear that Q4 2019 wasn’t the only time when unicorns might have been able to attract the prices they wanted.

This morning let’s briefly go over the final pricing for Lemonade and Accolade, and give them new revenue multiples ahead of their first days as trading entities. We need to start their public life knowing how they were valued ahead of their debut so that we can better understand the next set of companies that are bold enough to get off their backside and go public.

Roll out the welcome mat

We’ve abused every possible IPO metaphor in recent weeks. Open windows. Warm waters. But without cliché, we can state that IPOs are performing very well in recent weeks, with IPO Boutique reporting this morning that 17 of the last 27 IPOs have priced above the range that they first set.

State-backed COVID-19 disinfo spreads faster and farther than local news outlets in 4 languages

By Devin Coldewey

Questionable stories on COVID-19 from state-backed outlets in Russia, China, Turkey and Iran are being shared more widely than reporting by major news organizations around the world, according to Oxford analysts. French, German, Spanish and English news sites see far less social engagement than these foreign-originated ones in their languages.

The study is part of ongoing monitoring of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns by the Computational Propaganda Project. The group found that major outlets like Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais are being out-shared four or five to one in some metrics by content from Russia Today, China Radio International, and other state-backed organizations.

Earlier reports focused on English-language sharing of this type of media, which can be generally described as fact-adjacent with a strong emphasis on certain narratives.

The repeated finding was that although mainstream news outlets have an overall stronger presence, state-backed and junk news is way ahead in engagement per post or article. In the latest report it is shown that on average, mainstream articles collect about 25 engagements per post, while state-backed items get 125. When multiplied by millions of users and followers, that becomes an enormous discrepancy.

There is more nuance to the data than that, of course, but it gives a general idea of what’s happening: Disinformation is being spread widely, whether by bots or organic reach, while ordinary news sources only reach a similar amount of people through more output and wider initial reach. It wasn’t, however, clear whether this was the case outside English-language media.

It certainly seems to be, according to data collected over three weeks from a variety of news sources. Mainstream media had a larger overall reach, but state-backed media often produced far higher engagement per article. This is perhaps explained by the fact that the state-backed organizations tended to pursue and push controversies and divisive narratives. As the study puts it:

  • Russian outlets working in French and German consistently emphasized weak democratic institutions and civil disorder in Europe, but offered different kinds of conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
  • Chinese and Turkish outlets working in Spanish promoted their own countries’ global leadership in combating the pandemic, while Russian and Iranian outlets generated polarizing content targeted at Latin America and Spanish-speaking social media users in the United States.

That sort of clickbait spreads like wildfire on social media, of course, and few of those who thoughtlessly hit that share button will have the inclination to check whether the source is a government-backed news agency plainly attempting to sow discord.

On the other hand, it seems as if some consider turnabout fair play.

For example, a Chinese state-backed news countering the flourishing U.S. conspiracy theory that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon with a counter-theory that it is a U.S. bioweapon released in and blamed on China.

“Many of these state-backed outlets blend reputable, fact-based reporting about the coronavirus with misleading or false information, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Oxford’s Katarian Rebello in a news release.

The countries and state-backed outlets mentioned also have a major presence in Arabic-language markets and the researchers are working on a follow-up study inclusive of those.

Google confirms US offices will remain closed until at least September, as COVID-19 spikes

By Brian Heater

A few months back, Google announced plans to reopen some U.S. offices after the July 4th holiday. But the best-laid plans, and all of that. Things have obviously not been going great in terms of the United States’ battle with COVID-19, and Google once again finds itself proceeding on the side of caution.

As was first reported by Bloomberg, Google has since confirmed with TechCrunch that it will be pushing back reopening at least until September 7, after the Labor Day holiday in the States. Along with other tech giants like Facebook, Google has noted that it will continue to offer employees the option of working from home through the remainder of the year.

It’s a smart choice, as many no doubt still feel uncomfortable returning to an office situation — not to mention questions around the public transit that many use to get there. Twitter, meanwhile, made waves in May by announcing that employees would be allowed to indefinitely work remotely.

Yesterday, the United States reported more than 47,000 new COVID-19 cases, marking the biggest single-day spike since the beginning of the pandemic.

Arizona, Florida and Texas have all become epicenters as many other states have seen their own increases in recent weeks. Reopening plans have been put on hold or rolled back in many locales, amid increased concern over the virus’s continued spread. It seems likely that other big tech companies will delay their own reopening plans. In most cases, shifting back to the office simply isn’t worth the risk. 

VCs see much to like in Democrats’ $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act

By Jonathan Shieber

“The Moving Forward Act reads like a $1.5 trillion validation of our fund’s thesis — that upgrading cities and related infrastructure is key to fighting the existential threat of climate change and improving lives,” said Stonly Baptiste, co-founder and partner at venture capital fund Urban Us.

Democrats in Congress are wrestling with the twin problems of mass unemployment and a long-delayed need to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. Now, with just 124 days until the election, the party is building a platform that supports national funding to boost employment and develop more sustainable infrastructure heavily focused on renewables.

Some venture investors have long supported aspects of the bill, but persistent gridlock made any movement on new policy unlikely — at least in the near term. The proposed legislation contains provisions that would use $1.5 trillion to overhaul the nation’s transportation infrastructure, schools, affordable housing, renewable energy capacity and postal service.

“[In] this time of strong political division in Washington, D.C., we’ll have to see what if anything can get done on this topic in the Senate. I do have some hope that as we get closer to the election, standing in the way of clean energy is going to be seen by many in the Senate as a vote-loser, and that could sway some votes to support something bipartisan,” said Rob Day, a longtime investor in sustainable technologies and a general partner at Spring Lane Capital. “But I’m not really expecting anything to come close to what’s in this House bill. So as an investor I support what they’re doing here, but I’m not yet changing any investment strategies around it.”

Baptiste said investors already support many of the initiatives under the Moving America Forward Act, but the incentives proposed under the Democratic plan could redouble those efforts.

“In general, it seems like it would incentivize private capital to further align and mobilize in the climate-change battle,” Baptiste said. “Over the last 10 years, VC capital has been increasingly invested in transit in general and there is a 20-year history in the clean energy sector.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Indian startups diversify their businesses to offset COVID-19 induced losses

By Manish Singh

E-commerce giant Flipkart is planning to launch a hyperlocal service that would enable customers to buy items from local stores and have those delivered to them in an hour and a half or less. Yatra, an online travel and hotel ticketing service, is exploring a new business line altogether: Supplying office accessories.

Flipkart and Yatra are not the only firms eyeing new business categories. Dozens of firms in the country have branched out by launching new services in recent weeks, in part to offset the disruption the COVID-19 epidemic has caused to their core offerings.

Swiggy and Zomato, the nation’s largest food delivery startups, began delivering alcohol in select parts of the country last month. The move came weeks after the two firms, both of which are seeing fewer orders and had to let go hundreds of employees, started accepting orders for grocery items in a move that challenged existing online market leaders BigBasket and Grofers.

Udaan, a business-to-business marketplace, recently started to accept bulk orders from some housing societies and is exploring more opportunities in the business-to-commerce space, the startup told TechCrunch.

These shifts came shortly after New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown meant that all public places including movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, and public transport were suspended.

Instead of temporarily halting their businesses altogether, as many have done in other markets, scores of startups in India have explored ways to make the most out of the current unfortunate spell.

“This pandemic has given an opportunity to the Indian tech startup ecosystem to have a harder look at the unit-economics of their businesses and become more capital efficient in the shorter and longer-term,” Puneet Kumar, a growth investor in Indian startup ecosystem, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Of the few things most Indian state governments have agreed should remain open include grocery shops, and online delivery services for grocery and food.

People buy groceries at a supermarket during the first day of the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bangalore on March 25, 2020. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

E-commerce firms Snapdeal and DealShare began grocery delivery service in late March. The move was soon followed by social-commerce startup Meesho, fitness startup Curefit, and BharatPe, which is best known for facilitating mobile payments between merchants and users.

Meesho’s attempt is still in the pilot stage, said Vidit Aatrey, the Facebook-backed startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We started grocery during the lockdown to give some income opportunities to our sellers and so far it has shown good response. So we are continuing the pilot even after lockdown has lifted,” he said.

ClubFactory, best known for selling low-cost beauty items, has also started to deliver grocery products, and so has NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that connects apartment seekers with property owners. And MakeMyTrip, a giant that provides solutions to book flight and hotel tickets, has entered the food delivery market.

Another such giant, BookMyShow, which sells movie tickets, has in recent weeks rushed to support online events, helping comedians and other artists sell tickets online. The Mumbai-headquartered firm plans to make further inroads around this business idea in the coming days.

For some startups, the pandemic has resulted in accelerating the launch of their product cycles. CRED, a Bangalore-based startup that is attempting to help Indians improve their financial behavior by paying their credit card bill on time, launched an instant credit line and apartment rental services.

Kunal Shah, the founder and chief executive of CRED, said the startup “fast-tracked the launch” of these two products as they could prove immensely useful in the current environment.

For a handful of startups, the pandemic has meant accelerated growth. Unacademy, a Facebook-backed online learning startup, has seen its user base and subscribers count surge in recent months and told TechCrunch that it is in the process of more than doubling the number of exam preparation courses it offers on its platform in the next two months.

Since March, the number of users who access the online learning service each day has surged to 700,000. “We have also seen a 200% increase in viewers per week for the free live classes offered on the platform. Additionally there has been a 50% increase in paid subscribers and over 50% increase in average watchtime per day among our subscribers,” a spokesperson said.

As with online learning firms, firms operating on-demand video streaming services have also seen a significant rise in the number of users they serve. Zee5, which has amassed over 80 million users, told TechCrunch last week that in a month it will introduce a new category in its app that would curate short-form videos produced and submitted by users. The firm said the feature would look very similar to TikTok.

The pandemic “has also accelerated the adoption of online services in India across all demographics. Many who would not have considered buying goods and services online are starting to adopt the online platforms for basic necessities at a faster pace,” said venture capitalist Kumar.

“As far as expansion into adjacent categories is concerned, some of this was a natural progression and startups were slowly moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic has forced people to get there faster.”

Roosh, a Mumbai-based game developing firm founded by several industry veterans, launched a new app ahead of schedule that allows social influencers to promote games on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Deepak Ail, co-founder and chief executive of Roosh, told TechCrunch.

ShareChat, a Twitter-backed social network, recently acquired a startup called Elanic to explore opportunities in social-commerce. OkCredit, a bookkeeping service for merchants, has been exploring ways to allow users to purchase items from neighborhood stores.

And NowFloats, a Mumbai-based SaaS startup that helps businesses and individuals build an online presence without any web developing skills, is on-boarding doctors to help people consult with medical professionals.

Startups are not the only businesses that have scrambled to eye new categories. Established firms such as Carnival Group, which is India’s third-largest multiplex theatre chain, said it is foraying into cloud kitchen business.

Amazon, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, has also secured approval from West Bengal to deliver alcohol in the nation’s fourth most populated state. The e-commerce giant is also exploring ways to work with mom and pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns of India.

Last week, the American giant launched “Smart Stores” that allows shoppers to walk to a participating physical store, scan a QR code, and pick and purchase items through the Amazon app. The firm, which is supplying these mom and pop stores with software and QR code, said more than 10,000 shops are participating in the Smart Stores program.

Newzoo forecasts 2020 global games industry will reach $159 billion

By Eric Peckham

Games and esports analytics firm Newzoo released its highly cited annual report on the size and state of the video gaming industry yesterday. The firm is predicting 2020 global game industry revenue from consumers of $159.3 billion, a 9.3% increase year-over-year. Newzoo predicts the market will surpass $200 billion by the end of 2023.

Importantly, the data excludes in-game advertising revenue (which surged +59% during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to Unity) and the market of gaming digital assets traded between consumers. Advertising within games is a meaningful source of revenue for many mobile gaming companies. In-game ads in just the U.S. drove roughly $3 billion in industry revenue last year, according to eMarketer.

To compare with gaming, the global markets for other media and entertainment formats are:

Counting gamers

Of 7.8 billion people on the planet, 4.2 billion (53.6%) of whom have internet connectivity, 2.69 billion will play video games this year, and Newzoo predicts that number to reach three billion in 2023. It broke down the current geographic distribution of gamers as:

  • 1,447 million (54%) in Asia-Pacific
  • 386 million (14%) in Europe
  • 377 million (14%) in Middle East & Africa
  • 266 million (10%) in Latin America
  • 210 million (8%) in North America

Who really benefits from reskilling?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Nearly 40 million Americans are unemployed, and a recent study that examined more than 66,000 tech job layoffs found that sales and customer success roles are most vulnerable amid COVID-19. In response, some quarters of Silicon Valley are abuzz about a long-standing technology: reskilling, or training individuals to adopt an entirely new skillset or career for employment.

As millions look for a way to reenter the workforce, the question arises: Who really benefits from reskilling technology?

That depends on how you look at it, said Jomayra Herrera, a senior associate at Cowboy Ventures. Reskilling for a well-networked manager looks a lot different than it does for someone who doesn’t have as much leverage, and the vast majority of people fall into the latter. Not everyone has a friend at Google or Twitter to help them skip the online application and get right to the decision-makers.

Beyond the accessibility offered by live online classes, she pointed to the difference between assets and opportunities.

“You can give someone access to something, but it’s not true access unless they have the tools and structure to really engage with it,” Herrera said. In other words, how useful is content around reskilling if the company doesn’t support job placement post-training.

Herrera said companies must give individuals opportunities to test skills with real work and navigate the career path. Her mother, who did not go to college and speaks English as a second language, is looking to pursue training online. Before she can proceed, however, she has to surmount hurdles like language support, resume creation, job search and other challenges.

All of a sudden, content feels like a commodity, regardless of if it has active and social learning components. It’s part of the reason that MOOCs (massive open online courses) feel so stale.

Udacity, for example, was almost out of cash in 2018 and laid off more than half of its team in the past two years, according to The New York Times. Now, like other edtech companies, it is facing surges in usage.

Near Space Labs expands high-altitude Earth imagery to Texas and ramps remote deployment

By Darrell Etherington

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has had a number of unexpected impacts on global economic activity – most of them negative. But the pandemic has also highlighted the need for alternative solutions to challenges where traditional solutions now prove either too costly, or too difficult to do while maintaining good health and safety practices. Near Space Labs, a startup focused on providing timely, location-specific, high resolution Earth imaging from balloons in the stratosphere, is one company that has found its model remarkably well-suited to the conditions that have arisen due to the coronavirus crisis.

Near Space Labs is in the process of expanding its offering to Texas, with some imagery already collected, and the team in active conversations with a number of potential customers about subscribing to its imaging services ahead of launching the first full batch of collected imagery by early next month. Adding a new geography in the middle of a pandemic required Near Space Labs to move up the development of a way for it to easily ship and deploy its balloon-lofted imaging equipment using remote instruction with local technical talent, which now means it’s ready to effectively spin up an imaging operation very quickly, on-demand basically anywhere in the world, with simple, minimal training to onboard and equip local operators on-demand.

“With travel restrictions, we had to figure out how to deploy hardware in a fully remote way,” explained Near Space Labs’ CEO Rema Matevosyan. “That had been a challenge that we wanted to tackle at some point, for our scalability – but instead we had to tackle that ASAP. Today, I’m really proud to say that the Swift, our robotic vehicles are able to be shipped anywhere on the globe in a small suitcase. And with a few videos, and a manual, it’s super easy to train new people to launch.”

Swift is basically a sophisticated camera attached to a balloon that flies between 60,000 and 85,000 feet, with short duration flights that can nonetheless capture up to 270 square miles of imagery at 30cm per inch resolution in a single pass. Swift is also designed to be able to go up frequently, making trips up to as frequently as twice per day, and it’s designed to provide quick turnaround times for processed images, compared to long potential waits for imaging from geosynchronous or even LEO satellites based on orbital schedules, ground station transmission times and other factors.

Image Credits: Near Space Labs

And because Near Space Labs can basically ship its imaging equipment in a suitcase and have just about anyone train quickly to use it effectively, vs. having to build a satellite that requires delivery via rocket and operation by highly trained engineers, it can offer considerable savings vs. the space-based competition – at a time when cost sensitivity for public institutions and the organizations looking for this kind of data aren’t eager to open their wallets.

“In these uncertain economic times, margins and fiscal responsibility become very important for people,” Matevosyan explained. “We have the perfect solution for that – our approach is very flexible, very low-cost. Even states are ‘bankrupt,’ – so everybody’s looking for ways to improve their margins, and to improving their spend.”

Matevosyan told me that Near Space Labs has seen an uptick in interest in its product from two directions as a result of the ongoing global economic shifts – first, there are customers who have traditionally sourced this imaging from satellite providers and who are looking for cost savings and a product that more closely fits their geographic and timing needs. Second, there are organizations looking to start using this kind of imagery for the first time, as an alternative to in-person inspection or sensing, because of the ways in which COVID-19 has put restrictions on workforces.

“COVID also put a spotlight in general on the remote sensing industry, because people are unable to, for instance, go down to the assets or the sites that they usually would check manually,” she said. “So that started looking into remote sensing solutions, and we saw an uptick in applications and signups to our imagery. One example industry where that’s happening is conservation. Conservation wasn’t a vertical that was super active in our pipeline. But suddenly with COVID, it became pretty active.”

Matevosyan says that it took Near Space just “days” to ramp a new technical team to be able to launch its Swifts in Texas, and that’s representative of the speed at which it can now scale to establish imaging basically anywhere in the world. Flexibility and scalability were always key assets of the business, she says, but the COVID crisis pushed that essential value to the forefront, and could help propel the company’s growth a lot quicker than expected.

Squire balances clean fades with the coronavirus

By Natasha Mascarenhas

As far as pandemic-proof businesses go, a startup for barbershops isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind — unless you raised millions just days before barbershops were shut down across the country.

Dave Salvant and Songe LaRon, co-founders of New York-based Squire, a back-end barbershop management tool for independent businesses they launched in 2016, raised a $34 million Series B led by CRV in early March (after raising $8 million in a Series A round led by Trinity Ventures in 2018). Days later, “everything went to zero,” LaRon recalls of their customer base: all barbershops closed.

The cash quickly went from an opportunistic raise to needed capital. Squire waived all subscription fees, created a site for information called and launched a way for patrons to buy online gift cards for their favorite shops. One barbershop sold more than $30,000 in just a few days.

After weathering a hard few months, Squire is now enjoying high demand from barbershops preparing to reopen. The company provides cashless payment, a way to make appointments and is experimenting with a virtual waiting room, all features that barbershops post-pandemic are considering. It is currently live in 45 cities.

During shelter-in-place, some of us have been forced to cut our own hair, as shown by virtual haircuts done over Zoom and even a VC-hosted haircut workshop. But a DIY session won’t replace the intimacy of a barbershop.

Barbershops have long served as gathering places for Black and African American communities as a place to chat, be vulnerable and complain.

In recent years, the culture has moved more into mainstream conversation. Today, there is an entire talk show series, produced by LeBron James, where guests chat while getting a cut. In Atlanta, there’s a singular Atlanta barbershop that serves as an informal gathering ground for the city’s top politicians.

“We learned it resonated with men from all walks of life, all races, and ethnicities and was really kind of a universal experience. So we saw an opportunity for a tech company,” LaRon said.


Salvant and LaRon thought of barbershops as places of comfort long before they saw them as a place of business.

“Barbers are part-time therapists for guys,” LaRon said in an interview with TechCrunch.

Salvant and LaRon, friends and then-students at Columbia who were living in Harlem, saw barbershops grow in cultural relevance while the technology behind them remained largely untouched. Long wait-times, cash-only and scheduling woes continued to be problems that they themselves faced every time they got their hair cut.

Squire lets businesses schedule appointments, offer loyalty programs and install contactless and cashless payment. The team claims that barbershop operations are more complex than many other types of small businesses because there are multiple parties transacting, plus customers might check out different services from different barbers all within one service. That’s where Squire comes in — to be a point of sale to manage those confusing transactions.

“We don’t want to replace that relationship a guy had with the barber,” said Salvant. “We just wanted to take away all the annoying things about it.”

Squire makes money by charging a monthly fee based on size and needs of the barbershop, ranging from $30 to $250 per month.

A threat to Squire’s success are small and medium business payment infrastructure companies like Square. The co-founders were confident, noting that Squire is the only venture-backed business that exclusively tailors itself on barbershops, and thus will be the best solution for those businesses. Los-Angeles based Boulevard raised money in November for its salon and spa management software.

But Squire thinks barbershop subculture is niche enough that salon technology doesn’t do the job. Barbers want to partner with businesses that are as passionate as they are.

“They don’t look at it as a job, they look at it as a life calling,” LaRon said.

The high bar is precisely why a healthy chunk of Squire’s early days were defined by LaRon and Salvant sitting in barbershop chairs and asking a lot of questions. In fact, Salvant says he got his haircut by nearly 600 different barbers.

Songe LaRon and Dave Salvant, the co-founders of Squire (Image Credit: Squire).

“Part of them trusting you and you trust them happens if you sit down and get a haircut,” Salvant said. By and large, the feedback the co-founder got from barbers was that they needed a solution for the entire shop, as opposed to Squire’s original product aimed at a customer or individual barber. It gave them the faith to go for a vertical solution versus assuming a horizontal solution such as Square would do the job.

Reid Christian, an investor at Charles River Ventures (CRV) who was part of the Series B, said that he knew Squire would be a success when he experienced the product at Rust Belt Barbering in Buffalo, New York. Christian compared Squire to a “Venmo-like experience” with transactions. He estimates billions of dollars in men’s grooming spend.

When shops broadly reopen, Squire is in a good, timely spot to be adopted by the masses. For the co-founders, the incoming wave of interest was affirmed a long time ago.

Last year, the duo attended the Connecticut Barber Expo. It was an aha moment, as they witnessed over 15,000 pilgrimage over to Connecticut to learn about the industry.

“Most people don’t know about it, most people wouldn’t believe it until they saw it,” Salvant said. “It serves as a reminder how powerful it is.”

Apple temporarily re-closes 14 more Florida stores as COVID-19 numbers surge

By Brian Heater

After closing stores across four states, this was no doubt a bit of an inevitable: Following reporting earlier today, Apple has confirmed that it will be shutting down an additional 14 stores in Florida, joining the two it closed last week.

The company sent a statement to TechCrunch that is essentially identical to the one it gave us last week, reading, “Due to current COVID-19 conditions in some of the communities we serve, we are temporarily closing stores in these areas. We take this step with an abundance of caution as we closely monitor the situation and we look forward to having our teams and customers back as soon as possible.”

The move comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the southern states. On Wednesday, state officials reported north of 5,000 new infections for the second straight day. In all, Florida has experienced more than 114,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,000 deaths, ranking sixth among all states by number of infections.

As noted last week, Apple had earlier confirmed the possibility of closed locations as soon as it began to reopen select locations in May. The full list of newly closed Florida stores includes:

  • The Galleria
  • The Falls
  • Aventura
  • Lincoln Road
  • Dadeland
  • Brickell City Centre
  • Wellington Green
  • Boca Raton
  • The Gardens Mall
  • Millenia
  • Florida Mall
  • Altamonte
  • International Plaza
  • Brandon

The Waterside Shops and Coconut Point stores were closed last week. Locations in Arizona and North and South Carolina have also been closed following reopening.

NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it, and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that its simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modelling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn between six inches and 1 foot from the head around the neck, which can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using gan IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple – but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer to hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 – contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing’s the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combinatory effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result – but work still needs to be done to understand how well that works, and how it could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s Pulse has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

Even amid the pandemic, this newly funded travel startup is tackling the stodgy timeshare market

By Connie Loizos

The world is rife with me-too startups, which makes it all the more refreshing when a founder comes along that manages to find a broken market that’s hiding in plain sight.

That’s what Mike Kennedy appears to be doing with Koala, a young outfit determined to update the stodgy world of property time-share management, wherein people acquire points or otherwise pay for a unit at a timeshare resort that they intend to regularly use or swap or rent out (or all three).

It’s a big and growing market. According to data published last year by EY, the U.S. timeshare industry grew nearly 7% between 2017 and 2018 to hit $10.2 billion in sales volume.

It’s a market that Kennedy became acquainted with first-hand as a sales executive at the Hilton Club in New York, which, at least in 2018, was among 1,580 timeshare resorts up and running, representing approximately 204,100 units, most of them with two bedrooms or more.

Despite this growth, timeshares don’t jump to travelers’ minds as readily as hotel rooms or Airbnb stays, and therein lies the opportunity.

Part of the problem, as Kennedy see it, is that timeshares are harder to rent out than they should be. If a timeshare owner wants to reserve a week outside of the week that he or she purchased, for example, that person has to go through an antiquated exchange system like RCI (owned by Wyndam) or Interval International (owned by Marriott). Kennedy, who spent 10 years with Hilton, says he saw a number of his customers grow frustrated over time with their inability to better control their units’ usage.

When will California’s retail foot traffic return to normal?

By Walter Thompson
John Kelly Contributor
John Kelly is the CEO of Zenreach, the walk-through company that helps merchants connect the online and offline world through in-store WiFi and digital marketing.

Looking only at the data for the first two months of 2020, you might have been tempted to declare — and not without good reason — that it was shaping up to be a banner year for brick-and-mortar retailers. In the last week of February, national in-store traffic was up 3.5% compared to the previous year. California’s walk-in numbers were just a hair below the 2019 figures during that same period, hovering in the 97%-99% range. The U.S. had experienced 23 consecutive quarters of GDP growth, one of the longest such periods in modern history. It felt to many like there was nothing that could cool down America’s red-hot economy.

And then, beginning in early March, the bottom fell out. As the novel coronavirus outbreak proliferated across the country and around the world (and as state and local governments wrestled with how to control it), foot traffic dropped precipitously across the board. By the end of the month, nationwide retail walk-ins were at a paltry 27.1% of the previous year’s figures. California didn’t fare much better, with foot traffic falling to 30.3% at month’s end. Furthermore, both California and the U.S. as a whole hit foot traffic low points in mid-April, with walk-ins at a mere 26.1% and 25.2%, respectively.

One particularly interesting insight we’ve gleaned from our data is that this steep decline in retail foot traffic began well before most states had issued shelter-in-place orders. For context, only eight states had implemented quarantine orders by March 23, and yet nationwide walk-ins had already dropped by 59.7% from the level they were just two weeks prior. California experienced a nearly identical drop of 58.8% in that same span.

This early decline was likely due (at least in part) to the fact that some of the earliest states to issue shelter-in-place orders were also among the most populous. In addition to California (#1 in terms of population), New York (#4), Illinois (#6) and Ohio (#7) were also among the first eight states to close down. However, that explanation does not tell the full story. Consumer concerns about sanitation and safety almost certainly played a role as well.

So what does all this information tell us? When can we expect consumer foot traffic to get back to a level we could consider normal in California?

September 19. Let’s dig into the data.

Elaine Brubacher, a 79-year-old retiree living in Southern California, has explicitly altered her shopping habits during the pandemic. Prior to the spread of COVID-19, she would generally go shopping twice a week. Now, she says simply, “I don’t go out.” Brubacher has limited her shopping trips to once every ten days, and even then, only for the necessities. “I’m not doing any shopping other than what is absolutely necessary — the grocery store or the pharmacy. I’m not comfortable with “general shopping.”

Breaking down the specs of a successful video ad

By Walter Thompson
Imran Tariq Contributor
Imran Tariq is the co-founder of Webmetrix Group, the best-selling author of two books, a serial entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist.

Picture the drive to work you used to make every day before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — the same route, the same time and the same old billboards on the side of the freeway. Your drive to work isn’t about discovering new products or services, so in theory, you wouldn’t care about the dental offices, lawyers or whatever else that billboard is promoting.

But when there comes a day when your tooth aches and your insurance no longer covers your old provider, you might end up calling the number on that billboard after seeing it hundreds of times. That’s the billboard effect.

Digital marketing has largely left billboards in the dust, making it far easier to reach any of the billions of people online. But that doesn’t mean brands should be ignoring the principles that made billboards work in the first place.

Over the last five years, I’ve helped clients implement those principles by running video ads and have, for instance, helped a family lawyer in Joliet, Illinois book 130 phone calls with $1,000 in advertising spend with the strategy. Here’s how it works from start to finish.

The key to optimizing phone calls: Don’t link your website

While many brands already see the value in video marketing, most still don’t know how to go about making an effective video without having to hire an expensive video production company. Remember, the video doesn’t have to be a high-production project; it just has to get the message across to the right audience and give people a way to learn more.

Videos generally have three components:

Pinewood Atlanta Studios outlines safety measures as it prepares to restart movie and TV production

By Anthony Ha

Frank Patterson, president and CEO of Pinewood Atlanta Studios, said that in March, his studio was “utterly full” with two major films and three streaming shows in production. (Pinewood doesn’t disclose what’s currently shooting on its 1 million-plus square feet of studio and office space, but past films made at the Atlanta studio include “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Avengers: Endgame.”)

Of course, that all came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the months since, industry groups — including a task force with members from a variety of Hollywood guilds and unions— have been putting together guidelines for how production can resume safely, with recommendations on everything from meal times (which should be staggered, with individually wrapped food) to crowd scenes (which should be minimized).

Patterson said he’s been working with the guilds and the studios to figure out Pinewood Atlanta’s reopening. At the same time, he said he didn’t want to simply “follow along,” but also to develop plans and safety measures of his own.

“To be honest, we were nervous that there was no known roadmap here,” he said. “Nobody has dealt with this in the movie business before.”

Today, the studio is announcing new safety measures that fall into three broad categories — security, facilities improvements and best practices and protocols. Patteron said that on the security front, Pinewood Atlanta was already “one of the most studio lots in the world” (after all, Marvel is very protective of its secrets), but it’s now upgraded everything including its badging systems, and it will be limiting access to only essential cast and crew.

Pinewood Atlanta Studios

Image Credits: Pinewood Atlanta Studios

In order to test everyone entering its facilities, Pinewood Atlanta is also partnering with BioIQ, which will be providing the testing kits and overseeing the testing process.

On the facilities side, Patterson said improvements include “obvious things” like protective equipment and handwashing stations, but also technology created by Synexis that pumps dry hydrogen peroxide into the air to reduce viruses and other germs in the air. A similar solution was already been used by the Tampa Bay Rays to disinfect the air in their clubhouse.

“What this does is, it inejcts dry hydrogen peroxide into the air,” Patterson said. “If you sneeze — this is how it works for [Major League Baseball] — if you sneeze, it kills it instantly on contact.”

Along with the new facilities, there will be a broader array of best practices — like using smaller sets and crews — that Pinewood will be working with the production teams to implement.

None of this, of course, can reduce the risk of disease to zero. As Patterson put it, when his team started investigating possible technologies, “We want to find out: What is the best solution? Well it turns out, there is no such thing.” Instead, they tried to answer the question: “What is the best we can do to keep people as safe as possible?”

And it sounds like movie and TV studios preparing to resume production, particularly as movie theaters reopen and streaming services eagerly await new content. Patterson predicted that construction of new sets could begin in July, with actual shooting resuming in mid-August.

“There’s no doubt that for all our planning, [production is] going take longer,” Patterson said. “In the process, it’s going to cost more money. There’s no choice on this. We have to keep people safe.”

NASA, ESA and JAXA team up on Earth observation dashboard for monitoring the impact of COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is working with two other of its largest global space agency partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a combined effort to collect satellite-based Earth observation data and provide it via a dashboard in order to help monitor the impacts of COVID-19. The dashboard combines data collected by Earth observation satellites operated by each of the agencies, which monitor photographic, air quality, temperature, climate and other indicators.

The COVID-19 Earth Observation Data provides views into changes globally in water quality, climate change, economic activity and also agriculture. It’s intended to provide policymakers, health authorities, city planners and others with key information that they can use to study both short- and long-term impacts of the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis, which is definitely changing the way that cities and the people within them work and live.

The agencies involved in the project formed a project for the purposes of building this in April, so it came together rather quickly for a cross-agency, international collaboration. Data so far indicates significant changes, including positive environmental ones around air and water quality due to decreased activity – but also significant slowdowns in key economic activity including shipping activity in ports, the number of cars in shopping mall parking lots, and more.

While the project is specifically intended to provide data around COVID-19 and its impacts, and the current plan only includes the pandemic within its scope, on a call discussing the initiative, ESA Director of Earth Observation Programmes Josef Aschbacher said that the agencies are already considering whether to extend he dashboard beyond the scope of COVID-19 since it could be useful in addressing any number of global-scale problems that we collectively face.