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Direct mail still works if you avoid common mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

Without further ado, onto our community’s advice.

Advertising in Discord/Telegram communities

Insights from Varun Mathure of Midnite

Discord/Telegram can be a great place to find engaged, niche communities for advertising. However, do not treat it like a typical ad channel. Community marketing is its own art, and there are many principles to doing it effectively. Here are just a few:

  • Treat Discord/Telegram users like you would Reddit users: they’ll reject being advertised to unless there’s legitimate, authentic value being provided.
  • Work with moderators to offer services that make their moderation duties easier. Perhaps a bot or tool that would be legitimately useful to the community while also organically pitching your startup.
  • Have a well-respected community member vouch for you — it goes a long way toward building trust with the rest of the community. Always start by building relationships.
  • Have a member of your team active in the community. Don’t just advertise; contribute regularly.
  • Run promos/incentives that encourage members to post your product screenshots or share your product output in the community. In other words, incentivize a frictionless way for community members to become your brand ambassadors.

Landing page tear-downs [Video]

Watch us critique landing pages. In the process, you’ll learn how to improve your own.

Most common direct mail mistakes

Equity Dive: Poshmark’s origin story with co-founder & CEO Manish Chandra

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We have something a bit different for you this week. Equity co-host Kate Clark recently sat down with Manish Chandra, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Poshmark, and one of his earliest investors, NFX managing partner James Currier.

If you haven’t heard of Poshmark, it’s an online platform for buying and selling clothes. Basically, it’s the thrift shop of the 21st century. We asked Chandra how he and co-founders Tracy Sun, Gautam Golwala and Chetan Pungaliya cooked up the idea for Poshmark, what bumps they faced along the way, how they raised venture capital and, of course, what details of their upcoming initial public offering he could share with us. Meanwhile, Currier dished about the company’s early days, when the Poshmark team worked hard on the floor of Currier’s office.

Unfortunately, neither Chandra or Currier were willing to share deets about Poshmark’s IPO, reportedly expected soon. But they both shared interesting insights into building a successful venture-backed company, battling competition and putting your best foot forward.

Glad you guys came back for another episode, we’ll see you soon.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

MIT researchers develop a much better way to optimize the control of soft robots

By Darrell Etherington

MIT researchers have developed a new way to optimize how soft robots perform specific tasks — a huge challenge when it comes to soft robotics in particular, because robots with flexible bodies can basically move in an infinite number of ways at any given moment, so programming them to do something in the best way possible is a monumental task.

To make the whole process easier and less computationally intensive, the research team has developed a way to take what is effectively a robot that can move in infinite possible dimensions and simplify it to a representative “low-dimensional” model that can accurately be used to optimize movement, based on environmental physics and the natural ways that soft objects shaped like any individual soft robot is actually most likely to bend in a giving setting.

So far, the MIT team behind this has demonstrated it in simulation only, but in this simulated environment it has seen significant improvements in terms of both speed and accuracy of programmed movement of robots versus methods used today that are more complex. In fact, across a number of tests of simulated robots with both 2D and 3D designs, and two and four-legged physical designs, the researchers were able to show that optimizations that would normally task as many as 30,000 simulations to achieve were instead possible in just 400.

Why is any of this even important? Because it basically shrinks drastically the amount of computational overhead required to get good movement results out of soft robots, which is a key ingredient in helping make them partial to actually use in real-life applications. If programming a soft robot to do something genuinely useful like navigate and effect an underwater damage assessment and repair requires huge amounts of processing power, and significant actual time, it’s not really viable for anyone to actually deploy.

In the future, the research team hopes to bring their optimization method out of simulation and into real-world testing, as well as full-scale development of soft robots from start to finish.

Adobe details feature roadmap for Photoshop on the iPad, subject selection coming in 2019

By Darrell Etherington

Adobe has taken quite a bit of heat for its release of Photoshop on the iPad, mostly because it’s not as feature-complete as a lot of users were hoping, given that this is meant to be a full version of Photoshop on par with the desktop edition on Apple’s tablet OS for the first time. Adobe has long cautioned that it would essentially be releasing an in-development version of Photoshop for iPad, and adding features as it goes, but now it’s adding some more clarity and specificity to its product roadmap, which might help allay customer criticism.

In the time remaining in 2019, which is not much, Adobe is planning to ship a couple of features that should improve the everyday experience of working with Photoshop on iPad. First, it’s going to offer ‘Select Subject,’ which will hopefully go a long way to address the omission of the so-called ‘Magic Wand’ selection tool. Demoed at Adobe MAX just a few weeks ago, the ‘Select Subject’ feature works with Adobe’s Sensei AI tech to automatically pick out the subject from a selection box. It’s live now in the desktop version of Photoshop and works surprisingly well, and allows you to quickly pick out objects and mask them or move them for manipulation in creating compositions. This single feature, provided it works well on iPad, would go a long way to making it a much more effective tool for creative pros.

The other feature that the team is aiming to ship this year is intruding a speedier, optimized version of the cloud documents system it introduced for Adobe Creative Cloud alongside Photoshop for iPad. These improvements will make upload and download fast for all PSD flies stored as cloud documents, which should make working on the across platforms even better.

Looking ahead to 2020, the list of features coming to the iPad grows longer, and includes key elements like the ‘Refine Edge’ brush that Han help improve selection of fine detailed textural elements like hair or fur. That’s another key feature for anyone looking to do the same kind of creative composition work on the iPad that they currently do on desktop. Also coming in 2020 are Curves for making tonal adjustments, as well as more features for layer-based, non-destructive adjustment tools. Photoshop on iPad will also gain brush sensitivity and canvas rotation, both currently on offer form the company on its Fresco digital painting app.

Another feature that is planned for 2020 that will bring better parity with Adobe’s desktop software is Lightroom integration for Photoshop. That will allow you to edit RAW files in Lightroom and then directly switch over to Photoshop to do further edits within the same workflow.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list of everything Adobe plans to do with Photoshop on the iPad in the next year, and in fact the company is calling for users to provide feedback about feature additions and improvements via its official user feedback tool.

G Suite users get more AI writing help, Google Assistant calendar integration and more

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is launching a number of updates to its G Suite tools today that, among other things, brings to Google Docs an AI grammar checker, smarter spellchecking and, soon, spelling autocorrect. The company is also launching the ability for G Suite users to use the Google Assistant to read out a calendar schedule and, maybe even more importantly, create, cancel and reschedule events. Google is also adding new accessibility features to the Assistant for use during meetings.

In addition, Google yesterday announced that Smart Compose would soon come to G Suite, too.

It’s maybe no surprise that Google is adding its new grammar suggestions to Docs. This feature, after all, is something Google has talked about quite a bit in recent months, after it first introduced it back in 2018. Unlike other grammar tools, Google’s version utilizes a neural network approach to detect potential grammar issues in your text, which is quite similar to the techniques used for building effective machine translation models.

Google is also bringing to Docs the same autocorrect feature it already uses in Gmail. This tool uses Google Search to learn new words over time, but in addition, Google today announced it’s also introducing a new system for offering users more customized spelling suggestions based on your documents. That includes commonly used acronyms that may be part of a company’s internal lingo.

The new Assistant calendaring features are now in beta and pretty self-explanatory. Indeed, it’s somewhat surprising that it took Google so long to offer these abilities. In addition to managing their calendar by voice, the company is now also making it possible to use the Assistant to send messages to meeting attendees and even join calls (“Hey Google, join my next meeting”). Surely that’s a handy feature when you’re once again running late to work and need to join an 8am call from your car while driving down the highway.

Uber reports a sharp rise in government demands for user data

By Zack Whittaker

Uber says the number of legal demands for riders’ data made by U.S. and Canadian authorities has risen sharply in the past year.

The ride-hailing company said the number of law enforcement demands for user data during 2018 are up 27% on the year earlier, according to its annual transparency report published Wednesday. Uber said the rise in demands was partly due to its business growing in size, but also a “rising interest” from governments to access data on its customers.

Uber said it received 3,825 demands for 21,913 user accounts from the U.S. government, with the company turning over some data in 72% of cases, during 2018.

That’s up from 2,940 demands for 17,181 user accounts a year earlier, with a slightly higher compliance rate of 73%.

Canadian authorities submitted 161 demands for data on 593 user accounts during 2018.

Uber said that the rise in demands for customer data presents a challenge for the ride-hailing company, previously valued at $82 billion, which went public in May. “Our responsibility to preserve consumer privacy while meeting regulatory and public safety obligations will become increasingly complex and challenging as we field a growing number of government requests for data every year,” said Uttara Sivaram, global privacy and security public policy manager at Uber.

The company also said it disclosed ride information on 34 million users to U.S. regulators and 1.8 million users to Canadian regulators, such as local taxi and transport authorities. Uber said it is mandated to give over the information to regulators as part of the “bespoke legal and regulatory requirements to which we are subject,” which can include pickup and drop-off locations, fares, and other data that may “identify individual riders,” the company said.

Uber isn’t the only company fielding a record number of demands from governments. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter have all reported a rise in government demands over the past year as their customer base continues to grow while governments become increasingly hungry for companies’ data.

But Uber’s figures offer insight into only the largest portions of its businesses — its consumer and business ride-hailing services, food delivery and electric scooters — and only covers North America, despite operating in hundreds of cities around the world.

Despite the rise in overall law enforcement requests, Uber said it “has not received a national security request” to date.

Such disclosures are rare but not unheard of. Most national security demands, such as orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and FBI-issued subpoenas, are coupled with secrecy rules that prevent the companies from disclosing anything about the demand. By proactively posting these so-called “warrant canary” statements, companies can quietly reveal when they have received such orders by removing the statements from their websites.

Apple famously used a warrant canary in its first transparency report in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2016, Reddit quietly removed its warrant canary suggesting it had received a classified order.

Although the First Amendment protects government-compelled speech, the legality of warrant canaries remains legally questionable.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Sivaram’s title. This has been corrected.

Cybersecurity firm Sonatype acquired by Vista Equity

By Zack Whittaker

Private equity firm Vista Equity Partners has acquired Sonatype, a cybersecurity-focused open source automation company.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Sonatype said the acquisition will help to build out its Nexus platform, an enterprise ready repository manager and library with access to analysis on 65 million open source components. The platform helps enterprises to keep track of open source code to ensure software in the devops pipeline remains up-to-date with the latest bug and security fixes.

It’s that kind of technology that Sonatype says can help prevent another Equifax-style attack, which saw close to 150 million records stolen because an open source Apache server was not kept up to date.

The company said that several existing investors will retain a stake in the company.

Sonatype, based in Fulton, MD, hasn’t disclosed its financials but claims to have seen annual revenue grow up to 250% in the past three years. Its last fundraise was for $80 million in September 2018. The company also said it has more than 1,000 customers, including over than 60% of the Fortune 100 on its books, to monitor their code environments, including tech giants and several financial giants.

Vista, which invests almost exclusively in enterprise tech companies, has more than $52 billion in cumulative capital investments, it said.

VoltServer adds a data layer to electricity distribution in a move that could help smart grid rollout

By Jonathan Shieber

Stephen Eaves, the chief executive of a new startup which promises to overlay data on electricity distribution has spent years developing data management technologies.

Eaves’ first company, the eponymous Eaves Devices focused on energy systems in aerospace and defense — they converted the military’s fleet of B2 bombers to use lithium ion batteries.

The second company he was involved in was developing modular array devices to install in central offices and cell towers and conducted early work on electric vehicle development.

His goal, Eaves says, was to “make electricity inherently safe”.

VoltServer is the latest company from Eaves to pursue that goal. Eaves makes transmission safer by breaking electrical distribution into packets and those packets are sent down transmission lines to ensure that are not faults. If there’s a break in the line, the equipment stops transmitting energy.

“We take either AC or DC electricity into a transmitter and the transmitter breaks the electricity into packets and the receiver takes the packets and puts them back together and distributes it as regular AC/DC current,” Eaves explains.

The architecture is akin to a router. There’s digital signal processing in the transmitter powered by a semiconductor that’s a gateway for the electricity. “It’s like the devices you find in solar power converters,” says Eaves.

Already roughly 700 stadiums, large offices, and indoor grow facilities have deployed the company’s technology. And the traction was enough to attract the attention of Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, which led a recent $7.4 million financing into the company. To date, the company has raised $18 million from a clutch of investors including: Marker Hill Capital, Slater Technology Fund, Natural Resources Capital Management, Clean Energy Venture Group, Angel Street Capital and Coniston Capital.  

“We’re kind of a combined hardware and software company,” says Eaves. “[Customers] buy the boxes and the company has third parties that install it.. There are software applications to track energy usage to assign processes for what to do in an outage.”

Typical installations can be anywhere from $30,000 to $1 million and the company is targeting three core markets — intelligent building infrastructure, communications, and indoor agriculture, according to Eaves. In fact, the company’s largest installation is a lettuce farm in Florida. “You’re in a very constrained environment and you want a very safe transmission technology. And we’ve developed a lighting product. It removes a lot of the conversion electronics that would normally be in the growth space,” says Eaves.

The technology certainly slashes the cost for power transmission in a stadium. Traditional power transmission can cost roughly $36 per linear foot, while VoltServer can cut that cost to less than $10 per foot, according to the company.

VoltServer isn’t the only startup that’s looking to add data controls to electricity distribution. Companies like Blueprint PowerBlue Pillar, and monitoring companies like Enertiv and Aquicore are all looking at ways to monitor and manage distribution. At the grid scale, there’s Camus Energy which looks to provide energy “orchestration” services.

“Electricity powers our world, but the fundamental danger inherent in AC or DC electricity makes today’s electrical systems expensive to install or change,” said Sidewalk Labs chairman and chief executive, Dan Doctoroff in a statement. “[This technology] is a breakthrough, offering a less expensive, safer and more efficient way to distribute electricity that can make buildings more affordable and flexible.  Over time, that can make cities more affordable, sustainable, and adaptable as our needs change.”

For some investors in the energy sector, these kinds of distribution and transmission technologies are a critical component of the next generation of grid technologies needed to bring the world closer to 100% renewable transmission.

“What is relevant is internet-connected, controllable energy assets that you can control from some centralized dispatch,” says one investor active in energy investing. 

Moveworks snags $75M Series B to resolve help desk tickets with AI

By Ron Miller

Moveworks, a startup using AI to help resolve Help Desk tickets in an automated fashion, announced a $75 million Series B investment today.

The round was led by Iconiq Capital, Kleiner Perkins and Sapphire Ventures. Existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, and Comerica Bank also participated. The round also included a personal investment from John W. Thompson, who is a partner at LightSpeed Venture Partners and chairman at Microsoft. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $105 million, according to the company.

That’s a lot of money for an early-stage company, but CEO and co-founder Bhavin Shah says his company is solving a common problem using AI. “Moveworks is a machine learning platform that uses natural language understanding to take tickets that are submitted by employees every day to their IT teams for stuff they need, and we understand [the content of the tickets], interpret them, and then we take the actions to resolve them [automatically],” Shah explained.

He said the company decided to focus on help desk tickets because they saw data when they were forming the company that suggested a common set of questions, and that would make it easier to interpret and resolve these issues. In fact, they are currently able to resolve 25-40% of all tickets autonomously.

He says this should lead to greater user satisfaction because some of their problems can be resolved immediately, even when IT personnel aren’t around to help. Instead of filing a ticket and waiting for an answer, Moveworks can provide the answer, at least part of the time, without human intervention.

Aditya Agrawal, a partner at Iconiq, says that the company really captured his attention. “Moveworks is not just transforming IT operations, they are building a more modern and enlightened way to work. They’ve built a platform that simplifies and streamlines every interaction between employees and IT, enabling both to focus on what matters,” he said in a statement.

The company was founded in 2016, and in the early days was only resolving 2% of the tickets autonomously, so it has seen major improvement. It already has 115 employees and dozens of customers (although Shah didn’t want to provide an exact number).

Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

By Ingrid Lunden

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

GitHub Finally Has Its Own iOS and Android Apps

By Klint Finley
First launched in 2008, the open source hub is launching its first apps for iOS and Android.

Brave launches version 1.0 of its privacy-focused browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Brave, the company co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich after his ouster from the organization in 2014, today launched version 1.0 of its browser for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS. In a browser market where users are spoiled for choice, Brave is positioning itself as a fast option that preserves users’ privacy with strong default settings, as well as a crypto currency-centric private ads and payment platform that allows users to reward content creators.

As the company announced last month, it now has about 8 million daily users. Its Brave Rewards program, which requires opt-in from users and publishers, currently has about 300,000 publishers on board. Most of these are users with small followings on YouTube and Twitter, but large publishers like Wikipedia, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate and the LA Times are also part of the ecosystem. Using this system, which not every publisher is going to like, the browser replaces the ads on a publisher’s site with its own, based on the user’s browsing habits. Users then receive 70 percent of what the advertisers spend on ads, while Brave keeps 30 percent.

As users view these ads, they start earning Basic Attention Tokens (BAT), Brave’s cryptocurrency, which they can keep or give to publishers. In its early days, Brave actually started with Bitcoin as the currency for this, but as Eich noted, that quickly became too expensive (and since the price was going up, users wanted to hold on to the Bitcoin instead of donating it).

Brave also comes with a built-in ad blocker that is probably among the most effective in the industry, as well as extensive anti-tracking features. “Everybody’s bothered by the sense of being tracked and bothered by bad ads,” Eich told me. “But I think ad aesthetics are not the problem. It’s the tracking and the cost of tracking which is multifarious. There’s page load time, running the radio to load the tracking scripts that load the other scripts that load the scripts that load the ads, that drains your battery, too.” Eich argues that with Brave, the team found a way to tie this all together with anti-tracking technology and an approach to ad blocking that goes beyond the industry-standard blocklists and also uses machine learning to identify additional rules for blocking.

For those users that really want to be anonymous on the web, Brave also features a private browsing mode, just like every other browser, but with the added twist that you can also open a private session through the Tor network, which will make it very hard for most companies to identify you.

At its core, Brave is simply a fast, extensible Chromium-based browser. That’s also what the company believes will sell it to users. “The way you get users, […] I think speed is the first one that works across the largest number of users. But you can’t just leave it at speed. You want to have all your benefits tied up in a pretty knot and that’s what we have done,” he said. For Brave, speed and ad/tracking protection are obviously interconnected, and all the other benefits accrue from that.

Looking beyond version 1.0, the Brave team plans to implement better sync, with support for tab and history syncing, for example. Brave also aims to make participating in Brave Rewards an experience with much lower friction for the user. In the early days, before it was on Android, the opt-in rate was around 40 percent, Eich told me, and the team wants to get it back to that.

If you want to give Brave a try, you can download it here.

JetPack Aviation raises $2M to build the prototype of its flying motorcycle

By Darrell Etherington

Flying cars are fine – but why use a car when you can have a motorcycle instead? YC-backed startup JetPack Aviation wants to answer that question with the world’s first flying motorcycle, a personal aircraft dubbed ‘The Speeder,’ a name that Star Wars fans will surely appreciate. Now, JetPack has raised a seed round of $2 million from investors indulging Draper Associates, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, YC, Catheis Ventures and a group of angels that it says will fund the development of the Speeder’s first functional prototype.

Back in March, JetPack revealed its plans for the Speeder, which it says will provide a fully stabilized ride that’s either pilot-controlled or fully autonomous. It can take off and land vertically, and reach top speeds of potentially over 400 MPH. There are not exposed rotors systems, which make it a lot safer and easier to operate than a lot of other VTOL designs and helicopters, and the company says it can also be refuelled in under 5 minutes, which is a dramatically shorter turn around time for powering up vs. an electric vehicle.

This isn’t JetPack’s first aerial rodeo: The company, led by CEO and founder David Mayman, has already created an actual jet pack. Mayman himself has demonstrated the personal aerial jet pack numerous times, and it’s been certified by the FAA, plus it landed a CARADA agreement with the U.S. Navy Special Forces for use in short-distance troop transportation. The jet pack also boasts a lot of features that sound, on paper, like diene fiction: Over 100 mph top seed, and suitcase-sized portability, for instance.

That track record is why when Mayman tells me this $2 million round “should fully fund the first full scale flying prototype, including all modelling designs and build,” I tend to believe him more than I would just about anyone else in the world making a similar claim.

Part of the reason the Speeder is more viable near-term than other VTOL designs is that it will rely on turbine propulsion, rather than battery-based flight systems. This is because, in Mayman’s opinion, “current battery energy density is just too low for most electrically powered VTOLs to be truly practical,” and that timelines optimistically for that to change are in the 5 to 10 year range. The Speeder, by comparison, should feasibly be able to provide quick cargo transportation for emergency services and military (its first planned uses before moving on to the consumer market) in a much shorter period.

Two security researchers earned $60,000 for hacking an Amazon Echo

By Zack Whittaker

Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.

ZenHub adds roadmapping to its GitHub project management tool

By Frederic Lardinois

ZenHub, the popular project management tool that integrates right into GitHub, today announced the launch of Roadmaps. As you can guess from the name, this is a roadmapping feature that allows teams to better plan their projects ahead of time and visualize their status — all from within GitHub.

“We’re diving into a brand new category which is super exciting and we’re really starting to think not only about how forward-thinking software teams are managing their software projects but how they’re actually planning ahead,” ZenHub co-founder Aaron Upright told me. “And we’re really using this as an opportunity to really evolve the product and really introduce now a new kind of entrant into the space for product roadmapping.”

The product itself is indeed pretty straightforward. By default, it takes existing projects and epics a team has already defined and visualizes those on a timeline — including data about how many open issues still remain. In its current iteration, the tool is still pretty basic, but going forward ZenHub will add more advanced features, like blocking. As Upright noted, that’s just fine, though, because while the main goal here is to help teams plans, ZenHub also wants to give other stakeholders a kind of 30,000-foot overview of the state of a project without having to click around every issue in GitHub or Jira.

Upright also argues that existing solutions tend to fall short of what teams really need. “Smaller organizations — teams that are 10, 15 or 25 people — they can’t afford these tools. They’re really expensive. They’re cost-prohibitive,” he said. “And so oftentimes what they do is they turn to Excel files or Google spreadsheets in order to keep track of their roadmap. And keeping the spreadsheets up to date really becomes a complex and really a full-time job.” Yet those tools that are affordable often don’t offer a way to sync data back and forth between GitHub and their platforms, which results in the product team not getting those updates in GitHub, for example. Because ZenHub lives inside of GitHub, that’s obviously not a problem.

ZenHub Roadmaps is now available to all users.

Microsoft Teams gets Yammer integration, secure private channels and more

By Frederic Lardinois

You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer — Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite real-time chat application — was dead. It’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.

With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to use Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.

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Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.

With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multi-window chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one to-do app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Rooms, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.

A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.

You can now ask Excel questions about your data

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft today announced the public preview of its Power Virtual Agents tool, a new no-code tool for building chatbots that’s part of the company’s Power Platform, which also includes Microsoft Flow automation tool, which is being renamed to Power Automate today, and Power BI.

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document. With this, anybody within an organization could build a bot that walks a new employee through the onboarding experience for example.

“Power virtual agent is the newest addition to the Power Platform family,” said Microsoft’s Charles Lamanna in an interview ahead of today’s announcement. “Power Virtual Agent is very much focused on the same type of low code, accessible to anybody, no matter whether they’re a business user or business analyst or professional developer, to go build a conversational agent that’s AI-driven and can actually solve problems for your employees, for your customers, for your partners, in a very natural way.”

Power Virtual Agents handles the full lifecycle of the bot building experience, from the creation of the dialog to making it available in chat systems that include Teams, Slack, Facebook Messenger and others. Using Microsoft’s AI smarts, users don’t have to spend a lot of time defining every possible question and answer, but can instead rely on the tool to understand intentions and trigger the right action. “We do intent understanding, as well as entity extraction, to go and find the best topic for you to go down,” explained Lamanna. Like similar AI systems, the service also learns over time, based on feedback it receives from users.

One nice feature here is that if your setup outgrows the no-code/low-code stage and you need to get to the actual code, you’ll be able to convert the bot to Azure resources since that’s what’s powering the bot anyway. Once you’ve edited the code, you obviously can’t take it back into the no-code environment. “We have an expression for Power Platform, which is ‘no cliffs.’ […] The idea of ‘no cliffs’ is that the most common problem with a low-code platform is that, at some point, you want more control, you want code. And that’s frequently where low-code platforms run out of gas and you really have issues because you can’t have the pro dev take it over, you can’t make it mission-critical.”

The service is also integrated with tools like Power Automate/Microsoft Flow to allow users to trigger actions on other services based on the information the chatbot gathers.

Lamanna stressed that the service also generates lots of advanced analytics for those who are building bots with it. With this, users can see what topics are being asked about and where the system fails to provide answers, for example. It also visualizes the different text inputs that people provide so that bot builders can react to that.

Over the course of the last two or three years, we went from a lot of hype around chatbots to deep disillusionment with the experience they actually delivered. Lamanna isn’t fazed by that. In part, those earlier efforts failed because the developers weren’t close enough to the users. They weren’t product experts or part of the HR team inside a company. By using a low-code/no-code tool, he argues, the actual topic experts can build these bots. “If you hand it over to a developer or an AI specialist, they’re geniuses when it comes to developing code, but they won’t know the details and ins and outs of, say, the shoe business – and vice versa. So it actually changes how development happens.”

Adobe is bringing real-time collaboration to its XD design tool

By Frederic Lardinois

It’s Adobe Max this week, Adobe’s annual Creative Cloud event, and like every year, the company is announcing a slew of updates across its products. Sometimes these are only small tweaks and feature additions, but Adobe XD, the company’s design and prototyping tool for web and app development, is getting a number of interesting updates today that are worth highlighting.

The marquee feature of the update is real-time coediting of documents, which will surely make the lives of remote designers easier. This new coediting feature is now in beta and allows multiple designers to work on a document together, using Adobe’s Creative Cloud backend to sync updates in real time. To make a document available for coediting, you first have to save it to the cloud and then invite teammates to work with you.

The XD team has also taken the existing sharing features in XD, which designers can use to gather feedback and deliver their assets, and collated them into a single Share mode that sits next to the existing Design and Prototype modes in the application.

“Share mode is the place to go when you need to share your work with others,” the company explains. “Here, you can create and manage shareable web links to your work, using new sharing presets to customize the sharing experience for different use cases, including design reviews, development hand-off, presentations, and user testing.”

XD is one of the few Creative Cloud applications that include a completely free mode. Users on the free mode will get access to the new coediting feature until April 2020. All the other new sharing and collaboration tools, however, will be available without any time restrictions to free users on the XD Starter plan.

Also new in XD is enhanced support for component states, which make it easier for designers to create consistent user interfaces, as well as a hover triggers that invoke actions when you hover over an item in your design, and new tools for building basic prototype interactions. There’s also a redesigned plugin manager, which now features support for over 200 plugins like Jira Cloud to UI Faces, Stark and Arranger.

Adobe’s Fresco drawing app is now available on Windows

By Frederic Lardinois

In September, Adobe launched Fresco, its next-gen drawing and painting app, for the iPad. Today, Fresco is also coming to Windows, starting with Microsoft’s Surface line (starting with the Surface Pro 4, the Surface Go and all Surface Studio and Book devices) and Wacom Mobile Studio devices. Like its iPad brethren, Fresco for Windows features Adobe’s vector and raster tools for painting, drawing and sketching.

The company says it built Fresco for Windows from the ground up. “It wasn’t an easy build but we worked closely with Microsoft and Intel to get the brushes right, and to squeeze from the hardware and software as much performance as possible,” the company notes in today’s announcement. Like on the iPad, the Windows version will also feature deep integrations with Adobe’s cloud storage to allow you to move seamlessly between machines and take your drawings to Photoshop and Illustrator.

Fresco for Windows, however, currently has fewer features than the iPad version. Adobe says it’s working to bring those into the app soon. “Because Fresco’s features matter, and we want them to be available no matter the platform, we’re working to get those remaining features in the app—quickly.”

There will be a free version for Windows as well. It’s slightly limited but will give you a good idea of the app’s capabilities.

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