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| October 20, 2019

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IPOs are the beginning, not the end

October 20, 2019 |

Earlier this month at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, we sat down with Box’s Aaron Levie and PagerDuty’s Jennifer Tejada to discuss their respective companies’ paths to an IPO, the general IPO landscape and the pros and cons of going public. With a lot of recent IPOs faltering and increased pressure on startup valuations, now is as good a time as ever to think about the role IPOs play in a company’s lifespan.

“I think it’s really important to think of the IPOs, the beginning, not the end,” said Tejada. “We all live in Silicon Valley and that can be a little bit of an echo chamber and you talk about exits all the time. The IPO is an entrance, right? It is part of the beginning of a long journey for a durable company that you want to build a legacy around. And so, it is a moment — it’s the start of you really sharing a narrative backed by financial data to help people understand your current business, the potential for your business, the market that you’re in, etc. And I think we tend to talk about it like it’s the be-all end-all.”

That’s something Levie definitely agrees with. “I think we have too much of a fixation on the IPO moment versus just building durable business models and how do they end up translating into valuations. The valuation that you get at an IPO is due to variety factors.”

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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 02: (L-R) PagerDuty CEO & Chairperson Jennifer Tejada, Box Co-Founder/Chairman & CEO Aaron Levie, and TechCrunch Writer Frederic Lardinois speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 02, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

It’s no secret that Box and PagerDuty had very different experiences as they got ready to go public. Box announced its S-1 only a few days before a major market crash back in 2014. PagerDuty, on the other hand, went public earlier this year, with solid financials and very little drama.

Tejada, in many ways, attributed that to the work she and her team did to get the company ready for this moment. “I get asked a lot by CEOs that are thinking about getting ready to go public, ‘you know, what was your playbook? How do you do this?’ And I think instead of thinking about what’s the playbook, you need to be intellectually honest about what your business looks like,” she said. In her view, CEOs need to focus on the leading indicators for their business — the ones they want the market to understand. But she also noted that the market needs to understand a company’s potential in the long run.

“You want to make sure that the market understands where you think the business can go and gets excited about it, but that they don’t over-rotate in their expectations, because dealing with really high expectations creates a lot of downstream difficulty.”

TechCrunch

Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances, as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company

October 19, 2019 |

In a rare instance of bipartisanship overcoming the rancorous discord that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. Congress, senators and sepresentatives issued a scathing rebuke to Apple for its decision to take down an app at the request of the Chinese government.

Signed by Senators Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski, the letter was written to “express… strong concern about Apple’s censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government.”

In 2019, it seems the only things that can unite America’s clashing political factions are the decisions made by companies in one of its most powerful industries.

At the heart of the dispute is Apple’s decision to take down an app called HKMaps that was being used by citizens of the island territory to track police activity.

For several months protestors have been clashing with police in the tiny territory over what they see as the undue influence being exerted by China’s government in Beijing over the governance of Hong Kong. Citizens of the former British protectorate have enjoyed special privileges and rights not afforded to mainland Chinese citizens since the United Kingdom returned sovereignty over the region to China on July 1, 1997.

“Apple’s decision last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a defender of human rights (including privacy and free speech)… in the United States. Abroad, the company’s record is not quite as spotless, especially when it comes to pressure from China, which is one of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S.

Back in 2017, Apple capitulated to a request from the Chinese government that it remove all virtual private networking apps from the App Store. Those applications allowed Chinese users to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China, which limits access to information to only that which is approved by the Chinese government and its censors.

Over 1,100 applications have been taken down by Apple at the request of the Chinese government, according to the organization GreatFire (whose data was cited in the Congressional letter). They include VPNs, and applications made for oppressed communities inside China’s borders (like Uighurs and Tibetans).

Apple isn’t the only company that’s come under fire from the Chinese government as part of their overall response to the unrest in Hong Kong. The National Basketball Association and the gaming company Blizzard have had their own run-ins resulting in self-censorship as a result of various public positions from employees or individuals affiliated with the sports franchises or gaming communities these companies represent.

However, Apple is the largest of these companies, and therefore the biggest target. The company’s stance indicates a willingness to accede to pressure in markets that it considers strategically important no matter how it positions itself at home.

The question is what will happen should regulators in the U.S. stop writing letters and start making legislative demands of their own.

TechCrunch

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

October 18, 2019 |

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘technical elite‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

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Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

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Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

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Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

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BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

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Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

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Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

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Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been quick to seize on and amplify divisive visuals.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose incisive Twitter thread fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

TechCrunch

Google Nest Mini hands-on

October 16, 2019 |

Two years after the release of the Home Mini, Google’s back with the sequel. Well, “sequel” might be a bit strong. The Nest Mini is more like one of those 1.5 movies they release on home video with a little extra footage than the theatrical release.

That’s not a compliant, exactly. The truth is there are some improvements here, but honestly, Google didn’t really need to do much. The $ 49 Home Mini sold like hot cakes and is a big part of the company’s rapid growth in the smart home space.

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It was a low barrier of entry for those who were curious, but perhaps not fully on-board. And, like the Echo Dot before, it’s been an inexpensive way to outfit an entire home with smart speaker functionality.

Google has smartly kept the price the same with the Nest Hub. The device may not be a loss leader, exactly, but it’s the easiest and cheapest way of hooking users into the Assistant ecosystem — one that will theoretically lead to more smart home purchases, and, perhaps mobile device decisions.

The Nest is nearly identical to its predecessor. That, too, is fine. It’s simple and with a choice of four pastel colors (Chalk, Charcoal, Coral and Sky), it should fit most interior designs reasonably well. Bonus points for the new fabric covering, which is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. Google says one half-liter bottle will cover two Minis. Interestingly the new cloth doesn’t negatively impact the sound.

google nest mini

Speaking of, that’s the biggest upgrade on-board. Sound has been improved over the original with a louder max volume and twice the bass. I’ve been listening to music at home on the new device, and while it gets pretty loud, I can’t recommend it as a standalone speaker. There are much better options for that. It serves Assistant and voice playback pretty well, but it gets a bit distorted at louder volumes.

I do quite like the music playback controls, however. Tap the center to play or pause music and either side to increase and decrease volume. When your hand approaches the speaker, two dots will illuminate on the edges to show you where to touch. Paired in stereo mode with another, better speaker (like, say, the Home Max) and it serves as a cool little touch control. The recent addition of stream transfer, meanwhile, makes it easier to keep listening to music as you change rooms.

Another interesting tidbit that didn’t get a lot of mention at today’s event is dynamic volume adjustment, which adjusts the sound based on background noise. It’s similar to the feature the company teased with today’s Pixel Buds reveal and could come in handy if you happen to live or work in a loud environment. Take that, neighbors.

google nest mini

The new Mini presents one of the more compelling use cases I’ve seen for Duo thus far (and honestly, I haven’t seen a ton). You can use the device as a kind of speakerphone with the app. I can certainly see this coming in handy for things like work calls at home. If you’ve got a big home, you can also use it as an intercom to communicate with other Home/Nest devices.

One other bit worth mentioning is the smart addition of a wall mount on the bottom of the device. It’s something small, but handy. Using a nail or thumbtack (well, probably just a nail, given the size/weight), you can now hang the Mini on a wall. Apparently this was a pretty heavily requested feature for those with limited shelf space. I could certainly imagine sticking it in my kitchen, where counter space is at an extreme premium — though dealing with the cord is another question entirely.

The Nest Mini arrives on retail shelves and walls October 22.

TechCrunch

Surfing the reverse mullet with Alexis Ohanian

October 15, 2019 |

For many years the allure of Silicon Valley was contingent on the ability to move here. Its ecosystem didn’t work remotely. “We see a very strong indication that where you’re located does matter… come to Silicon Valley,” intoned Joe Kraus of Google Ventures at the first Disrupt conference I ever intended, speaking for essentially all VCs, including Y Combinator.

Easy enough if you’re American. Much, much trickier if you need a visa to get there. Is it still true that the Valley doesn’t work remotely? Or is there another path for startups from faraway countries these days? Last week I sat down with Alexis Ohanian in his ancestral homeland of Armenia to discuss this.

Every nation seems to have its own set of incubators and seed investors these days. Armenia is no exception: I met Ohanian at the launch event for Aybuben Ventures, a VC fund “for Armenia and The Armenians.” (As I wrote last week, the Armenian diaspora is a big deal.) But what happens next, when you need to raise a serious Series A, but your local market realistically isn’t big enough to support your company?

Even five years ago you would have had a lot of trouble tapping into the Valley. Since then, though, things have changed. The price of Bay Area talent — and real estate — has led to the rise of “mullet startups,” as coined by Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen. Such comapnies have their headquarters in the Bay to take advantage of the Valley, but their tech teams somewhere cheaper and more spacious. “Business up front, party out back.”

Ohanian’s point is that there’s no reason the mullet model can’t work backwards: launch a company with a strong tech team in some remote location, then, when you hit the inflection point, open a Bay Area office, move the executive team there, and turn yourself into a mullet startup. (Aided by the fact that if coming as a company, your visa options widen to include e.g. the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa.) Call it the “reverse mullet,” exemplified by e.g. PicsArt.

This model is especially viable for nations which have deep engineering / tech talent, so that the “party out back” tech team becomes an ongoing competitive advantage. (This is part of why Ohanian keeps hammering home the importance of learning to code during his visits to Armenia, something which is probably easier in a nation which already features compulsory chess education.) All of which sounds great in theory —

— but it’s not like we see a herd of unicorns with reverse mullets out there … yet. If we do, though, that will be an exceptionally interesting new growth model, with significant ramifications — a way for Silicon Valley to essentially metastasize to the rest of the world. This in turn will, ironically, reify its primacy as the center of the global tech industry, the sun around which all the faraway planets orbit, after so many prophecies of decentralization. Count the reverse mullet unicorns in three years, and if there are more than a mere few, we’ll know the answer.

TechCrunch

Facebook should ban campaign ads. End the lies.

October 14, 2019 |

Permitting falsehood in political advertising would work if we had a model democracy, but we don’t. Not only are candidates dishonest, but voters aren’t educated, and the media isn’t objective. And now, hyperlinks turn lies into donations and donations into louder lies. The checks don’t balance. What we face is a self-reinforcing disinformation dystopia.

That’s why if Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube don’t want to be the arbiters of truth in campaign ads, they should stop selling them. If they can’t be distributed safely, they shouldn’t be distributed at all.

No one wants historically untrustworthy social networks becoming the honesty police, deciding what’s factual enough to fly. But the alternative of allowing deception to run rampant is unacceptable. Until voter-elected officials can implement reasonable policies to preserve truth in campaign ads, the tech giants should go a step further and refuse to run them.

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This problem came to a head recently when Facebook formalized its policy of allowing politicians to lie in ads and refusing to send their claims to third-party fact-checkers. “We don’t believe, however, that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” Facebook’s VP of policy Nick Clegg wrote.

The Trump campaign was already running ads with false claims about Democrats trying to repeal the Second Amendment and weeks-long scams about a “midnight deadline” for a contest to win the one-millionth MAGA hat.

Trump Ad

After the announcement, Trump’s campaign began running ads smearing potential opponent Joe Biden with widely debunked claims about his relationship with Ukraine. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter refused to remove the ad when asked by Biden.

In response to the policy, Elizabeth Warren is running ads claiming Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg endorses Trump because it’s allowing his campaign lies. She’s continued to press Facebook on the issue, asking “you can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards.”

It’s easy to imagine campaign ads escalating into an arms race of dishonesty.

Campaigns could advertise increasingly untrue and defamatory claims about each other tied to urgent calls for donations. Once all sides are complicit in the misinformation, lying loses its stigma, becomes the status quo, and ceases to have consequences. Otherwise, whichever campaign misleads more aggressively will have an edge.

“In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.” Facebook’s Clegg writes.

But as is emblematic of Facebook’s past mistakes, it’s putting too much idealistic faith in society. If all voters were well educated and we weren’t surrounded by hyperpartisan media from Fox News to far-left Facebook Pages, maybe this hands-off approach might work. But in reality, juicy lies spread further than boring truths, and plenty of “news” outlets are financially incentivized to share sensationalism and whatever keeps their team in power.

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Protecting the electorate should fall to legislators. But incumbents have few reasons to change the rules that got them their jobs. The FCC already has truth in advertising policies, but exempts campaign ads and a judge struck down a law mandating accuracy.

Granted, there have always been dishonest candidates, uninformed voters, and one-sided news outlets. But it’s all gotten worse. We’re in a post-truth era now where the spoils won through deceptive demagoguery are clear. Cable news and digitally native publications have turned distortion of facts into a huge business.

Most critically, targeted social network advertising combined with donation links create a perpetual misinformation machine. Politicians can target vulnerable demographics with frightening lies, then say only their financial contribution will let the candidate save them. A few clicks later and the candidate has the cash to buy more ads, amplifying more untruths and raising even more money. Without the friction of having to pick up the phone, mail a letter, or even type in a URL like TV ads request, the feedback loop is shorter and things spiral out of control.

Many countries including the UK, Ireland, and the EU ban or heavily restrict TV campaign ads. There’s plenty of precedent for policies keeping candidates’ money out of the most powerful communication mediums.

Campaign commercials on US television might need additional regulation as well. However, the lack of direct connections to donate buttons, microtargeting, and rapid variable testing weaken their potential for abuse. Individual networks can refuse ads for containing falsehoods as CNN recently did without the same backlash over bias that an entity as powerful as Facebook receives.

This is why the social networks should halt sales of political campaign ads now. They’re the one set of stakeholders with flexibility and that could make a united decision. You’ll never get all the politicians and media to be honest, or the public to understand, but just a few companies could set a policy that would protect democracy from the world’s . And they could do it without having to pick sides or make questionable decisions on a case-by-case basis. Just block them all from all candidates.

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Facebook wrote in response to Biden’s request to block the Trump ads that “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”

But banning campaign ads would still leave room for open political expression that’s subject to public scrutiny. Social networks should continue to let politicians say what they want to their own followers, barring calls for violence. Tech giants can offer a degree of freedom of speech, just not freedom of reach. Whoever wants to listen can, but they shouldn’t be able to jam misinformation into the feeds of the unsuspecting.

If the tech giants want to stop short of completely banning campaign ads, they could introduce a format designed to minimize misinformation. Politicians could be allowed to simply promote themselves with a set of stock messages, but without the option to make claims about themselves or their opponents.

Campaign ads aren’t a huge revenue driver for social apps, nor are they a high-margin business nowadays. The Trump and Clinton campaigns spent only a combined $ 81 million on 2016 election ads, a fraction of Facebook’s $ 27 billion in revenue that year. $ 284 million was spent in total on 2018 midterm election ads versus Facebook’s $ 55 billion in revenue last year, says Tech For Campaigns. Zuckerberg even said that Facebook will lose money selling political ads because of all the moderators it hires to weed out election interference by foreign parties.

Surely, there would be some unfortunate repercussions from blocking campaign ads. New candidates in local to national elections would lose a tool for reducing the lead of incumbents, some of which have already benefited from years of advertising. Some campaign ads might be pushed “underground” where they’re not properly labeled, though the major spenders could be kept under watch.

If the social apps can still offer free expression through candidates’ own accounts, aren’t reliant on politicians’ cash to survive, won’t police specific lies in their promos, and would rather let the government regulate the situation, then they should respectfully decline to sell campaign advertising. Following the law isn’t enough until the laws adapt. This will be an ongoing issue through the 2020 election, and leaving the floodgates open is irresponsible.

If a game is dangerous, you don’t eliminate the referee. You stop playing until you can play safe.

TechCrunch

AI-based firefighter safety startup Prometeo wins IBM Call for Code Challenge

October 13, 2019 |

During an event at the United Nations Delegates Dining Room in New York City, IBM unveiled the winners to its annual  Call for Code Global Challenge. The competition, which is targeted at computing solutions for global problems, crowned five winners, ranging from first responders to health care info.

Prometeo took the top price for its Watson-based AI solution targeted at firefighters. The team, which is lead by a 33-year firefighting veteran, has developed a tool designed to monitor health and safety in the industry, both long term and in real-time. The Spanish startup developed a smartphone-sized device that straps onto the wearer’s arm to gauge things like temperature, smoke and humidity.

“If the color signal is green, the health of the firefighter is okay,” cofounder Salomé Valero explains on IBM’s site. “But if the color signal is yellow or red, the command center must do something. They must take immediate action in order to rescue or remove the firefighter from the fire.”

The team is working to roll out the device for testing in Spain, but is currently seeking funding for the project. The $ 200,000 prize from IBM ought to help out a bit.

The second place price went to India/China/US-based Sparrow, which has developed a platform for addressing physical and psychological health during natural disasters. U.C.L.A. team, Rove scored third place with a similar concept.

Call for Code is a five year program that aims to hand out $ 30 million for teams addressing widespread societal issues.

TechCrunch

VC Brad Feld on WeWork, SoftBank, and why venture firms may have to slow down their pacing in 2020

October 12, 2019 |

Yesterday, we had a chance to talk with longtime venture investor Brad Feld of Foundry Group, whose book “Venture Deals” was recently republished for the fourth time for good reason. It’s a storehouse of knowledge, from how venture funds really work to term sheet terms, from negotiation tactics to how to choose (and pay for) the right investment banker.

Feld was generous with his time and his advice to founders, many dozens of whom had dialed in, conference call style. In fact, you can find a full transcript of our conversation right here if you’re a member of Extra Crunch.

In the meantime, we thought we’d highlight some of our favorite parts of the conversation. One of these touches on SoftBank, an organization that Feld knows a little better than many other investors. We also discussed what happened at WeWork and specifically the difference between a cult-like leader and a visionary — and why it’s not always clear right away whether a founder is one or the other.  These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

TC: We were just talking about startups raising too much money, and speaking of which, you were involved with SoftBank long ago. Your software company had raised capital from SoftBank, then you later worked for the company as an investor. This way predates the Vision Fund, but you did know Masayoshi Son, which makes me wonder: what do you think of how they’ve been investing their capital?

BF: Just for factual reference, I was initially affiliated with SoftBank with a couple of other VCs; Fred Wilson, Rich Levandov and at the time Jerry Colonna, who now runs a company called Reboot. During that period of time, a subset of us ended up starting a fund that eventually became called Mobius Venture Capital, but it was originally called SoftBank Venture Capital or SoftBank Technology Ventures. We were essentially a fund sponsored by SoftBank, so we had SoftBank money. The partners ran the fund, but we were a central part of the SoftBank ecosystem at the time. I’d say that was probably ’95, ’96 to ’99, 2000. We changed the name of the firm to Mobius in 2001 because it was endlessly getting confused with the other [SoftBank] fund activity.

I do know a handful of the senior principals at SoftBank today very well, and I have enormous respect for them. Ron Fisher [the vice chairman of SoftBank Group] is the person I’m closest to. I have enormous respect for Ron. He’s one of my mentors and somebody I have enormous affection for.

There are endless piles of ink spilled on SoftBank, and there are loads of perspectives on Masa and about the Vision Fund. I would make the observation that the biggest dissonance in everything that’s talked about is timeframe, because even in the 1990s, Masa was talking about a 300-year vision. Whether you take it literally or figuratively, one of Masa’s powers is this incredible long arc that he operates on. Yet the analysis that we have on a continual basis externally is very short term — it’s days, weeks, months.

What Masa and the Vision Fund conceptually are playing is a very, very long-term game. Is the strategy an effective strategy? I have no idea . . .  but when you start being a VC, it takes a long time to know whether you’re any good at it out or not. It takes maybe a decade really before you actually know. You get a signal in five or six years. The Vision Fund is very young . . . It’s [also] a different strategy than any strategy that’s ever been executed before at that magnitude, so it will take a while to know whether it’s a success or not. One of the things that could cause that success to be inhibited would be having too short a view on it.

If a brand-new VC or a brand new fund is measured two years in in terms of its performance, and investors look at that and that’s how they decide what to do with the VC going forward, there would be no VCs. They’d all be out of business because the first two years of a brand-new VC, with very few exceptions, is usually a time period that it’s completely indeterminate as to whether or not they’re going to be successful.

TC: So many funds — not just the Vision Fund — are deploying their funds in two years, where it used to be four or five years, that it’s a bit harder. When you deploy all your capital, you then need to raise funding and it’s [too soon] to know how your bets are going to play out.

BF: One comment on that, Connie, because I think it’s a really good one: When I started, in the ’90s, it used to be a five-year fund cycle, which is why most LP docs have a five-year commitment period for VC funds. You literally have five years to commit the capital. In the internet bubble, it’s shortened to about three years, and in some cases it shortened to 12 months. At Mobius, we raised a fund in 1999 and a fund in 2000, so we had the experience of that compression.

When we set out the raise Foundry, we decided that our fund cycle would be three years and we would be really disciplined about that. We had a model for how we were going to deploy capital from each of our funds over that period of time. It turned out that when we look back in hindsight, we raised a new fund every three years and eventually we lost a year in that cycle. We have a 2016 vintage and a 2018 vintage and it’s because we really deployed the capital over 2.75 to three years . . .It eventually caught up with us.

I think the discipline of trying to have time diversity against the capital that you have is super important. If you talk to LPs today, there is a lot of anxiety about the increased pace at which funds have been deployed, and there has been a two year cycle in the last kind of two iterations of this. I think you’re going to start seeing that stretch back out to three years. From a time diversity perspective three years is plenty [of time] against portfolio construction. When it gets shorter, you actually don’t get enough time diversity in the portfolio and it starts to inhibit you.

TC: Very separately, you wrote a post about WeWork where you used the term cult of personality. For those who didn’t read that post — even for those who did — could you explain what you were saying?

BF: What I tried to abstract was the separation between cults of personality and thought leadership. Thought leadership is incredibly important. I think it’s important for entrepreneurs. I think it’s important for CEOs. I think it’s important for leaders, and I think it’s important for people around the system.

I’m a participant in the system, right? I’m a VC. There are lots of different ways for me to contribute, and I think personally, rather than creating a cult of personality around myself, as a contribution factor, I think it’s much better to try to provide thought leadership, including running lots of experiments, trying lots of things, being wrong a lot, and learning from it. One of the things about thought leadership that’s so powerful from my frame of reference is that people who exhibit thought leadership are truly curious, are trying to learn, are looking for data, and are building feedback loops from what they’re learning that then allows them to be more effective leaders in whatever role they have.

Cult of personality a lot of times masquerades as thought leadership . . . [but it tends] to be self-reinforcing around the awesomeness that is that person or the importance that is that person, or the correctness of the vision that person has. And what happens with cult of personality is that you very often, not always, but very often, lose the signal that allows you to iterate and change and evolve and modify so that you build something that’s stronger over time.

In some cases, it goes totally off the rails. I mean, just call it what it is: what business does a private company have, regardless of how much revenue it has, to buy a Gulfstream V or whatever [WeWork] bought? It’s crazy. ..

From an entrepreneurial perspective, I think being a leader with thought leadership and introspection around what’s working and what’s not working is much, much more powerful over a long period of time than the entrepreneur or the leader who gets wrapped in the cult of personality [and is] inhaling [his or her] own exhaust

TC: Have you been in that situation yourself as a VC? Could VCs have done something sooner in this case or is that not possible when dealing with a strong personality?

BF: One of the difficult things to do, not just as an investor, but as a board member — and it’s frankly also difficult for entrepreneurs — is to deal with the spectrum that you’re on, where one end of the spectrum as an investor or board member is dictating to the charismatic, incredibly hard-driving founder who is the CEO  what they should do, and, at the other end, letting them be unconstrained so that they do whatever they want to do.

One of the challenges of a lot of VCs is that, when things are going great, it’s hard to be internally critical about it. And so a lot of times, you don’t focus as much on the character. Every company, as it’s growing the leadership, the founders, the CEO, the other executives, have to evolve. [Yet] a lot of times for various reasons, and it’s a wide spectrum, there are moments in time where it’s easier to not pay attention to that as an investor or board member. There’s a lot of investors and board members who are afraid to confront it. And there’s a lot of situations where, because you don’t set up the governance structure of the company in a certain way, because as an investor you wanted to get into the deal or the entrepreneurs insist on [on a certain structure], or you don’t have enough influence because of when you invested, it’s very, very hard. If the entrepreneur is not willing to engage collaboratively, it’s very hard to do something about it.

Again, if you’re an Extra Crunch subscriber, you can read our unedited and wide-ranging conversation here.

TechCrunch

Upgrade, the newest company by Renaud Laplanche, has a new credit card that it swears is good for you

October 11, 2019 |

Three years ago, the founder of LendingClub, Renaud Laplanche, took the wraps off his second act, a consumer lending venture called Upgrade that now employs 350 people, has lent roughly $ 2 billion to 200,000 people, and has raised $ 142 million from outside investors.

At the time, it was jumping into a crowded market that has only become more frenzied, with a growing number of fintech startups that market themselves as more thoughtful alternatives to established banks and traditional credit card companies. While giants like Visa and MasterCard charge interest and late fees for overdue payments, for example, the Swedish unicorn company Klarna —  which allows shoppers to buy now and pay later — makes money through retailer transaction fees and late fees but doesn’t charge interest fees. Similarly, Max Levchin’s lending company, Affirm, doesn’t charge late fees when its customers rack up big charges but it does charge interest rates — sometimes as high as 30 percent.

Upgrade is slightly different in that that it doesn’t invite customers to defer their payments when they buy something using dollars from Upgrade. But it still largely fits into the same mold in that it markets itself as better for lending customers and more mindful of them. Its flagship personal loans product, for example, is largely used by customers to pay off credit cards and it features credit health tools that ostensibly teach people how to improve their credit scores.

It also charges up to 35.89% interest annually.

A brand-new credit product — the Upgrade Card — takes things even further on the feel-good front. As Laplanche explains it, the card “basically combines the payments capabilities of a credit card with the low cost of a bank loan into one single product.”

Adds Laplanche of this hybrid creation: “Lending Club created a $ 100 billion industry with personal loans 12 years ago; I think this is 10 times bigger — and 10 times cheaper for consumers.

We’re inherently skeptical of most lending products being good — or “cheap” — for customers. But here’s how it works: instead of asking a cardholder to pay a minimum amount each month from the balance they owe on their card, Upgrade breaks down the balance into an installment plan with equal monthly payments — plus an interest payment — that can be completed in a year to three years’ time.

“It’s like a mortgage or a car loan with a clear payment schedule,” says Laplanche. “You can budget for it and it sort of forces you to pay down the balance over a reasonable period,” unlike credit cards where customers can run a balance for as long as they like —  which can wind up costing them an arm and a leg in interest payments alone over time.

There is no prepayment penalty and the card replenishes as it is paid off. More, unlike many credit cards that reward users for spending with cash back and other perks, Upgrade customers receive 1% cash back each time they make a payment toward their balance.

Still, there is an annual percentage rate as with most credit cards, and it’s not much kinder than other alternatives, with a span of 6.49% to upwards of 29.99%.

Laplanche further concedes that, as with any lending product, customers who miss payments or start with a lower credit score are more likely to confront a higher interest rate than someone who is able to pay off their card as they use it.

Upgrade partnered with Cross River Bank on its new offering. The 11-year-old, Fort Lee, N.J.-based institution has itself raised at least $ 128 million over the years, including via a $ 100 million round led by KKR that closed late last year and a $ 28 million round put together in 2016 with funding from Battery Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Ribbit Capital, among others. In fact, Cross River has become the go-to institution for a lot of fintech startups, including Affirm, Transferwise, and Coinbase — startups that want to stay compliant with consumer protection regulations and that might have wanted to steer clear of large banks, especially when starting out.

Upgrade, which closed its last round, is probably due for a new funding round itself, having closed its $ 62 million Series C round in August of last year. Asked about this, however, Laplanche says only that, “We’re good.”

In the meantime, it’s planning ahead with the resources it has. Beyond the Upgrade Card, the San Francisco-based company expects to introduce a savings account in the first quarter of next year, a move similar to that which Robinhood announced earlier this week when it unveiled a high-yield cash management account.

It makes sense. If the economy turns — and it seems likely given the ongoing spat between China and the U.S., not to mention other unanswered questions — consumers are likely to look increasingly for safe havens like savings and cash management accounts.

Whether the moves are enough to insulate Upgrade (or these other fintech startups) in a serious downturn remains to be seen. But Laplanche has weathered worse before.

Though LendingClub was among the first peer-to-peer lenders and enjoyed a splashy debut on the public market in the summer of 2014, by the spring of 2016, Laplanche was asked to resign and was soon after charged by the SEC with fraudulently inflating the company’s returns.

He settled with the agency last year without admitting wrongdoing. He also paid a fine and agreed to be barred from the securities industry for three years.

TechCrunch

Creators of modern rechargeable batteries share Nobel prize

October 10, 2019 |

If you had to slip a couple AAs into your smartphone every morning to check your email, browse Instagram, and text your friends, chances are the mobile revolution would not have been quite so revolutionary. Fortunately the rechargeable lithium-ion battery was invented — a decades-long task for which three men have just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The prize this year honors M. Stanley Whittingham, John Goodenough, and Akira Yoshino, all of whom contributed to the development of what is today the most common form of portable power. Without them (and of course those they worked with, and those who came before) we would be tied to even more wasteful and/or stationary sources of energy.

Lead-acid batteries had been in use for nearly a century by the time people really got to thinking about taking things to the next level with lithium, a lightweight metal with desirable electrical properties. But lithium is also highly reactive with air and water, making finding suitable substances to pair it with difficult.

Experiments in the ’50s and ’60s laid the groundwork for more targeted investigations, in particular Whittingham’s. He and partner Fred Gamble showed in 1976 that lithium ions, after donating electrons to produce a charge, fit perfectly into a lattice of titanium disulfide — where they sit patiently (in their “van der Waals gaps”) until an electron is provided during recharging. Unfortunately this design also used a lithium anode that could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed.

John Goodenough and his team soon developed a better cathode material (where the lithium ions rested) with a much higher potential — more power could be drawn, opening new possibilities for applications. This, combined with the fact that the metallic lithium anodes could be highly reactive (think fire) if bent or crushed, led to increased research on making batteries safe as well as useful.

yoshino battery

In 1985 research by Akira Yoshino led to the discovery of several materials (whose names won’t mean anything to anyone without domain knowledge) that could perform as well while also being able to be physically damaged and not cause any major trouble.

Many, many improvements have been made since then, but the essentials of the technology were laid out by these teams. And soon after lithium-ion batteries were shown to be safe, capacious, and able to be recharged hundreds of times, they were found in laptops, medical devices, and eventually mobile phones. Today, after three more decades of enhancements, lithium batteries are now taking on gasoline as the energy storage medium of choice for human transportation.

The three scholars whose work most powerfully advanced this technology from theory to commercial reality were awarded equal shares of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, each taking home a third of the million and, more importantly, the distinction of being recognized in historic fashion.

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