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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Tesla is raising the price of its full self-driving option

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 03:57 PM PDT

In a few weeks, Tesla buyers will have to pay more for an option that isn’t yet completely functional, but that CEO Elon Musk promises will one day deliver full autonomous driving capabilities.

Musk tweeted Saturday that the price of its full self-driving option will “increase substantially over time” beginning May 1.

Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. Musk has promised that the advanced driver assistance capabilities on Tesla vehicles will continue to improve until eventually reaching that full automation high-water mark.

Musk didn’t provide a specific figure, but in response to a question on Twitter, he said the increase would be “something like” around the $3,000+ figure. Full self-driving currently costs $5,000.

The price hike comes amid several notable changes and events, including an upcoming Investor Autonomy Day on April 22 meant to explain and showcase Tesla’s autonomous driving technology. On Thursday, Tesla announced that Autopilot, its advanced driver assistance system that offers a combination of adaptive cruise control and lane steering, is now a standard feature.

The price of vehicles with the standard Autopilot is higher (although it should be noted that this standard feature is less than the prior cost of the option).  Buyers previously had to pay $3,000 for the option and examples given by Tesla suggest a $500 savings.

Tesla also announced it would begin leasing the Model 3 vehicles.

The more robust version of Autopilot is called Full Self-Driving, or FSD, and currently costs an additional $5,000. FSD includes Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable "Navigate on Autopilot" for that trip.

Tesla continues to improve Navigate on Autopilot and the broader FSD system through over-the-air software updates. The company says on its website that FSD will soon be able to recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs and automatically driving on city streets. 

The next major step change is a new custom chip called Hardware 3 that Tesla recently began producing. The Tesla-built piece of hardware is designed to have greater processing power than the Nvidia computer currently in Model S, X, and 3 vehicles.

Musk tweeted Saturday that Tesla will begin swapping the new custom chip into existing vehicles in a few months.

Musk has been promising full self-driving for years now. In late 2016, when Tesla started producing electric vehicles with a more robust suite of sensors, radar and cameras that would allow higher levels of automated driving, it also started taking money from customers for FSD. Musk said at the time, it would become available if and when the technical challenges were conquered and regulatory approvals were met.

Get ready for a new era of personalized entertainment

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 03:30 PM PDT

New machine learning technologies, user interfaces and automated content creation techniques are going to expand the personalization of storytelling beyond algorithmically generated news feeds and content recommendation.

The next wave will be software-generated narratives that are tailored to the tastes and sentiments of a consumer.

Concretely, it means that your digital footprint, personal preferences and context unlock alternative features in the content itself, be it a news article, live video or a hit series on your streaming service.

The title contains different experiences for different people.

From smart recommendations to smarter content

When you use Youtube, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix or Spotify, algorithms select what gets recommended to you. The current mainstream services and their user interfaces and recommendation engines have been optimized to serve you content you might be interested in.

Your data, other people's data, content-related data and machine learning methods are used to match people and content, thus improving the relevance of content recommendations and efficiency of content distribution.

However, so far the content experience itself has mostly been similar to everyone. If the same news article, live video or TV series episode gets recommended to you and me, we both read and watch the same thing, experiencing the same content.

That's about to change. Soon we'll be seeing new forms of smart content, in which user interface, machine learning technologies and content itself are combined in a seamless manner to create a personalized content experience.

What is smart content?

Smart content means that content experience itself is affected by who is seeing, watching, reading or listening to content. The content itself changes based on who you are.

We are already seeing the first forerunners in this space. TikTok's whole content experience is driven by very short videos, audiovisual content sequences if you will, ordered and woven together by algorithms. Every user sees a different, personalized, "whole" based on her viewing history and user profile.

At the same time, Netflix has recently started testing new forms of interactive content (TV series episodes, e.g. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) in which user's own choices affect directly the content experience, including dialogue and storyline. And more is on its way. With Love, Death & Robots series, Netflix is experimenting with episode order within a series, serving the episodes in different order for different users.

Some earlier predecessors of interactive audio-visual content include sports event streaming, in which the user can decide which particular stream she follows and how she interacts with the live content, for example rewinding the stream and spotting the key moments based on her own interest.

Simultaneously, we're seeing how machine learning technologies can be used to create photo-like images of imaginary people, creatures and places. Current systems can recreate and alter entire videos, for example by changing the style, scenery, lighting, environment or central character's face. Additionally, AI solutions are able to generate music in different genres.

Now, imagine, that TikTok's individual short videos would be automatically personalized by the effects chosen by an AI system, and thus the whole video would be customized for you. Or that the choices in the Netflix's interactive content affecting the plot twists, dialogue and even soundtrack, were made automatically by algorithms based on your profile.

Personalized smart content is coming to news as well. Automated systems, using today's state-of-the-art NLP technologies, can generate long pieces of concise, comprehensible and even inventive textual content at scale. At present, media houses use automated content creation systems, or "robot journalists", to create news material varying from complete articles to audio-visual clips and visualizations. Through content atomization (breaking content into small modular chunks of information) and machine learning, content production can be increased massively to support smart content creation.

Say that a news article you read or listen to is about a specific political topic that is unfamiliar to you. When comparing the same article with your friend, your version of the story might use different concepts and offer a different angle than your friend's who's really deep into politics. A beginner's smart content news experience would differ from the experience of a topic enthusiast.

Content itself will become a software-like fluid and personalized experience, where your digital footprint and preferences affect not just how the content is recommended and served to you, but what the content actually contains.

Automated storytelling?

How is it possible to create smart content that contains different experiences for different people?

Content needs to be thought and treated as an iterative and configurable process rather than a ready-made static whole that is finished when it has been published in the distribution pipeline.

Importantly, the core building blocks of the content experience change: smart content consists of atomized modular elements that can be modified, updated, remixed, replaced, omitted and activated based on varying rules. In addition, content modules that have been made in the past, can be reused if applicable. Content is designed and developed more like a software.

Currently a significant amount of human effort and computing resources are used to prepare content for machine-powered content distribution and recommendation systems, varying from smart news apps to on-demand streaming services. With smart content, the content creation and its preparation for publication and distribution channels wouldn't be separate processes. Instead, metadata and other invisible features that describe and define the content are an integral part of the content creation process from the very beginning.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

With smart content, the narrative or image itself becomes an integral part of an iterative feedback loop, in which the user's actions, emotions and other signals as well as the visible and invisible features of the content itself affect the whole content consumption cycle from the content creation and recommendation to the content experience. With smart content features, a news article or a movie activates different elements of the content for different people.

It's very likely that smart content for entertainment purposes will have different features and functions than news media content. Moreover, people expect frictionless and effortless content experience and thus smart content experience differs from games. Smart content doesn't necessarily require direct actions from the user. If the person wants, the content personalization happens proactively and automatically, without explicit user interaction.

Creating smart content requires both human curation and machine intelligence. Humans focus on things that require creativity and deep analysis while AI systems generate, assemble and iterate the content that becomes dynamic and adaptive just like software.

Sustainable smart content

Smart content has different configurations and representations for different users, user interfaces, devices, languages and environments. The same piece of content contains elements that can be accessed through voice user interface or presented in augmented reality applications. Or the whole content expands into a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

In the same way as with the personalized user interfaces and smart devices, smart content can be used for good and bad. It can be used to enlighten and empower, as well as to trick and mislead. Thus it's critical, that human-centered approach and sustainable values are built in the very core of smart content creation. Personalization needs to be transparent and the user needs to be able to choose if she wants the content to be personalized or not. And of course, not all content will be smart in the same way, if at all.

If used in a sustainable manner, smart content can break filter bubbles and echo chambers as it can be used to make a wide variety of information more accessible for diverse audiences. Through personalization, challenging topics can be presented to people according to their abilities and preferences, regardless of their background or level of education. For example a beginner's version of vaccination content or digital media literacy article uses gamification elements, and the more experienced user gets directly a thorough fact-packed account of the recent developments and research results.

Smart content is also aligned with the efforts against today's information operations such as fake news and its different forms such as "deep fakes" (http://www.niemanlab.org/2018/11/how-the-wall-street-journal-is-preparing-its-journalists-to-detect-deepfakes). If the content is like software, a legit software runs on your devices and interfaces without a problem. On the other hand, even the machine-generated realistic-looking but suspicious content, like deep fake, can be detected and filtered out based on its signature and other machine readable qualities.


Smart content is the ultimate combination of user experience design, AI technologies and storytelling.

News media should be among the first to start experimenting with smart content. When the intelligent content starts eating the world, one should be creating ones own intelligent content.

The first players that master the smart content, will be among tomorrow's reigning digital giants. And that's one of the main reasons why today's tech titans are going seriously into the content game. Smart content is coming.

How do startups actually get their content marketing to work?

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 12:54 PM PDT

[Editor’s note: this is a free example of a series of articles we’re publishing by top experts who have cutting-edge startup advice to offer, over on Extra Crunch. Get in touch at ec_columns@techcrunch.com if you have ideas to share.] 

Even the best growth marketers fail to get content marketing to work. Many are unwittingly using tactics from 4 years ago that no longer work today.

This post cuts through the noise by sharing real-world data behind some of the biggest SEO successes this year.

It studies the content marketing performance of clients with Growth Machine and Bell Curve (my company) — two marketing agencies who have helped grow Perfect Keto, Tovala, Framer, Crowd Cow, Imperfect Produce, and over a hundred others.

What content do their clients write about, how do they optimize that content to rank well (SEO), and how do they convert their readers into customers?

You're about to see how most startups manage their blogs the wrong way.

Reference CupAndLeaf.com as we go along. Their tactics for hitting 150,000 monthly visitors will be explored.

Write fewer, more in-depth articles

In the past, Google wasn't skilled at identifying and promoting high quality articles. Their algorithms were tricked by low-value, "content farm" posts.

That is no longer the case.

Today, Google is getting close to delivering on its original mission statement: "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." In other words, they now reliably identify high quality articles. How? By monitoring engagement signals: Google can detect when a visitor hits the Back button in their browser. This signals that the reader quickly bounced from the article after they clicked to read it.

If this occurs frequently for an article, Google ranks that article lower. It deems it low quality.

For example, below is a screenshot of the (old) Google Webmaster Tools interface. It visualizes this quality assessment process: It shows a blog post with the potential to rank for the keyword "design packaging ideas." Google initially ranked it at position 25.

However, since readers weren't engaging with the content as time went on, Google incrementally ranked the article lower — until it completely fell off the results page:

The lesson? Your objective is to write high quality articles that keep readers engaged. Almost everything else is noise.

In studying our clients, we've identified four rules for writing engaging posts.

1. Write articles for queries that actually prioritize articles.

Not all search queries are best served by articles.

Below, examine the results for "personalized skincare:"

Notice that Google is prioritizing quizzes. Not articles.

So if you don't perform a check like this before writing an article on "personalized skincare," there's a good chance you're wasting your time. Because, for some queries, Google has begun prioritizing local recommendations, videos, quizzes, or other types of results that aren't articles.

Sanity check this before you sit down to write.

2. Write titles that accurately depict what readers get from the content.

Are incoming readers looking to buy a product? Then be sure to show them product links.

Or, were they looking for a recipe? Provide that.

Make your content deliver on what your titles imply a reader will see. Otherwise, readers bounce. Google will then notice the accumulating bounces, and you'll be penalized.

3. Write articles that conclude the searcher's experience.

Your objective is to be the last site a visitor visits in their search journey.

Meaning, if they read your post then don't look at other Google result, Google infers that your post gave the searcher what they were looking for. And that's Google's prime directive: get searchers to their destination through the shortest path possible.

The two-part trick for concluding the searcher's journey is to:

Go sufficiently in-depth to cover all the subtopics they could be looking for.

Link to related posts that may cover the tangential topics they seek.

This is what we use Clearscope for — it ensures we don't miss critical subtopics that help our posts rank:

4. Write in-depth yet concise content.

In 2019, what do most of the top-ranked blogs have in common?

They skip filler introductions, keep their paragraphs short, and get to the point.

And, to make navigation seamless, they employ a "table of contents" experience:

Be like them, and get out of the reader's way. All our best-performing blogs do this.

Check out more articles by Julian Shapiro over on Extra Crunch, including “What's the cost of buying users from Facebook and 13 other ad networks?” and “Which types of startups are most often profitable?”

Prioritize engagement over backlinks

In going through our data, the second major learning was about "backlinks", which is marketing jargon for a link to your site from someone else's.

Four years ago, the SEO community was focused on backlinks and Domain Ranking (DR) — an indication of how many quality sites link to yours (scored from 0 to 100). At the time, they were right to be concerned about backlinks.

Today, our data reveals that backlinks don't matter as much as they used to. They certainly help, but you need great content behind them.

Most content marketers haven't caught up to this.

Here's a screenshot showing how small publishers can beat out large behemoths today — with very little Domain Ranking:

The implication is that, even without backlinks, Google is still happy to rank you highly. Consider this: They don't need your site to be linked from TechCrunch for their algorithm to determine whether visitors are engaged on your site.

Remember: Google has Google Analytics, Google Search, Google Ads, and Google Chrome data to monitor how searchers engage with your site. Believe me, if they want to find out whether your content is engaging, they can find a way. They don't need backlinks to tell them.

This is not to say that backlinks are useless.

Our data shows they still provide value, just much less. Notably, they get your pages "considered" by Google sooner: If you have backlinks from authoritative and relevant sites, Google will have the confidence to send test traffic to your pages in perhaps a few weeks instead of in a few months.

Here's what I mean by "test traffic:" In the weeks after publishing your post, Google notices them then experimentally surfaces them at the top of related search terms. They then monitor whether searchers engage with the content (i.e. don't quickly hit their Back button). If the engagement is engaging, they'll increasingly surface your articles. And increase your rankings over time.

Having good backlinks can cut this process down from months to a few weeks.

Prioritize conversion over volume

Engagement isn't your end goal. It's the precursor to what ultimately matters: getting a signup, subscribe, or purchase. (Marketers call this your "conversion event.") Visitors can take a few paths to your conversion event:

Short: They read the initial post then immediately convert.

Medium: They read the initial post plus a few more before eventually converting.

Long (most common): They subscribe to your newsletter and/or return later.

To increase the ratio at which readers take the short and medium paths, optimize your blog posts' copy, design, and calls to action. We've identified two rules for doing this.

1. Naturally segue to your pitch

Our data shows you should not pitch your product until the back half of your post.

Why? Pitching yourself in the intro can taint the authenticity of your article.

Also, the further a reader gets into a good article, the more familiarity and trust they’ll accrue for your brand, which means they're less likely to ignore your pitch once they encounter it.

2. Don't make your pitch look like an ad

Most blogs make their product pitches look like big, show-stopping banner ads.

Our data shows this visual fanfare is reflexively ignored by readers.

Instead, plug your product using a normal text link — styled no differently than any other link in your post. Woodpath, a health blog with Amazon products to pitch, does this well.

Think in funnels, not in pageviews

Finally, our best-performing clients focus less on their Google Analytics data and more on their readers' full journeys: They encourage readers to provide their email so they can follow up with a series of "drip" emails. Ideally, these build trust in the brand and get visitors to eventually convert.

They "retarget" readers with ads. This entails pitching them with ads for the products that are most relevant to the topics they read on the blog. (Facebook and Instagram provide the granular control necessary to segment traffic like this.) You can read my growth marketing handbook to learn more about running retargeting ads well.

Here's why retargeting is high-leverage: In running Facebook and Instagram ads for over a hundred startups, we've found that the cost of a retargeting purchase is one third the cost of a purchase from ads shown to people who haven't yet been to our site.

Our data shows that clients who earn nothing from their blog traffic can sometimes earn thousands by simply retargeting ads to their readers.

Recap

It's possible for a blog with 50,000 monthly visitors to earn nothing.

So, prioritize visitor engagement over volume: Make your hero metrics your revenue per visitor and your total revenue. That'll keep your eye on the intermediary goals that matter: Attracting visitors with an intent to convert

Keeping those visitors engaged on the site

Then compelling them to convert

In short, your goal is to help Google do its job: Get readers where they need to go with the least amount of friction in their way.

Be sure to check out more articles from Julian Shapiro over on Extra Crunch, and get in touch with the Extra Crunch editors if you have cutting-edge startup advice to share with our subscribers, at ec_columns@techcrunch.com.

Equity transcribed: Digging into the Uber S-1

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 12:30 PM PDT

Welcome back to this week's transcribed edition of Equity, TechCrunch's venture capital-focused podcast that unpacks the numbers behind the headlines.

And because it’s another week, why not another emergency episode? This time Kate Clark and Alex Wilhelm popped in the studio an hour before they were due to record the regular episode in order to dig into the Uber S-1. Not only did they dig into it, but they did so in real-time. That’s what happens when you only have 10 minutes to get through almost 300 pages of numbers. And if it’s numbers you like, this is the episode for you.

The duo talks Uber’s profits and losses and provides context into it all. And just to prove just how juicy this ep is, Equity Shots tend to be about 15 minutes long. Not this one. There was a lot to get to. And who better to lead the conversation than Kate and Alex? So join them as they walk you through what the Uber S-1 holds.

For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


Kate Clark: Hello and welcome to Equity Shot. This is TechCrunch’s Kate Clark, and I’m joined today by Alex Wilhelm of Crunchbase News.

Alex Wilhelm: Hello.

Kate: We are going to tackle some breaking news. But, a warning from Alex first.

Alex: Yeah, so it’s 2:09pm here on the West Coast on Thursday, which means that the S-1 dropped, I don’t know, about 45 minutes ago, maybe an hour. And there was a lot to do before the show, but we wanna get this out as soon as we can, so we did our note dock by hand, and we got the S-1 pulled up, and we have a lot to go through. But, there may be an awkward pause in this, because we don’t have every single number pulled out ahead of time.

Kate: We are literally scrolling through the document live. We have a piece of paper taped to the wall in the studio with a very rough outline of what we’re gonna talk about. And we agreed that we’re going to try to take it slow and carry you guys through these important numbers as best we can.

Alex: Yes, and we are gonna start with yearly numbers to stay at the highest possible level, and we’re gonna talk about revenue first.

Alex: Now, keep in mind that we’re not talking about bookings, which is the total spend on Uber’s platform, we’re gonna talk about revenue, which is Uber’s portion of that overall platform spend. So, in 2014, because the S-1 goes back all the way to 2014, Uber had revenue of 495 million. That nearly quadrupled in 2015 to 1.99 billion … call it 2 billion flat. In 2016 that grew to 3.85 billion. It expanded to 7.9 billion in 2017, and 11.3 billion in 2018. So, basically a half a billion, to 11.3 billion from 2014 to 2018.

Kate: Yeah, quick reminder, a lot of these we’ve seen. I know there’s been plenty of reports highlighting Uber’s 2018 revenues of around 11 billion, but this is the first time we’re getting a full glimpse into financial history all the way back to 2014, and then also losses, which were interesting.

 

Alex: Very, very interesting.

Kate: I’ll quickly run through losses beginning in 2014. So, Uber lost 670 million that year, they were not profitable. The next year they lost 2.7 billion, again, not profitable. The next year they lost 370 million, guessing there was a big … oh, no, that was the year of the divestiture of … we just talked about this.

Alex: Uber China.

Disney/Lucasfilm donates $1.5 million to FIRST

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 11:00 AM PDT

A day after the big Episode IX reveal, Disney and subsidiary Lucas film announced that it will be donating $1.5 million to FIRST . The non-profit group was founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 to help teach STEM through initiatives like robotics competitions.

Disney's money will go to provide education and outreach to the underserved communities on which FIRST focuses. Details are pretty thin on precisely what the partnership will entail, but Disney's certainly got a lot to gain from this sort of outreach — and Lucasfilm knows a thing or two about robots.

The Star Wars: Force for Change announcement was made in conjunction with Lucasfilm's annual Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. Yesterday the event hosted a panel with the cast of the upcoming film that included a teaser trailer and title reveal.

"Star Wars has always inspired young people to look past what is and imagine a world beyond," Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said in a release tied to the news. "It is crucial that we pass on the importance of science and technology to young people—they will be the ones who will have to confront the global challenges that lie ahead. To support this effort, Lucasfilm and Disney are teaming up with FIRST to bring learning opportunities and mentorship to the next generation of innovators."

It's been a good week for FIRST investments. Just yesterday Amazon announced its own commitment to the group's robotics offerings.

Unicorns, undercorns and horses: A guide to the nonsense

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 10:30 AM PDT

It's been more than a half-decade since Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures kicked off the unicorn craze. Noting in a well-read post for TechCrunch that an interesting cohort of private companies worth a billion dollars or more was worth examining, the post brought the "unicorn" into its current usage inside of tech.

And then tech itself did the term a favor, building and financing hundreds more. Now unicorns swarm like fleas, and simply snagging a $1 billion valuation these days is something that has been done in mere months and is a well-known vanity tactic used to juice hiring.

Anyway.

This has now gone on so long that many of us in the tech-focused journalism space are sick of saying the word. Kate Clark, Equity co-host and cool person, literally has "I am so sick of the buzz word [sic] 'unicorn’ " on her Twitter page. I agree with the sentiment.

But the phrase unicorn is back in the mix, so let's examine the hubbub.

Booms and busts

The term unicorn quickly became overused as startups stayed private longer by pushing IPOs off as long as they could, and the capital world decided it was fine. Bored capital was pooling in venture coffers where it was itching to be disbursed by the wealthy into the holsters of the privileged. And thus the companies that in other cycles might have gone public simply didn't, and the ranks of unicorns multiplied.

The joke's on us, however, as we have used the term on the order of six billion times.

Soon the overused "unicorn" moniker was also too small. Decacorns took their own spot in the pantheon of silly names. A decacorn, in case you've led a more exciting life than me and are thus otherwise unfamiliar, is a private tech company that has racked up a $10 billion valuation. (A centacorn, I suppose, would be worth $100 billion?)

What a unicorn is has stretched and bent over time. But regardless of how the phrase has come to be defined in recent quarters, most people are talking about tech shops when they use it. And that's pretty reasonable.

But what tech companies do very well is go up, and go down. And that's when we wind up on the other side (tail-end?) of the unicorn debate: All are agreed that the phrase unicorn is useful. Not all, however, agree on what we call a unicorn that has fallen.

Oops

We have two questions: What do you call a unicorn that falls under the $1 billion valuation mark. And, relatedly, what do you call a unicorn that eventually goes public or otherwise exits at a discount to its final private market valuation?

Regarding the leading question, there are two definitions that I am aware of.

First, as has come back into the discussion this week, there's the concept of an "undercorn." As Business Insider noted through a blog citationAxios' Dan Primack may have coined the term. Here, per Ian Sigalow's post, which quotes the original Dan, is what Primack said:

When a venture-backed company breaks through the $1BN valuation mark, we call it a Unicorn. When the same company falls back below the $1BN threshold, it becomes an Undercorn.

That's simple enough. However, Erin Griffith of The New York Times used the phrase recently in a slightly different manner. Here's her riff:

Unicorns that sell or go public below their last private valuation are known as undercorns.

That's different, as it's defining undercorns as exited unicorns that lose altitude; that's different than unicorns losing their unicornyness altogether. However, as we're working on defining made-up words to describe an economic anomaly caused by government-determined free money, we can relax a little and realize that both uses of the word undercorn are equally differentiated from zero.

Now I get to talk about myself. I had my own thoughts on what a unicorn that had lost the requisite billion-dollar valuation should be called back in 2016. Regarding what a unicorn that had fallen under the needed worth:

If a unicorn is a horse with a spike, when you take the spike off you just have a horse.

I thought it was pretty smart. No one else agreed, and thus I have to admit that Primack and Griffith have made quite a lot more noise with the undercorn phrase, even if they don't quite agree on what it means. (Feel free to become a partisan of either side, as we are long overdue for something useless and entertaining on the internet.)

Sadly, there are even more unicorn-related terms and phrases in and amidst the tech conversation that we shouldn't miss.

Exotica and other notes

Returning to Axios, it has a new phrase out this year that's worth keeping in our hat. From its February coverage of the venture landscape, I give you the phrase “minotaur:”

The Big Picture: Meet the minotaurs — our term for the companies that would be worth more than $1 billion even if the only thing they did was to take the cash that they have raised and put it in a checking account.

I wanted to hate this, but wound up deciding there are a host of worse words that could have been selected. And as it wasn't a unicorn-variant, how could I complain?

The only other thing I can recall that fits our task today is something that Jason and I wrote four years ago in TechCrunch. As a follow-up to our "How To Speak Startup" post, we wrote the brilliantly titled "How To Speak Startup, Part Deux," which contained the following definition:

Unicorn — As if metaphors in Silicon Valley couldn't get more childish.

The joke's on us, however, as we have used the term on the order of six billion times since then. And that's that, I think. Now you know!

Niantic EC-1, Part 3 and what the data show are the best fundraising decks

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 09:30 AM PDT

Harry Potter, the Platform, and the Future of Niantic

After deep dives into the story of Niantic's spinout from Google and its creation and development of Pokémon GO, TechCrunch editor Greg Kumparak turns his attention to Niantic's future, looking at how Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is not just uniting wand-wielders, but also the company's ambitions in areas as diverse as 5G, China, 3D mapping, and the next-generation of augmented reality.

This is definitely a weekend read (it's about 25 mins in length), but here's a taste:

There's one more piece to this grander AR vision, and it's perhaps the biggest and most challenging one.

Your phone knows your location, but current GPS tech is really only accurate within a few feet. Even when it's at its most accurate, it doesn't always stay there for long. Ever use Google Maps in a big city and had your marker hop around all over the map? That's probably from the signals bouncing off buildings, vehicles, and all of the myriad metal things around you.

That's good enough for basic augmented reality functionality seen in Pokémon GO today. But Niantic wants to get closer and closer to the vision of GO's original trailer, where hundreds of people can look up to see the same Zapdos flying overhead, synchronized in time and space across all of their devices. Where you can gather in a park with friends to watch massive Pokémon battles play out in real time, or leave a virtual gift on a bench for a friend to walk up to and discover. For this, Niantic will need something more precise and more consistent. Like pretty much everything with Niantic, it all goes back to maps.

More specifically, they'll need to build a 3D map of the environments where people are playing. It's easy enough to get relatively accurate 3D data about huge things like buildings, but what about everything around those buildings? The statues, the planters, the trees, the bus stops. John [Hanke, Niantic's CEO], and others in the space, refer to this map as the "AR Cloud."

Original Content podcast: Making sense of the surreal terrors in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 09:00 AM PDT

Jordan Peele fans who go to his latest film “Us” hoping to find another “Get Out” may be disappointed: Where Peele’s directorial debut lent itself to straightforward political allegory, the follow-up feels murkier and stranger.

“Us” is a nightmarish journey into a world invaded by sinister doppelgangers. The film does, eventually, offer a rationale for what’s happening, but the surreal imagery (and the unsettling work by the cast, led by Lupita Nyong’o) will stick with you in a way that the explanations do not.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Megan Rose Dickey to review the film. Now that it’s been a few weeks since “Us” hit theaters, it feels like the right time to argue about what actually happened, dig into the film’s symbolism and see which fan theories resonate.

We also talk about our expectations after watching the first trailer for the next Star Wars film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” which is meant to wrap up the whole nine-episode story.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Twitch’s first game, the karaoke-style ‘Twitch Sings,’ launches to public

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 08:30 AM PDT

Amazon-owned game-streaming site Twitch is today publicly launching its first game. But it’s not a traditional video game — like those the site’s creators stream for their fans. Instead, the new game is called “Twitch Sings” and is a free karaoke-style experience designed for live streaming.

The game, which was launched into beta last year, includes thousands of karaoke classics that players can sing either alone or in a duet with another person. In addition, streamers can choose to sing as themselves in a live camera feed, or they can create a personalized avatar that will appear in their place. (The songs are licensed from karaoke content providers, not the major labels.)

But unlike other karaoke-style apps — like TikTok or its clones — Twitch Sings is designed to be both live-streamed and interactive. That is, viewers are also a part of the experience as they can request songs, cheer with emotes to activate light shows and virtual ovations and send in “singing challenges” to the streamer during the performance. For example, they could challenge them to sing without the lyrics or “sing like a cat,” and other goofy stuff.

“Twitch Sings unites the fun and energy of being at a live show with the boundless creativity of streamers to make an amazing shared interactive performance," said Joel Wade, executive producer of Twitch Sings, in a statement. “Many games are made better on Twitch, but we believe there is a huge opportunity for those that are designed with streaming and audience participation at their core.”

The game is designed to not only capitalize on Twitch’s live-streaming capabilities, but to also engage Twitch viewers who tune in to watch, but don’t stream themselves.

More notably, it’s a means of expanding Twitch beyond gaming. This is something Twitch has attempted to do for years — starting with the launch of a section on its site for creative content back in 2015. It has also in the past tried to cater to vloggers, and has partnered with various media companies in order to stream marathons of fan favorites — like Bob Ross’s painting series or Julia Child’s cooking show, for example. Its own studio has produced non-gaming shows like the one about sneakers. Last year, Twitch partnered with Disney Digital Network to bring some of its larger personalities over to Twitch, as well.

Those efforts haven’t really helped Twitch break out with the non-gamer crowd.

Karaoke may not do the trick either. In reality, this “game” is more of a test to see if Twitch can turn some of its platform features — like its chat system and custom interactive video overlays — into tools to help increase engagement among existing users and attract new ones. It still remains to be seen if and how the game actually takes off.

The game was unveiled today at TwitchCon Berlin, where the company announced it had added more than 127,000 Affiliates and 3,600 new Partners in Europe since the beginning of 2018.

The company also detailed a few other updates for Twitch creators, including those across payments, streaming and discovery tools.

Starting Monday, April 15, Twitch will pay out in just 15 days after the close of the month, instead of 45, eligible creators that reached the $100 threshold. In May, it will make the Bounty Board (paid sponsorship opps) available to Partners and Affiliates in Germany, France and the U.K., and will partner Borderlands 3, Tom Clancy's The Division 2 and Unilever, in Europe.

In June, Twitch is also rolling out faster search, automated highlight reels (recaps) and the ability to sort through channels in a directory by a range of new options — including lowest to highest viewers, most recently started or suggested channels based on their viewing history.

TwitchCon Europe 2019 is streaming live this weekend at twitch.tv/twitch.

Microsoft: Hackers compromised support agent’s credentials to access customer email accounts

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 07:43 AM PDT

On the heels of a trove of 773 million emails, and tens of millions of passwords, from a variety of domains getting leaked in January, Microsoft has faced another breach affecting its web-based email services.

Microsoft has confirmed to TechCrunch that a certain “limited” number of people who use web email services managed by Microsoft — which cover services like @msn.com and @hotmail.com — had their accounts compromised.

"We addressed this scheme, which affected a limited subset of consumer accounts, by disabling the compromised credentials and blocking the perpetrators' access,” said a Microsoft spokesperson in an email.

According to an email Microsoft has sent out to affected users (the reader who tipped us off got his late Friday evening), malicious hackers were potentially able to access an affected user’s e-mail address, folder names, the subject lines of e-mails, and the names of other e-mail addresses the user communicates with — “but not the content of any e-mails or attachments,” nor — it seems — login credentials like passwords.

Microsoft is still recommending that affected users change their passwords regardless.

The breach occurred between January 1 and March 28, Microsoft’s letter to users said. 

The hackers got into the system by compromising a customer support agent’s credentials, according to the letter. Once identified, those credentials were disabled. Microsoft told users that it didn’t know what data was viewed by the hackers or why, but cautioned that users might as a result see more phishing or spam emails as a result. “You should be careful when receiving any e-mails from any misleading domain name, any e-mail that requests personal information or payment, or any unsolicited request from an untrusted source.”

We are printing the full text of the email below, but a separate email sent to us, from Microsoft’s Information Protection and Governance team, confirmed some of the basic details, adding that it has increased detection and monitoring on those accounts affected.

Microsoft recently became aware of an issue involving unauthorized access to some customers' web-based email accounts by cybercriminals. We addressed this scheme by disabling the compromised credentials to the limited set of targeted accounts, while also blocking the perpetrators' access. A limited number of consumer accounts were impacted, and we have notified all impacted customers. Out of an abundance of caution, we also increased detection and monitoring to further protect affected accounts. 

No enterprise customers are affected, TechCrunch understands.

Right now, a lot of question marks remain. It’s unclear exactly how many people or accounts were affected, nor in which territories they are located — but it seems that at least some were in the European Union, since Microsoft also provides information for contacting Microsoft’s data protection officer in the region.

We also don’t know how the agent’s credentials were compromised, or if the agent was a Microsoft employee, or if the person worked for a third party providing support services. And Microsoft has not explained how it discovered the breach.

We have asked Microsoft all of the above and will update this post as we learn more.

In this age where cybersecurity breaches get revealed on a daily basis, email is one of the most commonly leaked pieces of personal information. There’s even been a site created dedicated to helping people figure out if they are among those who have been hacked. Have I Been Pwned, as the site is called, now has over 7.8 billion email addresses in its database.

We’ll update this post as we learn more. The letter from Microsoft to affected users follows.

Dear Customer

Microsoft is committed to providing our customers with transparency. As part of maintaining this trust and commitment to you, we are informing you of a recent event that affected your Microsoft-managed email account.

We have identified that a Microsoft support agent's credentials were compromised, enabling individuals outside Microsoft to access information within your Microsoft email account. This unauthorized access could have allowed unauthorized parties to access and/or view information related to your email account (such as your e-mail address, folder names, the subject lines of e-mails, and the names of other e-mail addresses you communicate with), but not the content of any e-mails or attachments, between January 1st 2019 and March 28th 2019.

Upon awareness of this issue, Microsoft immediately disabled the compromised credentials, prohibiting their use for any further unauthorized access. Our data indicates that account-related information (but not the content of any e-mails) could have been viewed, but Microsoft has no indication why that information was viewed or how it may have been used. As a result, you may receive phishing emails or other spam mails. You should be careful when receiving any e-mails from any misleading domain name, any e-mail that requests personal information or payment, or any unsolicited request from an untrusted source (you can read more about phishing attacks at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/security/threat-protection/intelligence/phishing).

It is important to note that your email login credentials were not directly impacted by this incident. However, out of caution, you should reset your password for your account.

If you require further assistance, or have any additional questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to our Incident Response Team at ipg-ir@microsoft.com. If you are a citizen of European Union, you may also contact Microsoft's Data Protection Officer at:

EU Data Protection Officer
Microsoft Ireland Operations Ltd
One Microsoft Place,
South County Business Park,
Leopardstown, Dublin 18, Ireland
dpoffice@microsoft.com

Microsoft regrets any inconvenience caused by this issue. Please be assured that Microsoft takes data protection very seriously and has engaged its internal security and privacy teams in the investigation and resolution of the issue, as well as additional hardening of systems and processes to prevent such recurrence.

Updated with comment from Microsoft.

Startups Weekly: Lessons from a failed founder

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 05:00 AM PDT

I sat down with Menlo Ventures partner Shawn Carolan this week to talk about his early investment in Uber. Menlo, if you remember, led Uber’s Series B and has made a hefty sum over the year selling shares in the ride-hailing company. I’ll have more on that later; for now, I want to share some of the insights Carolan had on his experience ditching venture capital to become a founder.

Around when Menlo made its first investment in Uber, Carolan began taking a step back from the firm and building Handle, a startup that built tools to help people be more productive. Despite years of hard work, Handle was ultimately a failure. Carolan said he shed a lot of tears over its demise, but used the experience to connect more intimately with founders and to offer them more candid, authentic advice.

“People in the valley are always achievement-oriented; it’s always about the next thing and crushing it and whatever,” Carolan told TechCrunch. “When [Handle] shut down, I had this spreadsheet of all the people who I felt like I disappointed: Seed investors who invested in me, all the people at Menlo and my friends who had tweeted out early stuff. It was a long spreadsheet of like 60 people. And when I started a sabbatical, what I said was I’m going to go connect with everyone and apologize.”

Today, Carolan encourages founders to own their vulnerabilities.

“It’s OK to admit when you’re wrong,” he said. “Now I can see it on [founders’] faces, I can see when they’re scared. And they’re not going to say they’re scared but I know it’s tough. This is one of the toughest things that you’re going to go through. Now I can be there emotionally for these founders and I can say ‘here’s how you do it, here’s how you talk to your team and here’s what you share.’ A lot of founders feel like they have to do this alone and that’s why you have to get comfortable with your vulnerability.”

After Handle shuttered, Carolan returned to Menlo full time and made the firm a boatload of money from Roku’s IPO and now Uber’s. Anyway, thought those were some nice anecdotes that should be shared since most of our feeds are dominated by Silicon Valley hustle porn.

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here. Ok, on to other news…

IPO corner

Funds on funds on funds

There were so many fund announcements this week; here’s a quick list.

Extra Crunch

Lots of great new exclusive content for our Extra Crunch subscribers is on the site, including this deep dive into the challenges of transportation startup profits. Plus: When to ditch a nightmare customer, before they kill your startup; The right way to do AI in security; and The definitive Niantic reading guide.

Lawsuits

Sinema, that one MoviePass competitor, has run into its fair share of bumps in the road. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater hopped on the phone with the startup’s CEO this week to learn more about those bumps, why its terminating accounts en masse, a class-action lawsuit its battling and more.

Photo by Stephen McCarthy / RISE via Sportsfile

Startup capital

Battlefield!

TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield brings the world's top early-stage startups together on one stage to compete for non-dilutive prize money, and the attention of media and investors worldwide. Here’s a quick update on some of our BF winners and finalists:

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch's venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week's episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm, myself and Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote and AllTurtles, chat about the importance of IPOs. Plus, in a special Equity Shot, Alex and I unpack the Uber S-1.

Spy on your smart home with this open source research tool

Posted: 13 Apr 2019 03:16 AM PDT

Researchers at Princeton University have built a web app that lets you (and them) spy on your smart home devices to see what they’re up to.

The open source tool, called IoT Inspector, is available for download here. (Currently it’s Mac OS only, with a wait list for Windows or Linux.)

In a blog about the effort the researchers write that their aim is to offer a simple tool for consumers to analyze the network traffic of their Internet connected gizmos. The basic idea is to help people see whether devices such as smart speakers or wi-fi enabled robot vacuum cleaners are sharing their data with third parties. (Or indeed how much snitching their gadgets are doing.)

Testing the IoT Inspector tool in their lab the researchers say they found a Chromecast device constantly contacting Google’s servers even when not in active use.

A Geeni smart bulb was also found to be constantly communicating with the cloud — sending/receiving traffic via a URL (tuyaus.com) that’s operated by a China-based company with a platform which controls IoT devices.

There are other ways to track devices like this — such as setting up a wireless hotspot to sniff IoT traffic using a packet analyzer like WireShark. But the level of technical expertise required makes them difficult for plenty of consumers.

Whereas the researchers say their web app doesn’t require any special hardware or complicated set-up so it sounds easier than trying to go packet sniffing your devices yourself. (Gizmodo, which got an early look at the tool, describes it as “incredibly easy to install and use”.)

One wrinkle: The web app doesn’t work with Safari; requiring either Firefox or Google Chrome (or a Chromium-based browser) to work.

The main caveat is that the team at Princeton do want to use the gathered data to feed IoT research — so users of the tool will be contributing to efforts to study smart home devices.

The title of their research project is Identifying Privacy, Security, and Performance Risks of Consumer IoT Devices. The listed principle investigators are professor Nick Feamster and postdoctoral researcher Danny Yuxing Huang at the university’s Computer Science department.

The Princeton team says it intends to study privacy and security risks and network performance risks of IoT devices. But they also note they may share the full dataset with other non-Princeton researchers after a standard research ethics approval process. So users of IoT Inspector will be participating in at least one research project. (Though the tool also lets you delete any collected data — per device or per account.)

“With IoT Inspector, we are the first in the research community to produce an open-source, anonymized dataset of actual IoT network traffic, where the identity of each device is labelled,” the researchers write. “We hope to invite any academic researchers to collaborate with us — e.g., to analyze the data or to improve the data collection — and advance our knowledge on IoT security, privacy, and other related fields (e.g., network performance).”

They have produced an extensive FAQ which anyone thinking about running the tool should definitely read before getting involved with a piece of software that’s explicitly designed to spy on your network traffic. (tl;dr, they’re using ARP-spoofing to intercept traffic data — a technique they warn may slow your network, in addition to the risk of their software being buggy.)

The dataset that’s being harvesting by the traffic analyzer tool is anonymized and the researchers specify they’re not gathering any public-facing IP addresses or locations. But there are still some privacy risks — such as if you have smart home devices you’ve named using your real name. So, again, do read the FAQ carefully if you want to participate.

For each IoT device on a network the tool collects multiple data-points and sends them back to servers at Princeton University — including DNS requests and responses; destination IP addresses and ports; hashed MAC addresses; aggregated traffic statistics; TLS client handshakes; and device manufacturers.

The tool has been designed not to track computers, tablets and smartphones by default, given the study focus on smart home gizmos. Users can also manually exclude individual smart devices from being tracked if they’re able to power them down during set up or by specifying their MAC address.

Up to 50 smart devices can be tracked on the network where IoT Inspector is running. Anyone with more than 50 devices is asked to contact the researchers to ask for an increase to that limit.

The project team has produced a video showing how to install the app on Mac:

Did you fly a drone over Fenway Park? The FAA would like a chat

Posted: 12 Apr 2019 05:29 PM PDT

Drones are great. But they are also flying machines that can do lots of stupid and dangerous things. Like, for instance, fly over a major league baseball game packed with spectators. It happened at Fenway Park last night, and the FAA is not happy.

The illegal flight took place last night during a Red Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway; the drone, a conspicuously white DJI Phantom, reportedly first showed up around 9:30 PM, coming and going over the next hour.

One of the many fans who shot a video of the drone, Chris O’Brien, told CBS Boston that “it would kind of drop fast then go back up then drop and spin. It was getting really low and close to the players. At one point it was getting really low and I was wondering are they going to pause the game and whatever, but they never did.

Places where flying is regularly prohibited, like airports and major landmarks like stadiums, often have no-fly rules baked into the GPS systems of drones — and that’s the case with DJI. In a statement, however, the company said that “whoever flew this drone over the stadium apparently overrode our geofencing system and deliberately violated the FAA temporary flight restriction in place over the game.”

The FAA said that it (and Boston PD) is investigating both to local news and in a tweet explaining why it is illegal.

That’s three nautical miles, which is quite a distance, covering much of central Boston. You don’t really take chances when there are tens of thousands of people all gathered in one spot on a regular basis like that. Drones open up some pretty ugly security scenarios.

Of course, this wasn’t a mile and a half from Fenway, which might have earned a slap on the wrist, but directly over the park, which as the FAA notes above could lead to hundreds of thousands in fines and actual prison time. It’s not hard to imagine why: If that drone had lost power or caught a gust (or been hit by a fly ball, at that altitude), it could have hurt or killed someone in the crowd.

It’s especially concerning when the FAA is working on establishing new rules for both hobby and professional drone use. You should leave a comment there if you feel strongly about this, by the way.

Here’s hoping they catch the idiot who did this. It just goes to show that you can’t trust people to follow the rules, even when they’re coded into a craft’s OS. It’s things like this that make mandatory registration of drones sound like a pretty good idea.

(Red Sox won, by the way. But the season’s off to a rough start.)

Hackers publish personal data on thousands of US police officers and federal agents

Posted: 12 Apr 2019 05:16 PM PDT

A hacker group has breached several FBI-affiliated websites and uploaded their contents to the web, including dozens of files containing the personal information of thousands of federal agents and law enforcement officers, TechCrunch has learned.

The hackers breached three sites associated with the FBI National Academy Association, a coalition of different chapters across the U.S. promoting federal and law enforcement leadership and training located at the FBI training academy in Quantico, VA. The hackers exploited flaws on at least three of the organization’s chapter websites — which we’re not naming — and downloaded the contents of each web server.

The hackers then put the data up for download on their own website, which we’re also not naming nor linking to given the sensitivity of the data.

The spreadsheets contained about 4,000 unique records after duplicates were removed, including member names, a mix of personal and government email addresses, job titles, phone numbers and their postal addresses.

The FBINAA could not be reached for comment outside of business hours. In a statement Saturday the FBINAA said it was working with federal authorities to investigate the breach. “We believe we have identified the three affected Chapters that have been hacked and they are currently working on checking the breach with their data security authorities.”

TechCrunch spoke to one of the hackers, who didn’t identify his or her name, through an encrypted chat late Friday.

“We hacked more than 1,000 sites,” said the hacker. “Now we are structuring all the data, and soon they will be sold. I think something else will publish from the list of hacked government sites.” We asked if the hacker was worried that the files they put up for download would put federal agents and law enforcement at risk. “Probably, yes,” the hacker said.

The hacker claimed to have “over a million data” [sic] on employees across several U.S. federal agencies and public service organizations.

It’s not uncommon for data to be stolen and sold in hacker forums and in marketplaces on the dark web, but the hackers said they would offer the data for free to show that they had something “interesting.”

Unprompted, the hacker sent a link to another FBINAA chapter website they claimed to have hacked. When we opened the page in a Tor browser session, the website had been defaced — prominently displaying a screenshot of the encrypted chat moments earlier.

The hacker — one of more than ten, they said — used public exploits, indicating that many of the websites they hit weren’t up-to-date and had outdated plugins.

In the encrypted chat, the hacker also provided evidence of other breached websites, including a subdomain belonging to manufacturing giant Foxconn. One of the links provided did not need a username or a password but revealed the back-end to a Lotus-based webmail system containing thousands of employee records, including email addresses and phone numbers.

Their end goal: “Experience and money,” the hacker said.

Updated Saturday with a statement from the FBINAA.

China’s startup ecosystem is hitting back at demanding working hours

Posted: 12 Apr 2019 05:07 PM PDT

In China, the laws limit work to 44 hours a week and require overtime pay for anything above that. But many aren’t following the rules, and a rare online movement puts a spotlight on extended work hours in China’s booming tech sector. People from all corners of society have rallied in support for improvements to startup working conditions, while some warn of hurdles in a culture ingrained in the belief that more work leads to greater success.

In late March, anonymous activists introduced 996.ICU, a domain name that represents the grueling life of Chinese programmers: who work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week with the threat of ending up at ICU, a hospital’s intensive care unit. The site details local labor laws that explicitly prohibit overtime work without pay. The slogan “Developers’ lives matter” appears at the bottom in solemn silence.

A project called 996.ICU soon followed on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned code and tool sharing site. Programmers flocked to air their grievances, compiling a list of Chinese companies that reportedly practice 996 working. Among them were major names like e-commerce leaders Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo, as well as telecoms equipment maker Huawei and Bytedance, the parent company of the red-hot short video app TikTok.

In an email response to TechCrunch, JD claimed it doesn’t force employees to work overtime.

“JD.com is a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work, which is consistent with our entrepreneurial roots. We're getting back to those roots as we seek, develop and reward staff who share the same hunger and values,” the spokesperson said.

Alibaba declined to comment on the GitHub movement, although founder Jack Ma shared on Weibo Friday his view on the 996 regime.

“No companies should or can force employees into working 996,” wrote Ma. “But young people need to understand that happiness comes from hard work. I don’t defend 996, but I pay my respect to hard workers!”

Bytedance declined to comment on whether its employees work 996. We contacted Huawei but had not heard back from the company at the time of writing.

996.ICU rapidly rocketed to be the most-starred project on GitHub, which claims to be the world’s largest host of source codes. The protest certainly turned heads among tech bosses as China-based users soon noticed a number of browsers owned by companies practicing 996 had restricted access to the webpage.

The 996 dilemma

The 996 list is far from exhaustive as it comprises of voluntary entries from GitHub users. It’s also hard to nail down the average work hours at a firm, especially a behemoth with tens of thousands of employees where policies can differ across departments. For instance, it’s widely acknowledged that developers work longer than their peers in other units. Anecdotally, TechCrunch has heard that bosses in some organizations often find ways to exploit loopholes, such as setting unrealistic KPIs without explicitly writing 996 into employee contracts.

“While our company doesn’t force us into 996, sometimes, poor planning from upper management forces us to work long hours to meet arbitrary management deadlines,” a Beijing-based engineer at a professional networking site told TechCrunch. This person is one of many sources who spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to speak to media.

china office workers

BEIJING, CHINA APRIL 25, 2018: Passenger on a train in the Beijing Subway. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Photo by Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images)

Other companies are more vocal about 996, taking pride in their excessively diligent culture. Youzan, the Tencent-backed, Shopify -like e-commerce solution provider, explicitly demanded staff to live out 996 work styles. Employees subsequently filed complaints in January to local labor authorities, which were said to have launched an investigation into Youzan.

A lot of companies are like Youzan, which equates long hours of work with success. That mindset can easily lure programmers or other staff into accepting extra work time. But employees are hardly the only ones burning out as entrepreneurs are under even greater pressure to grow the business they build from scratch.

“The recent debate over 996 brings to light the intense competition in China’s tech industry. To survive, startups and large companies have no choice but to work extremely hard. Some renown entrepreneurs even work over 100 hours a week,” Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital, an early-stage venture fund, told TechCrunch.

“Overtime is a norm at many internet companies. If we don’t work more, we fall behind,” said a founder of a Shenzhen-based mobile game developing startup. Competition is particularly cut-throat in China’s mobile gaming sector, where creativity is in short supply and a popular shortcut to success is knocking off an already viral title. Speed, therefore, is all it matters.

Meanwhile, a high-performing culture brewing in China may neutralize society’s resistance to 996. Driven individuals band together at gyms and yoga studios to sweat off stress. Getting group dinners before returning to work every night becomes essential to one’s social life, especially for those that don’t yet have children.

alibaba

Photo source: Jack Ma via Weibo

“There is a belief that more hours equals more learning. I think some percentage of people want to put in more hours, and that percentage is highest for 22 to 30 years old,” a Shanghai-based executive at a tech company that values work-life balance told TechCrunch. “A few people in my team have expressed to us that they feel they cannot grow as fast as their friends who are working at companies that practice 996.”

“If you don’t work 996 when you’re young, when will you?” Wrote 54-year-old Jack Ma in his Weibo post. “To this day, I’m definitely working at least 12 to 12, let alone 996… Not everyone practicing 996 has the chance to do things that are valuable and meaningful with a sense of achievement. So I think it’s a blessing for the BATs of China to be able to work 996.”

(BAT is short for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent for their digital dominance in China, akin to FANNG in the west.)

Demanding hours are certainly not unique to the tech industry. Media and literature have long documented the strenuous work conditions in China’s manufacturing sector. Neighboring Japan is plagued by karoshi or “death from overwork” among its salarymen and Korean companies are also known for imposing back-breaking hours on workers, compelling the government to step in.

Attempts to change

Despite those apparent blocks, the anti-996 movement has garnered domestic attention. The trending topic “996ICU gets blocked by large companies” has generated nearly 2,000 posts and 6.3 million views on Weibo. China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV chronicled the incident and accused overtime work of causing “substantial physical and psychological consequences” in employees. Outside China, Python creator Guido van Rossum raised awareness about China’s 996 work routine in a tweet and on a forum.

“Can we do something for 996 programmers in China?” He wrote in a thread viewed 16,700 times.

The 996 campaign that began as a verbal outcry soon led to material acts. Shanghai-based lawyer Katt Gu and startup founder Suji Yan, who say they aren’t involved in the 996.ICU project, put forward an Anti-996 License that would keep companies in violation of domestic or global labor laws from using its open source software.

But some cautioned the restriction may undermine the spirit of open source, which denotes that a piece of software is distributed free and the source code undergirding it is accessible to others so they can study, share and modify the creator’s work.

“I strongly oppose and condemn 996, but at the same time I disagree with adding discretionary clauses to an open source project or using an open source project for the political game,” You Yuxi, creator of open-source project Vue, which was released under the MIT license, said on the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, Weibo. (Gu denies her project has any “political factors.”)

Others take a less aggressive approach, applauding companies that embrace the more humane schedule of “9 am to 5 pm for 5 days a week” via the “995.WLB” GitHub project. (WLB is short for “work-life balance.”) On this list are companies like Douban, the book and film review site famous for its “slow” growth but enduring popularity with China’s self-proclaimed hippies. WeWork, the workplace service provider that bills itself as showing respect for employees’ lives outside work, was also nominated.

While many nominees on the 996 list appear to be commercially successful, others point to a selection bias in the notion that more work bears greater fruit.

“If a company is large enough and are revealed to be practicing 996, the issue gets more attention. Take Youzan and JD for example,” a Shanghai-based developer at an enterprise software startup told TechCrunch.

“Conversely, a lot of companies that do practice 996 but have not been commercially successful are overlooked. There is no sufficient evidence that shows a company’s growth is linked to 996… What bosses should evaluate is productivity, not hours.”

Or, as some may suggest, managers should get better at incentivizing employees rather than blindingly asking for more hours.

“As long as [China’s] economy doesn’t stall, it may be hard to stop 996 from happening. This is not a problem of the individual. It’s an economic problem. What we can do is offering more humane care and inspiring workers to reflect, ‘Am I working at free will and with passion?’ instead of looking at their work hours,” suggested Xie of China Growth Capital.

While a push towards more disciplined work hours may be slow to come, experts have suggested another area where workers can strive for better treatment.

“It seems almost all startups in China underfund the social security or housing fund especially when they are young, that is, before series A or even series B financing,” Benjamin Qiu, partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP, explained to TechCrunch.

“Compared to 996, the employees have an even stronger legal claim on the above since it violates regulations and financially hurts the employee. That said, the official social credit and housing fund requirement in China appears to be an undue burden on the employer compared to the Silicon Valley, but if complied with, it could be understood as an offset of the 996 culture.”

A number of my interviewees spoke on conditions of anonymity, not because their companies promote 996 but, curiously, because their employers don’t want to become ensnarled in the 996 discussions. “We don’t need to tell people we support work-life balance. We show it with action,” said a spokesperson for one company.