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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Memphis Meats raised $161 million from SoftBank Group, Norwest and Temasek

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 03:42 PM PST

Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.

The investment brings the company’s total financing to $180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.

Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.

Innovations in computational biology, bio-engineering and materials science are creating new opportunities for companies to develop and commercialize technologies that could replace traditional farming with new ways to produce foods that have a much lower carbon footprint and bring about an age of superabundance, according to investors.

The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.

"For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. "This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it's important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”

Here are the six startups in Betaworks’ new Audiocamp

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 01:28 PM PST

Back in September, Betaworks put out a call for startups to participate in its latest “camp,” this one focused on audio.

Danika Laszuk, the head of Betaworks Camp, told me at the time that the startup studio was looking for companies that are trying to build “audio-first” experiences for smart speakers and wireless headphones, or pursuing other audio-related opportunities like synthetic audio or social audio.

Now Betaworks is unveiling the six startups that it has selected to participate in the program, covering everything from game assistants to AI music production. Each startup receives a pre-seed investment from Betaworks, and will be working out of the firm’s New York City offices for the next three months.

Here are the companies:

  • Storm is working on a live audio platform that it says will allow your friends to ask you anything.
  • Midgame is building voice-enabled gaming assistants, starting with a bot that answers questions to improve your gameplay in Stardew Valley.
  • Scout FM is developing hands-free listening experiences such as podcast radio stations and voice assistants for Amazon Alexa, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
  • Never Before Heard Sounds is an AI-powered music production company, working to create new sounds and new musical data sets.
  • SyncFloor is a marketplace of commercial music that can be used in movies, TV shows, ads, video games and elsewhere.
  • The Next Big Idea Club offers a subscription for curated nonfiction books — you can buy the books themselves, but also read, watch or listen to condensed summaries.

Google’s Collections feature now pushes people to save recipes & products, using AI

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 01:11 PM PST

Google is giving an AI upgrade to its Collections feature — basically, Google’s own take on Pinterest, but built into Google Search. Originally a name given to organizing images, the Collections feature that launched in 2018 let you save for later perusal any type of search result — images, bookmarks or map locations — into groups called “Collections.” Starting today, Google will make suggestions about items you can add to Collections based on your Search history across specific activities like cooking, shopping or hobbies.

The idea here is that people often use Google for research but don’t remember to save web pages for easy retrieval. That leads users to dig through their Google Search History in an effort to find the lost page. Google believes that AI smarts can improve the process by helping users build reference collections by starting the process for them.

Here’s how it works. After you’ve visited pages on Google Search in the Google app or on the mobile web, Google will group together similar pages related to things like cooking, shopping and hobbies, then prompt you to save them to suggested Collections.

For example, after an evening of scouring the web for recipes, Google may share a suggested Collection with you titled “Dinner Party,” which is auto-populated with relevant pages from your Search history. You can uncheck any recipes that don’t belong and rename the collection from “Dinner Party” to something else of your choosing, if you want. You then tap the “Create” button to turn this selection from your Search history into a Collection.

These Collections can be found later in the Collections tab in the Google app or through the Google.com side menu on the mobile web. There is an option to turn off this feature in Settings, but it’s enabled by default.

The Pinterest-like feature aims to keep Google users from venturing off Google sites to other places where they can save and organize things they’re interested in — whether that’s a list of recipes they want to add to a pinboard on Pinterest or a list of clothing they want to add to a wish list on Amazon. In particular, retaining e-commerce shoppers from leaving Google for Amazon is something the company is heavily focused on these days. The company recently rolled out a big revamp of its Google Shopping vertical, and just this month launched a way to shop directly from search results.

The issue with sites like Pinterest is that they’re capturing shoppers at an earlier stage in the buying process — during the information-gathering and inspiration-seeking research stage, that is. By saving links to Pinterest’s pinboards, shoppers ready to make a purchase are bypassing Google (and its advertisers) to check out directly with retailers.

Meanwhile, Google is simultaneously losing traffic to Amazon, which now surpasses Google for product searches. Even Instagram, of all places, has become a rival, as it’s now a place to shop. The app’s Shopping feature is funneling users right from its visual ads to a checkout page in the app. PayPal, catching wind of this trend, recently spent $4 billion to buy Honey in order to capture shoppers earlier in their journey.

For users, Google Collections is just about encouraging you to put your searches into groups for later access. But for Google, it’s also about getting people to shop on Google and stay on Google, no matter what they’re researching. Suggested Collections may lure you in as an easy way to organize recipes, but ultimately this feature will be about getting users to develop a habit of saving their searches to Google — and particularly their product searches.

Once you have a Collection set up, Google can point you to other related items, including websites, images  and more. Most importantly, this will serve as a new way to get users to perform more product searches, too, as it can send users to other product pages without the user having to type in an explicit search query.

The update also comes with an often-requested collaboration feature, which means you can now share a collection with others for either viewing or editing.

Sharing and related content suggestions are live worldwide.

The AI-powered suggested collections are live in the U.S. for English users starting today and will reach more markets in time.

Microsoft releases tools to let devs start building for its upcoming dual-screen devices

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 12:59 PM PST

As we learned back in October, Microsoft has been cracking away at not one, but two dual-screen devices: Surface Duo and Surface Neo. Surface Duo will run Android, while Surface Neo will run on a special fork of Windows 10 dubbed “Windows 10 X.”

This morning the company is pulling back the curtain a bit, debuting its first batch of dual-screen developer tools and shedding some light on how apps can utilize that second screen.

While a developer kit for the Android-powered Duo has been made available, the company says dev tools for the Windows-powered Neo will arrive in “the coming weeks,” with a target date of February 11th.

By default, says Microsoft, apps on these dual-screen devices will only occupy one screen. Users can elect to “span” the app to make it stretch across both — but, at least for now, it’s not something an app can force to happen.

While simply stretching an app to fill both screens is one approach, Microsoft offered up a few alternative “pattern ideas” to better utilize the form factor:

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also starting to build out web standards for dual-screen devices — APIs for developers to easily detect dual-screen devices, for example, allowing them to adapt their web apps accordingly. The company says preview builds of Microsoft Edge with early dual-screen APIs should start shipping “soon.”

While no specific launch date has been given for either device, Microsoft has given both a launch window of sometime around the holidays of 2020. Getting these dev tools out sooner than later, then, makes sense — while it might look neat, two screens aren’t inherently better than one. For the concept to ever take off, Microsoft needs developers to find novel ways to use that second screen; the ways in which having a pair of screens really makes things better, rather than just… different.

Google Cloud gets a Secret Manager

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 12:35 PM PST

Google Cloud today announced Secret Manager, a new tool that helps its users securely store their API keys, passwords, certificates and other data. With this, Google Cloud is giving its users a single tool to manage this kind of data and a centralized source of truth, something that even sophisticated enterprise organizations often lack.

“Many applications require credentials to connect to a database, API keys to invoke a service, or certificates for authentication,” Google developer advocate Seth Vargo and product manager Matt Driscoll wrote in today’s announcement. “Managing and securing access to these secrets is often complicated by secret sprawl, poor visibility, or lack of integrations.”

With Berglas, Google already offered an open-source command-line tool for managing secrets. Secret Manager and Berglas will play well together and users will be able to move their secrets from the open-source tool into Secret Manager and use Berglas to create and access secrets from the cloud-based tool as well.

With KMS, Google also offers a fully managed key management system (as do Google Cloud’s competitors). The two tools are very much complementary. As Google notes, KMS does not actually store the secrets — it encrypts the secrets you store elsewhere. Secret Manager provides a way to easily store (and manage) these secrets in Google Cloud.

Secret Manager includes the necessary tools for managing secret versions and audit logging, for example. Secrets in Secret Manager are also project-based global resources, the company stresses, while competing tools often manage secrets on a regional basis.

The new tool is now in beta and available to all Google Cloud customers.

IBM snaps out of its revenue doldrums, breaking a five-quarter losing streak in Q4

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 11:32 AM PST

International Business Machines is living a case study of a large, established company vying to transform. Over the last decade, the technology elder has struggled to move into areas like cloud and AI. IBM has leaned on a combination of its own R&D abilities and deep pockets to push into modern markets, but has struggled to turn them into revenue growth.

At one point, Big Blue posted 22 sequential quarters of falling revenue, a mind-boggling testament to how hard it can be to turn around a juggernaut. More recently, IBM shrank for another five consecutive quarters, a streak it broke with yesterday’s news that it had beat analyst expectations. 

The quarter brought modest, but welcome revenue growth. Perhaps more importantly, the company's top line expansion was co-led by the old IBM mainframe business and its newest champion, Red Hat.

IBM can be happy for the positive financial news, for now at least, but it needs to repeat the result. The challenge it faces moving forward will include finding a way to continue revenue growth while modernizing its product line and ensuring that its huge Red Hat purchase continues to perform.

Unito raises $10.5M to help workplace collaboration tools speak to each other

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 11:04 AM PST

Startup productivity tools have never been better, but that’s led to employees being more passionate than ever about the tools they want to use themselves. PMs don’t want to use Jira, engineers don’t want to mess with Trello and keeping everyone happy can mean replicating processes again and again.

Montreal-based Unito is building software that helps these platforms communicate with each other so teams can keep their favorite tools without bringing the company to a crawl. The startup has just closed a $10.5 million Series A round led by Bessemer Venture Partners with participation from existing investors Mistral Venture Partners, Real Ventures and Tom Williams.

Unito’s tool works by collaborating among most of the major workplace productivity software suites’ APIs and automatically translating an action in one piece of software to the others. Updates, comments and due dates can then sync across each of the apps, allowing employees to only interact with the software that’s best for their job.

For Unito, the challenge is convincing startups that are paying for more subscription tools than ever that they need another tool to make sense of what they already have. Unito CEO Marc Boscher tells TechCrunch that company leaders are already having to deal with impassioned pleas for adopting or abandoning certain tools, something that his product can alleviate.

“Every company’s got a debate about which tools to use to get their work done and track their work, and it’s never the same, so someone has to lose out eventually,” Boscher says. “People are becoming really passionate about their tools whether they love them or hate them.”

Venture capitalists have been increasingly pouring money into SaaS products built for specific workflows. For employees that have long had to deal with software built for someone else’s role, the proliferation of more team-specific software has been welcome — but the ease of use comes with the danger that data or updates can get siloed.

Bessemer partner Jeremy Levine led this deal, saying that the firm was attracted to Unito after seeing how the product allowed teams to choose their own tools, something that was becoming more critical amid the proliferation of vertical-specific SaaS products. Levine’s other early-stage bets include Shopify, Yelp and LinkedIn.

Unito’s current integrations include tools like Jira, Asana, Trello, GitHub, Basecamp, Wrike, ZenDesk, Bitbucket, GitLab and HubSpot.

Disney sells mobile game studio FoxNext Games to Scopely

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 10:43 AM PST

Disney announced today it has sold the game studio FoxNext Games Los Angeles, the makers of “MARVEL Strike Force” and other titles, as well as Cold Iron Studios in San Jose, to the interactive entertainment and mobile game company Scopely. The studios were acquired by Disney in 2019 as a part of its $71.3 billion deal for 21st Century Fox. Disney is not, however, divesting of Fox’s full gaming lineup. The company clarified that its separate portfolio of Fox IP-licensed game titles were not a part of this deal and will continue to be a part of Disney’s licensed games business.

Acquisition terms were not disclosed.

FoxNext Games released its first title, “MARVEL Strike Force” in March 2018 and it brought in $150 million in its first year across iOS and Android. Another FoxNext title, “Storyscape,” released in early 2019, offers choose-your-own-adventure tales taking place in the world of “The X-Files” or “Titanic.” (This one is a part of Fogbank and not included in the acquisition.)

More recently, the studio soft-launched “Avatar: Pandora Rising,” a massive real-time strategy and social game set in Pandora from the movie “Avatar.”

According to data from Sensor Tower, “MARVEL Strike Force” has been downloaded more than 26 million times to date. “Storyscape” has topped 1.7 million installs. The Avatar title isn’t broadly available, as it’s still in development. It only has 100,000 downloads at present.

FoxNext’s website also notes a game based on the movie franchise “Alien” is coming soon. (This was acquired with FoxNext’s own deal for Cold Iron Studios back in 2018.)

“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can't wait to see what more we can do together," said Tim O'Brien, chief revenue officer at Scopely, in a statement about the deal. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games' player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together,” he added.

Scopely, which hit over a billion in lifetime revenue in summer 2019, had also acquired DIGIT Game Studios last year, home to the top-grossing MMO/strategy game “Star Trek Fleet Command” and strategy MMO “Kings of the Realm.”

Other Scopely top game titles include “Looney Tunes World of Mayhem,” “The Walking Dead: Road to Survival,” “Wheel of Fortune: Free Play,” “WWE Champions 2019,” “Yahtzee with Buddies Dice Game,” “Dice with ellen,” “Scrabble Go” and many more.

With its latest acquisition, Scopely adds another top-grossing game to its lineup, expands its in-development pipeline and gains the expertise of the FoxNext team. When the transaction completes, FoxNext Games President Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role and FoxNext Games SVP & GM Amir Rahimi will lead the FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio within Scopely as president, Games.

(Correction: Typos of FoxNext’s name corrected. It is FoxNext, not FoxNet; Also added info on Storyscape being excluded from the deal.) 

Dear Sophie: I live in Europe but want to move my startup to the US

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 10:39 AM PST

“Dear Sophie” is a collaborative forum hosted by Extra Crunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, who is certified as a specialist attorney in immigration and nationality law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards' "Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services."

Extra Crunch subscribers enjoy full access to “Dear Sophie” — use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie: I live in Germany, but I am a Hungarian citizen. I’m worried that I won’t qualify for an O-1A visa because I’m definitely not famous or a genius. I want to move my startup to America so we can access investors and the North American market. Because I am Hungarian and not German, I don’t qualify for an E-2 investor visa. Is there any way I can pull off moving to the States and growing my company over the next two to three years? 

— Hopeful in Hamburg

Dear Hopeful: You are not alone! If your dream is to move to the United States, you can definitely make it happen through your existing company in Germany. It’s going to take some basic planning and then a little bit of time to lay the groundwork. I’ll walk you through the basic requirements so that you can get an idea of what’s ahead of you, but if you need individual specific legal advice, you should ask an attorney. For now, I hope this helps.

The first thing the United States government will want to see is that you have a registered company here. It could be any type of company, even an LLC in California. However, startup investors usually prefer a Delaware C corporation. If you don’t yet have a company registered in Germany because you are very early stage, then you could also consider having the Delaware corporation be the parent company of any future legal entities in Europe. Talk to a corporate attorney about the right choice for you.

From the immigration perspective, all of this is necessary because of the main requirements of the L-1A visa for intracompany transferees. These requirements demand that a U.S. and foreign company have a qualifying relationship for an employee transfer, such as a parent/subsidiary, a branch or an affiliation.

Two Sigma Ventures raises $288M, complementing its $60B hedge fund parent

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 10:38 AM PST

Eight years ago, Two Sigma Investments began an experiment in early-stage investing.

The hedge fund, focused on data-driven quantitative investing, was well on its way to amassing the $60 billion in assets under management that it currently holds, but wanted more exposure to early-stage technology companies, so it created a venture capital arm, Two Sigma Ventures.

At the time of the firm’s launch it made a series of investments, totaling about $70 million, exclusively with internal capital. The second fund was a $150 million vehicle that was backed primarily by the hedge fund, but included a few external limited partners.

Now, eight years and several investments later, the firm has raised $288 million in new funding from outside investors and is pushing to prove out its model, which leverages its parent company’s network of 1,700 data scientists, engineers and industry experts to support development inside its portfolio.

The world is becoming awash in data and there's continuing advances in the science of computing,” says Two Sigma Ventures co-founder Colin Beirne. “We thought eight years ago when when started, that more and more companies of the future would be tapping into those trends.”

Beirne describes the firm’s investment thesis as being centered on backing data-driven companies across any sector — from consumer technology companies like the social networking monitoring application, Bark, or the high-performance, high-end sports wearable company, Whoop.

Alongside Beirne, Two Sigma Ventures is led by three other partners: Dan Abelon, who co-founded SpeedDate and sold it to IAC; Lindsey Gray, who launched and led NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute; and Villi Iltchev, a former general partner at August Capital.

Recent investments in the firm’s portfolio include Firedome, an endpoint security company; NewtonX, which provides a database of experts; Radar, a location-based data analysis company; and Terray Therapeutics, which uses machine learning for drug discovery.

Other companies in the firm’s portfolio are farther afield. These include the New York-based Amper Music, which uses machine learning to make new music; and Zymergen, which uses machine learning and big data to identify genetic variations useful in pharmaceutical and industrial manufacturing.

Currently, the firm’s portfolio is divided between enterprise investments, consumer-facing deals and healthcare-focused technologies. The biggest bucket is enterprise software companies, which Beirne estimates represents about 65% of the portfolio. He expects the firm to become more active in healthcare investments going forward.

“We really think that the intersection of data and biology is going to change how healthcare is delivered,” Beirne says. “That looks dramatically different a decade from now.”

To seed the market for investments, the firm’s partners have also backed the Allen Institute’s investment fund for artificial intelligence startups.

Together with Sequoia, KPCB and Madrona, Two Sigma recently invested in a $10 million financing to seed companies that are working with AI. “This is a strategic investment from partner capital,” says Beirne.

Typically startups can expect Two Sigma to invest between $5 million and $10 million with its initial commitment. The firm will commit up to roughly $15 million in its portfolio companies over time.

Daily Crunch: Saudis probably hacked Bezos’ phone

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 09:47 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials "most likely" used a mobile hacking tool built by the NSO Group to hack into the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos .

The report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was "highly probable" that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos' phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos' phone had been exfiltrated.

2. Netflix adds 8.8M subscribers despite growing competition

Netflix addressed the competitive landscape in its Q4 earnings report, arguing that there's "ample room for many services to grow as linear TV wanes," noting that during the quarter, "our viewing per membership grew both globally and in the U.S. on a year over year basis, consistent with recent quarters."

3. Tencent to grow gaming empire with $148M acquisition of Conan publisher Funcom in Norway

Tencent is cementing its position as one of the world's biggest video and online gaming companies by revenue. Funcom, meanwhile, is traded publicly on the Oslo Stock Exchange, and the board has already recommended accepting the offer — which is being made at around 27% higher than Tuesday’s closing share price.

4. Google's new experimental apps focus on reducing screen time — including one that uses a paper envelope

The new apps include a Screen Stopwatch for tracking screen time, another that lets you visualize your phone usage as bubbles and a third that lets you put your phone in an envelope. And no, that last one’s not a joke — the envelope would still allow you to make and receive calls, and to use the camera to take photos.

5. Your Sonos system will stop receiving updates if you have an old device

If you own a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, FYI: Sonos is going to stop shipping updates to those devices. And if Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.

6. Cruise doubles down on hardware

GM subsidiary Cruise now employs more than 1,700 people, a considerable chunk of whom are software engineers. Less well-known is the company’s strategy of building out a hardware team, which will eventually take over Cruise’s 140,000-square-foot building on San Francisco’s Bryant Street.

7. Adblock Plus's Till Faida on the shifting shape of ad blocking

Faida tells us that the company is trying to thread a fine line between conflicting interests and string together a critical mass of internet users who want to get rid of unwelcome distractions; along with digital publishers and ad purveyors who want to maximize eyeballs on their stuff — and are likely especially keen to reach a tech-savvy, ad-blocking demographic. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

The $100M ARR club welcomes four new members

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 09:42 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we're adding a few names to the $100 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) club. The new entrants come after we kicked off 2020 with a previous four new members. So far in January, we’ve also highlighted SiteMinder’s $70 million ARR and expected ramp to $100 million, Cloudinary’s $60 million ARR sans venture capital and Seattle’s ExtraHop, which expects to reach $100 million ARR this year.

The $100 million ARR club, in case you're just joining us today, is a list of yet-private companies that have either reached the $100 million ARR mark, or are close to reaching it and have plans to crest the threshold in short order. The goal of writing and publishing the list is to provide a non-valuation lens through which we can view the private market’s leading constituents. Revenue milestones matter more than valuation bumps.

This morning we’re digging into MetroMile, Tricentis, Kaltura and Diligent (with a caveat). Let’s begin!

MetroMile

Can a time machine offer us the meaning of life?

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 09:35 AM PST

We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang's “Exhalations.” Today (and one day late because of the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous "Exhalation."

Previous editions of this "book club":

Some quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate”

I was electrified reading this short story. It's one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: What begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand even better how the various puzzle pieces fit together.

Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.

A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a "lived" existence. It's one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.

In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell's “Cloud Atlas,” in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.

Chiang is saying something more taut: We aren't just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.

At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, "In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he'd succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks." Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.

Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won't someone just give me the right answer?

But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It's the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the "fun" (and it isn't fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.

By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — its purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!

All together then, the short story manages in a handful of pages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity and the meaning of existence based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn't science fiction at its finest, I don't know what is.

Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. I will try to include more reader comments in future editions.

Reading guide to “Exhalations”

We will read the next short story in the collection, “Exhalations,” for next week (targeting Tuesday, January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:

  • How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
  • What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
  • Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
  • The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
  • This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
  • Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?

If you have feedback or thoughts you would like me to include, please feel free to email me at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com.

Bear Robotics, a company making robot waiters, just raised a $32 million round led by SoftBank

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 09:17 AM PST

Back in August, we flagged a filing for you that we found interesting, one for a now 2.5-year-old, 40-person Redwood City, Calif.,-based startup called Bear Robotics that’s been developing robots to deliver food to restaurant customers. The filing listed a $35.8 million target; Bear Robotics founder and CEO John Ha now tells us the final close, being announced today, was $32 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by SoftBank Group, whose other recent robotics bets include the currently beleaguered food truck company Zume and, as we reported yesterday, Berkshire Grey, a seven-year-old, Lexington, Mass.-based company that makes pick, pack and sorting robots for fulfillment centers and that just raised a whopping $263 million in Series B funding led by SoftBank.

Because we know you’re interested in much more than Bear Robotics’ funding picture, we asked Ha — a former Intel research scientist turned technical lead at Google who in recent years opened and closed his own restaurant — to share more about the company and its robot servers.

TC: You were an engineer at Google. Why then start your own restaurant?

JH: It’s not like I had a dream of having a restaurant; it was more of an investment. It sounded fun, but it didn’t turn out to be fun. What I was really shocked by was how much hard work is involved and how low [employees’] income is. I felt [as I was forced to close it] that this was going to be my life’s work — to transform the restaurant industry with the skills I have. I wanted to remove the hard work and the repetitive tasks so that humans can focus on the truly human side, the hospitality. At restaurants, you’re selling food and service, but most of your time is spent dealing with hiring people and people not showing up, and I suspect our product will change [the equation].

TC: How did you come up with the first idea or iteration of the robot you’ve created, that you’re calling Penny?

JH: First, me and my restaurant staff constantly discussed, ‘If we have this robot, what would it look like and what capacity and features would it need?’ I knew it couldn’t be too big; robots have to be able to move well in narrow spaces. We also focused on the right capacity. And we didn’t want to make a robotic restaurant. I wanted to build a robot that no one really cares about; it’s just in the background, sort of like R2-D2 to Luke Skywalker. It’s a sidekick — a bland robot with a weak personality to get things done for your master.

TC Let’s talk parts. How are these things built?

JH: It’s self-driving tech that’s been adopted for indoor space, so it can safely navigate from Point A to Point B. A server puts the food on Penny, and it finds a way to get to the table. It has a two-wheel differential drive, plus casters. It’s pretty safe. A lot of similar-looking robots have blind spots, but ours doesn’t. It can detect baby hands on the floor — even something as thin as a wallet that’s fallen from someone’s table.

We’re not using robot arms because it’s very difficult to make it 100% safe when you have arms in a crowded space. The material — it’s going to be plastic — is safe and easy to clean and able to work with the sanitizers and detergents used in restaurants. We’ve also had to make sure the wheels won’t accumulate food waste, because that would cause issues with the health department.

TC: So this isn’t out in the world yet.

JH: We haven’t entered the mass-manufacturing phase yet.

TC: Where will these be built, and how will you charge for them?

JH: They’ll be made somewhere in Asia — maybe China or some other country. And we haven’t figured out pricing yet but restaurants will be leasing these, not buying them, and there will be a monthly subscription fee that they are paying for a white-glove service, so they don’t have to worry about maintenance or support.

TC: How customizable are these Penny robots going to be? Are there different tiers of service?

JH: Penny can be configured into several modes. The default is [for it to hold] three trays, so it can carry food to a table or a server can use it for busing help.

TC: Will it address the customers?

JH: Penny can speak and play sound, but it’s not conversational yet. It can say, ‘Please take your food,’ or play music while it’s moving. That’s where customers may want to personalize the robot for their own purposes.

TC: Ultimately, the idea is for this to be sold where — just restaurants?

JH: Wherever food is served, so it’s being tested right now in some restaurants, casinos, some homes. [I’m sure we’ll add] nursing homes, too.

Should tech giants slam the encryption door on the government?

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 09:16 AM PST

Reuters reported yesterday, citing six sources familiar with the matter, that the FBI pressured Apple into dropping a feature that would allow users to encrypt iPhone backups stored in Apple’s cloud.

The decision to abandon plans to end-to-end encrypt iCloud-stored backups was reportedly made about two years ago. The feature, if rolled out, would have locked out anyone other than the device owner — including Apple — from accessing a user's data. In doing so, it would have made it more difficult for law enforcement and federal investigators, warrant in hand, to access a user’s device data stored on Apple’s servers.

Reuters said it “could not determine exactly” why the decision to drop the feature was made, but one source said “legal killed it,” referring to the company’s lawyers. One of the reasons that Apple’s lawyers gave, per the report, was a fear that the government would use the move as “an excuse for new legislation against encryption.”

It’s the latest in a back and forth between Apple and the FBI since a high-profile legal battle four years ago, which saw the FBI use a little-known 200-year-old law to demand the company create a backdoor to access the iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter. The FBI's case against Apple never made it to court, after the bureau found hackers who were able to break into the device, leaving in legal limbo the question of whether the government can compel a company to backdoor their own products.

The case has prompted debate — again — whether or not companies should build technologies that lock out law enforcement from data, even when they have a warrant.

TechCrunch managing editor Danny Crichton says companies shouldn’t make it impossible for law enforcement to access their customers’ data with a warrant. Security editor Zack Whittaker disagrees, and says it’s entirely within their right to protect customer data.


Zack: Tech companies are within their rights — both legally and morally — to protect their customers’ data from any and all adversaries, using any legal methods at their disposal.

Apple is a great example of a company that doesn’t just sell products or services, but one that tries to sell you trust — trust in a device’s ability to keep your data private. Without that trust, companies cannot profit. Companies have found end-to-end encryption is one of the best, most efficient and most practical ways of ensuring that their customers’ data is secured from anyone, including the tech companies themselves, so that nobody other than the owner can access it. That means even if hackers break into Apple’s servers and steal a user’s data, all they have is an indecipherable cache of data that cannot be read.

But the leaks from last decade which revealed the government’s vast surveillance access to their customers data prompted the tech companies to start seeing the government as an adversary — one that will use any and all means to acquire the data it wants. Companies are taking the utilitarian approach of giving their customers as much security as they can. That is how you build trust — by putting that trust directly in the hands of the customer.


Danny: Zack is right that trust is critical between technology companies and users — certainly the plight of Facebook the past few years bears that out. But there also has to be two-way trust between people and their government, a goal thwarted by end-to-end encryption.

No one wants the government poking their heads into our private data willy-nilly, scanning our interior lives seeking out future crimes à la “Minority Report.” But as citizens, we also want to empower our government with certain tools to make us safer — including mechanisms such as the use of search warrants to legally violate a citizen's privacy with the authorization of the judiciary to investigate and prosecute suspected crimes.

In the past, the physical nature of most data made such checks-and-balances easy to enforce. You could store your private written notebooks in a physical safe, and if a warrant was issued by an appropriate judge, the police could track down that safe and drill it open if necessary to access the contents inside. Police had no way to scan all the private safes in the country, and so users had privacy with their data, while the police had reasonable access to seize that data when certain circumstances authorized them to do so.

Today, end-to-end encryption completely undermines this necessary judicial process. A warrant may be issued for data stored on let's say iCloud, but without a suspect's cooperation, the police and authorities may have no recourse to seize data they legally are allowed to acquire as part of their investigation. And it's not just law enforcement — the evidential discovery process at the start of any trial could similarly be undermined. A judiciary without access to evidence will be neither fair nor just.

I don't like the sound or idea of a backdoor anymore than Zack does, not least because the technical mechanisms of a backdoor seem apt for hacking and other nefarious activities. However, completely closing off legitimate access to law enforcement could make entire forms of crime almost impossible to prosecute. We have to find a way to get the best of both worlds.


Zack: Yes, I want the government to be able to find, investigate and prosecute criminals. But not at the expense of our privacy or by violating our rights.

The burden to prosecute an individual is on the government, and the Fourth Amendment is clear. Police need a warrant, based on probable cause, to search and seize your property. But a warrant is only an authority to access and obtain information pursuant to a crime. It’s not a golden key that says the data has to be in a readable format.

If it’s really as difficult for the feds to gain access to encrypted phones as they say it is, it needs to show us evidence that stands up to scrutiny. So far the government has shown it can’t act in good faith on this issue, nor can it be trusted. The government has for years vastly artificially inflated the number of encrypted devices it said it can’t access. It has also claimed it needs the device makers, like Apple, to help unlock devices when the government has long already had the means and the technologies capable of breaking into encrypted devices. And the government has refused to say how many investigations are actively harmed by encrypted devices that can’t be unlocked, effectively giving watchdogs no tangible way to adequately measure how big of a problem the feds claim it is.

But above all else, the government has repeatedly failed to rebut a core criticism from security engineers and cryptography experts that a “backdoor” designed only for law enforcement to access would not inadvertently get misused, lost or stolen and exploited by nefarious actors, like hackers.

Encryption is already out there, there’s no way the encryption genie will ever float its way back into the bottle. If the government doesn’t like the law, it has to come up with a convincing argument to change the law.


Danny: I go back to both of our comments around trust — ultimately, we want to design systems built on that foundation. That means knowing that our data is not being used for ulterior, pecuniary interests by tech companies, that our data isn't being ingested into a massive government tracking database for broad-based population surveillance and that we ultimately have reasonable control over our own privacy.

I agree with you that a warrant simply says that the authorities have access to what's "there." In my physical safe example, if a suspect has written their notes in a coded language and stored them in the safe and the police drill it open and extract the papers, they are no more likely to read those notes than they are the encrypted binary files coming out of an end-to-end encrypted iCloud.

That said, technology does allow scaling up that "coded language" to everyone, all the time. Few people consistently encoded their notes 30 years ago, but now your phone could potentially do that on your behalf, every single time. Every single investigation — again, with a reasonable search warrant — could potentially be a multi-step process just to get basic information that we otherwise would want law enforcement to know in the normal and expected course of their duties.

What I'm calling for then is a deeper and more pragmatic conversation about how to protect the core of our system of justice. How do we ensure privacy from unlawful search and seizure, while also allowing police access to data (and the meaning of that data, i.e. unencrypted data) stored on servers with a legal warrant? Without a literal encoded backdoor prone to malicious hacking, are there technological solutions that might be possible to balance these two competing interests? In my mind, we can't have and ultimately don't want a system where fair justice is impossible to acquire.

Now as an aside on the comments about data: The reality is that all justice-related data is complicated. I agree these data points would be nice to have and would help make the argument, but at the same time, the U.S. has a decentralized justice system with thousands of overlapping jurisdictions. This is a country that can barely count the number of murders, let alone other crimes, let alone the evidentiary standards related to smartphones related to crimes. We are just never going to have this data, and so in my view, an opinion of waiting until we have it is unfair.


Zack: The view from the security side is that there’s no flexibility. These technological solutions you think of have been considered for decades — even longer. The idea that the government can dip into your data when it wants to is no different from a backdoor. Even key escrow, where a third-party holds onto the encryption keys for safe keeping, is also no different from a backdoor. There is no such thing as a secure backdoor. Something has to give. Either the government stands down, or ordinary privacy-minded folk give up their rights.

The government says it needs to catch pedophiles and serious criminals, like terrorists and murderers. But there’s no evidence to show that pedophiles, criminals and terrorists use encryption any more than the average person.

We have as much right to be safe in our own homes, towns and cities as we do to privacy. But it’s not a trade-off. Everyone shouldn’t have to give up privacy because of a few bad people.

Encryption is vital to our individual security, or collective national security. Encryption can’t be banned or outlawed. Like the many who have debated these same points before us, we may just have to agree to disagree.

Netflix is still saying ‘no’ to ads

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 08:59 AM PST

Despite ongoing speculation and investor pressure, Netflix is still declining to adopt an advertising-based business model as a means to boost its revenue, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings confirmed on Tuesday. The company on its Q4 earnings call again shot down the idea of an ad-supported option, with Hastings explaining there’s no “easy money” in an online advertising business that has to compete with the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Explained the exec, “Google and Facebook and Amazon are tremendously powerful at online advertising because they’re integrating so much data from so many sources. There’s a business cost to that, but that makes the advertising more targeted and effective. So I think those three are going to get most of the online advertising business,” Hastings said.

To grow a $5 billion to $10 billion advertising business, you’d need to “rip that away” from the existing providers, he continued. And stealing online advertising business from Amazon, Google and Facebook is “quite challenging,” Hastings added, saying “there’s not easy money there.”

“We’ve got a much simpler business model, which is just focused on streaming and customer pleasure,” he said.

The CEO also noted that Netflix’s strategic decision to not enter the ad business has its upsides, in terms of the controversies that surround companies that collect personal data on their users. To compete, Netflix would have to track more data on its subscribers, including things like their location — that’s not something it’s interested in doing, he said, calling it “exploiting users.”

“We don’t collect anything. We’re really focused on just making our members happy,” Hastings stated.

That’s not exactly true, of course. Netflix does track viewership data in order to make determinations about which of its original programs should be renewed and which should be canceled. It also looks at overall viewing trends to make decisions about which new programs to greenlight or develop. And it tracks users’ own interactions with its service in order to personalize the Netflix home screen to show users more of what they like.

The company also this quarter introduced a new viewership metric — “chose to watch,” which counts the number of people who deliberately watched a show or movie for at least two minutes. That’s far longer than Facebook or Google’s YouTube, but isn’t a great way to tell how many people are watching a show to completion, as on TV.

However, none of this viewership tracking is on the scale of big tech’s data collection practices, which is what Hastings meant by his comment.

“We think with our model that we’ll actually get to larger revenue, larger profits, larger market cap because we don’t have the exposure to something that we’re strategically disadvantaged at — which is online advertising against those big three,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Netflix’s CEO has had to repeat the company’s stance on being an ad-free business. In Q2 2019, Netflix reminded investors in its shareholder letter that its lack of advertising is part of its overall brand proposition.

“When you read speculation that we are moving into selling advertising be confident that this is false,” the letter said.

Analysts have estimated Netflix could make over a billion more per year by introducing an ad-supported tier to its service.

To some extent, the increased push for Netflix to adopt ads has to do with the changes to the overall streaming landscape.

Netflix today is facing new competition from two major streaming services, Disney+ and Apple+ — both of which have subsidized their launch with free promotions in order to gain viewership. In the next few months, Netflix will have to take on several others, including mobile streaming service Quibi, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCU’s Peacock. The latter features a multi-tiered business model, including a free service for pay-TV subscribers, an ad-free premium tier and one that’s ad-supported.

The service was introduced to investors last week, where it was well-received.

Other TV streaming services also rely on ads for portions of their revenue, including Hulu and CBS All Access. Meanwhile, a number of ad-supported services are also emerging, like Roku’s The Roku Channel, Amazon’s IMDb TV, TUBI, Viacom’s Pluto TV and others.

Netflix’s decision to keep itself ad-free is likely welcome news for its subscriber base, however, who see the lack of ads as being a key selling point.

Unearth the future of agriculture at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI with the CEOs of Traptic, FarmWise and Pyka

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 08:30 AM PST

Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka and FarmWise.

Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.

FarmWise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.

Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.

These three companies and founders are at the very frontier of what’s possible at the intersection of agriculture and technology, so expect a fruitful conversation.

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Amazon Music passes 55M customers, still lags behind Spotify and Apple

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 08:12 AM PST

Amazon Music, the streaming music service from the e-commerce and cloud giant that competes against the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, announced a milestone in its growth today: it has passed 55 million customers across the six different pricing tiers that it offers for the service, ranging from $15 per month through to a free, ad-supported tier.

The numbers represent a strong leap forward for the service, which launched in October 2016. But in the bigger race to tie down consumers making the move to streaming services with recurring subscriptions, Amazon appears still to lag behind Apple Music, which last summer said it passed 60 million paying users (no updated numbers since), and Spotify, which as of last quarter said it had 248 million users globally, 113 million of them paying.

Amazon does not break out how many users are in each of its tiers, although we are asking and will update if we learn more. The overall figure, Amazon said, includes growth of more than 50% of users in the U.S., UK, Germany and Japan subscribing to Amazon Music Unlimited, which includes HD-quality tracks for about 50 million songs. Other countries without HD-quality where Amazon Music is available include France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico, and it notes that customers more than doubled in these four countries. It also recently launched services in Brazil.

“We're proud to reach this incredible milestone and are overwhelmed by our customers' response to Amazon Music,” said Steve Boom, VP of Amazon Music, in a statement. “Our strategy is unique and, like everything we do at Amazon, starts with our customers. We’ve always been focused on expanding the marketplace for music streaming by offering music listener’s unparalleled choice because we know that different listeners have different needs. As we continue to lead in our investment in voice with Alexa, and in high-quality audio with Amazon Music HD, we’re excited to bring our customers and the music industry even more innovation in 2020 and beyond.”

As with other Amazon products and services, the company has built its music offering around cross-selling existing customers — namely those who are already using or considering its Prime membership service — which helps Amazon with its economies of scale (promotions to customers who are already getting promotions cost less, for starters); and target consumers who are happy with the convenience of having all of its services under one bill. The discount for Prime users also serves as a sweetener for those considering subscribing to the membership tier.

Prime users get a discount on both single subscriptions the Unlimited service ($7.99/month or $79/year) and Family plans. Similarly, those who only subscribe on a single device, either the Fire TV or Echo, can pay $3.99/month for the service. Amazon notes that the ad-supported service includes “top playlists and thousands of stations for free.”

The general stickiness of Amazon media services — which include storage, video, reading, games and more — is a model that Apple is also following, building out a range of its own content offerings alongside those of the third-party apps in the App Store. Spotify has taken more of a music- and audio-first approach, with its forays into areas like video never quite gaining traction. In its last earnings report, the company addressed its place in the market and the impact of rival services:

“We continue to feel very good about our competitive position in the market,” Spotify noted in a statement. “Relative to Apple, the publicly available data shows that we are adding roughly twice as many subscribers per month as they are. Additionally, we believe that our monthly engagement is roughly 2x as high and our churn is at half the rate. Elsewhere, our estimates imply that we continue to add more users on an absolute basis than Amazon. Our data also suggests that Amazon's user base skews significantly more to 'Ad-Supported' than 'Premium', and that average engagement on our platform is approximately 3x.”

Amazon disputes this take, however. A spokesperson noted to me that “a substantial majority of the 55 million customers represents our paid tiers of service.”

Substack builds multi-author support into its hybrid publishing, newsletter service

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 08:00 AM PST

Substack announced today that it has built support for multiple authors into its service. The company provides a publishing tool that blends blogs and email newsletters into a single entity, with a focus on subscription monetization.

The day’s updates also include a number of publisher-friendly tools, like shared access and homepage features closer to those of traditional websites than the linear timeline style that Substack has focused on so far.

The additions, which also include nice-to-haves like author pages for multi-person publications, mark a new level of maturity for Substack, a service that quickly attracted both authors and an audience after it launched. That early traction helped the company land an outsized — when compared to the size of its team — Series A that put $15.6 million into the business.

For users of the service, news of the funding was welcome. As was Substack's disclosure at the time that the publications on its platform had attracted 50,000 paying subscribers. That figure was exciting, indicating that the company's product might help writers of all sorts build a monetized audience, a holy grail for written creatives.

In light of today’s updates, TechCrunch asked Substack about the progress of its monetization, specifically curious about how many paid subscribers Substack publications had accreted. The company declined to share new numbers, with its co-founder and COO Hamish McKenzie instead saying that his team is "very happy with the growth [it has] seen over the past few months."

In a company blog post accompanying today's news, the firm noted "tens of thousands of paying subscribers," implying that Substack has not yet doubled its former 50,000 person subscriber base. (Doing so would give Substack six-figures worth of subscribers. However, as it reached the 50,000 paid subscriber mark less than a year ago, it might be aggressive to expect such a rapid doubling.)

Newsletter, blog, website

Part of Substack's initial success came from its intelligent blending of blogs and newsletters. Anyone who wanted to build one or the other got both, in a format that worked for each; bloggers could send email, and the email-focused also got a home on the internet. That the product came stapled to monetization tools made it all the more attractive.

Today's updates help add a new form to the Substack mix: Websites. Here's what a new Substack website can look like:

The ability to pin posts to the top of publications, the addition of photo bylines, and other tools mean that users can now do much more with the Substack publications. The company will now have to tread the line between the power of simplicity, and simply empowering its power users.

The company’s model appears to be working. Traffic to the larger Substack service has risen in recent months, according to analytics service Alexa. Substack was ranked among the 13,000th most visited global site in October of last year, according to the platform. It’s now in the 11,000s. With media companies like The Dispatch hatching on Substack, and with today’s updates, expect that number to continue to fall.

Substack is a bet that readers will pay for the written work that they care about. It’s a good wager. And better tools will tilt the odds more in its favor.

Now we can simply count down until Substack announces 100,000 paid subscribers.

Shared inbox startup Front raises $59 million round led by other tech CEOs

Posted: 22 Jan 2020 08:00 AM PST

Front is raising a $59 million Series C funding round. Interestingly, the startup hasn't raised with a traditional VC firm leading the round. A handful of super business angels are investing directly in the productivity startup and leading the round.

Business angels include Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, Atlassian President Jay Simons, Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest, Qualtrics co-founders Ryan Smith and Jared Smith and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan. Existing investors Sequoia Capital, Initialized Capital and Anthos Capital are participating in this round, as well.

While Front doesn't share its valuation, the company says that the valuation has quadrupled compared to the previous funding round. Annual recurring venue has also quadrupled over the same period.

The structure of this round is unusual, but it's on purpose. Front, like many other startups, is trying to redefine the future of work. That's why the startup wanted to surround itself with leaders of other companies who share the same purpose.

"First, because we didn’t need to raise (we still had two years of runway), and it’s always better to raise when we don’t need it. The last few months have given me much more clarity into our go-to-market strategy," Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin told me.

Front is a collaborative inbox for your company. For instance, if you want to share an email address with your co-workers (support@mycompany.com or jobs@mycompany.com), you can integrate those shared inboxes with Front and work on those conversations as a team.

It opens up a ton of possibilities. You can assign conversations to a specific person, @-mention your co-workers to send them a notification, start a conversation with your team before you hit reply, share a draft with other people, etc.

Front also supports other communication channels, such as text messages, WhatsApp messages, a chat module on your website and more. As your team gets bigger, Front helps you avoid double replies by alerting other users when you're working on a reply.

In addition to those collaboration features, Front helps you automate your workload as much as possible. You can set up automated workflows so that a specific conversation ends up in front of the right pair of eyes. You can create canned responses for the entire team, as well.

Front also integrates with popular third-party services, such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Clearbit and dozens of others. Front customers include MailChimp, Shopify and Stripe.

While Front supports multiple channels, email represents the biggest challenge. If you think about it, email hasn't changed much over the past decade. The last significant evolution was the rise of Gmail, G Suite and web-based clients. In other words, Front wants to disrupt Outlook and Gmail.

With today's funding round, the company plans to iterate on the product front with Office 365 support for its calendar, an offline mode and refinements across the board. The company also plans to scale up its sales and go-to-market team with an office in Phoenix and a new CMO.