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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

IAC sells CollegeHumor to executive Sam Reich, resulting in 100+ layoffs

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 01:32 PM PST

IAC has sold off a majority stake in CH Media, the parent organization behind CollegeHumor . The new owner? CH Media’s chief creative officer Sam Reich.

Reich announced the move on Twitter, saying that digital media holding company IAC “made the difficult decision to no longer finance us,” but that it would allow him to “run with the company.”

He continued, “Of course, I can’t keep it going like you’re used to. While we were on the way to becoming profitable, we were nonetheless losing money — and I myself have no money to be able to lose.”

In fact, Reich said that more than 100 people are losing their jobs as a result.

Bloomberg reports that the company will be left with a team of between five and 10 people. It also reports that IAC will maintain a minority stake in the company.

In a statement, IAC said, “Sam was the best choice to acquire CH Media and define its next chapter. The decision places CH Media with an owner who is beloved by fans, passionate about the business and sees a future we believe in."

CollegeHumor launched its own subscription streaming service called Dropout in 2018, and Reich said, “The #1 way you can support me is to stay subscribed to Dropout.” He claimed the service still has six months of additional content ready to go, and that it will be launching version 2.0 at the end of this month.

After noting that many Dropout shows may need to take “bold new creative directions in order to survive,” Reich added, “I will, however, do my very best to stay true to the talent, shows, fans, and principles that got us where we are today. We dropped out once before; we can do it again. Independent comedy lives on — just now more independent (gulp) than ever before.”

Twitter is bringing twttr’s experiments in threaded conversations to its main app

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 12:39 PM PST

At last year’s CES, Twitter introduced its first public prototype app, twttr — dubbed “little T” internally at Twitter. The app allows Twitter to develop and experiment with new features in the public, to see what works and what does not. The app’s main focus, to date, has been on making threaded conversations easier to read. Now, the company is ready to graduate the best of twttr to the main Twitter app.

“We’re taking all the different branches — all the different parts of the conversation — and we’re making it so it’s all in one global view,” explained Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s head of Conversations, speaking to reporters at CES 2020. “This means you can easily understand, and get a pulse of what’s happening in the conversation,” she added.

When the changes roll out, you’ll be able to see when the original tweet’s author is replying within a conversation thread. Twitter will also highlight people you’re following and people who are verified.

This way, Xie continues, “you can understand who is talking to who in a conversation.”

In addition, Twitter will release other features that build on top of threaded conversations to the public, including how the user interface reacts when you tap on a reply.

On twttr, when you tap into a reply within a conversation, you get more information about the tweet in question. You can also reply in-line to the tweet. And the reply itself is shaded to differentiate it from the surrounding tweets, when selected.

Threaded conversations also hide some of the replies to keep the conversation more readable — but you can click a link to load more of the replies as you scroll down. Twitter says it personalizes which replies are shown and hidden based on things like who you follow, who you interact with and people you’ve interacted with in the past.

“These are pieces of making this global conversation easier to use — so you don’t have to tab to new screens and go back and forth,” Xie explained.

Despite the initial excitement around Twitter’s new app, twttr, some felt the company didn’t take full advantage of having a public experimental playground. Few other new features beyond threaded conversations were tried out on the testing platform.

To some extent, Twitter’s plans could have been impacted by changes in twttr’s leadership. Twitter in August acquired Xie’s startup Lightwell. Meanwhile, Sara Haider, who had been leading the charge on rethinking the design of conversations on Twitter, which included the release of twttr, announced that she would be moving on to a new project at the company after a short break.

With twttr’s threaded conversations feature making its way to, the plan now is to use twttr to experiment with other conversational features.

For example, twttr may be used to try out new features in the incentives space — meaning, how small tweaks to Twitter’s user interface can influence different types of user behavior.

“Going forward, we’re investing and making a concerted effort, as we try new features and as we change different mechanics, to [determine] what we’re incentivizing and what we’re disincentivizing,” said Xie.

For instance, changing the prompts that Twitter displays when a user goes to compose a tweet or a reply could influence how they choose to respond. This is only one example of the sorts of things Twitter aims to test with Little T, as it’s called.

Twitter says the new threaded conversations features will begin to roll out on Twitter for iOS first, followed by web then Android, sometime in Q1.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

At CES, Schneider Electric unveils its own upgrade to the traditional fusebox

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 12:23 PM PST

As renewable energy and energy efficiency continue to make gains among cost-conscious consumers, more companies are looking at ways to give customers better ways to manage the electricity coming into their homes.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Schneider Electric unveiled its pitch to homeowners looking for a better power management system with the company’s Energy Center product.

Think of it as a competitor to products from startups like Span, which are attempting to offer homeowners better ways to integrate renewable energy power generation to their homes and provide better ways to route the electricity inside the home, according to Schneider Electric’s executive vice president for its Home and Distribution division, Manish Pant.

The new product is part of a broader range of Square D home energy management devices that Schneider is aiming at homeowners. The company provides a broad suite of energy management services and technologies to commercial, industrial and residential customers, but is making a more concerted effort into the U.S. residential market beginning in 2020, according to Pant.

Schneider will be looking to integrate batteries and inverters into its Energy Center equipment over the course of the year and is currently looking for partners.

In some ways, the home energy market is ripe for innovation. Fuse boxes haven’t changed in nearly 100 years and there are few startups looking to provide better ways to integrate and manage various sources for electricity generation and storage as they become more cost competitive.

Lumin, and Sense (which is backed by Schneider Energy) also have energy efficiency products they’re pitching to homeowners.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Twitter’s new reply blockers could let Trump hide critics

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 12:22 PM PST

What if politicians could only display Twitter replies from their supporters while stopping everyone else from adding their analysis to the conversation? That’s the risk of Twitter’s upcoming Conversation Participants tool it’s about to start testing that lets you choose if you want replies from everyone, only those your follow or mention or no one.

For most, the reply limiter could help repel trolls and harassment. Unfortunately, it still puts the burden of safety on the victims rather than the villains. Instead of routing out abusers, Twitter wants us to retreat and wall off our tweets from everyone we don’t know. That could reduce the spontaneous yet civil reply chains between strangers that are part of what makes Twitter so powerful.

But in the hands of politicians hoping to avoid scrutiny, the tools could make it appear that their tweets and policies are uniformly supported. By only allowing their sycophants to add replies below their posts, anyone reading along will be exposed to a uniformity of opinion that clashes with Twitter’s position as a marketplace of ideas.

We’ve reached out to Twitter for comment on this issue and whether anyone such as politicians would be prevented from using the new reply-limiting tools. Twitter plans to test the reply-selection tool in Q1 and make modifications if necessary before rolling it out.

Here’s how the new Conversation Participants feature works, according to the preview shared by Twitter’s Suzanne Xie at CES today, though it could change during testing. When users go to tweet, they’ll have the option of selecting who can reply, unlike now when everyone can leave replies but authors can hide certain ones that viewers can opt to reveal. Conversation Participants offers four options:

Global: Replies from anyone

Group: Replies from those you follow or mention in this tweet

Panel: Replies from only those you mention in this tweet

Statement: No replies allowed

Now imagine President Trump opts to make all of his tweets Group-only. Only those who support him and he therefore follows — like his sons, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and his campaign team — could reply. Gone would be the reels of critics fact-checking his statements or arguing against his policies. His tweets would be safeguarded from reproach, establishing an echo chamber filter bubble for his acolytes.

It’s true that some of these responses from the public might constitute abuse or harassment. But those should be dealt with specifically through strong policy and consistent enforcement of adequate punishments when rules are broken. By instead focusing on stopping replies from huge swaths of the community, the secondary effects have the potential to prop up politicians that consistently lie and undam the flow of misinformation.

There’s also the practical matter that this won’t stop abuse, it will merely move it. Civil discussion will be harder to find for the rest of the public, but harassers will still reach their targets. Users blocked from replying to specific tweets can just tweet directly at the author. They can also continue to mention the author separately or screenshot their tweets and then discuss them.

It’s possible that U.S. law prevents politicians discriminating against citizens with different viewpoints by restricting their access to the politician’s comments on a public forum. Judges ruled this makes it illegal for Trump to block people on social media. But with this new tool, because anyone could still see the tweets, reply to the author separately and not be followed by the author likely doesn’t count as discrimination like blocking does, use of the Conversation Participants tool could be permissible. Someone could sue to push the issue to the courts, though, and judges might be wise to deem this unconstitutional.

Again, this is why Twitter needs to refocus on cleaning up its community rather than only letting people build tiny, temporary shelters from the abuse. It could consider blocking replies and mentions from brand new accounts without sufficient engagement or a linked phone number, as I suggested in 2017. It could also create a new mid-point punishment of a “time-out” from sending replies for harassment that it (sometimes questionably) deems below the threshold of an account suspension.

The combination of Twitter’s decade of weakness in the face of trolls with a new political landscape of normalized misinformation threaten to overwhelm its attempts to get a handle on safety.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Will online privacy make a comeback in 2020?

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 12:15 PM PST

Last year was a landmark for online privacy in many ways, with something of a consensus emerging that consumers deserve protection from the companies that sell their attention and behavior for profit.

The debate now is largely around how to regulate platforms, not whether it needs to happen.

The consensus among key legislators acknowledges that privacy is not just of benefit to individuals but can be likened to public health; a level of protection afforded to each of us helps inoculate democratic societies from manipulation by vested and vicious interests.

The fact that human rights are being systematically abused at population-scale because of the pervasive profiling of Internet users — a surveillance business that’s dominated in the West by tech giants Facebook and Google, and the adtech and data broker industry which works to feed them — was the subject of an Amnesty International report in November 2019 that urges legislators to take a human rights-based approach to setting rules for Internet companies.

“It is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end,” the charity predicted.

Democracy disrupted

The dystopian outgrowth of surveillance capitalism was certainly in awful evidence in 2019, with elections around the world attacked at cheap scale by malicious propaganda that relies on adtech platforms’ targeting tools to hijack and skew public debate, while the chaos agents themselves are shielded from democratic view.

Platform algorithms are also still encouraging Internet eyeballs towards polarized and extremist views by feeding a radicalized, data-driven diet that panders to prejudices in the name of maintaining engagement — despite plenty of raised voices calling out the programmed antisocial behavior. So what tweaks there have been still look like fiddling round the edges of an existential problem.

Worse still, vulnerable groups remain at the mercy of online hate speech which platforms not only can’t (or won’t) weed out, but whose algorithms often seem to deliberately choose to amplify — the technology itself being complicit in whipping up violence against minorities. It’s social division as a profit-turning service.

The outrage-loving tilt of these attention-hogging adtech giants has also continued directly influencing political campaigning in the West this year — with cynical attempts to steal votes by shamelessly platforming and amplifying misinformation.

From the Trump tweet-bomb we now see full-blown digital disops underpinning entire election campaigns, such as the UK Conservative Party’s strategy in the 2019 winter General Election, which featured doctored videos seeded to social media and keyword targeted attack ads pointing to outright online fakes in a bid to hack voters’ opinions.

Political microtargeting divides the electorate as a strategy to conquer the poll. The problem is it’s inherently anti-democratic.

No wonder, then, that repeat calls to beef up digital campaigning rules and properly protect voters’ data have so far fallen on deaf ears. The political parties all have their hands in the voter data cookie-jar. Yet it’s elected politicians whom we rely upon to update the law. This remains a grave problem for democracies going into 2020 — and a looming U.S. presidential election.

So it’s been a year when, even with rising awareness of the societal cost of letting platforms suck up everyone’s data and repurpose it to sell population-scale manipulation, not much has actually changed. Certainly not enough.

Yet looking ahead there are signs the writing is on the wall for the ‘data industrial complex’ — or at least that change is coming. Privacy can make a comeback.

Adtech under attack

Developments in late 2019 such as Twitter banning all political ads and Google shrinking how political advertisers can microtarget Internet users are notable steps — even as they don’t go far enough.

But it’s also a relatively short hop from banning microtargeting sometimes to banning profiling for ad targeting entirely.

Alternative online ad models (contextual targeting) are proven and profitable — just ask search engine DuckDuckGo . While the ad industry gospel that only behavioral targeting will do now has academic critics who suggest it offer far less uplift than claimed, even as — in Europe — scores of data protection complaints underline the high individual cost of maintaining the status quo.

Startups are also innovating in the pro-privacy adtech space (see, for example, the Brave browser).

Changing the system — turning the adtech tanker — will take huge effort, but there is a growing opportunity for just such systemic change.

This year, it might be too much to hope for regulators get their act together enough to outlaw consent-less profiling of Internet users entirely. But it may be that those who have sought to proclaim ‘privacy is dead’ will find their unchecked data gathering facing death by a thousand regulatory cuts.

Or, tech giants like Facebook and Google may simple outrun the regulators by reengineering their platforms to cloak vast personal data empires with end-to-end encryption, making it harder for outsiders to regulate them, even as they retain enough of a fix on the metadata to stay in the surveillance business. Fixing that would likely require much more radical regulatory intervention.

European regulators are, whether they like it or not, in this race and under major pressure to enforce the bloc’s existing data protection framework. It seems likely to ding some current-gen digital tracking and targeting practices. And depending on how key decisions on a number of strategic GDPR complaints go, 2020 could see an unpicking — great or otherwise — of components of adtech’s dysfunctional ‘norm’.

Among the technologies under investigation in the region is real-time bidding; a system that powers a large chunk of programmatic digital advertising.

The complaint here is it breaches the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it’s inherently insecure to broadcast granular personal data to scores of entities involved in the bidding chain.

A recent event held by the UK’s data watchdog confirmed plenty of troubling findings. Google responded by removing some information from bid requests — though critics say it does not go far enough. Nothing short of removing personal data entirely will do in their view, which sums to ads that are contextually (not micro)targeted.

Powers that EU data protection watchdogs have at their disposal to deal with violations include not just big fines but data processing orders — which means corrective relief could be coming to take chunks out of data-dependent business models.

As noted above, the adtech industry has already been put on watch this year over current practices, even as it was given a generous half-year grace period to adapt.

In the event it seems likely that turning the ship will take longer. But the message is clear: change is coming. The UK watchdog is due to publish another report in 2020, based on its review of the sector. Expect that to further dial up the pressure on adtech.

Web browsers have also been doing their bit by baking in more tracker blocking by default. And this summer Marketing Land proclaimed the third party cookie dead — asking what’s next?

Alternatives and workarounds will and are springing up (such as stuffing more in via first party cookies). But the notion of tracking by background default is under attack if not quite yet coming unstuck.

Ireland’s DPC is also progressing on a formal investigation of Google’s online Ad Exchange. Further real-time bidding complaints have been lodged across the EU too. This is an issue that won’t be going away soon, however much the adtech industry might wish it.

Year of the GDPR banhammer?

2020 is the year that privacy advocates are really hoping that Europe will bring down the hammer of regulatory enforcement. Thousands of complaints have been filed since the GDPR came into force but precious few decisions have been handed down. Next year looks set to be decisive — even potentially make or break for the data protection regime.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2020: Boris Sofman of Waymo and Nancy Sun of Ike

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 12:02 PM PST

You might have heard: a mobility revolution is in the making. TechCrunch is here for it — and we're not just along for the ride. We're here to uncover new ideas and startups, root out vaporware and dig into the tech and people spurring this change.

In short, we're helping drive the conversation around mobility. And it's only fitting we have an event dedicated to the topic. TC Sessions: Mobility — a one-day event on May 14, 2020 in San Jose, Calif., that's centered around the future of mobility and transportation — is back for a second year and we’re already putting together a fantastic group of the brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists.

TechCrunch is excited to announce our first two guests for TC Sessions: Mobility.

Drum roll, please…

We’re excited that Boris Sofman, engineering director at Waymo and former co-founder and CEO of Anki, will join us onstage. But wait there’s more. TechCrunch is also announcing Nancy Sun, the co-founder and chief engineer of Ike Robotics, will be a guest at TC Sessions: Mobility.

Here’s a bit about these bright and accomplished people.

Sofman is leading the engineering for trucking at Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet. Sofman came to Waymo from consumer robotics company Anki, which shut down in April 2019. Nearly the entire technical team at Anki headed over to Waymo.

Anki built several popular products, starting with Anki Drive in 2013 and later the popular Cozmo robot. The Bay Area startup had shipped more than 3.5 million devices with annual revenues approaching $100 million.

Previously, Sofman worked on off-road autonomous vehicles and ways to leverage a machine learning approach to improve navigational capabilities in real time.

Sun has also had an incredibly interesting ride in the world of automation and robotics. She is chief engineer and co-founder of Ike, the self-driving truck startup. Prior to Ike, Sun was the senior engineering manager of self-driving trucks at Uber ATG, a company she came to through the acquisition of Otto .

Prior to Otto, Sun was engineering manager of Apple’s secretive special projects group.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Paytm targets merchants to fight back Google and Walmart in India’s crowded payments field

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 11:35 AM PST

Paytm today announced two new features for businesses as the financial services firm looks to expand its reach in the nation that has quickly become one of the world's most crowded and competitive payments markets.

The Noida-headquartered firm, which raised $1 billion in late November, said its app for businesses now features an "all-in-one" QR code system to accept payments from multiple platforms, including mobile wallets (that act as an intermediary between a user and their bank but provide convenience) and those that are powered by UPI, a payments infrastructure built by a coalition of banks that has been widely adopted by the industry players.

Merchants had expressed an interest in having one QR code that could understand any payments app, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder and chief executive of Paytm's parent firm One97 Communications. In addition to supporting mobile wallet apps, and UPI-powered payment apps, Paytm's new QR codes also support payments through popular Rupay cards. “I am sure this QR will accelerate the Digital India mission and make more financial services available to the underserved,” he said.

Merchants can also stick these QR codes on devices such as battery packs and chargers to enable quick transaction from users, Sharma explained at a press conference today.

Bookkeeping for merchants and small businesses

The nation’s highest-valued startup (at around $16 billion) also announced a bookkeeping feature for businesses to help them maintain their daily records. The feature is already rolling out to merchants, Sharma told TechCrunch.

Dubbed Paytm Business Khata, the feature will help merchants manage payments, record transactions and secure loans and insurance. The service will also enable them to set a reminder for credit transactions, receive an audio alert for new transactions, and send links to their customers to easily pay their dues, said Sharma.

Hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and villages, came online for the first time in the last decade thanks to the proliferation of cheap Android smartphones and the availability of some of the world's cheapest mobile data plans.

In recent years, millions of merchants and small businesses have also started to accept digital payments and listed them on the web for the first time. But most of them are still offline. Scores of startups and heavily backed firms such as Google, Walmart and Amazon are chasing this untapped market.

Google, which has amassed more than 67 million users on its payments app in India, last year announced a range of offerings to allow businesses to easily start accepting payments online. In the past, the company also launched tools to help mom and pop stores build presence on the web.

A number of startups today, including Bangalore-based Instamojo, Khatabook (which raised $25 million in October last year and counts GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital India and Tencent among its investors) and Lightspeed-backed OkCredit, which raised $67 million in August last year, offer bookkeeping features and allow their consumers to enable easier payment options.

Google Pay or GPay sticker pasted on the glass of a car in New Delhi India on 18 September 2019 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Paytm's Sharma claimed that his business app has already amassed more than 10 million merchant users, a number he expects to more than double by next year.

The announcements today illustrate how aggressively Paytm, which once led the mobile payments market in India, is expanding its service.

Some critics have cautioned that the firm, which counts SoftBank, Alibaba and T. Rowe Price among its key investors and has raised over $3.3 billion to date, is quickly losing its market share and chasing opportunities that could significantly increase its expenses and losses. According to several industry estimates, Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe now lead the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm lost more than half a billion dollars in the financial year that ended in March 2019. The trouble for the company is that there is currently little money to be made in the payments market because of some of the local guidelines set by the government.

"The current Paytm's potential is a pale shadow of its former self. And to stay relevant, the company is entering new businesses (and failing spectacularly in some) at a pace that shows both a lack of clarity and urgency. Paytm is stuck between a glorious past that was built on the back of digital payments and a future that doesn't look anything like Jack Ma's Alibaba, one of Paytm's largest investors and Sharma's inspiration," wrote Ashish Mishra, a long-time journalist, in a scathing post (paywalled).

Sharma said today that the company plans to offer services such as stock brokerage and insurance brokerage in the coming months.

At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next four years, up from about $200 billion currently, according to Credit Suisse. And that market is only going to get more crowded when WhatsApp, which has amassed over 400 million users in India, rolls out its payments service to all its users in the country in the coming months.

Is Clicbot a spiritual successor to Cozmo? (Mostly no, but maybe a little yes)

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 11:00 AM PST

Anki's true legacy in robotics will only be sufficiently determined over the course of a few years. But while the startup's vision for Cozmo ultimately failed, I suspect we’ll see its take on the category of home robotics leaving a lasting legacy.

The Keyi Tech representative I spoke to at CES was quick to deflect a comparison to the company, mostly on the basis that its own modular robots are designed for STEM learning, rather than Cozmo's friendly home companion vibe.

But the animation-inspired characterization is clear front and center with Clicbot. In fact, Keyi says it even followed in Anki's footsteps by hiring a Kickstarter animator to create the single, cycloptic eye in the middle of its cylindrical head. And, indeed, it goes a way toward giving the product a warm, lifelike appearance.

Demos were limited at the show, though a row of Clicbots were lined up, performing a choreographed dance to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love." It's a jam, for sure. Not sure if it's licensed or not, but it's all over the promo videos the company issued ahead of CES. Another quick demo found Clicbot responding affectionately when a Keyi rep rubbed the side of its face.

Again, there are big differences between the devices, their claims and what sector of the market they intend to fill. The product is modular and designed to be built according to a connected app. Once built, it can do things like serve coffee, but nowhere does it claim to be the kind of autonomous robotic pet Anki was shooting for.

The ‘bot kits will start at around $300, and should be available through Amazon soon.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Grubhub said to explore sale in boon to Uber, DoorDash and others

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 10:57 AM PST

Shares of Chicago-based food delivery service Grubhub are sharply higher in regular trading today after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company has hired external advisers to explore its “strategic” options, inclusive of a possible sale.

Investors, heartened by the news, bid its equity up 17% as of the time of writing, valuing the firm at around $57 per share, or $5.2 billion.

The news comes during a difficult time for the company. Grubhub’s value fell sharply last October after it reported its third-quarter earnings. At the time, the company cited new and rising competition as growth-related difficulties, as well as noting that, in its view, “the supply innovations in online takeout have been played out and annual growth is slowing and returning to a more normal longer-term state.” It expected “low double digit” growth in the future.

Investors dumped its shares after reading the growth warnings, sending Grubhub equity from the high $50s per share to the mid-$30s. Since then, the company’s share price has recovered; with today’s news, Grubhub is effectively back to where it was before the Earnings Report from Hell.

So what?

All this may sound a bit boring, frankly, to regular TechCrunch readers. What do Grubhub’s troubles have to do with startups, private capital and high-growth companies? A lot, as it turns out.

Grubhub competes with a number of startup darlings, including Postmates (trapped in Schrodinger’s Exit at the moment), DoorDash (aggressively valued, under fire for payment practices and theoretically considering a direct listing despite unprofitability) and Uber Eats (a deeply unprofitable portion of Uber’s larger Red Ink empire).

So what happens to Grubhub could impact two unicorns looking to go public, and another post-IPO unicorn looking to shore up its income statement. As CNBC noted following the Grubhub report, “Uber shares also spiked on the news, as investors bet consolidation in the crowded food-delivery industry would help the company.”

Consolidation could assist remaining players squeeze out more margin from their market. More margin means smaller losses. And as smaller losses are hot now in the IPO world, the move could help some yet-private companies get public.

After years of beating each other up, one key player in the on-demand food delivery space is willing to sell, or join up with someone else. That’s big news, given the sheer scale of the venture bet on companies that compete with Grubhub.

Farewell, don’t @ me. Twitter will test a way to let you limit replies to your tweets

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 10:38 AM PST

Twitter has been on a long-term mission to overhaul have people have conversations on its platform, both to make them easier to follow and more engaging without turning toxic. That strategy is taking another big step forward this year, starting in Q1 with a new way for people to control conversations, by giving them four options to “tailor” their replies: anyone can reply, only those who a user follows can reply, only those tagged can reply, or setting a tweet to get no replies at all. (Goodbye, needing to make space for “don’t @me.”)

The plans were unveiled just this morning during CES in Las Vegas, where Twitter has been holding an event for media led by Kayvon Beykpour, VP of product at the company.

“The primary motivation is control,” he said today. “We want to build on the theme of authors getting more control and we've thought… that there are many analogs of how people have communications in life.”

(Of course you are unable to silence people from replying to you in person, but that’s another matter.”

The plans were laid out in more detail by Suzanne Xie, head of conversations for the platform, who said the feature builds on something the company launched in 2019, where users can hide replies.

“We thought, well ,what if we could actually put more control into the author’s hands before the fact? Give them really a way to control the conversation space, as they’re actually composing a tweet? So there’s a new project that we’re working on,” she said. “The reason we’re doing this is, if we think about what conversation means on Twitter. Right now, public conversation on Twitter is you tweet something everyone in the world will see and everyone can reply, or you can have a very private conversation in a DM. So there’s an entire spectrum of conversations that we don't see on Twitter yet.”

Other areas that Twitter discussed at the event included more focus on Topics, which will be expanded and taken global, and with that more work on how people can create and share lists. Its NBA isocam will be used again this year to let users vote on their favorite players, and a similar new version, called the “stancam” will be created on the same principle for entertainment events. On the marketing front it will be building out more analytics and expending Twitter Surveys globally, as well as building a new platform, Launch, for marketers roll out new products and services for advertisers.

We’re going to be talking with the company later this morning and will update this news as we hear more.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Air taxi company EHang flies autonomously in the US for the first time

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 10:34 AM PST

Aerial passenger drone startup EHang flew its EHang 216 two-seat self-flying taxi fully autonomously in North Carolina last night, a first for the company both in the U.S. and North America. EHang, which is based in Guangzhou, China, has already demonstrated its vehicle in flight at home and in different parts of Europe and Asia, but this is the first time its aircraft has received approval to fly by the FAA, and EHang is now working toward extending that approval to flying with passengers on board, which is a key requirement for EHang’s eventual goals of offering commercial service in the U.S.

This demonstration flight, which took place in Raleigh, included flying North Carolina governor Roy Cooper on board the two-seat aircraft. Eventually, EHang hopes to deploy these for use across a number of different industries, for transportation of both passengers and cargo along autonomous, short-distance routes in and around urban areas.

EHang had a busy 2019, too — the company began trading publicly on the Nasdaq in December. It also revealed plans to begin operating an aerial shuttle service in Guangzhou, with a pilot citywide drone taxi service intended to show off not only its individual autonomous vehicle capabilities, but also how it can deploy and operate multiple EHang aircraft working in concert with one another and with other aircraft sharing the air space over the city.

Toward the end of 2019, EHang actually completed two trial flights of its 216 vehicles flying simultaneously as an early step toward building out that pilot. The company has delivered around 40 of its aircraft to paying customers, too, and if all goes to plan, by next month it will have completed a pilot program with the Civil Aviation Administration of China that will allow it to move on to full approval of the airworthiness of its aircraft for commercial flight in the country.

Virgin Galactic’s second commercial tourism spaceship hits key construction milestone

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:42 AM PST

Virgin Galactic’s fleet is expanding, and its second commercial spacecraft just achieved a key milestone in its build process — much faster than the first of its SpaceShipTwo vehicles did. The new SpaceShipTwo, which will join the original (named “VSS Unity”) in providing flights to space for paying tourists, is now supporting its own weight — a key achievement in the overall assembly of the vehicle.

This new SpaceShipTwo has yet to be named, but it’s about 80% complete at this stage. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is also flight testing VSS Unity, and it’s already begun construction on a third spacecraft to further expand its fleet — that one’s about 50% done and under construction alongside this second vehicle in the company’s Mojave, Calif. headquarters.

Next up for this second spacecraft is connecting all of the integrated systems that provide flight control, power, altitude adjustment and more. This has all come together much faster than with the original spacecraft thanks largely to improvements in the efficiency of the build process, including making use of a lot of modular components, which Virgin anticipates will help bend the cost curve even further going forward, making expanding the fleet more cost-effective as Virgin Galactic aims for profitability in 2021, and eventually hopes to reduce the cost of tickets for space tourists.

Virtual Incision Corporation raises $20 million for its abdominal surgery robot

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:40 AM PST

Over the past several years, surgical has become one of the hottest — and best funded — categories in robotics. That's thanks, in no small part, to the massive success of companies like Intuitive. Virtual Incision Corporation has also had a pretty solid fundraising streak since its 2006 founding.

Today the Lincoln, Neb. startup announced its latest funding round. The $20 million Series B+ brings its total funding up to $51 million. This time out, things were led by Bluestem Capital, with participation from PrairieGold Venture Partners and Genesis Innovation Group.

VIC's primary product is the MIRA ("miniaturized in vivo robotic assistant"), a two-pound robot designed for minimally invasive abdominal surgery. Among is biggest value propositions is the relative portability of the product, versus many existing surgery robots, which are downright massive.

"We designed the MIRA Surgical Robotic Platform with the fundamental understanding that minimally invasive procedures offer tremendous benefits to patients," president and CEO John Murphy said in a release. "We believe our portable and affordable abdominal robot has the potential to bring these benefits to many more patients. The planned IDE clinical study of MIRA is the critical next step for the company."

The round will to helping prep the product for an Investigational Device Exemption (IDE) with the FDA. VIC will also use it to help get the device ready for commercialization.

Daily Crunch: ClassPass becomes a unicorn

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:37 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. ClassPass, finally a unicorn, raises $285 million in new funding

ClassPass launched in 2013 to give people an easier way to work out. The company partners with boutique fitness studios, letting users search through that inventory and book a class all from their smartphone.

Since launch, ClassPass has implemented several different business models, trying to find the right unit economics. More recently, the company has introduced variable pricing — instead of users paying a monthly fee for three, five or 10 classes per month, they could use their virtual ClassPass currency to sign up for classes and pay based on the demand around those classes.

2. Sonos sues Google over alleged patent infringement on smart speaker tech

The lawsuit specifically calls out Google for five alleged patent violations, including technologies that allow their speakers to wirelessly communicate and synchronize with each other. Sonos also claims that Amazon is infringing on its IP, but that the company can only afford to take on one tech titan.

3. App Store customer spending hit record $1.42B from Christmas Eve through New Year's Eve

Apple this morning released a year-end retrospective of its Services business, which includes the App Store, Apple Music, iCloud and, new in 2019, Apple Arcade, Apple TV+, Apple News+ and Apple Card. To date, App Store developers have earned more than $155 billion, Apple says — and a quarter of those earnings came in the last year alone.

4. Here's everything Google announced at CES 2020

Just about everything Google is showing off at CES 2020 is focused around the company's voice-powered AI helper, Google Assistant, with new features like webpage reading, scheduled actions, sticky notes and speed dial.

5. What to expect in digital media in 2020

As we start 2020, the media and entertainment sectors are in flux. New technologies are enabling new types of content, streaming platforms in multiple content categories are spending billions in their fight for market share and the interplay between social platforms and media is a central topic of global political debate. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Getaround is latest SoftBank portfolio company to announce layoffs

The Information, which first reported the news, pegs the layoffs at 150 employees, amounting to around a quarter of the company. In the report, CEO Sam Zaid seemed to lay at least some of the blame for the layoffs on the effects of SoftBank's recent struggles.

7. Ben Horowitz will explain how to create and sustain culture at TC Early Stage SF

In addition to authoring multiple books with practical advice for entrepreneurs, Horowitz sits on the boards of 14 portfolio companies, including Okta, Lyft, Foursquare, Genius, Medium and Databricks. So there should be plenty to learn from him at TC Early Stage come April 28 in San Francisco.

Quibi’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman offer a deeper look at the new streaming service

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:35 AM PST

Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman took the stage this morning at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to offer a deeper look into the technology behind the soon-to-launch mobile streaming service.

The company had already revealed much about its intentions with Quibi, including how it’s the first streaming service designed exclusively for mobile devices, not the living room TV.

But until today’s keynote — and briefings with reporters yesterday — what Quibi hadn’t yet discussed in detail was the underlying, patent-pending technology that takes advantage of mobile devices to push forward a new form of storytelling.

Specifically, Quibi is using a new engineering technology it’s calling “Turnstyle,” which allows the viewer to move between portrait mode viewing and landscape viewing, seamlessly — and without any black bars to fill the rest of the screen when switching to landscape video.

This technology, when demoed, worked very well. The shift from portrait to landscape and back again was smooth and fast — an almost imperceptible transition. And the video in either orientation was crisp, clear and high-def, thanks to the high production values of Quibi’s commissioned projects.

The end result is something that, though watched on a phone, wouldn’t ever be confused with user-gen services like YouTube or TikTok.

“[YouTube] is the most ubiquitous, democratized, incredibly creative platform,” Whitman told me. “But they make content for hundreds of dollars a minute. We make it for $100,000 a minute. It’s a whole different level — it’s Hollywood-quality content.”

On Quibi, there are three tiers of content — unscripted shows, movies delivered in short chapters and “Daily Essentials.”

On the unscripted side, you’ll find documentaries and docu-series, as well as other shows about food, fashion, travel, animals, cars, comedy, sports and more. Daily Essentials, meanwhile, deliver the day’s news and information — including also weather, sports and horoscopes — in five to six-minute “quick bites.”

While these two categories could potentially be delivered on other video platforms, Quibi’s riskier bet is on movies told in chapters. That is, instead of releasing a two-hour film as a single, long video to consume, Quibi movies are told in seven to 10-minute segments. In year one, 35 of Quibi’s total 175 shows will be movies.

Every day, Quibi will deliver one episode of its movies told in chapters, plus five episodes of its episodic and unscripted series and 25 daily essentials. Combined, that’s more than three hours of premium, original content per day.

“If you think about network television, and how much they produce for prime time, it’s 35% more than network TV does Monday through Friday,” Quibi CEO Meg Whitman said.

The service plans to launch with eight movies, and will then release a new movie every other Monday, she noted. But even if you don’t tune in on release day, the content will remain available so you can binge through what you’ve missed.

This idea of shorter-form storytelling is something Katzenberg — a former Hollywood executive best known for his time as chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and for being the “K” in Dreamworks SKG — has been thinking about for decades, he said. Since 1999, in fact.

“I started a little company with [Steven] Spielberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer called It lasted about 12 minutes,” he explained, referring to a Quibi precursor that was likely before its time.

“I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. That’s the thing that got me the most interested and excited,” he continued. “And I think what you’ll see is that every great innovation that has happened in Hollywood has actually been driven by a new technology.”

With Quibi’s support for full-screen, high-quality portrait-mode viewing, the service can cater to an on-the-go user base — a user base that often fills spare minutes on social networks or messaging.

But turning the phone is only one way that Quibi will leverage mobile. Spielberg’s Quibi show “After Dark,” for example, will use viewers’ locations to determine what time they can watch the show — it will only be allowed after sunset.

In the future, Quibi’s filmmakers could tap into other mobile sensors and smartphone features, like the GPS or the haptics to make the phone vibrate. They could tell stories through the phone’s messaging system or even have your phone ring as part of a story. An exercise-themed show could tap into the phone’s pedometer for an interactive experience. Turnstyle, in other words, is just step one.

But what Quibi can’t know yet is how users will respond to these sorts of interactions. Will they find them clever, or gimmicky? Will they aid the storytelling experience or ultimately get in the way? And while Quibi wants to bring back the “watercooler” experience of weekly shows, it also doesn’t know if users growing up in the Netflix era will actually watch shows on the release schedule it intends, or save them to binge in longer stretches of time — perhaps even casting them to the TV via Chromecast or Airplay, which Quibi will support.

Despite an overabundance of streaming services, Quibi has attracted big-name talent to help kick off its first year, including Academy Award winners Steven Spielberg, Peter Farrelly and Guillermo del Toro; directors like Antoine Fuqua, Lena Waithe, Sam Raimi and Catherine Hardwicke; and stars like Stephan James, Chrissy Tiegen, Laurence Fishburne, Dave Franco, Bill Murray, Emily Mortimer and Kevin Hart, to name a few.

Quibi isn’t opposed to working with younger creators or even YouTubers, but Katzenberg notes that Quibi won’t be making YouTube shows, but rather Hollywood-style programming.

“If there are good actors and good talent on YouTube who can transition to that, then we’re happy to have them,” he says of the YouTuber crowd. “But it’s highly differentiated…we’re not trying to do a high-end version of what they’re doing. We’re actually trying to bring the ecosystem of broadcast, cable, streaming, television and television storytelling and bringing that to this world,” he notes.

Quibi officially debuts on April 6, 2020 and will cost $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 per month without ads.

Interested users can sign up to be Quibi Insiders on the service’s homepage, in order to get exclusive looks at new shows and the first news of product updates.

Update: During the presentation, Katzenberg, Whitman and other Quibi executives tried to paint the service as something that sits at the intersection of creativity and technology, and between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Whitman described Quibi as “the very first entertainment technology platform optimized for mobile viewing,” adding that, “We needed to make space for creators and engineers to be in the same conversation.”

For one thing, the creators needed to make movies and shows that were viewable in both landscape and portrait mode. CTO Rob Post said the directors and showrunners are actually delivering two edits, one in each orientation, and then Quibi stitches and encodes them together into a single experience, allowing viewers to swap seamlessly.

And Conrad said that when creators started to experiment with Turnstyle, they came up with innovative approaches like the one found in the short film “Nest” and its follow-up Quibi show “Wireless” — where landscape mode features a traditionally-shot thriller, then switching to portrait mode will show you what the main character is seeing on their phone.

The keynote also featured a number of Quibi partners, including Google Cloud (Quibi is using Google’s infrastructure for content delivery) and T-Mobile, which will be bundling Quibi as part of its services (although they didn’t offer specifics). Google and T-Mobile are also among the companies who have supposedly bought out the service’s first year of ad inventory, worth $150 million.

“Quibi is the next big thing,” declared T-Mobile’s incoming CEO Mike Sievert.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Get 90% off an annual DocSend plan with Extra Crunch

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:30 AM PST

Extra Crunch is excited to announce a new community perk from DocSend. Starting today, annual and two-year members of Extra Crunch can get up to 90% off an annual DocSend plan. 

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Extra Crunch is a membership program from TechCrunch that features how-tos and interviews on company building, intelligence on the most disruptive opportunities for startups, an experience on that’s free of banner ads, discounts on TechCrunch events and several community perks like the one mentioned in this article. Our goal is to democratize information about startups, and we'd love to have you join our community.

You can sign up for Extra Crunch here.

New annual and two-year Extra Crunch members will receive details on how to claim the perk in the welcome email. If you are already an annual or two-year Extra Crunch member, you will receive an email with the offer at some point over the next 24 hours. If you are currently a monthly Extra Crunch subscriber and want to upgrade to annual in order to claim this deal, head over to the "my account" section on and click the "upgrade" button.  

This is one of several community perks we've launched for Extra Crunch annual members. Other community perks include a 20% discount on TechCrunch events, 100,000 Brex rewards points upon credit card sign up and an opportunity to claim $1,000 in AWS credits. For a full list of perks from partners, head here.

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This offer is provided as a partnership between TechCrunch and DocSend, but it is not an endorsement from the TechCrunch editorial team. TechCrunch's business operations remain separate to ensure editorial integrity.

DoubleVerify launches a new way to measure online ad effectiveness

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 09:00 AM PST

Until now, DoubleVerify was known for helping advertisers to eliminate fraud and ensure their ads are running in brand-safe environments. This week, at the Consumer Electronics show, it’s launching a new technology designed to measure whether those ads are actually effective.

Chief Marketing Officer Dan Slivjanovski told me that before this, marketers had to rely on “fast and simple tools” that are “proxies” for ad effectiveness — things like clickthrough rate or viewable time — or they had to wait until after the campaign to see whether it really worked.

So CEO Wayne Gattinella (pictured above) said the DoubleVerify team has spent the past two years looking at data that it was already collecting to find “metrics that best determine the predictors of how well the ad’s actually going to perform.”

He added, “In most cases, the raw material was there, there was just not the business case to really invest in it.”

DoubleVerify’s new Authentic Performance measure focuses on two main areas — exposure and engagement. Exposure includes a number of data points like an ad’s viewable time, its total share of the screen and its audibility. Engagement looks at how users might interact with the ad, such as touching the screen, adjusting the video or changing the orientation of the screen.

DoubleVerify Audience Performance

Each campaign is then measured against a broader performance index, identifying areas where either exposure or engagement could be improved, for example by shifting ad spend or pulling back creative that doesn’t work. And DoubleVerify is also studying these measures alongside transaction data from advertisers to confirm that there’s a real correlation.

“Then to be able to optimize and take action on that information in a near real-time mode is the payoff,” Gattinella said. “Not just post-campaign insights, not just post-mortem analytics — this is real-time marketing optimization.”

DoubleVerify (which sold a majority stake to Providence Equity Partners in 2017) has been testing Authentic Performance with select advertisers, including Mondelez, before launching it more broadly this week; those advertisers will also need to be using the company’s Authentic Impression technology.

“To be able to determine the performance of an impression, that requires the impression to be delivered in a high-quality environment to start,” Gattinella said. “There’s a layering effect.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Tech layoffs rise as cost-cutting comes into vogue

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 08:15 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 taking digging into two trends: recent layoffs at various domestic unicorns and secondly, how those layoffs match a recent uptick in austerity across the technology industry itself. It seems that some belt tightening is afoot, something that we’ll need to keep an eye on as the 2020 IPO cycle begins. There are no domestic technology IPOs scheduled yet, but there are rumblings of impending offerings. (Restaurant SaaS company Olo, for example, is expected to be among the first out of the gate.)

With news of layoffs at Zume and Getaround coming this week, 2020 is already off to a trot when it comes to publicly-known staff reductions at tech and otherwise venture-backed companies. Let’s dig in.


A caveat before we get any further: for most people, losing a job creates serious emotional and financial consequences. While seeing some CEOs forced to publicly admit mistakes may be pleasant, layoffs are never good; you just don’t like to see them. Nothing we discuss this morning — or yesterday, to be clear — is brought to you for reasons other than to better understand the market.

That said, there have been issues at a number of companies in the Vision Fund startup arsenal over the last 12 months. In 2019, layoffs reached a number of companies that the SoftBank -backed capital machine had invested in, including Uber, Wag, WeWork, Fair and Katerra. There’s nuance to each situation (including that Katerra laid off some staff but hired elsewhere), but seeing that many reductions was noteworthy.

That two more companies — Zume and Getaround — are undergoing cost-cutting through staff reductions in rapid succession so far this year implies that something larger is going on. There is, as it turns out.

Spotify brings streaming ad insertion technology to podcasts

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 08:00 AM PST

2019 was a breakout year for Spotify’s podcasting efforts, and now the company is turning up the dial on its ability to monetize this popular form of audio programming. Today, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Spotify is announcing Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI), its new, proprietary podcast ad technology for Spotify Podcast Ads.

The technology makes key data — like actual ad impressions, frequency, reach, plus anonymized age, gender and device type — available to podcasters and advertisers for the first time.

In previous years, podcasts have been delivered by way of downloads from RSS feeds, which would make this sort of data collection difficult if not impossible. The shift to streaming changes that, as Spotify can tap into its suite of planning, reporting and measurement capabilities, as it does for streaming music.

At launch, Spotify’s SAI technology will only be made available to its original and exclusive shows. That’s because Spotify can control this content and knows what its backend looks like, making the new technology easier to implement.

Podcast listeners are already more engaged with advertising often because the ads included in a podcast are read by the host or hosts themselves, making them feel less like an unwelcome interruption and more like a form of influencer marketing. SAI aims to improve the ad experience even more because the ads will be better-targeted and data-driven, like other modern-day digital marketing.

Early adopter Puma was the first partner to try out SAI by running host-read ads during the Spotify Original podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.” The ads resulted in ad recall lift of over 180%, Spotify says.

Today, Spotify has hundreds of originals and exclusives where it can leverage this technology at a time when podcast listening on its platform is growing. Podcast hours streamed jumped up 39% quarter-over-quarter in Q3 2019, and Spotify now touts over 500,000 podcasts on its platform.

“The problem we’re solving with Spotify podcast ads is really on the advertiser’s side — advertisers have no idea how their ads are working. They don’t even know whether or not an ad they purchase is being consumed by a listener,” said Jay Richman, VP, head of Global Advertising Business & Platform, speaking about the new ad technology at a press event during CES this week. The new technology, he continued, was a “first of its kind.”

“It introduces new targeting measurements and interactivity, which is a big step change for the industry,” he said.

Streaming ad insertion technology will give Spotify a way to better compete with the default podcast apps from Apple and Google. The former, Apple Podcasts, still claims the majority of podcast app market share — but that’s been slipping as Spotify gains. While Apple is rumored to be working on its own podcast originals, Spotify is speeding ahead to the next step of turning its shows into new revenue drivers.

Spotify’s new ad tech launch also comes at a time when the podcast industry itself is changing. Many podcasts today are really just audio programs, as they’re only accessible to a streaming service’s users — not the wider web.

General interest in podcasts is climbing, too. The number of people who are monthly podcast listeners in the U.S. is expected to climb to 106 million by 2023, Spotify notes. Meanwhile, ad revenue for podcasts is projected to reach over $1 billion in 2021. Spotify doesn’t disclose its revenue from podcasts, specifically but in Q3 2019 its ad revenue grew 29% year-over-year to $189 million — a boost many attributed to podcasts.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Dear Sophie: What do I need to know about recent changes to the H-1B lottery?

Posted: 08 Jan 2020 07:45 AM PST

Today, we’re launching "Dear Sophie,” an advice column that answers reader questions about immigration, particularly with regard to the tech sector.

“My goal is to help people understand immigration laws in a way that lets them overcome borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, an immigration attorney based in Silicon Valley. “I believe every question (and answer) helps bring clarity to many and would love to feature yours in my next column.”

Future “Dear Sophie” columns will be accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a 1- or 2-year subscription for 50% off.

Dear Sophie: I lead People Ops for an early-stage enterprise SaaS startup. My company is giving me the green light to hire internationally, but I've never gone through this process. I've heard there have been some changes to the H-1B lottery. What do I need to know to get started?

— Curious in California

Dear Curious:

Congrats! Glad to hear your company is taking this step — it's great for the success of your company, and it's awesome that you're helping them take on this important challenge. I’m super excited about the changes to the H-1B lottery this year because they are going to benefit early-stage startups quite a bit.

In the past, it was cost-prohibitive for small companies to invest in preparing an H-1B petition package for a potential hire. There was no way of knowing in advance if a candidate would beat the lottery's odds and be the one person chosen out of every three applicants. Starting in 2019, candidates with advanced degrees from American universities received an extra bite at the apple, but that still didn't mean it was a sure thing.

For the upcoming round, the government is adopting an electronic registration system. This change is great for small businesses because you don’t have to invest in legal fees to prepare H-1B petitions until you know that your candidate was already selected and has the opportunity to apply.

As you probably already know, an H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa that lets professionals with bachelor’s degrees or equivalent work experience in specialized fields (such as science, IT, medicine, accounting, law, engineering, mathematics, etc.) gain employment with an American company. This employment needs to be for positions that require their level of expertise at companies that have the budget for their resources.

Most of the requirements for the H-1B visa are set by law, but the details do change once in a while. The government hosts an annual lottery because there is a statutory cap on the total number of new H-1B visas allowed every year, and recent demand outweighs supply.

The government just announced that the lottery format is changing. Here's what you need to know about the upcoming changes to the lottery, most of which will take effect in Q1 and Q2 of 2020 for jobs starting as early as October 1st, 2020:

  • There will be a new electronic registration system with a $10 non-refundable fee:
    • register online between March 1 and March 20, 2020 to participate; don’t miss this window!
    • fees will be $10 per candidate;
    • the government will select candidates after the initial registration period ends and no later than March 31, 2020.
  • Companies can then file H-1B petitions for anybody who was selected.
  • There will be a 90-day window to submit completed petitions.
  • Upon filing, your company will be required to pay the standard applicable government filing fees (usually roughly $1,500-3,000 for small companies).
  • Premium processing is currently available for an optional $1440 extra. The government will take action within 15 calendar days if you use this option. We'll see if this option remains available.

There's a lot of great information out there on the H-1B visa and status, but it’s been under strict scrutiny lately — especially in tech lately. I recommend contacting an immigration attorney for guidance early before the registration window opens.

When People Ops folks like you reach out to me, they want to know how to start preparing now. Here are my most common tips for early-stage startups:

Ask employees and candidates seeking H-1B to gather their documents (such as transcripts, diplomas, resumes, past immigration documents, etc.) as early as possible. I also recommend talking to an attorney to determine if they'll need education or experience evaluations and if so, getting them done early.

I also recommend they do the following to prepare their early-stage startup for success:

  • ensure that the company's FEIN Number has been validated with DOL (ask an attorney for help)
  • choose the proper job title with the guidance of your immigration attorney
  • brainstorm the corresponding job duties/description
  • gather the necessary documents from your company
  • take screenshots of your company's website
  • put together a portfolio of your company's marketing materials
  • have the company's latest pitch deck ready to share
  • make sure the company's taxes are current and you have the returns

As you can see, there's a good amount of attention to detail required from you, but with some time and a legal team to support you, you'll do great.

Bringing the best talent to your company benefits everyone involved and is important work. I wish you the best as you begin this process and encourage you to reach out if you need a little help!

Submit your questions to immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn here; all questions will be answered confidentially.