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Monday, March 9, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


TechCrunch Events and coronavirus 

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 02:56 PM PDT

We here at TechCrunch are watching the novel coronavirus situation closely, as most of you likely are. 

In addition to our editorial coverage of the effects of the novel coronavirus on the business of entrepreneurship — and the ways that technology can help — we have a number of events planned for 2020, including TC Early Stage in April in San Francisco and our TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility event in May in San Jose. 

As of now we have not cancelled any of our events for the year, but we continue to monitor the situation very closely on a daily basis. 

Our primary goal is to make sure we proceed in a conscientious and careful manner that takes into account local, state and federal guidance as well as our own personal care for all of our event attendees.  

Just as it is with all of the members of our editorial and business staff, you're the TechCrunch family and we will make sure that any decisions we make have you at heart, no matter what.

Much like the companies we cover, TechCrunch has always tried to stay nimble and adopt new ways of serving our readers. We're in the process now of thinking hard about how to deliver on the promise of our events in a COVID-19 world. Stay tuned, we'll have some interesting announcements ahead.

Over the years we've experimented with many virtual events like our huge Disrupt SF Virtual Hackathon and hosted hybrid virtual interviews on our stages, like the memorable chat at Disrupt in 2014 with Clayton Christensen and Bill Hambrecht — not to mention our coverage of and experimentation with just about every virtual telepresence platform ever invented. Whatever happens, you can depend on us to find interesting and innovative ways to bring together tech entrepreneurs, students, academics, investors and anyone passionate about building to talk, inspire and innovate like hell. 

If you want to keep track of current updates to our plans for TechCrunch events throughout the year, please use this page as your resource of record.

As always, we'll keep you posted. Thank you.

Zapier CEO Wade Foster on scaling a remote team up to 300 employees

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 02:44 PM PDT

When Zapier was founded in 2011, it was a side project for three friends from Missouri who wanted to make it easier to connect any one web app to another. Nine years, millions of users and around 300 employees later, it's one of the most highly valued companies to ever go through Y Combinator — and they did it all with a team that is entirely remote.

I chatted with Zapier co-founder and CEO Wade Foster to find out why they decided to go remote from the start, and how the company addresses the challenges of scaling up a distributed team. Here's our chat, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: Why remote?

Wade Foster: I’ll give you a little of the origin story.

We started as a side project… and side projects can’t afford offices. So we’re kind of working via coffee shops, our apartments, wherever we could get the job done. 

We moved out to the Bay Area from Columbia, Missouri for [Y Combinator] . That summer, we were all three in the same apartment — the only time in the company’s life cycle where the whole company was together. At the tail end of that, Mike, one of my co-founders, moved back to Missouri to be with his then-girlfriend/now-wife as she was wrapping law school. So we were remote by necessity there.

Facebook’s board is its most gender-balanced yet with two new additions

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 02:17 PM PDT

On Monday, Facebook announced the addition of two new names to its board of directors, Nancy Killefer and Tracey T. Travis.

Killefer brings potentially valuable government insight to Facebook, as she served in the U.S. Department of the Treasury during the Obama administration. With last year’s departure of former Clinton administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Facebook’s board lost one of its voices with deep government experience.

In addition to her time in the treasury, Killefer held various leadership roles at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company over 30 years and currently serves on the board of Cardinal Health. She previously held a board seat with Avon.

“I’m excited to join the board of Facebook, a company that is at the center of the biggest debates about technology and society,” Killefer said in the investor press release. “The next few years are likely to shape the internet for generations to come and I hope to contribute to Facebook’s efforts to be a responsible force for good in the world.”

Travis, Facebook’s other board pick, joins from Estée Lauder, where she currently serves as EVP and CFO for the cosmetics company. While Killefer brings public sector experience, Travis offers a “strong finance and corporate leadership background,” per Zuckerberg, and plenty of consumer and retail finance experience from roles with Ralph Lauren, Limited Brands, Inc., Pepsi and General Motors. In a press release, Travis expressed optimism about Facebook and the “power of technology and innovation to change our world for the better.”

Facebook lost three board members last year, first Bowles and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, known to clash openly with Zuckerberg, and later Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Last month, Facebook added Mark Zuckerberg’s close personal friend, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston to its board. This month’s additions fill in the remaining gaps.

Facebook’s board now consists of Zuckerberg, PayPal’s Peggy Alford, Marc L. Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst’s Kenneth I. Chenault, Dropbox’s Houston, Founders Fund’s Peter Thiel, Cranamere Group’s Jeff Zients, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the two new names. With the addition of Killefer and Travis, the board is at its most gender-balanced yet, with four women and six men filling the seats.

In recent years, Facebook has faced multiple outside proposals from shareholders to remove Zuckerberg from his chairman position, but his board has historically held fast. It’s unlikely that the company has brought anyone on particularly willing to rock the boat, but we’ll be following the new dynamics as the company’s latest board members settle in.

Cadillac cancels debut of all-electric Lyriq over COVID-19 concerns

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 02:11 PM PDT

Cadillac has cancelled the upcoming debut of the Lyriq, an all-electric mid-sized SUV designed to be an entry point into luxury brand’s new EV lineup, over concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak.

GM’s luxury brand had planned to reveal the Lyriq on April 2 at an event in Los Angeles.

COVID-19, a disease caused by a new virus that is a member of the coronavirus family and a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past, has caused governments and companies to cancel tech, business and automotive events around the world. The Geneva International Motor Show was cancelled, as well as MWC in Barcelona and the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

The GM brand said in a statement that the event was being cancelled “out of an abundance of caution.”

Here’s the statement from Cadillac:

As you are aware, the situation in relation to the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak in the U.S. continues to develop. Now, several states have declared a State of Emergency and the number of cases continues to climb.

Out of an abundance of caution, we have made the difficult decision to cancel the Cadillac LYRIQ reveal in Los Angeles, California on April 2nd.  We are currently evaluating future plans and will be touch soon with an update.  Our top priority is the safety of our media guests and employees. We have been working with GM Medical and Security to monitor the situation closely and have been following recommendations for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

The Lyriq is just one in a roster of electric vehicles that GM plans to bring to market in the next two years. The automaker revealed March 4 a sweeping plan to produce and sell EVs that hinges on a new electric architecture that will support a wide range of products across all of its brands, including Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC. The EV portfolio will include everything from compact cars and work trucks to large premium SUVs and performance vehicles.

This modular architecture, called "Ultium," will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations.

The Cruise Origin, a self-driving, electric shared vehicle that was shown in January, was the first product under this new EV strategy to be revealed to the public. The reveal of Cadillac Lyriq SUV was supposed to come next, followed by the GMC Hummer EV on May 20. The Hummer event has not been cancelled.

SaaS stocks drop over 8%, reaching bear-market territory

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 02:03 PM PDT

Today was an awful day for the stock market, with global and domestic equities falling sharply as the world digested a collapse in oil prices, and yet another weekend of the spread of COVID-19. All major U.S. indices were down, with the tech-heavy Nasdaq falling the least of the three, slipping a comparatively modest 7.29%, to 7,950.68 on the day.

However, while the tech index didn’t fare as poorly as other American indices, a critical portion of the technology market actually fell further than the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500: SaaS and cloud stocks, as measured by the Bessemer-Nasdaq index.

Indeed, the BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index was off 8.28% today, closing at 1,134.51. That’s the lowest level that the index has traded at since last October. Putting the basket’s swings into context, the index is just 7% above its 52-week lows, but 21% off its recent highs (52-week range data via the excellent Financial Times).

That means that SaaS and cloud stocks are off the requisite 20% needed to classify as in a bear market. A correction is defined as a 10% decline from recent highs. A bear market is 20%. Other major indices are near the bear market mark, but are still above it. They could easily reach the threshold tomorrow, but SaaS got there first.

What the hell?

It was just three days ago that SaaS stocks approached the correction threshold. Covering that marker earned me some flak on Twitter, as some folks invested in the success of SaaS read the news item as a dis of the category itself. To the contrary, really, SaaS companies are still richly valued — far above historical norms — and it seems unlikely that investors are about to price them more cheaply than other types of companies.

However, what does seem clear is that there is less short-term optimism about SaaS than there was just a few weeks ago, when, in mid-February, companies in the sector set all-time record highs on the public markets. (We’ve been covering the SaaS run for some time now.)

The carnage today was widespread, but not that bad when we take into account resulting revenue multiples. For example:

  • Atlassian was off 7.87% today, but still had a price/sales multiple of over 23, per YCharts data.
  • Slack was off 6.13% today, but had a price/sales multiple at the end of day of 21.24, again according to YCharts.

This doesn’t undercut the pain that public SaaS companies felt today, or the gut-drop that SaaS startups felt as they watched their leading lights get pummeled on the stock market. But SaaS highfliers are still just that, and the whole category is still expensive. So, pour one out, but just one. Another day or two like today, however, and worry becomes a bit more understandable.

Wall Street’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day ends with the Dow down 2,000

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 01:49 PM PDT

At least it’s over.

The markets endured their worst day of trading of this young year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 2,000 points to close at 23,850.79 — a The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 624.94, to close at 7,950.68, and losses to the S&P 500 triggered a temporary halt on trading in the early morning hours. The S&P itself closed down 225.81 at 2,746.56, a

Stocks were set up for a fall on Monday as every major financial indicator turned south.

Oil was down over a scuttled OPEC deal which will now mean that Russia and Saudi Arabia will flood the global oil market with cheap crude. The price war pushed the price of crude down to roughly $30 per barrel.

Meanwhile, markets are still trying to absorb all of the latest news around the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The disease continues to spread in the U.S., with 607 total confirmed cases so far, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Schools are closing, businesses are encouraging their employees to work remotely if they can and nearly everyone is canceling non-essential business travel.

Hits to oil and gas companies and airplane manufacturers were always going to weigh heavily on the Dow. And now there’s an open discussion in the halls of the U.S. government about the possibility for industry bailouts.

That kind of talk doesn’t bode well for the overall health of the U.S. economy, nor do fears over large hits to the nation’s services sector.

And the Federal Reserve has basically flipped all of the switches it possibly can to keep the U.S. economy humming, driving interest rates down to near zero in an effort to encourage investment in the stock market.

None of this seems to be helping, yet. And startups have as much to fear from a market contraction as the rest of the world. Less money flowing in financial markets reflects fewer dollars getting spent in the real world — and more cautious decision-making around how to spend the money a company has.

Wait, you all haven’t been wiping down your smartphones this whole time?

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 01:38 PM PDT

A small consolation in the growing COVID-19 crisis is that some of our moderate germophobia has begun to feel like a minor super power. As I got settled for a cross-country flight last week, I took out my hand wipes and did a whole number on the screen, tray table and arm rests, and this time no one looked at me funny.

I go to a lot of conferences and trade shows and have to shake a lot of hands (though I've taken to the elbow bash in recent weeks) before handling my phone. Years ago, I switched from Purell bottles to hand wipes for two reasons:

  1. Hand sanitizer feels like lacquering the dirt on. This is probably another weird quirk, so do with that what you will.
  2. I touch my phone — and computer — a lot. I almost never leave the house without a product like Wet Ones in my bag. Hell, I included them in a travel gift guide last year. Merry Christmas, Billy, here's the packet of antibacterial wipes you wanted but were too afraid to ask.

For those concerned about damage to your devices, fear not. Apple, which has never been prone to recklessness for such things, just gave disinfecting wipes a green light on its "How to clean your Apple products" that covers Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod, among others.

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces of your Apple product, such as the display, keyboard, or other exterior surfaces. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any opening, and don’t submerge your Apple product in any cleaning agents. Don’t use on fabric or leather surfaces.

iPhones these days sport IP67 or IP68 ratings. If it detects moisture in the Lightning port, it will throw up a "Charging not Available" warning. It's best to avoid getting the port wet if you can, but that's a nice fall back.

So, wipe, wipe away. Assuming, of course, you can still find them.

The dollars and cents of raising VC during the coronavirus pandemic

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 12:29 PM PDT

The novel coronavirus is raging across the planet. Millions are quarantined, the stock market is violently gyrating and one of the preeminent VC firms in the Valley is back to saying RIP Good Times. The daily stream of news is terrifying, and we are going to learn even more in the coming weeks.

For founders, the biggest challenge is inoculating their teams from the vagaries of the market so they can do their jobs, continue building momentum against this market adversity and, ultimately, ensure there is enough cash in the bank to avoid layoffs and sustain their company for growth.

I want to talk today about the money details, saving some of those other topics for future posts. What does VC fundraising look like today? What's going to change in the VC market? What might actually get better about fundraising today than just a few months ago? The daily headlines can be traumatizing, but with the right approach, you can navigate these waters safely.

Volatility affects different VCs differently

Reddit takes on Twitter with its first trending ad product

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 12:27 PM PDT

Reddit, the popular discussion site visited by more than 430 million people per month, is opening up some of its most valuable screen real estate to advertisers with the launch of its first trending ad product, the Trending Takeover. The new ad unit will allow brands to reach visitors on two of the most heavily visited areas of Reddit’s website: the Search tab and the Popular feed.

The ad format allows the brands’ campaigns to run across the largest trends on Reddit’s site for 24 hours, Reddit says. The trends section is where users can see what’s currently buzzing and being discussed across the site, similar to the Trends section on Twitter, which can also be targeted by advertisers.

Reddit already offers advertisers the ability to run campaigns across its site in order to raise brand awareness, drive conversions or generate website traffic, app installs or video views, among other things. But the new Trending Takeover ad product will allow brands to reach even more potential eyeballs, as Reddit says the Popular feed alone is used by a third of the site’s visitors daily, and the Search tab also reaches millions every day.

In addition to the increased visibility, the benefit to this sort of ad format is that a campaign can be designed to align with what’s being talked about in real time during the day it runs. For instance, a brand could run a trending ad on the day their brand became a part of the trending section organically.

According to eMarketer, Reddit was forecast to generate $119 million in net U.S. ad revenues in 2019, giving it a 0.1% of the overall U.S. digital ad market. But the analyst firm believes that figure will more than double, to $261.7 million, by 2021, noting how the company continued to roll out new formats like its autoplay in-stream video, cost-per-click, Top Post Takeover slots and more.

“With millions of searches taking place every day and over one-third of users coming to Reddit's Popular feed daily, brands can now be part of where cultural trends are born online — Reddit,” said Shariq Rizvi, vice president of Ads Product and Engineering at Reddit, in a statement. “For Reddit, a large focus for 2020 is about maximizing new and premium opportunities for brands to authentically engage with Reddit users,” Rizvi added.

In beta tests of Trending Takeover, Reddit worked with more than 15 partners across entertainment, consumer tech, CPG, automotive and QSR verticals, it says, including SpotifyMethod and Adobe. The company claims these early testers saw both an increase in conversions and click-throughout rates that were two times more than industry standards for social.

For example, Method used a combination of hand-picked keywords and its own custom creative on the Trending Takeover landing page and saw click-throughs at over two times industry standards. It also was able to use the format to drive video views with a completion rate of four times that of Reddit’s usual Promoted Posts format. The brand had specifically targeted communities like r/houseplantsr/gardening and r/malelivingspace for a campaign about its household cleaners.

According to a media buyer cited by AdWeek, Promoted Trends on Twitter can cost around $250,000 per day, although pricing is customized. Reddit’s new Trending Takeover ad would probably be a minimum of around $100,000, they estimated. Reddit was not confirming pricing.

Reddit says it’s now selling Trending Takeovers on a reservation, not programmatic, basis. The ads run on both desktop and mobile.

TV advertising didn’t die, it just moved online

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 12:25 PM PDT

The tradition of sitting through a barrage of ads in exchange for being entertained began with radio, flourished with the arrival of television and followed the mass migration online.

As the massive $35 billion in advertising revenue captured by YouTube and Instagram in the last quarter indicated, online advertising around social media, influencers and streamers already represents roughly half of the total amount spent on television advertising at its 2018 peak of $72.4 billion.

Entertainment businesses are under enormous pressure to create new revenue models as linear advertising becomes less relevant to consumers, a potential harbinger for another boom in advertising technology as companies try to keep audiences engaged.

Instagram’s $20 billion advertising haul, first reported by Bloomberg, comes as Alphabet, Google’s parent company, disclosed advertising revenue of $15.1 billion at its YouTube subsidiary for the first time.

Taken together, those figures mean that the market share of advertising commanded by television may shrink to a quarter of all advertising spending sooner than the 2022 prediction from eMarketer, as reported in MarketingLand. While search on Google and Amazon are clear winners — as is Facebook — other technology companies are likely to see a windfall as advertisers chase consumers to new places.

Facebook Stories tests cross-posting to its pet, Instagram

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 12:15 PM PDT

Facebook’s latest colonization of Instagram has begun. Facebook is testing the option to cross-post Stories to Instagram, instead of just vice-versa. Hopefully, that means the two apps will finally sync up the “already viewed” status of cross-posted Stories so we don’t have to watch re-runs any more, as I harped about in January.

If fully launched, the cross-posting feature could save social media managers and average users time while letting them maximize the views on the content they create. It could also give a little boost to the total Stories available on Instagram so its algorithm has more to choose from when ranking what it shows first.

But the change could also been seen as the most invasive injection of parent company Facebook’s identity into Instagram — which has been steadily increasing since Instagram’s co-founders left the company in late 2018 as their autonomy dwindled. Facebook has already pasted an “Instagram – From Facebook” title screen into the photo-sharing app’s boot-up phase, and added an Open Facebook button to its settings menu. Instagram added cross-posting of its Stories to Facebook in October 2017, allowing its parent to piggyback on the popularity of its ephemeral content.

Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status all had 500 million daily users as of a year ago, while Snapchat as a whole has just 218 million users.

The screenshot of the Facebook-to-Instagram cross-posting feature was generated from the Facebook for Android app code by Jane Manchun Wong. She’s the renowned reverse engineering expert who has furnished TechCrunch with tips on dozens of unreleased features that went on to officially launch. When you’ve shot a Facebook Story and are about to post it, you can tap Privacy to review who you’re sharing with. In addition to the Public, Friends, Custom and Hide From options, Facebook is testing a Share To Instagram toggle that appears to turn on continuous cross-posting of that post and future ones.

A Facebook spokesperson tells me that the company is now formally testing the cross-posting feature to make it easier to share moments with the people who matter to you, as people might have different audiences and followers on Facebook versus Instagram. Facebook will continue to explore options for simplifying and improving how Stories work across its apps. That means it’s out of the internal-only prototyping phase and is now being tested with users in the wild.

With any luck, Facebook and Instagram will eventually sync up data about which Stories you’ve watched on either app, and avoid showing you exact copies of ones you’ve already seen. I made my case for this to Instagram’s leadership at a recent press dinner, noting how reruns waste hundreds of millions of people’s time and lead them to close Stories or the app altogether. I asked Facebook about that specifically; they declined to comment.

Creating two-way interoperability of Stories is a precursor to Facebook’s efforts to unify its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct chat features. That could extend end-to-end encryption across the apps, protecting messages from prying eyes. But there’s been government grumbling about how encryption could hide the activity of criminals, and some see intertwining the chat features as a way to make it harder for regulators to break up Facebook.

Coursedog lands $4.2 million to make class scheduling smarter

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:58 AM PDT

Two years ago, dormmates Justin Wenig and Nicholas Diao struggled to get into a popular computer science class at Columbia University . The duo eventually got into that class, but after the initial frustration around class scheduling, they decided "it was an obvious problem for a computer to solve."

Wenig and Diao are the founders of Coursedog, a software startup that wants to create an operating system for universities to better schedule classes, professors and sections based on demand and interest. “Think of it,” Wenig said, “as a Superhuman for class scheduling systems.”

Today, Coursedog announced it has raised $4.2 million from a crop of investors, including First Round's Josh Kopelman. The company did not disclose any other investors, and there were no board seats taken on during the financing round. The Y Combinator graduate's total known venture capital funding is now $5.7 million. Investors in the company include FoundersX Venture, EFund and Jinal Jhaveri, the former CEO of SchoolMint, a school enrollment startup.

The funding will be used to build out Coursedog's product line on projecting course demand, the correct number of seats a school should offer per course and student success.

"A lot of people think higher [education] is a slow institution, but institutions are really thinking about how to promote student success," Wenig said in an interview with TechCrunch. But instead of adopting any technology, universities are careful about sharing protected data, he continued.

Competition-wise, Wenig said that Blackboard, a learning management startup, continues to be one of the two "big software tools within universities." Coursedog sits on top of the other software tool: the student information system, used by administrators that need to plan student schedules.

After Wenig and Diao cold-called hundreds of colleges, Columbia Law School was the first contract signed. Since then, the startup has landed deals with more than 60 colleges and universities of all sizes.

Coursedog's clientele fits a range. The smallest client, per Wenig, is the Laguna School of Art and Design, which has roughly 600 students. Wenig also noted they cater to a mix of public and private schools, with public schools often "being the most innovative."

"A lot of states offer incentive-based funding," Wenig said. "In Utah, the amount of funds you might get from the state as a public institution is directly proportional to how well you're using your space on campus." He claims that Coursedog helps improve graduation rates by getting more students into the right classes.

“Today, we are just building apps on top of the Student Information System to help schools with scheduling, curriculum planning and catalog publishing and are slowly eating away functionality that schools would normally be doing with spreadsheets and native to the SIS,” he noted.

Coursedog plans to scale to 100 more universities in the next year, and will use the new funding to help "grow up" its production.

The risky first transatlantic flight of a Reaper drone

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:57 AM PDT

The Royal Air Force delayed safety warnings about the first transatlantic flight of a new Reaper aircraft in 2018, over fears that they could tip anti-drone protestors to its arrival in the U.K., according to emails seen by TechCrunch.

On July 11, 2018, the General Atomics SkyGuardian, a variant of the U.S. Reaper drone that killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in January, flew from Grand Forks, N.D., to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. This was the first and only time that a drone had made such a journey through U.K. civilian airspace, and it paved the way for an even more ambitious test due to happen in the U.S. later this month. 

The 5.5-metric ton aircraft was remotely piloted throughout its 24-hour journey using satellite communications to relay video, instrument data and air traffic control instructions to pilots at General Atomics' airbase in North Dakota. 

The historic flight, which passed directly over Hereford and Gloucester, concluded without incident at RAF Fairford, where the drone went on static display during the Royal International Air Tattoo, a military air show. 

General Atomics chief executive Linden Blue said: "The successful flight of the [SkyGuardian] is the culmination of the hard work and innovation of our dedicated employees, and the strong relationships that we enjoy with the RAF, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Royal International Air Tattoo and our U.K. industry partners."

However, emails obtained under U.K. Freedom of Information legislation, and first reported by The Guardian, show that those relationships were tenuous at best, with the CAA distrusting General Atomics, questioning the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of the SkyGuardian and facing sustained pressure from the Ministry of Defence to delay safety measures. 

The CAA, the U.K.'s aviation regulator, supplied more than 1,600 pages of emails regarding the flight. All were heavily redacted, including most names and job titles. 

Plan for the final leg of the SkyGuardian's transatlantic flight, travelling between Ireland and England, then flying over Wales to land at Fairford airbase (Credit: General Atomics/CAA)

It is unclear who first suggested a high-profile transatlantic Reaper flight to mark the RAF's centenary and showcase the new drone at the Air Tattoo. But by early February, the CAA was already warning of pressure from the military to allow the flight. 

"We will need to be fully satisfied that the flight can be conducted in a safe manner before we will approve this," wrote a CAA manager to Mark Swan, then the regulator's director of Safety. "Note that there is likely to be extensive interest from MoD sources… and hence some higher level pressure focussed on the CAA for this flight to take place."

That is because the RAF is in the process of procuring 20 next-generation Reaper drones from General Atomics in a deal worth more than £1.1 billion (US$1.4 billion). These drones, which the RAF will call Protector, are a military version of the SkyGuardian that undertook the transatlantic flight. 

The RAF already has 10 Reaper drones, a larger and more heavily armed variant of the Predator. Since 2008, these have been used to carry out hundreds of deadly strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. While these drones are remotely controlled by RAF pilots in Nevada and Lincolnshire, the Reapers are not allowed to share civilian airspace with passenger jets. This means that they have to be based very near to where they operate — an expensive and limiting requirement.

A drone like the SkyGuardian that could fly amid commercial aircraft for many thousands of miles would enable the RAF to attack targets across much of the world from the bases in Britain. "A drone that can fly in a civilian airspace is so much more versatile," says Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

When the Protector drones enter service in the U.K. in 2024, they will carry two British-made weapons: a GPS- and laser-guided bomb called the Paveway IV; and a semi-autonomous missile called Brimstone. Although the transatlantic drone would be unarmed, the RAF saw it as a potentially lucrative sales demonstration for other countries. 

"The eyes of a number of potential customer nations such as [Australia] and [Canada] will be on the event and the outcome could be significant for UK prosperity," wrote the RAF's program manager for Protector in an internal email to the MoD.

The CAA was skeptical from the outset. "The general impression of General Atomics… is that they will try to ‘push the limits’ and over promise in many areas," wrote a safety official in March. "We need to tread really carefully on this one – the fact that MoD is involved is not a reason for us to roll over and just let this happen."

The regulator's concerns were simple. How would the aircraft know where it was? How would pilots thousands of miles away know what was happening around the drone? And how could they ensure they had control of it at all times? 

The CAA has an exhaustive procedure for assessing the safety of aircraft, and another long list of requirements for allowing drones to take to the skies above Britain. There was no way that the SkyGuardian could be properly tested by the U.K. regulator in a few short months before the planned flight in July.

Instead, General Atomics could apply for an overflight exemption — permission for a single flight on a given day. This exemption would rely on another credible organisation attesting to the airworthiness of the aircraft, in this case, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The problem was that the FAA had itself placed severe limits on how and where the SkyGuardian could operate. It usually required the SkyGuardian to have a visual observer spotting for the drone from a nearby chase plane whenever it was below 18,000 feet. The FAA also banned the drone from flying over most densely populated areas. 

"I do not really see how such limitations would… allow the aircraft to commence the first part of its flight out of the United States, let alone over Canada and then into the oceanic system," wrote a CAA safety official to General Atomics. "The limitation regarding overflight of densely populated areas… will bring in additional problems within the UK (which is already quite densely populated)."

For its part, the FAA insisted that its authority finished at the edge of American airspace. "Whether manned or unmanned, [we] cannot provide any sort of safety statement that would ensure safe operations in UK airspace," wrote an FAA official to the CAA in March. 

"If General Atomics can't get the FAA to back up the safety of the aircraft, then why should we be letting it into our airspace?," wondered one CAA official. 

It seemed as though the same thought had occurred to authorities in Ireland. The shortest route for many transatlantic flights between the U.S. and the U.K. is directly across Ireland. However, a track of the SkyGuardian's route shows a distinct kink to keep the drone out over the Atlantic and the Irish Sea.

In April, a CAA airspace official reported a phone call with their counterpart at the Irish Aviation Authority: "I explained why the decision was made to route south of Irish landmass… However, due to how the Irish will be segregating the airspace and in addition to the commercial traffic routing across the Atlantic, they have requested that [SkyGuardian] now routes [even] further south."

In aviation, segregation is when an aircraft does not fly in close proximity to other planes but instead has a corridor carved out for its sole use. Although General Atomics' ultimate aim is for the SkyGuardian (and the RAF's Protector) to use advanced sensors to autonomously detect and avoid hazards, the entire transatlantic flight would take place in segregated airspace, at least several miles from other aircraft. 

Even so, the FAA would have had to adjust the SkyGuardian's domestic certification to allow it to fly over cities, and without a chase plane. "In its current format and limitations there is not a lot the CAA can do with this," wrote a CAA official. "We need to sit down and discuss this, as there are political forces at play here and [we are] getting a lot of pressure from the MoD."

Eventually, the FAA relented, relaxing the SkyGuardian's restrictions for the transatlantic flight. It does not appear that the CAA had any say in setting those conditions, which were redacted in the CAA emails. However, the drone flew directly over the city of Gloucester and did not have a chase plane. 

Following a meeting about the proposed flight in early June, one CAA official reported that the regulator was "simply taking the FAA’s experimental certification and ‘anglicising’ it."

Now that the flight seemed as if it would actually happen, attention within the RAF and CAA shifted to public relations.

Although the SkyGuardian would be displayed at the Air Tattoo with British bombs and missiles, the RAF wanted the flight and SkyGuardian to sound as innocuous as possible. RAF High Command edited an article intended for the defence publication Jane's to remove references to the SkyGuardian's large weapons load and its ability to "greatly [compress] the sensor to shooter kill-chain between detection and an armed response." 

"I have cut out the weapons bit as this detracts from the article and moves focus from the achievement of the flight to how easily we can kill people," wrote an RAF officer. The same officer also added a paragraph about how the SkyGuardian could provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, coastal surveys, search and rescue and even monitor flood defences.

"This is all part of the narrative that [remote piloted aircraft] are a good thing and I am keen to keep the wind out of the anti-drone lobby sails," he wrote. 

General Atomics was now excited to announce the upcoming flight as quickly as possible. But on June 11, a CAA official noted that a press release from General Atomics had been blocked by the MoD "due to concerns about the potential for “anti (military) drone” protests hampering the arrival at Fairford if the flight is publicised too early."

A week later, the MoD suggested that the CAA only announce the 4,300-mile transatlantic crossing just six days before the flight itself.  

"We have significant concerns this is too late," complained a CAA official to Mark Swan, its head of safety. "[We] endeavour to provide at least 60 days' notification of large airspace restrictions to notify other airspace users… The longer we leave to notify, the higher the risk of airspace infringements."

A particular worry was a British Gliding Association competition scheduled to take place just 10 miles from the SkyGuardian's airspace on the day of its flight. If one of the gliders should stray into the drone's path, it could risk a catastrophic collision. 

"Sadly, I have had a huge kickback from the RAF regarding going public," wrote another CAA official. "I have been informed that the RAF [is trying to] delay this as long as possible…. Patience is running thin thanks to the MoD."

Ultimately, the CAA disregarded the military's concerns, and issued its airspace warning at the end of June. Only one decision was left to be made: What should the SkyGuardian be called?

One CAA airspace expert suggested calling it nothing at all, with the warning vaguely referencing "a civilian aircraft, certificated and registered through the FAA… to mitigate the risk of anti-drones protests for [the] MoD."

Another CAA official agreed that the word “drone” should be avoided wherever possible. "[We can] refer to it as either an Unmanned Aircraft or as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft… I believe the terminology of 'drone' does not fit this aircraft for a number of reasons."

RAF High Command concurred, with an RAF officer writing: "It is clear from our teamwork that we are all consistent and clear on each other's priorities moving forward, particularly with the incorrect use of 'drone'."

Experimental SkyGuardian drone flying over the UK on the first ever transatlantic drone flight through civilian airspace (Credit: General Atomics)

At last, the CAA and the RAF could agree on something. Whatever flew uncrewed from America to Britain, with its remote pilot, satellite control and ability to carry multiple precision-guided weapons, it certainly wasn't a drone. 

The flight itself went pretty much to plan. The SkyGuardian took off from Grand Forks just after midday on 10 July, and flew through the night at 27,000 feet over Canada and the North Atlantic on a meticulously charted route. Pilots in North Dakota, controlling the SkyGuardian in shifts, connected with U.S., Canadian, Irish and British air traffic controllers. 

Arriving off the coast of Wales, the SkyGuardian descended into a holding pattern above Cirencester before coming in to land at Fairford, using an automated landing system. There were no anti-drone protestors waiting to greet it. 

After the Tattoo was over, the SkyGuardian was dismantled and flown back to the U.S. as cargo, its mission complete. 

In January 2019, General Atomics announced that defense contractor BAE Systems was developing a plan for regular RAF Protector operations in U.K. civilian airspace. In November, the Australian government announced that it would spend $1.3 billion Australian dollars (£670 million) to acquire a fleet of SkyGuardians as its next unmanned aerial vehicle. Canada and Greece are also reported to be considering purchasing the aircraft. 

But the jewel in the crown for General Atomics is the U.S. market. On March 23, a SkyGuardian equipped with an experimental autonomous detect-and-avoid system and a cutting-edge surveillance radar will take to the skies above Southern California, fully integrated with normal air traffic control for the first time. According to a filing with the FCC, it will fly for over 100 miles, conducting aerial inspection and surveillance of "critical infrastructure owned by commercial and civil entities."

"This type of commercial mission has never been done with a [drone] anywhere in the United States," wrote General Atomics. "It is a first of its kind and will serve as a proof of concept for future… missions."

If the test goes well, military and commercial Reapers and SkyGuardians could soon start flying over U.S. cities, either on their way to foreign war zones, or with their tireless digital eyes gathering data on America itself. 

Facebook flags Biden video from Trump’s social media director as ‘partly false’

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:35 AM PDT

The disinformation wars are heating up as the U.S. barrels toward the 2020 presidential election, leaving tech companies again uncomfortable in the role of referee.

On Monday, Facebook joined Twitter in flagging a video shared by White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, marking it as “partly false” and limiting its ability to spread on the platform. In the video, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden warns about the potential of reelecting Trump, but the viral clip is edited down to a portion that misleadingly makes it sound as though Biden is endorsing Trump.

“Fact-checkers rated this video as partly false, so we are reducing its distribution and showing warning labels with more context for people who see it, try to share it, or already have,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “As we announced last year, the same applies if a politician shares the video, if it was otherwise fact checked when shared by others on Facebook.”

Over the weekend, President Trump retweeted the video to his 73.5 million Twitter followers, stating “I agree with Joe!”

On Twitter, Scavino insisted “The video was NOT manipulated,” agreeing with a tweet that argued all clips on Facebook would meet the same criteria.

Flagging the video sets an interesting precedent, particularly given that last month both platforms declined to act on a deceptively edited video depicting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripping up President Trump’s state of the union address. While Pelosi did in fact rip up the address, the video misrepresented the order of events, misleadingly showing Pelosi shredding the speech as Trump honored members of the military.

At the time, Facebook Policy Communications lead Andy Stone aggressively defended Facebook’s decision to let the video spread in a testy exchange with Pelosi Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill, who argued that every day Facebook declined to remove the video “is another reminder that they care more about their shareholders' interests than the public's interests.” Stone’s response at the time was combative.

TechCrunch has reached out to both platforms to clarify how the Biden video violates their policies while the Pelosi video did not.

As Biden’s campaign ramps after a much-needed shot in the arm from Super Tuesday, the internet is rife with videos of the former vice president’s many gaffes. While critics leverage Biden’s stumbles as evidence that he is unfit for the presidency, an interview earlier this year revealed that at least some of his occasionally faltering speech is likely a result of a lifelong stutter, a disorder characterized by disruptions to the flow of speech.

In a statement prior to Facebook’s decision to label the video on Monday, Biden Campaign Manager Greg Schultz slammed Facebook’s “malfeasance” around disinformation. “Facebook won’t say it, but it is apparent to all who have examined their conduct and policies: they care first and foremost about money and, to that end, are willing to serve as one of the world’s most effective mediums for the spread of vile lies.”

Apple could add mouse cursor support to the iPad

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:24 AM PDT

According to a report from 9to5mac, Apple could be working on full cursor support for the next major version of iOS and iPadOS. The report is based on code of an early version of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14.

If Apple ships that new feature, it means that you'll be able to use a Bluetooth mouse or trackpad with your iPad to move a cursor around the screen. It would work pretty much like a mouse on a desktop computer.

Apple has already added basic support for an external mouse in the current version of iPadOS. It can be enabled in the Accessibility settings. But it basically mimics a finger on the screen.

With full cursor support, you can expect your cursor to change when you hover over a link, for instance. You could right click on some elements, as well.

According to this early version of iOS 14, the cursor will disappear after a few seconds if you don't move the mouse. It reappears when you move the mouse again. On a Mac, the cursor disappears when you start typing text.

There are also multiple signs that seem to indicate that Apple is working on a new Smart Keyboard for the iPad and trackpad shortcuts — tap to click, tap with two fingers to right click, etc. It could mean that the next Smart Keyboard will feature a trackpad below the keyboard.

Although iOS and iPadOS share the same code base, I wouldn't expect cursor support on the iPhone. Cursor support seems to be particularly useful on a bigger screen, such as the iPad. You can also connect the most recent iPad Pro models to an external monitor thanks to its USB-C port.

In 2017, with iOS 11, Apple brought many design metaphors from the Mac to the iPad. The company introduced a Dock at the bottom of the screen as well as a new Files app. iOS still feels like a completely different operating system from macOS. But it is interesting to see that some important desktop features also work quite well on an iPad.

MSCHF’s latest stunt is to pirate video from Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ and maybe build a brand

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:06 AM PDT

It's very likely that you don't know MSCHF. It's also likely that you've come across one of their wild-ass projects. From "Jesus Shoes" filled with holy water to a collar that lets your dog finally tell you what it thinks about you to IRL loot crates that dare you not to open them — MSCHF has been launching highly viral stunts for the past year or so.

Hell, they even got a vanity piece in the Times while they're still ascendant. Pure magic, given how famous the NYT has been at times for its ability to catch viral trends on the downslope.

The latest stunt officially launches tomorrow (today for early adopter fans that subscribed via text). It's a "pirate video" station called Allthestreams.fm and it's live now.

The premise is that MSCHF has picked up subscriptions to Hulu, Disney+, Netflix, HBONow, Prime Video and Showtime and it is broadcasting a continuous stream of one random program from each, live to anyone who hits the site. At time of publish, more than 100,000 people are currently watching one of the “channels.”

There’s even a pirate radio-esque commercial interstitial that will surprise you if you watch long enough.

If you're wondering whether this is legal, well, so did I. "We have a standard check with these types of things. Doesn't mean it's legal per se, but it means the risk profile is acceptable to us," says Daniel Greenberg, one of MSCHF's founding team.

The goal, Greenberg explained in a chat last week, is not to launch a product or company but instead to build a brand that stands for…something. Even MSCHF isn't quite sure what that will be, though, by design.

Hell, even when asked to provide a succinct summary of what the fuck MSCHF actually is, Greenberg pushes back.

"MSCHF is a multi-angled mirror. Whenever we release something, people see different reflections of the same thing."

I can't actually argue, because even the latest stunt defies definition. MSCHF doesn't earn anything from it, it's a free stream. Though they have made money off of previous goods releases like the shoes or boxes, the goal is decidedly not to make money right now and instead to spend a great deal of it.

Though they're reluctant to talk about it, MSCHF has raised $11.5 million in venture led by Laura Chau at Canaan Partners, and others. Money that they seem intent on burning.

The MSCHF plan of attach (yes, attach) is based on a key ideal: that one of the strongest stances any brand could have is "no matter what."

No matter what they sell, what road they take you down or how weird it is, you're in. Even if an offering isn't for you, you'll be there when it is.

This thinking isn't super rare these days, though the anarchist viral experiment framework is a new application.

The thought process behind modern brand building is becoming centered around the idea that the audience should come first, providing a reason for the product.

Influencer culture is probably the shorthand people would use the most, but being known for something and then using that to build out a durable direct-to-consumer brand is becoming vital for small creators and entrepreneurs that know that their conduit to their consumer is as fickle as the platforms they sit on. One too many references to reefer or sex and their livelihood could go poof. Not so much if your audience will follow you wherever you go.

A new cluster of slow food brand builders is carving out their own path to this durability.

Even more so as the ad business becomes a media business. Though MSCHF is very decidedly not yet a merchandise brand, it absolutely has marketed and sold merchandise — extremely effectively too.

But that ability to do so came from not trying to build any real business at all. MSCHF is, by Greenberg's own admission, just spending money to create attention. No more, no less. What sets it apart from any other marketing effort, in my opinion, is the tone-perfect nature of those experiments.

The average MSCHF stunt (that's what they are, for sure) is funny, hotly traded in a particular vertical or ideally across several verticals — that have high audience counts and a natural tendency to amplify. The biggest hits of the company so far have traded on the base powers of the internet, like pets and profanity — but every one of them has something super interesting going on.

Each idea comes out of a regular weekly meeting that the team has to throw out potential ideas. They're then picked out and refined over weeks or months and “dropped” in a manner that resembles limited-edition streetwear or collectibles. Every ounce of a MSCHF stunt is viral muscle, no fat. And every one of them goes over like crazy on the ‘net.

Even the ideals that surround each experiment are loosely held. The cleverness evident here is that by defining the goals too clearly you lose the ability for people to attach their own personal vibes and therefore get invested.

"Streaming is a mass common denominator," Greenberg offers by way of reason for this particular drop. "We all use it. We all have feelings on it. We all hate paying more and more for it. Why not now?"

There are some interesting things about this particular experiment that bear some pondering, outside of the stunt-based brand building apparatus that MSCHF has set up. In poking around at it I found myself watching several of the brands’ “hot” shows that I never actually got around to seeing.

A “random” button could actually be a nice advertisement for content (Netflix tested a random shuffle feature last year) for any streaming platform, given the well-documented issues people have picking something to watch.

There's also the side-by-side comparison that you get to draw between the plans of attack of the various entities. Disney is BRAND FIRST, Netflix is new money premium content, Showtime is mostly old with a couple really good ones and HBO is the grandaddy trying to stay relevant.

For what it's worth, there's also an interesting side point here in how they gather zero data on watching behavior other than pure traffic — and given MSCHF's repertoire, the side point is probably also a point.

But, as with all of MSCHF's projects, the takeaways may just be the things I'm bringing to the table.

That interchange of ideas is one of the things that sets MSCHF apart from a lot of brands that have manufactured interest in their products. It generates brand loyalty no matter what is being sold — which in turn results in durability.

One guarantee is that whatever MSCHF drops next, a metric ton of people are going to be interested. No matter what.

Calmer You fills in the gaps in meditation apps for anxiety sufferers

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 11:03 AM PDT

Meditation and mindfulness apps are booming. The top 10 apps pulled in $195 million in 2019, up 52% from the year before. Now, top meditation app Headspace’s former head of research, Nick Begley, is launching a new app that goes beyond mindfulness to specifically address the needs of those suffering from anxiety. The app, called Calmer You, offers a combination of activities, including not only guided meditation, but also journaling, cognitive behavioral therapy coursework and other health and wellness material.

The latter includes things like fitness videos, sleep stories and interviews with celebrities and inspirational people on their experiences with anxiety, among other things.

Begley worked for Headspace for two years, where he learned about the power of meditation apps to aid with self-development, he says.

“I realized that it doesn’t have to be limited to just mindfulness,” explains Begley, as to how he got started with Calmer You. “There’s so much good advice out there, but just passively digesting it — watching videos or reading books — which is what most of us do when we want to improve, simply doesn't deliver the changes that they promise,” Begley says.

The problem isn’t that the advice isn’t good — it typically is. But people struggle with putting the advice into action, Begley says. That’s where Calmer You aims to help.

The app includes a few different components, including a 28-session course that helps guide you step-by-step to better understanding anxiety and helping to learn techniques to manage it. This includes cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, compassion-focused therapy, analytic techniques and more. In addition, there’s a toolkit with more than 50 quicker practices that are recommended based on how you’re feeling in a given moment or whatever situation you may be in. A journal for tracking how you feel day-by-day is available, as well.

Customers subscribe to the app for $7.99 per month or $47.99 per year.

“We didn’t specifically aim to fill the gaps of Headspace, but this is what users have mentioned,” Begley says. “A lot of people find it hard to regularly meditate, and so we wanted to provide tools and practices — in addition to mindfulness — to help people with anxiety. We wanted to provide a premium quality app experience that provides a more comprehensive approach to specifically helping manage anxiety and the many ways in which it manifests,” he adds.

Calmer You was developed in collaboration with anxiety expert and author Chloe Brotheridge, whose book “The Anxiety Solution: A Quieter Mind, a Calmer You” contributes to the app’s name. The team was familiar with Brotheridge’s book and reached out to her to see if she would be open to building an app based on her actionable advice.

This is a part of Calmer You’s parent company PSYT’s agenda — turning self-help books into apps.

The Calmer You team, via PSYT, also includes psychologists. But the app itself isn’t yet validated through things like randomized control trials, for example. That’s something they’d like to do further down the road, however.

Calmer You is also more geared toward women, as much of Brotheridge’s own work was particularly focused on anxiety’s impact on young women.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with anxiety and I had to work out what worked best for me,” said Brotheridge. “This is why as a therapist, I teach people many different techniques so they can find what works best for them, not just mindfulness. While it took a lot of work to include multiple approaches in the app, I think it's essential to help empower people to find the practices that work best for them and their situation,” she says.

Since the app’s launch into beta testing in November 2019, the company has been adding tools to respond to what users said they needed help with, including two new “rebalancing” tools (one for calming social anxiety, another to help communicate confidently), a worry journal for evening use and several more guided meditations and sleep stories.

The app shouldn’t be used instead of visiting a doctor for severe cases of anxiety, but could be slotted into a user’s routine if they’re already using a meditation app, like Headspace, to aid with feelings of anxiety on a regular basis.

Calmer You is a free download on iOS with a subscription business model.

HireSweet helps employers find candidates that aren’t actively looking to change jobs

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 10:48 AM PDT

The right candidate to fill your job may not actually be looking for a job right now. HireSweet, which is part of Y Combinator’s current class of startups, is trying to help companies find exactly these candidates that are perfect for a job but not actively looking.

Like so many other recruiting platforms, the HireSweet team started working on an assessment tool but then realized that the problem companies were facing wasn’t really assessment, it was scouring the right candidates.

“So we moved a bit higher on the value chain and we moved to help companies source engineers,” HireSweet co-founder and CEO Robin Choy told me. “And what’s really interesting on the market is that most people are not actively looking for a job. StackOverflow’s figures show that 15% of candidates will move after applying to a position and 60% are open to new opportunities but never actively looking for a job.”

To recruit these candidates, companies first have to identify these passive candidates and then essentially apply to them, the same way a candidate would apply to a job. Traditionally, recruiters have been doing this manually, by looking at LinkedIn and GitHub — or by outsourcing this work to agencies.

What HireSweet is doing is automating this process. Its systems search the web for public profiles of potential job candidates, then send that info to employers. As Choy noted, though, this isn’t just about saving time. “Thanks to that massive [amount] of information, we’re able to detect patterns that a human would miss. So we do know, for instance, when somebody updates their LinkedIn resume or when there is a discrepancy between their LinkedIn resume and their GitHub activity, which proves that they may be interested in changing technologies,” he said.

The company promises significantly better accuracy, compared to competitors. Choy argues that some of its customers are seeing about 80% accuracy, which HireSweet defines as having an 80% contact rate for the candidates it shows. And while some of the company’s tech stack involves machine learning, a lot of it also still involved good-old regular expressions (after all, if a resume says somebody is a “freelancer,” there’s no need to build an algorithm that predicts that this person is indeed a freelancer).

HireSweet also takes a very hands-on approach with onboarding new customers. “We always get people on the phone with a company — Superhuman-style — because we want to really understand what the company is looking for,” Choy explained. “That’s also a very specific learning that we had in the last few years: public job descriptions are very rarely the actual job descriptions of the person they will be hiring. So we spent a lot of time talking to the company.”

Because virtually all companies already offer recruiting tools, HireSweet offers a number of integrations with these, and Choy tells me that team plans to expand on this to allow for more and deeper integrations.

HireSweet started working on this product about three and a half years ago and then raised about $1.5 million two and a half years ago. Today, the Paris -based company has 30 employees, and its customers now include the likes of BlaBlaCar, Dashlane and Nokia. After mostly focusing on the European market, the team is now working on expanding to the U.S. market, where it now has about 100 customers. This also meant adapting the system to the way U.S. companies recruit and how employees move between jobs, which changes quite a bit between countries. Choy noted that the team will likely focus its roadmap on the U.S. going forward and then bring those innovations to Europe over time.

Sequoia is giving away $21 million to a payments startup it recently funded as it walks away from deal

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 10:31 AM PDT

In the world of venture capital, where trust between investors and founders is paramount to the success of both, investing in a company that competes with another startup in a firm’s portfolio is a no-no. Still, in a case that takes this understanding to a brow-raising extreme, Sequoia Capital has, for the first time in its history, parted ways with a newly funded company over a purported conflict of interest and, almost more shockingly, handed back its board seat, its information rights, its shares and its full investment.

It wasn’t a small check. According to sources close to the situation, it just gave up $21 million.

Candidly, we’re still trying to piece together what we might be missing, but what we know so far: This morning, Finix, a payments infrastructure company that was founded four years ago in San Francisco, told its roughly 70 employees that Sequoia — which led the company’s $35 million Series B round in early winter — is separating itself from the startup.

The reason, Finix told employees: Sequoia concluded soon after issuing its check that Finix competes too directly with Stripe, the payments company that represents one of Sequoia’s biggest private holdings currently and that in turn counts Sequoia as its one of its biggest outside investors.

As a result of Sequoia allowing Finix to keep its capital (thus materially strengthening Finix’s balance sheet), earlier backers in Finix — led by Inspired Capital of New York and including PSP Growth and others — have invested an additional $10 million in the company, which has now raised $65 million in capital altogether.

As part of the new arrangement, Penny Pritzker, who co-founded Inspired Capital and is the founder and chairman of PSP Partners, has joined the board of Finix.

Pritzker’s Inspired Capital co-founder, Alexa von Tobel, has meanwhile joined as a board observer.

On the one hand, Finix and its stakeholders can’t be happy to be losing Sequoia and the sheen associated with an investment from the firm. At the same time, having a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce join one’s board could go a long way in ensuring its continued momentum.

More obviously, who could complain about $21 million in free money?

Well, who other than Sequoia’s investors, perhaps. Though we’d presume the firm won’t lose anyone’s financial support over this apparent flub, given the outsize returns it has produced over the years, the entire situation is strange to say the least, and we’d guess that Sequoia’s limited partners — even if they stay silent — can’t be pleased about it.

For starters, it’s difficult to understand how Sequoia could have only realized after making the investment that Finix and Stripe compete on some level — and might do so increasingly over time.

Finix has told TechCrunch before that, unlike Stripe, it doesn’t think of itself as a payments company but rather a payment infrastructure company. Most notably, it likes to note that it doesn’t take a percentage of transaction fees but instead charges customers a monthly software fee, along with a sliding fee associated with the number of payments they process. Yet Stripe has a product, Stripe Connect, that operates much the same way and has since its debut in 2013.

Indeed, while a source close to the situation suggests that Sequoia moved too quickly on this one (Finix was evidently seen as a hot ticket after a conference appearance last fall), all it would have taken was a few conversations with Stripe to conclude that the two companies are chasing after the same customers in some cases.

Asked about its due diligence process, Sequoia — which has never backed out of an announced deal before in its 48-year history — declined to comment.

The firm instead sent us a statement by Pat Grady, the Sequoia partner behind the deal, that reads: “While we'd previously concluded that Finix was not a direct competitor to any existing portfolio companies, after making the investment we came across a variety of small data points that collectively painted a different picture of the market. This decision had nothing to do with Finix, and everything to do with Sequoia's desire to honor our commitments. It is incredibly difficult to part ways with Richie, Sean, and their team at Finix. They are exceptional people and leaders, and their future is bright.”

A spokesperson for Stripe who was asked whether Stripe and Sequoia discussed its investment in Finix at any point, also declined to comment.

Beyond this somewhat baffling explanation, of course, is the investment itself. While Sequoia might have wanted to disentangle itself from Finix in the most painless possible way for both outfits, it’s hard to understand why it felt compelled to give away $21 million — money that institutions like Stanford and hospitals give to Sequoia to invest on their behalf.

It isn’t like Sequoia committed a crime. Surely, too, there were other alternatives. For example, it might have converted the capital to debt and enabled Finix to pay it back at a low — even zero — percent interest rate. It could have told Finix to keep a quarter — or even half — of the capital as a kind of generous break-up fee.

While we’re still puzzling over this one, Finix suggests it has already moved on from the saga — and, given its much stronger financial footing, it’s no wonder.

Asked about what happened exactly, the company sent over a statement from its founder and CEO, Richie Serna, about its excitement about the future and the strengthened involvement of Inspired Capital. As for Sequoia, Serna’s statement says that, "While the changes to our relationship with Sequoia were unexpected, we've never been more fired up about the future of Finix and our position in the market. We appreciate Sequoia's speed in dealing with this situation and respect their commitment to doing what's right for their portfolio companies. They have been transparent and helpful throughout this process.”

Talkspace threatened to sue a security researcher over bug report

Posted: 09 Mar 2020 09:37 AM PDT

A security researcher said he was forced to take down a blog post describing an apparent bug in Talkspace’s website that gave him a year’s subscription for free, after the company rejected his findings and sent the researcher a legal threat.

John Jackson said he was able to sign up to Talkspace, a popular therapy app, as if he were an employee at one of the companies whose health insurance plans covers Talkspace’s services. Some of these sign-up links are found in Google search results, some of which aren’t advertised on the company’s website.

But Jackson said he found little to no evidence that the sign-up page verifies that a user is eligible for the free year-long subscription.

Jackson tested his theory by creating an account. A month later, the account is still active, he said.

Jackson’s case is just the latest example of security researchers facing legal threats for their work. Months ago, aerospace security researcher Chris Kubecka said she was threatened by Boeing after finding a security issue on a plane. Two security researchers were also prosecuted last year amid claims they overstepped the limits of their penetration test at an Iowa courthouse. The case was later dropped.

Talkspace does not offer a way for security researchers to submit bugs. With help from TechCrunch, the researcher contacted Talkspace to warn of the potential bug, fearing that malicious hackers or users could be abusing the system and claiming free therapy. But the company rejected the claims, telling Jackson that it has “multiple internal processes in place to protect against abuses,” without providing specifics.

Within hours of Jackson publishing his findings on his blog — which TechCrunch has seen — Talkspace sent Jackson a cease and desist letter, accusing the researcher of defaming Talkspace “by broadcasting untruths” in his blog post.

“In no instance would Talkspace charge an enterprise partner or a health plan for services rendered to a user not deemed eligible by that partner,” said the letter, signed and sent by Talkspace general counsel John Reilly.

“This letter is formal notice to cease and desist, as well as immediately retract such statements with clarification to your blatant and damaging misstatements,” said the letter. “Failure to do so will result in further and immediate legal action.”

When reached, Talkspace would not say on the record what its anti-fraud mechanisms are, or if or how many fraudulent incidents it has discovered, only that the sign-up program is “designed in collaboration with each partner based upon their individual objectives,” said Gil Margolin, Talkspace’s chief technical officer.

We’ve published the cease and desist letter. The letter did not address the technical claims made by Jackson in his blog post.

When reached, Talkspace spokesperson JoAnna Di Tullio deferred comment to Reilly, who repeated the claims from his letter, that the company is “well aware of how we structure our employer relationships and secure eligibility for our services,” and described Jackson’s blog post as “pure defamation” and “utterly untrue.”

Many companies nowadays embrace security researchers by offering bug reporting programs, which reward or pay researchers for finding security flaws and other bugs that could otherwise go unreported and exploited by malicious hackers.

Other companies, like Dropbox, Mozilla and Tesla, go further by offering “safe harbor” provisions by promising not to take legal action against researchers who act in good faith.


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