posted about 7 hours ago on techcrunch
YouTube will demonetize channels that promote anti-vaccination views, after a report by BuzzFeed News found ads, including from health companies, running before anti-vax videos. The platform will also place a new information panel that links to the Wikipedia entry on “vaccine hesitancy” before anti-vax videos. Information panels (part of YouTube’s efforts to combat misinformation) about the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine had already appeared in front of anti-vaccination videos that mentioned it. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a YouTube spokesperson said “we have strict policies that govern what videos we allow ads to appear on, and videos that promote anti-vaccination content are a violation of those policies. We enforce these policies vigorously, and if we find a video that violates them, we immediately take action and remove ads.” This is the second issue this week that has prompted YouTube advertisers to suspend their ads BuzzFeed News’ initial report on Feb. 20 came as several major advertisers, including Nestle and Epic Games, said they were pausing ads after YouTube creator Matt Watson revealed how the platform’s recommendation algorithm was being exploited by what he described as a “soft-core pedophilia ring.” BuzzFeed News found that the top search results for queries about vaccine safety were usually from legitimate sources, like hospitals, but then YouTube’s Up Next algorithm would often recommend anti-vaccination videos. Ads, which are placed by YouTube’s advertising algorithm, appeared in front of many of those videos. YouTube also told BuzzFeed it would implement changes to its Up Next algorithm to prevent the spread of anti-vax videos. Outbreaks of measles throughout the United States and in other countries have prompted scrutiny into the role of social media and tech companies, including Facebook and Google, in spreading misinformation. Advertisers contacted by BuzzFeed News who said they will take action to prevent their ads from running in front of anti-vax videos include Nomad Health, Retail Me Not, Grammarly, Brilliant Earth, CWCBExpo, XTIVIA, and SolarWinds. Vitacost told BuzzFeed News that it had already pulled ads after the child exploitation issues became known. Anto-vax channels now demonetized include VAXXED TV, LarryCook333, and iHealthTube.

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posted about 12 hours ago on techcrunch
Bassem Hamdy has been in the construction business for a long time. He spent the last few years at the construction software business Procore, now a $3 billion dollar company developing technology for the construction industry, and now Hamdy is ready to unveil his next act as chief executive and co-founder of Briq, a new software service for the industry. Construction management software developer Procore raises $75 million at a $3 billion valuation Hamdy started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to reach its status as a construction industry unicorn. And the company has just raised $3 million in financing to fund its expansion. “With enough secondaries you can afford to make your own decisions,” Hamdy says.  His experience in construction dates back to his earliest days. Hailing from a family of construction engineers Hamdy describes himself as a black sheep who went into the financial services industry — but construction kept pulling him back., Beginning in the late nineties with CMIC, which was construction enterprise resource planning, and continuing through to Procore, Hamdy has had success after success in the business, but Briq is the culmination of all of that experience, he says.  “As much as data entry helps people it’s data intelligence software that changes things,” says Hamdy.  Briq chief executive Bassem Hamdy The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company is part of a growing number of Southern California technology startups building businesses to service large swaths of specific industries — specifically real estate and construction. Already, Procore is a $3 billion behemoth, and ServiceTitan has become a billion dollar company as well, with its software and services for air conditioning and appliance repairmen. ServiceTitan is LA’s least likely contender to be the next billion-dollar startup Now Bassem’s Briq, with backing from Eniac Ventures and MetaProp NYC, is hoping to join their ranks. “Bassem built and helped run the most successful construction software businesses in the world. It is rare and humbling to have an opportunity to help build a company from the ground up with an industry legend,” says Tim Young, Founding General Partner at Eniac Ventures . “The technology Bassem and his team are building will do something the industry has never seen before: break down data silos to leverage information in real time. Bassem has built and run the most successful construction software businesses in the world, and his knowledge of the construction space and the data space is second to none.” The company, formerly called Brickschain, uses a combination of a blockchain based immutable ledger and machine learning tools to provide strategic insights into buildings and project developments. Briq’s software can predict things like the success of individual projects, where demand for new projects is likely to occur and how to connect data around construction processes. Briq has two main offerings, according to Hamdy. ProjectIQ, which monitors and manages individual projects and workflows — providing data around different vendors involved in a construction project; and MarketIQ, which provides market intelligence around where potential projects are likely to occur and which projects will be met with the most demand and success. Joining Hamdy in the creation of Briq is Ron Goldschmidt, an experienced developer of quantitative-based trading strategies for several businesses. Hamdy, a former Wall Streeter himself has long realized the power of data in the construction business. And with the new tools at his disposal — including the blockchain based ledger system that forms the backbone of Briq’s project management software, Hamdy thinks he has developed the next big evolution in technology for the industry. Briq already counts Webcore, a major contractor and developer, as one of its clients along with Kobayashi, Probuild, Hunter Roberts OEG, and Gartner Builders. In all, the company has contracts with nearly twelve different developers and contractors. All of the insights that Briq can provide through its immutable ledger can add up to big savings for developers. Hamdy estimates that there’s roughly $1 trillion in waste in the construction industry. Briq relies on IBM’s Hyperledger for its blockchain backbone and through that, the company has a window into all of the decisions made on a project. That ledger forms the scaffolding on which Briq can build out its projections and models of how much a building will cost, and how could conceivably made on a project. “Construction and infrastructure are integral to society, but the decision-making process behind how, when, where, and why we build is no longer working,” said Briq Co-Founder & CEO Bassem Hamdy, in a statement. “We aren’t just solving a construction problem, we are solving a societal problem. If we are to meet the infrastructure needs of both the developed and developing world, we must improve our decision-making and analysis around the data we have. We are thrilled to have the support of Eniac Ventures as we enter the next phase of our journey.”    

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posted about 12 hours ago on techcrunch
Ev Wiliams, a co-founder of Twitter and the social media business’s former chief executive officer, is stepping down from its board of directors effective at the end of the month, according to documents submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, first reported by CNBC. In a series of tweets, Williams addressed the news. “I’m very lucky to have served on the @Twitter board for 12 years (ever since there was a board),” he wrote. “It’s been overwhelmingly interesting, educational—and, at times, challenging… Thank you, @jack and @biz for starting this crazy company with me—and continuing to make it better and better. And to my fellow board members, new and old—some of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known.” Wiliams, the founder and CEO of online publishing platform Medium and co-founder and partner at Obvious Ventures, served as Twitter’s chief executive from 2008 to 2010 following Jack Dorsey’s, Twitter’s current CEO, original stint as CEO. Williams was succeeded by Dick Costolo, who after a five-year stint at the helm, relinquished the throne back to Dorsey. Twitter’s board of directors includes Bret Taylor, president and chief product officer at Salesforce; Debra Lee, president and CEO of BET Networks; and executive chairman Omid Kordestani. Twitter’s stock closed up 3 percent Friday, trading at nearly $32 a piece for a market cap of north of $24 billion.

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posted about 13 hours ago on techcrunch
Relationships between landlords and their tenants don’t need to be fraught ones. With Y Combinator -backed Latchel, landlords and property managers can access a 24/7 maintenance service that takes requests from tenants and deploys the right professional to fix the things that need fixing. “At first we thought of doing a high-tech property management system,” Latchel founder Ethan Lieber told TechCrunch. “As we looked more into it and talked to other property management companies, maintenance kept coming up as a problem. So we decided to focus on maintenance.” Latchel has a bunch of handypeople — all vetted and with at least two years of experience — in its network that it relies on for work inside buildings. In some cases, however, larger property management groups already have people they like to work with. At that point, Latchel simply takes over the relationship and coordinates between the handypeople and residents. In the event Latchel’s on-demand team of vetted handypeople cannot troubleshoot the issue, Latchel deploys one of the 3,000+ contractors on its platform. “It’s such a hard industry to get positive reviews from tenants in,” Lieber said. “You’re basically talking about someone in an emergency situation — not getting heat, the toilet is overflowing, etcetera. If you’re not handling it well, it exacerbates. If you can communicate the right things to the right people at the right time, it absolves that exacerbation.” Still, the real estate space is unique and hard to acquire customers, Lieber said. Right now, while Latchel does support larger property managers, it’s focused on the DIY landlords — the ones who may be managing buildings in their “spare” time or as a second job. In order to support the growth of DIY landlord customers, Latchel is looking to build its contractor network. Part of its sell to contractors is the constant stream of work that results from Latchel’s relationships with property managers and landlords. In March 2018, Latchel was running its service on 2,000 units. Today, Latchel supports 27,500 units across 50 cities in the U.S. and has been adding about 4,000 to 5,000 new units a month. That averages out to about 250 units per customer, Lieber said. Looking into next month, Latchel wants to add an additional 6,000 units. The month after, it wants to add an additional 9,000. The cost of Latchel depends on the service level and the number of units. If a landlord or property manager just wants basic services (tenant calls, coordination of emergency work) for after-hours coverage, Latchel charges a $25 account fee and then 80 cents per unit per month. Currently, Latchel is conducting a beta test with properties that have fewer than 10 units to guarantee a maximum price of services per unit, Lieber said. If Latchel is unable to negotiate a good enough price for the contractor, Latchel will reimburse customers for any costs over the guaranteed max price. Since launching its full-service solution last March, Latchel says its average tenant review is 4.7 out of 5 stars. In all, Latchel says it has reduced the amount of time spent on maintenance to 15 minutes per day for property management companies with 100 units or fewer.

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posted about 14 hours ago on techcrunch
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been teasing — and his fanbase has been making pleas — to host a meme review. And after tweeted hints, meme review has arrived via YouTube star PewDiePie. Musk tweeted last month a photo and a question “Host meme review?” Host meme review? pic.twitter.com/k2SFtIUh1k — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 27, 2019 On Friday, Musk and Justin Roiland, one of the creators of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, appeared on YouTuber PewDiePie’s show for a meme review. During the segment, Musk and Roiland rate various memes, like the one pictured below, The pair provide commentary and funny quips. It looks like Musk and Roiland’s appearance has helped push PewDiePie above T-Series, an Indian music company on YouTube that has had the most subscribers.  PewDiePie now has about a 20,000 subscriber lead. The final meme, which pictures what appears to be a dead deer at the bottom of a pool, is what pushes Musk over the edge when he asks, “Jeez is that true? What, that actually happened? Oh my god,” as he bursts into fits of uncomfortable laughter. You can watch the whole episode that PewDiePie uploaded on February 22 or skip to about minute 13 for Musk and Roiland.  

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posted about 14 hours ago on techcrunch
Apple has confirmed its plans to close retail stores in the Eastern District of Texas – a move that will allow the company to better protect itself from patent infringement lawsuits, according to the Apple news site MacRumors which broke the news of the stores’ closures. Apple says that the impacted retail employees will be offered new jobs with the company as a result of these changes. The company will shut down its Apple Willow Bend store in Plano, Texas as well as its Apple Stonebriar store in Frisco, Texas, MacRumors reported, and Apple confirmed. These stores will permanently close up shop on Friday, April 12. Customers in the region will instead be served by a new Apple store located at the Galleria Dallas Shopping Mall, which is expected to open April 13. Apple did not comment on the stores’ dates of closure or the new store’s opening. However, it’s common for Apple to leave little downtown during retail stores transitions – though most closures are related to renovations or other reasons that aren’t about trying to escape patent lawsuits. The Eastern District of Texas had become a popular place for patent trolls to file their lawsuits, though a more recent Supreme Court ruling has attempted to crack down on the practice. The court ruled that patent holders could no longer choose where to file. Apple has had to make big payouts to patent trolls in recent years: $625.6 million to patent holding firm VirnetX in 2016 over protocol patents; VirnetX won $368 million from Apple in 2013; and more recently $502.6 million over four communication patents. VirnetX tends to be referred to as a “patent troll” because it makes most of its revenue by suing tech companies. In addition to Apple, it sued Microsoft over patents in Skype and has been in litigation with Cisco. Its cases and subsequent wins are often held up as another example of how patent law in the U.S. is in need of reform. The Apple store closures could have had a notable impact on area jobs, had Apple not offered new positions to its retail staff. Apple today employs 1,000 people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which has been an increase of 33 percent in the past five years. The company also recently invested almost $30 million in its Dallas area stores. Outside the metro, Apple is also investing in Texas with its $1 billion for the new campus in Austin, which will accommodate an additional 5,000 employees on top of the 6,200 already in the area. A rep for Apple confirmed the stores’ closures in a statement, but wouldn’t comment on the company’s reasoning: “We’re making a major investment in our stores in Texas, including significant upgrades to NorthPark Center, Southlake and Knox Street. With a new Dallas store coming to the Dallas Galleria this April, we’ve made the decision to consolidate stores and close Apple Stonebriar and Apple Willow Bend. All employees from those stores will be offered positions at the new Dallas store or other Apple locations.”  

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posted about 14 hours ago on techcrunch
The video conferencing company Zoom is aiming to file a public S-1 by the end of March, according to a new report in Business Insider that adds the company could go public as soon as April. Business Insider reported last month that Zoom had filed confidentially with the SEC to go public, just months after Reuters reported that the San Jose, Ca.-based company had chosen investment bank Morgan Stanley to lead its eventual IPO. We’ve reached out to the company for comment. Zoom was valued at $1 billion when it raised its last funding in 2017 in the form of a $100 million check from Sequoia Capital. Reuters sources have said they expect the company to be valued at several billion dollars at the IPO. The company, founded in 2011, has raised $145 million altogether, including from Emergence Capital and Horizons Ventures. Its earliest backers include Qualcomm Ventures, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, WebEx founder Subrah Iyar, and former Cisco SVP and General Counsel Dan Scheinman, who has been an active angel investor in recent years. We had a chance to sit down with CEO Eric Yuan last year at a small industry event hosted by the venture firm NextWorld Capital. He talked about coming to the United States as a student from China and applying for a U.S. visa nine times over the course of two years before finally receiving it and arriving in Silicon Valley in 1997. We also talked about his experience as the 10th employee of WebEx, and his frustration that the company’s code remained stubbornly unchanged after it was sold for $3.2 billion to Cisco in 2007. He wasn’t alone, clearly. When Yuan struck out on his own to found Zoom, fully 45 employees from WebEx joined him, a decision for which they’re likely thankful now. Financial rewards aside, Yuan was ranked at the top of Glassdoor’s annual list of best-rated CEOs last year. We’ll be able to take a deeper dive into the health of Zoom once its reported S-1 is made public. In the meantime, you can check out our chat here.

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posted about 15 hours ago on techcrunch
Epic Games, maker of the ultra popular Battle Royale game Fortnite, is putting up another $100 million in prize cash for competitive tournaments in 2019. The company made waves in the esports world last year, announcing $100 million prize pool for the 2018 competitive year, dwarfing every other competitive title in one fell swoop. This year, a significant portion of the $100 million will be awarded to participants of the first-ever Fortnite World Cup. Each of the 200 players who qualify and compete will walk away with at least $50,000, with the winner taking home $3 million. The Fortnite World Cup will take place July 26 – 28 in New York City, offering $30 million total in prizes. One-hundred of the top solo players will be invited, along with the top 50 duos teams. So how do you get in on this? Fortnite is holding weekly open online qualifiers, each worth $1 million, from April 13th to June 16th. Eligible players who consistently place well will have a shot at being one of those top 200 players. This announcement comes at an interesting time for Fortnite. While the game still reigns supreme in terms of popularity, other Battle Royale games are picking up traction. Apex Legends (an EA and Respawn title), in particular, is growing in popularity. Several of the top Twitch streamers, including Ninja, Shroud, Timthetatman, High Distortion and Annemunition have started playing more Apex and participated in the first Apex Legends Twitch Rivals tournament. Keeping the attention of these streamers is surely a priority for Fortnite, and for a game that pulls in some $300 million a month in in-game purchases, spending $100 million a year is a small price to pay.

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posted about 15 hours ago on techcrunch
Instagram is threatening to attack Pinterest just as it files to go public the same way the Facebook-owned app did to Snapchat. Code buried in Instagram for Android shows the company has prototyped an option to create public “Collections” to which multiple users can contribute. Instagram launched private Collections two years ago to let you Save and organize your favorite feed posts. But by allowing users to make Collections public, Instagram would become a direct competitor to Pinterest. Instagram public Collections could spark a new medium of content curation. People could use the feature to bundle together their favorite memes, travel destinations, fashion items, or art. That could cut down on unconsented content stealing that’s caused backlash against meme “curators” like F*ckJerry by giving an alternative to screenshotting and reposting other people’s stuff. Instead of just representing yourself with your own content, you could express your identity through the things you love — even if you didn’t photograph them yourself. And if that sounds familiar, you’ll understand why this could be problematic for Pinterest’s upcoming $12 billion IPO. The “Make Collection Public” option was discovered by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering specialist Jane Machun Wong. It’s not available to the public, but from the Instagram for Android code, she was able to generate a screenshot of the prototype. It shows the ability to toggle on public visibility for a Collection, and tag contributors who can also add to the Collection. Previously, Collections was always a private, solo feature for organizing your bookmarks gathered through the Instagaram Save feature Instagram launched in late 2016. Instagram told TechCrunch “we’re not testing this” which is its standard response to press inquiries about products that aren’t available to any public users, but that are in internal development. It could be a while until Instagram does start experimenting publicly with the feature and longer before a launch, and the company could always scrap the option. But it’s a sensible way to give users more to do and share on Instagram, and the prototype gives insight into the app’s strategy. Facebook launched its own Pinterest -style shareable Sets in 2017 and launched sharable Collections in December. Currently there’s nothing in the Instagram code about users being able to follow each other’s Collections, but that would seem like a logical and powerful next step. Instagrammers can already follow hashtags to see new posts with them routed to their feed. Offering a similar way to follow Collections could turn people into star curators rather than star creators without the need to rip off anyone’s content. Instagram lets users Save posts which can then be organized into Collections Public Collections could fuel Instagram’s commerce strategy that Mark Zuckerberg recently said would be a big part of the roadmap. Instagram already has a personalized Shopping feed in Explore, and The Verge’s Casey Newton reported last year that Instagram was working on a dedicated shopping app. It’s easy to imagine fashionistas, magazines, and brands sharing Collections of their favorite buyable items. It’s worth remembering that Instagram launched its copycat of Snapchat Stories just six months before Snap went public. As we predicted, that reduced Snapchat’s growth rate by 88 percent. Two years later, Snapchat isn’t growing at all, and its share price is at just a third of its peak. With over 1 billion monthly and 500 million daily users, Instagram is four times the size of Pinterest. Instagram loyalists might find it’s easier to use the ‘good enough’ public Collections feature where they already have a social graph than try to build a following from scratch on Pinterest.

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posted about 15 hours ago on techcrunch
“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.” Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy. That wasn’t the case four weeks ago. In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision. It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.” Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message. If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation. “It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.” “I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.” Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch) Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.” A tough year Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue. But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year. After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed. “In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “ By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage. Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup. His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said. Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers. “An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said.  One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce. Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said. Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.” The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time. Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all. Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week. Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said.  The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company. Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable. “If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.” Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China. In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared. Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges. Bright spots Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017. Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers. Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills. It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google. The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission. Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.” Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship. “I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said.  “And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
José Ancer is first of all a startup lawyer, with a client portfolio of startups of various stages based around Texas and other similar ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley. He’s also the CTO of Egan Nelson LLP, a boutique firm, where he actively is also building automation software to help the firm compete against larger firms. He also writes on his blog “Silicon Hills Lawyer” publicly and pointedly about his profession — and often takes shots at certain practices common among startup law firms, including Silicon Valley firms. You can get a sense of what’s in the full interview via these excerpts. On not being “owned” by VCs and repeat players “José has a depth of expertise in startup/company formation/funding issues and is very founder-friendly. He was able to guide us through our seed stage while staying efficient and keeping the billing reasonable.” Mary Haskett, Austin, Texas, CEO, Blink Identity “I believe, and our clients would confirm, that independence from the VC/repeat player community, combined with deep knowledge of startup financing and high-stakes corporate governance (board issues), allows us to say things, do things, and even write things (on my blog) that the startup community absolutely needs to see and hear, but that “captive” lawyers have been unwilling to offer because of the very real risk of retaliation from influential money players who refer them business. I’ve become a bit of a bête noire of lawyers who’ve built their practices by flouting conflicts of interest and working as company counsel despite being “owned” by VCs across the table.” On early-stage and being “right-sized” “I wrote a blog post called ‘The Problem With Chasing Whales.’ It talks about this problem of entrepreneurs hiring law firms that are overkill for what they’re building. We’ve had a lot of clients switch to us from the marquee law firm names, and while the largest complaint is cost — our rates are hundreds of dollars an hour lower because we keep our overhead very lean, while still having top-tier lawyers and lean infrastructure for scalability — another common complaint is responsiveness. You’ve got a million dollar convertible note deal that you need to get done, and to you and your employees, that deal is the world, but the BigLaw lawyer you’re working with has IPOs and unicorn deals pushing your deal to the back of the line. It’s a real problem. Our target profile client exits under $300M in a private deal; which is a type of startup that we think has been very underserved by the traditional hyper-growth oriented law firms in the market.” On legal technology and automation “I spend a lot of time talking to legal tech entrepreneurs, because efficiency via legal tech has always been a core value proposition of our firm. As I’ve reviewed and contemplated various tools, one thing I’ve always come back to is this unavoidable tension between flexibility and automation. Software, even cutting edge machine learning, can only handle a minimal level of variation before it breaks down and becomes more hassle (and cost) than it’s worth… Some firms have opted to lean very heavily on the fast automation and standardization side, and accept the rigidity that it inevitably introduces into their workflows… We’ve consciously gone a different direction… Our clients tend to think that constraining the advice startups get by boxing it into inflexible software (and pricing) is not only a penny-wise, pound-foolish confusion of priorities; it’s also exactly the kind of approach that benefits investors at the expense of one-shot common stockholders.” Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like their pricing and fee structures. This article is part of our ongoing series covering the early-stage startup lawyers who founders love to work with, based on this survey we have open and our own research. If you’re a founder trying to navigate the early-stage legal landmines, be sure to check out our ongoing series lawyer interviews, plus in-depth articles like this checklist of what you need to get done on the corporate side in your first years as a company. The Interview Eric Eldon: You’re pretty outspoken about the state of startup law these days. Break it down for me: what is Egan Nelson doing differently from the other law firms out there? José Ancer: If you look at the startup legal market, everyone knows the marquee, high priced firms. They represent Facebook, Uber, Palantir, Apple, etc. But when you pay those firms $700 an hour, as an example, 25% ballpark is going to compensation for the lawyers doing the main work. 75% is paying for other stuff. So then the question obviously becomes, how much of that other stuff is really necessary? Our view is that there’s this segment of the startup market, and I call them non-unicorns, that is far more serious and scaled than what a tiny firm or solo lawyer can handle, but for whom BigLaw is completely overkill. We see these companies a lot more in places like Austin, Denver, Seattle, New York, etc., and it’s why our focus is on those markets.  If you look at our lawyers’ credentials, you’ll see a whole lot of Stanford, Yale, Harvard, etc., as well as marquee firm alumni. What you won’t find at our firm is ludicrously expensive office space, cute events that have nothing to do with legal counsel, or armies of staff that don’t deliver real value to the end-service for clients. Our legal talent is paid very well, but our overhead infrastructure is designed for companies that sell as a private company for under $300 million, or perhaps operate indefinitely as profitable companies. These are “startups” that might be derisively labeled as “doubles” or “singles” in parts of Silicon Valley, but we think have been substantially underserved by the market.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Last fall, Opera introduced Opera Touch for iOS – a solid alternative to Safari on iPhone, optimized for one-handed use. Today, the company is rolling out a notable new feature to this app: cookie blocking. Yes, it can now block those annoying dialogs that ask you to accept the website’s cookies. These are particularly problematic on mobile, where they often entirely interrupt your ability to view the content, as opposed to on many desktop websites where you can (kind of) ignore the pop-up banner that appears at the bottom or the top of the page. Cookie dialogs have become prevalent across the web as a result of Europe’s GDPR, but many people find them overly intrusive. Today, it takes an extra click to dismiss these prompts, which slows down web browsing – especially for those times you’re on the hunt for a particular piece of information and are visiting several websites in rapid succession. The cookie blocking feature was first launched in November on Opera’s flagship app for Android, but hadn’t yet made its way to iOS – through any browser app, that is, not just one from Opera. The company says it uses a mix of CSS and JavaScript heuristics in order to block the prompts. At the time of the launch, Opera noted it had tested the feature with some 15,000 sites. It’s important to note that the default setting for the cookie blocker on Opera Touch will allow the websites to set cookies. Here’s how it works. When you enable the feature, it will hide the dialog boxes from appearing, allowing you to read a website without having to first close the prompt. However, when you turn on the Cookie Blocker option, another setting is also switched on: one that says “automatically accept cookie dialogs.” That means, in practice, when you’re enabling the Cookie Blocker, you’re also enabling cookie acceptance if you don’t take further action. But Opera says you can disable this checkbox, if you don’t want your browser to give websites your acceptance. In addition to the new cookie blocking, the browser has a number of other options that make it an interesting alternative to Safari on iOS or Google Chrome. For example, if offers built-in ad blocking, cryptocurrency mining protection (which prevents malicious sites from using your device’s resources to mine for cryptocurrencies), a way to send web content to your PC through Opera’s “Flow” technology, and – most importantly – a design focused on using the app with just one hand. Since the app’s launch in April, the company has rolled out 23 new features in total. This include a new dark theme, as well as the addition of a private mode, plus search engine choice which offers 11 options, including Qwant and DuckDuckGo, and other features. The app is a free download on iOS.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
The field of medicine is, like other industries and disciplines, in the process of incorporating AI as a standard tool, and it stands to be immensely useful — if it’s properly regulated, argue researchers. Without meaningful and standardized rules, it will be difficult to quantify benefits or prevent disasters issuing from systematic bias or poor implementation. AI tools, or to be precise machine learning agents trained to sift through medical data, are popping up in every room in the hospital, from the x-ray machine to the ICU. A well-trained model may spot an anomaly on a lung scan, or hear arrhythmia in a resting patient, faster or more reliably than a nurse or doctor. At least that’s the theory; and while there’s no reason to doubt that an AI could be very helpful and even save lives, these models amount to medical treatments and must be documented and tested with especial rigor. So say Ravi Parikh, Ziad Obermeyer, and Amol S. Navathe, from the University of Pennsylvania, UC Berkeley, and the Crescencz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia respectively. “Regulatory standards for assessing algorithms’ safety and impact have not existed until recently. Furthermore, evaluations of these algorithms, which are not as readily understandable by clinicians as previous algorithms, are not held to traditional clinical trial standards,” they write in an editorial published in the journal Science. “Unlike a drug or device, algorithms are not static products. Their inputs, often based on thousands of variables, can change with context. And their predictive performance may change over time as the algorithm is exposed to more data.” Nevertheless the FDA has partially approved a system called the WAVE Clinical Platform, which watches vitals for trouble. But if WAVE and others like it are truly to provide ongoing service they need to be assessed on standards created with AI models in mind. Naturally the authors did not propose this without examples, which they list and describe, summarized as follows: Meaningful endpoints: Appropriate benchmarks: Interoperability and generalization: Specific interventions: Structured auditing:

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
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. Pinterest files confidentially to go public The business has confidentially submitted paperwork to the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering slated for later this year, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. Earlier reports indicated the company was planning to debut on the stock market in April. In late January, Pinterest took its first official step toward a 2019 IPO, hiring Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase as lead underwriters for its offering. 2. Google ends forced arbitration for employees This is a direct response to a group of outspoken Google employees protesting the company’s arbitration practices. Forced arbitration ensures that workplace disputes are settled behind closed doors and without any right to an appeal, effectively preventing employees from suing companies. 3. Facebook will shut down its spyware VPN app Onavo Facebook will end its unpaid market research programs and proactively take its Onavo VPN app off the Google Play store in the wake of backlash following TechCrunch’s investigation about Onavo code being used in a Facebook Research app that sucked up data about teens. In this photo taken on February 6, 2019, Indian delivery men working with the food delivery apps Uber Eats and Swiggy wait to pick up an order outside a restaurant in Mumbai. 4. Uber is reportedly close to making a tactical exit from India’s food delivery industry India’s Economic Times is reporting that Uber is in the final stages of a deal that would see Swiggy eat up Uber Eats in India in exchange for giving the U.S. ride-hailing firm a 10 percent share of its business. 5. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ features hit more devices, including Samsung Galaxy S10 Initially available exclusively to Pixel and Android One device owners, Digital Wellbeing’s feature set is now rolling out to Nokia 6 and Nokia 8 devices with Android Pie, as well as on the new Samsung Galaxy S10. 6. DoorDash raises $400M round, now valued at $7.1B Recent data from Second Measure shows that DoorDash has overtaken Uber Eats in U.S. market share — for online food delivery, it now comes in second to Grubhub. 7. Venmo launches a ‘limited edition’ rainbow debit card for its payment app users The new rainbow card will be offered until supplies last, Venmo says. And existing card holders can request this card as a replacement for their current card, if they choose.

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posted about 17 hours ago on techcrunch
Daimler AG and BMW Group officially agreed to merge their urban mobility services into a single holding company back in March 2018 with a 50 percent stake each. And now, they want to unify their services under 5 categories by creating 5 joint ventures — Reach Now, Charge Now, Park Now, Free Now and Share Now. Both automakers plan to invest $1.1 billion (€1 billion) to foster those urban mobility services over the coming years. There are already 60 million people using one of the 14 services currently available. Let’s go through the details. Free Now is the name of the ride-hailing company, which includes mytaxi, Kapten, Clever Taxi and Beat. Those services combined operate in 130 cities in 17 countries. Hive, a new e-scooter company, is also part of Free Now. mytaxi, a popular app that lets you hail a taxi from your phone, already sent an email to its customers saying that the company will rebrand its service to Free Now later this year. It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the other brands. Chauffeur-Privé recently rebranded to Kapten, so it sounds like apps and services won’t merge overnight. Charge Now already exists and is a network of public charge points for electric cars. It provides a white label service for car manufacturers as well. So nothing is changing there. Park Now combines an existing service called ParkNow (I know it’s confusing), ParkMobile, RingGo and Park-line. As the names suggest, they all operate parking services. Share Now is all about free-floating services. Daimler and BMW each had its own service, DriveNow and Car2Go, they’re now under the same roof. The new Reach Now combines moovel with an existing service called ReachNow. This one is a bit weird as moovel lets you access various transportation methods from a single app. You can find your itinerary, book and pay for various services through the app. The old ReachNow is different as it’s a ride-hailing service in Seattle and Portland. That wasn’t easy to unpack. It’s clear that things are still moving and plans aren’t set in stone when it comes to integrations and brand simplification. Eventually, BMW CEO Harald Krüger hopes that all of those services will converge and form an end-to-end service. “We have a clear vision: these five services will merge ever more closely to form a single mobility service portfolio with an all-electric, self-driving fleet of vehicles that charge and park autonomously and interconnect with the other modes of transport,” he said in the release. While it sounds like a wild dream, it’s interesting to see that Daimler and BMW are both very serious about mobility services. They know that they can’t just be car manufacturers and have to expand beyond their traditional role. It’s a competitive industry with well-funded giants, such as Uber and Didi. And if Daimler and BMW want to remain relevant, they need to invest and develop those services.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Every couple of months, I talk to an entrepreneur who is interested in building a marketplace for buying and selling app businesses (i.e. the actual IP and ownership of an app or other piece of software). These markets always seem to suffer from a lack of liquidity, and one reason why is that it’s really hard to know how much technical debt is latent in a codebase. First, the developer behind the codebase may not even be aware of the technical debt they have piled on. Second, until a software engineer really understands a codebase, they are almost certainly not in a position to answer a question on technical debt authoritatively. That makes it hard to get third-party opinions on anything but the most simple codebases. This opaqueness isn’t unique to software though. We lack tools for understanding the maintenance quality of assets — physical or digital — across our economy. Even when we do perform maintenance or hire someone to do it for us, it can be hard to verify that the work was performed well. How long does it take for an auto mechanic to truly evaluate the maintenance of a used car? I was thinking about this challenge of evaluating maintenance when I read this deep dive into the economics of old housing by Akron’s head of planning Jason Segedy: It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that indebted, college-educated Millennials could be lured back to the city by selling them these old, poorly-maintained houses for $1.00, and having them “fix up the house.” People who say this do not have a realistic idea of what “fixing up” an old house entails—neither in terms of the scope of the rehabilitation work that would be required, nor in terms of the level of skill, time, and/or money needed to do the work. Even in a low cost-of-living market like ours, $40,000 houses are generally not a “good deal.” They are almost always a liability. They are a ticking time bomb of deferred maintenance. They are an albatross. In his own case: All told, I have spent $93,400 on improvements to this house over the past 15 years. This works out to an additional $502 per month, above what I was paying in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. When you add all of that together, the total monthly cost works out to $1,439. […] The total monthly cost for the brand-new house? $1,444. Which comes out to exactly $5.00 per month more than my 72-year-old house. Maintenance is the secret challenge of any asset, physical or digital. We have been talking about the Tappan Zee bridge here a bit this week, and maintenance played an outsized role in forcing New York to spend even more money on a new bridge. From Phil Plotch’s book Politics across the Hudson: However, he also recognized that the Authority probably put less money into the bridge after it decided to replace it. “When maintenance folks know that a capital project is under design and will soon deal with the problems they have been battling for years,” he said. “They often back down a bit and turn their attention and resources to other areas.” That didn’t work out so well: One of the reasons the Thruway Authority wanted to build a new bridge in the late 1990s was to avoid replacing the bridge’s deck. However, the environmental review process took so long that the authority had to spend $300 million dollars to do exactly that anyway — after five-foot-wide holes started opening up along the length of the bridge. Back in the software world, we have gotten much better about quantifying test coverage over the years, but we still seem to lack any means by which to evaluate technical debt. And yet, technical debt from my limited experience is hugely determinative on how fast product features can be launched. It would be hugely helpful to have some sort of reasonably accurate grading system that said “this codebase is really up-to-date and clean” versus “this codebase is radioactive and run away from it.” Right now, so much of product engineering seems to be making decisions in the dark and discovering software quagmires. There has to be a better way? Why we can’t build anything? (Part 5?) Image from Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit Written by Arman Tabatabai We’ve been obsessed with the infrastructure crisis in the U.S. lately and the question of “Why can’t we build anything?”. In case you thought the California HSR shitshow was an isolated incident, think again. Construction Dive provided some more details around the DOJ’s subpoena of the Honolulu High-Speed Rail Project (Honolulu Rail Transit) last week, which ordered the project leads to open up their books. Just like in California, after decades of debate, Hawaii’s project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Today, the project holds an estimated cost of around $9-10 billion, compared to initial estimates of $3-4 billion, and some academics and industry specialists are even saying that number is more like $13 billion-plus. The court order came just after a state-led audit found that much of the cost overruns could be tied to poor contracting, planning, and management practices — just as in California. Given the similarities here, it’s possible we could see the federal government try and pull back the $1.6 billion it had earmarked for the project if it doesn’t like what it sees. Despite calls for infrastructure improvement, the feds seem to be taking a tougher stance on the use of fed funds for these projects. Construction Dive also highlighted that the $650 million renovation of Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal was delayed indefinitely after operators found structural deficiencies in the concrete. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s because in just the last year we’ve seen “structural deficiencies” mar SF’s Transbay Terminal project and DC’s Metrorail extension. Denver’s reclamation project is expected to cost $1.8 billion in its entirety and is a year behind schedule after breaking ground less than nine months ago. India’s general election might also determine Facebook’s future in the region Westend61 via Getty Images Written by Arman Tabatabai India’s Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology announced it would be meeting with Facebook in early-March to discuss “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social or online news media platforms.” The government has approached social media with a cautious eye ahead of the country’s huge upcoming elections, as concern over the use and misuse of social and messaging platforms in global elections becomes a hot-button issue. The topic came up in our recent conversation with The Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree. He believes the election will be a hugely important period for social platforms in India. Having experienced a number of major historical scandals, India’s citizenry has a fairly harsh — albeit somewhat selective — view on corruption, and Crabtree believes that if Facebook or others were to face blame for any alleged misconduct, the potential fallout from a political, regulatory, and public opinion standpoint could be devastating. The prospect of such an outcome becomes even more alarming for foreign social companies as India has ticked up focus on data localization and movements towards a “national champion” policy that will increasingly favor domestic firms over external players. I love triangulation negotiation The trade kerfuffle between China and the U.S. is sort of just continuing at a glacial pace. Literally glaciers, because Greenland got involved over the past few months. Greenland power politics is very far afield of TC, but I wanted to point out one little nuance that offers a worthwhile lesson. Greenland has wanted to upgrade its airports for some time (there are no roads between major cities in the sparsely-populated but huge country). But Denmark, which Greenland is a constituent country, has rebuffed those requests, that is, until the Chinese got involved. From a WSJ article: After Kalaallit Airports short-listed a Chinese construction firm to build the new airports, Denmark conveyed its alarm to the Pentagon. After Mr. Mattis got involved, Denmark’s government asked a consortium led by Danske Bank to help assemble an alternative financing package. Officials in Greenland were pleasantly surprised by the terms. “Even Chinese funding is not as cheap as this,” Mr. Hansen said. Plus this quote: “He was not into it at all—until the Chinese showed interest,” said Aleqa Hammon, Greenland’s former prime minister, speaking of [Danish Prime Minister] Rasmussen. This is how you negotiate! Get two larger adversaries lined up on either side of the line, and just start going back and forth between them. This works with Google and Facebook, Sequoia and Benchmark, or any other competitors. At some point, the game isn’t just a deal, it’s also the face-saving that comes from not losing to the competition. Japan joining the trend of looser fundraising rules for growing companies Written by Arman Tabatabai Earlier this week, we talked about how security exchanges around the world were looking to loosen fundraising rules for young companies. The softening of these rules might be indicative of a wider trend, with Japan now proposing revised rules to make it easier for startups to fundraise through traditional brokerages and trade shares of listed companies. While the motivation here may not be to attract IPO deals like it seems to be in the U.S. and China, with the creation of more funding alternatives and with companies opting to stay out of the public markets for longer, national securities industries seem to be trying to brand themselves as the best venue for young companies to grow. Obsessions More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things” We are going to be talking India here, focused around the book “Billonnaire Raj” by James Crabtree, who we just interviewed and will share more soon We have a lot to catch up on in the China world when the EC launch craziness dies down. Plus, we are covering The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun. Societal resilience and geoengineering are still top-of-mind Some more on metrics design and quantification Thanks To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected] This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Roku plans to be a billion-dollar company in 2019, the company said on Thursday as part of its announcement of strong earnings. The company beat analyst estimates and reported strong growth in active users and streaming hours with earnings of $0.05 per share, compared with the $0.03 analysts had estimated, and revenues of $276 million, compared with the expected $262 million. Roku also reported 40 percent year-over-year active user growth, with 27.1 million active users by year-end, and a 69 percent year-over-year increase in streaming hours, which reached 7.3 billion. The company said it plans this year to invest in international expansion, its ad-supported service The Roku Channel, advertising, and its Roku TV platform. While cord cutting is driving some of Roku’s growth, only around half of Roku’s customers fit this description, CEO Anthony Wood pointed out. The other half are more like “cord shavers” – those who are still pay TV subscribers, but are shifting more of their TV viewing to streaming services. Roku’s ability to also attract pay TV customers combined with the fact that 1 in four smart TVs sold in the U.S. now runs its software, is helping the company’s market share grow. Roku estimates that 1 in 5 U.S. TV households now uses the Roku platform for at least a portion of their TV viewing. In the year ahead, Roku aims to better capitalize on its traction by increasing the monetization per user and scaling the number of households using Roku. In addition, the company sees a big opportunity in international. “International is one of the top four areas we’re investing in,” Wood noted. “Roku has more than 27 million active accounts globally today. Most of those are in the United States. But we believe many of the assets we built for the U.S. market will help us expand into other markets. And clearly streaming is a global opportunity with one billion households worldwide,” he said. The company begin investing more substantially in international in 2018, and has now reached 20 countries. It has added more local content and is expanding its relationships with international resellers, said Wood. “We think you’ll start to see the results of this increased investment bearing fruit in 2020,” he added. Roku also has high hopes for The Roku Channel. The channel is now one of the top five most popular on the platform and grew from around 1,000 free movies and TV episodes in 2017 to now around 10,000. Last year, it added more streaming partners like ABC, Cheddar and People TV and even expanded into subscriptions, with add-ons like Showtime, Starz, and Epix. The company believes the channel will continue to become a main destination on its platform, which helps Roku to monetize through advertising and its cut of subscription revenue, when customer opt to add on extra packages. But today the channel is still lacking many of the major subscription services, compared with the more robust lineup offered by Amazon Channels. For example, HBO is not offered through The Roku Channel today, nor is CBS All Access. However, the company believes its financial performance will improve this year – reaching the billion in revenue mark, with platform revenues accounting for two-thirds of that. This, in part, will be due to growing its installed base and extracting more revenue from each customer, including through The Roku Channel. It’s worth noting that Roku recently made it possible to stream from The Roku Channel directly on mobile devices, which will likely play a role here. Roku has been growing at a rapid pace alongside the larger cord cutting and streaming TV trend. In the past three years, it increased active accounts by 4 million, 6 million and then nearly 8 million, respectively, it said. And it quadrupled the size of its platform revenue from just over $100 million in 2016 to over $400 million in 2018. In the U.S., its active account base of 27+ million would make it equivalent to the No. 2 traditional pay TV provider. In addition to international expansions in 2019 and investments in The Roku Channel, Roku aims to increase its Roku TV market share, and roll out new ad products in areas like marketplace, programmatic, and self-serve. Roku’s investments in its platform led to 77 percent year-over-year growth to reach 151.4 million in revenue in Q4. But the player business is still growing too – 21 percent year-over-year to reach 124.3 million in revenue, Roku said. However, a lot will changing in the streaming landscape this year, as new offerings from AT&T (WarnerMedia streaming service), Apple, Disney, Viacom (which just bought Pluto TV), and NBC hit the market. But Roku believes it will weather these changes, too. “I founded this company on the belief that all television was going to be streamed,” Wood told investors. “And it wasn’t that many years ago when there was no streaming, and then the only streaming was Netflix. It took a long time for the incumbents to embrace streaming. But they have. And that’s very gratifying to see every major media company in the world developing streaming strategies, which is great — it’s great for us, because we’re the leading streaming platform,” he said.    

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posted about 19 hours ago on techcrunch
TechStyle Fashion Group, the company behind Kate Hudson’s Fabletics; the children’s brand FabKids; Rihanna’s lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty; and the shoe retailer Shoedazzle, has amassed 5 million members for its discount retail program. Those members were a large driver behind the $750 million in transactions the company saw for 2018, according to co-chief executive Adam Goldenberg. “We were profitable in 2018,” Goldenberg says. “We can grow now, profitably [and] we can grow both topline and bottom line.” Numbers like those should give the company a powerful position to head out to public markets, but Goldenberg says the company is taking a wait-and-see approach. “At some point we do need to think about public markets to bring liquidity to our investors and employees,” he says. “We don’t have a set timeline in mind there.” Designed to make the company’s wares even more attractive for style- and cost-conscious consumers, the VIP Membership is a free offering that gives customers 50% off of all of the company’s products and additional perks like free returns and early access to new product launches. To be a member, customers need to visit a brand website at least once a month and see shop new collections or skip a month. Members can skip as many months as they want and they have no requirement to buy anything.  If a member forgets to skip a month they’re charged a membership credit that can be used at any time. The membership offering has provided results for the company, which says it sees 85% of its revenue come from repeat buyers across brands and one quarter of its new members coming from referrals.

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posted about 19 hours ago on techcrunch
Tesla has been masking its lobbying efforts on solar panels and battery storage through the Energy Freedom Coalition of America, a trade association that is little more than a front for the automaker and alternative energy company, public documents suggest. SolarCity, which Tesla bought in 2016, began the practice of using the EFCA to promote its products and services without acknowledging it was the only significant member of the organization. EFCA was initially portrayed as a solar advocacy group with grassroots support. When rule changes threatened payments to Arizonans with domestic solar panels in 2016, EFCA knew just what to do. It launched the Arizona Solar Pledge for citizens “to demonstrate their support for energy choice and add their names to the growing coalition determined to protect Arizona rooftop solar customers.” Anyone signing the petition would “demonstrate to … the broader political community that the people of Arizona stand with rooftop solar and energy choice,” wrote an EFCA spokesperson at the time. EFCA noted that its list of members included Silevo, SolarCity Corporation, ZEP Solar, Go Solar, 1 Sun Solar Electric, and Ecological Energy Systems. However, far from being a grassroots environmental advocacy organization or a broad trade body, the EFCA seems to represent little more than the lobbying arm of Tesla’s energy division. Three of its named “member” businesses  — Silevo, SolarCity and Zep Solar – are actually subsidiaries of Tesla. Two of the remaining companies are small regional solar installers. TechCrunch could not immediately identify Go Solar LLC. Tesla would not answer questions about EFCA’s membership, funding or control. However, a spokesperson wrote, “Since the [SolarCity] acquisition, Tesla has been winding down its involvement with the coalition, and to the extent we have worked with them, it’s largely been limited to legacy dockets that have already been in progress for multiple years.” The EFCA is a non-profit corporation formed in Delaware that describes itself blandly as a “national advocacy organization that seeks to promote public awareness of the benefits of solar and alternative energy.” It was slightly more forthcoming in a filing with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission early in 2017, discussing proposed community solar gardens. EFCA wrote that it “represents a broad range of businesses that are fully integrated providers of distributed energy resources (DERs) products and services.” These, it wrote, could include rooftop solar, distributed generation, thermal and battery energy storage, and smart energy services, for residential, commercial, industrial and government customers. Although EFCA’s legal representative for filings in New Hampshire has an EFCA email address, her LinkedIn profile shows that her job title is Campaign Projects Coordinator at Tesla. Recent filings on behalf of EFCA have been made by a senior policy advisor at Tesla. In fact, EFCA itself is listed as a Tesla subsidiary in filings with the SEC. EFCA’s roots Tesla lobbies under its own name in many parts of the country, so how did it come to be working under the guise of the EFCA, and why is it continuing to do so? The story goes back to 2006, and the formation of SolarCity by two of Musk’s cousins, Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive. SolarCity took the novel approach of installing photovoltaic systems for no money down, instead leasing them to homeowners in exchange for decades of payments for cheaper, greener electricity. Musk invested in SolarCity and took the role of chairman. SolarCity grew quickly, becoming the largest solar installer in the United States by 2013, despite a business model that required taking on mountains of debt. The company regularly sparred with traditional utility companies, often as part of a rooftop solar trade association called the Alliance for Solar Choice, or TASC. In late 2015, rooftop solar was facing a tough situation in Nevada. NV Energy, the state’s monopoly electricity provider, wanted to slash domestic solar incentives, and the solar industry was fighting for its life. While SolarCity took a collaborative approach, its main rival, SunRun, suggested suspicious ties between the utility and Nevada’s governor. SolarCity ultimately withdrew from TASC, saying that its focus was moving beyond residential solar. The new EFCA would “capture more of our interests,” a spokesperson told Utility Dive at the time. SolarCity persuaded a small Las Vegas company called 1 Sun Solar Electric, among others, to join EFCA. 1 Sun, which installs five to 10 residential solar systems in the city each month, was keen to protect its local business. “There’s no way that a small company like ours would be able to go toe-to-toe with NV Energy,” Louise Helton, the company’s vice-president, told TechCrunch. “EFCA gave us standing with the public utility commission, and their attorneys are just stellar.” Despite the resources EFCA could bring to bear, Nevada did reduce solar incentives at the end of 2015. Many national solar companies, including SolarCity and SunRun, subsequently left the state. Towards the end of 2016, Tesla bought SolarCity for $2.6 billion, and EFCA along with it. State records and filings indicate that EFCA has now been active in over 30 proceedings in 16 states, and has retained lobbyists in at least Arizona, Utah, Montana, Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Washington. It does not appear to have initiated any filings that would not benefit Tesla or its subsidiaries. EFCA had no fewer than 23 lobbyists working for it in Arizona in 2016, while the organization spent $110,000 on lobbyists in Florida the next year, both according to Follow the Money. It has also hired multiple law firms to help it draft and submit filings across the nation. None of the money for these activities came from 1 Sun, Helton told TechCrunch, nor has EFCA asked 1 Sun to work on the coalition’s behalf. “I would be available to do whatever, but they have not needed anything else from us,” Helton said. “It’s good to be part of something that is fighting the good fight, and giving that entity a flavor of not just being one giant organization, even though Tesla is definitely doing the heavy lifting. We’re very happy to help make it a little bit more diverse.” EFCA’s recent activity EFCA’s website is no longer active, and the coalition has not tweeted since early 2017. However, one exception to the organization’s low profile is in Hawaii, where EFCA initiated new filings in 2018 because, Tesla says, the coalition is a known entity there. Even those recent filings, however, are vague about who is actually lobbying in the state. An EFCA filing in August 2018 stated, “EFCA Members provide solar and storage facilities and services in the State of Hawaii and/or are interested in expanding their provision of those services in the State.” The only identifiable non-Tesla companies, 1 Sun Solar Electric and Ecological Energy Systems, are based in Nevada and Tennessee, and show no signs of expanding to the Pacific. Tesla, by contrast, has a massive solar plus storage facility on the island of Kauai. Some of EFCA’s newer filings do reference Tesla, generally to note that the company owns SolarCity. Tim LaPira, Associate Professor of Political Science at James Madison University, notes that it is virtually unknown for a trade association to be owned and controlled by a single company. “It’s probably not illegal, but from a transparency perspective, it’s far, far from being ethical,” LaPira said. “When corporations lobby directly, there’s an understanding that they’re asking the government to do something to increase their profits. It’s a very different story when a credible trade association asks the government to do something because they’re not going to benefit directly — they’re asking for some common good. Tesla is trying to get the best of both worlds.” EFCA continues to lobby state utility commissions, for example proposing changes to net metering and energy storage rules in California last month. That document did not mention Tesla at all.

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posted about 19 hours ago on techcrunch
Hoping to entice more users to attach the Venmo MasterCard to their account, Venmo this morning announced it’s launching a “special edition” rainbow-colored version of its debit card that will only be available in limited quantities. Clearly, the idea here is to generate a sense of urgency around ordering the Venmo MasterCard as well as a desire to cater to Venmo users’ interest in more card varieties. The new rainbow card will be offered until supplies last, says Venmo. And existing card holders can choose to request the rainbow card as a replacement for their current card, if they choose. The card will be first offered to top cardholders on Friday, and will then be available to all Venmo users starting on March 4th, the company says. “We launched the LImited Edition rainbow card based on the positive response we received from our customers when we launched the initial set of six colorful cards,” a spokesperson for Venmo explained to TechCrunch. “We know our users love to pick a card color that best suits their own personality and style, so the card design is inspired by many of our existing card colors and gives our users an even more vibrant option for their wallets and at checkout,” they added. Venmo had first beta tested its debit card in 2017, with an ugly card that featured a photo of a lump of dough on it. (Get it? Dough.) But the company soon realized that young people care about how a card looks – and a photo of dough wasn’t cutting it. When Venmo launched the public version of the card last July, it instead opted for an array of colorful choices. Users could choose a solid white, black, yellow, pink, blue or green shade for their Venmo debit card. The rainbow version takes all those same colors and splashes them all over the card face. It’s…well…unique. But it’s not really all that pretty – especially since the card still has to feature the clashing red-and-orange MasterCard logo. The new card works the same as the old ones – allowing you to pay for things in the real world using your Venmo balance, as well as to easily split costs of purchases and tips, like you can do in the Venmo app. It’s not surprising that Venmo is trying out different card designs. Unique card styles have been proven to attract millennial customers. For example, part of the demand for Chase Sapphire Reserve Card is due to the fact that the card is made using a metallic alloy, instead of plastic. The company even ran out of the alloy for a time, because of the high demand. Today, there are a number of metal cards on the market, including the one from fintech startup Revolut, hoping to gain similar attention. In addition, newcomers are testing out colorful styles – SoFi, for instance, launched an aqua and green card last year. And savings app Acorns hired Ammunition, a design firm co-led longtime industrial designer for Apple, Robert Brunner, to design its card. But millennials often seem to prefer “fancy” to splashy, which is why Venmo rival Square went with a more formal design where it allows you to have your signature laser-printed on the card’s front. Venmo declined to say how many cards it has shipped to date, or how many limited edition cards are now available. The company claims demand is growing, however. “The Venmo card has seen strong interest from our customers,” a spokesperson noted. “We saw 300% month-over-month growth in monthly active card users from August to September 2018, and the top two purchase categories are supermarkets and restaurants as Venmo becomes a part of our user’s everyday spend,” they said.  

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posted about 20 hours ago on techcrunch
Showfields, which helps online brands move into offline, brick-and-mortar retail, is announcing that it’s raised $9 million in seed funding. “Our thesis was simple: Make the process of becoming physical as easy as becoming digital,” co-founder and CEO Tal Zvi Nathanel told me. I’ve written about other companies, like Bulletin, promising a more flexible approach to real-world retail. But one of the things that’s impressive about Showfields is the sheer size of its flagship space — Nathanel said the company has signed a lease for 14,000 square feet in New York City’s NoHo neighborhood. When I visited the Showfields store last week, only the first floor was open, but it’s already home to a number of brands, ranging from mattress company Boll & Branch, to fitness company Cityrow, to toothbrush company Quip. Each brand gets their own separate, dedicated space. For example, in the Cityrow space, I got to sit down and try out the rowing machine, while the Quip area had a mock-up bathroom sink to display the toothbrushes. “This space is about [the brand], not about Showfields,” Nathanel said. “We really look at ourselves as a stage.” He added that brands can sign-up online to create a pop-up store, providing input while Showfields designs and builds the space. The brand also decides which goods to sell in the store, and which ones to highlight via a touchscreen display. And they can choose whether to have a dedicated staff member, or to share staff with neighboring brands. Nathanel said the spaces can be designed around different goals — one brand might focus on driving sales, while another might simply want to grow consumer awareness. In each case, Showfields will also provide data sow they can see how the space is performing. The brands pay Showfields a monthly fee, with a minimum four-month commitment. Nathanel emphasized that Showfields doesn’t make any money on the product sales, which he said allows the company to offer a more “curated” and “customer-centric experience.” Ultimately, Nathanel said the Showfields approach can also result in a more varied and dynamic retail environment (after all, Showfields bills itself as “the most interesting store in the world.”) And naturally, he’s hoping to bring this to additional cities, though he declined to offer specifics, beyond saying, “Before the end of the year, we’re hoping to have more Showfields.” The seed funding was led by Hanaco Ventures, with participation from SWaN & Legend Venture Partners, Rainfall Ventures, Communitas Capital and IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond. In a statement, Hanaco General Partner Lior Prosor predicted the rise of “experiential retail,” which will be “focused on doing everything that e-commerce cannot do well – enabling discovery, trial, and the use of all five senses to come to a purchasing decision.” “We truly believe that by being consumer-centric at their core, [Showfields’] founding team and product will make them a category leader in this space,” Prosor said. The death of retail is greatly exaggerated

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posted about 20 hours ago on techcrunch
Circle makes a fantastic screen time management tool and today the company announced a round of funding to help fuel its growth. The $20 million series B included participation from Netgear and T-Mobile, along with Third Kind Venture Capital and follow-on investments from Relay Ventures and other Series A participants. With this round of funding, Circle has raised over $30 million to date including a Series A from 2017. According to the company, Circle intends to use the funds to expand its product offering and form new partnerships with hardware makers and mobile carriers. The timing is perfect. Parents are increasingly looking at ways to make sure children and teenagers do not become addicted to screens. Circle works different from other solutions attempting to limit screen time. It’s hardware based and sits plugged into a home’s network. It allows an administrator, like a parent, to easily restrict the amount of time a device, such as an iPhone owned by a child, is able to access the local network. It’s easy and that’s the point. Circle sits in a small, but growing field of services attempting to give parents the ability to limit their child’s screen time. Some of these solutions, like Apple’s, sits in the cloud and thought works well, is limited to iOS and Mac OS devices. Others, like those on Netgear’s Orbi products, offer a similar network-wide net, but is much harder to use than Circle. In my household we use tools like Circle. The lure of the screen is just too great and these solutions, when used in combination with traditional parenting, ensure my children stare into the real world — at least for a few minutes a day.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. What a week. It had looked a bit quiet with just a few big rounds to cover. I was looking forward to a relaxed episode, frankly. But no, as Kate and I were prepping the show notes, the News Gods opened the heavens and dropped a fifty-weight of mana right on our heads. It was a lot of news. In quick order, here’s what we tried to run through while keeping it brief: Pinterest has filed to go public, albeit privately. At long last, Pinterest’s IPO is underway. The social company is gunning for liquidity this year, could go public in June and is not targeting a down IPO. It’s looking like $12 billion and up for Big Pint. Lyft’s IPO is racing along. Lyft filed to go public back in December, dropping private filings neck-and-neck with Uber. The two ride-hailing companies are both slated to get out this year, but it seems that Lyft is going to lead the way. Even more, it’s tipped to get out at a $20 billion to $25 billion valuation. As grounding, here’s the best math I could come up with concerning those numbers. DoorDash gets $400 million more. The rumored DoorDash round has landed, though it’s shaped a bit differently than we expected. DoorDash did not raise $500 million at a $6 billion valuation, it instead picked up $100 million less, but at a stronger $7.1 billion valuation. And, of course, the Vision Fund was involved. More Vision Fund largesse lands on Clutter and Flexport. What’s a week with just one Vision Fund round? A waste, of course. So, here are two more. Clutter picked up $200 million while Flexport raised a much more impressive $1 billion. Clutter has now raised around $300 million while Flexport’s capital sheet is flush now to the tune of $1.3 billion. As we touched on during the show, the two companies are now going to have more money than they have ever had before to use; let’s hope that that goes well. Speaking of which, what about those valuations? Two quick things to wrap up here. First, discontent among Vision Fund investors. The Vision Fund’s LPs (the sources of its capital) aren’t perfectly happy with some of its choices. That, and what happened to people not taking blood money? We asked that again, probably shouting into the wind while we do so. As it turns out Silicon Valley capitalism isn’t a New Man; it’s just the same old capitalism in a sweater vest. All that and it was good to be back. Chat you all in a week’s time! Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

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posted about 22 hours ago on techcrunch
Crypto market prices may be down significantly, but new investors continue to enter the blockchain space. The latest is Recruit Holdings, the $45 billion Japanese internet giant that owns Glassdoor among other things, which quietly launched a $25 million fund. The fund is based out of Singapore and it closed in November 2018, but its existence was only made public this week following the announcement of its maiden deal, an undisclosed investment in Beam. Recruit has been very vocal about its intention to offer a crypto fund — I interviewed SVP Youngrok Kim at a Coindesk event in Singapore last year — while it has made equity investments in blockchain companies through its central corporate fund, Recruit Strategic Partners (RSP). The current RSP fund is $100 million and it is the company’s sixth. Now, with the crypto fund, Kim — who operates within both RSP and the new fund — said that Recruit is free to do deals in both tokens and equity and generally dive deeper into blockchain. “When we had an equity fund we weren’t as flexible as we wanted to be,” Kim told TechCrunch in a phone interview this week. “We weren’t in a position to buy tokens and assets. We will continue to have two vehicles, we will use the crypto fund and the RSP fund in tandem as needed.” That’s all well and good but, with the bubble popped, the number of ICOs is down but not quite out. The dynamics have certainly changed, with token sales now almost universally conducted privately rather than publicly, and for full-time investors and professionals rather than anyone. Still, Kim still sees ample reasons to operate a token-based fund. “We still see a lot of ICOs, the relative number is smaller but we still see a good amount of deal flow for token and equity raising. We are positive with the outlook,” he explained. “We’re a strong believer in blockchain and decentralized technology.” Beyond direct investments, the fund will also invest in other funds as an LP to help spread its reach. “Our investment area is broad, covering deep tech to the application layer too,” Kim explained. “We’re still conducting research to understand core technology and its potential. “We’re going to very cautious spending the fund, we seek to discover companies that will have a real impact and society and where we can contribute as Recruit,” he added, claiming that there are a number of upcoming deals in the pipeline. Recruit came on the radar for many in the U.S. through its acquisition of Glassdoor for $1.2 billion last year, but it is already a major name in digital space in Japan, as a recent Bloomberg profile story explained in some detail. Founded in 1960, it is listed on the Toyko Stock Exchange and valued at over $45 billion. It isn’t just big in Japan, though, and Recruit has some 45,000 employees across 60 countries worldwide. Its core services are recruitment and HR, but it also operates in the real estate, travel, dining and other segments. It has a history of acquisitions, some of which have included U.S-based Indeed.com (2012) and  Simply Hired (2016) as well as European services restaurant site Quandoo (2015), hair and beauty service Wahanda (2015) and education technology company Quipper (2015). Despite that, Kim said that he doesn’t anticipate that Recruit will acquire blockchain companies that the fund invests in because it is still early days for the technology in terms of development, adoption and monetization. But, with the fund, Recruit is determined to keep an eye on developments to ensure it doesn’t miss out on potentially significant innovation. Recruit isn’t the only corporate to start a crypto token fund. Line, another Japanese company that’s best known for its messaging app, launched a $10 million crypto fund last year while Korean rival Kakao has a blockchain consultancy and it is actively doing deals. Kakao made its first blockchain investment in December when it backed Israeli-based Orbs in an undisclosed deal. Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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posted about 23 hours ago on techcrunch
Apple is looking to get over its sales woes in China but offering prospective customers interest-free financing with a little help from Alibaba. Apple’s China website now offers financing packages for iPhones that include zero percent interest packages provided in association with several banks and Huabei, a consumer credit company operated by Alibaba’s Ant Financial unit, as first noted by Reuters. The Reuters report further explains the packages on offer: On its China website, Apple is promoting the new scheme, under which customers can pay 271 yuan ($40.31) each month to purchase an iPhone XR, and 362 yuan each month for an iPhone XS. Customers trading in old models can get cheaper installments. Users buying products worth a minimum of 4,000 yuan worth from Apple would qualify for interest-free financing that can be paid over three, six, nine, 12 or 24 months, the website shows. Apple is also offering discounts for customers who trade in devices from the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi and others. The deals are an interesting development that comes just weeks after Apple cut revenue guidance for its upcoming Q1 earnings. The firm trimmed its revenue from the $89 billion-$93 billion range to $84 billion on account of unexpected “economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China.” Offering attractive packages may convince some consumers to buy an iPhone, but there’s a lingering sense that Apple’s current design isn’t sparking interest from Chinese consumers. Traditionally, it has seen a sales uptick around the launch of iPhones that offer a fresh design and the current iPhone XR, XS and XS Max line-up bears a strong resemblance to the one-year-old iPhone X. The first quarter of a new product launch results in a sales spike in China, but Q2 sales — the quarter after the launch — are where devices can underwhelm. It’ll be interesting to see if Apple offers similar financing in India, where it saw sales drop by 40 percent in 2018 according to The Wall Street Journal. Apple’s market share, which has never been significant, is said to have halved from two percent to one percent over the year. Finance is a huge issue for consumers in India, where aggressively priced by capable phones from Chinese companies like Xiaomi or OnePlus dominate the market in terms of sales volume. With the iPhone costing multiples more than top Android phones, flexible financing could help unlock more sales in India. China, however, has long been a key revenue market for Apple so it figures that this strategy is happening there first.

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