Surviving The Technical Cambrian Explosion

Surviving The Technical Cambrian Explosion
I’ve been doing a lot of recruiting lately. My employers HappyFunCorp are in the midst of another growth spurt. One of my most illuminating questions is: “What’s your strategy for keeping up-to-date with the Cambrian explosion of technical frameworks, languages, databases, templating systems, and so forth?” Everyone has a strategy — but nobody seems to feel that theirs is particularly good.
On the one hand, it’s an amazing, exciting time to be a software engineer. New and powerful tools and techniques seem to emerge every week, nearly always almost ready for prime time. But at the same time, ours has become a perpetually bewildering field. Say you’re building a web site. Should you use Angular or React for your front end? (And when you say Angular, do you mean Angular 1.0 or 2.0?) What about Ember, or Meteor?
As for your back end: what language, and what framework? Ruby/Rails? Python/Django? A LAMP stack? Go seems cool. People say C# is great. Java is still very popular, and people you respect say good things about Scala, or you could even get hardcore-slash-weird with Erlang or, hell, Haskell. As for your datastore: SQL? NoSQL? Some combination of the two, say Postgres and Redis? What if you’ve got a lot of data? Is Hadoop still worth pursuing? What about a graph database, like GraphX atop Spark?
You might think building mobile apps would be so much easier. You would be wrong. You could wrote your iOS app in Objective-C, or in Swift … but those are by no means the only two choices. What about Xamarin, so you can target all mobile platforms? Or React Native? Or PhoneGap? Or a Unity app? And don’t forget that you now have to code for half-a-dozen different iPhone and iPad sizes. As for Android, I mean, don’t even get me started.
I’ve written about this in a tongue-in-cheek manner before, but it actually is a real problem on several different levels. Choosing the wrong tool for the job implies scads of technical debt. If the tool is not suited for the problem. Or if it is suited for the problem, but no one else in your organization knows the tool, and it has a K2-like learning curve. Or if the time and effort spent figuring out which tool to use is greater than the time and effort you gain from using it.
All this in a larger context of ever-increasing connectivity … and complexity. Zeynep Tufekci wrote an excellent piece about complexity and technical debt a couple of months ago:
A lot of software is now old enough to be multi-layered … A lot of new code is written very very fast … Essentially, there is a lot of equivalent of “duct-tape” in the code, holding things together … As software eats the world, it gets into more and more complex situations where code is interacting with other code, data, and with people, in the wild … This is a bit like knowing you have a chronic condition, but pretending that the costs you will face are limited to those you will face this month.
Everyone loves machine learning, it’s hot, it’s sexy, startup after startup claims it’s their “secret sauce” and their “moat” — an unpleasant image, we can all agree — but at the same time, machine learning is sometimes described as “the high-interest credit card of technical debt … it is remarkably easy to incur massive ongoing maintenance costs at the system level when applying machine learning” because of its opacity and complexity.
I find myself going back to this smart and pragmatic piece by Richard Marr about technical debt:
Tech Debt has both a cost and a value … Just like financial debt, and every other tool since the first sharp rock, it’s a tool you should use carefully to your advantage … The value of debt comes from early delivery. Its value is highest when there’s product uncertainty … Companies at different stages have different tolerance for debt … Data model debt costs more … Languages and frameworks can be debt too.
That last statement, especially, rings increasingly true. I put it to you that this Cambrian explosion of tools and techniques, coupled with our increasing complex interconnectivity of systems (while both excellent things in and of themselves, in many ways!) can and often do make it all too easy for our collective technical debt to grow to alarming levels, like student loans in America.
Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use new tools, techniques, and frameworks. On the contrary: we should be eager to do so. But we should be cautious about using them for their own sake, and/or for problems that we already know how to solve. At HFC, where we build a lot of Rails web sites and APIs, we’ve grouped a bunch of existing Ruby gems into a seed gem that we use for most new projects, to deal with the “standard” web plumbing quickly so that we can get to the interesting problems. I was a little skeptical about this at first — it seemed a bit too one-size-fits-all — but it’s working out remarkably well.
The lesson, I think, is this: in general, as a rule of thumb, to a first approximation, you should mostly try to use new tools and technologies for new kinds of problems, or ones that have not yet been solved well, rather than constantly trying to redo everything in yet another language/framework in the hopes that this time it will turn out to be The One True Solution. As is so often the case in software, iteration, rather than revolution, seems the wisest path.

Tackling A $5.5 Trillion Market, Betterment Enters The 401(k) World

Tackling A $5.5 Trillion Market, Betterment Enters The 401(k) World
There’s a savings crisis in America.
Despite the $5.5 trillion Americans have invested in savings plans to prepare for their retirement, too few have still saved too little to make life comfortable in their later years.
The numbers speak for themselves, with roughly 30.9% of the population with no retirement savings or pension plan. For millennials, many of whom were late to the job market thanks to the financial crisis of 2008, those numbers are actually just above 50%.
Stepping into the breach is the automated wealth management service Betterment. The New York-based company is announcing a 401(k) retirement service, called Betterment for Business, aimed to make it easier for employers to establish, administrators to manage, and employees to monitor retirement savings plans, according to the company.
Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 6.59.04 PM
Credit: Center for American Progress
Folks who enroll in the new service (which launches in 2016) will get advice on how to invest their money with a holistic view of their income and existing retirement benefits through Social Security, according to Betterment chief executive Jonathan Stein.
“This is a replacement for the shitty 401(k) system we have today,” Stein said in an interview.
Betterment has already signed up several undisclosed companies for its 401(k) service instead of going with larger asset managers. Mostly the company is culling its customers from the pool of early-stage startups like Earnest, which often don’t have the capacity or cash to set up a more traditional 401(k) plan.
“Most tech startups want these, but can’t have them because they’re too difficult to set up,” says Stein.
The new service from Betterment represents the first new bundled retirement plan provider to launch in the U.S. within the last 30 years, virtually since the passage of the Employee Retirement and Investment Savings Act in 1974, according to the company.
The company’s service will automatically work to ensure plans are compliant with regulations, and will leverage the same investment tools the company uses to monitor investments for its customers in its new retirement plan.
Plan participants will be investing in a portfolio of index-tracking exchange-traded funds (ETFs), in much the same way that Betterment’s retail accounts are managed. Using Betterment, participants can also open taxable investment accounts, traditional and Roth IRAs, and trust accounts.
There’s no upfront fee for employers with more than $1 million in assets and Betterment charges a fee ranging from 10 to 60 basis points, which Stein says make them the lowest cost plans in the industry.
Credit: National Institute On Retirement Security
Credit: National Institute On Retirement Security
“This is something that’s always been on our roadmap,” says Stein. “It’s something that we’ve been talking about since we launched at TechCrunch five years ago.”
The tipping point, says Stein, was his own experience with 401(k) plans. “We’ve been thinking about it in the bakcground and building for it for a long time. What pushed us to do it now was that we set up a 401(k) plan for our employees and it was such a trying process. It was so hard to find to prepare it to compare prices.” So the company built their own.
While Betterment’s offer may make things easier for employers to set up plans, it’s still no silver bullet for the coming retirement crisis if employees don’t take advantage of the tools available to them.
Stein hopes by making the process as easy and transparent as possible, it’ll take some of the confusion out of the experience and get more people to sock money away in retirement plan instead of stowing it under a mattress.

Apple Addresses Privacy Questions About ‘Hey Siri’ And Live Photo Features

Apple Addresses Privacy Questions About ‘Hey Siri’ And Live Photo Features
Though Apple has long been vocal about its stance on security and privacy, it has recently begun utilizing that stance as a sales tool. If you’d like to keep personal data — anonymized or not — to yourself as much as possible, the company has messaged, then you should invest in Apple hardware.
That policy, of course, requires extra examination when Apple launches features that require data to be sent off of your phone in order to be effective. The ‘Hey Siri’ feature, for instance, now no longer requires that your phone be plugged in to power to be active. An ‘always listening’ phone logically raises some questions about how that data will be handled, transmitted and sent. Live Photos, as well, are a new wrinkle — photographs with audio and motion attached.
These new features have raised some questions about how Apple will maintain user privacy. Our own Natasha Lomas covered some of those queries this morning. In a Q&A provided to TechCrunch, Apple has attempted to address them.
That information, along with some knowledge I’ve gleaned from talking to folks around town this week, makes the answers to some of these questions clearer.

Live Photos

Live Photos are a new kind of iPhone image ‘format’ that look like a normal picture until you ‘force touch’ them (tap and push). When you do so, the photo comes alive with a bit of motion and audio — 1.5 seconds before the picture and 1.5 seconds after it.
Live Photos are treated almost exactly like any other photo shot on an iPhone. This means that they’re encrypted, both at rest and in transit to iCloud.
Because Live Photos record motion before your still image, they are continuously buffered beginning the moment you open your camera app and see the Live icon (orange circle) at the top of your screen. Apple says that this 1.5 second recording only happens when the camera is on, and this information is not permanently saved until you take a picture, period. Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 4.26.15 PM
“Although the camera is “recording” while you’re in Live Photo mode, the device will not save the 1.5 seconds before until you press the camera button,” says Apple. “The pre-captured images are not saved to the user’s device nor are they sent off the device.”
The 1.5 seconds after the still capture are also recorded because you’ve tapped the camera button in live mode. 
From what we’ve gleaned, Live Photos are a single 12-megapixel image and a paired motion format file, likely a .mov. They are presented together by iOS but are actually separate entities tied to one another. This means that you can send a Live Photo to someone as a still image if you choose — or save it as a still image separately. You do not have to include the motion format. If you want someone else to be able to view them as Live Photos, of course, they have to be running iOS 9 or above. The total size of a Live Photo varies like any compressed image, but on average it takes up roughly the space of two 12-megapixel images.
“We treat privacy and security of Live Photos the same that we do for existing Photos and Videos. They don’t leave the device for any reason unless you purposely share it or elect to use iCloud,” says the company.  
The Live Photos feature is on by default but can be turned off with a tap of the icon.

Hey Siri

Perhaps the larger question is how does not having to have your iPhone plugged in affect the privacy of Apple’s ‘Hey Siri’ feature? Being able to say the phrase at any time to activate Siri is convenient, but raises some questions about what Apple means by ‘listening’ and whether any of that stuff is recorded.
Hey Siri is an optional feature that is enabled by an opt-in step in iOS 9’s setup. You can choose never to enable it. If you do enable it, nothing is ever recorded in any way before the feature is triggered.
“In no case is the device recording what the user says or sending that information to Apple before the feature is triggered,” says Apple.
Instead, audio from the microphone is continuously compared against the model, or pattern, of your personal way of saying ‘Hey Siri’ that you recorded during setup of the feature. Hey Siri requires a match to both the ‘general’ Hey Siri model (how your iPhone thinks the words sound) and the ‘personalized’ model of how you say it. This is to prevent other people’s voices from triggering your phone’s Hey Siri feature by accident.
Until that match happens, no audio is ever sent off of your iPhone. All of that listening and processing happens locally.
“The “listening” audio, which will be continuously overwritten, will be used to improve Siri’s response time in instances where the user activates Siri,” says Apple. The keyword there being ‘activates Siri.’ Until you activate it, the patterns are matched locally, and the buffer of sound being monitored (from what I understand, just a few seconds) is being erased, un-sent and un-used — and unable to be retrieved at any point in the future.
Of course, as has always been the case with Siri, once a match is made and a Siri command is sent off to Apple, it’s associated with your device using a random identifier, not your Apple ID or another personalized piece of info. That information is then ‘approved’ for use in improving the service, because you’ve made an explicit choice to ask Apple’s remote servers to answer a query.
“If a user chooses to turn off Siri, Apple will delete the User Data associated with the user’s Siri identifier, and the learning process will start all over again,” says Apple.
The subtext here, of course, is the constant battle Apple will have to wage to balance the data needs of its more advanced personalization and convenience features with its relatively hardcore position on user privacy.
Could Apple do more if it continuously sent (anonymized) data back to its servers regardless of a personalized Siri match? Surely. It would give its data scientists a ton more data to work with to make the service better at a more rapid clip. And the argument could be made that since the data was anonymized, no harm is done. That’s certainly the argument that Google uses to provide better Google Now services and to utilize the data to target ads.
But because Apple has explicitly challenged itself to move as little data as possible off of your local device, and to keep that data internal (not sharing it with partners), it will need to stay solidly on the conservative side of the line with any features like Hey Siri and Live Photos.
And it will doubtless have to answer questions like these any time it pushes the boundaries of what is possible with its cloud services.

Study: Free Stuff Won’t Convince Bloggers To Write About Your Startup

Study: Free Stuff Won’t Convince Bloggers To Write About Your Startup
Once upon a time a startup sent me a full gasoline can full of coffee beans. These beans, once infused by the malodorous fumes of the plastic container, were useless. The can, which was fairly small, was never used and eventually recycled. In the end, a PR company probably charged a startup $10,000 to send me and about 200 other bloggers trash. The pitch was memorable in itself but I cannot tell you who sent these beans nor did I ever write about the startup.
And thus we learn that no, free stuff doesn’t sway bloggers. This has been proven, in fact, by Marcia DiStaso, associate professor of public relations at Penn State. She studied about 200 bloggers and video reviewers, asking them basic questions about review behavior.
After the announcement of FTC rules that said bloggers had to reveal compensation they received from companies for reviews, DiStaso asked a number of bloggers about how they reacted to PR people offering free product or even cash for a review. What she discovered is that bloggers would rarely if ever offer a positive review for free product and that the PR/blogger relationship actually “empowered” the blogger to be more critical. Many of the bloggers studied ran tech blogs, a space that is rife with free product giveaways (Side note: all of the bloggers, to a (wo)man I have ever worked with or met refused freebies outright and return all product. Some try not to even take food at events.)
“Of course, bloggers might receive a new iPhone, or whatever latest tool or product that’s out there, and that’s why they are writing about it,” said DiStaso. “Technology is the most common area where this happens.”
But the bloggers surveyed agreed that “writing positive reviews for bad products would hurt their credibility with their followers and that might hurt their readership” and that ethical PR companies “would not enter into that type of agreement.”
I’ve been blogging for 15 years and I’ve reviewed products regularly. I have a basement full of boxes for gear ready to go back and the simple thought of having another gadget enter my home is exhausting. Therefore I’m with DiStaso: if you’re a blogger who’s in it for the free junk then you’re probably not going to do very well. If you’re fair with companies, open with PR companies, and level-headed with reviews then you’re going to have a long and happy life. The take-home for startups, however, is that they should stop sending swag like gas cans full of coffee beans. Don’t send trash.

CrunchWeek: Slack, Diversity, And Have You Heard Of Apple?

CrunchWeek: Slack, Diversity, And Have You Heard Of Apple?
Welcome back to CrunchWeek, friends. We are glad that you are here. Very glad in fact, because the TC crew has new digs. New in that we just rebuilt a large chunk of the office — not new in that it’s the same space as before.
But now it’s better, so we dragooned Megan Rose Dickey and Lucas Matney to come in and chat about the week’s most important stories: Slack’s diversity figures, Apple’s diversity statistics and, of course, those new iPhones that I hear are a thing.
iPad Pro?
We are excited about the new studio, but it’s worth noting that the build out wrapped last night, so things are not precisely as we want them. Lighting, and so forth, will be sorted in short order. The TechCrunch video crew is the best in the business, and will be tweaking in real time.
For now, welcome back to our new home, and do drop by. The Red Bull is always cold.

Welcome To Hipster Hell, Tumblr Now Has Its Own Clothing Line

Welcome To Hipster Hell, Tumblr Now Has Its Own Clothing Line
If the pervasiveness of shitty memes on the web weren’t enough, it seems they’re soon going to be inhabiting the real world… worn by people walking on the streets of Earth.
Tumblr just announced a new clothing line designed by 10 different Tumblr artists at New York Fashion Week, The New York Times reports.
Valentine Uhovski, Tumblr’s “fashion evangelist,” told the Times:
“We wanted every look to feel like a Tumblr post,” said Valentine Uhovski, Tumblr’s fashion evangelist. “When you enter the pop-up shop, you’ll feel like you’re inside of a Tumblr dashboard.”
The blogging/sharing/gif-ing cult of Tumblr actually has some amazingly talented artists, but the annoying fashion that has already been influenced by Tumblr isn’t leaving me too optimistic for the collection.
The crazy, colorful designs will be plastered onto dresses, backpacks, raincoats and more, all available online starting next week through Print All Over Me and this weekend at 339 West 38th Street in NYC.

Rep A Cause With Facebook’s New Temporary Profile Pics

Rep A Cause With Facebook’s New Temporary Profile Pics
Your profile picture is the message you send most. There’s no easier, more ubiquitous way to raise awareness for a cause then splashing your pic rainbow for gay rights or green to promote the Arab Spring.
Now Facebook is giving people a tool to leverage this tiny billboard. With its new Temporary Profile Picture feature that’s slated for a broader rollout, you can change your pic but have it revert to your old one after a set number of hours, days or weeks.
While it could prevent stale memes from squatting in people’s profile pics, the feature could also encourage pics that don’t show people’s faces, making them harder to identify at a glance. You can argue it’s a shallow way to support a cause, but it’s better than total apathy. Still, people who really want to make a difference might consider sharing links to donate time or money to related charities instead of just this clicktivism.
TempProfilePicI received a report of the feature from one of TechCrunch’s readers (thanks Suki B aka @ForkToPen), and when asked to confirm the sightings, Facebook admitted it’s testing the feature with a small number of users, and hopes to roll it out more broadly in the coming months.
Unfortunately we don’t have an image of the actual expiration selector right now, but the company explains:
“We often see people use their profile pictures to support a cause, root for a team, and commemorate milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. Today, we’re testing a new feature that allows you to set a temporary profile picture for a specified period of time. Temporary profile pictures make it easier to to express who you are and how you’re feeling at a given moment, without having to worry about changing your profile picture back later.”
Those with the feature will see the option to set an expiration date when they select a new profile picture. When the expiration date hits, their profile pic reverts back to their old one without publishing a News Feed story announcing the change. Their temporary one will still be visible in their album of profile pics.
Facebook is wise to inform its product roadmap with the emergent behaviors of its users. At least 26 million users turned their profiles rainbow to suppor the right to gay marriage. In some ways, the feature could help prevent awkward situations where people end up with a profile photo related to a passed campaign or expired meme.
But the feature also has the potential to make Facebook tougher to use. Profile pictures appear all over the app, and being able to quickly recognize a friend from their familiar headshot makes the app less cognitively taxing. If everyone uses temporary profile pics that don’t show their faces, it makes their friends’ feeds feel more foreign, and it forces them to read their name to know who they are.
It’s a double-edged sword, but Facebook clearly thinks it will make the social network more current than chaotic.

Performance Evaluations In A Results-Focused Culture

Performance Evaluations In A Results-Focused Culture
Netflix’s culture deck has been a source of inspiration for many businesses since it was first published five years ago. In it, Netflix argues that companies must find a balance between flexibility and responsibility. Afford employees the freedom to thrive and they will reward the company with outstanding performance; emphasize purpose, honesty and good judgment to attract top-tier talent. But, like a professional sports team, if an employee is not performing, you owe it to your company to find someone better suited for the role.
Measuring actual performance, particularly in white-collar work, can be challenging. It requires goal setting, quality evaluation, feedback and a lot of qualitative judgment. It’s fair to say that most founders and managers find these tasks difficult. Personality and cohesion matter as much as benchmarked success. For instance, Netflix notes that they don’t tolerate “brilliant jerks” because “cost to effective teamwork is too high.” But how is it possible to quantify someone’s “fit” while also stressing high performance?
A majority of companies use qualitative performance reviews — or feedback that reflects comments and observations of an employee’s performance in a non-numerical manner. Eventbrite is a good example of this. Their head of HR, Emily Couey, states, “Leaders and Britelings (Eventbrite employees) discuss performance quarterly based on results and behaviors — what people did, and how they did it.” She adds, “We find performance reviews help our employees feel connected to the mission of the organization and part of the team as a whole.” And that may be paying off — Eventbrite’s overall Glassdoor score is an astounding 4.7/5.
But qualitative reviews are incredibly time-consuming, can be imprecise and often are not overly helpful in identifying opportunities for development. They also are necessarily subjective, which can lead to erroneous feedback.
Quantitative reviews can help address these issues. Numbers cut a sharp line between who performs and who fails to meet standards. They also eliminate the pressure to measure performance based on face time. But what and how much is being measured is still fallible to human error — and it can instill a culture of competition rather than cooperation, as Vanity Fair reported of Microsoft in 2012. The magazine also noted that the “rank and yank” system incentivized managers to “horse trade” team members in review sessions. Microsoft abandoned ranking employees in 2013.
Direct, objective feedback increases employee productivity.
A holistic, or combined qualitative/quantitative approach, values both the employee’s “fit” while also pushing benchmarks for performance. That’s how Facebook does it (and they have a Glassdoor review rating of 4.5/5). According to Molly Graham, who helped build Facebook’s performance-management system, employees are evaluated semi-annually. They elicit feedback from peers, and write a personal assessment and a manager assessment. Their manager then provides the employee with a rating of their performance. Facebook does have a curve, but it is not always a predictor of who is fired.
While certainly effective, evaluating and calculating Facebook’s employees’ contributions to the company and team is not time-efficient. That’s where software can help.
Two companies stand out with their use of software for evaluations. The first is Zappos, which uses an in-house, 360-degree software to help evaluate their employees. Kelly Wolske, a senior trainer at Zappos, says, “Culture is something that we operationalize [in our performance reviews]. It’s just as important to exhibit our culture as doing your job.”
The second standout company, SAS, uses performance-evaluation software called Workday. Jenn Mann, SAS Vice President of Human Resources, told me in an interview, “Our approach has moved away from the traditional one-time a year performance review… that supports ongoing conversations for high performance, as well as discussions about development and career growth.” She adds, “This approach is effective because it encourages innovation and creativity while promoting accountability and high levels of performance.”
Studies have shown that direct, objective feedback increases employee productivity, and software is a great way to save time while doing so. It balances qualitative and quantitative measures, allowing companies to save time, evaluate a person holistically and maintain clear benchmarks. I expect it to play a key role in the rise of performance-based cultures across more and more businesses.

The Nest Is Being Robbed

The Nest Is Being Robbed
Another day, another Tweetstorm by Chris Sacca about Twitter’s CEO situation. His tune is the same, with the volume turned up ever so slightly. Most importantly, the signal he’s sending out is very similar to an S.O.S.
Since July 1st, Twitter’s interim CEO has been Jack Dorsey, and the chatter around who would be the next permanent CEO, succeeding Dick Costolo, has been nonstop. The chatter is fair because the situation is odd: Co-Founder and former CEO returns as interim CEO while being the CEO of another company.
I’m sure that if one of the board members came out of the board membery room they sit in once in a while, they’d say “There’s a process and we’re going through that process.” But we’re talking about a company and product that is built on real-time and freely flowing information. Basically, the opposite of whatever “process” is happening right now behind closed doors. I’m sure that both outside and inside candidates have been interviewed until the cows come home, but no decision has been made. And if you think it’s dragging on, how the hell do you think the most important people, the employees, feel about it?

This. Is. A. Distraction.

No matter how much support Dorsey gets because of his co-founder status, there’s still an interim at the beginning of his title. Interim is the opposite of permanent. Permanent breeds confidence and cuts down on distractions. You get the picture.
What happens when employees are distracted and the future is uncertain? They start spending more and more time wondering when it’ll be less distracting and more certain. The new ideas they have and the excitement about what the company is doing slows down. There’s a bit more stress. While they’re thinking about all of that, the phone is ringing off the hook and the emails are piling up in the inbox. Who are they from? Recruiters. Probably the same recruiters that some of the employees have fought off before with “Hey, no thanks, I’m in a great spot right now.”
Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 4.23.00 PM
The pitch of “Hey, you don’t have a CEO right now and the stock isn’t doing so hot” starts sounding more and more like how employees feel. “Yeah, they’re right. What if we never bounce back?” A few streets over at Uber, recruiters for all types of positions are lighting up those phones and inboxes. One person familiar with the situation calls it a “scraping of talent” from Twitter. That’s not good.
So sure, there’s a process. And that process is clearly none of the media’s business or Twitter’s users’ business, or even their cowboy investor’s business. But it’s sure as hell those valued employees’ business. And even the best companies in the world at internal communications lose pockets of great people because of internal chatter, rumors and frustration. That’s exactly what’s happening right now, multiple people familiar with the company have told me.
Now sure, hiring a permanent CEO isn’t going to fix all of Twitter’s problems. Even if they do keep Dorsey on full time, there will be questions about also running Square, or a subtle reminder of something he didn’t do correctly during his first tour of duty…but it’s a start. It can help Twitter triage any damage this whole thing has caused.
Yes Twitter is “different” than most companies and Twitter employees are “different” than most employees, but we’re all human. Eventually people just get tired of not knowing what they feel like they should know. And they leave. Or worse, never come in the first place.
We don’t know half the story of who has left the nest — I’m sure there’s tons of engineering and marketing talent that don’t make headlines. But that damage causes corrosion and that corrosion kills execution.
It’s the exact opposite of what’s going on at Facebook, which is executing at a super high level, attracting talent, hiring executives that have in the past or could in the future run their own company. Google even took a step back with its Alphabet approach to make sure that it keeps its growing talent pool full of great minds.
Facebook is a well-oiled machine and Twitter is rumored to be chasing its publishing strategy. Wouldn’t an Uber recruiter email look good to you right now if you were the latter?

Translation Startup Unbabel Unveils New Smartcheck Technology

Translation Startup Unbabel Unveils New Smartcheck Technology
Unbabel, a startup backed by Y Combinator, that combines human editing and machine learning into an online translation platform, announced a new feature today called Smartcheck.
The system consists of a translation service built on top of an intelligent translation engine. Translators sign up for work, then customers looking for translators can search by language, business skills and so forth. The platform currently supports 22 languages and 45 language pairs such as Spanish to English.
The smart part comes in because the translation system actually learns from the translations happening within its system. It begins to recognize translation patterns, so that if it sees a particular way of translating a phrase, it will learn that is the correct way of saying it — essentially learning what’s correct and what isn’t.
“So over time the system gets smarter and better. It monitors the behavior of the editors and reports [common] translation mistakes back to the community,”Unbabel CEO Vasco Pedro told TechCrunch.
The customer pays a per-word price, and the goal of Unbabel is for translators to translate at least 800 words an hour. Since the translators are paid by the hour, the faster they go, the more Unbabel makes. That’s why it’s in their best interest to find ways to speed up the process, while reducing errors.
That’s the goal behind the new Smartcheck feature.
The new feature helps translators as they go through the translation process, not only pointing out possible errors, but also offering helpful hints about how to correct the problem.
Shows example of the Unbabel Smartcheck feature.
“As the translator types the translation, it gives them hints and highlights areas that need work,” Pedro explained.
This could be as simple as a spelling issue, telling the translator to avoid subjective words or that the writing style is not in line with the customer’s.
The system learns what these hints are from monitoring the translator work inside the translation engine. This the point where the human and machine parts of the system begin to align.
The company currently has about 32,000 translators on the platform with 380 customers. In July it had its best month ever, surpassing $100,000 in monthly revenue for the first time, according to Pedro.
It is in the process of moving to a subscription model where customers pay a fixed rate up to a certain of number of translated words.
The company participated in the Y Combinator Winter 2014 class and has raised $1.5M.

3D Touch Will Change The Way You Use Your iPhone

3D Touch Will Change The Way You Use Your iPhone
3D Touch Will Change The Way You Use Your iPhoneDon’t call it Force Touch — Apple’s new flagship feature 3D Touch is a completely different software implementation of the technology that is already available on the Apple Watch and the new MacBook trackpad. 3D Touch is by far the most important improvement in the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. It’s going to change the way we interact with our phones.
But first, let’s talk about what 3D Touch is and what it can do. Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi called it “the next generation of multi-touch.” While this is a hyperbolic marketing statement, it is somewhat true.
With your current phone, you can tap, swipe and pinch on your screen. These three gestures alone were already huge as they changed the way designers worked — you can’t design a website like an app. Over the years, many clever gestures appeared to make you do stuff faster.
For example, Loren Brichter introduced pull-to-refresh in feed-based apps with his Twitter client, Tweetie 2.0. Path 2.0 introduced clever floating shortcuts. Facebook invented the hamburger menu that is now slowly going out of fashion. Snapchat made swipeable menus popular. Mailbox, Tinder and so many other apps invented neat little ways to replace simple on-screen buttons.
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All these innovations were pushing mobile design forward along with OS-based gestures, such as Control Center and the Notifications screen. But how do you go to the next level and invent new ways to be more productive on your phone? It turns out the answer was right in front of us all along. Even though a pinch and a swipe are very different, these are all 2D-based gestures.
Apple renamed Force Touch into 3D Touch for this exact reason — the company just upgraded the iPhone’s display with a third dimension when it comes to user experience. This might be one of iOS 9’s most important features, and we just saw it a week before iOS 9 is going to be released on September 16.
As always, Apple is leading by example and showing what you can do with this entirely new field of gestures. At first, app developers are going to mimic Apple’s gestures, then they are going to invent brand new ways and thrive with innovative and clever gestures.
So here’s what we saw on stage at Apple’s event. The most important 3D Touch use case lets you peek into content — this way, you can preview an email, a photo, a link, an address, a message and go right back to where you were. It saves you a couple of taps and breaks the traditional tree hierarchy. In many ways, this feature is reminiscent of Quick Look on OS X.
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When you are done peeking, you have three options. You can press a little deeper to actually go into this email, message or calendar view. You can remove your finger and go back to your feed, email list or camera view.
More interesting, you can also swipe up a little to load a few actions. For example, it’s a good way to flag an email or forward it. This smooth gesture makes sense on a touch screen as you’d rather swipe your finger around the display than load an email thread, look for the menu, press it, find the forward button and hit it.
Another way to know that 3D Touch is an important design innovation, this option menu that you access by peeking into some content and swiping up is basically what Force Touch is on the Apple Watch — and just that. 3D Touch lets you do so much more on the iPhone.
Apple also implemented 3D Touch-based home screen shortcuts. Let’s say you want to call one of your favorite contact. You can deep press on the Phone icon and find your favorite contact in a pop-up menu. Press your contact’s name and you’re done. For tab-based apps, it can be a nice shortcut as you can go directly to the right tab. In other words, it saves you a tap.
Finally, there are operating system-level gestures as well. You can press from the left side of the home screen to load the multitasking view, or press hard on the keyboard to turn it into a trackpad to move your cursor around.
All of these gestures work in conjunction with Apple’s Taptic Engine to provide you with haptic feedback. The screen won’t move, but you will get feedback from your phone.

But this is just part of the story as developers are going to take advantage of that as well. We saw a few third-party examples on stage, such as Instagram. In Instagram, you can press on the home screen icon to go directly to the activity tab. You can also press on a photo when you’re looking at a grid view to expand a particular Instagram post.
These are some nice day one examples, but I can’t wait to see game developers, drawing apps and photo editing apps take advantage of 3D Touch. Now, there are a few unanswered questions as well.
As 3D Touch will only be available on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, very few people will get the new feature at first. iPad and old iPhone users don’t want to be left out — and don’t forget that the iPhone 6 and 5s are still on sale. That’s why developers need to keep in mind that 3D Touch needs to remain optional for the next few years until the rest of the lineup gets an upgrade.
It’s unclear whether Android OEMs are going to copy Apple on this feature, but multi-platform app developers will also have to keep in mind that the Android version of their apps won’t get pressure-based gestures any time soon.
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And yet, I can’t help but think that 3D Touch is one of the biggest mobile user experience innovations of the decade. Other phone manufacturers have experimented with clickable displays, but only Apple can pull it off.
Apple is going to sell tens of millions of iPhone 6s, creating a healthy user base of 3D Touch users. But 3D Touch isn’t obvious — there isn’t any on-screen buttons to show you what you can do by pressing on your screen.
The company also has one of the best launching platforms in the world with its keynotes. Millions of people are watching, reading and following these keynotes. They are learning how you’re supposed to interact with your phone thanks to these carefully crafted presentations. On iPhone 6s launch day, millions of people will already know what you can do with 3D Touch. And those who don’t will have friends who do.
But will these new iPhone 6s owners want to use 3D Touch? Yes, they will. For the same reason that you swipe left and right in Tinder instead of pressing the like and dislike buttons, you’ll want a faster way to get things done. I think it’s going to require a bit of adaptation as many people will long touch instead of pressing.
Eventually, it’s going to become as effortless as looking at your notifications. 3D Touch isn’t a nice addition for power users, this is a mainstream feature.

The Founder Of Firefox Wrote His Own Screenplay For HBO’s Silicon Valley And It’s Hilarious

The Founder Of Firefox Wrote His Own Screenplay For HBO’s Silicon Valley And It’s Hilarious
HBO’s Silicon Valley is a show pretty much based on an entire industry’s lack of self-awareness. Richard, Erlich and the rest of Pied Piper are always cringingly painful to watch as they thrive in a startup culture that is just so entertaining to dissect.
The show just finished up its second season and the third doesn’t begin for another eight months. To most fans that’s just a bummer.
Blake Ross, a guy who knows a thing or two about startups (he founded Firefox and previously worked at Facebook and Netscape), took it more to heart.
Last night, Ross published an original screenplay of a new episode of the show on his site, saying in a Facebook post, “I couldn’t wait 8 more months for season 3 of Silicon Valley to start, so I spent the past 48 hours writing my own episode. It picks up where season 2 left off.”
What results is a screenplay that’s hilariously on-point, complete with some ridiculous antics from the central characters who move through a plot line involving Richard hiring his own CEO replacement while juggling the possibility of moving his company to be open-source.
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Give the full thing a read here.
What is perhaps coolest about this screenplay is that it’s written by a guy that’s spent his whole life at the forefront of some pretty high-profile tech companies. Ross came to Silicon Valley as a wiz kid at age 14 and has spent his whole life navigating the bizarre culture where he said he’s seen “some pretty ridiculous things.”.
I caught up with Ross and he revealed some of his inspirations for the episode and how he thinks everyone who writes for the show should probably have to work for AOL for at least a year to get a true sense of how crazy this place is.
Below is the full Q&A with Ross:

TC: So what inspired you to do this?
BR: I came out to work in Silicon Valley when I was 14, so I basically came of age here and have seen some pretty ridiculous things.
I write about them in essays sometimes, but I wanted to try expressing my love and hate for this place through the awesome characters they’ve created on the show.
TC: What main things were you trying to poke fun at in this episode?
BR: Hmm that’s tough to answer, almost rather let the script speak for itself. I do think there’s some cognitive dissonance when you see the pitiful diversity reports that come out from major tech companies, and meanwhile some demographics are so overrepresented that people are actually running multiple companies at once.
Open source is always an easy target. Companies often pay it lip service just to juice recruiting pipelines or other reasons that have little to do with how it’s presented to the world.
My first job out here was at Netscape shortly after it was purchased by AOL and they were getting desperate, so I got to see a lot of the craziest stuff all at once.
Anyone who wants to write for Silicon Valley should have to work at AOL for a year.
TC: Haha good old AOL.
BR: I’m honestly amazed they’re still around.
TC: Do you think the show does a good job of representing the industry/culture in general? Is there any place where you think it falls short?
BR: Sometimes I wish they chose a more relatable product for Pied Piper than compression technology, because I want people to understand what goes into building the products they use every day and how the decisions get made. The gulf between what actually goes on behind the scenes at Facebook and what people imagined was happening is so wide. We’d read these really elaborate, almost brilliant conspiracy theories and the truth was, well, no, someone tripped on the cord that day and unplugged the servers.
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A lot of people still just don’t know how these technologies work, and so they sometimes fill in the gaps with pretty dark assumptions. I think Silicon Valley has a chance to show what is really happening in a way that is funny but also authentic — sort of like Jon Stewart. The companies themselves can’t do it because it just comes off as a marketing agenda.
I once told a clerk I worked at Facebook, and she said, “what do you mean? I thought it was a website.” I mean, how do you answer that?
But the show is fantastic on the whole. I’d love to write for it.
TC: Is there anything else you want to add or put out there about this screenplay?
BR: It’s the first TV script I’ve ever written, so I’d love constructive feedback from fans of the show. Which situations feel too broad, which dialogue doesn’t feel true to character, and so on. If people are interested, I may try to write a whole season before the real season airs in April. The beauty of it is that there’s no lag time for filming, so when something absurd happens in the valley on Wednesday, I could theoretically turn it into a premise by Thursday.
So basically, people should just shoot me a note every time something absurd happens at their company.

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h/t Chris Kalani 

These Playing Cards Can Take A Bullet

These Playing Cards Can Take A Bullet
Playing cards, just like anything else, are ripe for disruption. I’ve purchased cards in airports, a CVS and the supermarket…but never online. That might change because of this Kickstarter. This is the biggest news since the Kevlar Pocket Square.
If you ever wondered what you’d do if someone pulled a gun on you as you were playing poker, wonder no more. A group called “Sly Kly” are seeing pickup on its playing cards that are made out of Kevlar or carbon fiber…your choice. These materials, as you probably know, can take a bullet. I’m not the only person who feels like I need this added protection, as they’ve already raised $40,371 as of writing (way past their $25,000 goal).
I’ve never shot a deck of regular playing cars, since I don’t really like guns and most certainly don’t have a gun, but I imagine that it’d put a hole right through every card. These Kevlar ones? Not so much. Have a watch as their deflection of bullets is put on display:

I’m sure Sly Kly doesn’t want to say that these cards could save your life, but if you were to happen to have them in a front shirt pocket and someone aimed a gun in your general direction from far away and fired it directly at the area where your cards were stored…they might save your life.

In reality, these cards won’t bend or tear like regular cheap playing cards and I assume that they’ll last much much longer.
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They come in this nifty metal case and you can nab a carbon fiber set by pledging $130 or more or a Kevlar set by pledging $135 or more. Small price to play for bulletproof playing cards. I guess.

App Release Notes Are Getting Stupid

App Release Notes Are Getting Stupid
“Bug fixes.”
“Jam packed full of Super Amazing Things.”
“Every 3 weeks, we polish up the Pinterest app to make it faster and better than ever.”
“To make our app better for you, we bring updates to the App Store every 2 weeks…Every update of our Facebook app includes improvements for speed and reliability. As other new features become available, we’ll highlight those for you in the app.”
Mobile app publishers have begun to play fast and loose with their release notes, which is the area where they’re supposed to communicate the changes shipping with the most recent app update to the end users. This inattention to detail is a disservice to users, who no longer have the benefit of understanding what the updated app will now do — or not do — as the case may be.
Without details, users can’t make an informed decision about whether they want to install that update at all.
They don’t know what functionality has changed or how the user experience is being affected. They don’t know if the changes are even bad or good. For example, users wouldn’t know if a favorite feature is being pulled, or if the app has made improvements that now lets it work better with certain devices…including perhaps, theirs.
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Many people today automatically update apps when new versions become available. That shift in user behavior, made possible by mobile OS enhancements, could have encouraged developers to start skimping on writing detailed release notes, as they knew the notes weren’t being read as often as before. Plus, they didn’t have to use this section to make the case as to why an update should be installed.
However, even in the case of automatic updates, it seems users should have the right to know, at the very least, whether the update includes only minor tweaks or security improvements; whether the app is adding or removing features; whether the update means the app is changing its business model (e.g. rolling out advertisements); and so on.
Will most users still download the update, knowing what’s changed? Probably. But does that mean they didn’t deserve an explanation?

Facebook’s Argument Against Detailed Release Notes

The growing trend to not disclose what’s included in an app’s update could date back to Facebook’s decision last year to roll out its updates at a quicker pace. The company said at the time that it would begin to push out new releases monthly, and its modified update text implied that users would no longer need to read these release notes as any new features would instead be flagged within the app itself.
Not everyone agreed with this strategy, though. Amid some backlash, a Facebook engineer even took the comments on a blog post to explain why Facebook made this move.
They noted that many changes are under-the-hood improvements and bug fixes; many are trivial; and that, when Facebook launches new features, they don’t release to everyone at once. In other words, if the Facebook app update text said that it was rolling out new feature X, it could actually confuse users when they didn’t see it in their own app following the update.
That being said, the “all-or-nothing” approach to writing release notes may not be the correct solution. After all, at some point, that slow-to-roll-out feature will eventually hit Facebook’s entire mobile user base – and couldn’t it be disclosed then?
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Of course, writing release notes can be one of the more tedious tasks engineers face. Maybe they seem pointless, or a waste of time. Maybe when the update is really just a collection of tiny tweaks, it would take too long to detail them. Maybe those tweaks are over the heads of the app’s non-technical user base.
But to opt-out of writing relevant release notes altogether? Shame on you, app makers.

Many Big Companies Now Gloss Over Their App’s Update Text

Facebook may have kicked off this trend, but it’s hardly the only company fudging its release notes these days.
Pinterest, too, has followed suit. And that above quote about “super amazing things” comes from Tinder, which is probably one of the more egregious recent examples.
Plus, it’s more common than ever to see notes that simply state: “Bug fixes and performance improvements,” like Yahoo, Hulu, Google, Flipboard, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and several others have done over the course of the past month alone.
It seems that once you’re a certified “big company,” having to actually detail which bugs just got squashed is no longer your job.
More importantly, the lack of detail in release notes makes a statement about what a company thinks of its user base – that their users don’t care about minor changes, so why bother? It’s that same old elitist behavior – common in the I.T. industry, in particular – which elevates technical staff above the plebeian, unimportant users.
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Move!, demands a modern-day Nick Burns by way of the vague release notes. I’ll just update that app for you, don’t concern yourself with the details. 

Release Notes As Performance Art

Some developers have even started using the release notes as a place to write stories or draw pictures.
Sometimes this works, as it calls attention to a new feature or series of fixes in a clever way. For example, blogging app Medium actually pasted in the developers’ Slack conversation in the July release notes. The latest version describes a fictional phone conversation with Grandma to talk about changes to the app’s home feed.
But other times, the silliness can go awry – such as when Medium’s August 4th release included only an ASCII picture of a bug along with the comment, “FIXES.”
Meanwhile, Tumblr users applauded the humorous short story embedded in the August 17th release notes, as the best ever. But while the story, reminiscent of some of the bad fan fiction that populates Tumblr’s website, was fun to read, the release notes forgot to include a footnote about what actually changed in version 4.3.1.

Balancing Fun And Useful Information

That’s not to say that anyone having “fun” with the release notes is worthy of condemnation.
For example, the developer of star-gazing app Pocket Universe often includes a short story in the update text, too. But alongside that story, he lists informative bullet points of the changes, noting things like “supplementary star names displayed if larger star catalog activated” or “improved 3D rendering,” .
Meanwhile, team communication app Slack has mastered the balance between having fun and providing users with the information they need – which is not surprising, given how well the app itself mashes up the joy found in using consumer apps with the needs of the corporate crowd.
In Slack’s release notes, each line item is explained with a touch of humor, e.g. —
Fixed: trying to add a reaction while reactions were still loading was a chain of events simply too exciting for the app, which would crash in a tizzy. So much calmer now.
Fixed: the “Switch Teams” button will now always be at the bottom of the flexpane instead of occasionally, confusingly, maddeningly trading places with the “Invite” button. Sorry about that.”
At the end of the day, if a developer wants to have fun with the release notes, that’s up to them. But no matter what, they should still feel a responsibility to their customers to communicate what’s being installed on end users’ devices.
After all, mobile phones and tablets are often users’ primary computers these days, and the most personal technology people own. Users may still install your app when asked, but everyone has a right to know what that software update includes.

The Stylus Still Rules The Galaxy Note 5

The Stylus Still Rules The Galaxy Note 5
The Stylus Still Rules The Galaxy Note 5The concept Galaxy Note 5 is at once a thing of genius and a nod to a benighted world before the modern touchscreen. Born in the swamps of the resistive LCD, the stylus lurched onto dry land and lives on as a reminder of our history. It is, to be sure, useful but on the Galaxy Note 5 it is a vestigial tool useful in parts of the world where handwriting is easier than tapping.
But what does this mean for the modern smartphone owner? First, it means the Note is unique among the plethora of alternatives. You really have to be into stylii to even consider the note, especially when the similarly sized Galaxy 6 edge+ is far easier on the eyes. I would say this phone is for the aforementioned folks who prefer handwriting their notes, contractors/students/engineers who want to sketch out ideas, and artists who want to grab a quick image or two on the go. For everyone else you can probably ignore this phone entirely.
First, understand that this phone has a major flaw. If you insert the stylus the wrong way you will break it. And it is very easy to insert the stylus the wrong way. Because it is not contoured, the bottom slides into the hard penhole as easily as the tip of the stylus. Then you’re stuck. You can either pull the stylus out by force and break a microswitch that notifies the OS that the pen is being inserted or leave the pen where it is and live your life in shame. In short, if you have a little kid or kids or you’re particularly absent-minded you should probably not get this phone. Samsung, for their part, encourages you to read the manual before incorrectly inserting the pen. This is an interesting strategy last used by my mother when I had bronchitis and I complained of chest pain. “If it hurts to breathe,” she said. “Stop breathing.”

If you’re still with me, you’re in for a treat. The Galaxy Note 5 is one of the nicest Notes ever. Whereas the previous incarnations were slightly chintzy with their odd leatherette housings and plastic bezels, this one takes a number of cues from the current Galaxy line. There are four buttons – home, volume controls, and power on the side – and a hole for the pen on the bottom. It has an amazingly bright and readable 5.7 inch screen with a octa-core Exynos 7420 chipset with four cores running 2.1GHz and four running at 1.5GHz. It also has 4GB of RAM. This is almost the same setup as the Galaxy S6 edge+. What does that mean in practice? It means that everything about this phone flies. Whether you’re swapping from app to app or pulling out the pen to write something down, there is no discernible lag.
The phone does not have a removable battery or SD card, which will disappoint road warriors who depend on those tools to keep themselves sane. However, it does last for about 18 hours – a full day if you’re careful – and lasted for two days on standby. Heavy use will obviously drain the battery more quickly thanks to the huge screen and powerful processors but I expect you’ll get a workday out of it without trouble.

The Good

In short, the Note 5 is the “note phone” perfected. It is far nicer than the previous versions and for folks in love with the idea of a stylus this is probably the only phone worthy of attention. It has a great rear camera that took excellent shots, a nice front camera, and acceptable video recording performance. I actually came away more impressed with the camera/sensor/software solution in these new phones, something that I haven’t always been able to say for Samsung devices.
Interestingly the company has also launched something called SideSync which mimics the iPhone’s ability to transfer calls to compatible computers. SideSync lets you answer calls and send texts as well as share files with your computer. It works for PC right now and will soon be available for the Mac.

Finally, there are the delightful pen features. While I never understood the value of the pen in previous Notes, the speed and precision that this model exhibits means that you can actually draw and write just as you would in a notebook. I’m starting to come around to the idea that a pen would be nice in some cases and because it hides out of the way when not in use you can simply use the phone as you would any other phone as you go through your day.

The Bad

The Note 5 is expensive. It costs $720 unlocked and can be found for about $350 with contract. The device also only comes in 32GB and 64GB flavors, a fact that may disappoint folks who want to stuff their phones full of movies.
Finally, there is the stylus flaw. While I understand the value of the “You’re holding it wrong” argument, in this case we are talking about damage to the phone itself due to user error. The fanboy’s reaction to this problem is obvious: just don’t stick it in wrong. However, there are plenty of opportunities to do just that when using the phone, not least when you hand it over to someone who doesn’t know which way it fits. The fact that I could quickly and easily damage the stylus sensor is a very bad thing and I hope Samsung offers a fix sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line

Samsung is learning. Every generation of Note and Galaxy is better than the last and, barring financial difficulty, I think the company is building solid phones with a solid road map into the future. I’d definitely recommend this phone to folks who might want a bigger screen and enjoy pen and paper note taking as it adds a level of interactivity unavailable in any other phone. However, the phone is an acquired taste. If you’re a standard phone user you can probably safely head towards the Galaxy line but if you’re a Note 4 user then this is a valuable upgrade. You will definitely notice a difference in style and performance and you will come away pleased. Just don’t stick the stylus in wrong.
 

A Few Thoughts On The BlackBerry-Good Technology Deal

A Few Thoughts On The BlackBerry-Good Technology Deal
So much for that IPO, I suppose.
Good Technology, a long-time IPO candidate with reams of public financial data, was snapped up by BlackBerry this morning for $425 million. You might think that the number isn’t too bad. It is: The company raised $291 million from investors. So its sale is nearly certainly a down-exit, compared to its late private valuations.
I’m a bit surprised. The company’s first S-1 was rough. Filed in May 2014, Good noted rapidly expanding revenue, stapled to staggering losses. In 2013, the company brought in $160.4 million in revenue, but lost more than $118 million for its work.
That, paired with a cash supply of just over $42 million, and it isn’t too hard to understand why the company’s IPO didn’t go off with a bang.
But it seemed that it would eventually go off in some form. The company’s most recent updated S-1 document, detailing its full-year 2014 performance, had a number of interesting facets to it:
  • Revenue: $211.9 million, up from $160.4 million in 2013;
  • Gross profit: $158.1 million, up from $115.2 million in 2013;
  • Net loss: $93.4 million, down from $117.5 million in 2013.
The company also managed to shrink its sales and marketing budget slightly from $112.5 million in 2013, to $109 million in 2014. So growing revenue, improving margins, shrinking losses, and now, no IPO. What in the flying fuck.
A Better Year
Good did what I would call the correct things to get its offering off the ground: Show an ability to grow its revenue and lose less money in the process. Hell, in the earlier days of this year, the company shed around 100 workers. That’s a quick way to improve your cost profile.
The company’s net loss:revenue ratio fell from 0.73 in 2013, to 0.44, a dramatic improvement in a single-year period.
Instead of raising more private capital, going public, or merely borrowing more money to keep the lights on, the company sold for a head-scratching price. I don’t care who you are. With more than 30 percent revenue growth, selling yourself for just over twice your trailing revenue is strange.
The Box Effect
Good’s exit makes a touch more sense when you examine its cash position. The startup wrapped 2014 with $24.5 million in cash and equivalents, down from $42.1 million the year prior. That’s not a lot of cushion, given the scale of Good’s operations and expenses.
But that could have been solved by a public offering, which could have brought in quite a lot of capital — its initial S-1 noted a standard, placeholder $100 million expectation. Sans that, Good could have felt a growing pinch regarding its operational funding.
The IPO, however, is the key nugget. Its lack of existence I think helps us better understand where both private and public currently stand. I pinged one of my favorite venture capitalists on the matter, and they essentially mirrored our prior analysis regarding cash shortages, but also made an interesting comment: “Numbers weren’t there to IPO. [The] IPO bar is pretty high, actually.”
That fact, paired with the implied fact that external private capital sources were tapped out, Good would have nearly no doors left to open, sans, of course, a sale. Early investors did well with Good, but later investors did less, well, good.
[Update: As Eileen Burbidge, a prominent investor, pointed out on Twitter, depending on liquidation preferences, I could be flat wrong here. I don’t have Good’s last incorporation documents relating to its final private round, but her point is strong. If Good’s later rounds came with more onerous terms — think Box’s last private round — its later investors could have done better than its earlier cadre. I think that she’s right, and that my point is wrong.]
I don’t like to disparage anyone while they are down, but I think that we can view Box’s share price in recent quarters as an important data point. Box is trading below its IPO price after enjoying a long period above it. That decline in investor sentiment, even as Box improves its margins and revenue, make it a mild financial analog to Good. Box’s struggles to make it public, and then sustain its share price, have been widely noted. But it was able to pull off its offering, and seems to have a fairly straight path to cash flow parity.
So Box made it public, and Good didn’t. If that indicates that investors have changed their preferences, or if Box was simply that much more appealing, I leave to you.

Etsy’s Pulling The Plug On Grand St. At The End Of This Month

Etsy’s Pulling The Plug On Grand St. At The End Of This Month
When Etsy bought Grand St. last April, the plan was to let Grand St. continue to operate its maker marketplace for tech hardware. But that’s about to change. At the end of this month, Grand St. will stop processing orders and on October 1, listings on the site will become inactive. At that point, Grand St.’s site will just be a gallery of content and photos.
That’s because the Grand St. team has taken on a lot more projects at Etsy, so from a user experience and maintenance perspective, it made sense to move Grand St. away from commerce, Etsy Senior PR Manager Nicole Summer told TechCrunch.
“We at Etsy and Grand St. have truly appreciated all the hard work from Grand St. makers, and we welcome them to learn more about joining the Etsy community,” Summer said. “The Grand St. team has become an integral part of the Etsy organization, working on innovative projects to help our sellers scale. We’re grateful to have them on board and excited to continue the work we’re doing to empower our sellers to achieve their creative business goals on their own terms.”
For background, Grand St. sells things like solar chargers, a smart light for nighttime bike rides and The Cash Cannon for making it rain. Before the acquisition, Grand St. had raised $1.3 million in seed funding from First Round Capital, David Tisch, Gary Vaynerchuk, betaworks, Collaborative Fund, MESA+, Quotidian Ventures, and Undercurrent.

The Race To Frictionless Parking

The Race To Frictionless Parking
Parking. It’s an issue that impacts everyone who owns a car. People might not think about it or talk about it, but it certainly can be one of those daily frustrations that ignites stress.
Traditionally, drivers will circle the block for a coveted on-street parking space or a parking garage that has an affordable hourly rate. However, there is more to parking than white lines, garages and lots.
The parking industry has resisted change well over the last 25 years, but this behemoth of a market — valued at $100 billion worldwide — is transforming. While investors are pouring more than $4 billion into funding on-demand services, the consumer transportation market is anything but in neutral position. The rise of mobile technology has proven it can disrupt just about any sector of the transportation economy, and parking is no exception.

An Industry Ripe For Disruption

True disruption in this industry can’t be achieved until there is a single-source solution that merges the connected car and predictive parking. Connected cars — the automotive equivalent of a smartphone — communicate with the outside world, have their own wireless networks and, in the future, will be autonomous.
Predictive parking, which is building momentum within mobile parking solutions, predicts where a driver is headed as soon as the app is opened, and enables users to book a spot with a single tap.
As companies realize the vast opportunities within parking, many competitors are aspiring to become the definitive solution. Players like SpotHero and us (ParkWhiz) offer on-demand booking and advanced payments, Passport and Parkmobile make mobile payments a reality and Luxe and ZIRX provide convenient on-demand valet services.
For the technology industry looking to gain traction in this market, the gold-mine opportunity is making parking a frictionless experience. None of the current providers are satisfied with where they stand, and are constantly working to increase coverage and service to become the ultimate solution. While all parking apps are racing toward that objective, the entire industry still has work to do.

Driving To Frictionless Parking

The underlying goal is delivering a solution that removes all frictions that people currently face — finding parking and thumbing through their wallets and cars for money to pay, for example — and creating one seamless transaction that positively benefits customers.
Consumer behavior changes when the utility that’s offered is greater than the existing norm. To accomplish this, it simply requires creating a strong consumer-value proposition generally composed of a frictionless experience.
The rise of mobile technology has proven it can disrupt just about any sector of the transportation economy, and parking is no exception.
A frictionless parking experience means drivers can move freely from point A to point B without any limitations or delays. A multitude of things — cashless parking, reduction or complete avoidance of human interaction and booking capabilities — are at the fingertips of consumers who are testing each product to see what best fits their needs.
Through the mobile boom that’s propelling the parking industry, key changes are helping this market move toward that frictionless experience. These include:
Price opacity turning into price transparency. The price of parking has historically been fickle — depending on the time of day or events in the area — and consumers can hardly evaluate the cost before they pull up to a parking spot or into a garage. The advent of parking apps is shifting the industry from an opaque to a transparent pricing model, so people can know how much parking costs before they arrive at their destination.
Cash giving way to automated mobile payments. The tedious experience of finding a pay box in a parking lot, getting a ticket and hanging on to it is being replaced by seamless mobile payments. Consumers now have the ability to pay for parking with one quick touch of an app.
Coverage increasing every day to deliver true convenience. As mentioned, there’s no shortage of apps helping to make parking simpler. Unfortunately, some of these services aren’t available in particular parts of the country or don’t let people access their cars during certain hours.
The industry knows this is a major problem that won’t help shift consumer behavior, so companies are continuously adding facilities, extending hours and expanding into new markets. While many current solutions overlap, they’re all vying to become the one-stop solution to provide around-the-clock coverage for consumers everywhere.
A lack of inventory control and revenue management being replaced with the need for both. While these apps are providing big benefits to consumers, there’s good news for operators, as well. Mobile apps are enabling the parking industry to move toward a revenue management model, helping garage owners and operators maximize profits.
Think of what Expedia and Priceline have done to the hospitality industry. Technology has made it possible for hotels to price rooms according to demand and keep hotel rooms booked at various prices (i.e., offering deep discounts during off-peak times) to increase profits for hotels. The same practice is gaining momentum in the parking industry, driving increased revenue for on- and off-street parking vendors.
The truth is, nothing is decided within this industry, but both operators and technology leaders know parking is a stress point — an IBM survey showed that drivers around the world spend on average 20 minutes searching for a parking spot.
Success will happen when the pinnacle of a frictionless product is achieved, and parking will especially see an insurgency that will greatly impact consumer behavior.

The Interdependency Of Stanford And Silicon Valley

The Interdependency Of Stanford And Silicon Valley
There was a time when Stanford University was considered a second-rate engineering school. It was the early 1940s, and the Department of Defense was pressed to assemble a top-secret team to understand and attack Germany’s radar system during World War II.
The head of the U.S. scientific research, Vannevar Bush, wanted the country’s finest radio engineer, Stanford’s Frederick Terman, to lead 800 researchers on this secret mission. But instead of basing the team at Terman’s own Stanford lab — a mere attic with a leaky roof — he was sent to the acclaimed Harvard lab to run the mission.
It’s hard to imagine Stanford passed over as an innovation hub today. Stanford has outpaced some of the biggest Ivy League universities in prestige and popularity. It has obliterated the traditional mindset that eliteness is exclusive to the Ivy League. Stanford has lapped top schools by centuries. It ranks in the top 3 in multiple global and national rankings (here, here and here).
Plus, survey results point to Stanford as the No. 1 choice of most students and parents for the last few years, over Harvard, Princeton and Yale. In fact, even Harvard students have acknowledged Stanford’s notable rise in popularity.
elite
But something a little more intriguing is happening on Stanford’s campus…something that goes beyond these academic rankings. Since the beginning of time, the goal of academia has been not to create companies, but to advance knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Yet Stanford’s engineering school has had a strong hand in building the tech boom that surrounds it today. It’s not only witnessed, but also notoriously housed, some of the most celebrated innovations in Silicon Valley.
While Stanford faculty and students have made notable achievements across disciplines, their role in shaping the epicenter of The Age of Innovation is perhaps one of the top — if not the most unique — distinguishers. As the world’s eyes fixate on the booming tech scene in Silicon Valley, Stanford’s affiliation shines brightly in the periphery.
In return, its entrepreneurial alumni offer among the most generous endowments to the university, breaking the record as the first university to add more than $1 billion in a single year. Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet, chartering a self-perpetuating cycle of innovation.
But what’s at the root of this interdependency, and how long can it last in the rapidly shifting space of education technology?

Fred Terman, The Root Of Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

To truly understand Stanford’s role in building Silicon Valley, let’s revisit WWII and meet Terman. As the leader of the top-secret military mission, Terman was privy to the most cutting-edge, and exclusive, electronics research in his field. While the government was eager to invest more in electronics defense technology, he saw that Stanford was falling behind.
“War research which is [now] secret will be the basis of postwar industrial expansion in electronics…Stanford has a chance to achieve a position in the West somewhat analogous to that of Harvard of the East,” Terman predicted in a letter to a colleague.  
After the war, he lured some of the best students and faculty to Stanford in the barren West by securing sponsored projects that helped strengthen Stanford’s reputation in electronics. Here’s a great visualization, thanks to Steve Blank, about how Stanford first fueled its entrepreneurship engine through war funds:
terman
This focus on pushing colleagues and students to commercialize their ideas helped jumpstart engineering at Stanford. Eventually, Stanford’s reputation grew to becoming a military technology resource, right up there with Harvard and MIT.
But Terman’s advocacy of technology commercialization went beyond the military. As the Cold War began, Terman pushed to build the Stanford Industrial Park, a place reserved for private, cutting-edge tech companies to lease land. It was the first of its kind, and famously housed early tech pioneers like Lockheed, Fairchild, Xerox and General Electric.
The research park was the perfect recipe for:
  • A new revenue stream for the university
  • Bringing academic and industry minds together in one space
  • Inspiring students to start their own companies
You might say that the Stanford Industrial Park was the original networking hub for some of the brightest minds of technology, merging academia and industry, with the goal of advancing tech knowledge.
They had a harmonic relationship in which industry folks took part-time courses at Stanford. In return, these tech companies offered great job opportunities for Stanford grads.
Proximity to Silicon Valley is not the most important thing that distinguishes Stanford, but it’s certainly the most unique.
Since then, Stanford’s bridge from the university to the tech industry has been cast-iron strong, notorious for inspiring an entrepreneurial spirit in many students. The most famous story, of course, is that of Terman and his mentees William Hewlett and David Packard, who patented an innovative audio oscillator. Terman pushed the duo to take their breakthrough commercial.
Eventually, Hewlett-Packard (HP) was born and moved into the research park as the biggest PC manufacturer in the world. To date, he and the late David Packard, together with their family foundations and company, have given more than $300 million to Stanford.
Because of their proximity to top innovations, Stanford academics had the opportunity to spot technological shifts in the industry and capitalize by inventing new research breakthroughs. For instance:
  • Computer Graphics Inc.: Students were enamored by the possibility of integrated circuit technology and VLSI capability. The Geometry Engine, the core innovation behind computer generated graphics, was developed on the Stanford campus.
  • Atheros: Atheros introduced the first wireless network. Teresa Meng built, with government funding, a low-power GPS system with extended battery life for soldiers. This led to the successful low-power wireless network, which eventually became Wi-Fi.
These are just a few of some of the most groundbreaking technological innovations sprouted from Stanford soil: Google, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, Cisco, Intuit … and the list goes on — to more than 40,000 companies.
Stanford also has a reputation as a go-to pool for talent. For instance, the first 100 Googlers were also Stanford students. And today, 1 in 20 Googlers hail from Stanford.

Proximity to Silicon Valley Drives its Tech Entrepreneurial Spirit

If you stroll along the 700 acres of Stanford’s Research Park, not only will you see cutting-edge companies like Tesla and Skype, but also world-renowned tech law firms and R&D labs. It’s a sprawling network of innovation in the purest sense of the term — it’s the best place to uproot a nascent idea.
Proximity to Silicon Valley is not the most important thing that distinguishes Stanford, but it’s certainly the most unique. It’s the hotbed of computer science innovators, deep-pocketed venture capital firms and angel investors.
At least today, everyone who wants to “make it” in tech is going to Silicon Valley. And — just like Terman’s early Stanford days — it’s where you can meet the right people with the right resources who can help you turn the American entrepreneurial dream into a reality.
Just look at the increasing number of H-1B visa applicants each year, most of whom work in tech. There were more than 230,000 applicants in 2015, up from 170,000 in 2014. Four out of the top 11 cities that house the most H-1B visa holders are all in Silicon Valley.
Plus, an increasing number of non-tech companies are setting up R&D shops in Silicon Valley. Analyst Brian Solis recently led a survey of more than 200 non-tech companies; 61 percent of those had a presence in Silicon Valley, which helped them “gain access and exposure to the latest technology.”
There’s certainly a robust emphasis on technology entrepreneurship penetrating the campus of Stanford engineers.
Still, opponents often point to media exaggeration that reduce Stanford into a startup-generator. Of course, Stanford’s prestigious curriculum is a draw for top faculty and research across disciplines. But, given the evidence and anecdotes, there’s certainly a robust emphasis on technology entrepreneurship penetrating the campus of Stanford engineers. How can it not?
Michael Harris, a Stanford alumnus, can attest to a general sense of drive and passion. “It’s not quite as dominant as the media makes it seem,” he said, “but there’s some element of truth.”
Stanford students are by and large interested in creating real things that have a real effect in the world. The fact that Silicon Valley is right here and students have fairly good access through friends, professors, the school, etc. to people in the industry is definitely a big bonus. It gets people excited about doing work in the tech industry and feeling motivated and empowered to start something themselves.

This Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Evolving Into A Sense Of Urgency

Terman’s early emphasis on turning the ideas developed in academia into viable products is just as — if not more — rampant today. The most telling evidence is that Stanford’s campus is producing more tech startup founders than any other campus.
But what’s even more curious is that some students, particularly in the graduate department, don’t even finish their degrees. It’s monumental to pay thousands of dollars for a master’s degree in computer science, only to leave to launch a startup. Even at the undergrad level, Harris thought about leaving college after doing one amazing internship the summer after his junior year.
“I will say that working in industry teaches you more things faster about doing good work in industry than school does by a really big margin (order of magnitude maybe),” Harris said, “so I don’t actually think it’s crazy for people not to go back to school other than the fact that some companies seem to think it’s important for someone to have a piece of paper that says they graduated from college.”
Of course, most people do finish their degrees. But this sense of urgency to leave — whether or not the majority follow through — is palpable.
Will Stanford end up disrupting the very unique factor that distinguishes Stanford from any other university on the planet?
Last year, six Stanford students quit school to work at the same startup. Another 20 left for similar reasons the year before that. Apparently, Stanford’s coveted StartX program wasn’t enough for them.
StartX is an exclusive 3-month incubator program to help meet the demand for students who want to take their business ideas to the market — complete with renowned mentorship and support from faculty and industry experts to help the brightest Stanfordites turn their ideas into a reality.
In a recent talk, Stanford President John Hennessy proudly spoke about this program as a launchpad for students to scratch their itch for entrepreneurship. But when an audience member asked him about students dropping out of school, he said, “Look, for every one Instagram success, there are another 100 failed photo-sharing sites.” And, he added, “So far, all of the StartX program students have graduated — at least all of the undergrads.”
Generally, Stanford’s graduation rates have dipped somewhat in recent years. Of students who enrolled in 2009, 90 percent had graduated within 5 years, Stanford said, compared with a 5-year graduation rate of 92.2 percent 5 years earlier. And this is not a bad thing for Stanford. Since the very beginning, a core function of Stanford’s excellence is its investment in its students to build great commercial products — starting with the early days of Terman.

The Future: What Will Stanford Be Without Silicon Valley?

But both education and the Valley are shifting. The very nature of innovation frees us from brick-and-mortar walls of elite institutions and companies.
If the best application of technology is to democratize opportunity, then every single person on the planet should have affordable access to Stanford’s world-class education online. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and online resources are an indication of the future of education.
It’s a future in which ambitious students have the opportunity to educate themselves. At the forefront of technology, educational institutions, including Stanford, are starting to decentralize the model through online course material.
Stanford shares a relationship with Silicon Valley unlike any other university on the planet.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley may have pioneered the tech boom, but it’s no longer the only tech hub. Bursts of technological hubs are forming all over the world. In a piece on the H-1B visa cap, I found that the top investors in early stage startups have set up shop in India, China and Israel, three of the largest global tech hubs after Silicon Valley.
Realistically, the H-1B visa cap and city infrastructure can’t practically support exponential growth in Silicon Valley. The nucleus of innovation will eventually shift, deeming the proximity to Silicon Valley irrelevant.
Plus — as some students aren’t even finishing their degrees — it’ll be worth re-evaluating if thousands of dollars for a master’s in CS at Stanford is really worth the brand name on a resume or access to coffee with top startup founders who happen to reside in Palo Alto.
But if Stanford’s proximity to Silicon Valley drives its entrepreneurial essence, which helps bolster both the reputation and funding of Stanford, what will happen when the ambitious, startup founders at Stanford start getting their education online?
Will Stanford end up disrupting the very unique factor that distinguishes Stanford from any other university on the planet? Or will Stanford’s alumni continue to fuel its self-perpetuating cycle of innovation and maintain its reputation as an innovation hub?