Internal Facebook memo sees outgoing VP of comms Schrage take blame for hiring Definers

TechCrunch has obtained an internal memo published by Facebook’s outgoing head of public policy Elliot Schrage in which he blames himself for hiring PR firm Definers. He admits to having the company push negative narratives about competitors, but says Facebook did not ask or pay Definers to publish fake news. COO Sheryl Sandberg left a comment on the memo, saying it was never Facebook’s intention to play into anti-semitic theories about George Soros.

The memo includes a Q&A regarding points raised by a New York Times article detailing how Definers worked to spread negative publicity about Google and other tech giants to make Facebook look better, and that the firm’s employees also published biased articles bashing Facebook’s competitors and critics through a news site called NTK Network that’s affiliated with Definers.

In the memo, Schrage justifies the use of opposition research, and chastizes Facebook employees for allowing internal finger pointing surrounding its troubled past two years to become public. He also notes that his replacement, Facebook’s new head of global policy and former UK deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg will be reviewing its work with all political consultants, which could turn up more skeletons.

Facebook’s former head of policy and comms Elliot Schrage (left) meeting former President George W. Bush. [Image publicly shared by Facebook’s Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth]

Schrage announced in June that he’d be stepping down in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but would stay on to help find a replacement. Many have asked who, if anyone, would be fired for putting Facebook in cahoots with Definers. As TechCrunch previously reported, Schrage was atop the chain of command here. Given his extensive experience in public policy, was likely well aware of the nature of Definers’ work. Schrage taking the blame provides a convenient solution to the issue, as he’s already on his way out.

“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy” Schrage writes. “I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate . . . I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.” This explanation serves to protect Zuckerberg and Sandberg from additional blame, even as Sandberg strives to show she’s not passing the buck by noting “I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us.”

Schrage’s defense of his bosses provides additional cover for Zuckerberg’s comments from a CNN interview that ran tonight in which he said he won’t step down as Facebook’s chairman and hopes to continue working alongside Sandberg for decades to come. The memo could have been aimed at quieting internal unrest about Facebook’s chief lobbyist Joel Kaplan. His ties to the GOP, support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and involvement with Facebook’s latest PR troubles had led some employees to question his employment. Now Facebook has someone else to take the heat.

Schrage is effectively jumping on the grenade here.

The memo and comment can be found below:

Internal Facebook Memo By Elliot Schrage

Many of you have raised questions about our relationship with the Definers consulting firm. We’ve been looking into this and though it is close to a holiday for many of you I wanted to share an update on what we’ve learned and where things stand:

Why did we hire Definers?

We hired Definers in 2017 as part of our efforts to diversify our DC advisors after the election. Like many companies, we needed to broaden our outreach. We also faced growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us.

This pressure became particularly acute in September 2017 after we released details of Russian interference on our service. We hired firms associated with both Republicans and Democrats — Definers was one of the Republican-affiliated firms.

What did we ask them to do and what did they do?

While we’re continuing to review our relationship with Definers, we know the following: We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company — sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters.

Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters. This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.

As the pressure on Facebook built throughout the year, the Communications team used Definers more and more. At Sheryl’s request, we’re going through all the work they did, but we have learned that as the engagement expanded, more people worked with them on more projects and the relationship was less centrally managed.

Did we ask them to do work on George Soros?

Yes. In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a “menace to society.” We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.

Later, when the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.

Did we ask them to do work on our competitors?

Yes. As I indicated above, Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been [sic] singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.

Did we ask them to distribute or create fake news?

No.

Who knew about this work, and who signed off on it?

Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.

I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.

Why have we stopped working with them?

Mark has asked us to reevaluate how we work with communications consultants. It’s not about Definers. It is about us, not them.

Mark has made clear that because Facebook is a mission driven company, he wants to hold us to a higher standard. He is uncomfortable relying on any outside firm to make decisions about how to make our case about our mission, policies, competitors and critics until he can become comfortable with our management, oversight and escalation.

Where are we now?

Many people across the company feel uncomfortable finding out about this work. Many people on the Communications team feel under attack from the press and even from their colleagues. I’m deeply disappointed that so much internal discussion and finger pointing has become public. This is a serious threat to our culture and ability to work together in difficult times.

Our culture has long been to move fast and take risks. Many times we have moved too quickly and we always learn and keep trying to do our best. This will be no exception.

What happens next?

Our legal team continues to review our work with Definers to understand what happened. Mark and Sheryl have also asked Nick Clegg to review all our work with communications consultants and propose principles and management processes to guide the team’s work going forward. We all want to ensure that we, our advisors and consultants better reflect Facebook’s values and culture.

Comment On The Memo From Sheryl Sandberg

Thank you for sharing this, Elliot.
I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us. I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.

When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.

I also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.

I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry. As I said at the All Hands, I believe so deeply in the work we do and feel so grateful to all of you for doing so much every day. Thanksgiving seems like the right time to say a big thank you once again.

Additional reporting by Taylor Hatmaker

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

In a short but amply-hyped interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder and chief executive again responded to criticism over the company’s most recent crisis.

The interview, excerpted from a longer Q&A for a CNN series called “Human Code,” hit most of the main questions that critics have raised about Facebook’s failings and Zuckerberg’s unilateral control over the company.

While we didn’t learn much new, we do know the company’s latest posture about a few leadership issues, the first of which being if Sheryl Sandberg remains secure in her position as COO.

“Sheryl is a really important part of this company… She’s been an important partner with me for 10 years,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for decades to come.”

That answers that, for now anyway.

The second big leadership issue: Will Zuckerberg retain all of the control he currently exercises as the chairman of Facebook’s board.

When asked if he plans to step down as chairman in the midst of his company’s latest crisis, Zuckerberg answered firmly enough to put that question to rest for now.

“That’s not the plan… I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN.

Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

Since taking the reins as chief executive of Kindred at the beginning of the year, Jim Liefer has been focused on commercializing his company’s autonomous robots. But unlike forward-projecting use-cases for robots that may (or may not) one day take over for human beings in a wide swath of functions, Kindred’s current robots are purpose-built for the floor of retail fulfillment centers. That puts Kindred in the middle of an interesting business question: Given rising consumer expectations associated with online ordering, can anyone match or beat Amazon when it comes to speed, accuracy and efficiency?

With a background in operations at Walmart and One Kings Lane, Liefer asserts that his company’s core IP represents a significant advancement in retail operations. That’s because while industrial robots have worked well on manufacturing floors, robots have historically underperformed in e-commerce fulfillment centers, which require systems to handle objects of various shapes and sizes. Kindred’s approach is also notable because of its low-risk model that doesn’t require customers to make major capital investments. Instead of paying for the robot hardware, clients such as Gap pay based on the robots being able to successfully pick and sort items in a warehouse.

In the interview below, Liefer was eager to elaborate on his company’s core product, SORT. He was also happy to address the labor and throughput challenges facing Kindred’s clients as they look to thrive this holiday season. Finally, he offered his candid perspective on the ongoing debate over AI and jobs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Jim, it’s good to see you. I was interested in talking with you because Kindred is focused on the unsexy, but very important part of robot and AI technology that deals with e-commerce and gives insight into how our economy is changing. And by unsexy, I mean that your robots don’t do parkour.

Jim Liefer: Thanks, Gregg.  I’ll start out by saying that sexy is in the eye of the beholder. If you came from retail operations companies like Walmart, sexy would be not having to re-engineer or re-architect my building every year to handle the next peak.

GS: Fair enough. So where has that “sexy” journey taken the company today?

JL: We’ve evolved from a research and engineering company into a customer-focused organization. Today, there are four primary components that Kindred is working on: vision capability, grasping/manipulation capability, ability to identify what’s being held onto and then placing an item somewhere.

GS: And today, your solution is being applied to retail fulfillment centers?

JL: Yes, in retail fulfillment distribution centers, but not the consumer-facing side of retail. Still, there is a tremendous amount of automation in these centers. There are sorters and power conveyance, and there are forklifts running around. But we saw gaps in those in-between moments, the need to take individual pieces from automation A to automation B. That’s where Kindred now can fill those gaps, and it’s a big market.

GS: Do you make robots or do you make cobots?

JL: We’re absolutely collaborating with the humans, but we’re not letting them get that close to the robot. We’re letting the humans do what they do best, like higher-level thinking and dealing with more ambiguity than the robot can handle.

GS: But your solution is designed with the intent that there are going to be people that interact with it?

JL: For some period of time to come, I believe that is going to be true. That’s the design of what we have now. The reason I say it that way is that even today, the aspects of how product arrives at our solution varies, and some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

Product

GS: At the core of the solution is your autograsp technology, right?

JL: The autonomous grasp algorithm is the core of our AI technology, which is combined with vision and grasping capabilities.

GS: I’m guessing that even though that grasp technology looks simple, it’s actually a big feat of both software and hardware innovation.

JL: Yes, absolutely. The grasping technology is a combination of AI that can understand the ambiguity that it’s dealing with. But there’s also the the physical side of it. Not only do you have to be able to get to a grasp-point, but you also have to grip it correctly.

Some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

GS: What’s the inherent challenge with getting the gripping correct?

JL: It needs to be precise enough to pick up the item you want. It also has to have enough torque to be able to hold onto the item when you’re moving it.  

GS: Why is that so critical?

JL: Because you have to move at a speed that’s equivalent to a human or better in order to not lose it.

GS: What’s the installation process associated with putting a system into a facility?

JL: We literally roll them off the truck, roll them into place, plug them into 110 power and a data port, and maybe do some final provisioning of software. All in, it takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

Business Model

GS: I know you don’t actually sell the solution to a customer. Can you walk me through your model?

JL: In the days when I was in a Walmart facility and I wanted to implement a new solution, I would go out to a service provider and they would tell me how many millions of dollars to plunk down. I would pay for it and then someone would come in and build it, and then they would go away and I would try to operate it.

GS: How antiquated.

JL: In our world today, they tell us their throughput need and how many products they are trying to serve with robots. We then deploy the number of robots to the customer. We have an agreement that says you need 10 robots or whatever the number is, and we deploy robots that will serve X amount of products.

GS: How does the money flow work?

JL: It’s a robots-as-a-service model, where every time we successfully grasp and stow a product or item, they pay us something.

It takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

GS: A commission of sorts.

JL A commission, right. So it’s not a purchase and walk away. And there are several reasons why we think that’s compelling for the customer. One, because it’s not a capital expenditure play for them; it doesn’t have to be multiple weeks, months or even years to get onto the capital budget. It’s an operating expense play.

GS: That sounds like a key consideration.

JL: Think of it this way. When an operating expense comes into play, in many cases, a director-level person of a fulfillment center can make the choice: Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?  The other is that because we’re providing a service to the customer, we’re right there alongside them. It’s not as though we gave them something and said figure it out.

GS: Aren’t you making it very easy for clients to keep the robots around? Because it’s not costing them to have the robots sit on the fulfillment center floor.

JL: Well, okay, good question. In our model, we still have a minimum for the customer,  because we’re paying down the robot. We don’t want to have a robot sitting there idle.

GS: In that case, what’s the break-even on how long the robot needs to be on site with the client?

JL: It’s somewhere between a year and a year and half to get the payback to cover the cost of building the robot.

The Kindred.AI sorting robot in the lab.

GS: Does the counterparty risk become a factor? Because these machines are obviously expensive.

JL: Yes, that comes into play. At the same time, the robots themselves are quite… I want to say the word mobile. It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby. Of course, we don’t want to do that, but it’s possible to do it.

Amazon

GS: Of course not. But you’ve spent many years at Walmart, and you’re obviously very aware of the existential threat that Amazon poses to just about everybody that isn’t Amazon. Does Kindred aspire to help others thrive in a retail economy that is increasingly dominated by Amazon?

JL: Yes. It levels the playing field, because if our customer, the retailer, is able to have better throughput, get the products into the hands of the customer faster, then they have the ability to hold onto their customers. If they don’t do it, then those customers are going to go somewhere else.

Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?

GS: Looking to the future, do you want to go deeper within the apparel channel, or do you see other retail applications for your grasping technology?

JL: To recap, we figured out a very difficult problem, which is how to handle clothing in a polybag with a label on it. What seems like the most logical and reasonable place to go is to smaller items and maybe toy items or jewelry.

GS: But it has to be in a bag?

JL: It doesn’t have to be in a bag. In testing, we can pick up a pen or a pencil. We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

Technology

GS: Let’s dive into your technology a little deeper. Is your tech based on reinforcement learning or deep reinforcement learning?

JL: Actually, both. The way that we’re operating the current SORT robot is that there are multiple AI algorithms that are running in concert together. So there’s the autonomous grasp algorithm, there’s a grasp verification algorithm, there’s a stow algorithm; there are multiple algorithms that are running to maintain that speed and accuracy. Then, there’s our team in the Toronto office—

GS: —That’s the team working on deploying more reinforcement learning?

JL: Yes, the reinforcement learning which would replace some of the deep learning algorithms that we have in place today.

GS: I read up on Rich Sutton, who, based on my research, is a big deal in reinforcement learning—

JL: —Yes. He’s a big deal and is a mentor to several of our people.

It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby.

GS: Sutton describes reinforcement learning as a learning system that wants something. Can you describe in lay terms how this is central to Kindred’s technology and how it is different than deep Learning?

JL: Here’s how I think of reinforcement learning versus deep Learning. Reinforcement learning is allowing the algorithm to determine all of the possible outcomes and all of the possible permutations. Think about something in a space where you want you to go from point A to point B. In reinforcement learning, that robot will achieve the goal by doing something called body babbling, which looks like it’s jittering around, looking at all the different possible solutions.

GS: So it takes longer to train a reinforcement algo?

JL: Yes, because in deep Learning, you are going to give it some sort of structure within parameters, because you sort of know what you want it to do. Then you look at body babbling, which is a much cleaner solution because the algorithm knows how to deal with all these variables because it’s explored every permutation.

GS: I saw that Kindred released a research paper last month. My top-line takeaway is that while reinforcement learning has made progress, it’s tough to train robots.

JL: I view it this way: In the last two years that I’ve been here at Kindred, I’ve seen things on a daily basis that I didn’t think were possible the week before or the month before. That’s a blanket statement, though, which is one of the reasons why I think people are anxious about AI and automation.

AI Anxiety

GS: So let’s talk about AI anxiety. Yesterday, I was on Bush Street and I watched this Cafe X robot serve coffee. Meanwhile, across the street, you’ve got this Blue Bottle that’s teeming with people, keeping its staff quite busy. Is that the future you see? Where workers are in demand, even in an era of well functioning robots that can grasp stuff?

JL: I  think back to Tower Records in San Francisco in the 90s. It used to be packed. I mean, that’s where I spent every weekend. You never thought that would end, perhaps like some people at the Blue Bottle today. But there’s that flip point.

GS: I appreciate that honest comment.

JL: To me, I just think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s bad. But I believe that we will embrace it, just as we embrace technology in our phones, because it will improve our lives in many ways and it will also make our lives more complicated.

GS: We’ve discussed previously, too, this idea that in the fulfillment centers where the Kindred robots are operating, there’s a labor shortage.

JL: Yes, there’s no employee there to do the job.

We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

GS: And that’s because fulfillment centers are in locations that are often—

JL: —They’re clustered. They’re fighting for the same resources. Big Amazon has come in, they’re paying those workers more, so they’re siphoning all those workers away.

GS: What about temporary workers around the holidays?

JL: We said earlier that the robots are collaborative, working alongside and collaborating with the humans. Absolutely, there are places for the temporary workers to come in, and I want those humans to be fulfilled. In terms of helping our customer, it’s so painful to get even a temporary worker, give them a job that’s very mundane, have them leave and then have to hire another temporary worker.

GS: But Kindred is giving jobs to people with gamer skills, too, right?

JL: Yes, on the tele-operation side. About 85 percent of the time, our algorithm can do everything on its own. But 15 percent of the time, we have a human in the loop who steps in and assists the robot for about a second and half, and then steps back out.

GS: When you’re recruiting for these people, are you recruiting in the typical places that tech companies look?

JL: These people have a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets. They might be gamer types, but some of them have marketing degrees and some of them have engineering backgrounds. There’s also a pool of generalists, those jack-of-all-trades kind of people.

GS: But they need to have pretty good dexterity, right?

JL: I don’t think it’s highly required. A lot of it is just point and click.

GS: Well, on that non-techy note, Jim, thanks so much for your time.

JL: Thanks very much, Gregg.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Shaun Moore and Nezare Chafni didn’t initially intend to develop a new standalone facial recognition technology, when they first got started developing the technology that would become their new company, Trueface.ai.

When the two serial entrepreneurs were planning their next act five years ago, they wanted to ride the wave of smart home technologies with the development of a new smart doorbell — called Chui.

That doorbell would be equipped with facial recognition software as a service. The company raised $500,000 in angel funding and opened a manufacturing facility in Medellin, Colombia.

What the two entrepreneurs discovered was that most existing facial recognition tools lacked the ability to identify spoof or presentation attacks, which rendered the tech unfeasible for the access control functions they were trying to develop.

So Moore and Chafni set out to develop better software for facial recognition.

 

“In 2014 we focused our engineering efforts on deploying face recognition on the edge in highly constrained environments that could identify hack or spoof attempts,” Moore, the chief executive of Trueface.ai said in an email. “This technology is the core of what has become Trueface.”

With the upgrades to the product, Chui began tackling the commercial access control market, and while customers loved the software, they wanted to use their own hardware for the product, according to Moore.

So the two entrepreneurs shuttered the factory in 2017 and began focusing on selling the facial recognition product on its own. Thus Trueface was born.

It’s actually the third company that the two founders have worked on together. Friends since their days studying business at Southern Methodist University, Moore and Chafni previously worked on a content management startup, before moving on to Chui’s smart doorbell.

The company spun Trueface out of Chui in June 2017 and raised seed capital from investors including Scout Ventures with Harvard Business Angels and GSV Labs. That $1.5 million round has powered the company’s development since (including the integration with IFTT earlier this year to prove that its system worked).

But over the past few years, as damning stories around the risks associated with potentially bad training data being applied to facial recognition technologies continued to appear, the company set itself another task — aligning its training data with the real world.

To that end the company has partnered with a global non-profit which is collecting facial images from Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia to create a more robust portfolio of images to train its recognition software.

“Like many facial recognition companies, we acknowledge the implicit bias in publicly available training data that can result in misidentification of certain ethnicities,” the company’s chief executive has written. “We think that is unacceptable, and have pioneered methods to collect a multiplicity of anonymized face data from around the world in order to balance our training models. For example, we partnered with non-profits in Africa and Southeast Asia to ensure our training data is diverse and inclusive, resulting in reduced bias and more accurate face recognition – for all.

The company has also established three principles by which its technology will be applied. The first is an explicit commitment to reduce bias in training data; the second, an agreement with its customers that in any case that goes to court, human decision making is privileged over any data from its software; and finally, an explicit focus on data security to prevent breaches and data transparency so that customers discloes what information they’re collecting.

“When implemented responsibly, people will demand this technology for its daily benefits and utility, not fear it,” writes Moore.

Autodesk agrees to buy PlanGrid for $875 million

Autodesk announced plans to acquire PlanGrid, a San Francisco startup that helped moved blueprints from paper to the iPad when it launched in 2011.

This digitization of construction fits with Autodesk’s vision of digitizing design in general and CEO Andrew Anagnost certainly recognized the transformational potential of the company he was buying. “There is a huge opportunity to streamline all aspects of construction through digitization and automation. The acquisition of PlanGrid will accelerate our efforts to improve construction workflows for every stakeholder in the construction process,” he said in a statement.

The company, which is a 2012 graduate of Y Combinator, raised just $69 million, so this appears to be a healthy exit for the them. PlanGrid took what was a paper-intensive task and shifted it to digital, taking a world of hand-written mark-ups and sticky notes onto the fledgling iPad.

In an interview with CEO and co-founder Tracy Young in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, she said the industry was ripe for change . “The heart of construction is just a lot of construction blueprints information. It’s all tracked on paper right now and they’re constantly, constantly changing,” Young said at the time.

 

Those manual changes often resulted in errors she said and that was costly for the contractors. As an engineer working for a construction company, who was at one time responsible for making the paper copies, she recognized that the process could be improved by moving it into the digital realm.

PlanGrid CEO Tracy Young on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in 2015.

Her idea, which was kind of radical in 2011 when she started the company, was to move all that paper to the cloud and display it on an iPad. It’s important to remember that the enterprise was not rushing to the cloud in 2011 and most people considered the iPad at the time to be a consumer device, so what she and her co-founders were attempting was a true kind of industry transformation.

Young sees joining Autodesk as a way to continue building on that early vision. “PlanGrid has excelled at building beautiful, simple field collaboration software, while Autodesk has focused on connecting design to construction. Together, we can drive greater productivity and predictability on the jobsite,” she said in a statement.

PlanGrid currently has 400 employees, 12,000 customers and 120,000 paid users, and has been used on over a million construction projects worldwide, according to data provided by the companies. They believe that under Autodesk’s umbrella and combined with their existing product set, they can provide a complete construction solution and grow the business faster than PlanGrid could have on its own — pretty much the standard argument in an acquisition like this.

PlanGrid was efficient with the money it took. In fact the last raise was $40 million almost exactly three years ago. The deal is expected to close at the end of January pending the normal regulatory approval process.

 

Piano teams up with True[x] to combine advertising and paywalls

Nearly every online publisher has launched or announced a paywall — but of course, even the ones who are successful won’t convince every reader, or even the majority of readers, to sign up. Now Piano and True[x] say they’ve found more effective way to monetize the rest of the audience, without threatening crucial subscription revenue.

Piano is a company that’s built a range of publisher tools, including paywall and subscription management. True[X], meanwhile, is an adtech company that was acquired by 21st Century Fox a few years ago.

Piano’s global head of business development Jonas Rideout said the collaboration will allow publishers to present different messages to different audience members. This is something that Piano has been working on already, but by working with True[x] specifically, it can present readers with the option to (temporarily) circumvent the paywall by watching a premium video ad.

According to Rideout, this takes advantage of Piano’s “out of the box segmentation,” which assesses reader loyalty based on things like how often they visit a site, where they’re coming from and how many pages they visit. It probably makes more sense to ask the most loyal readers to subscribe (since they’re the most likely to convert), but there’s another subset of readers who may be interested in the content, but aren’t actually going to pay — at least, not yet.

Those are the ones who will have the option to see an ad, so the publisher is still making money, and they’re also keeping the reader engaged in case they want to subscribe down the road.

“Maybe 1 to 3 percent of that audience is going to subscribe, but you’re worried about cooking your golden goose [by giving them a way to get around the paywall],” said Chris Shively, True[x]’s director of global business development. “Now you can actually provide that other 97 percent of the audience with a different experience. They’re getting to enjoy the product while you’re getting a significantly higher CPM.”

Ad Age Piano

Shively declined to specify how well these ads monetize, except to say that they’re priced “significantly higher” than a standard display or video ad. He also said, “It’s very important to us that the user has a choice” — so even if you’re given the ad option, you can still choose to subscribe instead.

And to be clear, these ads aren’t an indefinite free pass. It’s a metered system, where the publisher can let the reader through the paywall a set number of times before they really do have to pay.

Piano and True[x] have already been testing this out with Ad Age, where they found that the visitors asked to view a video ad were significantly more likely to register later on. Among readers who watched the ad, there was a 17x increase in the current conversion rate, but even if you look at readers who were given the option and didn’t watch it, they were 3x more likely to register than those who were only presented with the registration option.

Rideout also noted that not every Piano publisher makes money through subscriptions (in fact, TechCrunch is a publisher that uses Piano for non-paywall purposes). So he said the team has been talking about “how else this could be applicable,” like helping publishers drive readers to signup for giveaways or to provide some of their data.

“It’s not just paid content sites — there are opportunities for other types of content,” he said.

Elon Musk’s extracurricular antics reportedly spark a NASA safety probe at SpaceX

Elon Musk’s dabble with the doobage in a September radio interview may have sparked more than just an outpouring of adulation from his acolytes (and a fairly interesting conversation around artificial intelligence, social media, invention, and space).

The Washington Post reports that the folks at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were less than amused with Musk’s antics and have ordered a safety review of SpaceX and Boeing as a response to the colorful chief executive’s shenanigans.

In an interview, NASA associate administrator for human exploration, William Gerstenmaier told the Post that the review will begin next year and would examine the “safety culture” of both Boeing and SpaceX.

Rather than focus on the safety of the actual rockets, the Post said that the review would look at the hours employees work, drug policies, leadership and management styles, and the responsiveness of both companies to safety concerns from employees. 

The review is going to be led by the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance within NASA, which has conducted similar probes before, according to the Post report.

According to the NASA official, the process could be “pretty invasive” with the potential for hundreds of interviews with employees at every level and across all locations where the companies operate.

At stake is the potential $6.8 billion in contracts the two companies received in 2014 to revive crewed missions to space. SpaceX grabbed $2.6 billion from NASA for the program, while the remainder went to Boeing.

Both companies have stumbled as they test their crewed systems to get NASA astronauts into orbit. Boeing still needs to test the heat shields and parachute systems of its spacecraft and address the potential for propellant leakage during the emergency abort process.

SpaceX also is having problems with its parachute system.

In a statement given to the Post, SpaceX said, “We couldn’t be more proud of all that we have already accomplished together with NASA, and we look forward to returning human spaceflight capabilities to the United States.”

Gift Guide: Black Friday tech deals that are actually pretty good

Black Friday is, for the most part, bad. People are awful, retailers pull all sorts of shenanigans to make it seem like you’re getting a better deal than you are, and a lot of people end up buying junk they don’t need to make the day feel like a “success”.

But you know that. If you’re gonna do this, you might as well go in with some sort of gameplan. Our advice? Stay inside and shop online where you can, be aware that most of the best deals are stocked in hilariously low quantities, and don’t be stubborn and buy some no-name Android tablet just because the sign says its 80% off and, well, they’re out of the TV you wanted anyway.

We’ve had roughly 4 billion Black Friday deal emails hit our inboxes over the last month. We’ve sifted through most of them to try to sift out the junk. We’ll keep adding new deals as we find them, so check back on the regular.

Many (most?) of these are already live, unless otherwise noted.

Amazon

If you’re trying to load up on Amazon’s own gear (things like the Fire TV stick, or the Echo), Black Friday is one of the best days to do it. Plus, since it’s all online, no waiting outside in the cold for you!

If you’re buying something else on Amazon on Black Friday because it seems like a good deal, punch it into CamelCamelCamel to check the price history first.



Audible

Amazon’s audiobook service, Audible, is usually $15 per month. This week they’re selling 3-month plans for $7 per month. That gets you one audiobook per month (plus 2 Audible Originals)… so, in a roundabout way, you’re getting 3 audiobooks for roughly $21.

Just remember to cancel when you’re done if you’re not using it, as the price jumps back up to $15 after 3 months. Set up a calendar reminder or something, if you have to.

Google

If you’ve put off buying a Pixel 3 or updating your Chromecast in hopes that there’d be some sort of deal, you’re in luck. Google says the sale won’t start until 11/22, but they’re pretty solid

  • Buy one Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, you can get a second one 50% off.
  • Just need one? The Pixel 3 will be $150 off its normal price ($649 instead of $799), while the Pixel 3 XL will be $200 off ($699 instead of $899).
  • Google Home Hub, Google’s first Home device with a big ol’ screen on it, is being dropped from $149 to $99
  • Google Home Mini, usually $49, is dropping to $25
  • The standard Google Home will drop from $129 to $79
  • Chromecast is going from $35 to $25, while the 4K-friendly Chromecast Ultra is going from $69 to $49
  • The Pixelbook will drop from $999 to $699

All of these will be available on Google’s own store but, again, they don’t go live until 11/22.



Samsung

Living that Android life, but don’t want a Pixel? Samsung has cut a few hundred bucks off both of its current flagship Android smartphones. The Galaxy S9 (64GB, Unlocked) is currently $520 — down from $720. The bigger, beefier S9+ (64GB, unlocked) is down to $639, usually $839. The same $200 discount applies to all capacities, so you can bump it up to 128GB or 256GB if you need the space.

Sony

Sony is making a huge push this season by selling the 1 TB PlayStation 4 Slim, usually $300, for $199 at most major retailers. Better yet: it comes with a copy of Spider-Man, the new(ish) and absolutely fantastic PS4 exclusive that ate hundreds upon hundreds of hours of my life.

They’re pushing this sale at all the big box stores, so you have your pick. You can find it at, for example, GameStop, Target, Walmart, or Best Buy.

You can also get a year of Playstation Plus, usually $60, for $40 from Walmart or Amazon. It’s a digital renewal code, so even if you’re not ready to renew right now, you can hang on to it for later.

GameStop, meanwhile, has PS4 controllers marked down to $38 (usually $60)

Microsoft

It’s not quite as good as the PS4 deal — but if you lean heavier toward the Xbox camp, Amazon has 1 TB Xbox One S with Battlefield V or with NBA 2k19, each for $230 (usually $299)

Need more controllers? Starting on Thanksgiving Day, Microsoft will also be selling controllers for $40 — down from the normal price of $60. Walmart is price matching the deal a little early, though the price isn’t showing until its in your cart.

Got your sight sets on the highest-end Xbox, the Xbox One X? It doesn’t come with any games, but both Amazon and Walmart have it marked down to $400 from its usual price of $499.

Apple

Apple doesn’t really play the Black Friday game. As a result, there are only a handful of Apple-related deals this year — expect stock to be super limited, and most of them won’t go live until Thanksgiving Day.

Walmart, Target, Costco, and Jet will all be selling the 2018 iPad (32 GB) for $250 — down from the usual price of $320. Best Buy, meanwhile, will sell the 2018 iPad (128 GB) for $329 — down from $429.

Target and a few other stores, meanwhile, are dropping the Apple Watch Series 3 down from $279 to $199…. but be aware that this is a generation behind, as Apple has already moved on to Series 4.



Sonos:

Sonos doesn’t often do sales on its speakers, but they’ve got a few lined up for this week. These ones won’t actually start until Thanksgiving day — but once they do, they should be available on Sonos.com and run until Monday, 11/26.

Sonos One, the company’s compact speaker with Alexa built in (and pictured above), will drop from $199 to $175.

Sonos Beam, their smaller sound bar, will drop from $399 to $349 (Alas, there’s no official deal on the company’s bigger, badder soundbar, the Playbar — but Amazon has a deal going right now that keeps it at the normal $699 price but also throws in a wallmounting kit and a $50 Amazon giftcard)

The Sonos SUB, meanwhile, drops from $699 to $599.

TechCrunch Gift Guide 2018 banner

Valve is discontinuing the Steam Link, at least the hardware part

Valve has quietly updated the Steam page for the Steam Link. The message says that Valve is discontinuing the Steam Link. The device will become unavailable once all units have been sold.

When Valve introduced the Steam Link in 2015, your TV setup was completely different. Google, Amazon and Apple just released Android TV, the Fire TV and tvOS. Smart TVs weren’t so smart. In other words, you had no way to install an app and run it on your TV.

The Steam Link was a tiny box with an HDMI port, USB ports, an Ethernet port, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more. It could only do one thing — you could connect the Steam Link to a Steam client running on a powerful computer and play games on a different screen. Even before the Nintendo Switch, companies were thinking about ways to play the same game in multiple ways.

And if you were wondering why the Steam Link has yet to receive an update, you now have the answer. The company is switching to a software strategy.

“The supply of physical Steam Link hardware devices is sold out. Moving forward, Valve intends to continue supporting the existing Steam Link hardware as well as distribution of the software versions of Steam Link, available for many leading smart phones, tablets and televisions,” the company says on the store page.

You can still find devices on third-party retailers, but they’ll soon be all gone.

Going forward, you’ll be able to install the Steam Link app on your phone or Android TV device (including on the Fire TV if you side-load the app). You can then launch a Steam game on your PC and play it on your TV.

Unfortunately, Apple currently refuses to allow the Steam Link app on the App Store. I really hope that Apple is going to change its mind because it would be a pretty good gaming and entertainment system.