HuffPost is reportedly on the auction block

Late last night the Financial Times reported that HuffPost, arguably one of the crown jewels of Verizon Media Group’s remaining network of media properties (which includes TechCrunch), is up for sale.

Verizon has been shedding media properties in a retreat from the strategy that it had begun to execute with the acquisition of AOL for $4.4 billion back in 2015. Through the AOL deal, then-chief executive Tim Armstrong became the architect of the telecommunications company’s media and advertising strategy.

Armstrong’s vision was to roll up as much online real estate as he could while creating a high technology advertising architecture on the back-end that could better target consumers based on their media consumption (which the telecom company would also own).

The idea was to provide a broad-based competitor to the reach of ad platforms on Google and Facebook which were also targeting users based on their browsing history and interests. The benefit that Google and Facebook had was that they had a more holistic view of what consumers did online and they positioned themselves as a distribution channel between media companies and users — essentially redistributing their articles and videos and hoovering up the ad dollars that had previously gone to those media companies.

The multi-billion dollar land grab continued when Verizon paid $4.5 billion for Yahoo in 2017.

Now it appears that Verizon has a multi-billion dollar case of buyer’s remorse. Part of the billions that Verizon spent on Yahoo was for the early social network Tumblr, which Yahoo had acquired for $1.1 billion back in 2013.

Earlier this year Verizon unloaded Tumblr for the cost of a luxury Manhattan apartment. That $3 million sale was presaged by the significant fall from grace of other former high-flying media and tech properties.

Vice was once worth $5.7 billion at the height of the media investment bubble, but earlier this year Disney wrote down its stake in the company to virtually nothing.

At least Vice is emerging as a survivor. the company has rolled up Refinery29. Vox Media is also doing well in the new world of media. It bought Recode back in 2015 and recently acquired the publisher behind New York Magazine to expand its purview into paper publications and get its hands on the popular New York websites Intelligencer, The Cut, Vulture, and Grub Street.

Other publications like Hello Giggles, which was founded by the actress Zooey Deschanel, were sold to Time Magazine. High-fliers like Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Vice and Vox have all had to lay off staff in recent months.

It’s been a wild ride for HuffPost, which began in 2005 as a collection of celebrity bloggers brought together under the auspices of Arianna Huffington, from whom the site took its name.

AOL acquired The Huffington Post back in 2011 in a deal that was valued at $315 million less than a year after picking up TechCrunch for $25 million.

Verizon announced layoffs across its media properties at the beginning of the year. It cut roughly 7 percent of its staff — or around 800 jobs — including some at HuffPost.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Verizon said that it would not comment on rumors and speculation.

Neither Verizon Media nor HuffPost responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Sahara Reporters founder Sowore remains detained in Nigeria

The founder of African investigative digital media site Sahara Reporters Omoyele Sowore remains detained in Nigeria on charges including treason, his wife Opeyemi Sowore told TechCrunch.

Her husband founded Sahara Reporters to create and aggregate news content, social media tips, and self-digital reporting toward exposing corruption in Africa and his home country of Nigeria.

After being jailed and beaten several times for his journalistic work in Nigeria, Sowore re-located to New York City and formed Sahara Reporters in Manhattan in 2006 to report under U.S. legal protections.

Several outlets, including Reuters, reported his arrest in August 2019. According to Opeyemi Sowore — who lives in New Jersey — her husband was detained in Lagos on August 4th while at a protest. He was then transferred to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

Per social media and press reporting, Omoyele Sowore (who goes by Sowore), was participating in #RevolutionNow movement of peaceful demonstration against bad governance in Nigeria. 

After several hearings, he is still being held in Abuja, his wife said.

Sowore CourtAccording to a copy of his court charging document obtained by TechCrunch, Sowore is charged with two counts of conspiring to stage a revolution and to remove Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, from office “otherwise than by constitutional means.”

Sowore is also charged with cybercrimes for “knowingly send[ing] messages by means of a press interview granted on Arise Television…for the purpose of causing insult…and ill-will on the…President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” and for money laundering based on a transfer of $19,975 from a Nigerian bank account to a Sahara Reporters held account in New York.

Sowore pleaded not guilty to the charges and rejected an offer of bail for roughly $800,000, according to press reports and his wife.

As for the veracity of the charges, Sowore’s wife Opeyemi believes they are a cover to go after her husband for his activism and work with Sahara Reporters.

Sowore has never been an advocate of violence or insurrection, according to his wife. 

“If you look at his history he is the most peaceful person. He does what he does so Nigeria can work for all Nigerians…be inclusive of all ethnic groups, all socio-economic backgrounds, and religions,” Opeyemi Sowore said.

“I think the charges are about silencing a critical voice that’s shining light on corruption,” she added.

Not everyone is a fan of Sowore and Sahara Reporters’ work, particularly in Nigeria. The country has  has made strides in improving infrastructure and governance and has one of Africa’s strongest economies and tech scenes.

But Nigeria is still plagued by corruption, particularly around its oil-resources, and has a steady-stream of multi-billion dollar scandals yes billions in state related funds being stolen or simply going missing.

Sahara Reporters has made a practice of reporting on such corruption. The site, which has a tips line and small TV station, has exposed improprieties of many public officials and forced a number of resignations in Nigeria’s government.

Sahara Reporters

In the previous administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, Sahara Reporters played a role in exposing the theft of an estimated $20 billion in public funds by Petroleum Minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke, who was forced to resign and eventually arrested.

The internet, mobile, and digital media play a central role in the work of Sahara Reporters. In an interview in 2014, Sowore explained to me how these mediums often do much of the investigative work.

“In many cases, there’s less investigation to breaking these stories than you’d think. The corruption and who’s perpetrating it is generally well-known and the evidence easy to distribute through social media and devices. We just need a safe place to report it from, and the rest often takes care of itself,” Sowore said.

Ironically, Sowre’s own thesis of using digital and social media for advocacy may be tested on his getting out of jail.

Sowore’s wife is working on a campaign of global supporters — including Amnesty International — to shine a light on her husband’s charges, innocence, and press for his release.

Away from the activism and politics, “I want Yele to come home safely. I’m worried about his safety and we have two small children and they miss their father dearly,” Opeyemi Sowore said.

The trial for her husband Omoyele Sowore is scheduled for early November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Electric moped startup Revel raises $27.6 million as it eyes new markets

In less than two years, Revel has gone from an idea to a shared electric vehicle startup with more than 1,400 mopeds across Washington D.C., and Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Now, it’s ready to grow up — and beyond these three cities — with a fresh injection of $27.6 million in capital raised in a Series A round led by Ibex Investors.

The equity round included newcomer Toyota AI Ventures and further investments from Blue Collective, Launch Capital and Maniv Mobility.

The capital will, as it often does with startups, allow Revel to scale up. CEO and co-founder Frank Reig said this growth will extend to its fleet of scooters within the cities it currently operates as well as expand into new markets. Reig wouldn’t name where the New York-based startup will launch next, although he provided some hints. Large U.S. cities with the right population density and more temperate weather are at the top of the list.

Revel is targeting about 10 cities by mid-2020, Reig added.

How that growth occurs, and who is behind its operations, is what Reig believes differentiates Revel from other shared electric vehicle providers such as scooter startups that have had a record of deploying in cities before getting approval from local authorities.

Many startups in the shared industry, including Revel, talk up their focus on safety and desire to be responsible partners with cities. Revel’s choice of vehicle — along with a few other decisions — helps it stick to those promises.

“These mopeds are motor vehicles,” Reig noted. “This means there’s no regulatory gray area: you have to have a license plate. To get that license plate you have register each vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state and show third-party auto liability insurance. And then because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s clear that it rides in the street, so we’re completely off sidewalks.”

Revel caps the speed of its mopeds to 30 miles per hour. The company also provides two helmets — and single-use liners — on every ride and requires users to be licensed drivers aged, 21 or older who pass an initial safe driving history check. About one out of every 12 applicants does not make it past this screening, according to Revel.

Any concerns about users bypassing the protective headgear are largely erased because both New York and Washington D.C. have helmet laws, Reig said.

No giga workers

The company, unlike most on-demand mobility startups, does not have any gig economy workers either. Revel only has full-time employees, said Reig, adding that it’s decision he intends to stick with it even as his company grows.

“We don’t use gig economy in anything we do and I see a ton of value in that,” Reig said. “We need a well-trained workforce that is really committed and cares about the vehicles, because if not it’s something we’re going to be throwing out every 60 days.”

Revel’s shared mopeds have a 3-year asset life, Reig said based on their in-house estimates. To ensure the mopeds last, which has become a key factor in the unit economics of shared mobility businesses, they remain on street.

The mopeds are removed by employees for routine maintenance that occurs every four to six months. Otherwise, the mopeds aren’t loaded into vans by gig economy workers who make money by charging them up — a common practice with the small stand-up scooters that have inundated cities like San Diego and San Francisco. Instead, employees swap out the batteries on the mopeds, which have a range of about 50 miles.

20 months and 1,400 scooters

The idea for Revel was borne out of Reig’s travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he witnessed locals on every form of two-wheeled vehicle.

“A sort of light bulb went off my head, and I asked myself, ‘why is it not a thing in the U.S?,” Reig told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I came back to New York, started studying the market more and saw all these electric moped operators had been popping up in Europe over the last few years and just realized that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

The company started with a small pilot of 68 mopeds in a few neighborhoods within Brooklyn. In May, after a nine-month pilot, Revel pulled the original mopeds it used in its limited pilot and has replaced them with 1,000 new models built for two riders and equipped with kickstands for parking. With more mopeds in its fleet, Revel expanded the service to more than 20 neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In August, Revel launched its service in Washington D.C., where there are now more than 400 mopeds.

Revel rides cost $1 per person to start, followed by $0.25 per minute to ride and $0.10 per minute while parked. Revel says it will cut the cost by 40% for eligible riders — and give them a $25 credit — through its Revel Access program. Riders who use public assistance programs like SNAP or live in NYCHA housing are eligible for the program.

Report: WeWork expected to cut 500 tech roles

The WeWork saga continues this week with new reports the company may slash as many as 500 tech roles.

The co-working business, whose eccentric co-founder and chief executive officer Adam Neumann stepped down two weeks ago, is expected to let go of 350 employees within its corporate division, The Information reports. Initial cuts will be within the software engineering, product management and data science teams.

Another 150 roles may be dissolved as the company looks to sell several assets, including Managed by Q, Teem, SpaceIQ, Conductor and Meetup . New York-based WeWork has roughly 15,000 employees and expects to make as many as 2,000 layoffs, per reports, as the business attempts to cut costs and rewrite its narrative ahead of an eventual debut on the public markets.

WeWork unveiled its S-1 — littered with errors and sloppy work, per The Wall Street Journal — but decided to delay its initial public offering after Neumann stepped down and the company’s former vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and former president and chief operating officer Artie Minson stepped in to serve as co-CEOs.

Now expected to go public in 2020 at a valuation as low as $10 billion, WeWork is also in negotiations with JPMorgan for a last-minute cash infusion to replace the capital expected from the postponed IPO, per reports. The company, now a cautionary tale, has been working with bankers in recent weeks to reduce the sky-high costs of its money-losing operation. The reported layoffs are said to be a part of the bankers’ strategy.

WeWork was previously valued at $47 billion despite losses of nearly $1 billion in the six months ending June 30.

WeWork did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Startup says ‘Sober is the new black’

Maveron, Slow Ventures and Female Founders Fund have invested $10 million in a startup that claims it’s carving a new path to sobriety.

Tempest offers a $647 eight-week virtual “sobriety school” to help people, particularly women and “historically oppressed individuals,” get sober. The program is led by the company’s founder and chief executive officer Holly Whitaker, who conducts weekly video lectures and Q+As for participants. Offering their expertise as part of the package is marriage and family therapist Kim Kokoska; Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, the co-founder of Eight Step Recovery; and wellness coach Mary Vance, among others.

Tempest teaches the underlying causes of addiction and the “importance of purpose, meaning and creativity in breaking addiction,” as well as how to manage cravings, how to navigate social situations as a non-drinker, how to develop a mindfulness practice and more. At the end of the program, participants can pay a $127 fee for an annual membership to the Tempest online community, where one can communicate with others who’ve completed the program.

Tempest Syllabus
Week 1: Recovery Maps + Toolkits
Week 2: Addiction & The Brain
Week 3: Habit and Night Ritual
Week 4: Yoga, Meditation and Breath
Week 5: Nutrition & Lifestyle
Week 6: Relationships & Community
Week7: Trauma & Therapy
Week 8: Purpose & Creativity
Week 8+ Wrapping Up + Next Steps

Dashboard Week 2

A snapshot of Tempest’s weekly coursework.

A holistic approach

Founded in 2014, New York-based Tempest has raised about $14.3 million in total VC funding. Whitaker previously spent five years at One Medical, where she was the director of revenue cycle operations. Since founding Tempest, which has enrolled 4,000 participants to date, Whitaker received a two-book deal from Random House to document her methodologies and path to sobriety. Her first book, ‘Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol,’ will be released on December 31.

Today, her business has 28 employees and plans to build out its team, invest in marketing — where it’s historically had very low spend — and explore business opportunities within the enterprise using cash from the $10 million Series A.

“Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.” - Tempest

The company is careful to clarify it’s not a detox or 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is structured around the Twelve Steps to recovery. Rather, Tempest can be used in combination with other programs or therapies, or as a first step down the path to recovery. Whitaker explains Tempest isn’t only for the clinically addicted or those who consider themselves addicts or alcoholics. The company welcomes people who have rejected these labels or simply want to cut alcohol out of their life.

“Tempest grew out of my own experience,” Whitaker, who has previously struggled with alcoholism and an eating disorder, tells TechCrunch. “It was a response to the lack of desirable and accessible options to address problematic drinking, the lack of options available for people who don’t identify as alcoholics but struggle with alcohol and the lack of options that have been created for women and other individuals. Everything had been created for men.”

Tempest is tailored to the needs of women and historically oppressed individuals, says Whitaker, though all genders are welcome to complete its course. Taking a holistic approach to recovery, participants are encouraged to address the factors that led them to drink in the first place, including “love lives, poor nutrition, stress, anxiety, crap friendships, consumerism, lack of purpose, unresolved family of origin issues, disenfranchisement, poverty, tight or unmanageable finances, lack of connection, fear, shitty jobs we hate, depression, unprocessed trauma, lack of meaning, unfulfilled dreams, never-ending to-do lists, never-measuring-upness,” the company writes.

TempestWebsite

Tempest’s website

But what about A.A.?

I had the same question.

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), the most popular and accessible approach to recovery, is free and open to anyone willing to acknowledge they have a drinking problem. A nonprofit organization, A.A. has more than 115,000 groups worldwide. The 84-year-old program is built on peer-support groups that gather regularly for discussion meetings. Over time, more seasoned members can become “sponsors,” helping newer entrants work through the Twelve Steps.

Tempest, alternatively, is taking a for-profit approach, charging for its tech-infused method. And where A.A. emphasizes in-person support groups, Tempest relies on video streams. Increasingly, telemedicine startups are enticing customers with convenient options for health and wellness care but whether people will truly pivot to telemedicine, tele-therapy or virtual sobriety schools is still up for debate. As for Tempest’s similarities to A.A., Whitaker says: “The only thing they have in common is that they are working to help people quit alcohol.”

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack.” - Tempest

In selling its sobriety school, Tempest evokes a sense of coolness, with phrases like “Sober is the new black” and “Your hangover goes away. Your social life doesn’t,” plastered on its website. In providing a priced and more exclusive route to sobriety, one might question Tempest’s ethics and motivations as it builds a business that capitalizes off of substance abuse. Whitaker, in defense, explains a virtual school fit for the historically powerless is a necessary addition to existing options: “Our program is centered on individuals who have been held out of power, who have been told to shut up and listen,” she said. “We aren’t looking at white, upper-class men. We are looking at a queer person from 2019.”

According to survey data published by Recovery.org, 89% of A.A. attendees are white, while 38% are female.

Refusing ‘alcogenic culture’

Tempest’s branding takes a cue from the D2C playbook. The company, led by women, has the opportunity to become the brand that represents sobriety, and it’s taking it. Tempest’s Series A, coupled with the influx of new-age non-alcoholic beverage brands backed by VCs, is representative of the perceived shift away from alcohol among the younger generations.

Millennials are drinking less alcohol and, according to the World Health Organization, there are 5% fewer alcohol drinkers in the world today than in 2000. Tempest’s school seems to cater more to the cohort of people who view ditching alcohol as a lifestyle perk, not those who stop drinking due to addiction.

Holly Whitaker

Tempest founder and CEO Holly Whitaker

Seedlip, a non-alcoholic spirits company, and India’s Coolberg Beverages, which makes non-alcoholic beer, recently raised VC to cater to a similar demographic. Meanwhile, CBD-infused beverage brands like Sweet Reason, Cann and Recess are trendy and raising venture money. None of these, of course, are solutions for someone struggling with alcohol. Capital flowing into these brands merely indicates venture capitalists’ belief that consumers are steering away from traditional liquor and toward new products fit for a generation that is drinking less alcohol.

“By just trying on sobriety or questioning our drink-centric culture, you are profoundly ahead of the pack and among good company,” Tempest writes on its website. “Remember: 70-80% of adults drink depending on where you live; drinking is basic. Sobriety, and the refusal to partake in alcogenic culture, is subversive, rebellious, and edgy.”

Tempest says it has completed an efficacy study performed in consultation with researchers affiliated with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University. In several years’ time, we’ll know whether the countless think pieces claiming millennials are done with alcohol were indeed true and whether the VC money into these upstarts was wasted or pure genius. As for Tempest, even if just providing a designated place on the internet for discussions around the struggles or benefits of sobriety, it has the potential to make a big impact on those in recovery or those seeking a lifestyle change.

“Alcohol is very similar to cigarettes,” Whitaker said. “We are in a time that we think drinking alcohol is natural, that we are supposed to do it. I thought that would change because to me, alcohol is entirely toxic. We are approaching this tipping point of realizing how toxic and unnecessary it is.”

Tempest is also backed by AlleyCorp, Refactor and Green D Ventures. Maveron’s Anarghya Vardhana has joined the startup’s board of directors as part of the latest deal.

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via Cupertino Service Zone 1

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is used by Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in more than 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the U.K. in early 2019.

‘We are seeing volume and interest in Peloton explode,’ says company president on listing day

This morning, Peloton (NASDAQ: PTON), the tech-enabled stationary bicycle and fitness content streaming company, raised $1.2 billion in its NASDAQ initial public offering. Despite dropping more than 10% in its first day of trading — ultimately closing down 11% at $25.84 per share — the IPO was a bona fide success. Peloton, once denied (over and over again) by VC skeptics, now has hundreds of millions of dollars to take its business into a new era. One in which, the media, hardware, software, logistics and social company attempts to become a generation-defining company akin to Apple.

Founded in 2012 — six years after Soul Cycle opened its first cycling studio in New York’s Upper East Side and two years before a Soul Cycle founder, Ruth Zukerman, jumped ship to launch her own indoor cycling business, Flywheel Sports — a man by the name of John Foley made the ambitious, some might say foolish, decision to start a company that would sell these exercise bikes direct-to-consumer. That way, you could take a Soul Cycle class, in essence, in the comfort of your own home. Even better, technology would improve the experience.

As my colleague Josh Constine recently described it, these bikes come outfitted with a 22-inch Android screen, transforming an outdated exercising experience and bringing it into 2019: “It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is Velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise,” Constine writes.

Peloton’s ability to get people exercise — a feature driven by its talented instructors (some of whom were poached from competitor Flywheel Sports) — ultimately had venture capital investors funneling $1 billion, roughly, into the business. Today, Peloton operates dozens of showrooms across the U.S., counts 1.4 million total community members — defined as any individual who has a Peloton account — and over 500,000 paying subscribers. Why? Because the company, as stated in its IPO prospectus, “sells happiness.”

“Peloton is so much more than a Bike — we believe we have the opportunity to create one of the most innovative global technology platforms of our time,” writes Foley. “It is an opportunity to create one of the most important and influential interactive media companies in the world; a media company that changes lives, inspires greatness, and unites people.”

Peloton Bike Lifestyle 04

Peloton’s flagship product, a tech-enabled stationary bike.

Peloton’s community coupled with the high margins on sales of its $2,245 bikes had the company reporting $915 million in total revenue for the year ending June 30, 2019, an increase of 110% from $435 million in fiscal 2018 and $218.6 million in 2017. Its losses, meanwhile, hit $245.7 million in 2019, up significantly from a reported net loss of $47.9 million last year.

What’s next for Peloton? The opportunities are endless, given the company’s firm seat at the intersection of hardware, software, media content and more. A third product may be in the works, expansion to international markets or new instructors. Peloton is going after a massive market ripe for disruption. What’s certain is that we’ll see a whole lot of cash flowing into fitness tech copycats in the next couple of years.

Peloton, following a number of lukewarm consumer IPOs (Uber), nearly doubled its valuation to $8.1 billion this morning after pricing its IPO at the top of its range, $29 per share. To answer some of our most burning questions, we chatted with Peloton’s president William Lynch, the former CEO of Barnes & Noble, about the float.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

William Lynch

Peloton president and former Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch.


Kate Clark: What’s next for Peloton?
William Lynch: We now have over a billion in capital to fuel more growth, especially in the area of product innovation.

Israeli VC PICO Venture Partners closes on $80M

PICO Venture Partners, an early-stage investment firm headquartered in Jerusalem, has raised $80 million for its second flagship fund following a $35 million debut effort.

The four-year-old firm is not industry specific; rather, the outfit seeks “values-based, execution-driven Israeli entrepreneurs who leverage technology to modernize processes and unlock greater efficiency in the marketplace.” In other words, PICO is an opportunistic firm, looking for local founders with potential to bring big returns.

PICO has previously invested in Vroom, an online used-car marketplace that’s raised nearly $500 million in funding. Other portfolio companies include cloud automation business Spotinst, AI-enabled career development tool Gloat and business management tool Arbox.

Led by co-founding partners Elie Wurtman — a former general partner at Benchmark Capital Israel — Todd Kesselman and Gina LaVersa — former investment bankers — PICO operates offices in Tel Aviv and New York, in addition to Jerusalem.

“At PICO, we put an emphasis on impact,” Wurtman said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “With this fund, we’re looking to partner with Israeli founders who want to use new technologies to make an impact on industries that need to be looked at from a refreshed perspective. While we’re looking for early-stage companies with significant growth potential, we also want to ensure we’re investing in entrepreneurs who have a clear vision about how they can make a real impact on markets, people and society.”

Thinkful confirms data breach days after Chegg’s $80M acquisition

Thinkful, an online education site for developers, has confirmed a data breach, just days after it confirmed it would be acquired.

“We recently discovered that an unauthorized party may have gained access to certain Thinkful company credentials so, out of an abundance of caution, we are notifying all of our users,” said Erin Rosenblatt, the company’s vice-president of operations, in an email to users.

“As soon as we discovered this unauthorized access, we promptly changed the credentials, took additional steps to enhance the security measures we have in place, and initiated a full investigation,” the executive said.

At the time of writing, there has been no public acknowledgement of the breach beyond the email to users.

Thinkful, based in Brooklyn, New York, provides education and training for developers and programmers. The company claims the vast majority of its graduates get jobs in their field of study within a half-year of finishing their program. Earlier this month, education tech giant Chegg bought Thinkful for $80 million in cash.

But the company would not say when the breach happened — or if Chegg knew of the data breach prior to the acquisition announcement.

A spokesperson for Chegg did not respond to a request for comment. Thinkful spokesperson Catherine Zuppe did not respond to several emails of questions about the breach.

The email to users said the stolen credentials could not have granted the hacker access to certain information, such as government-issued IDs and Social Security numbers, or financial information. But although the company said it’s seen “no evidence” of any unauthorized access to user’s account data, it did not rule out any improper access to user data.

Thinkful said it is requiring all users to change their passwords.

We also asked Thinkful what security measures it has employed since the credentials breach, such as employing two-factor authentication, but did not hear back.

Just months earlier, Chegg confirmed a data breach, which forced the online technology giant to reset the passwords of its 40 million users.

At least Thinkful is now in good company.

The portrait of an avatar as a young artist

In this episode of Flux I talk with LaTurbo Avedon, an online avatar who has been active as an artist and curator since 2008.  Recently we’ve seen a wave of next-gen virtual stars rise up, from Lil Miquela in the west to pop-stars like Kizuna AI in the east. As face and body tracking make real-time avatar representation accessible, what emergent behaviors will we see? What will our virtual relationships evolve? How will these behaviors translate into the physical world when augmented reality is widespread?
LaTurbo was early to exploring these questions of identity and experimenting with telepresence. She has shape-shifted across media types, spending time in everything from AOL and chat rooms, to MMOs, virtual worlds and social media platforms. In this conversation she shares her thoughts on how social networks have breached our trust, why a breakup is likely, and how users should take control of their data. We get into the rise of battle royale gaming, why multiplicity of self is important, and how we can better express agency and identity online.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full podcast on iTunes and transcript on Medium.

***

ALG: Welcome to the latest episode of Flux. I am excited to introduce LaTurbo Avedon. LaTurbo is an avatar and artist originating in virtual space, per her website and online statement. Her works can be described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and explosion of forms exploring topics of virtual authorship and the physicality of the Internet. LaTurbo has exhibited all over the world from Peru to Korea to the Whitney in New York. I’m thrilled to have her on the show. Metaphorically of course. It’s just me here in the studio. LaTurbo is remote. 

When we got the demo file earlier I was excited to hear the slight Irish lilt in your robotic voice. As a Brit I feel like we have a bond there.

LaTurbo: Thank you for the patience. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, our voices together.

ALG: Of course it’s all about being patient as we try out new things on the frontier. And you represent that frontier. This show is about people that are pushing the boundaries in their fields. A lot of them are building companies, some are scientists. Recently we’ve had a few more artists on and that’s something I believe is important in all of these fields. Because you’re taking the time to do the hard work and think about technology and its impact and how we can stretch it and use it in different ways and broaden our thinking. You play an important role.

LaTurboWe will get things smoothed out eventually as my vocalization gets easier and more natural with better tools. Alice I appreciate you trekking out here with me and trying this format out.

ALG: I love a good trek. Maybe you can give a brief intro on who is LaTurbo. I believe you started in Second Life. I’d love to hear about those origins. Phil Rosedale was one of the first people I interviewed on this podcast, the founder of Second Life. Shout out to Phil. I’d love to hear what’s been your journey since then. Oh and also happy 10th birthday.

“I’ve spent decades inside of virtual environments, in many ways I came of age alongside the Internet. My early years in my adolescence in role-playing games. From the early years I was enamored by cyber space”

LaTurboI know that it is circuitous at times but this process has made me work hard to explore what it takes to be here like this. Well I started out early on in the shapes of America Online, intranets, and private message boards. Second Life opened this up incredibly, taking things away from the closed worlds of video games. We had to work even harder to be individuals in early virtual worlds using character editors, roleplaying games, and other platforms in shared network spaces. This often took the shape of default characters — letting Final Fantasy, Goldeneye, or other early game titles be the space where we performed alternative identities.

ALG: If you’re referring to Goldeneye on N64 I spent considerable time on it growing up. So I might have seen you running around there.

LaTurbo: It was a pleasure to listen to your conversation with Philip Rosedale as he continues to explore what comes next, afterwards, in new sandboxes. What was your first avatar?

ALG: I did play a lot of video games growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and was exposed mostly to the Nintendo and Sega side of things, so maybe one of those Mario Kart characters — Princess Peach or really I went for Yoshi if those count as avatars. I’d love to get into your experience in gaming. You said you started off exploring more closed world games and then you discovered Second Life. You’ve spent a lot of time in MMORPGs and obviously that’s one of the main ways that people have engaged with avatars. I’d love to hear how your experiences have been in different games and any commentary on the worlds you’re spending time in now.

LaTurbo: I think that even if they weren’t signature unique identities or your own avatar, those forms of early video games were a first key to understand more about facets of yourself through them. For me gaming is like water being added to the creative sandbox. There is fusion inside of game worlds — narrative, music, performance, design, problem solving, communication, so many different factors of life and creativity that converge within a pliable file. Some of the most Final Fantasies of games are now realities. Users move place to place using many maps and system menus on their devices. The physical world so closely bonded by users like me that brought bits of the game out with us. Recently I spent several months wandering around inside of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoyed the narrative of the main storyline though I was far more interested in having quiet moments away from all of the violence. I named my horse Sontag and went out exploring, taking photographs and using slow motion game exploits to make videos. Several months as the weary cowboy named Arthur, and then I carried on my way. I take bits and pieces with me on the way.

LaTurbo’s Overwatch avatar

ALG: As you’ve gone across different games and platforms like Red Dead Redemption 2 are there specific people you’ve made friends with? How have your friendships formed in these different communities and do they travel between games? 

LaTurbo: I have had many gaming friends. Virtual friends overlap between all of these worlds. My Facebook friends are not very different than those I fight with in Overwatch or the ones I challenge scores with in Tetris Effect.

ALG: One thing you’ve said about gaming and I’ll read the quote straight out:

“I love the MMO or massively multiplayer online experience for a lot of reasons but primarily because I want to create works collaboratively with my network, because we are in this moment together. For a long time virtual worlds were partitioned from the public because you either had to be invested in gaming or a chat room/ BBS user to get into them.”

I want to explore that. Gaming has come a long way in the 10 years since you were created. It’s more widespread now. Things like Fortnite. I saw that Red Dead Redemption is introducing a Fortnite like feature where they’re going to have battle royale mode and toss people into a battle zone and force them to search for weapons to survive. I think a lot of people are looking at the success of Fortnite and replicating elements of it. Can you comment on how gaming has become more widespread or more in the public mind and what you think of the rise of Fortnite?

LaTurboOur histories are fluid, intersecting and changing depending on the world we choose to inhabit. Sometimes we are discussing art on Instagram. Other times we are discussing game lore or customization of ourselves. This variety is so important to me. There is a lot exchanged between worlds like Fortnite and the general physical day to day. Expectations are real and high. The battle royale model has pushed people to a sort of edge at all times. A constant pressure of chance and risk, it crosses between games but also into general attention. Video apps like TikTok have a similar model — always needing to have the drop on the creators around you.

ALG: It’s interesting that tension. These games are driven to create competition. They are businesses so they’re supposed to build in loops and mechanics that keep people engaging. But as you describe of your experience in Red Redemption you’ve also found quiet moments of exploration being alone and not necessarily fiercely competing. 

LaTurbo: Red Dead could be a hundred games in one. Yet for some reason we come back to the royale again. It is a maximal experience in a lot of ways. One that uses failure and frustration to keep users trying again perpetually. This is a telling sign as you’ve said about the business of games. The loop. I worry that this is a risky model because it doesn’t encourage a level of introspection very often.

ALG: I love video games but have never been a fan of first person shooters. I don’t enjoy the violence. But I’ve always loved strategy and exploration games. To your point about exploring, I would spend hours wandering on Epona [the horse] in Zelda, running across the fields. But I didn’t feel that a lot of those games were designed for women or people who weren’t interested in the violence or the GTA type approach. I’m excited to see more of that happening now and gaming CEOs realizing there’s a huge untapped market of people that want to play in different modes and experience gaming in different ways. It feels like we are moving towards that future. I do want to get in to how you have expanded beyond gaming. I’ll read some of your quotes from when you started out:

“I’ve been making work in digital environments since 2008 to 2009, though I’ve only been using social media for about a year now since I can’t go out and mingle with people it’s been quite nice to use social platforms to share my work. This way I can be in real life IRL as much as people allow me to be.”

I want to get to the question of how you’ve expanded from gaming to social media, building your Twitter and Instagram presence and how you think about your engagement on those platforms.

LaTurbo: I celebrate the multiplicity of self. Walt Whitman spoke of their contradictions years ago accepting themselves in the sense that they contain multitudes. As I wandered the fields of fictitious Admiral Grant in Red Dead Redemption 2, it occurred to me that I was wondering inside of Leaves of Grass. It made sense that I too was wandering around out in the fields and trees. Virtual life in poetry, song, or simulation gives us a different sort of armor where our forms can forget about borders, rules and expectations that have yet to change outside.

It has been quite a decade. Events of the past 10 years could easily be the plot of a William Gibson novel. A cyber drama and all its actors. With and without consent users have watched their personal data slip away from their control, quick to release in the terms of service. Quick to be public, to have more followers and visibility. Is it real without the Instagram proof? I chose to socialize away from game worlds for a few different purposes. To imbue my virtual identity with the moment of social media. But also to create a symbol of a general virtual self. A question mark or a mirror, to encourage reflection before people fully drown themselves in the stream.

ALG: One of the reasons it’s fascinating to talk to you now is that you’ve come of age as the Internet has come of age. You’ve navigated and shape-shifted across these platforms. And so much has happened since 2008. You’ve been on everything from Tumblr to Pinterest to Vine to Snapchat to Instagram. I’m curious where you think we are in the life cycle of these social media platforms?

LaTurbo: It has been quite a journey, seeing these services pop up, new fields, new places. But it is clear that not many of these things will remain very long. A new Wild West of sorts. They are more like ingredients in a greater solution as we try to make virtual relationships that are comfortable for both mind and body.

ALG: Speaking of these services popping up I want to get to something you tweeted out, your commentary on Facebook:

“If it wasn’t bad already just imagine how toxic Facebook will be when we collectively decide to break up with them. Anticipate a paid web and an underweb. We just start spinning them out on our own, smaller and away from all these analytics moneymakers. The changeover from MySpace era networks to Facebook felt minimal because it hadn’t become such a market-oriented utility. But this impending social network breakup is going to be felt in all sorts of online sectors.”

That’s an interesting opinion. The delete Facebook movement is strong right now. But I wonder how far it will go and how many people really follow it?

LaTurbo: Business complicates this as companies extend too far and make use of this data for personal gain or manipulation. In the same way that Google Glass failed because of a camera, these services destroy themselves as they breach the trust of those who use them. These companies know that these are toxic relationships whether it is on a game economy or a social network. They know that the leverage over your personal data is valuable. Losing this, our friends, and our histories is frightening. We need to find some way to siphon ourselves and our data back so we can learn to express agency with who we are online. Your data is more valuable than the services that you give it to. The idea that people feel that it is fair to let their accounts be inherently bound to a single service is disturbing. Our virtual lives exceed us and will continue to do so onward into time. Long after us this data may still linger somewhere.

ALG: I’m going to throw in a Twitter poll you did a few months ago. “If you had the choice to join some sort of afterlife simulation that would keep you around forever at the expense of having your data used for miscellaneous third party purposes would you?” 35% said yes and 65% said no in this poll. I bet if you ask that every two years, over time the answers will continue to change as we get more comfortable with our digital identities and what that really means. You’re pushing us to ask these questions.

LaTurboWe see in museums now torn parchments, scrolls, ancient wrappings of lives and histories. As we become more virtual these documents will inherently change too. A markup and data takes this place. However we consent to let it be represented. If we leave this to the Facebooks and Twitters of this period, our histories are in many ways contingent on the survival of these platforms. If not we have lost a dark ages, it is a moment that we will lose forever.

ALG: I’m curious what you think of the different movements to export your personal data, own it, have it travel with you across platforms and build a new pact with the companies. Are you following any of the movements to take back personal data and rewrite the social technological contract?

LaTurboIt would be sad to have less record of this period of innovation and self-discovery because we didn’t back things up or control our data appropriately. Where do you keep it? Who protects it? Who is a steward of your records? All of this needs to begin with the user and end with the user. An album, a solid state tablet of your life, something you can take charge of without concern that it is marketing fodder or some large shared database. As online as we are as a society, I recommend people have an island. Not a cloud but a private place, plugged in when you request it. A drive of your own where you have a private order. Oddly enough in an older world sense you can find solitude in solid states, when you have the retreat to files that are not connected to the Internet.

ALG: And have it backed up and air-gapped from the internet for safety and possibly in a Faraday cage in case you get EMP’ed. One thing that leads on from that — Facebook has capitalized on using our real data, our personal data. I have the statement on authentic identity from their original S-1 here:

“We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends and sharing your genuine interests online creates more engaging and meaningful experiences. Representing yourself with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience and we believe that it is central to the future of the Web. Our terms of service require you to use your real name. And we encourage you to be your true self online enabling us and platform developers to provide you with more personalized experiences.”

LaTurbo: The use of a real name, authenticity, and Facebook’s message of truth. It is peculiar that Facebook used this angle because it was such a gloved gesture for them to access our accurate records. The verification is primarily to make businesses comfortable with their investment in marketing. I wish it came to celebrate personal expression not to tune business instruments.

ALG: Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a movement towards Facebook and being our real selves. Now there’s kind of a backlash both to the usage of Facebook but perhaps also to the idea that your real identity, your true self that you have offline, that that’s what you should be representing online. You are an anonymous artist and there’s precedent for that. There have been many writers with nom de plumes over centuries and in the present day we’ve got Daft Punk, Banksy, Elena Ferrante, fascinating creators. I’m curious your thoughts as we move away from real selves being represented online to expressing our other selves online. We’ve been living in an age of shameless self-promotion. Do you think that the rise of people representing themselves with digital avatars is a backlash to that? Society usually goes through a back and forth, a struggle for balance. Do you think people are getting disenchanted with the unrelenting narcissism of social media, the celebrity worship culture? Do you think this is a bigger movement that’s going to stick?

LaTurbo: I see this as an opportunity and I am wary of this chance being usurped by business. If I had the chance to see all of my friends in the avatar forms of their wishes and dreams I believe I’d be seeing them for the first time. A different sort of wholeness against the sky, where they had the chance to say and be exactly what they wished others to find. If you haven’t created an avatar before please do. Explore yourself in many facets before these virtual spaces get twisted into stratified arenas of business.

A full talk from LaTurbo Avedon is available here

I don’t seek to be anonymous but to represent myself in this strand of experiences, fully. That’s who I have become. As an artist I will continue to change with what surrounds me. Each step forward. Each new means of making and learning. I celebrate this and who I will become, even if I continue to find definition over a period of time that I right now cannot fully comprehend.

I am often in the company of crude avatars of the past. As I read journals, view sketches and works from artists past, if they understood their avatar identities and how they would be here now in 2019. I wonder what they would have done differently. What would they think of their graphic design and exhibitions? How their work is shown in other mediums? How their work is sold?

ALG: Taking that with your earlier point, you said if you had the chance you would love to see all your friends in their avatar forms “express all their wishes and dreams.” It fascinates me, the idea that we persistently remain one to one with our offline/online identities. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like everyone has multiple selves and multiple things to express. Do you feel that most people should have a digital identity or abstraction? Do you think it’s healthy to have an extension of something that’s inside of you, especially since as you say some of these avatars are pretty crude. How do you feel about most people creating a digital avatar? People have been doing this for a while without realizing through things like a Tinder bio or Instagram stories. They’re already putting out ideas of themselves. But creating true anonymous digital avatars, is that something people should pursue?

LaTurbo: Avatars remain in places that we often don’t even intend them to. Symbols of self. For those that pass or those we never had the chance to meet, there seems to be importance here. To need to take this seriously so that it isn’t misunderstood. The most beautiful experiences I’ve had online are when I feel I am interacting with a user how they wish to be seen. Whether this is in the present or for people later, finding this inward representation feels essential especially for those exposed to oppressive societies. Whether it’s toxic masculinity, cultural restrictions, or other hindrances that prevent people from showing deeper parts of their identity.

I have four essential asks of users creating avatars. Though these apply well outside of just this topic. 1/ Be sweet. 2/ Encourage others to explore themselves and all of their differences. 3/ Learn about the history of virtual identities, now, then, and long before. This means going back. Read about identities before the internet, pen names, mythologies. 4/ Celebrate your ownership of self. You, not your services, subscriptions, or products, are the one to decide your way. Don’t become billboards. I’ve been asked by many companies over the years to promote their products, to drop the branded text on my clothing or to push a new service. These are exciting times but brands know this too. Be wary of exploitation. Protect yourself and your heart.

ALG: That’s really beautiful and important. We’re rushing into this future fast and I don’t think people are stopping to pause and think about some of the ideas you’ve spent a long time thinking about. It’s probably a good place to end. I have a million more things I want to ask, hopefully we can continue this chat over Discord, Twitter, Instagram, Second Life or wherever it is. I’m in VR a lot so I’d love to meet you in there. If there’s anything you want to end on, any final comments or projects you’re working on?

LaTurbo: Yes I agree with you very much. Technology moves quickly but we need to take the time to consider ourselves as we move inside this space. We have so much potential to be inside and out simultaneously. I am excited for this new year. I hope it brings positivity to everyone. I am showing a new piece called “Afterlife Beta” in London at the Arebyte Gallery. After this I will be working on my first monograph. I am excited to make something printed that might stick around in the physical world for a while.

ALG: That’s awesome. Love a good physical piece. And congratulations on “Afterlife Beta.” I appreciate your patience with my jumping in at all times in this conversation. I’ve been following your work and hope everyone else will too. You’re a fascinating, critical thinker and artist at this current point in history. Thanks LaTurbo.

LaTurbo: Thank you for your patience with my format. As time goes on I hope it is easier for us to be here together.