Slack’s product chief is out ahead of direct listing

Slack is losing its chief product officer April Underwood ahead of a direct listing expected in 2019.

Underwood joined Slack, the provider of workplace communication tools, in 2015 as its head of platform after a five-year stint as Twitter’s director of product. She was promoted to the chief product role about 10 months ago. Underwood is also a founding partner of #Angels, an investment collective that pushes to get more women on startup cap tables.

In a Medium post announcing her departure from Slack, Underwood said she planned to focus on investing full time.

“One common story you hear when you talk to founders is that their idea ran as a background process for many years until it moved into the foreground and became a calling too loud to ignore,” Underwood wrote. “And now, I can truly empathize with founders — because that’s happened for me. Investing, which started as a side hustle for me and my #Angels partners, has emerged as the pursuit too inspiring and energizing to be relegated to my spare time.”

During her tenure, Underwood had a hand in crafting Slack’s investment fund — a pool of capital supported by Accel, Index Ventures, KPCB, Social Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Spark Capital that has invested in 49 projects building on top of Slack to date.

Slack, led by founder and chief executive officer Stewart Butterfield, is said to be preparing for a direct listing, meaning it will go public without listing any new shares, with no lockup period and no intermediary bankers. Valued at roughly $7 billion, Slack has raised more than $1 billion to date from GV, IVP, T. Rowe Price, SoftBank, Kleiner Perkins, Accel and others.

Slack did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

YC-backed Upsolve is automating bankruptcy for everyone

The popular image of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy might be a large company like Enron failing, or maybe some lazy drifter trying to shirk their financial responsibilities. The reality is anything but those sorts of images. Today in America, the most common reason for bankruptcy is to discharge egregious sums of medical debt [1], which might have been incurred in a short stint in a hospital emergency room.

Bankruptcy allows people to get out from under a debilitating and permanent state of financial crisis — assuming one can afford it. Applying for bankruptcy itself costs money, potentially thousands of dollars depending on the attorney used. The cruel irony is that the people who can least afford to apply are those who are most locked out from the help they need.

Upsolve, one of the three non-profit tech startups in Y Combinator’s current winter batch, is building a unified and efficient software product to allow users easy access to the bankruptcy system. Users go through a series of questions to collect the required information about their financial circumstances, and then Upsolve provides automated bankruptcy forms reviewed by an Upsolve attorney — all for free.

“Our mission is to help the victims of our broken financial system,” Upsolve CEO and co-founder Rohan Pavuluri said to me. “If you are poor, you don’t have access to the same rights.” He describes Upsolve as “TurboTax for bankruptcy” (although to be clear, TurboTax is a for-profit business line of Intuit). Much like tax, bankruptcy is convoluted. “There are 23 forms to file for bankruptcy,” he said.

So far, the software platform seems to be finding traction. Since starting in summer of 2016, Upsolve has processed $16 million in bankruptcies on behalf of 400 people, and has diagnosed debt problems for 5,000 users, according to Pavuluri. We’re “automating a $40k check to these folks…. for three hours worth of time.”

Unlike legal processes like estate planning, which are burdened with handling 50 different state processes, bankruptcy is based on federal law, which means that Upsolve’s solution can work across the country. Today, it supports 47 states, and the startup’s first target markets are New York and Illinois.

Where Upsolve gets really interesting is on the financial side, both in how it approaches revenues from users and also how it funds its operations.

On the revenue side, Upsolve is free. Inspired by GoFundMe and other startups, Pavuluri and his team have created a model where users donate “what they think is fair” for the service. That has worked so far, as “on a unit basis we cover our costs from the tipping model,” he said.

Over time, he hopes to break even using just the tipping model, but today the organization relies on legal aid funds to partially fund its operations. The U.S. government and many state governments have funding set aside to finance civil legal aid, and the Legal Services Corporation is the largest funder to date of Upsolve.

I asked about whether incumbent lawyers are threatened by Upsolve. Pavuluri said that most lawyers don’t want to handle these cases in the first place, because they are not profitable and generally need to be handled pro bono. He said that for simple chapter 7 cases, you (almost certainly) don’t need a lawyer, and “we challenge legal exceptionalism in that sense.” He has spent the last two years criss-crossing the country meeting with bankruptcy groups, judges, bar associations and attorneys to undergird support for the startup’s work.

In addition to Y Combinator, Upsolve has been funded by Harvard University, the Robin Hood Foundation, Schmidt Futures (Eric Schmidt), Fast Forward, and Breyer Labs.

[1] There is a large academic debate on how many bankruptcies are triggered by medical debt. The percentage varies hugely between different studies (from say 4% to 62%), and it really depends on how you define someone’s lead cause of bankruptcy. Most filers with medical debt also have other forms of debt, so what specifically triggered a bankruptcy? Due to stigma, filers will often point to medical debt when other forms of debt may be larger.

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Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

Stray Thoughts (aka, what I am reading)

Short summaries and analysis of important news stories

Slack’s Financials are quite strong

Zoë Bernard and Alfred Lee at The Information have the scoop on Slack’s financials. Huge revenue growth of about 75% last year to $389 million. The challenge is that Slack’s valuation is still very heady given its revenues, and is currently valued at about an18x multiple according to the writers. That’s expensive, but perhaps still desirable by investors who are otherwise looking at a relatively bleak market of investment opportunities.

What’s next & obsessions

  • I am reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. About half way through – and it’s quite thought-provoking (and depressing).
  • Arman is reading Never Lost Again by Bill Kilday, a history of mapping at Google and beyond.
  • Arman and I are interested in societal resilience startups that are targeting areas like water security, housing, infrastructure, climate change, disaster response, etc. Reach out if you have ideas or companies here.

GBatteries let you charge your car as quickly as visiting the pump

A YC startup called GBatteries has come out of stealth with a bold claim: they can recharge an electric car as quickly as it takes to full up a tank of gas.

Created by aerospace engineer Kostya Khomutov, electrical engineers Alex Tkachenko and Nick Sherstyuk, and CCO Tim Sherstyuk, the company is funded by the likes of Airbus Ventures, Initialized Capital, Plug and Play, and SV Angel.

The system uses AI to optimize the charging systems in electric cars.

“Most companies are focused on developing new chemistries or materials (ex. Enevate, Storedot) to improve charging speed of batteries. Developing new materials is difficult, and scaling up production to the needs of automotive companies requires billions of $,” said Khomutov. “Our technology is a combination of software algorithms (AI) and electronics, that works with off-the-shelf Li-ion batteries that have already been validated, tested, and produced by battery manufacturers. Nothing else needs to change.”

The team makes some bold claims. The product allows users to charge a 60kWh EV battery pack with 119 miles of range in 15 minutes as compared to 15 miles in 15 minutes today. “The technology works with off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries and existing fast charge infrastructure by integrating via a patented self-contained adapter on a car charge port,” writes the team. They demonstrated their product at CES this year.

Most charging systems depend on fairly primitive systems for topping up batteries. Various factors – including temperature – can slow down or stop a charge. GBatteries manages this by setting a very specific charging model that “slows down” and “speeds up” the charge as necessary. This allows the charge to go much faster under the right conditions.

The company bloomed out of frustration.

“We’ve always tinkered with stuff together since before I was even a teenager, and over time had created a burgeoning hardware lab in our basement,” said Sherstyuk. “While I was studying Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, we’d often debate and discuss why batteries in our phones got so bad so rapidly – you’d buy a phone, and a year later it would almost be unusable because the battery degraded so badly.”

“This sparked us to see if we can solve the problem by somehow extending the cycle life of batteries and achieve better performance, so that we’d have something that lasts. We spent a few weeks in our basement lab wiring together a simple control system along with an algorithm to charge a few battery cells, and after 6 months of testing and iterations we started seeing a noticeable difference between batteries charged conventionally, and ones using our algorithm. A year and a half later of constant iterations and development, we applied and were accepted in 2014 into YC.”

While it’s not clear when this technology will hit commercial vehicles, it could be the breakthrough we all need to start replacing our gas cars with something a little more environmentally-friendly.

Campaign Monitor acquires email enterprise services Sailthru and Liveclicker

CM Group, the organization behind email-centric services like Campaign Monitor and Emma, today announced that it has acquired marketing automation firm Sailthru and the email personalization service Liveclicker. The group did not disclose the acquisition price but noted that the acquisition would bring in about $60 million in additional revenue and 540 new customers, including Bloomberg and Samsung. Both of these acquisitions quietly closed in 2018.

Compared to Sailthru, which had raised a total of about $250 million in venture funding before the acquisition, Liveclicker is a relatively small company that was bootstrapped and never raised any outside funding. Still, Liveclicker managed to attract customers like AT&T, Quicken Loans and TJX Companies by offering them the ability to personalize their email messages and tailor them to their customers.

Sailthru’s product portfolio is also quite a bit broader and includes similar email marketing tools, but also services to personalize mobile and web experiences, as well as tools to predict churn and make other retail-focused predictions.

“Sailthru and Liveclicker are extraordinary technologies capable of solving important marketing problems, and we will be making additional investments in the businesses to further accelerate their growth,” writes Wellford Dillard, CEO of CM Group. “Bringing these brands together makes it possible for us to provide marketers with the ideal solution for their needs as they navigate the complex and rapidly changing environments in which they operate.”

With this acquisition, the CM Group now has 500 employees and 300,000 customers.

For $5,800 per year, Chief helps women reach the C-suite

For decades, women in business have lacked the resources necessary to navigate to or sustain executive roles. Finally, venture-funded projects have emerged to fill this gap.

The latest is Chief, a private network for New York-based women in senior roles in tech, retail, enterprise, finance, media and more. The company launches today with $3 million in venture capital funding to provide its 200 members access to a Tribeca clubhouse, monthly executive coaching and leadership development sessions and a salon series, which includes “intimate dinners with captains of industry” and celebrity fireside conversations.

The catch? Chief membership costs $5,800 per year for members with a vice president-level job title and even more for those in the C-suite at $7,800. Its founders, Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan, say the ideal is for companies to pay the way for members, similar to how a startup might pay to send one of its employees to a conference.

Chief and its investors, Primary Venture Capital, Flybridge Capital Partners, Accel, Box Group, Able Partners, XFactor Ventures, Silas Capital and BBG Ventures, are betting the company’s coaching sessions, clubhouse, mobile application and network of successful women will keep its members coming back every year — $5,800 check in hand.

“Companies are looking for something like this,” Kaplan, the former VP of communications at Casper, told TechCrunch. “They have these amazing women, they know there is a problem with equality up top and this isn’t something they can provide within their own four walls.”

Though Chief’s initial 200-person cohort does not include any men, the group is open to all genders. Given the controversy surrounding The Wing’s former membership policy, which barred men from entry, Chief’s decision to accept anyone ready “to fight the 200-year gap in gender equality,” in the words of Kaplan, will probably save them a headache down the line.

“We are a very mission-based company,” Childers, the former VP of operations at household services marketplace Handy, told TechCrunch. “If a man is inspired to help women get to the C-suite, they can apply and become a part of Chief.”

Though Chief wasn’t able to provide specific data on membership diversity, Childers and Kaplan did say its “top of mind” and when I first spoke with the pair this fall, months before launch, they said they planned to offer grants to members who are unable to pay the annual fee.

“We don’t want to see a 1 percent increase in female management in 10 years,” Childers said. “We want to close that gap as quickly as possible.”

The startup seems to have the best of intentions, though what Chief appears to be is an expensive networking opportunity for New York’s existing elite. With that said, if Chief only helps the existing 1 percent of women in business maintain executive roles, at least its helping move the needle ever so slightly.

Goldman Sachs leads $8M round in cyber security skills platform Immersive Labs

Immersive Labs, a cyber security skills platform founded by James Hadley, who used to be a researcher at GCHQ, has raised $8 million in Series A funding. Leading the round is Goldman Sachs, with participation from a number of unnamed private investors.

Operating in the cyber security training space, Immersive Labs helps enterprise IT and other cyber security teams acquire the latest security skills by combining up to date threat data with what is describes as “gamified” learning. This sees the startup use real-time feeds of the latest attack techniques, hacker psychology and technological vulnerabilities to quickly create “cyber wargames” for IT and security teams to learn from.

The idea is that the platform can up-skill people within hours of a threat emerging, in addition to being used more generally to help identify and remedy less immediate weaknesses in a company’s cyber security team.

“First, there is a big picture problem that the world is crying out for cyber security talent and is currently struggling to fill that gap,” Immersive Labs founder and CEO James Hadley tells me. “Secondly, the way that cyber skills are being taught is massively obsolete and puts the companies they work for at risk. On many occasions, what is taught is out of date before people leave the classroom”.

The inspiration for Immersive Labs was born out of Hadley’s experience running a summer school at GCHQ. It was while running the course that he came to the realisation that “passive classroom-based learning doesn’t suit the people, or pace, of cyber security”.

“Not only does the content date quickly, but the lack of challenge is just not enough for the curious and creative minds required to be good in cyber. You cant dictate, they have to teach themselves through exploration,” he says.

“We let technical and security teams learn cyber skills like an attacker, allowing them to keep pace by combining breaking threat data with short browser-based wargames. This takes the form of a series of stories that encourage people to research, analyse and build their own attacks and solutions. Whilst doing this, they learn in a fun and compelling way”.

To that end, Immersive Labs says its Series A funding will be used to grow its offering for enterprise IT and cyber security teams. This will include investing in headcount and infrastructure to develop the platform further, and to support the company’s go-to-market strategy. Current clients include global corporates with complex cyber security needs, such as BAE Systems, Sophos and Grant Thornton.

Testing times for second wave scooter startups

Investors are still pouring millions into scooter startups, albeit sometimes at flat valuations. At the same time a little cash is flowing the other way, in cases where cities have realized the importance of prioritizing the needs of the local environment and its citizens, over and above the ambitions of VCs for a swift and lucrative exit.

Scooter startups affected by such regulatory bumps in the road are, unsurprisingly, rather less keen to shout about this sort of policy friction and the negative cash and ride flow it generates.

In one recent incident in Spain, in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, El Pais reported that the town hall fined a local scooter startup, called Reby, for contravening urban mobility rules.

The startup is so new it doesn’t even have scooters available for public hire yet. But it’s already had some of its ‘test’ rides removed by police and been fined for breaking scooter sharing rules.

If it was hoping to copy-paste from an Uber 1.0 playbook, things aren’t looking good for Reby. (Indeed, that’s a very tatty manual in most places these days.)

Spain’s capital city Madrid also forced a temporary suspension on scooter sharing startups recently, as we reported last month, after changes to mobility laws that tighten the screw on scooter sharing — requiring already operational startups to tweak how their rides operate in order to come into compliance.

While Madrid authorities haven’t banned scooter sharing entirely, they have imposed more limits on where and how they can be used, thereby injecting fresh friction into the business model.

But compared to Barcelona that’s actually a free ride. Things aren’t so much bumpy as roadblocked entirely for scooter sharing in the latter city where regulations adopted by Barcelona town hall in 2017 essentially ban the on-demand scooter model, at least as startups prefer to operate it.

These rules require companies that wanting to offer scooters for hire must provide a guide with the ride (one guide per maximum two people), as well as a helmet. They must also verify that the person to whom the vehicle is hired has the ability to ride it properly.

Rides might scale if you’re able to litter enough cheap and easy scooters all over the urban place but a (human) guide per two rides definitely does not.

Yet, as we’ve written before, there’s no shortage of patinetes electronics weaving around Barcelona’s often narrow and crowded streets. Most of these are locally owned though. And the town hall appears to prefer it that way. After all, people who own high tech scooters aren’t usually in a rush to ditch them in stupid places.

In its 2017 by-law regulating various personal mobility vehicles (PMVs) — including, but not limited to, two-wheeled electric scooters — the city council said it wanted to foster safer and sustainable usage of scooters and other PMVs, pointing to “the growing presence of this new mobility which is taking up more and more road space”.

“Barcelona City Council is committed to a sustainable city mobility model which gives priority to journeys on foot, by bicycle or on public transport,” it added, setting out what it dubbed a “pioneering regulation” that forbids e-scooter use on pavements; imposes various speed restrictions; and gives priority to pedestrians at all times.

Scooters can also only be parked in authorized parking places, with the council emphasizing: “It is forbidden to tie them to trees, traffic lights, benches or other items of urban furniture when this could affect their use or intended purpose; in front of loading or unloading zones, or in places reserved for other users, such as persons with reduced mobility; in service areas or where parking is prohibited, such as emergency exits, hospitals, clinics or health centres, Bicing [the local city bike hire scheme] zones and on pavements where this might block the path of pedestrians.”

There’s more though: The regulation also targets scooter sharing startups seeking to exploit PMVs as a commercial opportunity — with “special conditions for economic activities”.

These include the aforementioned guide, helmet and minimum skill level rule. There’s also a registration scheme for PMVs being used for economic activity which allows city police to scan a QR code that must be displayed on the ride to check it conforms to the regulation’s technical requirements. How’s that for a smart use of tech?

“There may be specific restrictions in specific areas and districts where there is a lot of pressure from these kinds of vehicles or they pose a specific problem,” the council also warns, giving itself further leeway to control PMVs and ensure they don’t become a concentrated nuisance.

Despite what are clear, strict and freshly imposed controls on scooter sharing, that hasn’t stopped a couple of smaller European startups from trying their luck at getting rentable rubber on Catalan carrers anywayperhaps encouraged by demonstrable local appetite to scoot (that and the lack of any big Birds).

The opportunity probably looks tantalizing; a dense urban environment that’s also a tourist hotspot with clement weather, lots of two-wheel-loving locals and a small but vibrant tech scene.

In Reby’s case, the very early stage Catalan startup, whose co-founders’ LinkedIn profiles suggests the business was founded last July, has a website and not much else at this point, aside from its ambitions to follow in the wheeltracks of Bird, Lime et al.

Nonetheless it has racked up fines worth €5,300 (just over $6,000), according to town hall sources, after being deemed to have breached the city’s PMV rules.

Reby had put out up to a hundred scooters in Barcelona for ten days, according to El Pais, padlocking them to bike anchors (with a digital password for unchaining delivered via app) — presumably in the hopes of locating a grey area in the regulation and unlocking the pile em’ high, rent em’ cheap dockless on-demand scooter model that’s disrupted cities elsewhere.

But the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona was unimpressed. Its new by-law brought in a penalty system with fines of up to €100 for minor infringements, up to €200 for serious infringements and up to €500 for very serious infringements. (We understand Reby received 53 sanctions for minor infringements — costing €100 apiece).

Penalties are levied per infringement, so essentially per scooter deployed on the street. And while a few thousand euros might not sound that much of a big deal, the more scooters you scatter the higher the fine scales. And of course that’s not the kind of scaling these startups are scooting for.

We asked Reby for its version of events but it didn’t want to talk about it. A spokesman told us it’s still very early days for the business, adding: “We are a very small team and haven’t launched yet officially. We are doing some tests in Barcelona.”

A more established European scooter startup, Berlin-based Wind, has also clashed with city hall. El Pais reports it had around 100 scooters seized by police last August, also after abortively trying to put them on the streets for hire.

Town hall sources told us that, in Wind’s case, the company’s rides were removed immediately by police, not even lasting a day — so there wasn’t even the chance for a fine to be issued. (We contacted Wind for comment on the incident but it did not respond.)

The bottom line is legislative hurdles won’t simply vanish because startups wish it.

Where scooters are concerned city authorities aren’t dumb and can also move surprisingly fast. The dumping grounds some urban spaces have become after being flooded with unwanted dockless rides by overfunded startups chasing scale via max disruption (and minimum environmental sensitivity) certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed.

At the same time, keeping streets flowing, uncluttered and safe is the bread and butter business of city councils — naturally pushing PMVs up the regulatory agenda.

You also don’t have to look far for tragic stories vis-a-vis scooters. Last summer a 90-year-old pedestrian was killed in a suburb of Barcelona after she was hit by two men riding an electric scooter. In another incident in a nearby town a 40-year-old scooter rider also reportedly died after falling off her ride and being run over by a truck.

The risks of PMVs mingling with pedestrians and more powerful road vehicles are both clear and also not about to disappear. Not without radical action to expel most non-PMV vehicles from city centers to expand the safe (road) spaces where lower powered, lighter weight PMVs could operate. (And no major cities are proposing anything like that yet).

Add to that, in European cities like Barcelona, where there has already been major investment in public transport infrastructure, there’s a clear incentive to funnel residents along existing tracks, including by tightly controlling new and supplementary forms of micro-mobility.

If the Barcelona city council has one potential blind spot where urban mobility is concerned it’s air pollution. Like most dense urban centers the city often suffers terribly from this. And savvy scooter companies would do well to be pressing on that policy front.

But there’s little doubt that would-be fast-follower scooter clones have their work cut out to scale at all, let alone go the distance and get big enough to attract acquisitive attention from the category’s beefed up early movers.

Even then, for the Birds and Limes of the scooter world, multi-millions in funding may buy runway and the opportunity to scoot for international growth but policy roadblocks aren’t the kind of thing that money alone can shift.

Scooter startups need to sell cities on the potential civic benefits of their technology, by demonstrating how PMVs could replace dirtier alternatives that are already clogging roads and having a deleterious impact on urban air quality, as part of a modern and accessible mobility mix.

But that kind of lobbying, while undoubtedly benefiting from local connections, takes money and time. So there’s no shortage of challenge and complexity in the road ahead for scooter startups, even as — as we wrote last month — the investment opportunity is shrinking, with investors having now placed their big bets.

In some cities, scooter ownership also appears to be growing in popularity which will also eat into any sharing opportunities.

One regional investor from an early stage Madrid-based fund that we spoke to about scooters had no qualms at having passed over the space. “We’ve looked at various companies in the space and in Spain but we’re not very attracted by the market given our fund size, competition and regulation question marks,” KFund‘s Jamie Novoa told us.

So those entrepreneurs still dreaming of fast following the likes of Bird, Lime and Spin may find the race they were hoping to join is already over and park gates being padlocked shut.

Startups Weekly: Will Trump ruin the unicorn IPOs of our dreams?

The government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, upping concerns of potentially long-lasting impacts on the U.S. stock market. Private market investors around the country applauded when Uber finally filed documents with the SEC to go public. Others were giddy to hear Lyft, Pinterest, Postmates and Slack (via a direct listing, according to the latest reports) were likely to IPO in 2019, too.

Unfortunately, floats that seemed imminent may not actually surface until the second half of 2019 — that is unless President Donald Trump and other political leaders are able to reach an agreement on the federal budget ASAP.  This week, we explored the government’s shutdown’s connection to tech IPOs, recounted the demise of a well-funded AR project and introduced readers to an AI-enabled self-checkout shopping cart.

1. Postmates gets pre-IPO cash

The company, an early entrant to the billion-dollar food delivery wars, raised what will likely be its last round of private capital. The $100 million cash infusion was led by BlackRock and valued Postmates at $1.85 billion, up from the $1.2 billion valuation it garnered with its unicorn round in 2018.

2. Uber’s IPO may not be as eye-popping as we expected

To be fair, I don’t think many of us really believed the ride-hailing giant could debut with a $120 billion initial market cap. And can speculate on Uber’s valuation for days (the latest reports estimate a $90 billion IPO), but ultimately Wall Street will determine just how high Uber will fly. For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the company to relinquish its S-1 to the masses.

3. Deal of the week

N26, a German fintech startup, raised $300 million in a round led by Insight Venture Partners at a $2.7 billion valuation. TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet spoke with co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf about the company’s global investors, financials and what the future holds for N26.

4. On the market

Bird is in the process of raising an additional $300 million on a flat pre-money valuation of $2 billion. The e-scooter startup has already raised a ton of capital in a very short time and a fresh financing would come at a time when many investors are losing faith in scooter startups’ claims to be the solution to the problem of last-mile transportation, as companies in the space display poor unit economics, faulty batteries and a general air of undependability. Plus, Aurora, the developer of a full-stack self-driving software system for automobile manufacturers, is raising at least $500 million in equity funding at more than a $2 billion valuation in a round expected to be led by new investor Sequoia Capital.


Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets


5. A unicorn’s deal downsizes

WeWork, a co-working giant backed with billions, had planned on securing a $16 billion investment from existing backer SoftBank . Well, that’s not exactly what happened. And, oh yeah, they rebranded.

6. A startup collapses

After 20 long years, augmented reality glasses pioneer ODG has been left with just a skeleton crew after acquisition deals from Facebook and Magic Leap fell through. Here’s a story of a startup with $58 million in venture capital backing that failed to deliver on its promises.

7. Data point

Seed activity for U.S. startups has declined for the fourth straight year, as median deal sizes increased at every stage of venture capital.

8. Meanwhile, in startup land…

This week edtech startup Emeritus, a U.S.-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India. Badi, which uses an algorithm to help millennials find roommates, brought in a $30 million Series B led by Goodwater Capital. And Mr Jeff, an on-demand laundry service startup, bagged a $12 million Series A.

9. Finally, Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The startup, which makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, has revealed a total of $3 million, including a $2.15 million seed round led by First Round Capital .

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Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog, Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bite-size form in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently, nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit. Of those who responded, all said they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

Two hours after we published this story, Bird spokesperson Rebecca Hahn said the company supports freedom of speech, adding: “In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow.”

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped, but not before more than 50 experts, advocates and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle and silence security researchers.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably Dropbox and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

WeWork gets into the food business, backing the superfood startup of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton

WeWork CEO Adam Neumann has been described as an avid surfer, one who has been known to grab his board and go, both in the Hamptons in Long Island, where he reportedly owns a home, as well as in Hawaii.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that WeWork is now also investing in a so-called superfood company that was created several years ago by big wave surf star Laird Hamilton, who Neumann was apparently surfing alongside just last week. In a video call with Neumann on Monday, a Fast Company reporter noted that Neumann is currently sporting a cast on one of his fingers, having broken it during the outing.

How much WeWork is investing in the startup, Laird Superfood, is not being disclosed, but according to the food company, the money will be used to fuel product development, acquisitions and to hire more employees. A press release that was published without fanfare earlier today also notes that Laird Superfood products will be made available to WeWork members and employees at select locations soon.

Some of those offerings are certainly interesting, including “performance mushrooms” that it says “harnesses the benefits” of Chaga, a fungus believed by some to stimulate the immune system; Cordyceps, another fungus that’s been used for kidney disorders and erectile dysfunction; and Lion’s Mane, yet another fungus believed by some to stimulate nerve growth in the brain.

The company suggests adding one teaspoon of the mushrooms each day to one’s coffee, tea or health shake.

Laird Superfood also sells beet- and turmeric-infused powdered coconut waters, “ultra-caffeinated” coffee and a variety of coffee creamers, including a mint-flavored creamer and a turmeric-flavored number.

It’s for a very specific consumer, in other words — presumably one who really likes turmeric, for example. Then again, what works for Laird Hamilton will undoubtedly work for a lot of people who’ve watched his decades-long career with amazement.

Hamilton seems to be selling what he actually ingests, too. As he told The Guardian last spring of his own diet: “I love espresso. You could give me five shots of espresso, a quarter stick of butter, a quarter stick of coconut oil and other fat, and I’ll drink that. I could go for five or six hours and not be hungry, because I’m burning fat.”

Organic food startups have been raising money left and right in recent years, including from traditional food companies, as well as from venture investors, who’ve poured billions of dollars into healthy snacks and drinks, with mixed results.

For WeWork’s part, the investment isn’t the first that has seemed somewhat far afield for the company. In one of its more surprising bets to date, WeWork invested in a maker of wave pools in 2016. The size of that funding was also undisclosed.