Facebook and Twitter play bigger role in Congressional election-hacking probe

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As Congressional investigations into Russia’s role in manipulating the election for U.S. president deepens, tech companies are assuming a more central role in the inquiries. Both Twitter and Facebook are stepping up their efforts to cooperate with Congressional investigations into Russian interference with last year’s presidential election.

For Twitter, that means agreeing to a briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Virginia Democrat Mark Warner next Wednesday on the role foreign agents operating on the company’s social network may have played in influencing the election.

Meanwhile, Facebook has agreed to release the 3,000 ads it had identified as having been purchased by accounts associated with a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency (and which might have played a role in shaping results of the election).

The moves are significant for several reasons. They underscore not just the central role these social media sites have played in political events, but also they highlight how that role may have been in part a negative and illegal one, rather than the exclusively positive and educative one that the sites would have you think.

The moves also highlight the tensions that continue to exist — and will not soon disappear — between data privacy and proprietary platforms, and producing information when mandated by authorities and to what end those are justifiable requests.

In a statement posted to Facebook’s site, company general counsel, Colin Stretch, announced the reversal of the company’s initial decision not to share the ads.

Stretch writes:

After an extensive legal and policy review, today we are announcing that we will also share these ads with congressional investigators. We believe it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election. That is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries — and we want to do our part. Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.

The Facebook general counsel said that it was not a decision the company took lightly, in part because the company considers ads user content.

Setting aside anything that might be problematic with that approach, Facebook also made the argument that the initial decision to withhold the ads was done so the company wouldn’t set a troubling precedent for future information requests from any government.

That logic also begins to look specious in light of the company’s reported approach to restricting and monitoring content in other nations with more authoritarian governments.

But here, again, are Stretch’s comments:

As our biannual transparency reports make clear, we carefully scrutinize all government data requests, from here and abroad, and we push back where they do not adhere to those legal limitations. And, of course, we also recognize and support the important work of government investigations and take care not to take steps, like public disclosures, that might undermine them.

What ultimately swayed the company’s mind (officially) was the fact that the investigation goes to the integrity of the nation’ selection process… and that the tools used were so sophisticated that “understanding those efforts requires a united effort, from across the technology, intelligence and political communities.”

At Twitter, meanwhile, executives from its Washington, DC office will appear before the Senate committee investigating Russian interference in the election.

“Twitter engages with governments around the world on public policy issues of importance and of interest to policymakers. We are cooperating with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its inquiry into the 2016 election and will meet with committee staff next week,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email. “Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies, and will continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our Terms of Service.”

It has been reported that Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading an investigation into the 2016 election and possible ties to Trump’s associates, is also interested in probing Twitter as part of that investigation, but for now the social media site has yet to testify or provide documents.

There had been reports that Twitter would appear before Warner’s committee, and Warner had stated his desire for the company to do so, but this is the first time that Twitter has confirmed its involvement directly.

Featured Image: Danny Huizinga/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

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Microsoft confirms plans for a new flagship store in Regent Street opposite Apple

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Shopping may be turning into an increasingly virtual exercise, with people buying goods online and through apps, but there is no denying the power of a physical in-store experience — a lesson that Microsoft is taking to heart. Today the company announced it will be opening a new flagship store in London in Regent Street near Oxford Circus — just a stone’s (or an iPhone’s) throw from the Apple flagship store that saw a huge revamp a year ago.

The area around Oxford Circus, which is at the intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street, is one of the most high-profile shopping precincts in the world, so having a presence there underscores Microsoft’s strategy to double down on retail.

“We couldn’t be happier to be opening a flagship store in the heart of central London at Oxford Circus, where two of the world’s most iconic shopping streets meet,” said Cindy Rose, head of Microsoft in the U.K. “We know our customers and fans, whether they are from London, the broader U.K. or just visiting, will love our bold plans for the space. This will be so much more than just a great place to experience all that is possible with Microsoft, but a real hub for the community where we’ll be bringing to life our passion for helping people explore their creativity through an ambitious program of workshops and training along with moments that work to unite the community.”

The announcement comes after a day of speculation about the new store, but also after what has seemed like years of stops and starts for Microsoft and its retail plans in London.

Back in 2012, it was reported that Microsoft planned to open a retail store in the city in March 2013, after it emerged that the company had registered a separate company in the U.K. to handle a retail business. But it seems that the March 2013 launch never happened.

Then in 2015, yet more reports emerged, this time noting that the company might have abandoned its plans for a store after all, after the dissolution of that 2012 entity.

But the story didn’t end there. Later in 2015, yet more rumors emerged of a retail plan for Microsoft in London. But once more, nothing materialized.

Now, it may be third time lucky for the Xbox and Windows maker. Notably, today’s announcement seems to be the first time that the company has officially confirmed any plans directly.

The the starts and stops that it seems Microsoft has been through over a flagship operation in London are not too surprising. At the time of its early interest in opening a flagship, the company’s mobile efforts, which had been seen as a major part of its consumer business, were already floundering.

And while Apple has been nailing retail for years, the examples set by others that have tried to replicate the success are less than encouraging. Samsung retreated from its own physical store efforts in London, although these had been located in a mall, not in the Regent Street area.

Microsoft may have also been shaken up by the fortunes of Nokia, the struggling handset business that Microsoft once acquired before divesting some years later, at a loss. Back when Nokia was still a giant, it also tried to take on Regent Street. But it closed its efforts down after less than two unprofitable years.

There is no timescale noted in Microsoft’s announcement. What is more obvious is that this is as much about creating a showcase for Microsoft products — in a symbolic location right near Apple’s store — as it is about creating a space where people can buy those Microsoft products.

“The United Kingdom is home to some of our most passionate fans,” David Porter, head of Microsoft Stores, writes in his blog post announcing the news. “We already enjoy connecting through our partners and in our digital stores, and look forward to bringing a physical store to the region as another great choice for customers to experience the best technology from Microsoft.”

There are currently 75 Microsoft Stores globally, with two flagships, in New York (pictured above, also very close to Apple’s “cube” store) and Sydney.

While it’s not clear how much Microsoft makes from its retail stores today, the gold standard shows that it can clearly be a lucrative business: Apple today is the world’s most lucrative retailer, according to research from CoStar, which said that the Mac and iPhone company made $5,546 per square foot in the last year. As a point of comparison, the average revenues generated by a square foot of retail space are a mere $325.

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Baidu announces $1.5B fund to back self-driving car startups

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Baidu is putting some serious cash behind its self-driving car push after it announced a $1.5 billion fund that’s focused on backing autonomous driving tech companies.

The Chinese giant, best known for its internet search service and AI technology, has prioritized autonomous vehicles in a major way in recent years, so this comes as little surprise. Baidu made its Apollo self-driving car platform freely available to the auto industry earlier this year. That quickly picked up partners and it currently claims around 70, including Hyundai, Bosch, Continental, Nvidia, Microsoft Cloud, Velodyne, TomTom, UCAR and Grab.

Now Baidu — which is testing autonomous vehicles in both China and the U.S. — is doubling down with capital via this new fund, which it said will aim to support around 100 companies over the next three years.

Baidu also shipped a major update to Apollo this week, which added five core capabilities to its platform: obstacle perception, planning, cloud simulation, high-definition (HD) maps and end-to-end deep learning.

This is the second large-scale investment firm Baidu has launched in recent times. Last month, it uncorked a $1.5 billion fund in partnership with China Life Insurance Group targeted at late-stage deals with companies with “significant association” with China.

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Database provider MongoDB has filed to go public

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MongoDB, a database software company based in New York, has filed to go public with the Securities and Exchange Commission as it continues to burn a ton of cash despite its revenue almost doubling year-over-year.

The company, which provides open-source database software that became very attractive among early-stage startups, is one of a myriad of companies that have sought to go public by building a business around selling sophisticated tools for that software. The hope is that MongoDB would be able to offer a superior experience for its open-source software and reduce the overall workload for companies that want to deploy its technology. Cloudera also went public earlier this year.

The company brought in $101.4 million in revenue in the most recent year ending January 31, and around $68 million in the first six months ending July 31 this year. In that same period, MongoDB burned through $86.7 million in the year ending January 31 and $45.8 million in the first six months ending July 31. MongoDB’s revenue is growing, and while its losses seem to be stable, they aren’t shrinking either.

Here’s the full revenue breakdown:

In 2015, the company brought in $65.3 million in revenue on losses of $73.5 million. Last year’s loss is a step up, but it isn’t a significant one — nor is it the same kind of accelerating burn that you’d see in a company looking to ramp up as it sets itself up to go public. The company’s losses in the first six months of this year are about the same as last year’s.

TechCrunch reported in August that MongoDB had confidentially filed to go public, taking advantage of a provision of the JOBS act that allows companies to submit filings and wait until 15 days before the investor roadshow before unveiling their financials. It’s one of the several companies that appear primed to go public in the back half of the year, with Stitch Fix also filing confidentially with the SEC to go public.

The majority of MongoDB’s revenue comes from its subscription arm, though both its subscription and services revenue streams are growing. But amid that growth, MongoDB still needs capital to ramp up its operations — which means that going public at around this time might make sense since the so-called “IPO window” is open and companies are looking to get out the door. MongoDB has indicated in the filing that it wants to raise as up to $100 million, but that’s typically a placeholder and will change in the future.

A successful IPO for MongoDB will be another big win for Sequoia, which owns 16.9% of the company. Co-founder Dwight Merriman still owns 7.8% of the company, with other investors including Flybridge Capital, Union Square Ventures and New Enterprise Associates. Here’s the full cap table:

MongoDB says that people have downloaded its Community Server “freemium” offering more than 30 million times, and that seems to have been growing pretty consistently over the past several years:

That “freemium” version is what is supposed to get developers and startups excited about the technology and get their hands on it immediately. It includes the kind of core functionality developers might need to get off the ground, but it doesn’t include the full suite of tools that its subscription enterprise-grade products do. After getting it up and running, the hope would be to convert those freemium users into enterprise-grade customers that are willing to pay MongoDB for additional services.

Given that it’s open-source software, it still poses a risk to MongoDB that those users might not convert to customers — and even may end up converting into competitors. The company acknowledges this in its risk factors:

“Anyone can obtain a free copy of Community Server from the Internet, and we do not know who all of our AGPL licensees are. Competitors could develop modifications of our software to compete with us in the marketplace. We do not have visibility into how our software is being used by licensees, so our ability to detect violations of the AGPL is extremely limited.”

This is one of the first steps in the company going public. MongoDB will now go on its roadshow to pitch potential investors on the company ahead of its public listing, and over time we’ll get a better sense of how much money the company wants to raise and where it is valuing itself.

Featured Image: Garrett Heath/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

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East Ventures closes new $30M fund to continue investing in Indonesia

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East Ventures is back at it again with another new fund to invest in early-stage companies in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country.

This new $30 million fund is the firm’s sixth to date in Southeast Asia, and remarkably its second in 2017 alone. A $27.5 million fund announced in January was fully deployed in less than a year as outside interest in Southeast Asia blew up in 2017, with Indonesia the focal point for investors like Chinese web giants Alibaba and Tencent.

East Ventures is one of the region’s longest serving seed investors, having been active since 2010, and it is one of the few to have actually returned funds. The ultimate factor that defines success in VC land.

The data is certainly impressive.

East Ventures says 70 percent of Series A funded startups in Indonesia bagged seed funding from the firm, while 83 percent of its 116 portfolio companies remain in business today.

Then there are some big gets.

The firm has equity in four of the five unicorns in Southeast Asia:

  • Traveloka, which raised $350 million from Expedia
  • Tokopedia, which raised $1.1 billion led by Alibaba
  • Grab, which acquired East Ventures portfolio company Kudo in January
  • Go-Jek, which acquired East Ventures portfolio company Loket in August

The plan is very much to continue with the investment focus on Indonesia, although the firm said it may entertain deals in other countries in Southeast Asia further down the line.

“From day one, Indonesia is the story we believed in,” Managing Partner Willson Cuaca — who started the firm in Indonesia with  the former CTO of Japanese social network Mixi, Batara Eto — told TechCrunch in an interview.

“At this moment the GDP of Indonesia is nearly $1 trillion. Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines combined is still smaller so it’s clear this is a huge economy.

“From the internet side, when we entered Indonesia in 2010 the online population was around 22 million. Right now, it’s around 90-100 million. Which other country in the world has that kind of growth? No country will have a delta of 80 million,” he added.

Already, the fund’s first investment has been announced: financial inclusion platform Telcoin, which uses digital tokens to help banked the unbanked in Indonesia and other emerging markets.

Featured Image: Everyone Sinks Starco/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

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Thoughts on Facebook’s 9 plans to curb election interference

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Election meddling is Facebook’s next adversary, and it’s got a plan to attack it just like it did with fake news. Solutions to both these scourges come too late to prevent tampering that may have aided Donald Trump winning the presidency. But at least Facebook is owning up to the problem, working with the government, and starting to self-regulate. Here’s the 9-point plan Zuckerberg has devised to combat election interference, plus our commentary on each strategy’s potential.

  1. Providing Russian-bought ads to congress – “We are actively working with the US government on its ongoing investigations into Russian interference. We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running ads. When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that information to the special counsel. We also briefed Congress — and this morning I directed our team to provide the ads we’ve found to Congress as well. As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly. But we support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete.”

TC – Facebook initially shared more information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller than Congress, but after checking to make sure it won’t violate privacy laws, it’s giving the Russian bought ads to Congress too. This could aid their investigation while preventing them from legally extracting the information from Facebook in a messy public ordeal.

  1. Continuing Facebook’s own investigation – “We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election. We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government. We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our tools. These investigations will take some time, but we will continue our thorough review.”

TC – Facebook’s depth of access to its systems means it could surface evidence of election interference that Mueller or Congress can’t get from just the data Facebook provides. Facebook needs to review not just its advertising systems and fake news in the News Feed, but also use of Events, chat, user profiles, Groups, and its other apps like Instagram and WhatsApp.

  1. Political ad transparency – “Going forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking — we’re going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.

TC – Facebook has held that ads are user content and therefore it could violate privacy to disclose the content and targeting of all ads. Businesses see their ads and targeting schemes as proprietary secrets. But when it comes to election and political advertising, the public good may need to be prioritized above corporate privacy. Building this transparency system may be complicated, and most users might not take the time to use it, but it could assist investigators and provide peace of mind.

  1. Political ad reviews – “We will strengthen our ad review process for political ads. To be clear, it has always been against our policies to use any of our tools in a way that breaks the law — and we already have many controls in place to prevent this. But we can do more. Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook. That’s what happened here. But even without our employees involved in the sales, we can do better.”

TC – The lack of stronger oversight of political ad buying given the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been one of Facebook’s most obvious mistakes. It needs to do a better job of understanding when scale isn’t an excuse for weak monitoring of this highly sensitive type of advertising. Facebook has long touted its ability to influence people, but didn’t put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent unethical or illegal influence campaigns.

BonusFacebook admits it can’t block all the interference – “Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards. We won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.”

TC – It’s good to see Facebook being honest about its limitations here. It’s built a community too big to perfectly police, and accepting that is the first step to getting closer to satisfactory protection.

  1. Hiring 250 more election integrity workers – We are increasing our investment in security and specifically election integrity. In the next year, we will more than double the team working on election integrity. In total, we’ll add more than 250 people across all our teams focused on security and safety for our community.

TC – Again, this is something should have known to do before the 2016 election. It’s earning over $3 billion in profit per quarter, so it can easily afford this staff increase. It’s merely a matter of Facebook foreseeing the worst-case scenarios of how its products could be used, which it’s repeatedly failed to do.

  1. Partnerships with election commissions – We will expand our partnerships with election commissions around the world. We already work with electoral commissions in many countries to help people register to vote and learn about the issues. We’ll keep doing that, and now we’re also going to establish a channel to inform election commissions of the online risks we’ve identified in their specific elections.

TC – Rather than simply reacting to election interference, it’s smart for Facebook to proactively seek to provide information to election commissions while also educating the public in order to inoculate them against malicious influence.

  1. Collaboration with other tech companies – “We will increase sharing of threat information with other tech and security companies. We already share information on bad actors on the internet through programs like ThreatExchange, and now we’re exploring ways we can share more information about anyone attempting to interfere with elections. It is important that tech companies collaborate on this because it’s almost certain that any actor trying to misuse Facebook will also be trying to abuse other internet platforms too.”

TC – Facebook already does this to protect people across the internet from terrorist propaganda and child pornography. As the largest social network, it has the opportunity to serve as a central hub for connecting services like Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Google to ensure strategies for blocking election interference are propagated across the web.

  1. Protecting political discourse from intimidation – “We are working proactively to strengthen the democratic process. Beyond pushing back against threats, we will also create more services to protect our community while engaging in political discourse. For example, we’re looking at adapting our anti-bullying systems to protect against political harassment as well, and we’re scaling our ballot information tools to help more people understand the issues.”

TC – Beyond broadcast forms of interference like ads, fake news, and events, Facebook users are vulnerable to being shouted down for voicing reasonable political opinions. While these attacks deal with a person’s view points rather than their inherent identity like most bullying, Facebook can efficiently repurpose existing technologies to suspend accounts that try to disrupt civil discourse.

  1. Monitoring the German election – “We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing security practices with the candidates and parties. We’re also examining the activity of accounts we’ve removed and have not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany. This is incredibly important and we have been focused on this for a while.”

TC – For Facebook to start earning back public trust, it needs to show it can block a significant amount of the attempted interference in elections. This weekend’s German election is good opportunity for this. If Facebook is seen as inadequately defending democratic processes after being put in the spotlight, it risks even more stringent backlash.

Overall, Facebook’s plan is sensible even if it comes a year later than needed. Hopefully its mistakes and the general naivety of tech companies and the public towards election interference will lead to a swing far in the other direction as the world wakes up to how sophisticated attacks on democracy have become.

You can watch Zuckerberg’s announcement video of this new initiative below:

Additional reporting by Jonathan Shieber

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Bose debuts new Google Assistant-optimized noise cancelling headphones

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Bose’s rumored QC 35 II noise-cancelling headphones are rumored no more: Bose made them official today, revealing the update to the company’s popular QC 35 premium noise-cancelling cans.

Google worked with Bose to create the new headphones, the company explained in a new blog post, helping to “optimize” the audio accessory for Assistant, Google’s virtual helper software for iPhone and Android. The headphones have a dedicated Assistant button, which users can push to call up the voice-based companion whenever they want.

They don’t have Assistant on board as a dedicated service, per se – instead, they integrate support for Assistant-based offerings including incoming notifications, audio features like news briefings and voice commands for calling and music playback.

Assistant support will be available on the QC 35 II in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, France and the UK, and the headset retails for $349 in the U.S. – the same price as the QC 35 that came before.

Google mentions in its blog post on the new partnership and integration that it’s been working with Bose on Assistant integration for headphones “starting with” the QC 35 II, which implies that we could see this feature expand to even more of the Bose line.

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ipsy launches its beauty product e-commerce business Shopper as it hits 3M subscribers

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ipsy, a subscription service that delivers a collection of products to its users every month, has spent the last six years building up a community with millions of people obsessed with beauty products. And now that the company has more than 3 million subscribers — with a $10 per month subscription cost — it’s ready to get a little bit more aggressive by getting directly into e-commerce.

CEO Marcelo Camberos said the company is launching Shopper, a way for ipsy’s customers to buy products directly from the site rather than wait for them to show up in their monthly Glam Bag. Now, instead of just waiting for the five beauty products in the mail every month, its users will be able to buy products from a myriad of brands on the site directly — opening up a much wider swath of the beauty industry to ipsy, which last raised $100 million about two years ago.

“We’ve never envisioned ourselves as a subscription service, we envisioned ourselves as a disruptive beauty community,” Camberos said. “Our mission is to inspire individuals around the world to express their unique beauty. Everything we do is about self-expression. The Glam Bag and everything else has all been super personalized from the beginning. When I came up with the name for the company, the legal name, it was Personalized Beauty Discovery Inc., it was always meant to be about personalized beauty.”

And this kind of move is not only inspired by the opportunity to get into e-commerce but the company’s ability to build a very robust understanding of who actually uses ipsy and how to grow. Each month, the company produces more than 10,000 variations of its Glam Bags based on the recommendations it generates from the hundreds of data points from its users. That’s meant ipsy has had to build out a big team focused on machine learning as it looks to chase the demands of its users before they even realize they want certain products.

“There’s a lot of lip service around data, and I think even for us in the first two years, we talked a lot about data,” Camberos said. “We’ve made huge investments in it. From the very beginning we’ve had a quiz. Most people who take the quiz connect their Facebook accounts. We have hundrteds of specific data points, people want to give us that data because they want us to give them better products. We get over 5 million product reviews every month. We have a team of over 40 people who do that. If we do a good job, [customers] stay with us a lot longer, and they’re likely to tell their friends how great ipsy is.”

ipsy also said it will be divesting EM Cosmetics, a brand led by co-founder Michelle Phan, as it looks to be more of a neutral party where brands can come and get their products into the hands of users. Rather than building direct-to-consumer brands, Camberos said it wants to utilize its massive community of 8,000 influencers to help brands more effectively reach customers — whether they’re well-known or emerging brands that are looking to get their start. All this is an effort to tap a growing audience of beauty enthusiasts that aren’t just going to malls and retailers to pick up their products.

As ipsy looks to grow, it’s going to lean heavily on that word of mouth and keep its cost of customer acquisition low. With millions of users paying $10 a month, it has the leeway to heavily invest in this new emerging business. But it also has to be careful not to fall into the trap of emerging consumer brands that end up aggressively spending to expand into new markets — especially ones that are outside of their sweet spot, which is often urban markets. ipsy, however, has always had a big following in middle America and is able to grow in multiple markets outside of just the urban bubble, Camberos said.

“We’ve never been an urban company,” he said. “We do over-index in beauty enthusiasts and people who really see beauty as a way to express themselves. They’re maybe less the beauty traditionalists, and maybe that’s why we’re a little less popular in the coasts. It’s not even about targeting, it’s about who’s really gravitated to our service. It’s people who are really into self-expression, but it’s not really been a coastal thing. Our base state is pretty stable, very representative of the whole country.”

One of the biggest challenges now, Camberos said, will actually be holding on to the machine learning team that it’s assembled. ipsy has the luxury of getting a lot of data around a specific set of products, meaning it’s a playground where engineers have an opportunity to experiment and rapidly adapt to the demands of their users. It may be in beauty, but it’s a problem that’s very attractive to the team it’s built by virtue of the data and the complexity of the operation.

Phan played a big part in building momentum for ipsy, but Camberos said that it’s build up a large enough influencer network that the company will help do a good job of ramping up its new e-commerce side on its own. While there’s certainly demand for products like this — Stitch Fix, for example, has built a business strong enough that it has confidentially filed to go public — there are also a lot of businesses that are still trying to figure out their footing. But with a robust customer base, Camberos is hoping that ipsy will be able to target a market it’s always expected to go after at some point — and that now is the right time.

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Freight startup Flexport soars from ‘unsexy’ to $800M valuation

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Flexport handles the boring logistics of a trillion-dollar business: the transport of shipping containers around the world. Because the work of freight forwarding seemed so bland, it was long ignored by the tech world. But digitizing the paperwork let Flexport speed up shipping so clients keep less inventory on hand while never running out.

When you apply that optimization to how every container full of electronics, clothes or food gets from factory to store, Flexport keeps getting smarter as the value piles up. That’s why just a year after raising $65 million at a valuation of $365 million, TechCrunch has learned Flexport has just closed a huge new round of funding, according to five sources.

Initially, Flexport was receiving offers valuing it at over $1 billion, but turned those down in favor of a more manageable valuation. Multiple sources now confirm that the startup has completed a $110 million Series C at an $800 million pre-money valuation. The round is mostly filled with existing investors, including DST.

What we’ve kept hearing is that Flexport co-founder Ryan Petersen is a favorite amongst investors. “He’s a machine,” said one of TechCrunch’s sources. After growing up buying scooters from China and fencing them online, he co-founded ImportGenius to scan and sell shipping manifest data about imports. That led him to realize how antiquated freight forwarding was, paving the way for Flexport’s start in 2013.

“They’re hiring like crazy,” one source said. Flexport appears to be trying to scale up fast enough to compete with entrenched giants in the shipping space, like FedEx, DHL and Expeditors, that can’t adapt to new technology as quickly. Meanwhile, it’s looking to box out upstart competitors picking away at parts of the freight forwarding equation, including Freightos, Haven and Fleet.

Soon after TechCrunch wrote a story about the company being “The unsexiest trillion-dollar startup,” we started receiving aggressive pitches from these competitors. Fusion’s Alexis Madrigal shined a light on how interesting the business could be with his podcast series Containers, which was sponsored by Flexport. And Flexport raised its $65 million Series B last September that brought it to $94 million in total funding. A year later, its value has more than doubled.

Flexport founder and CEO Ryan Petersen

Now the company has over 400 employees in seven offices. It earns roughly 15 percent of the average $2,000 it costs to move a shipping container around the world, compared to 25 percent that its competitors charge. Petersen told Forbes he expects revenue of $500 million this year, yet that still makes Flexport an underdog. “There are 25 freight forwarders that each do more than $1 billion in revenue a year,” he said. “None of them was founded after Netscape.”

That’s Flexport’s advantage. Tracking everything with paper leads its older competitors to see clients individually. Flexport wholistically analyzes all its data to optimize shipping routes and simplify relationships with ports, truck drivers and anyone else that touches a container. That’s allowed it to shave off five days of travel time for moving less than a container full of goods.

Now it’s opening its own “cross docks” — warehouses where it can temporarily store clients’ goods until it can batch their transport with other shipments going to the same place. That way it’s always moving full containers with maximum efficiency. Flexport already has cross docks in Hong Kong and LA, but Petersen foresees having a global network.

The new capital could help Flexport pay for transitioning from a pure-play software company merely handling routing logistics to being an actual freight company. This shift from bits to atoms doesn’t come cheap, but with plenty of revenue waiting to be stolen from sluggish competitors, it’s having no problem finding the capital.

TechCrunch has heard that many of Flexport’s existing investors, which number at least 57, were shut out of the new round despite being interested. And while investors were happily offering it a valuation of $1 billion or more, Petersen didn’t want to get in over his head and risk a down-round later if the market stumbled.

The obvious, glamorous verticals of tech have been overrun with startups. Everyone seems to have a photo-sharing app or some “revolutionary” artificial intelligence play. There’s an old adage that the best startup ideas are often at the intersection of “seems like a bad idea” and “is a good idea,” as Peter Thiel, the leader of Flexport investor Founders Fund, has said.

But as the mainstream embraces startup culture and aspiring founders flood Silicon Valley, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to chase things that seem like a bad idea. Perhaps an addendum to the startup seeker’s mantra should be “Seems bad and boring.” That’s where there are still gold mines untapped.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Lunden

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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The all-screen Apple iPhone X is here, and it’s the new iPhone you’ll want

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Apple has announced the iPhone X, a new smartphone made to commemorate the iPhone’s tenth anniversary. The subject of many rumors over the past months, here are all the official details about the exciting device.

The post The all-screen Apple iPhone X is here, and it’s the new iPhone you’ll want appeared first on Digital Trends.

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