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Facebook’s Oversight Board already ‘a bit frustrated’ — and it hasn’t made a call on Trump ban yet – TechCrunch

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The Facebook Oversight Board (FOB) is already feeling frustrated by the binary choices it’s expected to make as it reviews Facebook’s content moderation decisions, according to one of its members who was giving evidence to a UK House of Lords committee today which is running an enquiry into freedom of expression online. 

The FOB is currently considering whether to overturn Facebook’s ban on former US president, Donald Trump. The tech giant banned Trump “indefinitely” earlier this year after his supporters stormed the US capital.

The chaotic insurrection on January 6 led to a number of deaths and widespread condemnation of how mainstream tech platforms had stood back and allowed Trump to use their tools as megaphones to whip up division and hate rather than enforcing their rules in his case.

Yet, after finally banning Trump, Facebook almost immediately referred the case to it’s self-appointed and self-styled Oversight Board for review — opening up the prospect that its Trump ban could be reversed in short order via an exceptional review process that Facebook has fashioned, funded and staffed.

Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the British newspaper The Guardian — and one of 20 FOB members selected as an initial cohort (the Board’s full headcount will be double that) — avoided making a direct reference to the Trump case today, given the review is ongoing, but he implied that the binary choices it has at its disposal at this early stage aren’t as nuanced as he’d like.

“What happens if — without commenting on any high profile current cases — you didn’t want to ban somebody for life but you wanted to have a ‘sin bin’ so that if they misbehaved you could chuck them back off again?” he said, suggesting he’d like to be able to issue a soccer-style “yellow card” instead.

“I think the Board will want to expand in its scope. I think we’re already a bit frustrated by just saying take it down or leave it up,” he went on. “What happens if you want to… make something less viral? What happens if you want to put an interstitial?

“So I think all these things are things that the Board may ask Facebook for in time. But we have to get our feet under the table first — we can do what we want.”

“At some point we’re going to ask to see the algorithm, I feel sure — whatever that means,” Rusbridger also told the committee. “Whether we can understand it when we see it is a different matter.”

To many people, Facebook’s Trump ban is uncontroversial — given the risk of further violence posed by letting Trump continue to use its megaphone to foment insurrection. There are also clear and repeat breaches of Facebook’s community standards if you want to be a stickler for its rules.

Among supporters of the ban is Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, who has since been working on wider trust and safety issues for online platforms via the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Stamos was urging both Twitter and Facebook to cut Trump off before everything kicked off, writing in early January: “There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it.”

But in the wake of big tech moving almost as a unit to finally put Trump on mute, a number of world leaders and lawmakers were quick to express misgivings at the big tech power flex.

Germany’s chancellor called Twitter’s ban on him “problematic”, saying it raised troubling questions about the power of the platforms to interfere with speech. While other lawmakers in Europe seized on the unilateral action — saying it underlined the need for proper democratic regulation of tech giants.

The sight of the world’s most powerful social media platforms being able to mute a democratically elected president (even one as divisive and unpopular as Trump) made politicians of all stripes feel queasy.

Facebook’s entirely predictable response was, of course, to outsource this two-sided conundrum to the FOB. After all, that was its whole plan for the Board. The Board would be there to deal with the most headachey and controversial content moderation stuff.

And on that level Facebook’s Oversight Board is doing exactly the job Facebook intended for it.

But it’s interesting that this unofficial ‘supreme court’ is already feeling frustrated by the limited binary choices it’s asked them for. (Of, in the Trump case, either reversing the ban entirely or continuing it indefinitely.)

The FOB’s unofficial message seems to be that the tools are simply far too blunt. Although Facebook has never said it will be bound by any wider policy suggestions the Board might make — only that it will abide by the specific individual review decisions. (Which is why a common critique of the Board is that it’s toothless where it matters.)

How aggressive the Board will be in pushing Facebook to be less frustrating very much remains to be seen.

“None of this is going to be solved quickly,” Rusbridger went on to tell the committee in more general remarks on the challenges of moderating speech in the digital era. Getting to grips with the Internet’s publishing revolution could in fact, he implied, take the work of generations — making the customary reference the long tail of societal disruption that flowed from Gutenberg inventing the printing press.

If Facebook was hoping the FOB would kick hard (and thorny-in-its-side) questions around content moderation into long and intellectual grasses it’s surely delighted with the level of beard stroking which Rusbridger’s evidence implies is now going on inside the Board. (If, possibly, slightly less enchanted by the prospect of its appointees asking it if they can poke around its algorithmic black boxes.)

Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St John’s University Law School, was also giving evidence to the committee — having written an article on the inner workings of the FOB, published recently in the New Yorker, after she was given wide-ranging access by Facebook to observe the process of the body being set up.

The Lords committee was keen to learn more on the workings of the FOB and pressed the witnesses several times on the question of the Board’s independence from Facebook.

Rusbridger batted away concerns on that front — saying “we don’t feel we work for Facebook at all”. Though Board members are paid by Facebook via a trust it set up to put the FOB at arm’s length from the corporate mothership. And the committee didn’t shy away or raising the payment point to query how genuinely independent they can be?

“I feel highly independent,” Rusbridger said. “I don’t think there’s any obligation at all to be nice to Facebook or to be horrible to Facebook.”

“One of the nice things about this Board is occasionally people will say but if we did that that will scupper Facebook’s economic model in such and such a country. To which we answer well that’s not our problem. Which is a very liberating thing,” he added.

Of course it’s hard to imagine a sitting member of the FOB being able to answer the independence question any other way — unless they were simultaneously resigning their commission (which, to be clear, Rusbridger wasn’t).

He confirmed that Board members can serve three terms of three years apiece — so he could have almost a decade of beard-stroking on Facebook’s behalf ahead of him.

Klonick, meanwhile, emphasized the scale of the challenge it had been for Facebook to try to build from scratch a quasi-independent oversight body and create distance between itself and its claimed watchdog.

“Building an institution to be a watchdog institution — it is incredibly hard to transition to institution-building and to break those bonds [between the Board and Facebook] and set up these new people with frankly this huge set of problems and a new technology and a new back end and a content management system and everything,” she said.

Rusbridger had said the Board went through an extensive training process which involved participation from Facebook representatives during the ‘onboarding’. But went on to describe a moment when the training had finished and the FOB realized some Facebook reps were still joining their calls — saying that at that point the Board felt empowered to tell Facebook to leave.

“This was exactly the type of moment — having watched this — that I knew had to happen,” added Klonick. “There had to be some type of formal break — and it was told to me that this was a natural moment that they had done their training and this was going to be moment of push back and breaking away from the nest. And this was it.”

However if your measure of independence is not having Facebook literally listening in on the Board’s calls you do have to query how much Kool Aid Facebook may have successfully doled out to its chosen and willing participants over the long and intricate process of programming its own watchdog — including to extra outsiders it allowed in to observe the set up.

The committee was also interested in the fact the FOB has so far mostly ordered Facebook to reinstate content its moderators had previously taken down.

In January, when the Board issued its first decisions, it overturned four out of five Facebook takedowns — including in relation to a number of hate speech cases. The move quickly attracted criticism over the direction of travel. After all, the wider critique of Facebook’s business is it’s far too reluctant to remove toxic content (it only banned holocaust denial last year, for example). And lo! Here’s its self-styled ‘Oversight Board’ taking decisions to reverse hate speech takedowns…

The unofficial and oppositional ‘Real Facebook Board’ — which is truly independent and heavily critical of Facebook — pounced and decried the decisions as “shocking”, saying the FOB had “bent over backwards to excuse hate”.

Klonick said the reality is that the FOB is not Facebook’s supreme court — but rather it’s essentially just “a dispute resolution mechanism for users”.

If that assessment is true — and it sounds spot on, so long as you recall the fantastically tiny number of users who get to use it — the amount of PR Facebook has been able to generate off of something that should really just be a standard feature of its platform is truly incredible.

Klonick argued that the Board’s early reversals were the result of it hearing from users objecting to content takedowns — which had made it “sympathetic” to their complaints.

“Absolute frustration at not knowing specifically what rule was broken or how to avoid breaking the rule again or what they did to be able to get there or to be able to tell their side of the story,” she said, listing the kinds of things Board members had told her they were hearing from users who had petitioned for a review of a takedown decision against them.

“I think that what you’re seeing in the Board’s decision is, first and foremost, to try to build some of that back in,” she suggested. “Is that the signal that they’re sending back to Facebook — that’s it’s pretty low hanging fruit to be honest. Which is let people know the exact rule, given them a fact to fact type of analysis or application of the rule to the facts and give them that kind of read in to what they’re seeing and people will be happier with what’s going on.

“Or at least just feel a little bit more like there is a process and it’s not just this black box that’s censoring them.”

In his response to the committee’s query, Rusbridger discussed how he approaches review decision-making.

“In most judgements I begin by thinking well why would we restrict freedom of speech in this particular case — and that does get you into interesting questions,” he said, having earlier summed up his school of thought on speech as akin to the ‘fight bad speech with more speech’ Justice Brandeis type view.

“The right not to be offended has been engaged by one of the cases — as opposed to the borderline between being offended and being harmed,” he went on. “That issue has been argued about by political philosophers for a long time and it certainly will never be settled absolutely.

“But if you went along with establishing a right not to be offended that would have huge implications for the ability to discuss almost anything in the end. And yet there have been one or two cases where essentially Facebook, in taking something down, has invoked something like that.”

“Harm as oppose to offence is clearly something you would treat differently,” he added. “And we’re in the fortunate position of being able to hire in experts and seek advisors on the harm here.”

While Rusbridger didn’t sound troubled about the challenges and pitfalls facing the Board when it may have to set the “borderline” between offensive speech and harmful speech itself — being able to (further) outsource expertise presumably helps — he did raise a number of other operational concerns during the session. Including over the lack of technical expertise among current board members (who were purely Facebook’s picks).

Without technical expertise how can the Board ‘examine the algorithm’, as he suggested it would want to, because it won’t be able to understand Facebook’s content distribution machine in any meaningful way?

Since the Board currently lacks technical expertise, it does raise wider questions about its function — and whether its first learned cohort might not be played as useful idiots from Facebook’s self-interested perspective — by helping it gloss over and deflect deeper scrutiny of its algorithmic, money-minting choices.

If you don’t really understand how the Facebook machine functions, technically and economically, how can you conduct any kind of meaningful oversight at all? (Rusbridger evidently gets that — but is also content to wait and see how the process plays out. No doubt the intellectual exercise and insider view is fascinating. “So far I’m finding it highly absorbing,” as he admitted in his evidence opener.)

“People say to me you’re on that Board but it’s well known that the algorithms reward emotional content that polarises communities because that makes it more addictive. Well I don’t know if that’s true or not — and I think as a board we’re going to have to get to grips with that,” he went on to say. “Even if that takes many sessions with coders speaking very slowly so that we can understand what they’re saying.”

“I do think our responsibility will be to understand what these machines are — the machines that are going in rather than the machines that are moderating,” he added. “What their metrics are.”

Both witnesses raised another concern: That the kind of complex, nuanced moderation decisions the Board is making won’t be able to scale — suggesting they’re too specific to be able to generally inform AI-based moderation. Nor will they necessarily be able to be acted on by the staffed moderation system that Facebook currently operates (which gives its thousand of human moderators a fantastically tiny amount of thinking time per content decision).

Despite that the issue of Facebook’s vast scale vs the Board’s limited and Facebook-defined function — to fiddle at the margins of its content empire — was one overarching point that hung uneasily over the session, without being properly grappled with.

“I think your question about ‘is this easily communicated’ is a really good one that we’re wrestling with a bit,” Rusbridger said, conceding that he’d had to brain up on a whole bunch of unfamiliar “human rights protocols and norms from around the world” to feel qualified to rise to the demands of the review job.

Scaling that level of training to the tens of thousands of moderators Facebook currently employs to carry out content moderation would of course be eye-wateringly expensive. Nor is it on offer from Facebook. Instead it’s hand-picked a crack team of 40 very expensive and learned experts to tackle an infinitesimally smaller number of content decisions.

“I think it’s important that the decisions we come to are understandable by human moderators,” Rusbridger added. “Ideally they’re understandable by machines as well — and there is a tension there because sometimes you look at the facts of a case and you decide it in a particular way with reference to those three standards [Facebook’s community standard, Facebook’s values and “a human rights filter”]. But in the knowledge that that’s going to be quite a tall order for a machine to understand the nuance between that case and another case.

“But, you know, these are early days.”





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Unicorns are ready for a haircut – TechCrunch

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The digitization of your haircut may not have been on your 2020 bucket list, but 2021 has an even more surprising line item: Tech-powered barbershops are now a business proposition valued at nearly a billion dollars.

Squire is a back-end barbershop management tool for independent businesses. I first covered it in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The startup raised millions of dollars days before its key clientele — barber shops — were shut down across the country. The company eventually went from defense to offense in its growth strategy, finding itself as a key partner for any barbershop that needed to start offering contactless payments, digital appointment booking and a more seamless customer experience built for a generation used to doing everything online.

This week, Squire tripled its valuation thanks to a Tiger-Global-led round. The company is now worth $750 million, after being valued at around $75 million when we first spoke to them.

When I spoke to co-founder Dave Salvant, who launched the company with Songe LaRon in 2016, he explained how the company is now in a spot to expand into other barbershop-specific value propositions — either through acquisitions or partnerships. This week, for example, Squire announced that it launched a payment processing arm with Bond, a venture-backed fintech infrastructure company. The company also partnered with Gusto to bring on HR services for its clientele. Salvant noted how the progress of tech, especially financial services, lets them offer up a strong product without needing to build everything in-house.

While these are partnerships for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Squire begin to scoop up companies that can unlock value from its existing datasets of how barbershops function and what kind of capital comes in and out of those doors.

Behind the numbers:

It’s a company to watch that fits into the narrative of pandemic rocked, then proven startups looking to expand with fresh capitalization. Less common, though, is that Squire is now en route to becoming a historical and unfortunately still rare Black-led unicorn. More data points, the better.

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll discuss Robinhood’s public debut and why a CEO thinks everyone needs to be them for a day. You can find me on Twitter @nmasc_.

Robinhood sells Robinhood

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The long-awaited Robinhood IPO is no longer long-awaited. After pricing at the lower end of its range, the consumer investing and trading app’s shares went down sharply, teetering between 8% to 10%.

Here’s what to know: IPO expert and fellow Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm gave us two reasons as to why Robinhood’s stock went down. After all, we’re used to pops in the consumer-facing tech company world.

Robinhood made a big chunk of its IPO available to its own users. Or, in practice, Robinhood curtailed early retail demand by offering its investors and traders shares at the same price and level of access that big investors were given. It’s a neat idea. But by doing so, Robinhood may have lowered unserved retail interest in its shares, perhaps reshaping its early supply/demand curve.

Or maybe the company’s warnings that its trading volumes could decline in Q2 2021 scared off some bulls.

You get to be a CEO, you get to be a CEO!

Burst balloons and party streamers on wooden floor

Image Credits: Richard Drury (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Now that free beer is no longer a company perk, the next best one may have emerged: Let anyone in your company become CEO for a day. Vincit CEO Ville Houttu implemented this program at his company in 2018 and said that the initiative has paid off “tenfold.”

Here’s how it works, per the company:

The program gives our employee the reins for 24 hours with an unlimited budget. The only requirement? The CEO must make one lasting decision that will help improve the working experience of Vincit employees. Whatever the CEO of the Day decides, the company sticks with. They can purchase something for the company, change a policy, update a tool we use … Really, anything that they come up with can be done.

You can see the resulting policies in our story, but in my humble opinion, the end result is definitely better than free beer.

Around TC

  • The TechCrunch Disrupt Agenda just went live. It’s a must-read line up and a must-attend event. Some standouts:
    • Pot, Pottery and Beyond with Seth Rogen (Houseplant), Haneen Davies (Houseplant) and Michael Mohr (Houseplant)
    • Breaking the Bank with Brian Armstrong (Coinbase)
    • Speaking SPAC with Chamath Palihapitiya (Social Capital)
    • Dogmatic Design with Melanie Perkins (Canva)
  • Shout out to Amanda Silberling, a recent addition to the TechCrunch team who has been absolutely crushing her consumer tech beat. Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already!

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

For more public market news, subscribe to The Exchange by Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim.  

Seen on Extra Crunch

Talk soon,

N



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TuSimple’s self-driving truck network takes shape with Ryder partnership – TechCrunch

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TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that went public earlier this year, has partnered with Ryder as part of its plan to build out a freight network that will support its autonomous trucking operations.

Under the deal announced this week, Ryder’s fleet maintenance facilities will act as terminals for TuSimple’s freight network. TuSimple’s so-called AFN, or autonomous freight network, is a collection of shipping routes and terminals designed for autonomous trucking operations that will extend across the United States by 2024. UPS, which took a minority stake in TuSimple before it went public, carrier U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway’s grocery and food service supply chain company McLane Inc. were the inaugural partners in the network.

TuSimple’s AFN involves four pieces that includes its self-driving trucks, digital mapped routes, freight terminals and a system that will let customers monitor autonomous trucking operations and track their shipments in real time.

Ryder’s facilities will primarily serve as strategic terminals where TuSimple trucks can receive maintenance and have sensors used in the self-driving system calibrated, if needed. In some cases, the terminals might be used as a transfer hub for a smaller operator that might want to pick up cargo. But this is not meant to be a hub-to-hub system where its customers would come and pick up freight, according to TuSimple President and CEO Cheng Lu.

“These trucks need to be serviceable and maintainable and they need to have higher uptime, which is what every carrier cares about regardless of whether it is autonomous or not,” Lu said.

Small shippers and carriers might use these terminals to pick up and drop off freight. However, Lu stressed that in most cases, especially for large-scale operators like UPS, TuSimple will take the freight directly to the customer’s distribution centers. The Ryder facilities work as nodes, or stops, on its network to allow TuSimple to reach more customers over a larger geographic area, Lu added.

The partnership will start gradually. TuSimple has 50 autonomous trucks in its fleet that — along with a human safety operator behind the wheel — transport freight for customers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The partnership will initially use Ryder’s facilities in these areas and eventually expand to the company’s 500 maintenance facilities in the United States.

TuSimple said it expects to expand operations to the East Coast, carrying freight between Phoenix and Orlando later this year. TuSimple has about 25 new trucks on order, which will be added to the fleet once they become available.



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Argo AI can now offer the public rides in its autonomous vehicles in California – TechCrunch

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Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle technology startup backed by Ford and VW, has landed a permit in California that will allow the company to give people free rides in its self-driving vehicles on the state’s public roads.

The California Public Utilities Commission issued the so-called Drivered AV pilot permit earlier this month, according to the approved application. It was posted on its website Friday, a little more than a week after Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network in a number of cities over the next five years, starting with Miami and Austin.

The permit, which is part of the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot, puts Argo in small and growing group of companies seeking to expand beyond traditional AV testing — a signal that the industry, or at least some companies, are preparing for commercial operations. Argo has been testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Ford vehicles around Palo Alto since 2019. Today, the company’s test fleet is about one dozen self-driving test vehicles.

Aurora, AutoX, Cruise, Deeproute, Pony.ai, Voyage, Zoox and Waymo have all received permits to participate in the CPUC’s Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, which requires a human safety operator to be behind the wheel. Companies with this permit cannot charge for rides.

Cruise is the only company to have secured a driverless permit from the CPUC, which allows it to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

Snagging the CPUC’s Drivered permit is just part of the journey to commercialization in California. The state requires companies to navigate a series of regulatory hurdles from the CPUC and the California Department of Motor Vehicles — each agency with its own tiered system of permits — before it can charge for rides in robotaxis without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The DMV regulates and issues permits for testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. There are three levels of permits issued by the DMW, starting with one that allows companies to test AVs on public roads with a safety operator behind the wheel. More than 60 companies have this basic testing permit.

The next permit allows for driverless testing, followed by a deployment permit for commercial operations. Driverless testing permits, in which a human operator is not behind the wheel, have become the new milestone and a required step for companies that want to launch a commercial robotaxi or delivery service in the state. AutoX, Baidu, Cruise, Nuro, Pony.ai, Waymo, WeRide and Zoox have driverless permits with the DMV.

The final step with the DMV, which only Nuro has achieved, is a deployment permit. This permit allows Nuro to deploy at a commercial scale. Nuro’s vehicles can’t hold passengers, just cargo, which allows the company to bypass the CPUC permitting process.

Meanwhile, the CPUC authorized in May 2018 two pilot programs for transporting passengers in autonomous vehicles. The Drivered Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service Pilot program, which is what Argo just secured, allows companies to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles as long as they follow specific rules. Companies are not allowed to charge for rides, a human safety driver must be behind the wheel and certain data must be reported quarterly.

The second CPUC pilot allows for driverless passenger service, which Cruise secured in June 2021.

It’s important to note that to reach the holy grail of commercial robotaxis requires the companies to secure all of these permits from the DMV and CPUC.



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Airtel Africa gets an extra $200M for its mobile money business from QIA – TechCrunch

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Three months ago, Mastercard invested $100 million in Airtel Mobile Commerce BV (AMC BV) — the mobile money business of telecom Airtel Africa. This was two weeks after it also received $200 million from TPG’s Rise Fund.

Today, the African telecoms operator has announced that it has secured another investment for its mobile money arm. The investor? Qatar Holding LLC, an affiliate of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar with over $300 billion in assets. The Middle Eastern corporation is set to invest $200 million into AMC BV through a secondary purchase of shares from Airtel Africa.

AMC BV is an Airtel Africa subsidiary and the holding company for several of Airtel Africa’s mobile money operations across 14 African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. The mobile money arm operates one of the largest financial services on the continent. It provides users access to mobile wallets, support for international money transfers, loans and virtual credit cards.

According to a statement released by the telecoms operator, the proceeds of the investment will be used to reduce debt and invest in network and sales infrastructure in the respective operating countries. The deal will close in two tranches — $150 million invested at the first close, most likely in August. The remaining $50 million will be invested at second close.

Airtel Africa claims QIA will hold a minority stake while it continues to hold the majority stake. This transaction still values Airtel Africa at $2.65 billion on a cash and debt-free basis like other deals. However, what’s different this time is that QIA is entitled to appoint a director to AMC BV’s board and “to certain customary information and minority protection rights.”

Airtel Africa’s most recent report for Q1 2021 shows signs of growth. The telecoms operator saw a year on year revenue growth of 53.7%, pushed by a 24.6% growth in customer base to 23.1 million. Transaction value went up 64.4% to $14.7 billion ($59 billion annualised); and EBITDA stood at $60 million ($240 million annualised) at a margin of 48.8%. The company also generated $124 million in revenue ($496 million annualised), while its profits before tax year-on-year for Q1 2021 stood at $185 million.

Mansoor bin Ebrahim Al-Mahmoud, CEO of QIA, said the sovereign’s wealth fund investment in Airtel Africa would help promote financial inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Airtel Money plays a critical role in facilitating economic activity, including for customers without access to traditional financial services. We firmly believe in its mission to expand these efforts over the coming years,” he added.

In February, Airtel Africa first made it known that it wanted to sell a minority stake in AMC BV to raise cash and sell off some assets. The subsequent month, it sold off telecommunication towers in Madagascar and Malawi to Helios Towers for $119 million and raised $500 million from outside investors.



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Introducing the Open Cap Table Coalition – TechCrunch

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On Tuesday, the Open Cap Table Coalition announced its launch through an inaugural Medium post. The goal of this project is to standardize startup capitalization table data as well as make it far more accessible, transparent and portable.

For those unfamiliar with a cap table, it’s a list of who owns your company’s securities, which includes your company shares, options and more. A clear and simple cap table should quickly indicate who owns what and how much of it they own. For a variety of reasons (sometimes inexperience or bad advice) too many equity holders often find companies’ capitalization information to be opaque and not easily accessible.

This is particularly important for the small percentage of startups that survive in the long term, as growth makes for far more complicated cap tables.

A critical part of good startup hygiene is to always have a clean and updated cap table. Since there is no set format and cap tables are generally not out in the open, they are often siloed rather than collaborative.

Cap tables are near and dear to me as someone who has advised hundreds of startups over the past two decades as the founder of an accelerator, a venture partner and a senior adviser at a government-funded startup launchpad. I have been on the shareholder side of the equation as well and can assure you that pretty much nothing destroys trust between shareholders and startups quicker than poor communication, especially around issues such as the current status of the cap table.

A critical part of good startup hygiene is to always have a clean and updated cap table.

I really like the idea of a cap table being an open corporate record, because the value proposition to the companies is clear. From the time a startup creates a cap table, it’s prone to inaccuracy, friction and mistakes. What this means in practice is that startups may spend money on cap-table-related issues that they should be spending on other things. From a legal process perspective, the law firm that is brought in to help with these issues has to deal with tedious back-end work, so the legal time isn’t high value for either the startup or the law firm.

The value proposition for equity holders is equally clear. All equity holders have a general and legal interest in a company’s capitalization information. They have the right to this information, which they may need for a variety of reasons (including, if things ever get really bad, an aggrieved shareholder action). So making this information clear and easily accessible is a service to equity holders and can also encourage more investment, especially from less experienced investors.

When I imagine what this project could become in the next couple of years, I think back to late 2013, when Y Combinator announced the SAFE (simple agreement for future equity). I think the SAFE is a good analogy here, as no one knew what it was and people wondered if this was a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for startups. But the end result was a dramatic improvement in the early-stage capital-raising process.

While the coalition’s founders include Morgan Stanley’s Shareworks, LTSE Software and Carta, it’s also heavy on Big Law, with Cooley, Goodwin Procter, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Orrick, Gunderson Dettmer, Latham & Watkins, and Fenwick & West rounding out the group of 10 founding members.

So what’s the real motivation of seven law firms, which together saw revenue of over $10 billion in 2020 to collaborate on an open cap table product for startups? Deal flow.

Big Law has been trying for a couple of decades to build relationships with startups at the stage where it makes no sense for a startup to be dealing with a massive and expensive law firm. Their efforts to build startup programs have often fallen short and received mixed reviews. They have also been far too heavy on the self-serve and too light on the “we’re going to give you our regular Big Law level of services at a small fraction of the costs just in case you make it big and can one day pay our regular fees.” So these firms are trying to separate themselves from the rest of the Big Law pack by building this entrepreneur-friendly tech.

The coalition has already produced its initial version of the open cap table. The real question is whether this is going to be a big deal, as the SAFE was, or whether it’s going to be a vanity solution in search of a real problem. My best guess is that if this coalition gets all the relationships right, doesn’t get greedy and understands that there is a social good component at play here, this could be, reasonably quickly, as impactful as the SAFE was.



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Amazon’s Fire TV Cube now supports Zoom calls on your TV – TechCrunch

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Late last year, Amazon launched support for two-way calling that worked with its Fire TV Cube devices. The feature allowed consumers to make and receive calls from their connected TV to any other Alexa device with a screen. Today, the company is expanding this system to enable support for two-way calling with Zoom.

Starting today, Fire TV Cube owners (2nd gen.) will be able to join Zoom work meetings or virtual hangouts via their Fire TV Cube.

To take advantage of the new feature, you’ll need Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, its hands-free streaming device and smart speaker that has Alexa built in, as well as a webcam that supports USB Video Class (UVC) with at least 720p resolution and 30fps. But for a better experience, Amazon recommends a webcam with 1080p resolution and a 60-90 degree field of view from 6 to 10 feet away from the TV. It doesn’t recommend 4K webcams, however.

Amazon suggests webcams like the Logitech C920, C922x, C310, or the Wansview 101JD, for example.

You’ll then connect your webcam to your Fire TV Cube using a Micro USB to USB adapter.

For best results, you’ll want to attach the webcam above the TV screen, Amazon notes.

Once everything is set up and connected, you’ll need to download and install the Zoom app from the Fire TV Appstore. When joining meetings, you can either sign in as a guest or use an existing Zoom account, per the on-screen instructions.

Thanks to the Alexa integration, you can join your meetings hands-free, if you prefer, by way of a voice command like “Alexa, join my Zoom meeting.” Alexa will respond by prompting you for the meeting ID and passcode. Alternately, you can choose to use the remote control to enter in this information.

An optional feature also lets you sync your calendar to Alexa to allow the smart assistant to remind you about the upcoming meetings it finds on your calendar. If you go this route, Alexa will suggest the meeting to join and you’ll just have to say “yes” to be automatically dialed in.

Amazon first announced it was bringing video calling support to its Fire TV platform last fall — a significant update in the new era of remote work and schooling, driven by the pandemic. However, it’s not the only option on the market. Google also last year brought group video calls to its Hub Max devices, and later added support for Zoom calls. Meanwhile Facebook Portal devices have offered video calling of a more personal nature, and last year updated to support Zoom, too.

In other words, Amazon is playing a bit of catch-up here. And its solution is a little more unwieldy as it requires consumers to buy their own webcam, while something like Portal TV offers a TV with a smart camera included.

To use the new feature, you’ll need the latest Fire TV Cube software update to get started, Amazon notes.



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Unmuted founder Max van den Ingh on success beyond the metrics – TechCrunch

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There is no authoritative playbook for marketing these days. Every company must find its own voice, and as it grows and evolves, its marketing needs to evolve as well.

Relying on proven tactics and measurable metrics isn’t enough — today, the most effective marketers constantly study and learn from innovative approaches while exploring new avenues.

This is where Unmuted comes in. A growth marketing agency based in Amsterdam, this company focuses on LinkedIn marketing, content marketing, marketing automation and email marketing. Before starting Unmuted, Max van den Ingh was head of growth and product at MisterGreen, an electric vehicle leasing company, and he also served as head of growth marketing at ShopPop, a chat-based marketing platform.

Van den Ingh, who also serves as a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University, was recommended to TechCrunch through the TechCrunch Experts project. We’re currently on the lookout for top-tier growth marketers that you can recommend to other startups. If you know of one, let us know by filling out this quick survey.

Van den Ingh spoke with us about his “modern” approach to marketing, setting realistic goals, how startups had to shift during the pandemic and more.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You call Unmuted a “modern” growth marketing agency. What do you do that makes your approach to marketing modern?

The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. At Unmuted, our clients don’t come to us to have their ideas executed; they come to us for our process. In a way, we’ve productized a growth marketing process that generates ideas for our clients. They find immense value in that process.

Depending on the customer’s team size and resources, we either guide them during execution or execute autonomously and report back. This process-based service model is, in our opinion, the only way to grow a business in a sustainable way.

“The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. “

In a practical sense, this is what that process boils down to: We take all that we’ve learned from fast-growing companies and apply these principles to our clients’ businesses. Typically we focus on what we call “innovative companies” — whether that’s because they have a SaaS offering or they’re an innovator within a traditional industry doesn’t really matter. The process we’ve designed works for B2B startups, scaleups and SMBs. That last category can benefit greatly from the way we work.

Our role, then, is threefold: We come up with strategies that we carry out by experimenting with several proven marketing tactics based on our extensive in-house knowledge and experience. This relieves our clients’ marketing teams of potentially stifling tunnel vision.

Our growth program typically unfolds in three stages as well, which we call the Foundation, Acceleration and Transformation stages. In the Foundation stage, we set up the fundamentals based on an extensive audit of the client’s business, and start out with our initial experiments. In the Acceleration stage, we scale the experiments that have shown promising early results. Finally, in the Transformation stage, we teach our clients how to continue growing their business themselves. If necessary, we stick around in a consulting role.

Your work at MisterGreen helped it grow about 10x. How much can a client expect to grow when working with you? How do you help clients set realistic goals?

Setting goals is always a challenge, especially when it comes to marketing. Why should you aim for a certain number? Why not aim higher, or lower, for that matter? At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we perform a series of exercises together. This helps us get a clear picture of where the client is now and where they could be when we’ve optimized marketing.

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Next, instead of fixed numbers, like a specific amount of new customers in a given period, we focus on growth levers, like month-over-month growth in certain conversion or activation areas. Focusing on growth levers makes our work more actionable.

We then construct a framework as part of our growth program that also allows room for certain beliefs a company has. I feel this “belief system” is truly essential to any growth marketing strategy. If you don’t allow room for gut feeling activities and only focus on data-driven projects, you will end up only working on things you can measure. We believe that growth marketing will become more effective when you also invest time and effort in channels and spaces you can’t necessarily measure.

When people talk about your solution on WhatsApp or during podcast episodes, that’s amazing and will effectively influence revenue, but sometimes there’s just no way to track these activities.

Finally, we don’t make any guarantees when it comes to growth results. That’s not how it works. We’ll always aim to maximize results as part of the process. Diligent focus on continuous improvement and optimization comes first. Results will automatically follow afterward.

For instance, we recently helped a B2B SaaS platform increase demo requests by 350%. But this wasn’t the goal at all. The process we were following was focused on optimizing every aspect of the demo request journey, from acquiring visitors to optimizing the demo page and more. Every experiment we ran increased the demo request metric to some extent. After six months, you start seeing these compounded results.

You were also the head of growth at ShopPop. How did that experience shape the way you help your clients?

Working for a fast-growing B2B SaaS company with a self-serve product taught me quite a few things. For starters, the importance of getting a really clear understanding of what sustainable growth looks like. Especially in growth marketing, there are a lot of things you can do to gain short-term results. But this doesn’t necessarily help, because you might be acquiring customers that you lose in the long run.

For example, running aggressive advertising campaigns in the early stages to acquire new users in sectors that you know won’t benefit considerably from your product. This type of superficial growth will come back in the form of churn sooner rather than later, and simply isn’t sustainable.

At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we put a lot of time and effort into understanding their best type of customers, what their problems are, and why that’s the case. Only then do we start looking at how to solve those problems with our client’s products or services.

You’re a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University and do speaking engagements as well. What do you hope people take away from your talks?

When I stand in front of a crowd during a speaking engagement, I always share stories about times where I took a pragmatic approach and did things differently. Growth can come in different shapes and forms, and although it often seems simple, it’s never easy. People, and especially management, have to understand that growth takes time and that you need failures to learn.

You need to have conversations to be able to learn and iterate. It’s better to have the wrong type of conversations than not having any at all. Without feedback, there’s no way to grow. And while an eagerness to learn comes naturally to most marketers, this isn’t necessarily the case for your average business person. If I can inspire audiences with my approach to growing by learning, I think that’s a great takeaway.

How have you seen startups change during the pandemic?

A lot of startups have been forced to change their approaches during the pandemic. Some have adapted successfully, while others are now stuck. I experienced it personally when I was still working at ShopPop, where we were focused on the music industry when the pandemic hit.

Music industry clients weren’t buying, for obvious reasons, so we had to pivot somehow. We ended up moving into e-commerce, which was, and still is, booming.

As the pandemic continues, what trends are you seeing in growth marketing?

The biggest trend I’m currently seeing is in the role marketing departments play. These have never been as important as they are now. Digital marketers, especially, are often the ones that come up with new ideas as to how a company can grow online. Nobody will know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, but in the meantime, every company is trying to adapt and find new ways to connect with their customers in unique, meaningful ways.

Logically, we’re seeing a surge in demand for online events like webinars and virtual summits. But everybody is doing those. So where can you carve out your own thing that becomes recognizable for your brand? Discovering these new channels and approaches — I think that should be the role of marketing.

How have you seen the startup market develop while working in growth?

The development of the startup market has been most noticeable in how new standards are being set. For example, startups have always been characterized as fast movers, but remote working and the rise of highly collaborative tools have further increased the speed at which startups operate. The whole industry transformed from speedboats into rocket ships. Talent became much more accessible, and through that internal cultures became more diverse and more resilient.

You can always depend on startups adopting new ways of working early on. They need to differentiate in order to survive, and a novel approach can be the one thing that makes them stand out from the crowd.

You have to understand that working at a startup often feels like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. And that’s also the moment you’re at your most creative. I think this is also how growth marketing as a whole came about. In competitive markets, people have to fight for their right to exist. Marketing is often a way to radically differentiate. When people become really good at that, set new standards and raise the bar, the market develops as a whole.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

It’s been said many times before, but even today, most startups don’t learn quickly and deeply enough. Founders often have an amazing idea and vision of how things will play out. But how much field experience does this person really have? Enough to be able to foresee the future?

Usually, for startups, short-term growth goes well — they get some initial traction from their network, but then the next phase kicks in. Especially when there’s an investment involved, putting more pressure on the commercial side of things, this next phase will mean encountering a lot of hurdles.

When a company doesn’t find a strong enough product-market fit and doesn’t apply what its learned early on, things will get extremely tough. In this phase, a lot of research and experimentation is necessary. If the founding team isn’t up for this and they put their heads in the sand, the startup will deteriorate quickly.

On the other side: What are startups doing better now than ever before?

The best thing a startup can do, and I’m seeing it happen more and more, is investing in community early on. When I was leading growth at MisterGreen, we created a community for the first thousand Tesla Model 3 owners in the Netherlands. Everyone wanted to be a part of this founding tribe, learn from each other, get insights and so on.

This group turned out to be our most effective marketing tool. Word-of-mouth went through the roof. We had all of these people talking about our community at birthday parties, in their office, you name it. This is a great example of investing in marketing you can’t really measure, but which you do strongly believe in.



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