Colin Heilbut, who says he’s a student at the Draper University for Heroes, emailed TechCrunch earlier today to inform us that he’s selling Jimmyjane sex toys on Indiegogo as part of class. Apparently, today’s assignment in the entrepreneurial training program (organized by venture capitalist Tim Draper) involves sales — specifically, sales of Jimmyjane sex toys.
Heilbut said different teams are taking different approaches to the assignment. Some, for example, have been calling up escorts. His team, however, has taken a more familiar path in the tech world, posting a short campaign (less than 30 hours left as I write this) on Indiegogo, where they’re selling Jimmyjane products at a 30 percent discount. For example: You can buy “the Rabbit” for measly $110.
I asked Heilbut if he was surprised at all by the assignment, and he said, “I would’ve been more surprised at the beginning.” Apparently, the University for Heroes is full of “zany activities,” including a weeklong survival program in the wilderness — I’d tell you more, but students aren’t allowed to discuss it in detail with the outside world.
I’ve emailed Draper and the university for comment and will update this post if I hear back. Heilbut did put me on the phone with Michael Hom, who works in customer service at Jimmyjane (which was actually just acquired), and who confirmed that he’s speaking to Draper students to help train them in cold calling potential customers.
Apparently, Heilbut’s team isn’t doing quite as well as the competition, which is why he’s hoping TechCrunch can give him a boost. I’m not sure that I agree of his assessment of TC’s readership, but hey, I’m always ready to be pleasantly surprised.
According to the filing, the raise is fresh. However, given the track record that True has racked up recently, I doubt that it will have too much trouble filling out the funding. Fortune reported in late January that True had more than $225 million in capital commitments in place for the new fund.
TechCrunch has reached out to True Ventures for comment regarding the raise.
True Ventures, founded in 2006, had more than $600 million under management before the new raise schedule, meaning that the firm will have taken in more than 80% of a billion dollars when the current traunch is settled.
In terms of investments, True has invested in technology firms like Makerbot, About.me, Fitbit, Automattic, and TastemakerX, not to mention Blue Bottle coffee, an investment that some have called exotic.
With new capital True can keep up its pace of investments, furthering the current technology blush we find ourselves. When the round closes, we’ll bring you the news.
It’s not every day we here at TechCrunch just point to someone else’s work and say, “Here, you should go read this.” But today’s an exception, because The Economist has put together a 16-page Special Report on the rise of technology startups around the world.
The report, which is written for the magazine’s general news audience, could serve as a sort of “State of the Union” for the industry. That means a lot of what’s reported there won’t really be news to those of you who are deeply involved in the startup world.
But where The Economist’s report could be useful is in helping those of us who follow this world every day to see the forest for the trees. In so doing, it we could possibly better understand the broader global impact that the spread of technology is having, how we’ve gotten here, and what the big trends are driving us forward. What it really means when software eats the world, as it were.
Anyway, I highly recommend you download the full PDF, save it for a quiet moment when you have some spare time, and read it in its entirety. Because every now and then it’s good to take a big step back, re-learn the things you think you already know, and maybe see the tech world from another person’s point of view.
I’ve emailed partners Michael Arrington and Patrick Gallagher for confirmation, and I’ll update this post if I hear back. (CrunchFund’s third partner, TechCrunch alum MG Siegler, left to join Google Ventures last year.)
Arrington, of course, is the founder of TechCrunch. He launched CrunchFund in the fall of 2011 with a $20 million fund. AOL, which acquired TechCrunch a year before, was a big investor. (The announcement of the CrunchFund led to much journalistic handwringing and Arrington’s eventual ouster from this site, though he remains involved in TechCrunch’s conferences.)
Gittip is a weekly gift exchange. We launched about a year ago, and we currently have about 1,000 weekly active users exchanging about $3,000 per week on the platform.
I’ve been trying to dial it to eleven with Gittip in terms of how open and transparent a company can be. According to our definition of an open company, we share as much as possible, charge as little as possible, and don’t directly pay ourselves (Gittip is funded on Gittip). Our code is open source, we look for open partners, and, increasingly, I’ve been asking people who want to Skype if instead we can have an open call that we live-stream and post to YouTube.
My commitment to this last practice, open calls, was put to the test today when, in the midst of two open calls, I received an email from a journalist at TechCrunch, picking up on a conversation we started last month about doing an interview. TechCrunch is, of course, a leading publication for the start-up scene and the wider tech industry, and a story on TechCrunch is something of a coveted rite of passage for new tech companies. Jareau Wade from Balanced Payments had mentioned my name in response to an inquiry from a contact of his at TechCrunch about “some of Balanced’s more interesting partners” (thanks Jareau!). This TechCrunch journalist and I played email tag for a bit, finally reconnecting today and arranging to have a call tomorrow. Here’s how it went:
Me: How about 11:00 California time tomorrow (Tuesday) or Wednesday?
Are you up for a Google Hangout that we live-stream and post to YouTube? I like to do calls that way in the interest of openness. :-)
TC: Tomorrow at 11:00 PT is fine, and google or skype is fine, but don’t like the idea of it being recorded or posted to youtube.
Me: Hey man, I really appreciate your interest, and obviously I appreciate that TechCrunch is a major industry publication and it’d be great to get a story in there. However, I’m trying to run Gittip as openly as possible, and I’m becoming increasingly attached to the idea of not having private calls if I can help it. I just finished up an open call, in fact, and you will see in the first 60 seconds that I’m wrestling with how to respond to you here:
As I mention there, I haven’t really done any interviews with journalists yet, and I need to get off on the right foot and establish a habit and a pattern of only doing open calls if I can.
If you’re not comfortable with streaming/posting the call, I will totally understand. In the future I’ll be sure to let journalists know up front about my open call policy. :-)
Let me know one way or another …
TC: Yeh, good luck with that.
My ideas on when to agree to private calls and when to insist on openness are still very much in formation. I like to have a face-to-face call with new contributors to Gittip, for example, and there I’m willing to have that first call in private if the person isn’t comfortable doing it openly. With journalists I’m much more comfortable requesting openness. They’re writing for the public record, and it benefits readers and keeps us both honest to have the raw material on record as well.
Update: One emerging theme (here, here, here) is that journalism depends for its value on “the scoop.” Could we have agreed on an embargo of the raw interview video until the piece was published? Perhaps.
How would publishing a raw interview threaten a journalist’s scoop? I think it’s important here to see the distinction between “open” and “recognized.” A raw hour-long YouTube video is going to get no traffic compared to a published article. The interaction is open, but it has no chance of reaching the public consciousness in that form, so the scoop isn’t directly threatened by an open interview. If anything, pre-publishing the raw interview builds anticipation among true fans, who are then more likely to spread the word when the story is published.
What about the risk that another journalist will get the scoop? Imagine TechCrunch interviews me, and then AllThingsD finds the raw video and writes the story first. Is that the real threat that’s being felt? If so, I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. To me, that looks like it exposes journalism as a zero-sum game, and I don’t play zero-sum games, if I can help it. In my worldview, having multiple journalists conducting interviews and having multiple journalists writing stories based on those interviews is an overall win for readers and for humanity.
“But the money!” I hear you cry. To which I reply: Let’s get some win-win journalists funded on Gittip. The anonymous funding model should mean there is no conflict of interest, and journalists are then rewarded by readers for their story-telling and curation skills rather than by advertisers for their traffic-hoarding skills.
“You can’t just quietly slip out the door,” I’ve been told by too many people I trust. So okay, fine, here’s this post!
Since you asked, TechCrunch is in a really good place right now.
The various numbers we use to measure ourselves — from traffic to revenue to some leaderboard provided by a tech news aggregator site whose name I forget — are once again quite healthy or even record-setting.
That’s despite widespread predictions of doom a couple years back, about the time I took the co-editor job.
But measurements are a means to find the essence of something, they are *not the essence itself*. That’s particularly true for a qualitative craft like news.
The essence, of course, is writing great stories that help people make better decisions in life and in work, that create accountability in the world, and that maybe even delight and entertain readers from time to time.
My goal from the start has been to build a new system for greatness at TechCrunch. To put the writers in front and create something that could survive any number of staffing changes while getting better and better.
This has happened, gradually at first, but faster over time. From gadgets to tech policy, long-time TechCrunch writers and a whole bunch of new people have come together and formed something new and strong.
Today we’re publishing posts like Ryan Lawler’s exposé of a startup that was screwing over its investors, or Kim-Mai Cutler’s first-person exploration of Silicon Valley’s boom-and-bust cycles over the years — and a lot more that you’ll just have to find on the site, or wait for in the coming weeks and months (I am privy to what’s in the pipeline).
Beneath the surface, we’ve added about as much editorial structure as the team would collectively tolerate. This has meant normal newsroom stuff like a fleshed-out weekend plan and mandatory vacations, and more aggressive journalism efforts like allowing writers to take lots of time away from the day-to-day grind to go after the big stories.
For me, though, it’s time to try something pretty different. I’ve been in tech since everybody wrote it off as a dying industry town about to be fully outsourced, to a scarily mainstream phenomenon. Back in the old days when my media-tools startup got covered by TechCrunch, or over the years when I’ve competed against this publication, we all seemed a little innocent, hopeful and idealistic.
The dreams came true. Almost too true.
Now the industry has to ask itself the baroque sorts of questions normally reserved for politicians, celebrities, old-line industry executives and the rest of the traditional elite.
As engineers say about a server melting from too much traffic, this is a good problem to have.
How can the tech industry use its incredible power to do good? (I mean beyond the good it already does with the products it creates.)
How can it benefit all people in the world, most of whom still live in poverty? That includes people who live and work in the Bay Area, who are ending up with more of tech’s costs than benefits.
How will the industry preserve the dignity of citizens while working with governments to keep them safe?
The list of these sorts of questions keeps growing. The global scrutiny is only going to increase from media, from governments, and from normal people who just want to know what’s going behind their favorite apps and devices.
The industry has been too caught up in the boom — which is understandable when it’s all you can do to keep your servers from melting. But it’s not 2009. And unlike the last boom, the users are real and so are the revenues, and tech as a “thing” is here to stay.
Now is the time for it to take a step back and listen, and have conversations with its critics, and think of creative new solutions.
TechCrunch’s role, first as the original tech blog back in 2005 and now as a tech media mainstay, is both to support the great things that tech builds *and* to wrestle with the big global issues of the day.
The team, I’m happy to say, is already in the middle of this big new challenge. Knowing what I know about their ambitions and abilities, well, you’ll have to keep reading.
Oh, and one more thing. You can follow me on my overused Twitter account at @eldon and my underused Tumblr at Otherwise E.
Yes, we all know…If you’re reading TechCrunch, there’s a great chance we all look at our phones too many times during the day, during meetings, during conversations, during dinner, and every other piece of dead time in between. Mobile apps and the connectivity they provide to us induce addictive behaviors. So, as we think about how mobile evolves, two questions have been on my mind: (1) Could information be pushed to us (beyond push notifications) such that I look at my phone less? And, (2) Will there be apps which passively collect data from my phone, while running in the background, that will improve the notifications mentioned above?
Today in mobile, push notifications hold the promise of native re-engagement tools. Just as it’s hard to even get others to discover and download your app, it’s equally hard to get them to re-engage with your app. Where else could these notifications go to make sure we see them? Email is the next best channel, and with deep-linking becoming more uniform, helps developers touch users and coax them back into their silos. Maybe this is where “wearables” will come into play? Notifications can be sent to a wristwatch or connected glasses, but will we even use these new devices? And, maybe those notifications are just passive, or the types that bring us back into the phone. What if an app sends me great push notifications but I don’t go into the app — is that helping a developer today, or will that provide value in the future as the manners in which we use our phones evolve?
Now, what if we let apps just run like gears in the background after download and collect data for us? We wouldn’t have to open the app all the time and input information. We may occasionally go back into the app to see how our data is presented, or search for something in the past, but it wouldn’t require daily or even weekly active uses. Lately, this could be apps like Heyday and Memoir, which automatically create personal journals based on mobile activity. Instead of being inside our phones chronicling every check-in, or while we are out and about, such as Strava for cyclists, or using Automatic to track movements in the car. For instance, I have my Automatic set to turn on whenever I’m in the car. I rarely go back into the app itself, but I’m using it every time I’m driving. I’m certainly hoping one day I can do something with that data, but we shall see.
Now, let’s take a step back as 2014 commences and everyone recognizes the scale of the platform shift presented by mobile…
All of our attention is on mobile, and rightly so. As a result, investment dollars are focused on mobile, but most of those are chasing apps which could reasonably or already have achieved breakout status. There aren’t many of those. We may all focus on the daily swings of the App Store rankings or get sucked into what’s happening in a category, but if consumers aren’t using an app multiple times a day, the future of that app may be grim. Investors know this, which is why apps with serious daily engagement (like Snapchat) command such high valuations. Add on top of this the sheer number of people who are building new apps daily, and the competition is insanely intense.
Given the current atmosphere, could apps make a bold enough consumer promise to work smartly “in the background” and not ask for daily attention from users? That’s what I’ve experienced personally with Heyday so far, as an example. I know this app will make searchable journals for me based on photos and my location, and I can see them adding in people (as the app spreads), and then perhaps integrating data from Strava, Automatic, and the like. As a result, I let it track my location, I let it access my photo roll, and so forth. There’s a trade taking place, and while I don’t go into Heyday more than once a week, when I want to search for something the past, it’s usually there, right at my fingertips. These types of apps are like gears in a machine. We don’t see them every day, perhaps only when we need something at a specific moment, but we need them to work constantly and consistently for us. These gears could also make other systems run or even possible in the future, in that way, become platforms. While it’s early days mobile, it’s every earlier for these types of background apps, but I think it’s starting to turn in this direction, and with the competition for user attention so fierce today, apps that work like gears do, indeed, present a passive yet potentially aggressive mobile app strategy.
Recently, I’ve been working on a big research project. Yesterday, I had Delicious links, PDFs, spreadsheets and Word documents open on my desktop when I came across a couple of useful presentations on Scribd.
I’ll have them, I thought. So I clicked. What happened next surprised me: I was given the choice of logging in via Scribd or Facebook.
Nudging is a risky business. Each nudge extracts an invisible price in terms of customer loyalty. The risks only increase with size. Empathy becomes important.
Facebook? Why should I sign into Mark Zuckerberg’s site to download a presentation written by someone else and made available from somewhere else? Although the invitation was optional, it still felt like a kind of category error. This was Facebook pushing its nose too far into someone else’s business.
Nudging is the name given by the authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to describe the art of influencing user behavior by presenting options in specific ways. When they nudge us, businesses and government erect what Thaler and Sunstein call an architecture of choice around us.
Last month, TechCrunch spotted a good example. This was Facebook’s decision to allow users to respond to a would-be friend by pressing a button entitled “Not Now”.
Previously, Facebook forced users to choose between Confirm and Ignore. The change, Techcrunch suggested, was all about creating a de facto “follow” feature that doesn’t depend on the followed party giving permission. This, TechCrunch suggested, was an attempt by Facebook to “slyly beef up its social graph a bit more”.
So what? Surely, nudging (not to mention “choice architecture”) has been around forever. What’s wrong with using a series of barely noticeable prompts and temptations to maximize revenues in the short term?
Nothing. On the ad-funded web, it’s essential that users behave in a way that’s lucrative. Sometimes, they need encouragement. If you’re providing an expensive service for free, it’s surely not outrageous to treat users as sheep, funneling them toward the point at which they yield their maximum value.
Or is it? Perhaps the really important thing about nudging is the frequency with which it’s done, and the way in which the nudging is presented.
Some companies do it less than others. Although I suspect it adopts a tougher stance with business customers, Google has remained a reluctant nudger in consumer markets. If you’re a fan, you probably believe that this is because the company goes with the grain, striving to do no evil. If you’re a skeptic, you’ll argue that Google’s approach to its users is made possible by a cash-generative advertising business. Either way, the interpretation is largely positive.
Aggressive nudging causes problems. As corporate self-interest becomes more important than user satisfaction, the nudging company’s approach to consumers becomes fragmented and incoherent.
Something like this, I suspect, happened to Windows during the past decade as Microsoft struggled to cope with the emergence of the web. The company’s vast promotional campaigns for Windows tended to focus as much on the company’s achievements as the benefits conferred upon users. The self-regarding nature of these campaigns told us something about the company’s attenuated links with its customers.
The Radionomy connection was first noticed by a Carsten Knobloch who saw that Winamp’s nameservers, but not Shoutcast’s, had been transferred to Radionomy. We have since learned from a reliable source that the deal is for both properties and should be finalised by Friday, if not sooner.
Radionomy has some 6,000 stations in its catalog already, with an emphasis on a do-it-yourself platform that anyone can use to create a channel. Shoutcast’s 50,000-strong catalog of radio stations will be a major boost on that front. Winamp’s media playing software could be used to help program those radio stations and offer additional services.
Some of those may see the two products in more commercial settings. One of Radionomy’s strategic investors is MusicMatic, which develops audio and video experiences for stores and other venues.
You may have read Quartz’ interestingly entertaining post “2013 was a lost year for tech.” With a headline that can make both BuzzFeed and Upworthy jealous — and arguments that most people in the developed world would probably not disagree with — Quartz got the kind of attention it hoped for.
Attention is one thing; being sensational is another.
Om Malik wrote a great rebuttal to the Qz article, and did a fantastic job of explaining the nature of innovation and disruption:
“Innovation happens in different places, in different sectors and follows a different time scale that only a handful really comprehend.”
John Gruber also wrote his thoughts, including the fact that smartphones becoming a commodity is a sign of “remarkable progress.”
Plenty of other smart and knowledgeable people weighed in by echoing rebuttals, distinguishing valid points from exaggerations, and more.
Big Brand Tech’s press-worthy contributions during the year may deserve a debate, one which I’m glad Quartz stirred up, but we are talking about the tech industry here, Christopher Mims; the tech industry.
Today’s successful tech giants — from Google and Facebook to Apple and Samsung — all started their empires by building infrastructures that led to widely accepted consumer products that turned into massive platforms.
Mims seems to have gotten it all wrong…
Connected wearable devices are in their beta / Gen 1 phase (think of the Rio MP3 players, not the iPod), but they are indeed launching as consumer products, and they are popping up everywhere.
Software companies are acquiring hardware companies, not just the other way around.
Snowden showed the world how much (and how little) we value privacy, and that awareness is better than being in the dark.
Companies like Uber, Lyft and AirBnb are disrupting entire industries, despite the many barriers they face. And these startups are not alone (scroll to the bottom of this post for a few examples you may or may not recognize).
Google Glass is not yet what it promises to be, but self-driving cars aren’t either. You can’t just launch something like this overnight Mr. Mims. Also, scroll to the bottom to learn about META, a company that is going beyong notification glasses like Google Glass.
Social media has become nearly ubiquitous (something that was laughable seven years ago), and messaging companies have captured (or re-captured) the world’s interest faster than social networks did.
The world’s largest tech giants—the same I mentioned earlier—now face threats from small startups from every corner of the Earth (and that’s exactly why they are turning them into an opportunity by acquiring them while they can).
Silicon Valley may not have had its finest moments, but technological innovation is now happening in pockets in dozens of cities—from Ra’anana, Berlin and Santiago to Montreal, Austin and New York City.
Yes, drones are getting hyped up thanks to clever marketing campaigns—but guess what, such campaigns worked.
Oh, and yes, one in every five people on Earth own a smartphone.
Is this boring and embarrassing?
Perhaps if you are a tech writer.
Perhaps if you are an early adopter who can’t get his consumer tech updates quickly enough.
Perhaps if you are uninterested in the tech infrastructure that is being built all around us.
Every single day, those of us with connected devices walk around nearly oblivious to the fact that we are nodes in a transparent network that is connecting us to each other and to the things around us. The technological advancements of 2013 may not have fancied a few tech writers (who somehow make their living writing about tech), but such advancements are building the future that our children and our children’s children will live in. Again, this is the tech industry. I am almost certain that the writers at Horse & Rider are more passionate about 2013′s contributions than Mr. Mims, but alas, this is not about passion—this is about reality.
2013: Not a dud, I say.
Tech is becoming so seamless that we are forgetting it’s actually there!
That gets me excited. Is also scares the crap out of me, and it should scare the crap out of you too.
It’s up to us — consumers / users / breathing, feeling, thinking human beings — to vote for our future with our daily clicks, swipes and online purchases. Whether we realize it or not — entire layers of data are being mapped all around us, and brilliant minds creating the software and hardware that will power us into a brave new world—for better, or worse.
That brave new world is being shaped day in and day out, whether we know it or not. So much for a “lost year in tech.” Pfff.
If anything, perhaps tech journalists are becoming too dependent on “headline storytelling,” a term I’d like to coin (is that allowed?) for the idea of the media writing exactly what the “hot” startups want them to write about.
Not sure what I mean with “headline storytelling?” Just take a look at TechCrunch’s posts about Snapchat. They run like clockwork.
But I digress.
I believe there are two megatrends that progressed greatly in 2013, and these are only two very obvious ones amidst a sea of small and big wins for tech throughout the year. These are the result of the collision of great advancements in software and hardware, as well as collective work of large R&D budgets, brilliantly committed startups and a tech ecosystem that is one again looking forward to solving problems worth solving.
2013 did not bring about a new Internet, but it certainly contributed key building blocks for the next phase of the Internet era. We should pay attention to these trends and some of the startups tackling them — whether for intellectual, philosophical, sociological or plain business curiosity.
1. All Things Context
The Internet of Things has been talked about for years. It is the subject of plenty of books, commercials and startup pitches. Sci-Fi movies have been talking about this for decades and “Her” is only one of the latest attempts to imagine a world where humans and robots coexist. (Again, I find this exciting, and scary).
We find early signs of contextually connected devices everywhere, from the mall to the jogging lane. Sensors are now everywhere and the reality of human beings interacting with a world around them—that is as physical as it is digital—is becoming a reality.
Here are a few context-related startups that mattered in 2013:
The convergence of all things crowd (from crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, to the “sharing economy” and the “collaborative economy”), had quite a 2013. Marketplace Communities like AirBnb, Kickstarter, Maker’s Row, Tradesy, Quirky, Artsicle, KitchenSurfing, Fiverr, DogVacay, TaskRabbit, Udacity, SkillShare and Square are but a few examples of how consumer behavior is changing. Larger brands—including TOMS, Ikea and GE—have started initiatives, products and services to tackle this shift in consumer expectations.
Some will say this trend is only gaining momentum in large urban settings, and that may be true to an extent. Regardless of their individual impact, we are seeing a collective shift in the kinds of startups that are getting created, funded and launched.
In fact, the progress enabled by platforms like AngelList and GitHub are sufficient enough to say that 2013 was a source of more transparent and distributed innovation.
Here are a few crowd-related startups to watch in 2014: