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December 12, 2018
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Government

Huawei, Google, and the tiring politics of tech

in Asia/China/Delhi/Google/Government/huawei/India/London/Meng Wanzhou/Oath/Policy/Politics/Sheryl Sandberg/Sundar Pichai/Verizon/Verizon Communications by

The defining question of the 21st century is pretty simple: who owns what? Who owns the telecommunications infrastructure that powers our mobile devices? Who owns the OS that powers those devices? Who owns our data?

Today, we see these intersecting arcs with two prominent tech leaders mired in legal and political processes.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

In Canada, we have day three(!) of the bail hearing for Huawei head of finance Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), who was arrested at the request of the U.S. a little more than a week ago. And on Capitol Hill today, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, is testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee, starting a few minutes ago at 10am.

These may be pedestrian proceedings, but they are riven with deep debates over the meaning of ownership. Meng was arrested for supposedly selling equipment to Iran through intermediaries in violation of U.S. sanctions. Huawei is a Chinese company, but uses American intellectual property in its products. Thus, America claims worldwide jurisdiction over the company, since it owns the patents beneath Huawei’s products.

Meanwhile, Pichai is testifying over a number of concerns, including data privacy (i.e. data ownership) and Project Dragonfly, the company’s attempt to re-enter China. He also has to contend with another data breach bug discovered yesterday in Google+. Is Google an American “owned” company (as Pichai will attempt to paint it today), or is it a global company owned by shareholders with obligations to enter China?

These aren’t simple questions, which is why the broader question of ownership will be so important for this century. Despite the win-win attitude of free traders, the reality is that much of technology ownership is monopolistic owing to barriers to entry – there are only a handful of telco equipment manufacturers, public clouds, mobile OSes and search engines out there. Whoever owns that property is going to get rich at the expense of others.

That’s why the US/China trade conflict is an irreconcilable tug-of-war.

For China, a developing country by most metrics even if it has glittering cities like Shanghai, owning that technological wealth is crucial for it to reach the zenith of its growth. It cannot become rich without becoming a technology power, a manufacturing power, and a consumer market capital all at once. And it views with deep suspicion American blocks on wealth transfers. Isn’t this just a way to keep the country down, to replay the century of humiliation all over again?

For the U.S., China’s constant conniving to pilfer American intellectual property undermines U.S. economic hegemony. China does want to steal plans for airplanes, and semiconductors, and other high-tech goods. Of course, it eventually wants to have the human capital and know-how to build these themselves, but first it has to catch up. America, fundamentally, doesn’t want it to catch-up.

As more and more wealth derives from technology, technology = politics becomes the bedrock law.

That’s frankly tiring for someone who just loves great products and wants to see massive technological progress for everyone regardless of nationality. But political symbolism is increasingly a language that Silicon Valley and the tech industry writ large have to understand.

Why Oath keeps Tumblring (now with a price tag)

Last week, I wrote a bit of a screed on why TechCrunch’s parent company, Oath, is struggling so badly:

Oath has a problem:* it needs to grow for Wall Street to be happy and for Verizon not to neuter it, but it has an incredible penchant for making product decisions that basically tell users to fuck off. Oath’s year over year revenues last quarter were down 6.9%, driven by extreme competition from digital ad leaders Google and Facebook.

Now, we know the costs of those product decisions, as well as the greater challenges in the digital advertising market. Verizon announced today that it will write down the value of Oath by $4.6 billion. That will change Oath’s goodwill value from $4.8 billion to $0.2 billion in the fourth quarter. Yikes.

This was a necessary accounting valuation change, and one that recognizes the challenges that Oath faces. As the filing said:

Verizon’s Media business, branded Oath, has experienced increased competitive and market pressures throughout 2018 that have resulted in lower than expected revenues and earnings. These pressures are expected to continue and have resulted in a loss of market positioning to our competitors in the digital advertising business. Oath has also achieved lower than expected benefits from the integration of the Yahoo Inc. and AOL Inc. businesses.

The upside is that Oath still has many, many millions of users every month. It just needs to figure out what to do with all of those eyeballs to build a sustainable business.

Can the West build anything?

Photo by VictorHuang via Getty Images

Seriously, from the Financial Times:

The capital should have been celebrating the opening of the east-west London railway, the biggest construction project in Europe, this week. But Crossrail announced in August that it would not begin operation until autumn 2019 at the earliest.

Even that now seemed “wildly optimistic”, one person close to the project said, given the problems with signals, trains and stations leading to “growing panic” among TfL executives. A number of people close to the project now say it may not be ready until late next year.

Crossrail is one of the most important subway projects in the world, designed to dramatically increase capacity in London’s Underground on the east-west axis. But it is just one of a series of major setbacks in infrastructure costs in the West. Meanwhile in California from Connor Harris at City Journal:

Ten years later, supporters have ample cause to reconsider. CAHSR’s costs have severely escalated: the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) now estimates that the train’s core segment alone, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, will cost from $77 billion to $98 billion. Promises that private investors would cover most of the costs have fallen through. Forecasts for the project’s completion date and travel times have also slipped. The fastest trains in the CHSRA’s current business plan have a running time of over three hours, and the first segment of the line—San Jose to Bakersfield, almost 200 miles short of completion—won’t open until 2029.

I want high-speed rail, and I want new subways. I just don’t want new subways that cost billions of dollars per mile, and I don’t want high-speed rail at $100 billion.

The inability of Western countries to build infrastructure within any period of time and within any sort of budget is just mesmerizing. What we are left with is raising the speed limits on subways in New York City from 15 MPH to something a bit more reasonable.

I have talked previously about the need for more startups in this space:

California is home to two very different innovation worlds. For the readers of TechCrunch, there is the familiar excitement of the startup world, with startups working on longevity and age extension, rockets to Mars, and cars that drive themselves. Hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs, engineers, and product managers are building these futures every day, often on shoestring budgets all in the hope of seeing their solution come to fruition.

Then, there is the “innovation” world of California’s infrastructure. Let’s take the most prominent example, which is the bullet train connecting southern to northern California. The train, first approved in a bond authorized by voters in 2008, is expected to have its first passengers in 2025 — three years after the original target of 2022.

That’s roughly 17 years start to finish, or older than the ages of Facebook (14 years) and the iPhone (10 years) are right now. Given that environmental reviews aren’t even slated to come in until 2020, it seems hard to believe that the route will maintain its current schedule.

Startups, we need your innovation in this space desperately. It’s a trillion dollar market ready for anything that might make these projects move faster, and cost less.

Quick Bites

My quick bites turned into full bites above.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

The Increasingly United States – I read this book this weekend. Probably best to just read the reviews for most readers, although if you like modern political science research, this has about all the techniques you can do in American studies these days.

The core thesis is that the notion that “all politics is local” is completely bunk on two dimensions. Voters increasingly vote for candidates at every level of government using the same litmus tests, and they also get their information about politics exclusively from national sources. That basically means city councilors are debating immigration policy (which they have zero control over) rather than trash policy. It also explains the rising polarization in Congress — with less local issues to debate, there are just no opportunities afforded to build coalitions.

The book charts the pathways through which this nationalization takes place, and they will be intimately familiar to most readers (campaign finance changes, national media markets, nationalized policy planning, etc).

The thesis though raises a number of questions. First, how will local issues (zoning, trash pickup, etc.) get the attention they need to make our cities livable and thriving? Second, how can we fund local media so that voters have differentiated visibility into what is happening in their own backyard? These questions aren’t easy to answer, but we must if we want our federal-style system to function the way the founders intended.

The Death of Democracy in Hong Kong by Jeffrey Wasserstrom. A short and emotional look back at the failure of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 and its ramifications.

Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg Problem by Nellie Bowles. What does an organization do when the reputation of its founder and major icon turns sour? Lean In is trying to find out. Good if a bit lengthy, but I’m starting to get tired of the constant anti-Sandberg coverage.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

News Source = techcrunch.com

Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

in affordable housing/Artificial Intelligence/building/building codes/buildings/camino/concur/concur labs/Cove.Tool/cover/Cover Technologies/Delhi/Developer/Enterprise/envelope/Government/GreenTech/housing/India/Logistics/machine learning/Policy/Politics/Real estate/regulation/SaaS/Startups/TC/zoning by

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

News Source = techcrunch.com

The nation-state of the internet

in blockchain/Book Review/community/Delhi/Developer/Facebook/Google/Government/India/Media/Politics/Reddit/Uber by

The internet is a community, but can it be a nation-state? It’s a question that I have been pondering on and off this year, what with the rise of digital nomads and the deeply libertarian ethos baked into parts of the blockchain community. It’s clearly on a lot of other people’s minds as well: when we interviewed Matt Howard of Norwest on Equity a few weeks back, he noted (unprompted) that Uber is one of the few companies that could reach “nation-state” status when it IPOs.

Clearly, the internet is home to many, diverse communities of similar-minded people, but how do those communities transmute from disparate bands into a nation-state?

That question led me to Imagined Communities, a book from 1983 and one of the most lauded (and debated) social science works ever published. Certainly it is among the most heavily cited: Google Scholar pegs it at almost 93,000 citations.

Benedict Anderson, a political scientist and historian, ponders over a simple question: where does nationalism come from? How do we come to form a common bond with others under symbols like a flag, even though we have never — and will almost never — meet all of our comrades-in-arms? Why does every country consider itself “special,” yet for all intents and purposes they all look identical (heads of state, colors and flags, etc.) Also, why is the nation-state invented so late?

Anderson’s answer is his title: people come to form nations when they can imagine their community and the values and people it holds, and thus can demarcate the borders (physical and cognitive) of who is a member of that hypothetical club and who is not.

In order to imagine a community though, there needs to be media that actually links that community together. The printing press is the necessary invention, but Anderson tracks the rise of nation-states to the development of vernacular media — French language as opposed to the Latin of the Catholic Church. Lexicographers researched and published dictionaries and thesauruses, and the printing presses — under pressure from capitalism’s dictates — created rich shelves of books filled with the stories and myths of peoples who just a few decades ago didn’t “exist” in the mind’s eye.

The nation-state itself was developed first in South America in the decline and aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Anderson argues for a sociological perspective on where these states originate from. Intense circulation among local elites — the bureaucrats, lawyers, and professionals of these states — and their lack of mobility back to their empires’ capitals created a community of people who realized they had more in common with each other than the people on the other side of the Atlantic.

As other communities globally start to understand their unique place in the world, they import these early models of nation-states through the rich print culture of books and newspapers. We aren’t looking at convergent evolution, but rather clones of one model for organizing the nation implemented across the world.

That’s effectively the heart of the thesis of this petite book, which numbers just over 200 pages of eminently readable if occasionally turgid writing. There are dozens of other epiphanies and thoughts roaming throughout those pages, and so the best way to get the full flavor is just to pick up a used copy and dive in.

For my purposes though, I was curious to see how well Anderson’s thesis could be applied to the nation-state of the internet. Certainly, the concept that the internet is its own sovereign entity has been with us almost since its invention (just take a look at John Perry Barlow’s original manifesto on the independence of cyberspace if you haven’t).

Isn’t the internet nothing but a series of imagined communities? Aren’t subreddits literally the seeds of nation-states? Every time Anderson mentioned the printing press or “print-capitalism,” I couldn’t help but replace the word “press” with WordPress and print-capitalism with advertising or surveillance capitalism. Aren’t we going through exactly the kind of media revolution that drove the first nation-states a few centuries ago?

Perhaps, but it’s an extraordinarily simplistic comparison, one that misses some of the key originators of these nation-states.

Photo by metamorworks via Getty Images

One of the key challenges is that nation-states weren’t a rupture in time, but rather were continuous with existing power structures. On this point, Anderson is quite absolute. In South America, nation-states were borne out of the colonial administrations, and elites — worried about losing their power — used the burgeoning form of the nation-state to protect their interests (Anderson calls this “official nationalism”). Anderson sees this pattern pretty much everywhere, and if not from colonial governments, then from the feudal arrangements of the late Middle Ages.

If you turn the gaze to the internet then, who are the elites? Perhaps Google or Facebook (or Uber), companies with “nation-state” status that are essentially empires on to themselves. Yet, the analogy to me feels stretched.

There is an even greater problem though. In Anderson’s world, language is the critical vehicle by which the nation-state connects its citizens together into one imagined community. It’s hard to imagine France without French, or England without English. The very symbols by which we imagine our community are symbols of that community, and it is that self-referencing that creates a critical feedback loop back to the community and reinforces its differentiation.

That would seem to knock out the lowly subreddit as a potential nation-state, but it does raise the question of one group: coders.

When I write in Python for instance, I connect with a group of people who share that language, who communicate in that language (not entirely mind you), and who share certain values in common by their choice of that language. In fact, software engineers can tie their choices of language so strongly to their identities that it is entirely possible that “Python developer” or “Go programmer” says more about that person than “American” or “Chinese.”

Where this gets interesting is when you carefully connect it to blockchain, which I take to mean a technology that can autonomously distribute “wealth.” Suddenly, you have an imagined community of software engineers, who speak in their own “language” able to create a bureaucracy that serves their interests, and with media that connects them all together (through the internet). The ingredients — at least as Anderson’s recipe would have them — are all there.

I am not going to push too hard in this direction, but one surprise I had with Anderson is how little he discussed the physical agglomeration of people. The imagining of (physical) borders is crucial for a community, and so the development of maps for each nation is a common pattern in their historical developments. But, the map, fundamentally, is a symbol, a reminder that “this place is our place” and not much more.

Indeed, nation-states bleed across physical borders all the time. Americans are used to the concept of worldwide taxation. France seats representatives from its overseas departments in the National Assembly, allowing French citizens across the former empire to vote and elect representatives to the country’s legislature. And anyone who has followed the Huawei CFO arrest in Canada this week should know that “jurisdiction” these days has few physical borders.

The barrier for the internet or its people to become nation-states is not physical then, but cognitive. One needs to not just imagine a community, but imagine it as the prime community. We will see an internet nation-state when we see people prioritizing fealty to one of these digital communities over the loyalty and patriotism to a meatspace country. There are already early acolytes in these communities who act exactly that way. The question is whether the rest of the adherents will join forces and create their own imagined (cyber)space.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The trust dilemma of continuous background checks

in Artificial Intelligence/Asia/background check/Checkr/China/CrunchBase/Delhi/Government/India/intelligo/Masayoshi Son/Meng Wanzhou/Policy/Politics/privacy/Ren Zhengfei/SoftBank/Softbank Vision Fund/Startups/Venture Capital/zte by

First, background checks at startups, then Huawei’s finance chief is arrested, SoftBank’s IPO is subscribed, and I am about to record our next edition of TechCrunch Equity. It’s Thursday, December 6, 2018.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

The dilemma of continuous background checks

My colleague John Biggs covered the Series A round for Israel-based Intelligo, a startup that provides “Ongoing Monitoring” — essentially a continuous background check that can detect if (when?) an employee has suddenly become a criminal or other deviant. That’s a slight pivot from the company’s previous focus of using AI/ML to conduct background checks more efficiently.

Background checks are a huge business. San Francisco-based Checkr, perhaps the most well-known startup in the space, has raised $149 million according to Crunchbase, driven early on by the need to on-board thousands of contingent workers at companies like Uber. Checkr launched what it calls “Continuous Check” which also actively monitors all employees for potential problems, back in July.

Now consider a piece written a few weeks ago by Olivia Carville at Bloomberg that explored the rise of “algorithmic auditors” that actively monitor employee expenses and flags ones it feels are likely to be fraudulent:

U.S. companies, fearing damage to their reputations, are loath to acknowledge publicly how much money they lose each year on fraudulent expenses. But in a report released in April, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners said it had analyzed 2,700 fraud cases from January 2016 to October 2017 that resulted in losses of $7 billion.

Here’s a question that bugs me though: we have continuous criminal monitoring and expense monitoring. Most corporations monitor web traffic and email/Slack/communications. Everything we do at work is poked and prodded to make sure it meets “policy.”

And yet, we see vituperative attacks on China’s social credit system, which …. monitors criminal records, looks for financial frauds, and sanctions people based on their scores. How long will we have to wait before employers give us “good employee behavior” scores and attach it to our profiles in Slack?

The conundrum of course is that no startup or company wants (or can) avoid background checks. And it probably makes sense to continually monitor your employees for changes and fraud. If Bob murders someone over the weekend, it’s probably good to know that when you meet Bob at Monday’s standup meeting.

But let’s not pretend that this continuous monitoring isn’t ruinous to something else required from employees: trust. The more heavily monitored every single activity is in the workplace, the more that employees feel that if the system allows them to get away with something, it must be approved. Without any checks, you rely on trust. With hundreds of checks, policy is essentially etched into action — if I can do it, it must meet policy.

In China, where social trust is extremely low, it likely makes sense to have some sort of scoring mechanism to substitute. But for startups and tech companies, building a culture of trust — of doing the right thing even when not monitored — seems crucial to me for success. So before signing up for one of these continuous services, I’d do a double take and consider the potentially deleterious consequences.

If I was a startup employee, I would think twice (maybe thrice?) before traveling to China

Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Last weekend, Trump and Xi agreed to delay the implementation of tariffs on Chinese goods, which led to buoyant Chinese (tech) stocks Monday in Asia time zones. I wrote about how that doesn’t make any sense, since delaying tariffs doesn’t do anything to solve the structural issues in the US/China conflict:

To me the market is deeply misjudging not only the Chinese economy, but also the American leadership as well.

And specifically, I wrote about constraints on Huawei and ZTE:

In what world do these prohibitions disappear? The U.S. national security agencies aren’t going to allow Huawei and ZTE to deploy their equipment in America. Like ever. Quite frankly, if the choice was getting rid of all of China’s non-tariff barriers and allowing Huawei back into America, I think the U.S. negotiators would walk out.

So it was nice to learn (for me, not for her) that the head of finance of Huawei was arrested last night in Canada at the United States’ request. From my colleague Kate Clark:

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer and second-largest smartphone maker, has been arrested in Vancouver, Canada on suspicion she violated U.S. trade sanctions against Iran, as first reported by The Globe and Mail.

Huawei confirmed the news with TechCrunch, adding that Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, faces unspecified charges in the Eastern District of New York, where she had transferred flights on her way to Canada.

If you wanted to know how the Trump administration was going to continue to fight the trade war outside of tariffs, you now have your answer. This is a bold move by the administration, targeting not just one of China’s most prominent tech companies, but the daughter of the founder of the company to boot.

China has since demanded her return.

Here is how this is going to play out. China is preventing the two American children of Liu Changming from leaving the country, essentially holding them hostage until their father returns to the mainland to face a criminal justice process related to an alleged fraud case. America now has a prominent daughter of a major Chinese company executive in their hands. That’s some nice tit-for-tat.

For startup founders and tech executives migrating between the two countries, I don’t think one has to literally worry about exit visas or extradition.

But, I do think the travel security operations centers at companies that regularly have employees moving between these countries need to keep very keen and cautious eyes on these developments. It’s entirely possible that these one-off “soft hostages” could flare to much higher numbers, making it much more complicated to conduct cross-border work.

Quick Bites

SoftBank’s IPO raises a lot of dollars

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Takahiko Hyuga at Bloomberg reports that SoftBank has sold its entire book of shares for its whopping $23.5 billion IPO. The shares will officially price on Monday and then will trade on December 19. This is a critical and important win for Masayoshi Son, who needs the IPO of his telecom unit to deleverage some of the risk from SoftBank’s massive debt pile (and also to continue funding his startup dreams through Vision Fund, etc.)

SoftBank Vision Fund math, part 2

Arman and I talked yesterday about the complicated math behind just how many dollars are in SoftBank’s Vision Fund. More details, as Jason Rowley pointed out at Crunchbase News:

In an annual Form D disclosure filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this morning, SBVF disclosed that it has raised a total of approximately $98.58 billion from 14 investors since the date of first sale on May 20, 2017. The annual filing from last year said there was roughly $93.15 billion raised from 8 investors, meaning that the Vision Fund has raised $5.43 billion in the past year and added six new investors to its limited partner base.

I said yesterday that the fund size should be “$97 billion or $96.7 billion with precision, assuming this $5 billion reaches a final close.” So let’s revise this number again to $99 billion or $98.6 billion with precision, since it seems the $5 billion did indeed close.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

Hopefully more reading time tomorrow.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Foxconn or Foxgone? Tariffs, Wisconsin and iPhone fires

in Amazon/Apple/Asia/China/Delhi/didi/Foxconn/Government/huawei/India/lightspeed/north carolina/Pendo/Policy/Politics/raleigh/SenseTime/SoftBank/Softbank Vision Fund/Startups/university of texas/Venture Capital/vietnam/WeWork/wisconsin by

First some notes on SoftBank’s rumored expansion into China and its weird fund math, then Foxconn, and then quick notes on tech depression, Huawei, and more.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

SoftBank has fund visions (and a Vision Fund) for China? That, and more money

Kane Wu at Reuters reported over night that SoftBank is looking to open an office and hire an investment team in China, which Wu says will be based in Shanghai. That’s following the fund’s recent global expansion with new targeted offices in Saudi Arabia and India.

When I saw this, I sort of did a double-take: SoftBank doesn’t have a presence in China? The fund has reportedly been seeking investments in some of China’s leading unicorn stars, including controversial face recognition startup SenseTime, and leading edtech startup Zuoyebang (作业帮, which literally translates as “school assignment help”). (Hat tips to Selina Wang at Bloomberg, who seems to just be sitting in Vision Fund partner meetings). And of course, it dumped a pretty penny into WeWork China, where it was part of a $500 million syndicate, and is a huge investor in Didi.

It’s sort of obvious that SoftBank would expand to China. What will be interesting though is to see how the fund structures itself long-term. As far as I know, the Vision Fund is a singular “fund” that invests worldwide (send me an email if I am wrong on this count). China has a thicket of regulations on funds and companies, which is one of several reasons we see specifically China-focused vehicles (such as Lightspeed and Lightspeed China or Sequoia and Sequoia China). If the Vision Fund continues to be a unified fund, that would be a notable strategy shift that might be cloned by other trans-Pacific funds.

Aside: SoftBank Vision Fund math is complicated

Rajeev Misra, board director of SoftBank Group and CEO of SoftBank Investment Advisors. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

When it first closed the Vision Fund, SoftBank explained they had raised just over $93 billion in committed capital or, more precisely, around $93.15-$93.2 billion according to the initial investor presentations and its annual Form D filings. In those docs, SoftBank said that the fund was financed with $28 billion from SoftBank and $65 billion from third-party investors.

On top of the $93 billion raised for the Vision Fund, SoftBank detailed that it had committed $4.5 billion of its own capital to a separate “Delta Fund,” which was used to alleviate conflicts around SoftBank’s Didi investment. Thus, SoftBank’s total VC funding aggregates to around $97.7 billion.

To add a complication, SoftBank later shifted $1.6 billion of the Vision Fund’s previously disclosed $65 billion in third-party capital over to the Delta Fund. In current disclosures, SoftBank shows $91.7 billion of committed capital for the Vision Fund ($28.1 billion from SoftBank and $63.6 billion from third-party investors). For the Delta Fund, SoftBank shows $6 billion in committed capital ($4.5 billion SoftBank contribution and $1.6 billion from third-party investors).

Here is where it gets even more complicated. In its latest filings, SoftBank also notes that it completed the interim closing of an additional $5 billion for the Vision Fund in mid-October, “intended for the installment of an incentive scheme for operations of SoftBank Vision Fund.” That additional cash would bring Vision Fund’s total committed capital to $96.7 billion, and $102.7 billion together with the Delta Fund.

While it wouldn’t be included in the committed equity capital total, SoftBank is also rumored to be raising a $4 billion credit facility to help finance additional acquisitions.

So, it’s probably best to say that the Vision Fund — as constituted right now — is $97 billion or $96.7 billion with precision, assuming this $5 billion reaches a final close.

SoftBank IPO

We have of course covered SoftBank quite obsessively, particularly its debt situation (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5). What we haven’t covered more recently is the latest developments in SoftBank’s IPO, which is slated for December 19th and expected to bring in a haul of $21 billion. More to come on that front in the coming days.

Foxconn or Foxgone?

US President Donald Trump and Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The South China Morning Post reported yesterday that Foxconn is investigating expanding its factories to Vietnam in order to avoid tariffs. Makes sense, and I have some calls this week and next trying to suss out how much hardware supply chains have really changed in response to the trade conflict.

That decision though isn’t just about the trade conflict, but also about the quickly increasing wages of Chinese laborers as well as political interference from Beijing. The Trump administration’s trade policies are just the excuse Foxconn needs to (at least partially) extricate itself from China, while saving face in the process.

What’s interesting is that Foxconn is also dealing with a massive brush fire in Wisconsin, where it received one of the largest economic development incentives ever offered by an American government, a whopping $3 billion package that was expected to drive manufacturing employment in the state.

Over night, Republicans in the state legislature passed a bill that would place large restrictions on incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers. Jessie Opoien for the (Madison) Cap Times:

Under the bill, legislators would have increased influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the WEDC board, not the governor, would appoint the job creation agency’s CEO. However, the governor’s power to appoint a CEO would be restored in September 2019.

That is the agency that provided the Foxconn funding, which has become a political football in Wisconsin politics. Republicans are trying to protect one of the major economic legacies of outgoing governor Scott Walker, as well as what they believe is the future direction of manufacturing work in the state. Democrats smell a boondoggle in the making.

If that wasn’t all, rumored skimpy sales for iPhones is putting enormous pressure on Foxconn’s bottom line. Debby Wu at Bloomberg reported two weeks ago that:

The contract manufacturer aims to cut 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) from expenses in 2019 as it faces “a very difficult and competitive year,” according to an internal document obtained by Bloomberg. The company’s spending in the past 12 months is about NT$206 billion ($6.7 billion).

Foxconn is a very dynamic organization that has weathered repeated crises over the years. It is pretty much unique in what it does today: very few other companies can scale up and down hundreds of thousands of workers to meet iPhone and other device demands with such alacrity.

But, the fundamentals of the mobile device market have apparently changed dramatically this year, and Foxconn is likely to be the company most harmed as the assembler of those devices. That could destroy not just the Chinese dream of leading in manufacturing, but also the Vietnam and Wisconsin dreams as well.

Also: If you haven’t read it, this poetry by a Foxconn worker who committed suicide really resonated with me. Foxconn’s suicide problem is well-documented, but we often don’t hear from the individuals themselves.

Quick bites

Which big tech companies are most depressed?

Blind, the anonymous enterprise chatting app that has taken the tech world by storm, published survey results asking tech employees “I believe I am depressed.” Roughly 40% of employees responded yes. Interestingly, there wasn’t too much variation between companies. Amazon had the highest rate at 43% and Apple had the lowest rate at 30%. It’s an informal survey, probably without high scientific validation, but it is a reminder for all of us in the community that mental health and burnout is very real in the startup and tech ecosystems and we should be vigilant in helping each other when times are rough.

More bad news for Huawei as British Telecom bans its equipment

This is one of those stories that we are just going to keep on hearing about. After bans in Australia and New Zealand, British Telecom has announced they will not just ban Huawei’s 5G equipment, but also its 3G and 4G equipment. Britain, like Aus/NZ, Canada and the US are part of the Five Eyes intelligence network, and national security officials have been leading the crusade against Huawei infrastructure. What’s interesting is not just the rapidity of the bans, but also that the bans haven’t (from what I have seen) migrated outside the Five Eyes community yet.

Pendo commits to hometown of Raleigh

Raleigh skyline. Photo by James Willamor used under Creative Commons via Flickr.

Pendo is a digital product management platform that has had quite a bit of success with customers and has raised more than $100 million in VC funding, most recently a Series D from Sapphire. The company announced that they have received a grant from home state North Carolina’s economic development department to grow in the Raleigh region. Pendo is committing $34.5 million to its headquarters (with the potential of creating 590 jobs), while the state will offer around $8.8 million in potential reimbursements over the next 12 years.

Given what I wrote yesterday about Wes McKinney leaving NYC and heading to Nashville and the work Chattanooga is doing to aid startups, it’s great to see other hotspots like Raleigh, NC invest to build out their ecosystems in a compelling way.

Todd Olson, CEO of Pendo, explained to me by email that, “Office rents in our downtown are a fraction of the cost of operating in other cities, and the cost of living is appealing to our employees. They can afford to buy a house here. In some markets around the country, that is becoming more difficult. It’s also just a nice place to live and work.”

Creative work is increasingly going to have to find a lower cost home.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

The LP Anti-Portfolio – Great short read. Lindel Eakman, former managing director at UTIMCO, the University of Texas/Texas A&M endowment, gives a list of funds that he passed on that he now regrets. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare coming from an LP, albeit a former one. It would be great to get more public discussion on what funds were missed and why by LP investors.

Hopefully more reading time tomorrow.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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