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July 16, 2018
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A list of ten things that billionaire owners of EV, clean energy and rocket companies should and should not tweet

in Delhi/India/Politics/TC by

So… apparently there’s been another kerfuffle on the Twitter about some asinine things that a certain wealthy, rocket-building, payment-revolutionizing, electric vehicle company-creating entrepreneur has written in tweets to millions of followers.

This billionaire is, by all accounts, incredibly difficult to work for, very visionary and … a bit thin-skinned for someone with such a habit of courting press.

I’m not saying that’s his fault. He’s been shredded by hundreds of people in thousands of messages on a platform that’s given him millions of (fake and) real followers and a megaphone that would be powerful enough to change the world (or at least the world’s coverage of him) with a single bloviating bit of textual hot air.

And boy, as a billionaire entrepreneur, does this fella blow the hot air.

Wait… I am saying some of this is his fault.

That said, he’s done some truly amazing things for the world. AND IS A BILLIONAIRE.

With that in mind, here’re a few humble suggestions for him to keep in mind as he approaches the touchpad, keyboard, or any other tweet-enabling appliance as he looks to foray further into the wild feathered world of the Twitter-birds.

Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

THINGS THAT ARE OKAY TO TWEET

  1. Tweeting about offers to help people in dire need of help. Listen, I know you got a lot of heat for this one, and it was ultimately an unnecessary gesture that some folks chalked up to a cynical attempt to change the subject, but I believe that your heart was in the right place. People love John Henry stories — especially now when technology threatens to overwhelm all of us. So this bit of ingenuity that you and your team concocted wound up as an actual embodiment of an old folktale? So what? Humans can win without machines. This is a good thing. Embrace it. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have offered to help. Or that people should dismiss that offer as ridiculous.
  2. Tweeting about phenomenal things that your companies have managed to achieve in the world. It’s a jaded world, so people dismiss a lot of things that they shouldn’t, but landing parts of a rocket successfully for re-use is a goddamn miracle of science. It’s wonderful. Literally an achievement that has the potential to advance humanity… and even if a better solution comes along, you’ve proven naysayers wrong and pushed the bounds of the possible. Go you.
  3. Tweeting about political and social issues you feel passionate about. You’re a — fairly — beloved billionaire (which is kind of a weird thing to write) with a platform that has millions of followers. If you think a certain way about a certain thing it’s your right to express it and your privilege to do so on a platform where people care what you have to say.
  4. Challenging the substance of arguments and criticisms that are leveled against you and your initiatives by people. t’s a marketplace of ideas and you’ve been able to buy a lot of privilege and respect because you have BILLIONS OF DOLLARS and millions of people in our country and world respect the bank account. But it’s still a marketplace of ideas where you are more than capable of competing without having to rely on knee-jerk responses from [real or imagined] followers or ad hominem attacks on the folks who disagree with you.
  5. Tweeting in support of punching nazis. Legit always cool. Maybe just do it once a day to see how people respond? It’s always okay to punch nazis.

THINGS THAT ARE NOT OKAY TO TWEET

  1. Ad hominem attacks against people who criticize, disagree or denigrate you. (You legit called someone who just helped save 12 boys in one of the most awesome examples of human endurance and resilience a pedophile… and then doubled down on it. That’s just fucked up. Maybe time to rethink how you’re using the Twitter.)
  2. Ad hominem attacks against reporters who write negative (and seemingly factually correct) articles about your companies. Going after journalists — especially women journalists — with a rabid following of tech fan boys who have no problem doxxing, verbally assaulting, or threatening people on Twitter seems a bit irresponsible. You know your power… and you’re a nerd… so you should know with great power comes great responsibility — and not just in a messianic, cynical I’m going to save humanity from itself Harry Seldon kind of way.
  3. Ad hominem attacks against company executives that you’re competing against. Okay… sometimes this is great. And you’re really funny, so that works for you. And to be honest, at least you’re not punching down. But maybe there’s enough toxicity in the world already that we can actually just start championing folks who’re trying to do radical things… technologically feasible, provable and disclosable radical things. Ain’t nobody want to cheer on Theranos.
  4. Lying or obfuscating when you’re caught out for things you’ve actually done. Own up to it and explain it.
  5. Rick rolls and the word “lit”. This should go without saying.

Fella, you’re an incredibly powerful person with a significant, and rabid, following on a platform that isn’t known for rewarding perspicacity and reason (maybe using your platform you can change that?).

Typically, these days, you’ve been uniting more people in anger than you have behind your good intentions. As a public figure with an aggressive following, maybe work on increasing the peace?

There’s already one bloviating, egomaniacal, too-powerful, sycophant-encouraging, id and idiocy-inducing jerkface on Twitter. Let them keep that particular throne and maybe keep you keep the toxicity to yourself?

News Source = techcrunch.com

Why BMW needs to own its customer experience from start to finish

in Automotive/BMW/Cars/Delhi/Dieter May/India/Politics/TC/User Experience by

For the last few years now, BMW has wrestled with the question of what it’ll mean to be a luxury car manufacturer in the age of electric cars, autonomous driving and rapidly changing — and increasing — customer expectations. What, after all, makes something the “ultimate driving machine” when the driver eventually stops driving?

For BMW, the answer is a renewed focus on technology and the in-car experience it enables, without forgetting its heritage in performance cars. To discuss the state of the company’s transformation, not just in terms of its cars but also its business model, I sat down with BMW’s outspoken VP of Digital Products and Services Dieter May shortly after the company unveiled the latest version of its in-car operating system.

“We build digital products and services that are meant to help us differentiate our core product, the car and generate revenue,” May said. “But these digital services also provide us with channels and touch points that allow us to now have a direct relationship with the customer on the sales side and talk to the customer directly.”

In the car industry, however, the sales channel has traditionally been the dealership. That’s where you buy the car and that’s where you get it serviced. It’s the dealer who knows (ideally) who you are and what you want. The manufacturer’s role in this model is to build the car, maybe build a bit of a central online presence with a configurator so customers can get some idea of the car’s price — and get out of the way.

That’s not the future that May envisions, though. And neither is it one where the big tech companies like Apple and Google own the driver and the user experience.

“As we’re building the digital products in the car, we are also building out the car as a channel and touchpoint at the same time,” May noted. “We’ll have our app, a personal assistant etc. and with that, we can create a user profile and provide that to our sales teams. Today, virtually every car manufacturer can’t talk directly to the customers because the customer belongs to the dealer, and because the different business units, like after sales, financial services, etc., aren’t unified and all try to talk to the customer separately.”

So for BMW, digital experiences in the car are one thing — and you can expect to hear a bit more about this in the coming weeks and months — but the company is looking beyond this and how it can use this transformation to also create new business opportunities that go beyond maybe selling an in-car Spotify subscription for a few dollars. But what gets May most excited about this is the prospect of being able to talk to the customer throughout the ownership lifecycle. “That’s the cool part, because it allows me to keep the product ‘car’ fresh throughout the lifecycle and manage it like a device,” he said.

The move that May is hinting at here means that BMW wants to not just focus on selling cars but to create a model where it can extract some revenue from users throughout the car’s life. As an example, May noted that BMW may sell you a Mini with a charging package and, in addition, it’ll sell you a flat-rate subscription to charge it. “There are so many opportunities here, but you have to play it smart, both before somebody buys the car and after the sale.

If BMW wants to own the customer, though, that means dealerships have to change. “The dealers will have to grow into a different role over time,” May acknowledged. “We expect and hope that just as we will share data with the dealer, the dealers will share their data with us. A small piece of a larger cake is still better than nothing.”

Customers will still come to the dealer for their service needs, so BMW isn’t cutting them out completely, but the company definitely wants to own a larger part of the relationship with the customer. And at the end of the day, it’s the dealer who represents the manufacturer, whether that’s taking somebody on a test drive or helping the customer take delivery of a car.

“What’s most important for us — and everybody is talking about autonomous driving and electric vehicles and so on — but if we don’t become a customer-centric company, then we are destined to fail. The number of digital elements in our customers’ lives and in the car continues to increase, and if we don’t understand that, we’ve got a problem.”

As for its current in-car systems, May told me that BMW now has more than three million registered users for its ConnectedDrive system, but what’s maybe more important is that the number of user interactions is increasing significantly faster than that. What’s interesting to hear is that the way BMW thinks about these users is pretty much in line with any consumer internet company. The team tracks monthly, weekly and daily active users, for example, and is working to increase those engagement numbers with every update.

One problem car manufacturers have long suffered from is that cars stick around far longer than smartphones, and that the in-car technology can quickly seem out of date. Because it is betting on a connected car that is always connected to the cloud, BMW (and, to be fair, many of its competitors) is now able to update the in-car software. That’s true for new head units, but not necessarily for older ones, and fragmentation remains an issue — though with a standardized model for both BMW and its Mini brand, that’ll likely be less of a problem for newer cars than for those that launched two or three years ago.

“In the car industry, a lot of people think that everything has to be backward-compatible reaching back 20 years, but my take is that we have to be more like smartphone vendors,” said May.

Taking a page from the software industry, the BMW team often launches new features that are akin to minimal viable products. That’s not necessarily something the luxury car buyer is used to, of course, but it does allow the company to test new features and expand on them as they gain traction.

The next concrete step for BMW in this journey is to feature an interactive personal assistant in the car that knows about the customer. May believes this will drive a lot of usage. Although the exact details remain to be seen, the BMW team hinted that we’ll learn more in the fall.

News Source = techcrunch.com

In Q2 2018, late-stage deals led the world’s venture capital market

in Column/Delhi/India/Politics/TC/Venture Capital by

Here is what you should take away from the state of the global venture capital market: late-stage deals dominated Q2.

Using projected data provided by Crunchbase, Crunchbase News reported that Q2 2018 marks new post-dot com highs for both VC deal and dollar volume around the world, the latter of which was propelled by a surge in late-stage deals (Series C and above).

The chart below plots growth in projected late-stage deal and dollar volume over time.

This remarkable growth in dollar volume — more than doubling since the same period in 2017 — has led to the late-stage deal market looming large over the venture landscape. For perspective, late-stage rounds accounted for about 42 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2017, but it made up 64 percent of dollar volume in Q2 2018.

To be clear, this isn’t a rising tide raising all ships. Worldwide, late-stage venture activity is intensifying at a more rapid clip than other venture funding stages, squeezing other stages toward the margins. We can see this happening in the chart below:

Two things are happening at once here: On one side, private equity deals with previously venture-backed companies — what we call “Tech Growth” — account for less of the action; on the other side of the spectrum, angels, seed investors and writers of Series A and Series B checks account for less of the total dollar volume over time.

As it happens, in Q2 seed and early-stage venture — despite reaching post-dot com highs in absolute terms — make up for a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last records we had readily available.

In the second quarter, seed and early-stage venture lost ground in relative terms, making up a smaller percent of total dollar volume than in any quarter since at least Q3 2013, the last for which records were available.

Private equity, on the other hand, is getting squeezed out because a certain class of venture capital firms are able to invest more capital into late-stage venture deals.

Venture capital shops — especially the well-established — are raising ever-larger funds at an increasing pace. Just as an example, three VC firms recently (Scale Venture PartnersIndex Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners) announced $4 billion in fresh powder across six new funds.

In part, this pivot to larger funds is a strategic countermeasure against SoftBank and its behemoth $100 billion Vision Fund. The fund routinely leads (sometimes as the sole investor) late-stage venture capital rounds sized in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In order to compete with SoftBank for the best deals, many VC firms are raising big new funds. Capital pools earmarked for late-stage deals are growing deeper. Sequoia Capital’s third Global Growth Fund is expected to top out at $8 billion, whereas its second (announced in June 2017) was a comparatively paltry $2 billion.

So is there an end in sight for all this late-stage largesse? For the time being, not really.

News Source = techcrunch.com

3D printed guns are now legal… What’s next?

in ar-15/austin/belgium/cartridge/China/Column/dark web/defense distributed/Delhi/doj/firearms/Germany/India/milan/Open Web/Politics/printing/Security/TC/United Kingdom/United States by

On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.

At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.

LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.

The legacy machine

Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.

Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.

The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)

LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.

Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.

The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.

All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.

The author with LMT Defense hardware.

Guns, drugs, and a million Karl Lewises

This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.

Except this isn’t what will happen.

Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.

The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.

In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.

Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.

Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.

Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.

In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.

This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.

Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm

First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.

The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.

Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.

As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Furniture startups skip the showroom and go straight to your door

in Burrow/Column/Delhi/feather/furniture/grokstyle/India/Interior Define/Politics/Startups/TC/Wayfair by

Startups making delivery and transport easier than ever are a hit with venture capitalists, so it’s not a surprise that young tech companies delivering home staples — living room sets, dining room tables, couches and more — are raising big dollars.

From 2010 through 2017, venture investors have outfitted U.S.-based furniture startups with a little over $1.1 billion in funding across 96 known rounds. But that funding has not been spread equally over time, as the following chart shows:

Total dollars funneled into U.S.-based furniture startups, according to Crunchbase, hit an all-time high of $432.7 million across 12 rounds in 2011. Wayfair, an e-commerce site dedicated to selling furniture, raised a significant $165 million Series A that year, accounting for more than a third of the total deal volume.

But while funding hasn’t surpassed 2011 levels, from that year through 2015, round counts steadily climbed. During this period, investments into seed and early-stage startups made up more than 70 percent of known deals.

Whether or not this cohort of seed and early-stage startups will act as fodder for late-stage investors is not yet clear. Before that happens, Stephen Kuhl thinks that there’s more work to be done.

Kuhl, the CEO of Burrow, a company that sells furniture over the internet, told Crunchbase News that “selling traditional furniture made in China or Mexico isn’t innovative, and as such we wouldn’t expect to see a lot of venture funding.” But that doesn’t mean that venture interest in the sector is doomed. Kuhl added that “a new company has to offer a unique product, experience and brand that is altogether [10 times] better than traditional offerings. Expect the money to follow the new brands that truly shake up the status quo.”

That may bear out. The funding data we examined tells one particular story: venture money has shown a preference for delivery and a consumer that doesn’t easily call the place they live in “home.”

Deliver, don’t move, furniture

For city dwellers, modular, utilitarian couches are taking hold. And it’s increasingly clear you don’t have to leave your couch to purchase one.

Let’s return to Burrow, which has raised a total of $19.2 million, according to Crunchbase. The startup has created a modular couch built for those who live in dense urban environments and may move often.

“Our customers are reflective of larger trends in the market. They’re more likely to be renters rather than homeowners,” Kuhl explained. “They’re likely to move multiple times over the course of a few years, and they crave thoughtful, high-quality goods.”

To account for this new type of customer, Burrow delivers each section of the couch in distinct packages. Burrow claims on its website that its direct to consumer business model and its ability to ship parts of couches, rather than one whole couch, removes “over 70 [percent] of standard shipping costs.” The couch also includes modern amenities such as a USB charger, and Burrow has also “launched an AR app that helps customers visualize a Burrow in their home,” according to Kuhl.

However, Burrow isn’t completely eschewing the showroom as part of its selling strategy. In a podcast interview with TotalRetail, Kuhl noted that the startup has “partner showrooms” in co-working spaces and other retail locations in more than 20 cities.

Of course, while modular design is helpful for city dwellers, there are those who enjoy a bit more of a personal twist. Interior Define, a Chicago-based startup, has raised $27.2 million to offer direct to consumer couches and dining room sets. And, according to Interior Define’s founder Rob Royer, its appeal is being driven by a new breed of consumers who are interested in brands that have “an authentic mission, deliver on a promised experience, and offer a real value proposition (not just a lower price).”

That said, both of these options still require that the furniture be owned — an unnecessary burden if you move often or just like fresh looks without the commitment. Through Feather, customers can subscribe to a whole living room, bedroom or dining room for as low as $35 a month. According to Crunchbase, the New York-based startup has raised $3.5 million from established venture firms such as Y Combinator and Kleiner Perkins.

There are also startups looking to simply help brands sell more furniture by using artificial intelligence and augmented reality. One such startup, Grokstyle, has raised $2.5 million for an app that identifies furniture by image as well as style and pricing preferences.

In general, streets, kitchens and even front doors are being claimed by venture-backed startups. What you sit on might as well be paid for, in part, by venture capitalists, too.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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