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February 23, 2019

Pinstagram? Instagram code reveals Public Collections feature

Instagram is threatening to attack Pinterest just as it files to go public the same way the Facebook-owned app did to Snapchat. Code buried in Instagram for Android shows the company has prototyped an option to create public “Collections” to which multiple users can contribute. Instagram launched private Collections two years ago to let you Save and organize your favorite feed posts. But by allowing users to make Collections public, Instagram would become a direct competitor to Pinterest.

Instagram public Collections could spark a new medium of content curation. People could use the feature to bundle together their favorite memes, travel destinations, fashion items, or art. That could cut down on unconsented content stealing that’s caused backlash against meme “curators” like F*ckJerry by giving an alternative to screenshotting and reposting other people’s stuff. Instead of just representing yourself with your own content, you could express your identity through the things you love — even if you didn’t photograph them yourself. And if that sounds familiar, you’ll understand why this could be problematic for Pinterest’s upcoming $12 billion IPO.

The “Make Collection Public” option was discovered by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering specialist Jane Machun Wong. It’s not available to the public, but from the Instagram for Android code, she was able to generate a screenshot of the prototype. It shows the ability to toggle on public visibility for a Collection, and tag contributors who can also add to the Collection. Previously, Collections was always a private, solo feature for organizing your bookmarks gathered through the Instagaram Save feature Instagram launched in late 2016.

Instagram told TechCrunch “we’re not testing this” which is its standard response to press inquiries about products that aren’t available to any public users, but that are in internal development. It could be a while until Instagram does start experimenting publicly with the feature and longer before a launch, and the company could always scrap the option. But it’s a sensible way to give users more to do and share on Instagram, and the prototype gives insight into the app’s strategy. Facebook launched its own Pinterest -style shareable Sets in 2017 and launched sharable Collections in December.

Currently there’s nothing in the Instagram code about users being able to follow each other’s Collections, but that would seem like a logical and powerful next step. Instagrammers can already follow hashtags to see new posts with them routed to their feed. Offering a similar way to follow Collections could turn people into star curators rather than star creators without the need to rip off anyone’s content. Speaking of infuencers, Wong also spotted Instagram prototyping IGTV picture-in-picture so you could keep watching a long-form video after closing the app and navigating the rest of your phone.

Instagram lets users Save posts which can then be organized into Collections

Public Collections could fuel Instagram’s commerce strategy that Mark Zuckerberg recently said would be a big part of the roadmap. Instagram already has a personalized Shopping feed in Explore, and The Verge’s Casey Newton reported last year that Instagram was working on a dedicated shopping app. It’s easy to imagine fashionistas, magazines, and brands sharing Collections of their favorite buyable items.

It’s worth remembering that Instagram launched its copycat of Snapchat Stories just six months before Snap went public. As we predicted, that reduced Snapchat’s growth rate by 88 percent. Two years later, Snapchat isn’t growing at all, and its share price is at just a third of its peak. With over 1 billion monthly and 500 million daily users, Instagram is four times the size of Pinterest. Instagram loyalists might find it’s easier to use the ‘good enough’ public Collections feature where they already have a social graph than try to build a following from scratch on Pinterest.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Verified Expert Lawyer: José Ancer

José Ancer is first of all a startup lawyer, with a client portfolio of startups of various stages based around Texas and other similar ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley. He’s also the CTO of Egan Nelson LLP, a boutique firm, where he actively is also building automation software to help the firm compete against larger firms. He also writes on his blog “Silicon Hills Lawyer” publicly and pointedly about his profession — and often takes shots at certain practices common among startup law firms, including Silicon Valley firms. You can get a sense of what’s in the full interview via these excerpts.


On not being “owned” by VCs and repeat players

“José has a depth of expertise in startup/company formation/funding issues and is very founder-friendly. He was able to guide us through our seed stage while staying efficient and keeping the billing reasonable.” Mary Haskett, Austin, Texas, CEO, Blink Identity

“I believe, and our clients would confirm, that independence from the VC/repeat player community, combined with deep knowledge of startup financing and high-stakes corporate governance (board issues), allows us to say things, do things, and even write things (on my blog) that the startup community absolutely needs to see and hear, but that “captive” lawyers have been unwilling to offer because of the very real risk of retaliation from influential money players who refer them business. I’ve become a bit of a bête noire of lawyers who’ve built their practices by flouting conflicts of interest and working as company counsel despite being “owned” by VCs across the table.”

On early-stage and being “right-sized”

“I wrote a blog post called ‘The Problem With Chasing Whales.’ It talks about this problem of entrepreneurs hiring law firms that are overkill for what they’re building. We’ve had a lot of clients switch to us from the marquee law firm names, and while the largest complaint is cost — our rates are hundreds of dollars an hour lower because we keep our overhead very lean, while still having top-tier lawyers and lean infrastructure for scalability — another common complaint is responsiveness. You’ve got a million dollar convertible note deal that you need to get done, and to you and your employees, that deal is the world, but the BigLaw lawyer you’re working with has IPOs and unicorn deals pushing your deal to the back of the line. It’s a real problem. Our target profile client exits under $300M in a private deal; which is a type of startup that we think has been very underserved by the traditional hyper-growth oriented law firms in the market.”

On legal technology and automation

“I spend a lot of time talking to legal tech entrepreneurs, because efficiency via legal tech has always been a core value proposition of our firm. As I’ve reviewed and contemplated various tools, one thing I’ve always come back to is this unavoidable tension between flexibility and automation. Software, even cutting edge machine learning, can only handle a minimal level of variation before it breaks down and becomes more hassle (and cost) than it’s worth… Some firms have opted to lean very heavily on the fast automation and standardization side, and accept the rigidity that it inevitably introduces into their workflows… We’ve consciously gone a different direction… Our clients tend to think that constraining the advice startups get by boxing it into inflexible software (and pricing) is not only a penny-wise, pound-foolish confusion of priorities; it’s also exactly the kind of approach that benefits investors at the expense of one-shot common stockholders.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like their pricing and fee structures.

This article is part of our ongoing series covering the early-stage startup lawyers who founders love to work with, based on this survey we have open and our own research. If you’re a founder trying to navigate the early-stage legal landmines, be sure to check out our ongoing series lawyer interviews, plus in-depth articles like this checklist of what you need to get done on the corporate side in your first years as a company.


The Interview

Eric Eldon: You’re pretty outspoken about the state of startup law these days. Break it down for me: what is Egan Nelson doing differently from the other law firms out there?

José Ancer: If you look at the startup legal market, everyone knows the marquee, high priced firms. They represent Facebook, Uber, Palantir, Apple, etc. But when you pay those firms $700 an hour, as an example, 25% ballpark is going to compensation for the lawyers doing the main work. 75% is paying for other stuff. So then the question obviously becomes, how much of that other stuff is really necessary?

Our view is that there’s this segment of the startup market, and I call them non-unicorns, that is far more serious and scaled than what a tiny firm or solo lawyer can handle, but for whom BigLaw is completely overkill. We see these companies a lot more in places like Austin, Denver, Seattle, New York, etc., and it’s why our focus is on those markets. 

If you look at our lawyers’ credentials, you’ll see a whole lot of Stanford, Yale, Harvard, etc., as well as marquee firm alumni. What you won’t find at our firm is ludicrously expensive office space, cute events that have nothing to do with legal counsel, or armies of staff that don’t deliver real value to the end-service for clients.

Our legal talent is paid very well, but our overhead infrastructure is designed for companies that sell as a private company for under $300 million, or perhaps operate indefinitely as profitable companies. These are “startups” that might be derisively labeled as “doubles” or “singles” in parts of Silicon Valley, but we think have been substantially underserved by the market.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Opera Touch brings website cookie blocking to iOS

Last fall, Opera introduced Opera Touch for iOS – a solid alternative to Safari on iPhone, optimized for one-handed use. Today, the company is rolling out a notable new feature to this app: cookie blocking. Yes, it can now block those annoying dialogs that ask you to accept the website’s cookies. These are particularly problematic on mobile, where they often entirely interrupt your ability to view the content, as opposed to on many desktop websites where you can (kind of) ignore the pop-up banner that appears at the bottom or the top of the page.

Cookie dialogs have become prevalent across the web as a result of Europe’s GDPR, but many people find them overly intrusive. Today, it takes an extra click to dismiss these prompts, which slows down web browsing – especially for those times you’re on the hunt for a particular piece of information and are visiting several websites in rapid succession.

The cookie blocking feature was first launched in November on Opera’s flagship app for Android, but hadn’t yet made its way to iOS – through any browser app, that is, not just one from Opera. The company says it uses a mix of CSS and JavaScript heuristics in order to block the prompts.

At the time of the launch, Opera noted it had tested the feature with some 15,000 sites.

It’s important to note that the default setting for the cookie blocker on Opera Touch will allow the websites to set cookies.

Here’s how it works. When you enable the feature, it will hide the dialog boxes from appearing, allowing you to read a website without having to first close the prompt. However, when you turn on the Cookie Blocker option, another setting is also switched on: one that says “automatically accept cookie dialogs.”

That means, in practice, when you’re enabling the Cookie Blocker, you’re also enabling cookie acceptance if you don’t take further action.

But Opera says you can disable this checkbox, if you don’t want your browser to give websites your acceptance.

In addition to the new cookie blocking, the browser has a number of other options that make it an interesting alternative to Safari on iOS or Google Chrome.

For example, if offers built-in ad blocking, cryptocurrency mining protection (which prevents malicious sites from using your device’s resources to mine for cryptocurrencies), a way to send web content to your PC through Opera’s “Flow” technology, and – most importantly – a design focused on using the app with just one hand.

Since the app’s launch in April, the company has rolled out 23 new features in total. This include a new dark theme, as well as the addition of a private mode, plus search engine choice which offers 11 options, including Qwant and DuckDuckGo, and other features.

The app is a free download on iOS.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Daily Crunch: Pinterest files to go public

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Pinterest files confidentially to go public

The business has confidentially submitted paperwork to the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering slated for later this year, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Earlier reports indicated the company was planning to debut on the stock market in April. In late January, Pinterest took its first official step toward a 2019 IPO, hiring Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase as lead underwriters for its offering.

2. Google ends forced arbitration for employees

This is a direct response to a group of outspoken Google employees protesting the company’s arbitration practices. Forced arbitration ensures that workplace disputes are settled behind closed doors and without any right to an appeal, effectively preventing employees from suing companies.

3. Facebook will shut down its spyware VPN app Onavo

Facebook will end its unpaid market research programs and proactively take its Onavo VPN app off the Google Play store in the wake of backlash following TechCrunch’s investigation about Onavo code being used in a Facebook Research app that sucked up data about teens.

In this photo taken on February 6, 2019, Indian delivery men working with the food delivery apps Uber Eats and Swiggy wait to pick up an order outside a restaurant in Mumbai.

4. Uber is reportedly close to making a tactical exit from India’s food delivery industry

India’s Economic Times is reporting that Uber is in the final stages of a deal that would see Swiggy eat up Uber Eats in India in exchange for giving the U.S. ride-hailing firm a 10 percent share of its business.

5. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ features hit more devices, including Samsung Galaxy S10

Initially available exclusively to Pixel and Android One device owners, Digital Wellbeing’s feature set is now rolling out to Nokia 6 and Nokia 8 devices with Android Pie, as well as on the new Samsung Galaxy S10.

6. DoorDash raises $400M round, now valued at $7.1B

Recent data from Second Measure shows that DoorDash has overtaken Uber Eats in U.S. market share — for online food delivery, it now comes in second to Grubhub.

7. Venmo launches a ‘limited edition’ rainbow debit card for its payment app users

The new rainbow card will be offered until supplies last, Venmo says. And existing card holders can request this card as a replacement for their current card, if they choose.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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