Silicon Valley loves to disrupt industries by inventing things that already exist. Remember when Lyft invented buses? Good times. And just recently, the exec in charge of Apple retail announced that instead of “stores” their… stores… are now referred to as “town squares.”
Well, two tech bros are here with a new disruption to… the bodega industry. (I know, hold on, we’ll come back to this.) It’s so innovative, so fresh, so new, they named it…
They literally named it after the thing they’re aiming to “make obsolete.”
Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card.
It’s not even a bodega. It’s a vending machine.
These jabronis even have the audacity to make their logo a cat, a tribute to the omnipresent bodega cats they’re seeking to make homeless.
And of course because 90 percent of Twitter users are journalists and 90 percent of journalists live in New York City (these are not real statistics, don’t @ me), Twitter was not having Bodega™. Read more…
The rise of contemporary startup culture has already reshaped cities like San Francisco and Seattle. But as more and more tech enclaves sprout around the world, we need to pay more attention to the ways tech workers change communities and landscapes in developing countries too. Jessa Crispin does just that in her Outline piece on Roam Co-Living, a startup that caters to other so-called digital nomads who wish to spend long stretches of time (and non-trivial amounts of money) in places like Bali and Costa Rica. She asks important questions about the possibility of experiencing authenticity in perfectly manicured expat bubbles — and about the fundamental power imbalance between affluent Western visitors and local communities.
More than 230 million people live in a different country from the one in which they were born, far more than at any other time in history. We come up with different words for the same experience, based on whether these people are undesirable (brown, poor, Muslim) or desirable (white, upper-middle class, European). The undesirables are migrants or refugees, the desirables are expats or cosmopolitans.
The difference is in the level of choice, whether the person is fleeing war or abject poverty, or simply boredom and Brooklyn. Western migrants are often portrayed as being desirable because they come with money, but they come with other baggage, too. If you place a large population of transient workers with a lot of disposable income in an urban area, that area will inevitably change. Businesses with English-speaking workers that cater to the affluent class, like boutiques and coffee shops and juice bars, will flourish while businesses that cater to long-term residents, like hardware stores and shoe repair shops, will be priced out and disappear as property values rise.
I asked [Roam founder and CEO Bruno] Haid if he feels responsible at all to the neighborhoods he builds his properties in. He said he wants neighborhoods to retain their authentic nature and not become homogenized. “In a place like London,” he said, “we try to have partnerships with businesses that have been around for 25, 30 years and include them in our city guides. We have Paul the pie man, whose bakery has been around for a long time, he comes in once a month and he teaches pie making classes. So we try to integrate this. We try to give people a unique local experience.”
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every struggling startup struggles in its own way. Except they all seem to feature extravagant soirées, hazy business plans, and round after round of beer pong on a SoMa roof deck. At Fast Company, Ainsley Harris charts the decline and fall of Tilt, a social-payments platform billed as the “Facebook of Money.” Joining other examples in the emerging genre of schadenfreude-laced startup postmortems, it offers an almost-wistful glimpse at Silicon Valley culture at the precise moment when easy funding became a thing of the past.
Over time, Beshara’s leadership alienated some of Tilt’s more experienced hires, who chose to move on rather than challenge their rookie boss. Meanwhile, Tilt continued to attract young talent barely old enough to join the company’s happy hours.
“There was too much focus on culture and creating this nirvana of a company. This is not a fraternity, this is a business,” says a former manager. Beshara seemed determined to keep the party going until the bitter end. Last September, for example, with a cash crunch imminent, he pressed forward with Tilt’s final Lake Tahoe retreat. Only a small group of employees had any idea that a sale was already in the works.
Looking back now, Beshara acknowledges the imbalance. “I feel very strongly that you want to end up on the side of human connection, human relationships,” he says. “But I think you can index too far on that and really miss the importance of really high standards.”
At The Verge, Ben Popper takes a look at Koko, a startup with an app that helps people connect and provide emotional support to peers and, in the process, allows them to recognize and “rethink” their own problems:
The Koko app starts users off with a short tutorial on “rethinking.” The app explains that rethinking isn’t about solving problems, but offering a more optimistic take. It uses memes and cartoons to illustrate the idea: if you choose the right reframe, a cute puppy offers his paw for a high-five. The app walks new users through posts and potential reframes, indicating which rethinks are good and which aren’t. The tutorial can be completed in as little as five minutes.
Once users finish the tutorial, they can scroll through live posts on the site. Despite the minimal training, the issues they are confronted with can be quite serious: an individual who is afraid to tell her family that she’s taking anti-depressants because they might think she’s crazy; a user stressed from school who believes “no one actually likes the real me, and if they see it, they will hate me”; a user with an abusive boyfriend who has come to feel “I am a failure and worth being yelled at.” I walked a friend through the tutorial recently, and they were shocked by how quickly Koko throws you into the deep end of human despair.
Koko lets you write anything you want for a rethink, but also offers simple prompts: “This could turn out better than you think because…,” “A more balanced take on this could be…,” etc. The company screens both the posts and rethinks before they become public, attempting to direct certain users to critical care and weed trolls out of the system. Originally, this was accomplished with human moderators, but increasingly, the company is turning to AI.
Accepting and offering rethinks is meant to help users get away from bad mental habits, cycles of negative thought that can perpetuate their anxiety and depression. Over the next few months, Zelig found herself offering rethinks of other Koko users almost every day. “Having it in your pocket is really good. All of sudden it would hit me what I needed say in the reframe, so I would pull my car over, or stand in the produce aisle.”
In the process of giving advice Zelig felt, almost immediately, a sense of relief and control. She began to recognize her own dark moods as variations on the problems she was helping others with. Zelig says the peculiar power of Koko is that by helping others, users are able to help themselves.
Andy Samberg and Colonel Sanders aren’t the only people to put memorable things in boxes. Corby Kummer wrote about his trials and issues with the booming meal kit delivery industry in The New Republic last October, weighing the benefits of convenience and culinary experimentation with the reality of waste:
I won’t be marketing my services as an investment adviser, at least not soon. Friends and relatives are ordering these boxes—functional adults who know how to cook and have at least a passing familiarity with grocery stores and farmers’ markets. More startlingly, one friend is putting money into “meal-kit” companies, as he informed me is the term of art. It seemed clear I couldn’t keep dismissing Blue Apron, with its three million meals a month and almost $200 million in venture capital raised so far. Or its rival Plated, co-founded by two fresh-out-of-Harvard-Business-School entrepreneurs, Nick Taranto and Josh Hix, whose office I recently visited. On one wall was a huge drawing of the Plated world of the future, with employees dispensing Plated boxes as if from a CSA in a mini-grocery store run, of course, by Plated; vertical farms along the brick walls of a reclaimed factory neighborhood; cyclists bearing Plated boxes; and, my favorite touch, hovering drones dangling multiple boxes emblazoned with the bright red Plated logo. Both services deliver to all the Lower 48—or as Matt Salzberg, the founding CEO of Blue Apron, put it, “We reach 99.7 percent of the population.”
One challenge for Andreessen is whether venture itself has a skills problem. If software is truly eating the world, wouldn’t venture capital be on the menu? The AngelList platform now allows investors to fund startups online. Its co-founder Naval Ravikant said that “future companies will require more two-hundred-thousand-dollar checks and way fewer guys on Sand Hill Road.” Jeff Fagnan, of Atlas Venture, which is the largest investor in AngelList, said, “Software is already squeezing out other intermediaries—travel agents, financial advisers—and, at the end of the day, V.C.s are intermediaries. We’re all just selling cash.”
Andreessen sometimes wonders if Ravikant is onto something. He’s asked Horowitz, “What if we’re the most evolved dinosaur, and Naval is a bird?” Already, more than half the tech companies that reached a billion-dollar valuation in the past decade were based outside Silicon Valley. And as Andreessen himself wrote in 2007, before he became a V.C., “Odds are, nothing your V.C. does, no matter how helpful or well-intentioned, is going to tip the balance between success and failure.”
My boss when I worked in London—someone who’d published Booker Prize winners, remember—used to say that two-thirds of publishing is about failure. I agree with that: it’s the nature of the business. And yet publishing is an industry that keeps attracting to it, in various ways, people who want it to be two-thirds about success.
There are dozens of obstacles to any given book succeeding. If a book succeeds it always does so against the odds. The odds in one generation might relate to the fact that people would rather be watching television than reading your book. The odds in the next generation might be that they’d rather be on their computer than reading your book. Once it was that people would rather be riding a bicycle than reading your book. It doesn’t do any good to be talking, as an author or publisher, about the obstacles. There are better uses of energy, I think. Yes, we can all feel helpless and wary in this industry sometimes, but it’s better, as a publisher, to look at the ways in which e-books and Twitter and so on can help us reach new readers, rather than treating social media as an enemy to literature. At the event for emerging writers at A Public Space last night, we had a full house. How? By A Public Space and Graywolf posting about it on Facebook and Twitter. Not a single piece of paper was printed, but people came. And these were informed people—they knew who we were and what we publish. They were the appropriate audience. No one turned up to try and sell me something that does not fit our list. Through Twitter we reached exactly the right people—tuned into the right channel—within a few minutes.
Uber’s aggressive tactics reflect the fact that ridesharing is largely a zero-sum game: a driver picking up an Uber customer can’t simultaneously pick up a Lyft customer. (Drivers are allowed to drive for both services, though the companies discourage the practice.) Having more active drivers on the road creates a virtuous circle that improves geographical coverage, increases demand, and allows services to lower prices by taking a smaller cut from a growing number of rides. Uber and Lyft are competing to become the first app you think of when you need a taxi, and the service with the most drivers likely stands the best chance of winning.
That helps to explain why competition between the two has become so vicious, with Uber and Lyft both offering hefty bonuses and other perks to drivers who switch services. For a time, Uber lost money on every ride to help spur demand. And Lyft has itself aggressively recruited Uber drivers, offering cash bonuses for joining, and hosting free taco lunches at its driver center. The Spy-vs.-Spy nature of their competition was revealed again earlier this month, when Uber caught wind of Lyft’s multi-passenger ridesharing offering and preemptively announced a nearly identical offering the night before Lyft made its announcement.
–Casey Newton, in The Verge, exposes internal Uber documents showing how it planned to sabotage its ridesharing app competitor Lyft and steal its drivers.
“If we had waited six months we would have made much more money. If we had waited a year we would have made 10 times more money,” he says. He regrets it now. But at the time, after the dotcom crash, the Nasdaq plummet, and September 11, deals just weren’t happening. All his advisers and investors told him to go for it. It was hard to know what to do.
In the wake of WhatsApp (a $19 billion sale to Facebook) and Beats ($3 billion to Apple) and even Instagram (a lousy $1 billion, Facebook again), $22 million now seems like the kind of money you dig out of your wallet to give a stranger at the bus stop. But for the team at Flickr, it was life-changing. Slack, on the other hand, is looking at something more like first class airfare.
Such temptations aren’t easy to resist. “We could sell it right now for a billion dollars,” Stewart says, and then shakes his head like he’s trying to wake up from a weird dream. “Which sounds fucking mental. But the thing is, those options aren’t going to go away.”
He admits that if the right offer comes along, the kind of offer that only three or four companies in the world could come up with, he would have to jump. But what is that? Five billion? Seven? Ten? It’s hard to know, because in Silicon Valley today, money has lost all meaning and value.
It’s not just the workers who get a lousy deal. Over the years, Bob Baber, the Quiznos franchisee, became increasingly frustrated by the terms of his contract. One of the issues that galled him the most was that Quiznos was allowed to (and did) place additional sub shops in his franchise area, creating what he felt was direct competition that cut into his profits. Baber formed the Quiznos Subs Franchise Association, a sort of franchisees’ union, through which he hoped to leverage better terms. A month later, the Denver-based company terminated Baber’s franchise, claiming his restaurants were not being maintained properly, and other contractual defaults. When a franchise agreement is terminated, all investment by the franchisee—including acquisition cost, equipment, and fees—is effectively flushed away. Baber and Quiznos became enmeshed in a protracted legal struggle, with Baber refinancing his house and spending nearly $100,000. (A public relations spokeswoman representing Quiznos told us it is the company’s position to not comment on any litigation past or present.)
Despite such stories, people still buy into the franchise dream.