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D2C companies deliver customer delight and simplicity

00:53 | 12 November

Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the cofounder of PipeCandy, which provides algorithm-generated insights and predictions about ecommerce and D2C companies. His company helps investors, banks, tech firms and governments understand the global ecommerce landscape. @Ashwinizer

As the holiday season approaches, I can feel the tension in the air: how do I make my gifts stand out?

Thankfully, there are so many fun direct to consumer (D2C) categories — from bath salts to plants, to even organic fertilizer.

A New York City-based VC firm once asked us, “there are so many products that are getting launched in the direct to consumer route. It’s good that you track them. But can you tell us which segment is likely to go direct to consumer?” In other words, they were asking us to be psychics.

We aren’t, but I never let that question go.

There are many reasons why a brand can go D2C. You could unbundle every category on Amazon and there could be a case made for going direct to consumer. Several brands that do just that, but Amazon is not the obvious place to look for all answers.

Let’s take the example of plants and fertilizer. I want to gift a plant this holiday season, but I have two problems: I don’t know which plant to pick for my friend because I don’t know his preferences, and even if I find the right plant, I don’t know whether he’ll be able to keep it alive.

Generally, when people consider purchasing a plant, it’s not because they woke up after having a startling dream about a fern or a ficus that won its heart — it’s more likely that they looked at an empty balcony while sipping their morning coffee and thought it needed a touch of green. People aren’t buying plants; they’re buying better visuals, and a potted palm tree is a vehicle to their preferred emotional state.

But what if he’s unable to take care of the plants? Should I just buy some really good candles instead? Rooted, an online plant store, sorts its offerings using criteria like the amount of light required and how frequently a plant needs to be watered. As a result, I found Tim, a snake plant that’s “virtually indestructible and adaptable to almost any conditions.”

Some products are complex. No two plants are the same, and no two plant buyers are identical, either. It’s complicated. You can walk into a nursery and get the plant you are drawn towards and read the instructions wrapped inside, but the onus is still on you to help it thrive.

Companies like Rooted and Bloomscape know that you are buying an emotional state, so they help you avoid post-purchase dissonance. Instead, they offer a customer-focused product experience that starts with choosing the right plant and includes an onboarding kit that educates users, all contained within a continuous positive feedback loop delivered through carefully designed, friendly, educational content.

By going direct to consumer, brands can personalize the buying experience, optimize customer enjoyment and use, educate them at the right cadence, and ultimately, help them successfully harvest the emotions they were seeking.

This approach works for any category that is perceived to be complex. Whether it’s coffee, wine, food supplements or plants, these products are complex experiences that need to be tailored to customers, and the education process could be overwhelming. Brands that get it right can achieve the right experience by going direct to consumer.

People are generally resistant to change, but they love brands that can help them find a better version of themselves. Fear of the unknown and making the wrong decision ends in post-purchase dissonance; bad brands introduces dissonance, while a good brand attenuates this fear. The good or the bad is determined by the onboarding experience, intuitive design, content, online support, customer reviews and after-sales experience.

Like batteries that store power, brands store emotional states, positive and negative; a consumer’s interaction with Comcast taps into a different range of emotions than a visit to an Apple Store.

Creating comfortable footwear, for example, requires complex engineering; with unique types for walking, cycling and running, how do you figure which one is right for you? Nike Fit, an app released this year, uses AI to help customers find the optimal fit for their foot.

“Three out of every five people are likely to wear the wrong size shoe,” the company said in a statement. “Length and width don’t provide nearly enough data to get a shoe to fit comfortably. Sizing as we know it is a gross simplification of a complex problem.” The AI even tells you if your right foot is larger than your left and recommends the best sneaker; emotions unlocked! It’s no wonder Nike’s doubling down on its D2C channels.

Ultimately, a brand that performs well is a brand that has recognized and solved a customer’s problem; ecommerce and D2C are mediums that to do precisely that. A good brand offers good experience design that brings simplicity to a complex product, magically making it seem familiar.

 


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Relocating Indonesian capital will impact nation’s startup ecosystem

02:13 | 9 November

Hugh Harsono Contributor
Hugh Harsono is a former financial analyst currently serving as a U.S. Army officer.

Recently reelected, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a desire to move the nation’s capital from Jakarta to the East Kalimantan region, citing environmental concerns, the most exigent of these being the fact that Jakarta is literally sinking due to the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater. Widodo said he wished to separate Indonesia’s government from its business and economic hub in Jakarta.

However, what would a move from Jakarta do to Indonesia’s burgeoning startup economy?

Shifting administrative governmental hubs

According to Widodo, studies have determined that the best site for the proposed new capital is between North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kertanegara, both located in East Kalimantan. The basis of this selection is due to studies highlighting the region’s relative protection from natural disasters, especially when compared to other regions. This would definitely be a benefit for the governmental heart of Indonesia, ensuring continuous administrative functions in a disaster-prone region. Other governments have separated administrative centers from their economic hubs with varying degrees of success, with some examples being Brazil’s creation of Brasília, as well as Korea’s projected move from Seoul to Sejong.

What is most interesting to note from prior examples is that these newer branched-out cities are non-surprisingly, heavily government-centric. In Brasília, roles tied to the government make up nearly 40% of all jobs, while in Sejong, a lack of facilities like public transit and commercial mall space cause many to commute into Sejong for government work, instead of permanently settling in the area. Given the semi-undeveloped nature of East Kalimantan, these anecdotes are quite troubling if the government is actually moving to North Penajam Paser or Kutai Kertanegara.

These facts raise the question of economic impacts of such governmental moves. In fact, one may even opine that while these moves do allow for governmental growth, ultimately, they may hurt the country economically due to a divestment between both government and economic hubs. In this specific instance, it is most important to analyze the impact of such a move on Indonesia’s startup economy, as the nation is one the world’s leaders in startup growth.

Indonesia’s startup economy

Indonesia has emerged as a startup hub within Southeast Asia in recent years, with its population of over 260 million marking it as the world’s fourth-most populous country. Additionally, Indonesia’s mobile-first population has enabled the full embrace of the internet era, with 95% of all internet users in Indonesia connected to the web via a mobile device.

Similarly, startup growth has boomed in the island archipelago, with several Indonesian-based unicorns disrupting local, regional, and global economies. Softbank-backed ecommerce giant Tokopedia is currently in talks for a pre-IPO funding round, while emerging super-app Gojek controls significant portions of the ride-sharing industry in Asia, simultaneously expanding into separate industries to include digital payments, food delivery, and even video-streaming. Additionally, online travel portal Traveloka (in which Expedia has a minority stake) has recently entered the financial services space, furthering its impact within Asia. These specific examples of high-growth startups demonstrate a population hungry for innovation, further driving the developing startup economy.

 


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I ran digital ads for a presidential campaign, and Twitter is right to ban them

22:16 | 8 November

Aaron Bartnick Contributor
Aaron Bartnick (@AaronBartnick) served as Digital Director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign. He is currently completing graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

As the digital director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s 2020 presidential campaign, I was responsible for everything the campaign did on the internet: the emails you claim to hate, the videos we hoped would go viral, the online infrastructure that supported organizers in the field, and more. But our biggest investment of both time and money, by far, was in digital advertising.

For our campaign and many others, digital ads were the single biggest expense outside of payroll. Yet these ads are terrible for campaigns, toxic for democracy and are even bad for the companies who profit off them. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took a bold first step in banning political ads — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai should follow suit.

Digital ads are one of the most important channels for acquiring new supporters and serving them that all-important question: “Will you chip in $10, $5, or whatever you can to support our campaign? Even $1 helps!” When the Democratic National Committee announced in February that presidential candidates would need a minimum of 65,000 individual donors to qualify for the first two debates, acquiring these small dollar donors became a do-or-die priority for campaigns.

The trouble is, when 25 campaigns are competing in a Democratic donor market that had just five competitors in 2016, and when each campaign is desperate to acquire new donors, prices go up. Way up.

We — and I suspect many others — routinely ran what were supposed to be revenue-generating ads at a loss, spending $10, $20, or even $30 in order to acquire one new donor and their contribution of as little as $1. This is a terrible deal for campaigns: they hemorrhage cash in order to lose money acquiring more, costing weeks or months of valuable runway, all while Facebook pockets the difference. At scale, the consequence is massive: the remaining 18 Democratic candidates have already spent over $53 million on Facebook and Google this cycle, most of it these kinds of ads.

This is $53 million — plus millions more from prolific former candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Jay Inslee — which would have otherwise been invested in infrastructure to turn out voters and help Democrats in November no matter who is the nominee. Instead, it went straight into Facebook and Google’s coffers.

These ads are toxic to our democracy.

Due to short online attention spans, the character limits that enforce them and the engagement algorithms that act as gatekeepers to the digital world, campaigns must distill complex issues down to a two sentence pseudo-essence that would leave even debate moderators unsatisfied. And if you want to have a prayer of anyone clicking on your ad, it had better be as inflammatory as possible — people click when they’re angry.

The easiest way to do this is to simply make things up, something most campaigns would never consider, but which Zuckerberg made clear in congressional testimony this week his platform would happily enable. Companies like Facebook and Google force us to present voters with a world that is black and white, in which all nuance is distraction, and in which civic engagement is something that can be done from your phone for just $1 (Unless you’d like to make this a monthly recurring donation? Your support has never been more crucial!). This does not an informed, healthy democracy make.

Political ads are not even good for the companies that serve them. On a quarterly earnings call the same day as Dorsey’s announcement, Zuckerberg estimated that political ads run by candidates would make up just 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. Assuming similar performance to the previous 12 months, in which Facebook earned $66 billion, this would be about $330 million in political ad revenue.

In exchange, Facebook has earned itself years of bad PR, increased regulatory risk as congressional leaders are beginning to see it as a national security problem, and even existential risk as leading presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up the company if elected. All over revenues that hardly even justify the opportunity cost of Zuckerberg’s hours of preparation for congressional hearings.

So who benefits from these kinds of ads? Those who want to create a chaotic information environment in the United States in which facts are subjective, reality is ephemeral and the only information you can trust comes from the people manipulating social media to feed it to you. It is therefore no surprise that one of the first organizations to condemn Dorsey’s decision was the Russian state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today.

Presented with a choice between minuscule revenues and existential risk, between patching a bug in American democracy and abetting Russian propaganda, Dorsey made a wise choice for both his bottom line and his country. Zuckerberg and Pichai would do well to follow his lead.

 


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Banning digital political ads gives extremists a distinct advantage

22:16 | 8 November

Jessica Alter Contributor
Jessica Alter is co-founder and chairman of Tech for Campaigns, an organization building the lasting tech and digital arm for Democrats and has helped over 200 campaigns on this front since 2017.

Jack Dorsey’s announcement that Twitter will no longer run political ads because “political messages reach should be earned, not bought” has been welcomed as a thoughtful and statesmanlike contrast to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s greedy acceptance of “political ads that lie.” While the 240-character policy sounds compelling, it’s both flawed in principle and, I fear, counterproductive in practice. 

First: like it or hate it, the U.S. political system is drowning in money. In 2018, a non-presidential year, it is estimated that over $9B was spent on the U.S. elections. And unless laws change, more will continue to flow. Banning digital ads will not reduce the amount of money in politics, and will simply shift it to less transparent channels. In an ideal world, it would be great if all “political messages were earned and not bought,”  but that is not how our system works. Candidates, Super PACs, C4s and others already allow the majority of their budgets to be swallowed up by other, less visible, accountable and cost-effective, channels — including television, mail, telephone, and radio.

More likely, at least some of the money will end up with even less transparent organizations that aren’t deemed “political,” but very much are. 

Second, banning digital political ads will not only hurt the very candidates people should want to help, it will also damage our democratic process. Analog mediums are significantly more expensive and inefficient than digital ones, so candidates who have a lot of money and/or have spent time cultivating their followings will continue to dominate. In other words, incumbent candidates, rich people and reality TV stars enjoy an outsized advantage when digital advertising is denied. 

A recent Stanford study found that, at the state house level, more than 10 times as many candidates advertise on Facebook than advertise on television. The research found that digital ads lowers advertising costs, which expands the set of candidates for whom advertising — and thus the potential to reach voters and seriously contest an election — is a real possibility. 

Lesser well-known, but often highly-qualified candidates at the state, local and federal level are precisely the people who have been celebrated for their new perspectives, creative ideas and commitment to shake up the system. People who put their heads down, do good work in their communities and decide to run because they want to make a difference will be the ones that are disadvantaged. 

You know who gets plenty of earned media opportunities? Donald Trump. He will be fine. In fact, he will be better than fine because we’ve just handed him and more extremist candidates like him a distinct advantage.

Democracy is about the combination of free speech and transparency. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, so here are a few ideas that would be more effective than a ban:

  • Adding a “nutrition label” to political ads offers a more accessible, understandable and consistent way to identify the identities of the funder, their location, their budget and their target audience. This should be easily accessed, in any political ad via one click, just like we know where to find nutrition information on food we buy. 
  • Enhance “consumer beware” acknowledgments so that if digital political ads remain exempt from fact-checking (as they mostly are on television), platforms have a duty to make that clear with visual signals and user education.

Ultimately, decisions about what is permissible political speech and appropriate distribution and targeting is too important to be left to technology platforms and their conceptions of the public interest.

Do we want Google, Facebook and Twitter making the rules for all political ads and being responsible for enforcing them? What we need is a true oversight body — one with teeth. If non-political advertisers make false claims about their own products or those of their competitors, they can be fined by the FTC. This is an acknowledgment, not only that consumers need accurate facts, but also that companies can not police themselves. This is far too much power for them. 

This isn’t a way to let technology companies off the hook, as there is plenty more they can do as noted above. But we need a truly independent organization overseeing political ads — the rules that govern them and holding organizations accountable to following those rules. Is this the FEC? I’m not sure.

As I write this today, I worry that no agency truly has the capacity or the expertise to create these rules and challenge bad campaign practices. We should remedy this post-haste and get to finding true solutions. The alternative seems easier and even principled to fight for, but the unintended consequences will be swift — a government full of the types of people who we say we don’t want. 

 


0

Optimizing customer retention will be a priority in 2020

21:09 | 8 November

Guy Marion Contributor
Guy Marion is CEO/co-founder of Brightback, the first automated customer retention software for subscription businesses.

We’ve seen our fair share of shocking headlines recently: tenuous IPOs, the “retailpocalypse” and a fickle market have reset the way we size up subscription businesses. Recurring revenue models have their pitfalls, and 2019 has certainly taught the industry a few lessons.

Next year, retention is set to be a top priority for companies looking to keep customers engaged and drive growth. From niche products to personalization, how companies deliver on and measure the success of their customer experience will separate successful subscription businesses from the next unflattering news story.

These seven trends will emerge to shape the way companies delight and retain customers in 2020.

1. To meet consumer demand, more mainstream brands will experiment with subscriptions

We’ve all seen articles detailing the financial fall of many brick-and-mortar stores. The retail crunch predicted years ago is coming to fruition as we’ve watched household names like Sears, Toys R Us and Barney’s consider bankruptcy or go up for sale.

Consumers aren’t letting up in their preference for convenience; they want easier ways to buy, and that means stores must develop better online experiences and offer subscription options or risk losing revenue. We’ll see big brands like Nike and Ikea continue to experiment and expand innovative subscription offerings.

For struggling brick-and-mortar businesses, subscription services could very well be a lifeline to retain a dwindling customer base. The shifting retail industry presents an opportunity for traditional companies to fully embrace recurring revenue models next year — smart organizations will do so.

2. The golden age of niche subscriptions is gone, so fatigue will settle in

We’ve experienced a rapid period of subscription adoption, with more options launching everyday. And that’s led us to a point of max fragmentation where companies and consumers alike are subscribed to so many niche products and services, they can no longer manage or afford new offerings.

Because the proliferation of subscriptions are so vast, specialized products and services will need to do prove their worth or risk being replaced. B2B (project management, martech, ecommerce) and B2C (clothing, streaming, meal delivery) companies alike must offer far better experiences in 2020 than in years past. For B2B organizations, products must be integrated with larger systems to justify their existence. One-off point solutions that silo information and create broken customer experiences will no longer be accepted. And for B2C companies, pricing will have to be spot on as more competition vies for the budgets of consumers who haven’t budgeted for increased spending.

Ultimately, not every company will be able to compete in the age of subscription fatigue, so we’ll see more consolidation, partnerships and mergers occur in the coming year.

3. Customer retention will become the new frontier for marketers

It’s impossible to ignore the IPO press around WeWork, Blue Apron, Uber, Peloton and others. If 2020’s tech and consumer unicorns have poor unit economics and aren’t turning a profit, they need to prepare to be the next ugly headline. Marketers can be a force for change by focusing on the long-term retention of the customers they acquire. And I believe they’ll do so happily. Why?

 


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Corporate, public investments spur interest in Pacific Northwest startups

01:50 | 8 November

Dan Burgar Contributor
Dan Burgar is President of the Vancouver VR/AR Association, where he has helped develop the city's ecosystem into the second largest VR/AR hub globally. He's also a partner at Shape Immersive, which creates innovative solutions for top brands and enterprises.
Kate Wilson Contributor
Kate Wilson is a Vancouver-based journalist. Previously technology editor at the Georgia Straight, Western Canada’s largest news and entertainment weekly, she has also written for The Independent, BetaKit, BC Business, and others.

Cities have always been America’s centers of power, driving the economy forward through competition. But now, they’re ceasing to lead the country’s innovation.

As jobs and talent have clustered, expertise has spilled over urban boundaries. In locations like the Gulf Coast, Texas Triangle, Great Lakes and Southern California, metropolitan areas are cooperating across borders to share new ideas. Eleven of these have earned the title of “megaregion,” and they host some of the continent’s cutting-edge centers of technology.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor — the strip of land down the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada to Portland, Oregon — is perhaps the best example. Home to powerhouses like Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Lululemon, Boeing and Intel, the area has seen large investments from companies hoping to encourage further cooperation. Over the past five years, state and provincial governments have signed formal agreements for collaboration, and executive-filled conferences are being held to encourage new partnerships.

Why are businesses and government organizations investing so much into the region? Challenge Seattle CEO and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire believes it’s the evolution of a trend that’s been unfolding for decades.

“For many years, a number of international companies from Seattle have been putting Canadian headquarters in Vancouver,” she says. “So without anybody deliberately thinking about how we could work together, it was already actually happening. These organizations have decided to capitalize on [what] was happening from the ground up, and build out a vision, and bring us all together so we can really magnify the success of what’s already happening on the ground.”

Local support

The West Coast’s urban centers are linked by more than shared geography and, as Gregoire jokes, a love of the Seattle Seahawks — the Pacific Northwest is characterized by an open and inclusive culture, heterogeneous populations and creating technology with a focus on social good. Economically, too, there are similarities. West Coast cities have historically turned to Asian and South Asian markets for trade, as well as looking to each other. Washington State exports more to British Columbia than it does to all other Canadian provinces combined, and if Washington State were a country, it would represent B.C.’s third-largest international export market

For Bill Tam, a member of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee and former president of BC Tech, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have different reasons to support the megaregion.

“In Vancouver, which has a great startup ecosystem, a lot of those companies and a lot of the research organizations have really bought into this idea of being part of something bigger and more substantive,” he says. “I think on the U.S. side, what was interesting was that we saw the impetus come from larger companies — particularly Microsoft, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone from the Nordstroms to the REIs really see the value in learning and working together to try and build leverage, and to accelerate the things they want to do.”

Tam’s hope for the region’s success comes from its ability to share resources across cities. Vancouver, for instance, is known for its highly-educated workforce: the location’s nature-filled setting and welcoming immigration policies attracts many qualified tech employees. With its industry focused on startups, though, it lacks larger brands and anchor companies that would help propel it onto the global stage. 

The Seattle area, however, has the opposite problem. America’s tight immigration regulations make it hard for companies to secure qualified talent, but the influence of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon mean the city is a hotbed for international investment and innovation. By joining forces — and by integrating Portland, which sits somewhere between both poles — the Cascadia region, Tam believes, can emerge as a powerful global competitor. 

“I think the long-term vision for Cascadia is to feel like it is an economic region that is not only the best place to build new innovations, but also a cohesive area that understands the values of collaboration,” he says. “It ties together all the responsible aspects of how we live — whether it’s on the sustainability agenda, the environment agenda, and how we actually treat each other as an open and diverse society.”

Vancouver Skyline, (lee robinson) unsplash

Photo: Lee Robinson/Unsplash

Areas of expertise

Aside from giants Amazon and Microsoft’s dominance in ecommerce, software, and cloud-based computing, the area has spawned niche areas of expertise. President and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia Greg D’Avignon believes those sectors will help elevate Cascadia’s profile.

“There’s a myriad of interesting companies here in British Columbia that are driving innovation,” he says. “In the quantum space, there’s D-Wave Systems, 1QBit, and others. D-Wave is the first commercial quantum computing company in the world, and it’s driving significant and complex computations on datasets to try to resolve issues that are endemic to challenges we have in terms of climate, personal health, aging, and growing populations. Life sciences is another important sector. There are some very interesting companies in the personalized medicine and health business — we’ve got Zymeworks […] and a myriad of other companies [that] are changing the nature of population-based healthcare.”

The region is also well-regarded in the virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) space. Microsoft developed one of the leading AR headsets — the HoloLens — in the Pacific Northwest, and Vancouver has since been recognized as the world’s second-largest VR and AR ecosystem. More than 230 companies are located in the city, drawing on its history of gaming and visual effects to develop everything from surgical-training software to AAA-aspiring titles.

As well as individual successes in the consumer blockchain space with viral game Cryptokitties and data aggregation with Hootsuite, Cascadia is known for technical apparel, with the likes of Lululemon, REI, Eddie Bauer, Arc’teryx, and Nike choosing the region as their home. With Amazon’s monopoly on online retail, the West Coast leads North America in merchandizing tech.

“When we talk about some of the foundational pillars in the corridor, we’re talking about the movement of people and goods across the border,” D’Avignon says. “We’re talking about bringing together postsecondary in a way that is important. That’s all rooted deeply in how we look at making this region better. And then as we learn, how do we share that learning and those commercial opportunities with the rest of the world?”

 


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Libra’s critics are missing the forest for the trees

23:20 | 7 November

Nik Milanovic Contributor
Nik Milanovic is a fintech and financial inclusion enthusiast, with a decade of work across mobile payments, online lending, credit and microfinance.
More posts by this contributor

It would be an understatement to say the last few months have been rocky for Libra, Facebook’s proposed stablecoin.

Since its announcement in June, eBay, Mastercard and other members of the cryptocurrency’s elite consortium have jumped ship (many due to direct pressure from legislators), a congressional hearing on Libra turned into an evisceration of Facebook’s data and privacy practices, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard assailed the project’s lack of controls and the Chinese government announced its own competitive digital currency.

Critics, though well-intentioned, are missing the forest for the trees.

In spite of Libra’s well-cataloged risks and unanswered questions, there is a massive opportunity in plain sight for the global financial system; it would be a tragedy to let that opportunity be destroyed on the basis of Facebook’s reputation or Libra’s haphazard go-to-market. 

Governments should heed the lesson of the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1970s and use the idea behind Libra, if not the project itself, in “coopetition” to build a better, more inclusive global financial architecture. 

A few key points to begin: first, Facebook is probably not the right actor to spearhead this initiative.

Mark Zuckerberg promises that Facebook will only be one board member in a governing consortium and that the project will comply with U.S. regulatory demands and privacy standards. But just as the company reneged on its promise not to integrate the encrypted WhatsApp into Facebook’s platform, it’s easy to picture Facebook pushing through standards that benefit itself at consumer expense. While Facebook would be a great platform to distribute Libra, its track record should make constituents uneasy about giving it any control.

Second, global payment systems are outdated and slow, and many businesses have been set up to extract rents from that fact. This burden disproportionately falls on the shoulders of poor consumers. People living paycheck-to-paycheck are forced into high-interest loans to smooth their cash flow due to slow settlement speeds. Immigrants sending money home pay up to 17 percent to move money across borders, costs that take a sizable bite out of some countries’ GDPs. In a ubiquitous currency regime, however, foreign exchange fees would vanish entirely .

 


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There’s no ‘perfect time’ for giving employees feedback

01:58 | 7 November

Mayke Nagtegaal Contributor
Mayke Nagtegaal is the COO of MessageBird, an Amsterdam-based cloud communications platform which, in 2017, raised the largest-ever investment — $60 million — by a European software company.

As COO of a company with more than 350 employees from 40 different nationalities of all ages who speak 20+ languages, I’ve noticed that everyone likes to know where they stand when it comes to their job performance.

Yet, for many managers, giving feedback often falls to the bottom of their priority list. According to Gallup, less than half of employees surveyed said they received feedback even a few times a year. So, if 69% of employees say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized, implementing more regular feedback practices would seem like a no-brainer.

What’s stopping us?

Anyone who has experienced startup life knows there are times when it feels as though everything is moving at warp speed — that’s certainly the rate things have been moving at MessageBird for the last 18 months. After our Series A in late 2017, we hired aggressively to rapidly execute on our product roadmap and increased our employee base by more than 100% in a matter of months. For established companies, that would be a pretty aggressive hiring blitz, but for a younger business without all the necessary processes in place, the times occasionally bordered on chaotic.

It’s difficult to call that hiring frenzy a mistake, because we learned so much from it. Most notably, you can’t put performance feedback on hold until you have everything “ironed out.” The pace of business today is too quick to wait for the perfect time, because the “perfect time” may be too late or worse — it may never come at all.

What you lose in time, you’ll gain in dollars

It turns out that when the word “continuous” is added to the words “performance management,” you can almost hear the groans. Taking time to give feedback may feel like a luxury that managers don’t have when a startup is in hyper-growth mode, and giving employees feedback “continuously” sounds a bit obsessive, but the fact is, you can’t afford not to do it. Companies that implement regular performance feedback are reported to have nearly 15% less turnover, and with the staggering cost of rehiring estimated to be between 90 and 200% of an employee’s salary, keeping them engaged is a good investment.

Whether you put these strategies under the banner of continuous performance management, internal communications strategies or management 101, here are four learnings around giving regular feedback that have proven to be effective for us:

You don’t need to have everything figured out before setting short-term goals

It would certainly be easier if every road we headed down led directly to our intended destination, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we’re faced with detours, roadblocks, or may even decide on another destination altogether. It’s the same with building a startup, where being customer-oriented means that priorities will often change to reflect the needs of your customer base.

 


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The first hires are the hardest

23:20 | 6 November

Tim Hsia & Neil Devani Contributor
Tim Hsia is the CEO of Media Mobilize and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Neil Devani is an angel investor and venture capitalist focused on companies solving hard problems.

Welcome to this edition of The Operators, a recurring Extra Crunch column, podcast and YouTube show that brings you insights and information from inside of tech companies. Our guests are execs with operational experience at both fast-rising startups like Brex, Calm, DocSend and Zeus Living, along with more established companies like AirBnB, Facebook, Google and Uber. Here, they share strategies and tactics for building your first company and charting your career in tech.

In this episode, we’re talking about hiring and recruiting:

  1. Why people take the risk of working at early-stage startups
  2. When and how to work with recruiters
  3. How to make your first hires

A company’s first hires are often the hardest; money is usually too tight to pay competitive salaries, there’s no recognizable brand or reputation yet and most people would prefer to work at a company their friends and family have heard of before. There’s also fair presumption of risk and unviability — who wants to take a job that might not be around in a year?

Startup founders overcome these odds on a regular basis. To figure out how, we spoke with two experts:

Farah Sharghi-Dolatabadi began her career as a software developer and financial advisor before moving into recruiting. She’s been a recruiter at startups in addition to companies like Google and Lyft. She’s currently a senior technical recruiter at Uber and an active career coach at HireClub.

Kelly Kinnard is Vice President of Talent at Battery Ventures, where she’s worked with startups like Wag, Coupa, Fastly, and Gainsight. She also has experience at top recruiting firms and in executive search at Oracle.

Below is a synthesized summary of our conversation; check out The Operators for the full episode.

Why people take the risk of working at early-stage startups

Most early-stage startups fail. That shouldn’t be news to anyone. Still, however unlikely big outcomes are, the possibility of being a part of the next Facebook or Uber is tempting, and taking a job at a brand new company may even rational on an expected value basis.

Sometimes it’s not just the chance at a big financial outcome. We’ve heard early-stage employees say they made their choice based for more intangible reasons, like having more autonomy in their work, seeking a less structured environment, working with a certain type or set of colleagues, wanting a sense of adventure or purpose and the opportunity for more rapid career progression.

It may not be possible for an early-stage startup to offer market-rate compensation, but they can personalize the opportunity for early employees.

“Be creative and do things like cater to that individual and think about it on a case by case basis,” said Kinnard. “If that candidate really wants to work from home two days a week because they have a dog and you can’t allow dogs in the office, and they want to be able to walk their dog or go pick up their child from school after school, then try to customize things according to each individual.” But don’t forget that compensation still matters, as do market rates. According to Kinnard, “cash is still king, and I think sometimes I see founders and I see CEOs be unrealistic about what they expect to be able to pay people. A part of what I do is provide them with competitive comp data so they can look at the data and [see] here’s what 3000 companies that we’ve surveyed have suggested the compensation ranges.”

Creative problem-solving pays dividends in recruiting, just like in does with most other problems startups need to solve. Experienced recruiters can help companies figure out how to get creative, but how do you know if working a recruiter is right for you?

 

When and how to work with recruiters

 


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Immigrants from China and India can accelerate the green card process

19:16 | 6 November

Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Securing a green card can feel overwhelming for people in Silicon Valley who were born in India and China. But with the right help and guidance from a skilled immigration attorney, the process can be simpler, smoother and more successful.

Limits written into existing immigration laws on both the number of green cards issued each year, as well as the number of green cards available based on country of origin, leave some waiting half a century or more for a green card, with people from India and China facing the longest wait times for employment-based green cards.

In this fiscal year, which ended on October 31, 226,000 family-sponsored green cards and 141,918 employment-based green cards were available. And the per-country cap, which is the maximum number of green cards available to individuals born in a particular country, was 25,754. 

Although these U.S. laws pose an extra challenge for people born in countries with the highest demand for green cards, if you were born in India or China, there are some things you can do to mitigate this wait.

Differentiate yourself

The EB-1 green card is considered the “first preference” for those who’ll receive offers for employment-based green cards. It offers three unique and accelerated sub-paths: 

  • EB-1A green card for individuals of extraordinary ability 
  • EB-1B green card for outstanding researchers and professors
  • EB-1C green card for multinational managers and executives

The EB-1A green card for extraordinary ability does not require an employer sponsor or even a job offer, which means it’s one of the few self-petition green cards. To demonstrate eligibility, you must be able to show you have extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics and that you and your work have received national or international acclaim. 

Individuals who apply for the EB-1A do not need to obtain labor certification (as required of employers). That means the process is simpler and can be much faster than typical employment-based green cards. Also, an individual applicant may have more flexibility to change jobs than if an employer applied on their behalf.

The EB-1B green card for outstanding researchers and professors requires an employer to sponsor you. Candidates for the EB-1B green card must demonstrate great achievements in their academic field. 

And finally, the EB-1C green card for multinational managers and executives enables an employer to bring an executive or manager who has been working abroad over to the U.S. to live and work. The EB-1C candidate must have worked outside the U.S. for the employer for at least one year.

This Cato Institute analysis estimates individuals born in China and India face waiting eight and nine years, respectively, for an EB-1 green card. Despite the small and growing backlog for EB-1 green cards for individuals born in China and India, it still remains one of the quicker options.

Invest in a project that creates jobs

 


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