All posts in “business”

Still a year away from launch, Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi keeps adding talent

Video won’t start rolling on Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new bite-sized streaming service with the billion-dollar backing until the end of 2019, but talent keeps signing up to come along for their ride into the future of serialization.

The latest marquee director to sign on the dotted line with Quibi is Catherine Hardwicke, who will be helming a story around the creation of an artificial intelligence with the working title “How They Made Her,” according to an announcement from Katzenberg onstage at the Variety Innovate summit.

Hardwicke, who directed “Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown” and, most famously, “Twilight,” is joining Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi and Lena Waithe in an attempt to answer the question of whether Whitman and Katzenberg’s gamble on premium (up to $6 million per episode) short-form storytelling is a quixotic quest or a quintessential viewing experience for a new generation of media consumers.

Katzenberg also revealed in a LinkedIn post that Quibi would be working on a basketball-related series with Steph Curry’s production company. He wrote:

I announced a new docu-series by Whistle called “Benedict Men” coming exclusively to Quibi. “Benedict Men” will be executive produced by Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media and will give viewers an inside look at one of the most unique high school basketball teams in America at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey.

St. Benedict’s Prep is an all-boys secondary school founded on the core belief ‘What Hurts My Brother Hurts Me,’ and aims to foster a legacy of strong character, community, leadership, and faith. As one of the top athletic high schools with a storied basketball program and the highest graduation rate in New Jersey, the series will follow the brotherhood of young men who seek to balance life in complicated surroundings.

In some ways, the big adventure backed by Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and founder of WndrCo, and every major Hollywood studio — including Disney, 21st Century Fox, Entertainment One, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Alibaba Goldman Sachs — is the latest in an everything old is new again refrain.

If blogs reinvented printed media, and podcasts and music streaming reinvented radio, why can’t Quibi reinvent serialized storytelling.

Again and again, Whitman and Katzenberg returned to an analogy from the early days of the cable revolution. “We’re not short form, we’re Quibi,” said Whitman, echoing the tagline that HBO made famous in its early advertising blitzes. That Whitman and Katzenberg’s project to take what HBO did for premium television and apply that to mobile media is ambitious. Now industry-watchers will have to wait until 2019 at the earliest to see if it’s also successful.

In the interview onstage at a Variety event on artificial intelligence in media, Katzenberg cited Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” as something of an inspiration — noting that the book had more than 100 chapters for its 500 pages of text. But Katzenberg could have gone back even further to the days of Dickens and his serialized entertainments.

And right now for the entertainment business it really is the best of times and the worst of times. Traditional Hollywood studios are seeing new players like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and others all trying to drink their milkshake. And, for the most part, these studios and their new telecom owners are woefully ill-equipped to fight these big technology platforms at their own game. 

Taking the long view of entertainment history, Katzenberg is hoping to win networks with not just a new skin for the old ceremony of watching entertainment but with a throwback to old style deal-making. The term serialization here takes on greater meaning. 

Quibi is offering its production partners a sweetheart deal. After seven years the production company behind the Quibi shows will own their intellectual property, and after two years those producers will be able to repackage the Quibi content back into long-form series and pitch them for distribution to other platforms. Not only that, but Quibi is fronting the money for over 100 percent of the production.

Katzenberg said that it “will create the most powerful syndicated marketplace” Hollywood has seen in decades. It’s a sort of anti-Netflix model where Katzenberg and Whitman view Quibi as a platform where creators and talent will want to come. “We are betting on the success of the platform — and by the way, it worked brilliantly in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s.” Katzenberg said. “Hundreds of TV shows were tremendous successes and [like the networks then] we don’t want to compete with our suppliers.”

In addition to the business model innovations (or throwbacks, depending on how one looks at it), Quibi is being built from the ground up with a technology stack that will leverage new technologies like 5G broadband, and big data and analytics, according to Whitman.

Indeed, launching the first platform built without an existing stable of content means that Quibi is preparing 5,000 unique pieces of content to go up when it pulls the curtains back on its service in late 2019 or early 2020, Whitman said.

And the company is looking to big telecommunications companies like Verizon (my corporate overlord’s corporate overlord) and AT&T as partners to help it get to market. Since those networks need something to do with all the 5G capacity they’re building out, high-quality streaming content that’s replete with meta-tags to monitor and manage how an audience is spending their time is a compelling proposition.

“We want to work to have video that looks good on mobile [and] ramp up content in terms of quantity and quality,” Whitman said. That quality extends to things like the user interface, search features and analytics.

“We have to have a different search and find metaphor,” Whitman said. “It takes eight minutes to find what you’re looking for on Netflix… We will be able to instrument this with data on what people are watching and using that in our recommendation engine.”

Questions remain about the service’s viability. Like what role will the telcos actually play in distribution and development? Can Quibi avoid the Hulu problem where the various investors are able to overcome their own entrenched interests to work for the viability of the platform? And do consumers even want a premium experience on mobile given the new kinds of stars that are made through the immediacy and accessibility that technology platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snap offer?

“Where the fish are today is a phenomenal environment,” Katzenberg said of the current short-form content market. “But it is an ocean. We need to find a place where there are these premium services.”

Cities that didn’t win HQ2 shouldn’t be counted out

The more than year-long dance between cities and Amazon for its second headquarters is finally over, with New York City and Washington, DC, capturing the big prize. With one of the largest economic development windfalls in a generation on the line, 238 cities used every tactic in the book to court the company — including offering to rename a city “Amazon” and appointing Jeff Bezos “mayor for life.”

Now that the process, and hysteria, are over, and cities have stopped asking “how can we get Amazon,” we’d like to ask a different question: How can cities build stronger startup ecosystems for the Amazon yet to be built?

In September 2017, Amazon announced that it would seek a second headquarters. But rather than being the typical site-selection process, this became a highly publicized Hunger Games-esque scenario.

An RFP was proffered on what the company sought, and it included everything any good urbanist would want, with walkability, transportation and cultural characteristics on the docket. But, of course, incentives were also high on the list.

Amazon could have been a transformational catalyst for a plethora of cities throughout the U.S., but instead, it chose two superstar cities: the number one and five metro areas by GDP which, combined, amounts to a nearly $2 trillion GDP. These two metro areas also have some of the highest real estate prices in the country, a swath of high-paying jobs and, of course power — financial and political — close at hand.

Perhaps the take-away for cities isn’t that we should all be so focused on hooking that big fish from afar, but instead that we should be growing it in our own waters. Amazon itself is a great example of this. It’s worth remembering that over the course of a quarter century, Amazon went from a garage in Seattle’s suburbs to consuming 16 percent — or 81 million square feet — of the city’s downtown. On the other end of the spectrum, the largest global technology company in 1994 (the year of Amazon’s birth) was Netscape, which no longer exists.

The upshot is that cities that rely only on attracting massive technology companies are usually too late.

At the National League of Cities, we think there are ways to expand the pie that don’t reinforce existing spatial inequalities. This is exactly the idea behind the launch of our city innovation ecosystems commitments process. With support from the Schmidt Futures Foundation, 50 cities, ranging from rural townships, college towns and major metros, have joined with more than 200 local partners and leveraged over $100 million in regional and national resources to support young businesses, leverage technology and expand STEM education and workforce training for all.

The investments these cities are making today may in fact be the precursor to some of the largest tech companies of the future.

With that idea in mind, here are seven cities that didn’t win HQ2 bids, but are ensuring their cities will be prepared to create the next tranche of high-growth startups. 

Austin

Austin just built a medical school adjacent to a tier-one research university, the University of Texas. It’s the first such project to be completed in America in more than 50 years. To ensure the addition translates into economic opportunity for the city, Austin’s public, private and civic leaders have come together to create Capital City Innovation to launch the city’s first Innovation District at the new medical school. This will help expand the city’s already world-class startup ecosystem into the health and wellness markets.

Baltimore

Baltimore is home to more than $2 billion in academic research, ranking it third in the nation behind Boston and Philadelphia. In order to ensure everyone participates in the expanding research-based startup ecosystem, the city is transforming community recreation centers into maker and technology training centers to connect disadvantaged youth and families to new skills and careers in technology. The Rec-to-Tech Initiative will begin with community design sessions at four recreation centers, in partnership with the Digital Harbor Foundation, to create a feasibility study and implementation plan to review for further expansion.

Buffalo

The 120-acre Buffalo Niagara Medical Center (BNMC) is home to eight academic institutions and hospitals and more than 150 private technology and health companies. To ensure Buffalo’s startups reflect the diversity of its population, the Innovation Center at BNMC has just announced a new program to provide free space and mentorship to 10 high-potential minority- and/or women-owned startups.

Denver

Like Seattle, real estate development in Denver is growing at a feverish rate. And while the growth is bringing new opportunity, the city is expanding faster than the workforce can keep pace. To ensure a sustainable growth trajectory, Denver has recruited the Next Generation City Builders to train students and retrain existing workers to fill high-demand jobs in architecture, design, construction and transportation. 

Providence

With a population of 180,000, Providence is home to eight higher-education institutions — including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — making it a hub for both technical and creative talent. The city of Providence, in collaboration with its higher education institutions and two hospital systems, has created a new public-private-university partnership, the Urban Innovation Partnership, to collectively contribute and support the city’s growing innovation economy. 

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh may have once been known as a steel town, but today it is a global mecca for robotics research, with more than 4.5 times the national average robotics R&D within its borders. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is creating a more inclusive innovation economy through a Rec-to-Tech program that will re-invest in the city’s 10 recreational centers, connecting students and parents to the skills needed to participate in the economy of the future. 

Tampa

Tampa is already home to 30,000 technical and scientific consultant and computer design jobs — and that number is growing. To meet future demand and ensure the region has an inclusive growth strategy, the city of Tampa, with 13 university, civic and private sector partners, has announced “Future Innovators of Tampa Bay.” The new six-year initiative seeks to provide the opportunity for every one of the Tampa Bay Region’s 600,000 K-12 students to be trained in digital creativity, invention and entrepreneurship.

These seven cities help demonstrate the innovation we are seeing on the ground now, all throughout the country. The seeds of success have been planted with people, partnerships and public leadership at the fore. Perhaps they didn’t land HQ2 this time, but when we fast-forward to 2038 — and the search for Argo AISparkCognition or Welltok’s new headquarters is well underway — the groundwork will have been laid for cities with strong ecosystems already in place to compete on an even playing field.

Pitching a $99 tax advisory service for the masses, Visor has raised $9 million

The only sure things in this life, according to Ben Franklin, are death and taxes. And a new startup called Visor has just raised $9 million in financing to make one of them as painless as possible.

Unlike Nectome, Visor won’t kill anyone, but it may ring the death knell for the high-end tax advisors that most Americans can’t even access to get help filing and paying their taxes. It’s like having a personalized accountant for the cost of a high-end do-it-yourself tax-prep service.

The $9 million Visor raised came from the venture capital firm Defy, with participation from Unusual Ventures, SVB Capital and existing investors like Obvious Ventures, Fika Ventures and Boxgroup, which had put a previous $6.5 million into the company. 

The idea for the company had been percolating for co-founder and chief executive Gernot Zacke since he settled in the U.S. 

Growing up in Sweden, Zacke was exposed to a much different process for paying taxes. “The experience of filing taxes in Sweden is that you receive a message from the government that stated how much you made and how much you were withholding. That’s it,” said Zacke. “Taxes should be as easy as ordering a cab.”

That’s the service that Visor aims to provide.

“If you think about the market there are two ways to get your taxes done. There’s the DIY space and then there are other online services but it requires the tax payer to fill out the forms and it leaves the tax payer with a little bit of anxiety,” said Zacke. “We’re delivering the CPA experience through the convenience of a web app and a mobile app.”

On average, Americans spend about 13 hours each year dealing with taxes, and the average American doesn’t have the benefits of a professional advisor who can help optimize the process. That’s what Visor wants to provide.

“You provide the same amount of information you provide to a CPA or TurboTax… we make sure that that information is filed securely on AWS and shared between the docs and the backend,” said Zacke. 

The target customers for Zacke’s services are folks who have had a change to their tax situation — whether moving, buying a home or any other life event; or folks who have had a CPA and don’t want to pay the higher fees, he said.

Visor currently has an operations team of around 34 people split between San Francisco and Atlanta.

For Zacke, the pain point he’s solving with the Visor service is very real. A former employee of the European investment firm Atomico, Zacke bounced between the U.S. and Europe — eventually running U.S. investments for the firm before leaving to launch Visor.

Other co-founders and senior executives hail from the tax advisory world, and from employee benefits outsourcing services company Zenefits, along with former Venmo and Square developers.

“Taxpayers spend $20 billion a year to get their taxes prepared and are stuck between spending hours filling out DIY tax software and hiring an expensive CPA,” said Zacke, in a statement. “

Anti-fraud startup Shape Security raises $26M in Series E round to drive global expansion

Shape Security, a fraud-fighting cybersecurity company, has closed a $26 million round of Series E funding.

This will be the fifth round of funding — more than $130 million — since the Mountain View, Calif.-based company was founded in 2011. This latest round was led by Norwest Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins, Allegis Capital and others — including JetBlue Ventures and Singtel.

Shape Security said the addition of JetBlue’s investment was because it has benefited first-hand from its fraud-fighting technology.

The company’s primary focus is on preventing imitation attacks — such as when hackers use stolen logins or malware to walk in through the front door. Shape’s enterprise defense technology protects web and mobile apps against automated attacks by utilizing artificial intelligence to differentiate ordinary customers from hackers. Using its massive trove of data, including geolocation and even mouse movements, combined with Shape’s machine learning technology, the company says it can shut down suspicious activity and attacks in real time. The company’s flagship service Blackfish also protects against credential stuffing — where attackers use your stolen credentials to break into other sites.

In total, Shape says it protects 150 million logins each day, and covers one-fifth of the consumer brands in the Fortune 500.

With its $26 million cash injection, Shape said it plans a greater international expansion across the U.K., Europe and the Middle East and Asia to support its growing user base — about half of its customers are located outside of the U.S. And, the company will be bolstering its product development work with new products set to be announced down the pike.

Shape declined to say what it was valued at, but PitchBook puts the company’s valuation now at $495 million.

Jane.VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane.VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane.VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane.VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane.VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”