All posts in “Silicon Valley”

Bodega backlash shows how fed up people are with Silicon Valley’s hype machine

Silicon Valley just invented a racist glorified vending machine designed to kill your friendly neighborhood convenience store.

That was the narrative to which the startup Bodega debuted on Wednesday, thanks in part to a well-played Fast Company headline. 

Two ex-Googlers are out to disrupt the largely immigrant-run mom-and-pop corner stores that dot major cities with self-serve cases of food and sundries, the story goes. The company’s goal is to spread thousands of these pantry boxes, which are unlocked and billed via app, around apartment lobbies, offices, gyms, and other central locations. 

The startup even shamelessly co-opted the bodega name and their ubiquitous feline mascots for its own logo. 

The Twitter-sphere quickly chose a side. Bodega became the latest symbol of everything that people have come to detest about Silicon Valley and its breathless innovation-worship culture. All the ingredients were there:

☑️  An invention that’s essentially a perfectly ordinary thing that already exists

☑️  A plan to displace an existing industry with a business model reliant on less workers and/or regulations

☑️  Gentrification and cultural commodification

☑️  A jarring apparent disconnect with the sensibilities of ordinary people

The small startup had inadvertently tapped into mounting collective feelings of distrust towards the tech industry that seem to have reached a fever pitch in the wake of a populism-heavy election cycle.  

The condemnation kept the company’s name in Twitter’s top trends for most of the day:

Bodega probably could’ve slipped by as just another innocuous, if flimsy, startup proposition were it not for its ill-conceived branding. And the company tried to cop up to its tone-deafness with the obligatory Medium-post apology.

But the volume of complaints against it also speak to the growing skepticism with which the public has come to treat startups, venture capitalists, and the tech scene in general.

Tech startups were once able to reflexively cast themselves as paragons of innovation, facing off with backwards big businesses for the unqualified betterment of society. That implicit moral imperative helped insulate them from the criticisms that businesses might otherwise face.

But as the industry came to dominate the economy, a litany of public relations problems eroded that image. 

People woke up to the exploitative working conditions central to the business model of companies like Uber and other on-demand startups. An endless march of sexual harassment and discrimination scandals solidified the archetype of the tech bro. The contrast between the industry’s bottomless well of dumb apps and the lofty world-changing rhetoric (and ungodly profits) became a meme in pop culture.    

All of these sentiments seem to have formed some kind of critical mass in the wake of the bitter and divisive presidential election. Perhaps the spark was a by-product of the race’s lingering sense of populism, which painted the elite establishment as out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.

Startups bordering on self-parody like Juicero and the app company behind the Fyre Festival disaster were singled out for how evocatively they demonstrated tech culture’s worst excesses. Late capitalism—a catch-all term for the absurdities of an overgrown market economy—has suddenly come into vogue.

Established companies no longer get a pass either. Uber, which once enjoyed overwhelming public support in its crusade against overpriced and outmoded taxis, faced a mass boycott for its association with Trump. New York taxi unions emerged as the heroes of that controversy.

Meanwhile, the new order of tech’s industrial titans face more scrutiny than ever. Facebook and Google are under fire for their role in spreading misinformation during the election. Google drew the ire of the left when the media uncovered a sexist memo that had circulated within the company, then angered the right by firing the employee that authored it. Each of those controversies has fueled a growing current of bipartisan political support for stricter antitrust policies to combat tech oligopolies.

None of that has much to do with a tiny and ultimately trivial startup like Bodega, but it’s all contributed to the way people view tech as a whole.

And the sentiment isn’t confined to any one section of the political spectrum either—an impressive feat in our polarized political climate. The right has come to dislike the tech industry’s progressive rhetoric and what they see as a restrictive culture, while the left rails against their frequent failure to live up to those ideas.

It seems that if there’s one thing we can all get behind as a country, it’s bodega cats. b36f 5bc3%2fthumb%2f00001

Silicon Valley’s secret app Blind opens the floodgates

When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced his departure last month, thousands of Uber employees spent more than two and a half hours, on average, browsing Blind. 

The app is an exclusive network of forums only available to employees at just over 100 tech companies, prompting Silicon Valley types to gab and gossip.

That community is now rapidly expanding. As of Monday, any member of a tech company can join Blind. They will have access to the newly created topics channels — like those based on companies, professions, locations, careers, startups — along with the “Tech Lounge.” 

“The whole idea is, I could post something like #engineers @facebook, can you explain how the interview process works?” said Alex Shin, Blind’s head of operations. “And our Facebook users will be notified within the app.”

When enough people from a company sign up, Blind creates a private channel just for that company’s employees. 

“We’re laser-focused on creating engaging communities,” Shin said. 

Image: BLIND

Blind, which is run by a team of nine in San Francisco, has thousands of active users from some of the largest tech companies, including 27,000 from Microsoft, 4,000 from Uber, and thousands from Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Airbnb. 

Over the last two years, the app has spread across Silicon Valley. It has also had its viral moments, like when Microsoft acquired LinkedIn.

“I found out about Blind when the LinkedIn acquisition [with Microsoft] happened. One of my coworkers told me that he heard about [the deal] two days before the official news,” a LinkedIn employee told Mashable earlier this year. 

Many anonymous messaging apps have folded. Last year, there was Secret. This year, Square took in the remaining employees at Yik Yak. 

But so far Blind has grown. Blind raised $6 million last May, with participation from DCM Ventures, Mirae Asset Ventures, ID Ventures, and AJU IB.

Blind users spend 41 minutes, on average, on the app, which is on par with Facebook. Blind has verification via professional email addresses in its favor (which are kept private in the backend), along with a somewhat narrow focus on tech.

But, just like any social network, Blind needs to grow, and so, they’re shedding a layer of exclusivity and letting more of the tech community into the app. 

Employees in various positions across the tech industry — designers, engineers, product manager, sales people — have told Blind they want to be able to connect directly with other people in their same positions at other companies within the app, Shin said. By opening the app to everyone in tech, Blind has made that request a reality. Blind is a convenient way to ask others for honest feedback about working at a company. 

It’s also now a way for anyone in tech to job hunt or gossip. 

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Pitch your startup at this lingerie networking event and oh god tech industry really?

Getting started in tech is a daunting proposition—so clearly, having models and lingerie on hand when networking is a long overdue idea that could make everyone more comfortable and help ease the entire process. Right? Right?

That somehow appears to be the thinking of Creative Startup Labs, a San Francisco-based company providing business consulting to startups, that may or may not be completely oblivious to the ongoing issues surrounding sexism and harassment rocking the tech industry. Again, they provide business consulting. Whatever that entails, it definitely doesn’t come with irony-awareness consulting, to be sure. 

In what would likely read as parody if this wasn’t, well, the tech industry, CSL is co-hosting a July 8 networking event at San Francisco’s W Hotel, calling it a “Startup Mingle Party & ‘Summer Seduction’ Lingerie Fashion Show.” 

“Networking, mingling, casual introductions & pitches” from 9-10 p.m., reads the Eventbrite page, with a “VIP party, top Bay Area DJs, [and] Summer Seduction Lingerie fashion show” to follow. 

To make sure nobody got, uh, the wrong impression, the poster advertising the event features some sort of femmebot, with prominently erect nipples. 

Yes, really. 

The event has not gone unnoticed. 

We contacted CSL founder Brad Carrick to determine how he believes this networking event fits into the context of an industry often rocked by charges of sexism, but he declined to comment on that specific matter—noting that he’s “neither the show producer nor involved in organizing or selecting themes for the fashion show part.”

Carrick did explain, however, his role in the event as “a volunteer host of the networking and ‘casual pitch’ segment of the evening,” he noted via email. “We invite guests to introduce themselves and say what they are working on and what they may need going forward in order to provide resources to the community.”

And as far as the lingerie fashion show? 

“The fashion show, as I understand, is to highlight local startup designers trying to grow their own businesses, be they in menswear, fashion-tech, wearables, women’s wear, etc,” wrote Carrick. “The models and designs are organized by the local designer and certainly not hired promo/entertainment models by any tech company.”

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with lingerie parties! Far be it from anyone to judge or lingerie party-shame. Nor, of course, is there anything wrong with startup mixers. And designers should have the opportunity to grow their brand by showcasing their work. 

That said: Attaching sexual overtones to a tech-sector networking event where women are clearly the object in the objectification at hand is, at best, wildly tone-deaf and unfortunate, given the recent barrage of sexual harassment allegations and sexism-related revelations in the tech sector over the last few weeks. Or years. 

So who exactly thought this was a good idea? We attempted to get in touch with event co-host Angelica Janice, a model and brand ambassador at SOLZ Incubator, but have so far been unsuccessful. 

The ticketed event, which costs $10 to $15 to attend as a guest, is being promoted by the marketing company WeNightlife. We reached out to that company to determine its exact involvement, but haven’t heard back as of the publication of this story (we’ll update here if we do). 

Maybe everyone’s just too busy selling $500 “model hosted VIP table” tickets to the not-at-all-problematically themed party? Because if the marketing materials surrounding the event are any indication, those behind it clearly aren’t paying attention—not to the scores of women demanding an industry reform, to say nothing of a need for common sense. 

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Nootrobox is now HVMN and will sell biohacking products beyond nootropics

If none of what’s in the above headline makes sense, you probably weren’t following the biohacking trend for the last couple of years. But Silicon Valley is brimming with tech execs trying to become faster, stronger and smarter by “hacking” their genetic code through various experimental methods called biohacks.

These would be the people drinking buttered coffee, taking cold showers and not eating every other day — not because of some psychological disorder but because they believe caloric restriction will turn on certain genes to help them live longer.

HVMN (formerly Nootrobox and pronounced “human”) has been peddling a form of biohacking with something called nootropic supplements since its launch in 2014. These supplements are meant to help the brain become more productive. Sort of. Think the movie ‘Limitless’ where Bradley Cooper takes a pill that makes him become the smartest man alive. Does it work? Maybe (you don’t gain magical smartest man alive powers but it might help you focus). And there’s some debate on safety right now, depending on the ingredients. But the pills HVMN sells seem to be FDA OK so far.

The startup now wants to go deeper into the matrix by offering more biohacking products and felt a name fitting the change was appropriate.

“The way we talk about the space is we consider the human body is the next platform,” says co-founder Geoffrey Woo. “Renaming our company HVMN is really reflective of that, it’s like a human 2.0.”

His company will start to develop both metabolic performance products and products to do what he calls “closing the loop.” It’s not clear what he intends to do by that as he didn’t want to name any specific products just yet. However, Woo did mention a lot of experiments with sensors.

HVMN’s team of 12, including the two co-founders, will also be experimenting with various methods and utilizing these sensors to get ideas of what to put out in the market next.

Employees already participate in up to 60 hours of intermittent fasting every week. Some start to fast on Sunday, breaking Tuesday evening while others skip meals on Monday, breaking bread with the team the following work day. Woo and his partner Michael Brandt were actually fasting as they spoke to me over the phone about the changes to their company going forward.

“You really start to see benefits beyond 20 hours,” Brandt explained. “You can track your biomarkers from the things Geoff has mentioned. And it’s manageable. I’ve been fasting every week for a year and a half.”

You can’t sell fasting as a product, of course, but you can sell the biohacker lifestyle through books, podcasts, and other methods like Tim Ferris and Dave Asprey from Bulletproof have done. Asprey, for instance, sells his own brand of specialized coffee and other products he promotes through various online channels.

So far HVMN has created a brand around its special pills, but it’s hard to tell right now what the name change and addition of other products will do for the company. The biohacker space is not low on gurus touting their methods and HVMN may not be able to rise above the din.

There’s also a snake oil stigma attached to the industry, often overlooked by the FDA. The various pills, oils (and coffees) out on the market can get expensive and a lot of the claims out there need regular Snopes checks to protect consumers from getting suckered.

HVMN says it’s doubling down on internal research and has just hired former rowing world champion, Dr. Brianna Stubbs, to lead in those efforts.

“We see the opportunity here that we think our express goal is to make everyone a biohacker in the same sense that Nike says everyone is an athlete,” Woo told TechCrunch. “This is the next natural trend and everyone is going to be a biohacker.”

VC Justin Caldbeck raised funding in email to accuser ahead of scandal breaking

TechCrunch has reviewed an email allegedly sent by VC Justin Caldbeck, of Binary Capital, to one of the female founders who have accused him of inappropriate behavior — which suggests he tried to use his influence as an investor to encourage the woman to drop the allegations against him.

The email, dated June 8 of this year, was published earlier by Pando, and was sent to Evertoon founder Niniane Wang, who shared it with us.

It has the subject line: “Catching up”. According to the email metadata it was sent from a Gmail address apparently belonging to Caldbeck, rather than from his Binary Capital email account.

Caldbeck is currently on an indefinite leave from the firm after The Information published details of what amounts to predatory behavior, publishing the stories of six women who had been in contact with Caldbeck in a professional capacity.

Among the allegations are that he sent inappropriate text messages to female founders and that he groped a woman under a bar table during a business meeting.

At least some of these women were having meetings with Caldbeck in the hopes of being able to gain funding for their businesses.

The email to Wang looks to have been sent prior to the publication of The Information’s story, on June 22, but also long after Binary Capital had been contacted by the publication for comment about the allegations against Caldbeck.

A source close to the matter told us Binary Capital was first contacted by The Information regarding the allegations a full two months ago.

Pando reports Wang saying she received the email from Caldbeck three days after she had agreed to go on the record with The Information about his behavior. He had apparently only contacted her once in the previous two years prior to this email.

In the email, which was sent at 7:13AM on the morning of June 8, Caldbeck starts by telling Wang it’s “been a long time” since they have been in contact, before segueing into a suggestion they meet to discuss funding for her startup.

“I’m not sure you [sic] Evertoon is thinking of raising more capital but would love to catch up and hear more about what you’re building if you’re open to it,” he writes in an email that includes a footer that it was “sent from my iPhone”.

“Hope you’re doing well,” he concludes, signing off with his first name.

Wang has given her permission for the email to be cited.

At the time of writing a Binary Capital representative had not responded to multiple requests for comment. Update: The firm told us it has no comment.

Caldbeck’s initial response to the The Information’s story was an aggressive denial. However the messaging coming out of Binary Capital rapidly changed tone as outrage about the story spread — and in a statement on Friday the firm said Caldbeck would be taking an indefinite leave of absence.

It’s also since reportedly delayed the closing of a new fund amid the controversy.

LPs involved with this pending close should certainly be asking a lot of questions. According to Pando, Wang is intending to ask the LPs to withdraw their backing for the fund.

TechCrunch has reached out to several LPs associated with the fund for comment but at the time of writing we are yet to hear back.

This story was updated after we were able to review the email metadata 

Featured Image: YouTube