All posts in “Silicon Valley”

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

Female founders accuse VC Justin Caldbeck of making unwanted advances

Yesterday The Information reported on allegations made by half a dozen women working in the tech industry who say they have faced unwanted and inappropriate advances from Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Justin Caldbeck, co-founder and managing partner of Binary Capital. (Pictured above speaking about deal sourcing in this YouTube video.)

The women include Niniane Wang, co-creator of Google Desktop and a prior CTO of Minted; and Susan Ho and Leiti Hsu, co-founders of Journy, a travel planning and booking service.

The founders of Journy told us that they are working on a statement. We’ll update this story once we have it.

The Information also talked to three other women who said Caldbeck made inappropriate advances to them. It says these women did not want their names disclosed for fear of retaliation from the VC — and because of wider concerns they might suffer a backlash from men in the industry who don’t see inappropriate advances as a problem.

On the latter point you only have to look at recent goings on at a company like Uber to understand where such concerns are coming from.

TechCrunch has multiple female journalists on staff whose jobs frequently involve talking to VCs and technologists, at times in a one on one capacity. Many of us also have stories of similarly inappropriate behavior from male sources and interview subjects — be it being propositioned via text message late at night or having to brush off unwanted advances during a professional networking event.

But while instances of sexism and inappropriate behavior are — sad to say — not novel in the tech industry, or indeed in other industries, what’s very unusual about this story is that women are going on the record to speak out against a well-connected Silicon Valley VC.

Probably the most high profile example to date of a woman who made a public allegation of mistreatment against a VC firm was Ellen Pao, who in 2012 sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. She went on to lose the case — and had to pay costs of more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Pao is today tweeting a list of VCs speaking up against the things Caldbeck has been accused of doing:

Among the allegations made to The Information are that Caldbeck sent explicit text messages to women; that Caldbeck sent messages in the middle of the night suggesting meeting up; that Caldbeck suggested going to a hotel bedroom during a meeting; that Caldbeck made a proposition about having an open relationship; and that Caldbeck grabbed a woman’s thigh under the table of a bar during a meeting.

The women were all in contact with the VC in a professional capacity. Some as founders hoping to secure funding from his fund for their businesses. It’s hard to imagine a more skewed power dynamic.

Several of the women reported finding Caldbeck’s advances so awkward they gave up on continued dealings with him. Next time you remember how few founders are female and how many VCs are male, think on that.

In a statement responding to The Information’s story, Caldbeck said: “Obviously, I am deeply disturbed by these allegations. While significant context is missing from the incidents reported by The Information, I deeply regret ever causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. The fact is that I have been privileged to have worked with female entrepreneurs throughout my career and I sincerely apologize to anyone who I made uncomfortable by my actions. There’s no denying this is an issue in the venture community, and I hate that my behavior has contributed to it.”

This statement is very different in tone to Caldbeck’s initial, much more aggressive public response, in which he “strongly” denied the allegations and claimed: “I have always enjoyed respectful relationships with female founders, business partners, and investors.”

We’ve asked the firm what “significant context” Caldbeck is referring to in his second statement but have so far received no response on that. But we understand it will be responding in more detail in due course. The early stage San Francisco VC firm was founded in 2014 and focuses on consumer startups. It has more than $300 million under management at this point.

While Pao remained publicly positive about her 2012 decision to speak out — saying at the end of the case that she felt “gratified that my actions have encouraged others to speak up about discrimination in venture capital and technology more broadly” — she was also at pains to underline the massive power imbalance between individuals and VC firms, saying she was dropping her appeal “since I cannot afford the risk of even more costs to fight against a firm with tremendous financial resources and massive legal and PR armies”.