All posts in “Supply Chain”

Apple reportedly shifting to new keyboard design in 2019/2020 MacBooks

Apple is set to replace the technology underlying the keyboards found in its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro computers, according to a new report from Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via 9to5Mac). Kuo is frequently accurate in his predictions, which are sourced from within Apple’s supply chain and tend to provide an early indication of forthcoming hardware changes.

In his latest report, Kuo says that the new keyboard designs coming in brand new MacBook Air models set to come out later this year, and new MacBook Pro models which he says won’t be available until 2020, will drop the so-called ‘butterfly’ mechanism design that is used in current-generation versions of both MacBooks. Instead, the new versions will employ ‘scissor switch’-based keyboards, which is what Apple used prior to introducing the ‘butterfly’ mechanism in 2015. Apple’s current standalone Magic Keyboard also still uses scissor switches.

The butterfly switch-based keyboards Apple has used in recent MacBooks have received consistent criticism from users, who report dropped keystrokes and repeated keystrokes, among other issues (I’ve experienced this myself personally on multiple MacBook Pro models since 2015). These can often be resolved using compressed air to blow away any debris under the keyboard, but sometime they require an actual replacement keyboard component from Apple itself.

Apple’s most recent MacBook Pro, introduced earlier this year, features a redesigned butterfly keyboard that employs “new materials” to help mitigate these issues, and it also recently introduced a free keyboard replacement program for MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro which extends to all MacBook models with butterfly-based keyboards. Still, if this report proves accurate, it looks like the company is implementing a more permanent hardware fix that would obviate the need for these other measures entirely.

As always, take any rumors about unreleased products from a third-party with a hefty dose of skepticism, but Kuo’s accuracy and the well-documented issues with this keyboard design do lend credence to this specific report.

The next service marketplace wave: Vertical market-networks

The last few decades have produced many successful marketplaces. We went from goods marketplace pioneers such as eBay and Amazon to simple service marketplaces such as Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Upwork, Thumbtack, TaskRabbit, and Fiverr. But why haven’t we seen many successful B2B service marketplaces?

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Why Many B2B Service Marketplaces Failed

Some would argue that companies such as Upwork, Thumbtack, Fiverr, or TaskRabbit are horizontal B2B marketplaces in the sense that they provide access to suppliers of different services. But while businesses do indeed transact with freelancers on such “horizontal” marketplaces, for most service verticals these are limited-value, one-off transactions. They fail to enable long-term business collaborations.

So, such marketplaces haven’t delivered more valuable services nor introduced a new paradigm for how businesses buy specific services at scale and on an on-going basis. Why is that?

Horizontal marketplaces are stuck at the discovery process

Horizontal services marketplaces don’t provide much value beyond matching clients with quality service providers. In other words, they don’t facilitate collaboration between buyers and suppliers, never mind provide ways for the two parties to collaborate more efficiently over time as they engage in follow-on projects.

In essence, the model these marketplaces were built around is not much different from the likes of Craigslist, which put a convenient UX on traditional classified advertisements.

Complex B2B services require workflow and collaboration tools

In their article “What’s Next for Marketplace Startups?,” Andrew Chen and Li Jin found that there aren’t many successful service marketplaces because those offerings are complex, diverse, and difficult to evaluate. It’s challenging to define a successful transaction in a service marketplace because it’s harder to quantify success.

One reason is that several service providers must often work together to complete a single job for a buyer, requiring a complex workflow from end to end. As a result, it’s difficult for marketplaces to not only mediate service delivery but also make it significantly more efficient for buyers and suppliers. If both the buyer and suppliers don’t see a significant efficiency gain other than being initially matched, why would they continue using the marketplace?

(Image via Getty Images / Lidiia Moor)

The $50 billion translation industry is a prime example of complex B2B services marketplaces. On the supply side are roughly 50,000 small agencies around the globe responsible for more than 85% of this $50 billion industry. (Note we are referring to agencies here as suppliers, though they play on both sides.)

On the demand side are businesses that need to translate text from one language into another. Plus about 1,500,000 freelance linguists work in this industry, many of whom are more specialized than professionals in other industries.

Anyone can find and hire a translator on Fiverr or Upwork. Both provide a vast selection of language translators. However, the quality and cost of the translation depends on the translation tools available to the translator as well as their subject expertise.

Neither Fiverr nor Upwork provide computer-aided translation (CAT) and collaborative workflow solutions for users of their platforms. Additionally, neither provides an effective way for all parties to collaborate and continuously improve the efficiency and quality.

But the problem with traditional marketplaces goes even further: Multiple translators and reviewers are usually needed to complete a single job for a customer. Multi-language translation projects are even more complicated. Such projects require multiple service providers and cost estimates, in addition to project management tools.

This is why building a B2B service marketplace is difficult. Service marketplaces must not only connect buyers and suppliers, but also provide tools to enable an efficient and collaborative workflow that reduces wasted time and effort.

Horizontal marketplaces suffer high attrition

In addition to the problems already outlined, traditional marketplaces experience another issue that prevents them from growing and retaining market participants: Buyer and supplier attrition.

Many business services are based on regularly recurring engagements. In some cases, a buyer and a service provider interact daily, requiring a different workflow than gig-marketplaces are built around.

Buyers and suppliers have little motivation to continue interacting on a platform with no workflow automation solutions. They lack a way to improve service efficiency and quality, automate collaboration, payment, paperwork, and other basic processes required for a business.

This is why many traditional marketplaces suffer from slow network effects and high attrition. (A network effect is what happens when a platform, product, or service delivers more value the more it is used.

Think Facebook, eBay, WhatsApp.) Why wouldn’t companies work directly with service providers outside of a marketplace after they were introduced? What incentives keep the service transaction on the marketplace? These are critical questions to answer when building a marketplace.

Traditional marketplaces target broad services, making it nearly impossible to provide workflow solutions for buyers and suppliers. Going forward, successful service marketplaces will be developed relying on an industry-specific SaaS workflow. This will focus buyers and suppliers on longer-term projects and interactions that serve the unique needs of collaborations and transactions in a specific vertical.

Image via Getty Images / OstapenkoOlena

What makes a successful service marketplace?

In “The next 10 Years Will Be About Market Networks,” James Currier, Managing Partner at NFX Ventures, defines a new era of service marketplaces, which he calls market networks.

A market network is a platform that combines elements of an n-sided marketplace, a network, and workflow solutions. An n-sided marketplace is one that requires coordination of multiple supply-side parties to provide a complex service for a single buyer.

Market networks enable multiple buyers and suppliers to interact, collaborate, and transact on the same platform. They provide users with industry-specific workflow solutions that enable efficient, ongoing collaboration on long-term projects. This reduces costs and leads to a higher quality of services and increased overall value for all users.

But how do you actually build a successful market-network platform? While the answer to that varies from company to company, here is our approach. We were able to build a market network for the translation industry that combines the components: network, marketplace, and workflow solution.

STEP 1: SaaS workflow platform unlocks high-value collaboration

The first step to building an effective complex market network is to develop a workflow that is easy for users to embrace. It might not seem like much, but this increases productivity by enabling teams to perform tasks that were previously impossible.

Crowned by Burger King, meat replacement company Impossible Foods raises $300 million

After being crowned by Burger King as the first meat replacement patty to roll out nationally with one of the largest fast food chains, Impossible Foods has raised $300 million in capital.

The financing brings the company’s total equity raise to $750 million — and provides a sizable pool of funds to draw from as it continues to compete with its newly publicly traded rival, Beyond Meat.

Both companies are looking to provide plant-based replacements for animal proteins, but while Beyond Meat has focused on consumers in the grocery store, Impossible Foods has focused on restaurants and business-to-business sales.

That focus paid off earlier this year with the announcement of the Impossible Whopper, and its subsequent nationwide rollout only a month later.

The Impossible Burger is now sold in more than 7,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Europe and has been a top-selling item and a driver of new foot traffic, according to the company. However, since it’s actually driving new foot traffic to restaurants, the product’s impact as a meat replacement is arguable. There’s no data from the company on whether people are actually buying less meat, or whether new customers are entering stores.

Investors don’t seem to mind. And given the success of Beyond Meat’s public offering earlier this year, Impossible Foods has a benchmark it can reference to illustrate the appetite institutional investors have for meat replacement companies.

Indeed, even corporate America has taken notice, with Tyson Foods hatching plans to bring its own meat replacement product to market in the coming years.

Previous investors Temasek, the investment arm of the Singaporean government, and Horizons Ventures, the personal venture fund of Hong Kong multi-billionaire Li Ka-shing, led the new financing, which also included a host of celebrity investors.

Jay Brown, Kirk Cousins, Paul George, Jay-Z, Trevor Noah, Alexis Ohanian, Kal Penn, Katy Perry Questlove, Ruby Rose, Phil Rosenthal, Jaden Smith, Serena Williams, will.i.am and Zedd also joined the financing round, making Impossible Foods officially the coolest cap table I’ve ever seen (no offense to Beyond Meat backer Leonardo DiCaprio).

Institutional investors like Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, Google Ventures, UBS, Viking Global Investors, Sailing Capital and Open Philanthropy Project also back the company.

The presence of Impossible Foods’ Asian investors point to the hunger for protein replacements on the continent where the quality of meat is an issue and rising demand is putting increasing pressure on companies looking to feed the continent’s newly wealthy consumers more high-quality protein.

There’s a compelling reason to hope that both companies succeed in their mission to reduce demand for animal protein around the world. Animal husbandry and industrial farming contribute heavily to rising greenhouse gas emissions (which is kind of a huge problem).

And it seems that the strategy is working in Asia. Sales across the continent are rising, according to the company, in restaurants across Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau.

Founded in 2011 by former pediatrician and Stanford biochemistry professor Dr. Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger may be the second greatest invention by a Doc Brown since the ’80s.

Impossible Foods is also hiring extensively in Oakland, Calif., where the company has its largest plant. It has already added to its executive team since the new funding, bringing on Sheetal Shah, a former chief operations officer at Verifone, to oversee the company’s manufacturing, supply chain and logistics.

Citizens Reserve is building a supply chain platform on the blockchain

Citizens Reserve, a Bay Area startup, has a broad goal of digitizing the supply chain. Last fall, the company launched the Alpha version of Suku, a Supply Chain as a Service platform built on the blockchain. Today, it announced a partnership with Smartrac, an RFID tag manufacturer, based in Amsterdam, as a key identity piece for the platform.

Companies use RFID to track products from field or factory to market. Eric Piscini, CEO at Citizens says this partnership helps solve a crucial piece of digitizing the supply chain. It provides a way to trace products on their journey to market, and ensure their provenance, whether that is to be sure no labor was exploited in production, environmental standards were maintained or that the products were stored under the proper conditions to ensure freshness.

One of the big issues in track and trace on the supply chain is simply identifying the universe of items in motion across the world at any given moment. RFID tagging provides a way to give each of these items a digital identity, which can be placed on the blockchain to help prevent fraud. Once you have an irrefutable digital identity, it solves a big problem around digitizing the supply chain.

He said this is all part of a broader effort to move the supply chain to the digital realm by building a platform on the blockchain. This not only provides an irrefutable, traceable digital record, it can have all kinds of additional benefits like reducing theft and fraud and ensuring provenance.

There are so many parties involved in this process from farmers and manufacturers to customs authorities to shipping and container companies to logistics companies moving the products to market to the stores that sell the goods. Getting all of the various parties involved in the supply chain to move to a blockchain solution remains a huge challenge.

Today’s partnership offers one way to help build an identity mechanism for the Citizens Reserve solution. The company is also working on other partnerships to help solve other problems like warehouse management and logistics.

The company currently has 11 employees based in Los Gatos, California. It has raised $11 million, according to Piscini.

In major TV push, China’s Xiaomi buys 0.5% stake in TCL

A veteran TV maker just got a notable refresh as it enters the age of connected devices. Xiaomi, the Beijing-based firm best known for budget smartphones, has bought 65.2 million shares, or 0.48 percent, of Chinese home appliance maker TCL, said TCL in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on Sunday.

Shares of TCL, the world’s third-largest LCD TV manufacturer, jumped nearly 4 percent in morning trading on Monday, giving the company a market cap of $36 billion.

The financial gesture deepens an existing alliance between the duo. On December 29, the companies signed a strategic partnership that would see them collaborate on various fronts, including R&D in integrating smart devices with “core, high-end, and basic” electronic parts. To put in layman’s terms, the joint effort focuses on chips and will make it easier for TCL devices to incorporate into Xiaomi’s operating system, where an expanding universe of third-party gadgets reside. The partners may also make co-investments in the hardware field.

The tie-up provides “tremendous help” for Xiaomi as it ups the ante in home appliances, wrote Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, in a reply to TCL’s CEO Li Dongsheng. During the third quarter of 2018, smart TVs helped drive revenue growth for Xiaomi’s non-smartphone hardware segment, shows the company’s financial results.

“[Our partnership] helps facilitate the transformation and upgrade of China’s manufacturing industry,” wrote Li, whose company started in 1981 as a cassette manufacturer.

Xiaomi has long been keen to team up with manufacturers to make its own branded devices instead of producing them itself. By early 2018, Xiaomi reached nearly 100 such partners, many of which Xiaomi had invested in to harness bargaining power in the supply chain, from what a smartphone should look like to how much it’s priced at. Xiaomi’s retail stores — available online and in physical manifestations — have also opened doors to third-party brands in an effort to broaden product selection.

Xiaomi’s close ties with its ecosystem partners result in an inventory of affordable products rivaling the likes of Fitbit and Apple. During the third quarter of 2018, Xiaomi topped the global chart by shipping 6.9 million units of wearables. Apple and Fitbit came in second and third with 4.2 million units and 3.5 million units, respectively, according to market research firm IDC.

Xiaomi derives most of its revenues from smartphones, though Lei Jun has long envisioned a future in which internet services will be the firm’s main force. This segment, which Xiaomi has marketed as its key financial differentiator against other phone brands, includes sales from mobile games, internet finance, paid content among a slew of services available through Xiaomi’s connected devices.