Fri, 10/20

Blue Apron’s slicing its staff

In an effort to get “closer to profitability,” meal kit company Blue Apron has laid off 6% of its staff.

Specifics haven’t been released, but sources say that up to 300 people may have been cut — and the move is going to cost the company around $3.5m in severance payments.

These layoffs come after a tough few months

The company’s had a rough go in the past few months. Since their IPO in late June, they’ve watched their stock price plummet by 43%, from a debut of $9.34 to $5.27.

In the face of new competition from the likes of Amazon and Plate, their revenue took a $31.6m hit in the second quarter.

And it gets worse…

Back in August, Blue Apron was hit with multiple shareholder lawsuits for misleading investors about its business prior to going public.

The company purportedly withheld knowledge of Amazon’s meal kit concept until after the IPO — and now, investors want their money back.

So, in a certain distorted way, maybe the employees who are being let go are getting out at the right time.

Fri, 10/20

We knew it: Drug companies purposely make eyedrops too big

Big drug companies aren’t exactly known as beacons of morality — so it comes as no surprise they’ve been duping us in the eyedrop department.

As NPR and ProPublica report, the human eye can only handle about 25 microliters (μL) without spillage — and it can only absorb 7 μL. Yet, the $3.4B eyedrop industry intentionally designs bottles that dispense drops of up to 50 μL.

Why? So consumers run out faster and have to buy more.

eyedrops

Despite numerous studies over the past 25 years showing that most of the typical eyedrop liquid is wasted — and despite proposals from good-guy ophthalmologists to design less wasteful products — the industry has refused to change.

Because, of course, reducing waste cuts into profits.

As a result, consumers take on the burden of additional purchases. And that’s a pretty big deal, considering that some glaucoma eyedrops run up to $295 per bottle.

Fri, 10/20

What’s up with the environment?

Well, it’s still here, which is good news.

But in case you’ve been in the dark about the latest happenings, here’s an update on all things Mother Earth.

Jeff Bezos has opened a massive wind farm in Texas

In a move that can only be described as ‘peak Bezos,’ the yoked Amazon founder christened his latest project — Amazon Wind Farm Texas — by smashing a champagne bottle on a wind turbine while suspended 300 feet in the air.

The 100-turbine farm, purchased from Lincoln Clean Energy, is Amazon’s largest to date. The company now controls 18 wind and solar farms across the US and has plans to build 35 more in the coming years.

The government sucks at estimating solar installations

Bi-annually, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases projections on energy usage. They’re usually wrong, but last year was an absolute doozy.

In 2016, the EIA underestimated solar power capacity in the US by — wait for it — 4,813%. Kind of a big deal, when you consider these figures are used to set national policies and regulations.

Germany’s got a bug problem

Usually, ‘bug problem’ means “WE’VE GOT A MOSQUITO IN THE HOUSE. GET IT THE F*&# OUT!” — Not in Germany.

In the past 25 years, more than three-quarters of all flying insects in the country’s nature preserves have vanished. Scientists are calling it an “ecological Armageddon,” and suspect that pesticides may be to blame.

Fri, 10/20

Alphabet’s Capital G invests $1B in Lyft

Yesterday, Capital G announced a $1B investment in Uber’s mustached nemesis, bringing Lyft’s valuation to $11B.

This huge investment, of course, comes as Uber and Google’s Waymo duke it out in a fierce intellectual property lawsuit — and as Softbank nears a major investment deal with the U.

So what now, it’s Alphabet vs. SoftBank?

Basically. While the Uber-SoftBank deal isn’t finalized, it is well on its way, including a potential multi-billion cash investment and buyout of existing shareholders, in exchange for as large as a 22% stake in the company.

This is on top of SoftBank’s plan to pile more money on top of their recent $93B investment in their “Vision Fund,” created in hopes of acquiring stakes in some of Silicon Valley’s sexiest companies.

In other words, they want to take over SV.

But let’s get back to Lyft

This large investment from Alphabet comes at the tail end of a huge year for them. They’ve significantly expanded their footprint to cover 95% of the US, and have already inked deals with companies like GM, Ford, Drive.ai, Google’s Waymo, and Nutonomy to begin testing their autonomous vehicles.

Between these two corporate giants, this is really shaping up to be a fierce battle between King Kong and Godzilla. You can decide which is which.

Thu, 10/19

Magic Leap’s elephant in the room

This week, several news sources published articles questioning the viability of Magic Leap’s technology, and their PR team isn’t exactly taking it in stride.

Chief PR exec Andy Fouche will be headed for greener pastures to work under Andy Rubin (of Google Alphabet’s Android project), leaving the company to deal with the scandal themselves. Because, according to insiders…

Magic Leap’s technology is a bit of a stretch…

Or to put it another way, their AR “magic” seems like more of a leap than a reality.

Since Magic Leap debuted their famous “elephant in the palm of your hand” teaser video, we have yet to see anything close to a viable consumer product.

And thanks to recent exposés, we now know that the original prototype technology was essentially a fancy projector the size of a refrigerator. Not exactly accessible to the masses.

That means the their actual product (revealed to be a pair of glasses) is not only behind schedule, but it won’t use the same technology promised in their hype videos.

On top of all that, the only answer that founder Rony Abovitz has given on a timeline for Magic Leap’s product release is, “soon.” So, we’re thinking it might be time for us all to lower our expectations.

Wow, what a buzzkill…

Yeah, that’s what happens when you let a marketing team run wild with promo videos for half-baked technology. It’s also what happens when you straight up mislead people.

We meant One of the company’s viral videos “Just Another Day in the Office at Magic Leap,” showed employees fighting robots using Magic Leap headsets with the caption, “This is a game we’re playing around the office.”

Except the game didn’t exist and the video wasn’t filmed with Magic Leap technology. According to employees, it was an “aspirational conceptual” video, not meant to depict the actual technology. “Aspiring” a little too hard right now, Magic Leap…

Thu, 10/19

Why it’s way easier to focus in a coffee shop than an open-office

According to recent studies examining the effects of sound on the brain, coffee shops are a better place to get work done than your cubicle or trendy open-office.

Typically, the #1 complaint with open or cubicle-filled offices is the unwanted noise. But new research suggests that some level of background noise is actually beneficial to a person’s creativity.

So get (moderately) noisy people

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the right level of ambient noise triggers our minds to think more creatively.

In another study, researchers used frontal lobe electroencephalographic (EEG) machines to study the brain waves of participants as they completed tests of creativity while exposed to various sound environments.

So how does this show that coffee shops are better than open offices?

Researchers found that while technically quieter, when there are only a few conversations happening in your office at a time, it’s actually easier to get distracted by them. And the face-to-face interactions, conversations, and other disruptions people tend to encounter in open offices negatively affect the creative process.

Finding the ideal space for focused work isn’t about freedom from noise but about freedom from interruption. If you can find a space (like a coffee shop) that you can hide away in, no matter how noisy it is, that space should be your best bet to get some work done.

Sorry, boiss. *said in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent*

Thu, 10/19

Magic Leap has $5B worth of potential… and still no product

“Mixed reality” startup Magic Leap has officially closed a massive $502m round of funding led by Singapore’s state-owned fund Temasek, putting their post-funding valuation at about $5B.

Which is funny… because they still don’t have a working prototype.

Kinda makes you wonder what they did with the other $1.4B

The Florida-based company raised $794m about a year and a half ago, putting their total backing at $1.4B — prior to this round.

But all the investor optimism in the world can’t make up for the fact that they have yet to share even an estimated launch date with the public.

Meanwhile, incriminating exposés suggest that Magic Leap’s demo videos, which depict things like a whale breaching in a gymnasium, wildly exaggerated their technical capabilities (the prototype required a fancy projector the size of a refrigerator).

And even if they do manage to work out the kinks…

There’s no guarantee anyone will actually want it

Augmented reality is an untested market: so far consumers have been hesitant to shell out big bucks for Oculus’ virtual reality headset, and there’s no guarantee that Magic Leap would fair much better.

Either way, they’ve been climbing the ladder to the high dive for about 6 years now — and whether they swan dive, or do a big ol’ belly flop, it’s gonna be a whale of a business tale.

Thu, 10/19

For the low price of $1k, you can track someone’s location with mobile ads

A team of researchers from the University of Washington has figured out just how easy it is to exploit mobile advertising networks.

Turns out, with a little time and $1k, an ad-savvy “spy can track your location and learn specific details about you, like your sexual orientation, or the kinds of apps you have on your phone.

The experiment

Using an Android phone, the researchers created a mobile banner ad and a website that served as the landing page. Then, they spent $1k to place orders on side-platforms that allow ad buyers to specify ad criteria — Facebook, Google AdWords, etc.

From there, they set their tests to appear on the ad-supported calling and texting app Talkatone. Every time a target had Talkatone open near one of his set coordinates, the ad would appear on it, allowing researchers to determine where, when, and on which phone the ad had been shown.

Okay. So what?

Ad tech has progressed to a point where it is way too easy to rig — and while society is frequently vocal about its fears of Google and Facebook spying on us, this is stuff that literally any advertiser worth his salt can pull off.  

What this shows is that with some pretty standard ad-tech and a little bit of money, anyone can spy on anyone.

Thu, 10/19

Dollar stores are crushing it where Walmart can’t: small, rural American towns

The tiny rural towns that dot America’s heartland have long been considered unprofitable by big retailers like Walmart.

And another industry has capitalized on this neglect: dollar stores.

In places like Decatur, AR (population of 1,788), these stores have found a lucrative business peddling deeply-discounted, generic goods to economically disadvantaged communities.

Dollar store economics

The dollar store industry is dominated by two titans: Dollar General and Dollar Tree. Together, these chains have 27.5k locations in America — more than CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens combined.

Dollar General, the larger of the two, recently rolled out a $22B plan to open 1k new locations in lower-income, rural towns across the country.

Why invest there?

For starters, the average Dollar General only costs $250k to open (compared to $15m for Walmart), which makes going after smaller, neglected markets feasible.

While dollar stores have relatively low average sales ($229 per square foot, compared to the $325 industry average), their profit margins, at 31%, are far above average — thanks to the extremely low input cost of their generic goods.

Another reason: the poor communities they’re operating in aren’t as likely to migrate to Amazon for their shopping trips. The average customer spends $10 per trip and prioritizes convenience and value over variety.

The dark side

Dollar stores thrive in periods of economic decline — and since the US is humming along at large, they’ve resorted to setting up shop in middle-America towns that have a history of struggling.

On the one hand, these stores are adding convenience to people in food deserts (AKA, areas that don’t have any grocery stores nearby)…  

But they’re also betting on a “permanent underclass” in America. As one real estate analyst tells Bloomberg, “It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places.”

Wed, 10/18

For teens, Snapchat is the new Facebook

Remember back when Facebook first launched, and we were all posting statuses about our dentist appointments and writing on each other’s walls 24/7? Well, Snapchat appears to be experiencing the same blowout growth with today’s teens.

Sure, we all know Snapchat’s popular with the youths, but maybe we underestimated exactly how addicted teens are to the platform.

47% of teens now say Snapchat is their favorite social network — a stat that’s nearly doubled in just 18 months while numbers for other platforms have stayed pretty much the same.

And, despite Zuck’s efforts to replicate Spiegel’s Snap features at every turn, only 24% of teens ranked Instagram as their #1.

So it looks like there’s no imitation after all.

Wed, 10/18

Streaming media companies are going after TickBox

Netflix, Amazon, and several major movie studios are joining forces and filing a first-of-its-kind copyright lawsuit against the streaming media player manufacturer, TickBox.

The complaint, filed Friday, claims the company’s devices are nothing more than “tools for mass infringement.”

But TickBox TV claims to be 100% legal

The device in question, the TickBox TV, operates by grabbing pirated video streams from the Internet, giving users instant access to multiple sources that stream the Plaintiffs’ copyrighted works without authorization.

While TickBox’s front-page Q&A brazenly cites its sources, other parts of the Q&A seem to directly contradict claims of legality.

The platform even has an “In Theaters” category that includes unreleased content that is definitely not authorized for free Internet streaming. For instance, Fox’s War for the Planet of the Apes was listed as available on TickBox even though Fox had not authorized the movie for in-home viewing of any kind.

We’re not lawyers, but… seems pretty dubious

The device is powered by Kodi, an open source media player software that is legal. But in the age of the piracy boom, software like Kodi can easily be exploited by copyright-infringing add-ons like TickBox TV.

Needless to say, the facts presented in the complaint don’t seem to bode well for the streaming company’s survival, as pretty much all signs lead to suuuuper shady.

Wed, 10/18

Airbnb’s new rival, Vacasa, just raised $103m

Vacasa, a Portland-based online vacation rental company (and a sick portmanteau of the words “vacation” and “casa”), just closed a $103.5m Series B led by a group of private equity firms looking to take Airbnb to the mat.

So what’s the difference between the two?

While Airbnb runs off of a peer-to-peer model that relies on homeowners to fix up their properties for guests, Vacasa takes a more hands-on approach — billing itself as a “full-service property management company.”

Aimed at wealthier travelers, Vacasa has on-premise employees who work as housekeepers, reservations agents, local managers, etc. — making Vacasa homes feel more like a hotel room than a stranger’s room you’re hiding out in.

And their model is catching on with other companies

The high-end rental business is a key growth area for the travel industry with companies seeking to boost profits by targeting wealthy tourists.

In February, Airbnb purchased Luxury Retreats, which offers tools similar to Vacasa for managing vacation properties remotely.

Meanwhile, Vacasa has grown quietly across the US and abroad, its smaller size helping it avoid the regulatory scrutiny that Airbnb seems to attract.

In other words, the fight for online vacation rental domination has begun.

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