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Former Facebook and Pinterest exec Tim Kendall traces “extractive business models” to VCs

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Last month, former Facebook and Pinterest executive Tim Kendall told Congress during a House hearing on the dangers of social media that Facebook made its products so addictive because its ad-driven business model relies on people paying attention to its product longer every day. He said much the same in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” in which Kendall — along with numerous other prominent early employees of big tech companies — warns of the threat that Facebook and others pose to modern society.

Kendall — who today runs Moment, an app that helps users monitor device habits and reinforces positive screen-time behavior — isn’t done campaigning against his former employer yet. On Friday morning, we talked with him about the FTC inching closer to filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for its market power in social networking; what he thinks of the DOJ’s separate antitrust lawsuit against Google, filed last Tuesday; and how venture capital contributed to the “unnatural” ways the companies have commanded our attention — and advertisers’ dollars along with it.

Our conversation has been excerpted. You can hear the full conversation here.

TC: Like everyone else, you wrestle with addiction to the apps on your phone. At what point did you decide that you wanted to take a more public role in helping to identify the problem and potentially help solve it.

TK:  I’ve always been interested in willpower, and the various things that weaken it. I have addiction in various parts of my family and extended family, and I’ve seen up close substance abuse, drug abuse. And as I started to look at this problem, it felt really similar. It’s the same shape and size as being addicted to drugs or having a behavioral addiction to food or shopping. But it didn’t seem like anyone was treating this with the same gravity.

TC: What has been the reaction of your colleagues to you turning the tables on this industry?

TK: It has evolved in the sense that, at the beginning of this, I was kinder to Facebook. When I started talking publicly about my work with Moment, I said, ‘Look, I think that those folks are focused on the right issues. And I think they’re going to solve the problem.’ And I was out there throughout 2018, saying that. Now I’ve gotten a lot more vocal [about the fact that] I don’t think they’re doing enough. And I don’t think it’s happening quickly enough. I think they’re absolutely negligent. And I think the negligence is really about not fully and accurately understanding what their platforms are doing to individuals and what their platforms are doing to society. I just do not think they have their arms around it in a complete way.

Is that deliberate? Is that because they’re delusional? I don’t know. But I know that the impact is very serious. And they are not aligned with the rest of us in terms of how severe and significant that impact is.

I think everyone within Facebook has confirmation bias, probably in the same way that I have confirmation bias. I am picking out the family at the restaurant that’s not looking at each other and staring at their phones and thinking, ‘Look at Facebook, it’s ruining families.’ That’s my confirmation bias. I think their confirmation bias is ‘There’s so much good that Facebook has done and is doing for the world.’ I can’t dispute that, and I suspect that the leaders there are looking to those cases more often and dismissing the severity of the cases that we talk about, [including] arguably tipping the election in 2016, propagating conspiracy theories, propagating misinformation.

TC: Do you think that Facebook has to be regulated the FTC?

TK: I think that something has to change. What I would really like to see is the leaders of government all over the world, the consumers that really care about this issue, and then the leaders of the company get together and maybe at the start it’s just a discussion about where we are. But if we could just agree on the common set of facts of the situation that we’re in, and the impact that these platforms are having on our world, if we could just get some alignment in a non-adversarial dynamic, I believe that there is a path whereby [all three can] come together and say, ‘Look, this doesn’t work. The business model is incongruent with the long-term well-being of society, and therefore —  not unlike how fossil fuels are incongruent with the long-term prospects for Earth, we need to have a reckoning and then create and a path out of it.’

Strict regulation that’s adversarial, I’m not sure is going to solve the problem. And it’s just going to be a drawn-out battle whereby more individuals are going to get sick [from addiction to their phones], and [companies like Facebook are] going to continue to wreak havoc on society.

TC: If this antitrust action is not necessarily the answer, what potentially could be on the regulatory front, assuming these three are not going to come together on their own?

TK: Congress and the Senate are looking really closely at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows — and has allowed since it got put in place in 1996 — platforms like Google and Facebook to operate in a very different way than your traditional media company does, in that they’re not liable for the content that shows up on their network.

That seemed like a great idea in 1996. And it did foster a lot of innovation because these bulletin board and portal-ike services were able to grow unabated as they didn’t have to deal with the liability issues on every piece of content that got posted on their platform. But you fast forward to today, it sure seems like one of the ways that we could solve misinformation and conspiracy theories and this tribalism that seems to take root by virtue of the social networks.

If you rewind five or 10 years ago, the issue that really plagued Facebook and to a lesser extent, Google, was privacy. And the government threatened Facebook again and again and again, and it never did anything about it. And finally, in 2019, it assessed a $5 billion fine and then ongoing penalties beyond that  for issues around privacy. And it’s interesting. It’s been a year since those were put in place, and we haven’t had any issues around privacy with Facebook.

TC: You were tasked with developing Facebook’s ad-driven business and coming up with a way for Pinterest to monetize its users. As someone who understands advertising as well as you do, what do you think about this case that the DOJ has brought against Google. What’s your hot take?

TK: If you’re trying to start an online business, and you want to monetize that business through advertising, it’s not impossible, but it is an incredibly steep uphill battle.

Pinterest ultimately broke through when I was president of Pinterest and working on their revenue business. But the dominance of both Google and Facebook within advertising makes it really difficult for new entrants. The advertisers don’t want to buy from you because they basically can get to anyone they want in a very effective way through Google and Facebook. And so what do they need Pinterest for? What do they need Snap for? Why do they need XYZZ startup tomorrow?

That’s on the advertising side. On the search side, Google has been stifling competition for years, and I mean that less in terms of allowing new entrants into search — although the government may be asserting that. I actually mean it in terms of content providers and publishers. They’ve been stifling Yelp for years. They’ve been basically trying to create these universal search boxes that provide the same local information that Yelp does. [Yelp] shows up organically  when I search for sandwich shops in downtown San Mateo, but then [Google puts] their own stuff above it and push it down to create a wedge to hurt Yelp’s business so that [Google] can support and build up their own local business. That’s anti-competitive.

TC: Along with running Moment, you’ve been talking with startups that are addressing some of the issues we’re seeing right now, including startups that tell you if a news outlet is left- and right-leaning so you’re aware of any biases ahead of time. Would you ever raise a fund? We’re starting to see these solo GPs raise pretty enormous first-time funds and people seemingly just as happily entrust their money to you.

TK. I think traditional venture capital, with traditional limited partners, and the typical timeframe of seven years from when the money goes in and the money needs to come out, created some of the problems that we have today. I think that companies are put in a position, once they take traditional venture capital, to do unnatural things and grow in unnatural ways. Absolutely the social networks that took venture capital felt the pressure at the board level from traditional venture capitalists to grow the user base faster and monetize it more quickly. And all those things led to this extractive business model that we’re looking at today with a critical eye and saying, ‘Oh, whoops, maybe this business model is creating an outcome that we don’t really like.’

If I ever took outside money to do more serious professional-grade investing, I would only take it from wealthy individuals and there would be an explicit term that basically said, ‘There’s no time horizon. You don’t get your money back in seven to 10 years necessarily.’ I think that’s the criteria you need to have if you’re really going to do investing in a way that doesn’t contribute to the problems and misaligned incentives that we’re dealing with today.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Primer, the fintech helping merchants consolidate the payments stack, raises £14M Series A

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Primer, the U.K. fintech that wants to help merchants consolidate their payments stack and easily support new payment methods in the future, has raised £14 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Accel, who I understand were quite proactive in persuading Primer to take the VC firm’s money.

The young company wasn’t actively fund-raising, having quietly raised £3.8 million in funding announced in May. Instead, the team was heads down building out the product and wooing potential customers by holding technical workshops and in-depth interviews over Zoom with 100 merchants — activity that didn’t go unnoticed.

Also participating in the Series A are existing investors: Balderton, SpeedInvest and Seedcamp, who were joined in the round by new backer RTP Global. Sonali De Rycker, partner at Accel, will join Primer’s board.

Founded by ex-PayPal employees – via PayPal’s acquisition of Braintree — Primer wants to offer one payments API to (hopefully) rule them all, with the explicit aim of bringing greater transparency to a merchant’s payment stack.

The thinking is that larger merchants, especially those that operate in more than one geography, have to support an array of payment methods, which brings with it significant technical overhead, a poor user experience, and lack of transparency.

Primer, now described as a “low code” platform, carries out a lot of that heavy-lifting on behalf of merchants and while remaining steadfastly payment method agnostic. By doing so, the idea is to reduce friction when adopting new payment methods as they come to market, and be able to provide better insights into things like how well each checkout option is performing.

As well as payment-service-providers (PSPs), the platform has connectors for fraud providers, chargeback services, subscription billing engines, BI tools, loyalty and rewards platforms. Both payments and non-payments services can be “seamlessly connected to the checkout experience and payments flow via workflows, enabling merchants to unify their fraud migration efforts, build sophisticated transaction routing, and solve complex flows – all with no code,” explains Primer.

Primer says the additional funding will be used for international business development and scaling its team. Billed as a remote-first company, Primer has 23 employees across six countries, and says it has already picked up traction across mid-market and large enterprise e-commerce merchants across Europe.

Comments Paul Anthony, Primer’s co-founder and head of product and engineering: “During our time at PayPal, we saw first-hand the technical burden online merchants face trying to offer the best payments experiences to their customers globally. Our low-code approach enables merchants’ payments teams to manage and expand their payments ecosystems, and maintain sophisticated payments logic with a familiar workflow UI”.

Meanwhile, the new investment brings Primer’s total funding to £17.8 million, and comes only a few weeks after the initial launch of the company’s platform.

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Gillmor Gang: Electrical Banana

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Thanks I’m giving for the start of the first big online season. Yes, the pandemic has put in place a gigantic move to the digital for our immediate and accelerated future. We all know how this plays out in the required state of things pre-vaccine. But there’s an undercurrent not so hidden there of a dynamic answer to my wife’s stubborn question: Where’s my Jetpack?

She’s a child of the 60s, a post-Beatles time of imploding dreams and dashed expectations. James Bond got to fly a Jetpack, but the telltale burned gasoline exhaust made the effect an artifact of what wasn’t going to happen. In an electric decade and noise-canceling AirPods, maybe it’s more likely to surface than not, but if so, what’s the next Jetpack?

My vote is for the electric newsletter, a notification engine that knows what I’m tracking, projects the trends circulating my core peers, and invests proactively in the products we want to accelerate. It’s a self healing economy, a research coordinator, a humor and media rewarder. On the Gang, we use a blend of live streaming, backchannel notifications, and everything up to but not including a newsletter.

From its earliest days, Twitter promised a future where RSS authority would be mined in a social context. What I mean by that is RSS delivered the ability, the chair in the sky opportunity Louis C.K. described, the chance to explore the world alongside the artists formerly known as accredited journalists. It was always a tough sell for the displaced gatekeepers, but flash forward to today and you can see they’re all bloggers and podcasters now.

The moment the meritocracy window opened, the definition of success moved to the readers, the viewers, the social enterprise as Marc Benioff insisted. Software as a service mined those social signals as fuel for what the iPhone delivered in the mobile wave. Now the mobile economy is expanding to the silicon on the desktop. M1 seems like an evolution, but its entry point on consumer laptops is designed to produce network effects in the same way Office 97 boosted Windows 95 into orbit.

So where is this electric newsletter if it’s so important? As a vehicle for finding stuff I didn’t know I cared about, newsletters suffer from too many of them with too few business models driving them. Subscriptions derive revenue but reduce the network effects of advertising supported subsidy of firewalls. You get reach but quantity explodes. Context glut is not a pretty thing, either.

Our early attempts at constructing a Gang newsletter spawned the realtimeTelegram feed; its group-shared notification stream valuable as much for what we skipped as when we dipped in to it. As a framing device for the Gillmor Gang recording sessions, we could anticipate both what we wanted to talk about and what we wanted to avoid. Trump fatigue gets burned off in Telegram, while science and innovation get drilled down on and fleshed out in advance.

Adding a Twitter feed (follow @gillmorgang) pushes Likes and retweets into the mix. The live recording stream generates Facebook Watch Parties and additional comments. An edited version here on TechCrunch adds this related commentary. But where’s the newsletter for all these live pieces?

Perhaps the answer goes back to the Jetpack? It may not be the Jetpack we are looking for, but rather the components that make up this stream as a service. A Jetpack offers the dream of instant teleportation without the traffic jams or being polite about your Uber driver’s musical taste. Zoom already offers some of that promise, where saving the commute opens up hours in your day. Zoom-enabled shopping and delivery management will go a long way.

As Donovan presciently proclaimed, Electrical Banana gonna to be the very next phase. My electric newsletter is the perfect definition of a pipe dream. It’s not so much as when it’s going to get here as what.

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor . Recorded live Friday, November 20, 2020.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

For more, subscribe to the Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

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Firstminute Capital launches second $111 fund, featuring a whos-who of founders as LPs

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London HQ’d Firstminute Capital has announced its second early-stage venture fund of $111m (£87m). Founded and cornerstoned in 2016 by Brent Hoberman CBE (best known as co-founder of lastminute.com and MADE.com), together with Spencer Crawley (formerly of Goldman Sachs), this new fund comes after the first fund of $100M, giving Firstminute $211M assets under management, investing across Europe and the US at the seed stage.

Firstminute’s team of 18 is based in London, Stockholm and Berlin and now has plans to open an office in LA next year.

Of note is the fact that its LPs now number 70 founders of billion-dollar businesses as investors, and that Firstminute is being so open. VCs typically do not reveal much information about LPs. Hoberman has clearly also leveraged his position as founder of the Founders Forum group which runs events and activities for European tech founders.

The fact that so many founders – largely drawn from the ranks of European startups – have invested is unusual, certainly for European VC funds. It includes 16 founders of $10bn+ “decacorn” technology businesses, including Palantir, Wayfair, Ocado, MongoDB, Zalando, Supercell and Check Point, as well as founders from Huda Beauty, Graphcore and Rappi. Included are board members and CEOs from large technology companies.

RIT Capital Partners is the fund’s anchor investor. This is their first such position in a European venture capital firm. They previously backed leading US funds including Sequoia, Benchmark, Thrive and Iconiq. Additional institutional investors include the Chinese technology giant Tencent, FMCG conglomerate Henkel, London-based venture fund Atomico and four Californian multi-stage firms.

The existing Fund I portfolio consists of 56 companies that have collectively raised approximately $0.5bn in funding.

Firstminute says half of its current portfolio companies have UK headquarters, with the remaining half split between continental Europe and North America. Two-thirds of the businesses are B2B and one third are B2C.

Hoberman said in a statement: “European technology is reaching escape velocity, and it’s fantastic to enable so many global serial entrepreneurs to give their experience to the next generation: we have over 70 unicorn founders joining us on this journey so far, and more to come as we approach final close. Seed venture investing is attracting ever higher quality backers which will help more founders succeed.”

Crawley, firstminute Co-founder & General Partner, said: “Our healthcare systems, workplaces and educational establishments face fresh complexities. The service economy is having to re-imagine itself. The gap between financial markets and the real economy is growing wider (with the young most at risk). Start-ups are not a panacea, but emerging technology companies have a key role to play in today’s recovery strategy, both in their mindset and the products they will create.”

I asked Hoberman to what extent was the internationalization of the fund‘s geographical footprint related to Brexit?

“Some investors have asked us about the risks of Brexit to a UK-based fund and it’s been great to highlight the international nature of our approach,” he said. “The potential threats of a bad Brexit deal ensured we moved faster to cover more geographies.”

I also asked him what advantages or disadvantages does having so many founders as LPs confer on the fund?

“Operators understand the rollercoaster of the founder journey well. They know the path to success is rarely linear. They have lived the scaling journey with all its challenges. They can impart this wisdom to the next generation.

“These founders know about blitzscaling, board management, prioritization, fundraising, internationalization and above all the role of talent and teams. This knowledge can make the difference between failure and extraordinary success.

“Furthermore successful founders often have world-class network, useful for hiring, internationalization and business development deals,” he said.

Firstminute also announced some team changes. Arek Wylegalski, formerly of Index Ventures, has joined as a partner for Fund II. Arek was a Venture Partner with the firm during Fund I. Lina Wenner, formerly of BCG, has been promoted to Associate Partner, and Camilla Mazzolini, Clara Lindh Bergendorff and Sam Endacott have been promoted to Principals. Min Nolan, Head of Platform & Operations, and Anais Benazet, Head of Community, lead the portfolio support function, whilst Henry Lane-Fox, Steve Crossan and Tommy Stadlen continue to invest as venture partners.

The backers of firstminute capital funds include the founders and/or executives from the companies listed below:

firstminute LPs – Founders of $10bn+ companies, include:

Joe Lonsdale (Palantir Technologies), Robert Gentz (Zalando), Niraj Shah (Wayfair), Tim Steiner (Ocado), Marius Nacht (Check Point), Kevin Ryan (MongoDB), Ilkka Paananen (Supercell), Adyen, Autonomy, Airtel.

firstminute LPs – Founders of $1bn+ companies, include:

Sebastian Mejia (Rappi), Ross Mason (MuleSoft), Pete Flint (Trulia), Martin Migoya (Globant), Vikrant Bhargava (PartyGaming), Martin Varsavsky (Jazztel, Fon, Eolia), Fabrice Grinda (OLX), Steve Fredette (Toast), Rafi Gidron (Chromatis), Simon Nixon (Moneysupermarket), Lars Hinrichs (XING), Johan Brand (Kahoot), Huda Kattan (Huda Beauty), Tom Chapman & Ruth Chapman (Matchesfashion), Nigel Toon (Graphcore), Carl Pei (OnePlus), Hanzade Dogan (Hepsiburada), Barry Smith (Skyscanner), Sir Charles Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse), Hamish Shephard (HelloFresh), Alexander Rittweger (Payback), Marketshare, King.com, BlaBlaCar, Qunar, Net-a-Porter, Fox Kids Europe, Webhelp, Betfair, Datamonitor, Tradex Technologies, Zoopla.

firstminute LPs – Current or Former CEOs and Chairs, include:

Eric Schmidt (former Chairman and CEO, Google), Michael Lynton (Chairman, Snap and Warner Music Group, former CEO and Chairman, Sony), Sir Paul Ruddock (Co-founder & former CEO of Lansdowne Partners, Chairman Oxford University Endowment), Lord Mervyn Davies (Chairman of Corsair Capital, former Minister and Standard Chartered CEO & Chairman), Linda Fayne Levinson (former Chairwoman of Hertz), Jeremy Coller (Founder, Chairman and CIO Coller Capital), David Giampaolo (Chairman, Gousto), Ian Gallienne (CEO, Sienna Capital), Alexander de Carvalho (Co-founder & CIO of Public.io, Heineken NED), Babatunde Soyoye (Co-founder and Managing Partner, Helios Investment Partners), Nextdoor, PicsArt, Booking.com, Nordeus, Kinnevik AB, JCDecaux Holdings.

firstminute LPs – Institutional Investors, include:

RIT Capital Partners, Tencent, Atomico, Henkel, Felicis Ventures, The Raine Group, LionTree Partners, Lombard Odier.

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