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Virtual HQs race to win over a remote-work-fatigued market

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In retrospect, 2019 feels like the working world’s last dance with spontaneity. The pre-pandemic past is rife with conferences, running into co-workers and post-work happy hours. Now, as companies such as Microsoft and Twitter declare remote work as the future, the very existence of physical offices is unclear for the long-term.

Yet, to a growing number of entrepreneurs in the Valley, when one physical door closes, a virtual one opens. With the goal of making remote work more spontaneous, there are dozens of new startups working to create virtual HQs for distributed teams. The three that have risen to the top include Branch, built by Gen Z gamers; Gather, created by engineers building a gamified Zoom; and Huddle, which is still in stealth.

The platforms are all racing to prove that the world is ready to be a part of virtual workspaces. By drawing on multiplayer gaming culture, the startups are using spatial technology, animations and productivity tools to create a metaverse dedicated to work.

The biggest challenge ahead? The startups need to convince venture capitalists and users alike that they’re more than Sims for Enterprise or an always-on Zoom call. The potential success could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

Succulents and spatial technology

Companies within the virtual HQ world sit on a spectrum. On one end, there are the productivity companies, and on the other end, there are the video game companies. In the middle sits a mix between work and play, which is where Branch hopes to live.

There are more than 500 companies on Branch’s waitlist, and of current users, the retention has been 60% after a month of using the platform. So far, it has raised $1.5 million from investors including Homebrew, Naval Ravikant, Sahil Lavingia and Cindy Bi.

Walk through Branch’s virtual HQ and there are all the normal details you’d find in an office on Market Street: There are meeting rooms, lunch tables, a literal watercooler and, yes, succulents on your co-worker’s desk. Most employees log on for 12 hours, and for Election Day, they all had a watch party with a projected live stream in one area of the office.

The founder tells me that he’s hired people — and fired people — all in the virtual offices. Doors, he says, make a big difference.

The platform wasn’t built as a pandemic phenomenon, but in fact, was the result of years of experimentation by the founders, Dayton Mills and Kai Micah Mills. Both founders, since the age of 15, have spent time building Minecraft servers to sell to gamers, netting each thousands of dollars a month. In fact, Kai dropped out of high school to run Minecraft servers full-time, while Dayton tried at 13 to create his own game studio, even hiring an artist to do the illustrations. The game studio failed due to the fact that he was a “kid, 13, and had no money.”

“I spent the majority of my time online playing games with people. So my whole day was playing video games and having people to talk to in the background because I was on constant calls with people,” co-founder Dayton Mills said. “So for me, it’s not hard at all to use it. The question is can I get other people to think the same way?”

For now, Dayton Mills remains confident that his team’s platform will do well. After all, work is a non-negotiable place that you have to show up every day. And why not make that a little more fun?

“You can build a space where everyone comes to work,” he said. “Then after that, you can start building the spaces where they go after work. And it kind of spirals from there.”

Branch, like other virtual HQ platforms, is forced into an interesting spot of being both relevant enough to be used, but passive enough of an app to not feel like a burden. Dayton Mills says that this dynamic has made the team add features like no mandatory video or audio, and a talking icon per user to give the appearance of live interaction. The focus is to keep it casual so people can actually be online for six hours a day.

“People use Slack to work remotely but you go into a physical office and people are still using Slack, he said. The co-founder hopes the same for Branch, and has started measuring how many times people talk to each other in a given day. He says there are hundreds of chats per day, even if some are only for a few seconds.

The key technology that Branch and others are using to create spontaneity is spatial gaming infrastructure. At its core, the technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they “walk” away. It gives the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Dayton Mills thinks that the winning company in this crowded space is the one that can create a space that cultivates and sparks spontaneity.

“You can’t create the serendipity itself directly,” he said. “So create that environment.”

Gather, likely the largest virtual HQ platform out there, has embedded features to do what Mills is suggesting, such as “shoulder taps” to prompt a co-worker to chat, or pool tables where employees can circle around and start a virtual game of pool. The office tour included seeing a corgi on the desk, jack-o-lanterns and this reporter even added some floor plants to the set-up.

Gather’s main floor.

“You don’t need to worry about constantly worrying about if you’re being seen or not, but you will hear anyone who tries to come and talk to you,” said Phillip Wang, the founder of Gather.

The office design includes whiteboards and floating Google Docs to promote announcements and conversations.

Gather has been in the works for more than 18 months, since Wang and his friends graduated college. The team first tried to create custom wearables that would show you which of your friends were able to talk so you can tap into a conversation. When that didn’t work, they pivoted into apps, VR and full-body robotics. Then COVID-19 hit, and they saw an opening in the workplace.

Trillions, billions or none of the above?

Gather raised some money from angel investors, but has largely stayed away from institutional investors due to the potential of their cap table “biasing” the growth and direction of the company.

“You could easily end up in situations where the only options are ones you’re not happy with,” Wang said, of bringing VCs on at this stage. “We always want the way we make money to be aligned and incentivized to do good for our users.”

Angel investor Josh Elman tells me that many VCs are interested in the product, given traction and team, but also because virtual HQs have the potential to be more than just, well, virtual HQs. While offices are one space that the technology can occupy, the same base can be applied to schools, events, weddings and more.

To show potential, Elman nodded at Hopin, an online events platform that recently raised $125 million at a $2.1 billion valuation. It seems that most VCs agree there will be a number of winners in the events space, but it just comes down to the stickiness of the platform.

With the right value proposition, it’s not hard for people to understand multiplayer online gaming. For example, Epic Games’ Fortnite threw a psychedelic Travis Scott concert and more than 12.3 million people watched.

Thus, people are smart enough to understand gaming — but what about wanting to do it every single day with their colleagues, sans music and flashing lights? The total addressable market for professional, social gaming is murky. What if these platforms are a little bit more palatable as healthy businesses, instead of betting that the upstarts are a venture-backable business that could one day become a $100 billion business?

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Huddle’s Florent Crivello disagrees. He thinks the market opportunity for his company, an in-stealth remote HQ, is in the trillions because it has the potential to disrupt real estate, transportation and, in a macro sense, urban cities.

“I tell my former colleagues at Uber that I’m still working on transportation,” he said. “It’s just that the future of transportation is no transportation.”

Huddle has been in private beta for six months and is used by teams at Apple and Uber. There have been tens of thousands of hours of meeting on the platform, and Crivello says that some customers have stopped using Slack or Zoom altogether.

“The mistake they’re making at Slack is that there’s a difference between seeing a list of names on the screen and clicking on a name. And there’s a difference between seeing someone in the office and saying hi,” he said. “I think there’s something very human about the latter.”

Sahil Lavingia, the founder of Gumroad, got rid of Gumroad’s office in 2016, and says that they’re never going back.

“Offices are just too expensive and not necessary 40 hours a week,” he said. “I don’t think physical offices will go away, but they’ll be vastly diminished now that people know work can happen quite effectively, remotely. It’s also much cheaper.” Lavingia invested in Branch’s seed round.

Megan Zengerle, a partner at Sweat Equity who previously had a career in HR, said that companies considering virtual HQs should think about how long-term the solution is.

“Is that truly the culture you want to build for the company? Is that something that will serve the company long term? Is it logical sense to set up that way?” Zengerle said. “Culture is living and breathing, it’s not a static thing that you set and is done.”

Zengerle thinks that virtual HQs depend largely on the scope and product of the team. Most definitely, she does not think the solution is one size fits all.

“There’re a lot of playbooks coming out of the pandemic,” she said. “But the way you vary happens across each employee in the organization, much less organization by organization.”

These are the hurdles that have limited startups in the past, including 2011 TechCrunch Disrupt winner Shaker, from attracting a large customer base.

Before the pandemic, the world was not culturally ready for widespread remote work. Then, COVID-19 forced offices closed and employees adapted. These startups are betting that with the mass adaptation will come another cultural shift, one that could bring the metaverse into mainstream.

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

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Rock-star programmer: Rivers Cuomo finds meaning in coding

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“Hi, I’m Rivers from the band, Weezer,” Rivers Cuomo says with a slight smile and a wave. He turns away from the camera for a bit, before launching into his best infomercial pitch. “Imagine you’re on tour, and you’re sitting in your dressing room or your tour bus. You’re backstage. You have stage fright, you’re stressing out. You’re pacing back and forth. And then on top of that, your tour manager is constantly calling you, asking you logistical questions.”

As far as internet pitch videos go, it’s not the most universal. If anything, the three-minute clip loses any hope of populist appeal by the end. In a final shot, the singer in a maroon SpaceX hoodie is the last up the ramp onto a private jet. The plane door closes revealing a Weezer flying “W” logo.

“Download Drivetimes now, on GitHub,” Cuomo adds in voice-over. “This is CS50X.”

It’s not the most polished app pitch video, and Cuomo’s elevator pitch could probably do with a bit of refining before approaching venture capitalists about a seed round. As far as final projects for online programming courses go, however, it’s something to behold. The images alternate between pages of code, Google spreadsheets and POV shots as he takes the stage for a co-headlining tour with the Pixies.

It helped earn Cuomo a 95 in the class.

But while, in its current configuration, the Drivetime tour scheduling tool might have limited appeal, the musician’s final project from Harvard’s follow-up course, CS50W, is immediately apparent for an army of fans who have followed his quarter-century-plus career. This week Cuomo dropped more than 2,400 demos totaling more than 86 hours. Spanning 1976 to 2015, the songs range in quality from tape-recorded sketches to more polished fare. Some would eventually find their way onto Weezer’s 13 albums, or assorted side projects. Others wouldn’t be so lucky.

Available through Cuomo’s “Mr. Rivers’ Neighborhood” site, the tracks are gathered into nine bundles, each available for $9 a piece. “By the way,” Cuomo writers at the bottom of a disclaimer, “this market is my final project for a course I’m taking in web programming.”

For half-a-decade, the platinum-selling rock star has been moonlighting as a computer programming student.

“I was always a spreadsheet guy,” Cuomo tells TechCrunch. “Around 2000, I think I started in Microsoft Access and then Excel. Just keeping track of all my songs and demos and ideas. Spreadsheets got more and more complicated to the point where it was like, ‘Well, I’m kind of almost writing code here in these formulas, except it’s super hard to use. So maybe I should actually do programming instead.’ ”

It would be an odd side hustle for practically any other successful musician. For Cuomo, however, it’s the next logical step. In the wake of the massive success of Weezer’s self-titled debut, he enrolled as a sophomore at Harvard, spending a year living in a dorm. He would ultimately leave school to record the band’s much-loved follow-up, Pinkerton, but two more more enrollments in 1997 and 2004 found the musician ultimately graduating with an English BA in 2006.

CS50 found Cuomo returning to Harvard — at least in spirit. The course is hosted online by the university, a free introduction to computer science.

“I went through some online courses and was looking for something that looked appealing and so I saw the Harvard CS50 was very popular,” Cuomo says. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’ll give this a shot.’ It didn’t take immediately. The first week course was using Scratch. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s like kind of click and drag type of programming, and you’re making a little video game.”

A six-week course stretched out for six months for the musician. That same year, the musician — now a father of two — played dozens of shows and recorded Weezer’s 10th album, the Grammy-nominated White Album.

“When we hit Python halfway through the course,” Cuomo says, “I was just amazed at how powerful it was and intuitive it was for me, and I could just get so much done. Then by the end of the course, I was writing programs that were really helping me manage my day-to-day life as a traveling musician and then also managing my spreadsheets and managing my work as a creative artist.”

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. The band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. What has seemingly been a bigger issue, however, is organizing those thoughts. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

The “thousands” of spreadsheets became a database, cataloging Cuomo’s own demos and work he was studying from other artists.

“For years it seemed like kind of a waste of time or an indulgence,” he says. “I should be writing a new song or, or recording a song rather than just cataloging these old ideas, but I’ve found that, years later, I’m able to very efficiently make use of these ancient ideas because I can just tell my Python program, ‘Hey, show me all the ideas I have at 126 BPM in the key of A flat that start with a third degree of the scale and the melody and are in Dorian mode and that my manager has given three stars or more to.’ ”

He admits that the process may be lacking in some of the rock and roll romanticism for which fans of the bands might hope. But in spite of drawing on pages of analytics, Cuomo insists there’s still magic present.

For Cuomo, productivity has never been much of an issue. Given his level of productivity, however, organizing all of those thoughts can get tricky. That’s where the spreadsheets and database come in.

“There’s still plenty of room for spontaneity and inspiration in what we traditionally think of as human creativity,” Cuomo explains. “One of my heroes in this realm is Igor Stravinsky. There’s a collection of his lectures called “The Poetics of Music.” And he had a note in that collection. He said he has no interest in a composer that’s only using one of his faculties, like a composer that says, ‘I am only going to write what pops into my head spontaneously when I’m in some kind of a creative zone. I won’t use any of my other tools.’

“He says, ‘No, I prefer to listen to the music of a composer who’s using every faculty at his disposal, his intuition, but also his intellect and his ability to analyze and categorize and make use of everything he has.’ I find that those ended up being the most wild and unpredictable and creative compositions.”

And there’s been no shortage of compositions. Cuomo says the band has two albums completed beyond this year’s Black Album, and he’s already begun work on two more follow-ups. After decades of feeling beholden to the 18-month major label album release cycle, the singer says that after the Demos project, he has a newfound interest in finding more ways to release music directly to fans.

“I don’t feel like I’m really good at understanding the big-picture marketplace and how to make the biggest impact in the world,” he says. “My manager is so good at that, but I just told them like, ‘Hey, this feels like something here. First of all, it’s really fun. The fans are really happy. It’s super easy for everyone involved.’ The coding part wasn’t easy, but for everyone else, it’s a couple of clicks and you’ve got all this music, and it’s a cheap price, and there’s no middleman. PayPal takes a little bit, but it’s nothing like a major label. So, this could be something. And there’s just something, it feels so good when it’s directly from me to the audience.”

For now, computer science continues to take up a major chunk of his time. Cuomo estimates that he’s been spending around 70% of his work hours on programming projects. On Wednesday nights, he helps out with programming for a meditation site (another decades-long passion), and he plans to take Harvard’s follow-up CS50M course, which centers around developing for mobile apps.

There are, however, no immediate plans to quit his day job.

“I can’t see me getting a job at a startup or something or maintaining somebody’s website,” he says. “But maybe the line between rock star and web developer is getting blurred so that musicians will be making more and more use of technological tools. Besides just the music software, we’ll be making more and more use of means of distribution and organization and creativity that’s coming out in the way we code our connection to the audience.”

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Daily Crunch: Amazon Web Services stumble

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An Amazon Web Services outage has a wide effect, Salesforce might be buying Slack and Pinterest tests new support for virtual events. This is your Daily Crunch for November 25, 2020.

And for those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving: Enjoy! There will be no newsletter tomorrow, and then Darrell Etherington will be filling in for me on Friday.

The big story: Amazon Web Services stumble

Amazon Web Services began experiencing issues earlier today, which caused issues for sites and services that rely on its cloud infrastructure — as writer Zack Whittaker discovered when he tried to use his Roomba.

Amazon said the issue was largely localized to North America, and that it was working on a resolution. Meanwhile, a number of other companies, such as Adobe and Roku, have pointed to the AWS outage as the reason for their own service issues.

The tech giants

Slack’s stock climbs on possible Salesforce acquisition — News that Salesforce is interested in buying Slack sent shares of the smaller firm sharply higher today.

Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’ — The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest.

France starts collecting tax on tech giants — This tax applies to companies that generate more than €750 million in revenue globally and €25 million in France, and that operate either a marketplace or an ad business.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Tiger Global invests in India’s Unacademy at $2B valuation — Unacademy helps students prepare for competitive exams to get into college.

WeGift, the ‘incentive marketing’ platform, collects $8M in new funding — Founded in 2016, WeGift wants to digitize the $700 billion rewards and incentives industry.

Cast.ai nabs $7.7M seed to remove barriers between public clouds — The company was started with the idea that developers should be able to get the best of each of the public clouds without being locked in.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Insurtech’s big year gets bigger as Metromile looks to go public — Metromile, a startup competing in the auto insurance market, is going public via SPAC.

Join us for a live Q&A with Sapphire’s Jai Das on Tuesday at 2 pm EST/11 am PST — Das has invested in companies like MuleSoft, Alteryx, Square and Sumo Logic.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Gift Guide: Smart exercise gear to hunker down and get fit with — Smart exercise and health gear is smarter than ever.

Instead of yule log, watch this interactive dumpster fire because 2020 — Sure, why not.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Gift Guide: 5 solid tech gifts to help decrease stress and increase sleep

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Welcome to Techcrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

Even in a normal year, the holidays can be an anxiety-inducing hellscape. In 2020, though — honestly, it’s hard to say what manner of climactic finale this historically rough year might have on tap. In honor of the one of the most epically rotten years on record, we’ve cobbled together a list of gifts that could go a ways toward helping folks make it triumphantly across the finish line.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, I admit. Everyone blows off stress differently — some like to play video games, come cook, some go for a run, others meditate. This is an attempt to round up some gadgets and software that can help increase sleep, reduce blood pressure and generally help survive what’s left of 2020 intact.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Muse S

I was using Muse’s latest headband quite a bit during CES, back when that show still felt like it was going to be the apex of stress for my year. The device offers a clever kind of gamified approach to meditation — something I, as one of the worst meditators of all-time, have come to appreciate. I recognize that words like “gamify” sound counterproductive when it comes something like meditating, but Muse does a surprisingly good job getting you into the right headspace.

The company also recently added sleep tracking to the wearable. I will say that the Muse S is reasonably comfortable as far as tech headbands go (an admittedly low bar), but even so, sleeping with one on still takes some getting used to.

Price: $350 from Amazon

Bose Sleepbuds II

Image Credits: Bose

We can recommend a number of all-purpose, noise-cancelling headphones for help relaxing. The Bose Sleepbuds II aren’t that. These little Bluetooth buds are built for one purpose only: sleep. They’re comfortable, they get good battery life and they’ll stay in place while you sleep. They’re built for noisy environments — whether you’re trying to sneak in a midday nap or sleep next to a snorer.

They’re a bit pricy and not very versatile, only designed to play back Bose’s preloaded sleep sounds. But if someone in your life is having trouble falling — or staying — asleep, they’re a solid investment.

Price: $250 from Amazon

Calm Subscription

Image Credits: Calm

There’s no shortage of meditation apps these days, but Calm has been my go-to for a long time. The app has been tremendously successful over the past couple of years, even landing a star-studded show on HBO Max. With more than 50 million downloads, Calm offers some of the most extensive and best guided meditation courses and tracks to help lull listeners to sleep.

Price: $13/month from Calm

Withings Sleep

Image Credits: Withings

I really dug this thing before my rabbit chewed the cord and rendered the thing effectively useless. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that’s not an issue most users are going to run into. Withings Sleep is, effectively, a pad that sits under the mattress to detect your sleep progress during the night. Those results are then collected and displayed in Withings’ Health app. I’ve tested a lot of wearable sleep trackers over the year, but if you’re really invested in sleep tracking, this is a good way to go. Among other things, you don’t have to wear a band to sleep.

Withings Sleep goes deep with its tracking, including cycles heart rate tracking and even snore detection. It’s also one of the first of this class of consumer device to offer sleep apnea detection.

Price: $74 from Amazon

Dreamlight Zen

Image Credits: Dreamlight

Back when we used to do travel gift guides, I included one of Dreamlight’s masks for long flights. Even though we’re all grounded, though, I’ve actually got a fair amount of use out of the thing, dealing with some health struggles this year. Dreamlight Zen is a step up from that model, featuring built-in sleep and meditation aids that can run up to 10 hours on a charge.

Price: $200 from Dreamlight

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