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Gift Guide: 7 great gifts for anyone working from home

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Let’s just get this out of the way: for the past several years, I’ve contributed the “Best Gifts for Frequent Travelers” segment to TechCrunch’s annual gift guide. I love it. It was easily my favorite gift guide to write, and it was an audience favorite, as well. But I am no longer a frequent traveler. I’ve left New York City exactly once since March. Odds are that special person in your life isn’t traveling much, either.

So, in honor of this new sedentary life to which we’ve all grown accustom over the past eight or nine months, I’m bringing you the polar opposite. This, friends, is the gift guide for those who have come to carve out office space in their homes. For everyone who’s come to blur the important lines between work and personal life.

The transition hasn’t been an easy one for everyone, but here are a handful of gifts that can help ease the transition and make someone’s home office a…well, a home, I guess. They’re not necessary the most fun gifts, but odds are someone in your life can really use them.

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

Hyken Mesh Task Chair

Image Credits: Staples

I never truly appreciated the value of a good office chair until this pandemic. I’ve been lucky to work for a corporation that considers Herman Millers a necessary expense. I honestly can’t remember which manner of ratty Amazon bargain bin chair I had held onto for the last several years, but a month or two into this, I rolled it into the donation pile.

There’s truth in the conventional wisdom that you get what you pay for when it comes to office chairs. And, indeed, it’s an investment. But there are deals to be had. I didn’t spend an arm or leg, so I’m not going to encourage you to. After a good about of research, I landed on this beast from Staples. It’s big, and comfortable and offers great full body support that won’t leave you sore after eight hours in front of the computer (I mean, do get up and move around at least once an hour for your health and sanity).

Best of all, it’s almost shockingly affordable.

Price: $169-200 from Amazon, depending on color

Apple iMac

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Remember how I told you I wasn’t going to encourage you to spend an arm and a leg on the chair? Well, consider this a gift for the person in your life who was really good this year. If a good office chair is an investment, a computer is lifeline. I wouldn’t recommend an iMac for, say, a 3D designer, but for many or most, you can’t really argue with ease of use for Apple’s all-in-one.

Apple refreshed the system earlier this year, with some improved features, including, notably, an improved webcam — that’s obviously an important upgrade these days. There are no external monitors to deal with and minimal futzing required out of the box. There is, of course, a big Apple Silicon redesign coming in the next year or two, but that won’t do you a whole lot of good in the meantime.

Price: Starting at $1,019 from Apple

Razer Kiyo

Image Credits: Razer

Much like the office chair, Webcams were one of those those things I really didn’t pay much mind to before the pandemic. But the truth is this: Built-in webcams, as a category, suck. There are exceptions to this, of course, but unlike with smartphone makers, cameras have nearly universally been an afterthought with PC manufactures. I do suspect there’s a good chance this will finally shift in the next year or so, but for now, you really want to avoid using your computer’s built-in camera for those important Zoom meetings, if you can.

There are a ton of options out there, and you can get a decent webcam at a decent price — Logitech is usually a pretty solid choice. This time out, however, I’m giving the prize to Razer. The gaming company has delivered a clever and versatile camera. It’s got an adjustable clip/stand, can capture video at 1080p @ 30FPS / 720p @ 60FPS and best of all, there’s a built-in light ring. It’s not going to replace a pro-level camera set up, obviously, if they do a lot of conference appearances or frequently appear on CNN. But if they’re looking to liven up a Zoom call or two, this is a solid choice.

Price: $100 from Razer 

RØDE NT-USB Mini

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Okay, so, as a long-time podcaster this is something I’ve been thinking about well before the pandemic started. The truth is a decent set of headphones should double as an okay meeting mic. But if conference calls are central to work days, a good mic is a great way to up that game. And hey, everyone’s starting a podcast these days, right?

RØDE has some great USB mic options. The NT-USB Mini wouldn’t be by first (or probably even 10th) choice for podcasting. But its price and size make it a nice option for augmenting meetings and other calls. It also has the advantage of size and a removable stand that will make it a good travel companion if we’re able able to travel again.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Cubii Pro desk elliptical

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Living in Queens at the height of the pandemic in New York — and dealing with my own personal health issues — I basically didn’t leave my apartment in April or May. Cubii’s sit down elliptical isn’t a replacement for full body exercise, but it’s a nice supplement, if you’re housebound for any reason.

 

I might have to put it under my desk again as the weather starts getting cold. There’s a mobile component, as well, that tracks progress and integrates it into third-party trackers like Apple Health.

Price: $349 from Amazon

Nest Audio

Headphones are necessary for working from home, but I’d also recommend getting a semi-decent speaker for your desk. A smart speaker is likely the path of least resistance for listening to streaming services like Spotify, and Nest Audio is probably the most well-rounded of the bunch. Google Assistant is great for all of the smart stuff and the new hardware sounds really solid.

Price: $100 from Amazon

Aarke Carbonator

Image Credits: Aarke

Did I need to spend $200 on a seltzer maker? No, of course not. Do I regret spending $200 on a seltzer maker? Also no. Aarke’s system looks great, has a solid build and the pulling down that hand crank is decidedly satisfying. Hydration is important, friends. Honorable mention to the LARQ UV disinfecting bottle. You’ll need something to drink that carbonated water out of, after all.

Price: $200 from Aarke

Really good, customizable lighting for the entire office

Image Credits: Philips

Bonus entry, this one from TechCrunch Editor Greg Kumparak:

I’ve been working from home for a few years now, and honestly the most important change I’ve made this year is vastly improving my home office’s lighting situation. Lighting — both natural and artificial — is hugely important to how we feel throughout the day, and being able to customize the lights to your exact likings is one of the huge plusses of working from home. No more awful flickering fluorescent lights! Want to make the lights purple and blue? You do you.

Smart lighting lets you do fancy things like shifting the colors to those that make you feel alert/productive, or dim them as evening approaches. During the California wildfires, when smoke and haze dyed the sky a terrifying orange, I shifted all of my lighting to be way more blue than it otherwise would be to help my brain realize it was the afternoon and not, as it seemed, an impossibly long sunrise.

Philips Hue bulbs are a solid pick, generally. They offer a ton of flexibility and options, the downside being that they’re generally on the more expensive end. I also don’t expect Philips to drop support for the Hue line or go out of business any time soon. New competition has been entering the market at lower price points, but my hesitation there is always how well they’ll be supported in the years to come.

If they’ve already got other smart lights around their house though, try to stick within the same brand. It makes things considerably easier to not have to deal with new hubs, apps, etc.

Price: $90 for a starter pack of two Philips Hue color shifting bulbs from Amazon

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

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

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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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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