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Tony Hsieh, iconic Las Vegas tech entrepreneur, dies aged 46

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Tony Hsieh, the former head of Zappos who catapulted the shoe company into the big leagues with a sale to Amazon and then used the proceeds of his success in a huge project kickstarting regeneration of a run-down part of Las Vegas, Nevada, with tech and wider business investments, has died aged 46.

The cause was injuries he sustained from a house fire, a spokesperson for Hsieh confirmed to TechCrunch. He was with his brother Connecticut at the time of the fire. It’s not clear if anyone else was injured.

The ultimate cause of Hsieh’s death is still under investigation. We will update this as and if we learn more. The full statement from DTP Companies, which ran the Downtown Project (Hsieh’s mammoth initiative to regenerate the very run-down, older part of Las Vegas) is below.

The news has sent shock waves in the midst of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and through a community in a city — heavily dependent on tourism — that has been hit extraordinarily hard by the Covid-19 global health pandemic.

Hsieh was a brilliant, offbeat, and — to many people, often very directly — a kind-hearted person who was regularly described as a visionary.

That was not an overstatement. Growing up in the Bay Area, he sold his first company — a marketing tech firm called LinkExchange — to Microsoft when he was just 24, in 1998.

Using some of the proceeds from that, he formed a venture capital firm called Venture Frog. One of his early investments there was ShoeSite.com, founded in 1999 by Nick Swinmurn at a time when the latter could see a shift happening in how people were shopping for footwear, doing a lot more of it online.

Hsieh was entrepreneurial in his investing instincts and subsequently took a more hands-on role in the startup, which eventually rebranded to Zappos. As Zappos’ CEO, Hsieh moved the company from the Bay Area to the outskirts of Vegas in 2004 to build out a bigger customer service operation, run under a particularly strong ethos of flat management aimed at empowering and inspiring employees. His leadership helped catapult it to huge growth: by 2009 he had sold Zappos to Amazon for around $1.2 billion (a truly giant sum for an e-commerce startup at the time).

He then continued to run the company, and used the proceeds of that work to focus on his next big project: urban regeneration.

Las Vegas is a city that leaves little to sentimentality. Situated in the middle of the desert, the city’s relentless focus has long been on growth, breaking new, seemingly limitless, ground to do so. For years, that meant huge swathes of “older” Vegas enterprises, in the Downtown region, simply sat empty, leading to the larger area eventually becoming a hotbed of crime and poverty. As with many other urban centers, it has been a vicious cycle: people focus on building newer homes and businesses elsewhere, and that makes the older areas even more neglected and vulnerable.

Hsieh saw the charm of Downtown, full of 20th-century modernist flourishes underneath its more obvious signs of decline, and proceeded to buy up huge chunks of the area: apartment buildings, houses, small business structures, old casinos and hotels, and empty lots.

His vision was not just to be a real estate magnate — although that is clearly something that interested him, too — but to regenerate Vegas in the mold of what he knew best: tech.

He proceeded to invest in a huge run of startups, provided they move to Vegas to build their businesses Downtown, to bring entrepreneurs and jobs to the area.

There were lots of quirky elements to the effort: it was not all about hard-nosed business, and some of it was just about trying to have fun on a grand scale. Inspired by Burning Man, for example, Hsieh paid to have several of the structures built for the festival in the desert to be transported and installed permanently in the Downtown area.

A couple of memorable evenings I spent with him in Vegas really underscored to me his profile in the city.

Hopping from casino to bar to restaurant, one night we ended up in an excellent piano karaoke dive where his best friend from childhood and I sang Duran Duran duets and he knocked back Frenet Brancas. People flocked around him wherever he went (so many breathless “Hi, Tony”‘s from many women we walked past). I remember wondering if this was what being a mafia boss (with friend playing the role of a consigliere, or me a guest for the night) was like back in the day.

Of course, the Downtown Project, as it came to be called, was a grand vision, and like many grand visions, it has had its ups and downs.

Some of that is unsurprising: Simply willing something to exist isn’t always enough, and the strike rate for success in tech is, in reality, very low. And the offbeat approach didn’t always play in the best way, and sometimes obscured what might actually be going on. Case in point: Hsieh abruptly stepped down as CEO of Zappos earlier this year, with no explanation provided for the move, after being in the role for 21 years.

Still, between Zappos and what Hsieh built in the city, his work and bigger ideas were and are an important testament to the impact that the tech industry can have with a little imagination and a lot of hard work and persistence.

Our condolences go out to his family and his many friends, and also those in the slice of the tech and business world he helped to create.

Statement from DTP below:

Good Afternoon, my name is Megan Fazio and I handle public relations for DTP Companies, formerly known as Downtown Project, which Tony Hsieh serves as the visionary of. With a heavy and devastated heart, we regret to inform you that Tony Hsieh passed away peacefully on November 27, 2020 surrounded by his beloved family.

Tony’s kindness and generosity touched the lives of everyone around him, and forever brightened the world. Delivering happiness was always his mantra, so instead of mourning his transition, we ask you to join us in celebrating his life.

On behalf of all DTP Companies employees and staff, we would like to express our deepest condolences to Tony’s family and friends who have all lost Tony as a cherished loved one, visionary and friend. Tony was highly regarded by all of his fellow friends and colleagues in the tight-knit family at DTP Companies, so this heartbreaking tragedy is one that affects many involved.

We ask that you continue to respect the family’s privacy during this most difficult and challenging time.

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

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Virgin Orbit will launch first Dutch defense satellite in mission that will demo rapid response capabilities

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Virgin Orbit isn’t slowing down after joining the exclusive club of small launch companies that have made it to orbit – the company just announced that it’s flying a payload on behalf of customer the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNAF). This is the first ever satellite being put up by the Dutch Ministry of Defense, and it’s a small satellite that will act as a test platform for a number of different communications experiments.

The satellite is called ‘BRIK-II’ – not because it’s the second of its kind, but rather because it’s named after Brik, the first airplane ever owned and operated by the RNAF. This mission is one of Virgin Orbit’s first commercial operations after its successful test demonstration, and will fly sometime later this year. It’s also being planned as a rideshare mission, with other payloads expected to join – likely from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is working with Virgin Orbit’s dedicated U.S. defense industry subsidiary VOX Space on planning what they’ll be adding to the mission load out.

This upcoming mission is actually a key demonstration of a number of Virgin Orbit’s unique advantages in the launch market. For one, it’ll show how the U.S. DOD and its ally defense agencies can work together in the space domain when launching small communications satellites. Virgin Orbit is also going to use the mission as an opportunity to show off its “late-load integration” capabilities – effectively, how it can add a payload to its LauncherOne rocket just prior to launch.

For this particular flight, there’s no real reason to do a late-load integration, since there’s plenty of lead time, but part of Virgin’s appeal is being able to nimbly add satellites to its rocket just before the carrier jet that flies it to its take-off altitude leaves the runway. Demonstrating that will go a long way to help illustrate how it differentiates its services from others in the launch market including Rocket Lab and SpaceX.

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As it hits $100 million run rate, The Pill Club adds former Uber exec Liz Meyerdirk as CEO

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Liz Meyerdirk made a name for herself at Uber as the Senior Director & Global Head of Business Development for the company’s Uber Eats business and she’s now turning her attention to women’s health as the new chief executive of The Pill Club.

The move comes at a perilous time for the remote delivery of women’s healthcare as the Supreme Court has taken steps to limit the provision of sexual healthcare to women in recent months.

“Women’s health care has never been more tested than right now,” Meyerdirk noted in a blog post announcing her new role. “COVID-19 has upended access to care; dozens of states have—and continue—to try and limit women’s choice; and last year, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the rollback of the ACA contraceptive mandate decision, a stunning move that could end up impacting as many as 126,000 women who previously received covered contraception through employer-based health insurance.”

A seasoned corporate executive, Meyerdirk is hoping to navigate The Pill Club through these treacherous times. “These events have shown that reliable, safe, and affordable access to women’s health and birth control is
just one more vulnerability in our health care system,” Meyerdirk wrote.

Liz Meyerdirk, chief executive of The Pill Club: Image Credit: The Pill Club

As it faces an uncertain legal environment on some fronts, the company couldn’t be in a better position financially.

The Pill Club, which is profitable and now has a $100 million run rate, is now ready for its closeup with Meyerdirk at the helm.

The company has managed to make its mark in the crowded world of online prescriptions and refill fulfillment by focusing specifically on women’s health and ensuring that those services are available to as many potential patients as possible.

“We’re now serving hundreds of thousands of women nationwide with 20% on Medicaid,” says Meyerdirk. “We prescribe in 43 states and the District of Columbia.”

For Meyerdirk, the background she had in logistics and fulfillment from her time at Uber Eats made the transition to the pill prescription and delivery service natural.

“There is a heavy logistics element to it,” said Meyerdirk.

As Meyerdirk takes the reins of the company, she said there’s a few areas that The Pill Club will expand into beyond its focus on birth control and contraception. “There are areas that our customers are asking for,” Meyerdirk said.

These areas include, initially, dermatology. Last year the company launched a delivery service for contraceptives and women’s hygiene products like pads and tampons.

As it continues to expand its product suite, it’s also growing its executive staff. The company not only added Meyerdirk, but also David Hsu as chief financial officer and Jeremy Downs as senior vice president of growth. Hsu joins the company from Honey, where led the $4 billion acquisition negotiations with PayPal, and Downs comes from Uber Eats, where he spent five years leading growth.

“We need sustained, long-term access to women’s health care, not just a bridge while the pandemic persists; and we need coverage for essential health services like birth control and prenatal care, regardless of whether or not you’re insured,” Meyerdirk wrote. “Reproductive care has and continues to be an essential part of our business, but there are countless opportunities to serve women in all of their life stages from puberty to menopause.”

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BlackCart raises $8.8M Series A for its try-before-you-buy platform for online merchants

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A startup called BlackCart is tackling one of the key challenges with online shopping: an inability to try on or test out the merchandise before making a purchase. That company, which has now closed on $8.8 million in Series A funding, has built a try-before-you-buy platform that integrates with e-commerce storefronts, allowing customers to ship items to their home for free and only pay if they choose to keep the item after a “try on” period has lapsed.

The new round of financing was led by Origin Ventures and Hyde Park Ventures Partners, and saw participation from Struck Capital, Citi Ventures, 500 Startups, and several other angel investors including Christian Sullivan of Republic Labs, Dean Bakes of M3 Ventures, Greg Rudin of Menlo Ventures, Jordan Nathan of Caraway Cookware, and First National Bank CFO Nick Pirollo, among others.

Image Credits: BlackCart

BlackCart founder Donny Ouyang had previously founded online tutoring marketplace Rayku before joining a seed stage VC fund, Caravan Ventures. But he was inspired to return to entrepreneurship, he says, after experiencing a personal problem with trying to order shoes online.

Realizing the opportunity for a “try before you buy” type of service, Ouyang first built BlackCart in 2017 as a business-to-consumer (B2C) platform that worked by way of a Chrome extension with some 50 different online merchants, largely in apparel.

This MVP of sorts proved there was consumer demand for something like this in online shopping shopping.

Ouyang credits the earlier version of BlackCart with helping the team to understand what sort of products work best for this service.

“I think, in general, for try-before-you-buy, anything that’s moderate to higher price points, lower frequency of purchase, where the customer makes a considered purchase decision — those perform really well,” he says.

Two years later, Ouyang took BlackCart to 500 Startups in San Francisco, where he then pivoted the business to a B2B offering it is today.

Image Credits: BlackCart

The startup now provides a try-before-you-buy platform that integrates with online storefronts, including those from Shopify, Magento, WooCommerce, Big Commerce, SalesForce Commerce Cloud, WordPress, and even custom storefronts. The system is designed to be turnkey for online retailers and takes around 48 hours to set up on Shopify around a week on Magento, for example.

BlackCart has also developed its own proprietary technology around fraud detection, payments, returns, and the overall user experience, which includes a button for retailers’ websites.

Because the online shoppers aren’t paying upfront for the merchandise they’re being shipped, BlackCart has to rely on an expanded array of behavioral signals and data in order to make a determination about whether the customer represents a fraud risk. As one example, if the customer had read a lot of helpdesk articles about fraud before placing their order, that could be flagged as a negative signal.

BlackCart also verifies the user’s phone number at checkout and matches it to telco and government data sets to see if their historical addresses match their shipping and billing addresses.

Image Credits: BlackCart

After the customer receives the item, they are able to keep it for a period of time (as designated by the retailer) before being charged. BlackCart covers any fraud as part of its value proposition to retailers.

BlackCart makes money by way of a rev share model, where it charges retailers a percentage of the sales where the customers have kept the products. This amount can vary based on a number of factors, like the fraud multiplier, average order value, the type of product and others. At the low end, it’s around 4% and around 10% on the high-end, Ouyang says.

The company has also expanded beyond home try-on to include try-before-you-buy for electronics, jewelry, home goods, and more. It can even ship out makeup samples for home try-on, as another option.

Once integrated on a website, BlackCart claims its merchants typically see conversion increases of 24%, average order values climb by 51%, and bottom-line sales growth of 27%.

To date, the platform been adopted by over 50 medium-to-large retailers as well as e-commerce startups, like luxury sneaker brand Koio, clothing startup Dia&Co, online mattress startup Helix Sleep, cookware startup Caraway, among others. It’s also under NDA now with a top 50 retailer it can’t yet name publicly, and has contracts signed with 13 others who are waiting to be onboarded.

Soon, BlackCart aims to offer a self-serve onboarding process, Ouyang notes.

“This would be later, end of Q2 or early Q3,” he says. “But I think for us, it will still be probably 80% self-serve, and then larger enterprises will want to be handheld.”

With the additional funding, BlackCart aims to shift to paying the merchant immediately for the items at checkout, then reconciling afterwards in order to be more efficient. This has been one of merchants’ biggest feature requests, as well.

Image Credits: BlackCart; team photo

The funding will also allow BlackCart to expand its remotely distributed 10-person team to around 50 by year-end, including engineers, product specialists, customer support staff, and sales.

More broadly, it aims to quickly capitalize on the growth in the e-commerce market, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[We want to] take advantage of the favorable macroeconomic situation to scale as quickly as possible,” Ouyang explains. “We’re hoping to get to around $250 million in transactions through our platform by the end of 2021. And this would be driven by both engineering and sales hires, and just pushing it up,” he says.

Longer-term, Ouyang envisions adding more consumer-facing features to BlackCart’s platform, like on-demand returns where a courier comes to the house to pick up your return, for example.

“Our firm is excited to partner with BlackCart as it makes try-before-you-buy the standard in online shopping,” said Prashant Shukla of Origin Ventures, who now sits on BlackCart’s board, as result of the new financing. “Its underwriting technology provides merchants with peace of mind, and its best-in-class consumer experience delivers significant sales and conversion lifts. Digital Native generations expect to be able to shop online exactly as they would in a retail store, and BlackCart is the only company providing this experience,” he adds.

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