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From surviving to thriving as a hardware startup

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When a friend forwarded this tweet from Paul Graham, it hit close to home:

Startups are subject to something like infant mortality: before they’re established, one thing going wrong can kill the company. Hardware companies seem to be subject to infant mortality their whole lives.
I think the reason is that the evolution of the product is so discontinuous. The company has to keep shipping, and customers to keep buying, new products. Which in practice is like relaunching the company each time.
I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but if there were a way for hardware companies to evolve more the way software companies do, they’d be a lot more resilient.

Looking back on our startup journey at Minut, I remember several moments when we could have died. However, surviving several near misses we learned to tackle these challenges and have become more resilient over time. While there will never be one fully exhaustive answer, here are some of the lessons we learned over the years:

Subscription revenue is the only revenue that counts

While you can sell hardware with a margin and make important early revenue, it’s not a sustainable business model for a company that requires both software and hardware. You can’t cover an indefinite commitment with a finite amount of money.

Many hardware companies don’t consider subscriptions early enough. While it can be hard to command a subscription from the start (if you can, you might have waited too long to launch), it needs to be in the plan from the beginning. Look for markets where paying subscriptions is the norm rather than markets that operate on a one-time sale model.

Set high margins and earn them over time

It’s tempting to set low prices for hardware to attract customers, but in the beginning you should do the opposite. Margins allow for mistakes to be rectified. A missed deadline might mean you have to opt for freight by air rather than boat. You might have to scrap components or buy them expensively in a supply crunch. Surprises are seldom positive, and you don’t want to use your venture capital to pay for them.

Healthy margins can also be used to cover marketing costs while you learn what kind of messaging works and what channels you can sell through. If that wasn’t enough reason, starting with relatively high prices will help you avoid another common mistake, selling too much at launch.

This might seem counterintuitive — why wouldn’t you want great success out of the gate? The reason is that you will inevitably make mistakes with your early launches, and the bigger the launch, the bigger the blow. There are plenty of companies who achieved amazing crowdfunding success and then failed to deliver even the first units. Startups tend to chase growth at all costs, but for hardware startups in the first few years there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

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

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Ars online IT roundtable tomorrow: What’s the future of the data center?

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Ars online IT roundtable tomorrow: What’s the future of the data center?

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If you’re in IT, you probably remember the first time you walked into a real data center—not just a server closet, but an actual raised-floor data center, where the door wooshes open in a blast of cold air and noise and you’re confronted with rows and rows of racks, monolithic and gray, stuffed full of servers with cooling fans screaming and blinkenlights blinking like mad. The data center is where the cool stuff is—the pizza boxes, the blade servers, the NASes and the SANs. Some of its residents are more exotic—the Big Iron in all its massive forms, from Z-series to Superdome and all points in between.

For decades, data centers have been the beating hearts of many businesses—the fortified secret rooms where huge amounts of capital sit, busily transforming electricity into revenue. And they’re sometimes a place for IT to hide, too—it’s kind of a standing joke that whenever a user you don’t want to see is stalking around the IT floor, your best bet to avoid contact is just to badge into the data center and wait for them to go away. (But, uh, I never did that ever. I promise.)

But the last few years have seen a massive shift in the relationship between companies and their data—and the places where that data lives. Sure, it’s always convenient to own your own servers and storage, but why tie up all that capital when you don’t have to? Why not just go to the cloud buffet and pay for what you want to eat and nothing more?

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Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’

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The European Union is preparing the ground for vaccine passports. A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance”, the Commission said today, adding that it wants “an appropriate trust framework” to be agreed upon by the end of January — “to allow Member States’ certificates to be rapidly useable in health systems across the EU and beyond”.

“Vaccination certificates allow for a clear record of each individual’s vaccination history, to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects,” it writes, adding that: “A common EU approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable certificates would allow people to use their records in other Member States. Though it is premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection, an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future.”

It’s not clear what form (or forms) these pan-EU coronavirus vaccine certificates will take as yet — but presumably there will be both paper-based and digital formats, to ensure accessibility.

Nor is it clear exactly how EU citizens’ identity and medical data will be protected as checks on vaccination status take place. Or, indeed, who the trusted entities storing and managing sensitive health data will be. All that detail is to come — and may well vary by Member State, depending on how immunity certification verification systems get implemented.

Last week a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, announced involvement in a separate, cross-industry effort to establish a universal standard for vaccination status that they said would build on existing standards, such as the SMART Health Cards specification which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

That tech-backed effort is pushing for an “encrypted digital copy of [a person’s] immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for those not wanting or able to use a smartphone. The PR also talked about a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Nothing so specific is being proposed for the common EU approach as yet. And it looks clear that a number of vaccine credential standards will be put forward globally — as a potential universal standard. (The Commission is touting its forthcoming framework on that front too.)

Whatever is devised in the EU must ensure compliance with the region’s data protection framework (which bakes in requirements for security and privacy by design and default when processing people’s information). So it could offer better privacy protection than a private sector-led effort, for example.

The EU’s eHealth Network — a body which includes representatives from relevant Member States’ authorities who are supported by a wider European Joint Action body, called eHAction — will be responsible for defining the minimum dataset needed for vaccination certificates used at the EU level, per the Commission.

It says this must include “a unique identifier and an appropriate trust framework ensuring privacy and security”.

Expect relevant stakeholders such as Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor and Data Protection Board to weigh in with expert advice, as happened last year with coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

“The Commission will continue to work with Member States on vaccination certificates which can be recognised and used in health systems across the EU in full compliance with EU data protection law — and scaled up globally through the certification systems of the World Health Organisation,” EU lawmakers add, saying the forthcoming framework will be presented in the WHO “as a possible universal standard”.

Commenting in the challenges ahead for developing privacy-safe vaccination verification, Lukasz Olejnik, a Europe-based independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, told TechCrunch: “It is tricky to follow privacy by design for this particular [use-case]. It is unclear if anyone will be interested in identifying possible innovative privacy-preserving frameworks such as anonymous cryptographic credentials.

“In the end perhaps we will end up with some approach using verifiable credentials, but establishing trust will remain a challenge. What will be the source of trust? Is it possible to prove a particular status without the need to disclose the user identity? These are the core questions.”

“I hope this proposal will be public and transparent,” he added of the EU framework.

It’s worth emphasizing that all this effort is a bit ‘cart before the horse’ at this stage — being as it’s still not confirmed whether any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been developed primarily to protect the recipient from serious illness, also prevent transmission of the disease or not.

Nonetheless, systems for verifying proof of immunization status are fast being spun up — ushering in the possibility of ‘vaccine passport’ checks for travellers within the EU down the road, for example. It’s also not hard to envisage businesses requesting COVID-19 vaccination certification before granting access to a physical facility or service, in a bid to reassure customers they can spend money safety — i.e. once such documentation exists and can be verified in a standardized way.

Standardized frameworks for vaccination credentials could certainly have very broad implications for personal freedoms in the near future, as well as wide ramifications for privacy — depending on how these systems are architected, managed and operated.

Europe’s privacy and security research community mobilized heavily last year as the pandemic triggered early proposals to develop coronavirus contacts tracing apps — contributing to a push for exposure notification apps to be decentralized to ensure privacy of individuals’ social graph. However efforts toward establishing vaccination certification systems don’t appear to have generated the same level of academic engagement as yet.

In an analysis of the implications of immunity certificates, published last month, Privacy International warned that any systems that require proof of vaccination for entry or a service would be unfair “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine” — a bar that remains far off indeed.

European countries, which are among the global leaders on COVID-19 vaccination rollouts, have still only immunized tiny minorities of their national populations so far. (Even as the Commission today urged Member States to set targets to vaccinate a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 by March 2021; and at least 70% of the total adult population by summer — targets which look like fantastical wishful thinking right now.)

“Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes which do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices,” the rights group further urged, also warning that COVID-19 immunity should not be used as a justification for expanding or instating digital identity schemes.

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6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

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Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.

After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.

While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.

“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”

All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.

Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?

Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.

Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.

There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?

Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.

Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.

Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

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