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Joe Biden’s new gig

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After serving as Obama-Biden campaign manager and White House Deputy Chief of Staff and now living in San Francisco and working with the tech sector, I am hopeful about the Biden-Harris administration’s ability to put in place smart policies and regulatory stability to further unleash the industry’s vast potential — not to mention the effect their calm and measured leadership could have on our greater economy.

However, with new leadership comes new perspectives on many of the most critical issues facing Silicon Valley. While the bonds between the innovation economy and the Obama-Biden Administration resulted in national prosperity, the tech sector is now intertwined in nearly every facet of American life.

The resulting tension means the new Administration will take its role as regulator seriously and investors and businesses alike should not overlook how quickly President Biden will move on policy – especially as it relates to the future of work and getting the U.S. economy back on track.

There’s no question the gig companies had a banner year in 2020. Even with ride-hailing usage down dramatically, the strength of meal, grocery and just about everything else delivered combined with the victory in California of Proposition 22 has driven up market caps and positioned many startups for going public. Yet, while the West Coast may be feeling emboldened, the Beltway has another trajectory in mind.

Congress has been working on gig worker classification legislation named the PRO Act for months. The bill closely mirrors the maligned California Assembly Bill 5 that Proposition 22 mostly reversed. It’s broadly supported by labor and could see some traction this year. Labor is already working hard to line up support from the various Congressional coalitions, and at the same time gig economy companies are gearing up to fight it with their unlimited resources.

The question is – what will President Biden do? Long ago he voiced his support for AB 5 and laid out plans to solve worker misclassification during the campaign, but he’s also hiring and appointing staff to the Administration deeply experienced in tech. President Biden has been governing longer than most startup founders have been alive, he’s a master at understanding forces in Washington and how to reach a compromise. He knows that what’s rarely discussed during legislative debate is how the law will actually be implemented.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections.

Despite most bills being thousands of pages, they’re rarely prescriptive. Those details are left up to agencies. President Biden has oversight of the Department of Labor, which, if the PRO Act is passed, will be responsible for its implementation.

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Biden Administration convenes the Department of Labor and the industry to determine how companies actually enact worker protections. President Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, while a staunch supporter of labor, is also well regarded by the business sector as someone they can work with and reach a compromise.

We just have to look to the states to understand why this outcome is so plausible. The gig companies already have Proposition 22 type campaigns underway in six states and are running legislation in a half dozen more. By the end of 2021 there will be law on the books codifying worker protections in nearly a third of the country, modeled on Proposition 22.

This kind of momentum is hard to ignore and labor knows it. Although labor is aligned in its support of the PRO Act, the alignment becomes blurry when considering state action. For example, many northeastern states have had a thriving black car and taxi industry for decades.

This means Labor’s position on gig laws in New York and New Jersey are quite different than places like Washington State or Illinois where gig workers are still relatively new and the ink is drying on regulations supported by Uber and Lyft just a few years ago. Labor is aligned as much as they can be and enough to support the PRO Act, but there isn’t a national movement and that leaves room for compromise.

This is all good news for the tech sector. It’s a fantasy to think that regulation wouldn’t eventually come to protect the very workers who power the gig economy. And that’s a good thing – tech has a moral responsibility to do right by its workers. However, those regulations shouldn’t and won’t be imposed on tech. Rather it will take weeks and months of campaigns and bills winding their way through the states and Congress, culminating with negotiations and compromises.

Or maybe even years of renewed regulatory processes. All of which will be overseen by a new President who has witnessed first-hand over his career how innovation can help the nation grow and recover.

After four years of Trump’s stubborn denialism, magic thinking and economic harm, Biden will promote policy rigor, public spiritedness and private sector ingenuity to work together for innovative solutions. It will be hard work and I promise you it won’t be pretty, but we should expect the dawn of a new era of U.S. tech-driven dynamism.

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Lime unveils new ebike as part of $50 million investment to expand to more 25 cities

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Lime said Monday it has allocated $50 million towards its bike-share operation, an investment that has been used to develop a new ebike and will fund its expansion this year to another 25 cities in North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand. 

If the company hits its goal, Lime’s bike-share service will be operational in 50 cities globally by the end of 2021.

The latest generation e-bike, known internally as 6.0, has a swappable battery that is interchangeable with Lime’s newest scooter. Additional upgrades to the e-bike include increased motor power, a phone holder, a new handlebar display, an electric lock that replaces the former generation’s cable lock and an automatic two-speed transmission. The new bikes are expected to launch and scale this summer. 

The hardware upgrade builds off of the 5.8, a bike developed by Jump that was supposed to be deployed in 2020. That never happened at scale because Uber, which owned Jump, offloaded the unit to Lime as part of a complex $170 million investment round announced in May.

“Jump made great hardware,” Lime President Joe Kraus said in a recent interview. “And we made some further improvements on top with the new bike.”

The hardware upgrades and expansion were funded from its own operational funds, not new financing from outside investors, Kraus said. The funding was possible as a result of Lime achieving its first full quarter of profitability in 2020, according to the company.

“We have figured out how to be profitable and we are funding this,” Kraus said.

Lime not only added a new motor to the bike, it moved its location in an aim to make it easier to handle at low speeds and enough power to climb hills, Kraus said. The swappable battery was perhaps its most important upgrade directly tied to its drive towards profitability, Kraus added.

“When our operations teams is roaming around the city, they take can care of bikes and the scooter fleet, which allows us to both operate profitably and continue to have affordable pricing,” he added.

Lime’s investment in its ebike operation comes a month after it announced plans to add electric mopeds to its micromobility platform as the startup aims to own the spectrum of inner city travel from jaunts to the corner store to longer distance trips up to five miles. Lime is launching the effort by deploying 600 electric mopeds on its platform this spring in Washington D.C. The company is also working with officials to pilot the mopeds in Paris. Eventually, the mopeds will be offered in a “handful of cities” over the next several months.

“This idea of how to service more trips five miles within a city is part of why we continue to do multi modality,” Kraus said. “When we add a new modality like bikes into a scooter city, or when we add scooters to a bike city both modalities go up in usage.”

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Istanbul’s Dream Games snaps up $50M and launches its first game, the puzzle-based Royal Match

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On the back of Zynga acquiring Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8 billion last year and then following it up with another gaming acquisition in the country, Turkey has been making a name for itself as a hub for mobile gaming startups, and specifically those building casual puzzle games, the wildly popular and very sticky format that takes players through successive graphic challenges that test their logic, memory and ability to think under time pressure.

Today, one of the more promising of those startups, Istanbul-based, Peak alum-founded Dream Games, is announcing the GA launch of its first title, Royal Match (on both iOS and Android), along with $50 million in funding to double down on the opportunity ahead — the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey to date.

While Dream Games will focus for the moment on building out the audience for puzzle games with more innovative ideas, it also has its sights set on a bigger goal.

“We’re building this as an entertainment company,” CEO Soner Aydemir said in an interview, where he described Pixar as a key inspiration not just for size but for quality in its category. “What they did for animated movies, we want to do for mobile gaming. We are focusing on casual puzzle games first because everyone plays these, but we will also move forward with other genres. We want to be a huge interactive entertainment company that builds high quality games.”

The Series A is being led by Index Ventures, with participation also from Balderton Capital and Makers Fund. The latter two backed Dream Games previously, in a $7.5 million seed round in 2019. Index, meanwhile, is a notable VC to have on board: other successful gaming startups it has backed include Discord, King, Roblox and Supercell.

Interestingly, this is not Index’s first investment in a gaming startup founded by Peak Games alums: in December it led a $6 million round for another Istanbul mobile casual puzzle gaming startup founded by ex-Peak employees: Bigger Games.

Dream Games is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Dream Games raising $57.5 million ahead of launching any games — or proving whether they get any traction — may sound like a risky bet, but there is some context to the story that sets up the odds in this startup’s favor.

The founding team all come from Peak Games, the Istanbul gaming startup that was so nice, Zynga bought it twice — first, in the form of one small acquisition of some specific titles, and then the whole company some years later.

CEO Soner Aydemir is Peak’s former director of product who built the company’s two biggest hits, Toy Blast and Toon Blast. Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam were Peak’s former engineering leads. And Peak product manager Eren Sengul and an ex-Peak 3D artist Serdar Yilmaz round out the rest of the founding team.

(Aydemir notes that the team left and formed Dream Games in 2019, about a year before Zynga’s full acquisition.)

The other indicators that Dream Games is on to something are its metrics for its limited test run of Royal Match.

Royal Match — in which players are tasked with helping King Robert restore his royal castle “to its former glory” by rebuilding it through a series of match-3 levels and obstacles, with new rooms, royal chambers and gardens making up the different levels of the game — was launched first as a limited test on iOS and Android in the U.K. and Canada in July leading up to this launch. In that time, Aydemir said it saw 1 million downloads and 200,000 daily average users.

“We think the numbers are very promising compared to previous experiences,” he said.

While Aydemir likes to describe Dream as an “entertainment” company, there is a lot of technology going into the product, from the graphics and the mechanics of the puzzles themselves through to the data science behind them.

“If you want to create an iconic game, you need to combine engineering, art and data science together with high quality user acquisition and a strong marketing approach,” he said.

And he believes that when you focus on these it will inevitably lead to quality, which means you no longer have to focus on simply trying to find a hit.

“We don’t like that approach,” he said. “We don’t want to find a hit.”

That was also the mix that Index also wanted to back.

“Building iconic titles requires a harmonious mix of craft, science and flawless execution,” said Index Ventures partner Stephane Kurgan, who led the round together with Index’s Sofia Dolfe. “The Dream Games team has perfected this mix over many years of working together, and has put it on full display in Royal Match. We could not be more excited to work with them in their journey to build the next global casual champion.”

While Dream Games’ long-term ambition is to build out interactive experiences around different audiences and genres, Aydemir said that casual games, and puzzles in particular, have proven to be a huge hit with consumers.

The strength of that trend has up to now meant that puzzle games generally have proven to have more staying power than other genres in mobile games, which have soared in popularity but also somewhat fizzled out.

“Every year we see the bigger market of users growing by 20%,” he said. “It will remain for decades.”

Interestingly, the focus on casual gaming startups in Turkey seems like a perfect storm of sorts. Undeniably, the proven success of Peak has brought in more punters, but it has also shown the way to developers: you can build a successful and global consumer tech startup out of Turkey, and perhaps puzzles — which focus on shapes — are especially good at transcending different language barriers.. Alongside that, Aydemir pointed out that the country is strong on engineers and developers but slim on opportunities with bigger tech companies.

“Mobile gaming is a younger industry, so that presents an opportunity,” he said.

Updated to correct that Index is not an investor in Rovio, and that the limited test had 200,000, not 200, DAUs.

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Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

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Microsoft gets a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former executive at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, according to a company announcement released Monday.

More to come…

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