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Stonks, flying burritos and my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

What a week. What a month. Are you doing all right? It’s okay if you are tired. We all are. That’s why we have weekends.

Let’s reflect on what happened this week: Individual traders outraged more professional investors by doing something hilarious, namely taking a trade that made some sense — betting that an atrophying physical retailer was going to continue obsolesce — and inverting it.

By going long on GameStop, investors flipped the script on the smart money. Then all heck snapped free, some stocks got blocked on trading services, Congress got mad, billionaires started to front on Twitter like they were the Common Man, some cryptos surged, including Dogecoin of all things, and as we headed into the weekend nothing was truly resolved. It was weird.

Let’s talk over the lessons we’ve learned. First, don’t short a stock so heavily that you are at risk of having the trade exposed and inverted to your detriment. Second, the fintech startups that TechCrunch has covered for years were more brittle than anticipated, either thanks to reserve requirements or simple platform risk. And third, things can always get dumber.

Evidence of that final lesson came during the week’s news cycle in which it became known that WeWork might pursue a public listing via a SPAC. So much for this year being more serious and normal than 2020.

But let’s stop recapping and get into our main topic today, namely a chat that I had with the person I actually work for, Guru Gowrappan, the CEO of Verizon Media Group (VMG). For those who don’t know, Verizon owns VMG, which in turn owns TechCrunch. VMG is a collection of assets, ranging from Yahoo to media brands to technology products. It does billions in yearly revenue, which should help frame how far above my seat — an excellent perch inside of TechCrunch, but not one that comes with org-chart stature — Guru sits.

Very far away.

But we follow each other on Twitter and after Verizon reported earnings this week, inclusive of some honestly pretty good numbers from VMG that I tweeted about, I got about half an hour of Guru’s time. This meant that I had my boss’s boss’s [etc] boss on the record with zero agenda. How could I say no?

For context, VMG generated $2.3 billion in Q4 revenue, up 11% from the year-ago quarter. Verizon described that as “the first quarter of year-over-year growth since the Yahoo! acquisition.” What drove the result? Per the Verizon earnings call, “strong advertising trends with demand-side platform revenue growing 41% compared to the prior year.”

If you are Guru or, frankly, your humble servant, the growth was welcome after VMG’s revenue had dipped to $1.4 billion in Q2 2020, off 24.5% from its year-ago result.

I had a few questions: Would the recent advertising momentum persist in 2021, something that could impact a host of businesses far beyond the VMG org; how important was it to Verizon that VMG had managed to post year-over-year growth; how he expects to balance commerce revenue and journalism; and what Guru thinks about new media products like the recent rebirth of newsletter tech, something that Substack and Twitter and even Facebook are tinkering with.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Regarding strong advertising performance in the final months of the year during COVID, Guru said that “the core fundamentals [of] the market dynamics have changed so that they’re more permanent,” adding that consumer behavior is now “more digital, more online” than before.
  • The VMG CEO declined to share Q1 2021 expectations in detail, but did note that VMG is aiming to “continue [its] momentum.”
  • Part of that momentum comes from subscription products, which Guru cited as a win: “If you look at one of the trends that happened due to COVID, consumers [are] moving to more trusted content and want to spend more time and money on consuming subscription-based products […] TechCrunch/Extra Crunch grew almost 196% year-on-year.”
  • My read of his answer to where we are today is that it’s not a bad time to be in the online media game, which isn’t something that has been true much in the past few years, looking around the remains of the journalism industry.
  • Regarding VMG’s home inside of Verizon — something that I’ve thought about after the Buzzfeed-HuffPost deal — I asked Guru if VMG’s recent financial performance made our company more attractive to Verizon, and if we have proven the bet that we were trying to make. This, by the way, is the sort of question that is pretty easy to write down, but slightly harder to ask when you are talking to someone who could terminate you at will. Anyway, Guru said “completely” in response. The VMG CEO summarized the Verizon CEO as saying that the media business is “core” to Verizon, and that our parent company “will continue to invest in the media business while we continue to deliver on our promise.” So sign up for Extra Crunch.
  • Guru said VMG won’t exchange revenue for credibility when it comes to promoting e-commerce across its platform: “At no point will we trade dollar value in a transaction for trust; there’s no way. […] The editorial team keeps me honest,” he said, adding that he stays out of changes that might upset journalistic balance. That was good to hear.
  • And finally, are there new media products that VMG may want to emulate, or buy? Guru was generally bullish on personalization, but declined to dish that VMG is about to buy Substack or anything like that.

Oh and I asked if VMG is going to sell, or otherwise divest, any other media properties in the wake of the HuffPost-BuzzFeed decision. Guru said that the Verizon CEO said that the broader company is “fully committed” to the media business, and that that won’t be “built upon divestment.” Instead, he said, it will be built “upon investing and growing,” adding that there are “no plans to sell any additional properties.” As I like my health insurance, that was nice to hear.

I understand that the above is not a standard sort of Exchange entry, but one thing that I will always try to do is take the conversations that come my way thanks to my job, and bring them to you.

Now, back to venture capital.

Market Notes

GameStop was your entire Twitter feed this week but there is other stuff you need to know. Alfred, a US-based fintech raised $100 million on Tuesday, to pick an example. The company fuses digital intelligence and humans to help users manage their financial lives. Neat.

And adding to our recent data-focused coverage of 2020 venture data — including a dive into the African VC market — investing group Work-Bench put together a look at how NYC’s enterprise tech scene performed in the second half of last year. This is the exact sort of data I would parse for you during a more regular week. But since we had this week, you have to do it yourself.

Sticking to data, Hallo, a startup that helps companies recruit more diverse candidates, dropped a sheaf of data in its “Black Founder Funding Q4 2020” report. Read it. If you don’t have time, I’ll give you the headline stat that both caught my eye and depressed my heart: “Hallo’s research found that out of the 1,537 companies analyzed [in Q4 2020], 40 were led by Black founders.” 

And this week I got to yammer with Microsoft after it reported earnings. Saving most of that for a later date, two things were clear: The cloud world still has oodles of growth ahead of it, which is good news for a large chunk of the startup software market. And if you wanted more data on Teams’ growth to better understand why Salesforce bought Slack, wait another quarter.

Various and Sundry

Closing out, in August of 2014 I came up with the idea for a burrito cannon food delivery service. You would push a button in an app, and it would deliver a burrito to your office sans the need for you to make choices. Then Postmates actually built a burrito cannon into its app, which was both hilarious and fun.

Fast forward to 2021, and Postmates is now part of Uber. And it is back with the return of the burrito cannon:

I did not anticipate that my lazy, stupid idea would help get an NFL star, over a half decade later, to sprint down a field as an industrial-scale potato cannon shot a Mexican delight in his direction. But it’s 2021 and this is where we are.

Evidence, I think, that all my startup ideas are brilliant,

Alex

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

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Sequoia Capital India’s Surge invests $2M in sales engagement platform Outplay

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A Zoom screenshot showing members of Outplay's team on a video call

Outplay’s team members on a video call

Sales engagement platforms (SEP) help sales teams automate and track the large number of tasks they need to do each day as they contact leads and hone in on potential deals. Focused on small-to-medium-sized companies, SEP startup Outplay announced today it has raised $2 million from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for early-stage startups.

Outplay was founded in January 2020 by brothers Ram and Laxman Papineni and now counts more than 300 clients. Before launching Outplay, the Papineni brothers built AppVirality, a referall marketing tool for app developers.

Laxman told TechCrunch that Outplay’s customers come from sectors like IT, computer software, marketing and advertising and recruiting, and most are based in North America and Europe.

Outplay is designed for teams that use multiple channels to reach potential customers, including phone calls, text messages, email, live chats on websites, and social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter. It integrates with customer relationship management platforms like Salesforce and Pipedrive, giving sales people a new interface that includes productivity and automation tools to cut the time they spend on administrative tasks.

Screenshots of Outplay's sales engagement platform for automating sales tasks

Outplay’s platform

For example, Outplay can be used create sequences that send initial messages through different platforms, and then automatically follows up with new messages if there isn’t a reply within a pre-set time frame. Outplay also provides analytics to help sales people track how well sales campaigns are working.

Two of Outplay’s biggest competitors are Outreach and SalesLoft, both of which hit unicorn status in recent funding rounds. Laxman said Outplay is focused on ease of use, with other differentiators including more integrations with CRMs and other software, and a strong customer support team.

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Daily Crunch: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

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Microsoft shows off a new AR/VR meeting platform, Uber spins out a robotics startup and Compass files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for March 2, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft unveils Mesh for AR/VR meetings

Mesh is a platform that allows for shared meetings between Microsoft’s HoloLens (augmented reality) and Windows Mixed Reality (virtual reality). Lucas Matney describes it as “pretty standard faire” for spatial computing, but noted that this will also serve as a platform for developers to build their own applications.

This is just one of a long list of announcements that Microsoft made as part of its virtual Ignite conference this week. It’s also updating Teams with new presentation features; introducing a new open-source, low-code language; launching a new NoSQL database offering called Azure Managed Instance for Apache Cassandra; announcing a hardware and software platform called Azure Precept and more.

The tech giants

Uber spins out delivery robot startup as Serve Robotics — Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year, has officially spun out as an independent company called Serve Robotics.

Amazon issues rare apology in India over drama series — The series, called “Tandav,” has faced criticism over its depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Apple releases results from hearing health study — Hearing loss is an issue Apple has looked to tackle, due in no small part to its growing involvement in the headphone category.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Compass files S-1, reveals $3.7B in revenue on net loss of $270M — Compass is not profitable, but it did see a massive surge in revenue over the past few years.

Vestiaire Collective raises $216M for its second-hand fashion platform — It’s a complicated industry, since you don’t want to buy a damaged item or a cheap knockoff.

Instacart raises $265M at a $39B valuation — What’s behind the massive increase in the value investors are willing to ascribe to the business? Put simply, the pandemic.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Six tips for SaaS founders who don’t want VC money — JotForm’s Aytekin Tank argues that bootstrapping is a saner, more sustainable way to build and scale a business.

Oscar Health raises IPO price as Coupang releases bullish debut valuation — IPO season is hot and investors are bothered.

Kaltura files to go public on the back of accelerating revenue growth, rising losses — The company’s revenue growth has accelerated yearly since at least 2018, and its final quarter of 2020 placed the company at a new growth rate maximum.

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

Everything else

MIT’s insect-sized drones are built to survive collisions — If you’re going to build something this small, you need to ensure that it doesn’t break down the first time it comes into contact with something.

Volvo to sell only all-electric vehicles by 2030 — This is part of a broader transformation of the automaker that will include shifting sales online.

Attend TechCrunch’s free virtual Miami meetup on March 11 — Even though we can’t be there physically right now, it’ll sure feel like we are.

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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Facebook can save itself by becoming a B Corporation

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As Facebook confronts outrage among its employees and the public for mishandling multiple decisions about its role in shaping public discourse, it is becoming clear that it cannot solve its conundrums without a major change in its business model. And a new model is readily available: for-benefit status.

For decades, a misguided ideology has warped companies, economies and societies: that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize short-term returns to one set of stakeholders — those who have bought shares. Neither law nor history requires this to be true.

But shareholder value-maximization ideology has become cemented in far too much corporate practice at the expense of societal well-being. This is manifested in many ways: a slavish adherence to the judgment of the “market,” even when other social signals are more powerful; executives enriched by stock options; companies fearful of “activist investors” who attack whenever stock prices fail to meet quarterly “expectations” and often-frivolous shareholder lawsuits pushing for stock gains at all costs.

The pandemic, however, has accelerated an already-spreading recognition that shareholder value maximization is often a harmful choice — not by any means a moral imperative or even a fiduciary responsibility.

Major institutions of capitalism are converging on a new vision for it. The 2019 Business Roundtable CEO statement said that corporate strategy should benefit all stakeholders – including shareholders, yes, but equally customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letters assert new views of how that investment company, the world’s largest, should invest the trillions it oversees.

Fink’s 2019 letter spelled out a new vision for corporate purpose; the subsequent 2020 and 2021 letters focused on business’ responsibility around climate change, particularly in light of the pandemic. The B Corporation and conscious capitalism movements are growing. The World Economic Forum is championing a “Fourth Sector,” combining purpose with profit. Business schools, facing student rebellions against a purely profit-maximizing curriculum, are rapidly changing what they teach.

And with society under siege, many more businesses, including social media, are scrambling to seem like good corporate citizens. They have no choice.

Facebook, for example, has doubled down on philanthropy and new efforts to combat misinformation, even as usage and share price soar. Platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have become essential services to connect people whose physical ties have been abruptly severed during the global pandemic. Shelter-in-place has become, in many ways, shelter-in-Facebook-properties.

But Facebook and its brethren remain fragile. Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Facebook has faced governmental hearings and regulation, public uproar (#deleteFacebook), and huge fines for invading privacy and undermining democracy. These calls were amplified in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. Separately, it faces allegations of bias, largely (though not entirely) from the political right. These have led to calls for the revocation or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from the actions of its users.

A giant company that is simultaneously essential and pilloried is vulnerable. Just ask the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons, whose huge monopolies industrialized America more than 100 years ago. Journalistic muckrakers and public outrage targeted them for their abusive practices until the government finally broke up their companies via antitrust legislation.

Because Mark Zuckerberg maintains complete majority control of Facebook, he could unilaterally quell public opprobrium and fend off heavy-handed regulation singlehandedly by transforming Facebook into a new kind of business: a for-benefit corporation.

Under the Public Benefit Corporation legal model, firms bind themselves to a public benefit mission statement and carry out required ongoing reporting on both the standard financials and on how the company is living up to its mission. That status protects the company against profit-demanding shareholder lawsuits, and also attracts employees and investors who want to combine profit with purpose.

Data.world is one of the thousands of certified B Corporations that have seen good returns on financial metrics. Allbirds, for example, launched in a few sustainable materials using a pro-sustainability process to manufacture comfortable shoes, quickly reaching revenues of $100 million and valuation of $1.7 billion in an industry fraught with sustainability and human rights concerns. Other household names that are B Corps include The Body ShopCourseraDanone, the Jamie Oliver GroupKing Arthur FlourNumi Tea and Patagonia.

Many companies that have not undergone formal B Certification from B Labs have nonetheless done well while transforming their business practices, such as the carpet and flooring company Interface. Some firms incorporate ESG principles into their management systems – the $24 billion (market cap) Dutch life sciences company DSM has for years had meaningful sustainability targets for its senior management that account for fully 50 percent of their annual bonuses. Both Interface and DSM attribute much of their commercial success to their attention to non-financial considerations.

A for-benefit Facebook could similarly relate to the world differently, avoiding many of the reputational shocks and regulatory responses that have led to huge stock dips and enormous fines. Its operations would align with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed purpose to enable the potential abundance that results from connecting everyone in the world.

Imagine a Facebook town hall as a true public square, not just another way to gather and sell people’s data without their explicit consent. Imagine a Facebook that put its users first and its advertisers second; that revealed where ads came from; that earned your attention in a way that you controlled rather than through machine-driven algorithms maximizing your attention for good or ill. Such a for-benefit Facebook could create true buy-in and transparency with its massive community around the world.

Of course, such steps as Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which may provide some meaningful review, don’t require a legal change. But if shareholders and employees continue to be rewarded primarily by the success of the problematic ad revenue model, a continuing conflict between private gain and public benefit makes it impossible to have confidence about what is happening behind the scenes. A shift to for-benefit incorporation and appropriate certification brings with it different performance metrics and accountability systems with public scores.

In changing Facebook into a for-benefit corporation, Zuckerberg could insulate himself against presidential rage while rehabilitating his reputation — and his company’s. It would likely create vast ripples both in Silicon Valley and beyond — and it might help transform capitalism itself.

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