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Quill, the messaging app backed by Index, quietly comes out of stealth to take on Slack

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Slack took the workplace communications landscape by storm after it launched its integration-friendly, GIF-tastic chat platform in 2013. Within the space of a decade it entered into the pantheon of big tech: first with massive growth and usage, then a series of giant VC rounds and valuations, spawning controversial competition from incumbents, followed by a public listing and ultimately a $27.7 billion acquisition by Salesforce. Now that the cycle is complete, the decks are clear for a Slack disruptor!

Today, a new app quietly launched out of stealth called Quill, available by way of apps for the web, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Android and iOS.

Like Slack, Quill is a messaging app for co-workers to update each other on what they are doing, have conversations about projects and more.

Unlike Slack — the implication seems to be — the difference is that Quill is about delivering messaging in a non-distracting way that doesn’t take up too much of your time, your concentration, and your energy. Quill bills itself as “messaging for people that focus.”

So while you get a lot of the same features you have in Slack for chatting with workers, creating channels, integrating other apps, and having video and voice conversations — one of my colleagues quipped, “It looks like Slack, but more colorful!” — it also includes a bunch of features that put the focus on, well, focus.

“We grew exhausted having to skim thousands of messages every day to keep up, so we built a way to chat that’s even better than how we already communicate in person,” Quill notes on its website. “A more deliberate way to chat. That’s what Quill is all about.”

For example, “structured channels” let you enforce threads in a channel for different conversations rather than view chatter in a waterfall. Automatic sorting in the app moves up active conversations you’re in above others. Limitations on notifications mean you can have more nuance in what ultimately might end up distracting you, and senders for example can alter a setting (with a !!) to notify you if something is critical and needs to ping you. Video chats come automatically with a sidebar to continue texting, too.

Then, you get separate channels for social and non-work chat; and a series of features that let you manipulate conversations after they’ve already started: you can recast conversations into threads after they’ve already started and you have a fast way to reply to messages. There is an easier and more obvious way to pin important things to the tops of channels; and in addition to creating new threads after a conversation starts, you can also move messages from one channel or thread to another.

You can also interact with Quill chats using SMS and email, and like Slack, it offers the ability to integrate other app notifications into the process.

It’s also working on adding a Clubhouse-like feature for voice channels, end-to-end encryption, context-based search (it already has keyword search), and user profiles.

Managing “high load”

The app has been in stealth mode for nearly three years, and while some projects might never go noticed in that time, this one is a little different because of the pedigree and the context.

For starters, Quill was founded by the former creative director of Stripe, Ludwig Pettersson, who was given a lot of the credit for the simplicity and focus of the payment company’s flagship product and platform (simplicity that became the hallmark of the service and helped it balloon into a commerce behemoth).

His involvement signaled that the effort might get at least a little attention. In a landscape that seemed to be all but dominated by Slack and a few huge, well-funded rivals in the form of Microsoft and Facebook, it’s notable that when Quill was just an idea, it had already picked up $2 million in seed funding, from Sam Altman (at the time the head of Y Combinator) and General Catalyst.

Following that it raised a Series A of $12.5 million led by Sarah Cannon of Index Ventures, totaling some $14.5 million in funding in all. The Series A valued the company at $62.5 million, as we reported at the time.

Added to this is the story behind Quill and what brought Pettersson and others on his team to the idea of building it. From what we understand, the idea in its earliest inception was to capture something of the magic of communication that you get from messaging apps, and specifically from workplace communication tools like Slack, but without the distraction and resulting frustration that often come along with them.

By 2018, Slack was already a big product, valued at over $7 billion and attracting millions of users. But there was also a growing number of people criticizing it for being the opposite of productive. “It’s hard to track everything that’s going on in Slack, it can be distracting. Given the network effect, Slack has become powerful, but it was not designed as a high-load system,” Sam Altman, the investor and former head of both Y-Combinator and OpenAI, said to me back in 2018 when I asked him what he knew about Quill after I first got wind of it.

He said he was “super impressed” by Ludwig’s work at Stripe, and then OpenAI (where he stayed for a year after leaving Stripe), so much so that when Ludwig suggested building “a better version of Slack,” it seemed like a “credible idea” and one worth backing even without a product yet to be built.

It’s quite fitting that for an app focused on focus, Quill launched today quietly and without much fanfare: why worry about PR distraction when you can just get something out there?

In any case, we’re hoping to hear more and see what kind of momentum it picks up. We’ve asked Index if we can talk to Sarah Cannon about the investment, and we are still waiting to hear back. We are also trying to see if we can talk to Pettersson. But I should mention we have been trying to talk to him since first getting wind of this app back in August of 2018, so we’re not holding our breath (nor this story).

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

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Eco raises $26M in a16z-led round to scale its digital cryptocurrency platform

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‍Eco, which has built out a digital global cryptocurrency platform, announced Friday that it has raised $26 million in a funding round led by a16z Crypto.

Founded in 2018, the SF-based startup’s platform is designed to be used as a payment tool around the world for daily-use transactions. The company emphasizes that it’s “not a bank, checking account, or credit card.”

“We’re building something better than all of those combined,” it said in a blog post. The company’s mission has also been described as an effort to use cryptocurrency as a way “to marry savings and spending,” according to this CoinList article.

Eco users can earn up to 5% annually on their deposits and get 5% cashback on when transacting with merchants such as Amazon, Uber, and others. Next up: the company says it will give its users the ability to pay bills, pay friends and more “all from the same, single wallet.” That same wallet, it says, rewards people every time they spend or save.

After a “successful” alpha test with millions of dollars deposited, the company’s Eco App is now available to the public.

A slew of other VC firms participated in Eco’s latest financing, including Founders Fund, Activant Capital, Slow Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Tribe Capital, Valor Capital Group, and more than one hundred other funds and angels.  Expa and Pantera Capital co-led the company’s $8.5 million funding round.

CoinList co-founder Andy Bromberg stepped down from his role last fall to head up Eco. The startup was originally called Beam before rebranding to Eco “thanks to involvement by founding advisor, Garrett Camp, who held the Eco brand,” according to Coindesk. Camp is an Uber co-founder and Expa is his venture fund.

For a16z Crypto, leading the round is in line with its mission.

In a blog post co-written by Katie Haun and Arianna Simpson, the firm outlined why it’s pumped about Eco and its plans.

“One of the challenges in any new industry — crypto being no exception — is building things that are not just cool for the sake of cool, but that manage to reach and delight a broad set of users,” they wrote. “Technology is at its best when it’s improving the lives of people in tangible, concrete ways…At a16z Crypto, we are constantly on the lookout for paths to get cryptocurrency into the hands of the next billion people. How do we think that will happen? By helping them achieve what they already want to do: spend, save, and make money — and by focusing users on tangible benefits, not on the underlying technology.”

Eco is not the only crypto platform offering rewards to users. Lolli gives users free bitcoin or cash when they shop at over 1,000 top stores.


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Early-stage investor Mayfield shows how to scale up your biotech startup at TC Early Stage in April

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Founders in the earliest stages of startup life face a hefty learning curve. Just some of the core competencies you need to lock down include how to raise VC funding, recruiting the right people, finding product-market fit and building a killer go-to-market team. The list goes on and on…and on. You’ll learn about all those topics and more at TechCrunch Early Stage Operations & Fundraising taking place on April 1-2. 

Do you science? Are you inspired to use biology as technology? If your entrepreneurial interests lean toward the scientific side of the startup equation, you don’t want to miss this special session — brought to you by Mayfield — at TC Early Stage 2021 on April 1-2.

Scientist Entrepreneurs — Scaling Breakout Engineering Biology Companies 

Arvind Gupta and Ursheet Parikh, early-stage investors, company builders and Mayfield partners, along with Po Bronson, NYT bestselling author and managing director of IndieBio, will discuss scaling startups and touch upon three seminal areas that influence trajectory: fundraising, hiring and product design. Their insights draw on their experience with companies including ingredients-as-service leader Geltor (which raised a $91 million Series B in 2020); CRISPR platform Mammoth Biosciences (its dream team includes co-founder and Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna); and Endpoint Health (started by GeneWEAVE’s founding team and former YC Bio Partner Diego Rey).

Whether you’re a biotech entrepreneur, a researcher or a scientist tackling the daunting challenges of human and planetary health, this session will help you build a stronger, more successful startup as you take your product to market.

Mayfield will follow up this session with even more content at Disrupt 2021 in September. These sessions will reveal company-building insights from entrepreneurs, investors, industry leaders and policymakers. Mayfield invests in exceptional people whose mission in life is to create a better world — not just for our generation  but for future generations as well. If you science, don’t miss your opportunity to learn from leading investors who have partnered with iconic biotech and health IT entrepreneurs — from Amgen and Genentech to Mammoth Biosciences.

Get your ticket for the April TC Early Stage event here. Or get a dual-event ticket for the April and July events for double the knowledge across operations, marketing, recruiting and fundraising — and save up to $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 — Operations & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you

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Every day, your life leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tech giants use to track you. You send an email, order some food, stream a show. They get back valuable packets of data to build up their understanding of your preferences. That data is fed into machine-learning algorithms to target you with ads and recommendations. Google cashes your data in for over $120 billion a year of ad revenue.

Increasingly, we can no longer opt out of this arrangement. In 2019 Kashmir Hill, then a reporter for Gizmodo, famously tried to cut five major tech giants out of her life. She spent six weeks being miserable, struggling to perform basic digital functions. The tech giants, meanwhile, didn’t even feel an itch.

Now researchers at Northwestern University are suggesting new ways to redress this power imbalance by treating our collective data as a bargaining chip. Tech giants may have fancy algorithms at their disposal, but they are meaningless without enough of the right data to train on.

In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:

  • Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
  • Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
  • Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.

People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.

What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.

There may have already been a few examples of this. In January, millions of users deleted their WhatsApp accounts and moved to competitors like Signal and Telegram after Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. The exodus caused Facebook to delay its policy changes.

Just this week, Google also announced that it would stop tracking individuals across the web and targeting ads at them. While it’s unclear whether this is a real change or just a rebranding, says Vincent, it’s possible that the increased use of tools like AdNauseam contributed to that decision by degrading the effectiveness of the company’s algorithms. (Of course, it’s ultimately hard to tell. “The only person who really knows how effectively a data leverage movement impacted a system is the tech company,” he says.)

Vincent and Li think these campaigns can complement strategies such as policy advocacy and worker organizing in the movement to resist Big Tech.

“It’s exciting to see this kind of work,” says Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics, who was not involved in the research. “It was really interesting to see them thinking about the collective or holistic view: we can mess with the well and make demands with that threat, because it is our data and it all goes into this well together.”

There is still work to be done to make these campaigns more widespread. Computer scientists could play an important role in making more tools like AdNauseam, for example, which would help lower the barrier to participating in such tactics. Policymakers could help too. Data strikes are most effective when bolstered by strong data privacy laws, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives consumers the right to request the deletion of their data. Without such regulation, it’s harder to guarantee that a tech company will give you the option to scrub your digital records, even if you remove your account.

And some questions remain to be answered. How many people does a data strike need to damage a company’s algorithm? And what kind of data would be most effective in poisoning a particular system? In a simulation involving a movie recommendation algorithm, for example, the researchers found that if 30% of users went on strike, it could cut the system’s accuracy by 50%. But every machine-learning system is different, and companies constantly update them. The researchers hope that more people in the machine-learning community can run similar simulations of different companies’ systems and identify their vulnerabilities.

Alkhatib suggests that scholars should do more research on how to inspire collective data action as well. “Collective action is really hard,” he says. “Getting people to follow through on ongoing action is one challenge. And then there’s the challenge of how do you keep a group of people who are very transient—in this case it might be people who are using a search engine for five seconds—to see themselves as part of a community that actually has longevity?”

These tactics might also have downstream consequences that need careful examination, he adds. Could data poisoning end up just adding more work for content moderators and other people tasked with cleaning and labeling the companies’ training data?

But overall, Vincent, Li, and Alkhatib are optimistic that data leverage could turn into a persuasive tool to shape how tech giants treat our data and our privacy. “AI systems are dependent on data. It’s just a fact about how they work,” Vincent says. “Ultimately, that is a way the public can gain power.”

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