Starling Bank raises additional £30M as it nears 1 millionth account holder

Starling Bank, the U.K.-based challenger bank founded by banking veteran Anne Boden, has raised an additional £30 million in funding.

In what was likely already agreed follow-on funding, perhaps contingent on milestones being met, previous backer Merian Chrysalis led the round with an investment of £20 million. JTC, another of Starling’s existing investors, also participated, adding a further £10 million.

Starling says the new funding will support increased investment in its consumer and SME bank accounts, as well as its B2B banking services. The capital will also be used to accelerate expansion into Europe.

Launched in May 2017, Starling has raised £263 million to date. In February this year it disclosed a £75 million funding round, and in the same month was awarded £100 million from the Capabilities and Innovation Fund, which was set up by Royal Bank of Scotland to fulfill European state aid conditions after a bailout during the financial crisis. Starling is using the CIF award to build out its SME account.

Meanwhile, the challenger bank says it is very close to reaching 1 million accounts opened. The number at time of publication was 930,000 accounts, with the 1 million mark expected within a few weeks.

That isn’t quite on par with competitors such as Monzo, Revolut or N26, all of which have several million opened accounts and have been growing significantly faster — even if that hyper growth isn’t without problems. However, Starling has always talked up its average bank deposits number as higher than other upstarts, evidence that consumers are using new banking offerings in different ways and not always as their primary salary account.

Cue statement from Boden: “This latest investment of £20 million from Merian Chrysalis will support Starling’s rapid growth and help us reach one million customers and £1 billion on deposit within weeks. It will also help us accelerate our global expansion, starting in Europe, so that even more people can benefit from the Starling app.”

Google’s Play Store is giving an age-rating finger to Fleksy, a Gboard rival 🖕

Platform power is a helluva a drug. Do a search on Google’s Play store in Europe and you’ll find the company’s own Gboard app has an age rating of PEGI 3 — aka the pan-European game information labelling system which signifies content is suitable for all age groups.

PEGI 3 means it may still contain a little cartoon violence. Say, for example, an emoji fist or middle finger.

Now do a search on Play for the rival Fleksy keyboard app and you’ll find it has a PEGI 12 age rating. This label signifies the rated content can contain slightly more graphic fantasy violence and mild bad language.

The discrepancy in labelling suggests there’s a material difference between Gboard and Fleksy — in terms of the content you might encounter. Yet both are pretty similar keyboard apps — with features like predictive emoji and baked in GIFs. Gboard also lets you create custom emoji. While Fleksy puts mini apps at your fingertips.

A more major difference is that Gboard is made by Play Store owner and platform controller, Google. Whereas Fleksy is an indie keyboard that since 2017 has been developed by ThingThing, a startup based out of Spain.

Fleksy’s keyboard didn’t used to carry a 12+ age rating — this is a new development. Not based on its content changing but based on Google enforcing its Play Store policies differently.

The Fleksy app, which has been on the Play Store for around eight years at this point — and per Play Store install stats has had more than 5M downloads to date — was PEGI 3 rating until earlier this month. But then Google stepped in and forced the team to up the rating to 12. Which means the Play Store description for Fleksy in Europe now rates it PEGI 12 and specifies it contains “Mild Swearing”.

Screenshot 2019 10 23 at 12.39.45

The Play store’s system for age ratings requires developers to fill in a content ratings form, responding to a series of questions about their app’s content, in order to obtain a suggested rating.

Fleksy’s team have done so over the years — and come up with the PEGI 3 rating without issue. But this month they found they were being issued the questionnaire multiple times and then that their latest app update was blocked without explanation — meaning they had to reach out to Play Developer Support to ask what was going wrong.

After some email back and forth with support staff they were told that the app contained age inappropriate emoji content. Here’s what Google wrote:

During review, we found that the content rating is not accurate for your app… Content ratings are used to inform consumers, especially parents, of potentially objectionable content that exists within an app.

For example, we found that your app contains content (e.g. emoji) that is not appropriate for all ages. Please refer to the attached screenshot.

In the attached screenshot Google’s staff fingered the middle finger emoji as the reason for blocking the update:

Fleksy Play review emoji violation

“We never thought a simple emoji is meant to be 12+,” ThingThing CEO Olivier Plante tells us.

With their update rejected the team was forced to raise the rating of Fleksy to PEGI 12 — just to get their update unblocked so they could push out a round of bug fixes for the app.

That’s not the end of the saga, though. Google’s Play Store team is still not happy with the regional age rating for Fleksy — and wants to push the rating even higher — claiming, in a subsequent email, that “your app contains mature content (e.g. emoji) and should have higher rating”.

Now, to be crystal clear, Google’s own Gboard app also contains the middle finger emoji. We are 100% sure of this because we double-checked…

Gboard finger

Emojis available on Google’s Gboard keyboard, including the ‘screw you’ middle finger. Photo credit: Romain Dillet/TechCrunch

This is not surprising. Pretty much any smartphone keyboard — native or add-on — would contain this symbol because it’s a totally standard emoji.

But when Plante pointed out to Google that the middle finger emoji can be found in both Fleksy’s and Gboard’s keyboards — and asked them to drop Fleksy’s rating back to PEGI 3 like Gboard — the Play team did not respond.

A PEGI 16 rating means the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) “reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life”, per official guidance on the labels, while the use of bad language can be “more extreme”, and content may include the use of tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs.

And remember Google is objecting to “mature” emoji. So perhaps its app reviewers have been clutching at their pearls after finding other standard emojis which depict stuff like glasses of beer, martinis and wine… 🤦‍♀️

Over on the US Play Store, meanwhile, the Fleksy app is rated “teen”.

While Gboard is — yup, you guessed it! — ‘E for Everyone’… 🤔

image 1 1

Plante says the double standard Google is imposing on its own app vs third party keyboards is infuriating, and he accuses the platform giant of anti-competitive behavior.

“We’re all-in for competition, it’s healthy… but incumbent players like Google playing it unfair, making their keyboard 3+ with identical emojis, is another showcase of abuse of power,” he tells TechCrunch.

A quick search of the Play Store for other third party keyboard apps unearths a mixture of ratings — most rated PEGI 3 (such as Microsoft-owned SwiftKey and Grammarly Keyboard); some PEGI 12 (such as Facemoji Emoji Keyboard which, per Play Store’s summary contains “violence”).

Only one that we could find among the top listed keyboard apps has a PEGI 16 rating.

This is an app called Classic Big Keyboard — whose listing specifies it contains “Strong Language” (and what keyboard might not, frankly!?). Though, judging by the Play store screenshots, it appears to be a fairly bog standard keyboard that simply offers adjustable key sizes. As well as, yes, standard emoji.

“It came as a surprise,” says Plante describing how the trouble with Play started. “At first, in the past weeks, we started to fill in the rating reviews and I got constant emails the rating form needed to be filled with no details as why we needed to revise it so often (6 times) and then this last week we got rejected for the same reason. This emoji was in our product since day 1 of its existence.”

Asked whether he can think of any trigger for Fleksy to come under scrutiny by Play store reviewers now, he says: “We don’t know why but for sure we’re progressing nicely in the penetration of our keyboard. We’re growing fast for sure but unsure this is the reason.”

“I suspect someone is doubling down on competitive keyboards over there as they lost quite some grip of their search business via the alternative browsers in Europe…. Perhaps there is a correlation?” he adds, referring to the European Commission’s antitrust decision against Google Android last year — when the tech giant was hit with a $5BN fine for various breaches of EU competition law. A fine which it’s appealing.

“I’ll continue to fight for a fair market and am glad that Europe is leading the way in this,” adds Plante.

Following the EU antitrust ruling against Android, which Google is legally compelled to comply with during any appeals process, it now displays choice screens to Android users in Europe — offering alternative search engines and browsers for download, alongside Google’s own dominate search  and browser (Chrome) apps.

However the company still retains plenty of levers it can pull and push to influence the presentation of content within its dominant Play Store — influencing how rival apps are perceived by Android users and so whether or not they choose to download them.

So requiring that a keyboard app rival gets badged with a much higher age rating than Google’s own keyboard app isn’t a good look to say the least.

We reached out to Google for an explanation about the discrepancy in age ratings between Fleksy and Gboard and will update this report with any further response. At first glance a spokesman agreed with us that the situation looks odd.

Axon adds license plate recognition to police dash cams, but heeds ethics board’s concerns

Law enforcement tech outfitter Axon has announced that it will include automated license plate recognition in its next generation of dash cams. But its independent ethics board has simultaneously released a report warning of the dire consequences should this technology be deployed irresponsibly.

Axon makes body and dash cams for law enforcement, the platform on which that footage is stored (, and some of the weapons officers use (Taser, the name by which the company was originally known). Fleet 3 is the new model of dash cam, and by recognizing plate numbers will come with the ability to, for example, run requested plates without an officer having to type them in while driving.

The idea of including some kind of image recognition in these products has naturally occurred to them, and indeed there are many situations where law enforcement where such a thing would be useful; Automated icense plate recognition, or ALPR, is no exception. But the ethical issues involved in this and other forms of image analysis (identifying warrant targets based on body cam footage for instance) are many and serious.

In an effort to earnestly engage with these issues and also to not appear evil and arbitrary (as otherwise it might), Axon last year set up an independent advisory board that would be told of Axon’s plans and ideas and weigh in on them in official reports. Today they issued their second, on the usage of ALPR.

Although I’ll summarize a few of its main findings below, the report actually makes for very interesting reading. The team begins by admitting that there is very little information on how police actually use ALPR data, which makes it difficult to say whether it’s a net positive or negative, or whether this or that benefit or risk is currently in play.

That said, the very fact that ALPR use is largely undocumented is evidence in itself of negligence on the part of authorities to understand and limit the potential uses of this technology.

axon camera

“The unregulated use of ALPRs has exposed millions of people subject to surveillance by law enforcement, and the danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing as the technology is becoming more common,” said Barry Friedman, NYU law professor and member of the ethics board, in a press release. “It is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage. This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

You can see that the ethics board does not pull its punches. It makes a number of recommendations to Axon, and it should come as no surprise that transparency is at the head of them.

Law enforcement agencies should not acquire or use ALPRs without going through an open, transparent, democratic process, with adequate opportunity for genuinely representative public analysis, input, and objection.

Agencies should not deploy ALPRs without a clear use policy. That policy should be made public and should, at a minimum, address the concerns raised in this report.

Vendors, including Axon, should design ALPRs to facilitate transparency about their use, including by incorporating easy ways for agencies to share aggregate and de-identified data. Each agency then should share this data with the community it serves.

And let’s improve security too, please.

Interestingly the board also makes a suggestion on the part of conscientious objectors to the current draconian scheme of immigration enforcement: “Vendors, including Axon, must provide the option to turn off immigration-related alerts from the National Crime Information Center so that jurisdictions that choose not to participate in federal immigration enforcement can do so.”

There’s an aspect of state’s rights and plenty of other things wrapped up in that, but it’s a serious consideration these days. A system like this shouldn’t be a cat’s paw for the feds.

Axon, for its part, isn’t making any particularly specific promises, partly because the board’s recommendations reach beyond what it is capable of promising. But it did agree that the data collected by its systems will never be sold for commercial purposes. “We believe the data is owned by public safety agencies and the communities they serve, and should not be resold,” said Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith in the same press release.

I asked for Axon’s perspective on the numerous other suggestions made in the report. A company representative said that Axon appreciates the board’s “thoughtful guidance” and agrees with “their overall approach.” More specifically, the statement continued:

In the interest of transparency, both with our law enforcement customers and the communities they serve, we have announced this initiative approximately a year ahead of initial deployments of Axon Fleet 3. This time period will give us the opportunity to define best practices and a model framework for implementation through conversations with leading public safety and civil liberties groups and the Ethics Board. Prior to releasing the product, we will issue a specific and detailed outline of how we are implementing relevant safeguards including items such as data retention and ownership, and creating an ethical framework to help prevent misuse of the technology.

It’s good that this technology is being deployed amidst a discussion of these issues, but the ethics board isn’t The Board, and Axon (let alone its subordinate ethics team) can’t dictate public policy.

This technology is coming, and if the communities most impacted by it and things like it want to protect themselves, or if others want to ensure they are protected, the issues in the report should be carefully considered and brought up as a matter of policy with local governments. That’s where the recommended changes can really start to take root.

Axon Ethics Report 2 v2 by TechCrunch on Scribd

Fabric raises $110 million Series B to expand its network of automated fulfillment centers in the U.S.

Fabric, the startup that wants to make automated logistics available to retailers of all sizes, announced today it has raised $110 million in Series B funding. The round was led by Corner Ventures, with participation from Aleph, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), Innovation Endeavors, La Maison, Playground Ventures and Temasek.

This brings the total funding raised so far by Fabric (formerly called CommonSense Robotics) to $136 million. Its last round was a $20 million Series A announced in February 2018. Fabric also said today that it is launching a platform model that will allow its clients to build micro-fulfillment centers on their own property that use the startup’s AI and robotics-based technology.

Fabric was founded in Tel Aviv in 2015 and is now headquartered in New York. Its Series B will be used for its U.S. expansion, where it currently has 14 sites under contract, including three micro-fulfillment centers that are currently being built in New York City. One of those is scheduled to open by the first quarter of next year and will be available to retailers who want to make on-demand fulfillment, including one-hour deliveries, available to their customers.

Last October, Fabric opened its first micro-fulfillment center in Tel Aviv, giving an inside look into how the company’s system works. Robots move around the warehouse, picking up inventory so human workers can stay at a scanning station. Fabric says the 6,000 square feet station now processes up to 600 orders a day, including one-hour deliveries.

Steve Hornyak, chief commercial officer at Fabric, told TechCrunch that it plans to expand its platform model into at least one other U.S. city next year and currently has deals with several U.S. retailers that will be announced in the coming months.

Fabric’s logistics platform can be used by retailers of any size, but “for SMBs, our service model is particularly revolutionary as it has been built to allow for multiple tenants leveraging the same platform. It enables retailers that don’t have the resources or infrastructure to build an entirely new fulfillment operation themselves to access a world-class logistics solution that enables profitable on-demand fulfillment,” he said.

Of course, retailers and logistics providers in the U.S. have to deal with the specter of Amazon, which Hornyak said Fabric views “as the force that’s fundamentally driving the market, transforming retail as we know it at a dizzying pace and pushing all other players to adapt in a rapidly evolving space.”

“When Amazon announces it’s providing free same-day deliveries of $1 items, that becomes the consumer expectation—and the faster the delivery, the more complicated and expensive it is,” he added. “Our aim is to enable all other retailers to stay relevant and competitive in this world that Amazon has created, providing the operational, strategic and financial infrastructure they need to meet consumer expectations profitably, sustainably, and at scale in an on-demand world.”

As part of its expansion plans, Fabric plans to grow its commercial, operations and tech support teams in the U.S., as well as its engineering team in Tel Aviv.

In a press statement, Corner Ventures managing partner John Cadeddu said “Fabric is the micro-fulfillment market leader with a production-proven platform that drives tremendous value for its retail partners and consumers alike. We are delighted to be partnering with the Fabric team in their incredible vision to reinvent how goods are fulfilled and delivered in this on-demand world, ultimately empowering retailers to provide faster deliveries at lower costs and at scale.”

Startup founders share why they attend TechCrunch Disrupt

On 11-12 December, thousands of savvy startuppers will flock to Germany for Disrupt Berlin 2019. Disrupt events, the premiere technology conferences hosted by TechCrunch, are known the world over as the place to launch, network, invest in and collaborate with the international early-stage startup community.

Disrupt offers plenty of startup action — world-class speakers, Startup Battlefield, hundreds of exhibitors, workshops, a hackathon and more. And it turns out that early-stage startup founders have lots of different reasons for loving Disrupt. Let us count the ways.

Education and collaboration

Tech evolves so quickly, amirite? When a startup has a new or complex concept, Disrupt is a great place to educate your community. Or to learn about new advances.

Case in point: Vlad Larin, the co-founder of Zeroqode, went to Disrupt Berlin to evangelize the startup’s no-code technology.

“We wanted to help people understand the technology and to spread the word that no-code development is real and it’s happening today. Exhibiting in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin was the perfect place for us to start those conversations.”

Larin also viewed Disrupt as an opportunity to meet like-minded people and to build collaborative relationships with other startups.

“We met all kinds of people looking for new ideas, collaboration and inspiration — people who want to learn and exchange ideas about the latest products and industry trends.”

Meet other founders

Disrupt provides plenty of opportunity to meet and learn from other founders. Case in point: Caleb John, the co-founder of Cedar Robotics, went to Disrupt San Francisco to meet other early-stage startup founders, something he’d never experienced. The chance to meet seasoned entrepreneurs from a range of industries, to build relationships and to learn from them was a major draw.

“Just talking about my business with other founders who understand what it takes to build a startup was incredibly valuable. They can look at your roadmap from a non-technical viewpoint, help you avoid pitfalls and make sure you’re running things smoothly in terms of your business practices.”

John built connections with R&D startups and potential investors — collaborative relationships he says may pay off down the road.

“Building relationships with those firms was very helpful, and I say going to TechCrunch Disrupt is a no-brainer. It’s something every startup founder should experience.”

Find funding

Cash is the lifeblood of any early stage startup and Disrupt is ripe with investors eager to fatten their investment portfolios. Case in point: David Hall, co-founder and president of Park and Diamond, went to Disrupt hoping to raise a round of funding.

“Investors from all over the world come to Disrupt. The chance to have those discussions and to potentially form relationships was invaluable.”

Hall credits his Disrupt experience with improving the startup’s overall growth.

“The exposure we received at TechCrunch Disrupt completely changed our trajectory and made it easier to raise funds and jump to the next stage.”

The funding they received as a result of connections cultivated at Disrupt allowed them to relocate from Virginia to New York and to make the company’s first key hires.

“TechCrunch draws that entrepreneurial community, and you never know when you’ll bump into the right person. Disrupt offers so many opportunities — you’d be foolish not to go.”

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. Whatever your reasons, don’t miss the opportunities awaiting you at Disrupt. Buy your super early bird passes here and save up to €600. We’ll see you in Berlin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Have we reached the tipping point?

Limited partners or  LPs  — the pension funds, the university endowments, the family offices that largely provide venture firms with their spending money — are receiving a lot of attention from venture capitalists, some of it unwanted. VCs have begun knocking down their doors with requests for fresh capital commitments so they’ll have money to invest if the market cools down.

The problem is, many of these LPs are already “over-allocated.” LPs traditionally invest in many asset classes, such as public equities, and they allocate a small percentage of their portfolio to venture capital. Suddenly, they’re finding they’ve forked over more than they’d intended to VCs.

There are several reasons for this situation. First, VCs are returning to them ever faster for more capital  — sometimes in less than two years’ time  — because they are in vesting at such a furious pace.

Compounding the problem, not all LPs have received returns from their VC investments that they can recycle into new venture capital allocations. In some cases, this capital is still tied up in startups that are raising much more money than in the past and staying private longer. “We have some large exposures to blue chip names where IPOs have been rumored to be coming for a long time already, and now it’s maybe 2021, maybe 2022,” says one endowment manager who asked not to be named. In other cases where startups have gone public, falling prices have prompted VCs to hang on to their shares instead of distribute them.

The result is that LPs are having to cut back on the number of managers they can fund, and that could mean bad news for venture capitalists and startups alike. These LPs don’t have much choice. As the LP explains it, “We have a pretty structured allocation process, and we’re really trying to be creative,” she says. One venture manager who reappeared too quickly for more money was  “easy to walk away from,” says this person. “Others, we’re having to do financial backflips for them to remain strong partners.”

Either way, this LP adds, “We can’t add any new relationships right now,” meaning new venture teams in particular are out of luck. “When [VCs] shorten their fundraising cycle by nine months to a year, you can only squeeze the balloon so much.”

Backing up the truck

SoftBank’s $100 billion “Vision Fund” is one big reason LPs find themselves in their current predicament. From the moment SoftBank began waving money around several years ago, it launched a vicious cycle.  According to Chris Douvos, whose investment firm, Ahoy Capital, owns stakes in such venture funds as True Ventures and First Round Capital, “When Andreessen Horowitz hit the scene a decade ago, they changed the tempo of investing and everyone got more aggressive in their dealmaking as a response. Then SoftBank entered the picture in a big way, and it was like a16z on steroids.”

In order to compete with SoftBank’s money cannon, other funds supersized their own investment vehicles, and startup valuations soared. Uber and WeWork were prime examples. Uber went public, pricing below expectations, and its shares have been falling ever since. WeWork and its unconventional S-1 filing never made it past the starting gate.

Competitors are enjoying some schadenfreude: they can’t help but delight in SoftBank’s pain. But WeWork’s slow-motion implosion comes at an uncertain moment in time. If a second massive Vision Fund doesn’t come together — and that seems more than likely at this point — it would mean a sharp drop-off in startup funding. That alone might be fine. It might even be healthy for the ecosystem. But the world is also grappling with a U.S. administration that appears increasingly unhinged. More, a recession that seemed far away as recently as early July but could be around the corner.

Collectively, these elements could change the picture dramatically for LPs. Specifically, if LPs aren’t getting enough money back from VCs and their public holdings fall in value because the markets hit the skids, their commitments to venture funds could become even larger as a percentage basis of their overall portfolio. That would create even more imbalance in their asset allocation. Which would mean even less money for new funds. Which would translate into less money for startups. 

It’s a vicious cycle of another kind, in short.

Maybe it won’t happen. We aren’t there yet. But VCs of all sizes would be wise to take a lesson from their entrepreneurs and perfect their pitches. As is becoming clear, LPs can’t dole out capital at the same pace forever, especially without more money coming back to them. If VCs want to continue raising new funds, or raising funds as fast, they’d better have a very good story to tell.

WeWork confirms an up to $8 billion lifeline from SoftBank Group; names new executive chairman

Confirming earlier reports, The We Company and SoftBank Group agreed to a new capital infusion which will see SoftBank committing $5 billion in new financing and issuing a tender offer for another $3 billion in buybacks for shareholders.

The company also said it would accelerate an existing commitment to put $1.5 billion into the short-term real estate rental company.

Under the specific terms of the deal, WeWork will receive $1.5 billion committed from SoftBank’s April 2020 cash infusion into the company at $11.60 per share. With that money expected to come in seven days after the deal is signed (subject to shareholder approval).

There’s also the tender offer for up to $3 billion worth of non-SoftBank owned shares at a price of $19.19 per share, which will begin in the fourth quarter of this year, with closing subject to regulatory approvals.

Finally there’s a joint venture share swap where all of SoftBank Vision Fund’s interests in regional joint ventures outside of Japan will be exchanged for WeWork shares at a price of $11.60 per share’ and a debt facility consisting of $1.1 billion in senior secured notes, $2.2 billion in unsecured notes, and a $1.75 billion letter of credit facility, which will occur after the tender offer is completed.

After the closing and the tender offer, SoftBank will own approximately 80 percent of the We Company, according to a statement.

But SoftBank will not actually will not hold a majority of voting rights at any stockholder or board of directors meeting,  thanks to WeWork’s convoluted ownership structure. Therefore, even with its 80 percent stake in the business, WeWork isn’t a subsidiary, but an “associate” of SoftBank.

As part of the agreement, the company confirmed that Adam Neumann will become a board observer and Marcelo Claure, the chief operating officer of SoftBank Group will assume the position of executive chairman of the board of directors of WeWork — as soon as the company receives its $1.5 billion payment from SoftBank.

“SoftBank is a firm believer that the world is undergoing a massive transformation in the way people work. WeWork is at the forefront of this revolution. It is not unusual for the world’s leading technology disruptors to experience growth challenges as the one WeWork just faced,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive of SoftBank Group Corp, in a statement. “Since the vision remains unchanged, SoftBank has decided to double down on the company by providing a significant capital infusion and operational support. We remain committed to WeWork, its employees, its member customers and landlords.” 

The vision may remain unchanged, but the story that SoftBank will have to tell about its new “associate”. Under Neumann’s stewardship,  We Company was a cash-burning, globe-spanning, all-encompassing community developer that would usher in a new kind of capitalism, operating under the banner of “We”.

Now, the company is more like a struggling purveyor of temporary office space, which has a mountain of leases it owns and is looking down the barrel of a potential cash crunch — even with the SoftBank lifeline. 

Still, SoftBank’s executives and WeWork’s new leadership are standing by their rhetoric for what the company is… and can be.

“WeWork is redefining the nature of work by creating meaningful experiences through integrating design, technology and community. The new capital SoftBank is providing will restore momentum to the company and I am committed to delivering profitability and positive free cash flow,” said Claure in a statement. “As important as the financial implications, this investment demonstrates our confidence in WeWork and its ability to continue to lead in disrupting the commercial real estate market by delivering flexible, collaborative and productive work environments to our customers.”

Salesforce Ventures’s John Somorjai warns N.C.’s politics could dampen its tech hub potential

North Carolina has been rising as an entrepreneurial hub. It’s now home to massive deals, like IBM buying Red Hat for $34 billion and Fortnite maker Epic Games raising a landmark $1.25 billion, both which helped to put the state — and the Triangle region, in particular — on the map. And now it’s just minted another unicorn with Pendo’s last fundraise. But its tech hub potential can still be threatened by the state’s political swings, said Salesforce Ventures head John Somorjai, who spoke today at a tech event in Durham.

On a panel at Bull City Venture Partners’ Entrepreneurs’ Series 2019, Somorjai reminded the audience that investment in the state follows the talent. And a state can’t attract talent when it’s not “welcoming to all people,” he said.

North Carolina has had a difficult history on this front, if you recall.

In 2016, PayPal canceled plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte after N.C. passed the controversial (“bathroom bill”) law that prevented cities from creating non-discrimination policies based on gender identity. The state lost 400 potential jobs, as a result. Over 100 other companies, including Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Uber, and others also asked the state to repeal the law after its passing.

N.C. eventually revised the law, then reached a settlement this summer that allows transgender people to use certain bathrooms matching their gender identity. But in some cases, it was too late to woo the tech companies back.

Apple and Amazon have also been separately criticized, at times, for considering N.C. area investments because of the state’s anti-LGBTQ leanings.

This issue now has a broad effect on the state’s ability to attract tech and business investment at a time when investors are often looking outside the Valley (and its obscene valuations) to find companies that are more focused on profitability.

Image from iOS 6

Salesforce Ventures, a strategic investor who keeps its stake below 15%, isn’t hesitant to fund companies beyond Silicon Valley — it has five investments in N.C. and 15 overall in the larger region, for example. And 75% of its investments were made outside of California, Somorjai noted.

But when asked what North Carolina’s biggest challenge was, in terms of becoming home to a startup community, he alluded to the state’s politics and its history of divisive laws.

“Before the last election, there was an environment here that wasn’t really welcoming to all people,” Somorjai said. “One of [Salesforce’s] core tenants — our core values — is equality. And there’s really sound business sense behind that,” he explained. “If you have discriminatory policies, people don’t feel welcome. If they don’t feel welcome, they’re not going to want to work there. And you will never be able to attract the best talent.”

“Money flows to where the talent is,” he added.

He also suggested to the event’s audience — a group of some 450 entrepreneurs and hundreds more working in the area’s startup ecosystem — that local community leaders should remain vigilant about these sorts of problems.

“If you’re complacent, it can happen again,” he said.

Despite the concerns, Somorjai was generally positive about the ability for strong startups to arise in N.C.

Salesforce Ventures itself invested in two N.C. area unicorns — Pendo and nCino — and it just acquired Charlotte-based MapAnything, which gives it some 200 new employees in the Tar Heel state. Elsewhere in N.C., startups AvidXchange, Red Ventures, and Tresata all have unicorn valuations.

“One thing we’ve been so excited about is — you have these tremendous universities that are putting out great engineers every year. And you have a growing group of investors that are investing in this area. There’s also now so much talent here that you’re attracting investors from all over the country,” he told the audience. “I think that’s great.”

Image credit, top: SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

Verizon is giving its customers 12 free months of Disney+

On November 12 Verizon will begin offering 12 months of Disney+ to all of its new and existing 4gLTE and 5G unlimited wireless customers, the companies said today in a joint statement.

It’s a great way for Disney to juice its early subscriber numbers and for Verizon to add a tantalizing perk as competition heats up for both streaming media companies and telecoms whose media strategy still seems a little… muddled.

While Comcast and AT&T each have their own successful media properties, Verizon (which owns Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch) has seen its fortunes in the media landscape wane as much of the investment thesis behind buying Aol… then Yahoo… then merging them into Oath… then rebranding them as Verizon Media Group… fizzled.

Tying itself to Disney+ — even just promotionally — makes good business sense.

Through the agreement Verizon customers get access to everything Disney+ has to offer, including the highly anticipated Star Wars television series, “The Mandalorian” and another 25 original films and documentaries. Watch the over three hour-long teaser trailer below for an exhaustive look at every. single. Disney. piece. of. content. coming. to. the. service.

“Giving Verizon customers an unprecedented offer and access to Disney+ on the platform of their choice is yet another example of our commitment to provide the best premium content available through key partnerships on behalf of our customers,” said Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg, in a statement. “Our work with Disney extends beyond Disney+ as we bring the power of 5G Ultra Wideband technology to the entertainment industry through exciting initiatives with Disney Innovation Studios and in the parks,” he added.

Here’s the deal: At launch, Verizon becomes the exclusive wireless carrier to offer 12 months of Disney+ for itsnew and existing customers. The offer also extends to its new Fios Home Internet and 5G Home Internet customers.

Folks can activate their Disney+ subscription and start streaming on devices including game consoles,  streaming media players and smart televisions.

Somehow, ‘Dark Fate’ got me excited about the Terminator again

The release of a new Terminator sequel has become a familiar ritual: The latest filmmakers acknowledge the greatness of the first two movies, then mumble awkwardly about the other sequels — which are inevitably ignored, because they assure us that this time, they’ve created the sequel we’ve been waiting for.

I can’t tell you whether “Rise of the Machines,” “Salvation” or “Genisys” deserve to be dismissed like this, because I haven’t seen any of them. (I did watch the TV spin-off, “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” which was pretty good.) But I can say that the latest installment, “Terminator: Dark Fate,” delivers on the promise of a worthy sequel.

It helps, of course, to see the return of some familiar names — not just Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also Linda Hamilton, who takes up the role of Sarah Connor for the first time since “Terminator 2.” And then there’s franchise creator James Cameron, who was apparently too busy with his “Avatar” sequels to direct (“Dark Fate” was helmed by “Deadpool” director Tim Miller instead), but who stayed involved as a producer and story writer.

Not that the story is really the selling point: The big emotional moments can feel clumsy and rushed, and some of the dialog is genuinely groan-worthy.

All the script really needs to do, though, is give us a reason for those familiar faces to be back on-screen together, and to convince us that it’s not totally pointless to watch another Terminator movie. In that, it succeeds — with a few nods toward the changing technological and political landscape thrown in for good measure.

Terminator Dark Fate

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton star in Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures’ “TERMINATOR: DARK FATE.”

In the film’s opening minutes, we learn that Sarah and John Connor’s efforts at the end of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” have succeeded in averting a nuclear apocalypse. However, for reasons that only become clear later, those pesky Terminators keep showing up.

The story proper kicks off in Mexico City, where a young woman named Dani Ramos (played by Natalia Reyes) becomes the latest target of a cyborg assassin. Her pursuer (Gabriel Luna) is an advanced model whose skin and skeleton can function as two separate bodies, and she’s saved by not one but two protectors — Sarah Connor, along with a cybernetically enhanced soldier named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), plus the late-film addition of an old-model Terminator (Schwarzenegger, naturally).

There are more revelations as the story unfolds, but one of the best things about “Dark Fate” is the simplicity of its storytelling. Like its first two predecessors, it doesn’t overcomplicate the formula: There’s a killer cyborg, an innocent target and an overmatched guardian; mayhem ensues.

It’s in the depiction of that mayhem that “Dark Fate” excels. The film has plenty of CGI (I’d argue too much), but it feels very different from the weightless, super-powered battles that have become the big-screen norm, and even from the balletic killing sprees of the “John Wick” movies.

Instead, the action in “Dark Fate” feels like a throwback, specifically to those Cameron-directed Terminator movies, where a great deal of thought and ingenuity was devoted to coming up with all the different ways that a relentless murder machine might wreak havoc.

Hamilton, by the way, seems completely at home in these scenes. And although Schwarzenegger’s performance was gratifyingly funny and loose, “Dark Fate” is absolutely her film.

Meanwhile, I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of how Luna’s Rev-9 actually works, but it makes for a striking and unsettling visual. The finale, in particular, offers a masterful escalation of jeopardy and destruction, as Rev-9 tears through one environment after another in pursuit of our increasingly desperate heroes — almost convincing you that this time, the Terminator really might be unstoppable.

I don’t want to overstate the case here: “Dark Fate” doesn’t quite replicate the perfect mix of violence, terror and melancholy that made those first two films so memorable. But it can hold its own in a fight.