• For Ambitious AltSchool, It’s Time for Phase Two

    Much has been written about the ambitions of AltSchool, a San Francisco-based startup that’s aiming to change the way that school children learn. Its big idea, broadly, is that personalized learning is far more effective than the standardized education that most students are stuck with today.

    As important, personalized learning is scalable, believes AltSchool, which operates seven small private schools – five of them in San Francisco, one in Palo Alto, and one in Brooklyn – and, sorry to disappoint some of you, doesn’t intend to open many more. Instead, after several years of working closely with its kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students and iterating on its personalized learning approach, it’s gearing up to license its findings to other schools that want to embrace more individualized techniques but don’t have $133 million to test what works and what doesn’t. (That’s how much AltSchool has raised so far from its investors).

    The 160-person company, which describes itself as very much in the “building phase,” aims to raise more over the next couple of years, too. We talked earlier today with founder and CEO (and former Googler) Max Ventilla to get the full update. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

    Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 6.36.56 PM.pngYou’re opening another of your own schools in Lower Manhattan this fall, and another in Chicago early next year. But after that, you’ll be more focused on partnering with other new and existing schools. Is that right?

    We’ll continue to run our lab schools with an emphasis on learning in a full-stack way and advancing a new model for how schools can educate children. That approach and the platform that we use to support our own schools is what we’re [using to] partner with other schools, and you’ll see the first of those partnerships in September 2017.

    Are these private or public schools or some combination of both?

    To start, they’ll be pretty similar [to AltSchool]: small, independent, private schools – schools that adhere to the idea that student agency is critically important. We’re starting in an admittedly easier setting. Private schools have less regulations and fewer constraints on their resources, [but it’s an opportunity] to prove the model works, then to incrementally expand the model to more and more schools. So the first wave will look like the schools we’ve been running successfully [ourselves], then by 2018, maybe you’ll see newer, progressive charter schools [adopt our approach] then maybe just progressive schools.

    If you keep improving the model and the gains compound and schools benefit from other schools in the network, it stops being about AltSchool trying to stitch things together. We do believe on a five-year time scale, it starts to be relevant for some smaller-district public schools; it may be 15 years before urban school districts benefit from anything we’ve built.

    Are there any partnerships you can announce?

    We’ll have a formal announcement at the end of September, but we’re pretty far along with a few schools that either already exist or are opening.

    AltSchool prides itself on employing equal numbers of educators, operators, and engineers who actively help the educators mark and measure what’s working and what isn’t. But a New Yorker piece published earlier this year noted that data-related privacy concerns could hamper the adoption of your software by public schools.

    More here.

  • A Startup That Pays Cash to Buy Homes Now Offers Money-Back Guarantee

    Eric WuOpendoor, a two-year-old, San Francisco-based startup is a swing-for-the fences type of bet during a time when the most ambitious startups are suddenly less fashionable than they once were.

    That’s not crimping the company’s style. In fact, Opendoor, which is on a mission to make it simple to buy and sell houses online, just added another layer of uncertainty onto its big-risk, big-reward model.

    The roughly 100-employee company currently buys homes sight unseen when a home seller visits its site, asks for a quote, and accepts Opendoor’s bid, which the company comes up with based on public market information about historical home sales and its own proprietary data about market conditions. (The company says its offers are typically one to three points below what the seller might fetch on the open market roughly three months into the future. That’s the average time required to sell a home in the U.S., it says.)

    Starting today, it’s making two more bold promises. First, it will buy back a home if the new owner is unhappy with it. Specifically, if someone changes his or her mind for any reason, that person has 30 days to receive a full refund. More, Opendoor will provide each new buyer with a 180-point inspection report on the condition of their new home; if anything breaks in the first two years, it will fix it.

    “We stand behind our homes,” says Eric Wu, CEO and co-founder of Opendoor. “Unlike a typical seller who is trying to hide information from [the seller], we’re fully transparent because we want our customers to be happy.”

    Wu, who previously sold a startup to the real estate portal Trulia, cofounded Opendoor in March 2014 with three others: operator-investor Keith Rabois; Ian Wong, who formerly led data science at Square; and JD Ross, who oversaw product at the investment management platform Addepar.

    Their plan from the outset was to use technology to flip homes, an idea that has garnered roughly $110 million from investors, including its biggest shareholder, Khosla Ventures.

    Wu says Opendoor has also raised “hundreds of millions of dollars” in debt in order to carry the homes on its balance sheet while it works toward re-selling them.

    In an interview yesterday, Wu declined to say how many homes have so far been bought or sold using the platform. But he did say that OpenDoor typically buys 10 houses a day across the two markets in which it’s currently operating: Phoenix and Dallas.

    More here.

  • For Peter Thiel, Revenge on Gawker May Have Been a Dish Best Served Cold

    Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 11.05.26 AMAccording to a Forbes report published last night, billionaire investor Peter Thiel has been quietly funding the case that Hulk Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) has brought against the online news organization Gawker.

    Bollea has won for now. A Florida jury awarded Bollea $140 million in March over a sex tape that Gawker published in 2012. And today, Judge Pamela Campbell denied a motion by Gawker that called for a retrial, as well as denied a motion to reduce the penalties awarded by the jury.

    Still, as ABC News notes, now that Gawker’s “motions to strike” have failed, the company can continue with the appeals process. (First Amendment specialists think it’s possible Gawker will win or else see Bollea’s reward reduced.)

    The race to out Thiel seemed to begin earlier in the day yesterday, when the New York Times quoted Gawker founder Nick Denton as saying he believed Bollea’s case was being bankrolled by someone in Silicon Valley.  Denton explained that Bollea’s lawyer had removed a claim that would have caused Gawker’s insurance company to cover Gawker’s legal costs and payout in the event of a loss; the implication was that money wasn’t the only or primary factor in Bollea’s suit.

    Denton didn’t hint at Thiel in the text of the piece, but the Times seems to have confirmed Forbes’s account subsequently.

    Assuming Thiel has been paying Bollea’s attorney (Thiel hasn’t responded to our request for comment), it is news that should “disturb everyone,” writes Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. “[B]eing able to give massive political contributions actually pales in comparison to the impact of being able to destroy a publication you don’t like by combining the machinery of the courts with anonymity and unlimited funds to bleed a publication dry.”

    The chilling effects are obvious, though it’s not exactly news that the entire legal system is up for sale. Even Denton, speaking to the Times before Thiel’s involvement was discovered, noted that: “If you’re a billionaire and you don’t like the coverage of you, and you don’t particularly want to embroil yourself any further in a public scandal, it’s a pretty smart, rational thing to fund other legal cases.”

    And, no matter what the moral and strategic implications of this kind of thing, it’s still legal.

    Indeed, if Thiel wanted to attack Gawker, it’s hard to conjure up as clever a way to get revenge on the outlet, whose now-shuttered gossip site Valleywag regularly published posts about Thiel during its heyday nearly a decade ago.

    This reporter spoke with Thiel numerous times about how he was portrayed by Valleywag’s then-editor, Owen Thomas, a sharp journalist who didn’t miss an opportunity to offer his take on Thiel’s essays, ties to other organizations, tax strategies, and sexual orientation.

    More here.

  • For Online Lenders, It’s Suddenly Touch and Go

    Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.45.52 PMA year ago, privately held online lenders like Prosper, SoFi and Avant looked all but certain to go public at the same unicorn valuations their venture investors had assigned them — if not higher. They were seemingly reshaping the student, consumer and small business lending business. The market they’re chasing is enormous: The U.S. consumer lending market is a $3.5 trillion industry, and 22 of  the largest online marketplace platforms originated just more than $5 billion of unsecured consumer credit in 2014 and more than $10 billion in 2015.

    They also talked a big game. When SoFi raised a whopping $1 billion from Softbank last year, CEO Michael Cagney told Bloomberg: “I’m looking at over $1 trillion of market cap from the banks, and I think it’s all vulnerable.”

    Fast forward to today, and it’s online lenders that suddenly look like sitting ducks.

    In an SEC filing Monday, Lending Club, which announced the surprise departure of its founder and CEO last Monday, revealed that investors who “contributed a significant amount of funding” for loans are now examining that performance “or are otherwise reluctant to invest.”

    That’s a huge problem. Lending Club can’t originate a loan until it has sold it to another party.

    It’s not just Lending Club that’s grown overly reliant on institutional sources of capital to keep its business afloat, though the problem is just becoming widely understood now.

    For many casual observers in Silicon Valley, the first signs of trouble in the online lending category emerged in late April, when the WSJ reported that Avant made $514 million worth of new loans in the U.S. in the first quarter, a 27 percent drop from the fourth quarter of 2015. Then, two weeks ago, Prosper confirmed that it planned to cut roughly 28 percent of its staff in response to falling loan volume. And Prosper’s news came just a day after OnDeck Capital said its own first-quarter losses had more than doubled as demand for its loans began to nosedive.

    Of course, the kicker came last week, when Lending Club CEO Renaud LaPlanche resigned following an internal audit that turned up $22 million in loans that were sold to Jefferies yet didn’t meet the investment bank’s criteria.

    Fast growth, big risks

    If the shift in the companies’ fortunes seemed abrupt to Silicon Valley, it wasn’t a surprise to many in the financial industry. They’ll tell you they’ve seen this movie before.

    Online lending “grew incredibly quickly from loan volumes of almost nothing eight years ago to many billions of dollars a year,” says Max Wolff, chief economist at Manhattan Venture Partners, a merchant banking firm in New York. “But what started out as a disruptive movement known as peer-to-peer was far more novel than what it became, which, in many cases, is a front for whoever is providing [some of these startups with] capital to lend.”

    Think banks like Goldman Sachs and Jefferies. Think hedge funds and insurance companies.

    The obvious benefit of taking capital from larger institutions is that they allow online lending companies to grow, and quickly. While companies operating in this space come with inherent advantages — they use automated loan applications; they have no retail branches; they use electronic data sources and tech-enabled underwriting models that help them to quickly identify a borrower’s credit risk — having deep-pocketed friends has made other things easier. Among them is being able to provide funding decisions within 48 to 72 hours, and to offer small loans with short-term maturities.

    Until recently, Wall Street has happily obliged. And why wouldn’t it? With interest rates so low for so long, these new lending products have been an attractive place to generate revenue. Some online lenders — whose customers include small businesses, consumers, and students — have charged more than 60 percent in annual interest on their loans, including origination fees.

    More here.

  • Cyan Banister Has a New Startup, and It’s Looking for Seed Funding

    Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 1.09.33 PMCyan Banister realized long ago that Zivity, a subscription-based online community of artistic glamour and pin-up photography that she founded in 2007, was never going to be a highly profitable endeavor. That’s okay with her, too.

    In an interview last week, Banister — known for the many angel investments she and husband Scott Banister have made over the years and more newly for her role as a partner at Founders Fund — told us Zivity was “always growing, but never at a crazy rate.”

    Indeed, nine years after it was created, it has amassed 3,000 subscribers who pay the site on average $250 a year to access its various photo sets.

    Now, Banister and Zivity’s longtime general manager-turned-CEO, Nadya Lev, think they’ve struck on a more lucrative opportunity that can not only shine a light on the creative class but help artists get paid, too. Their new company is called ThankRoll, and it’s looking for $1.5 million in seed funding to see how far it can get over the next 18 months.

    It could make for an interesting bet. ThankRoll is essentially a service that offers a convenient way for fans of artists, blogs and others to support those products and services through a white-label widget that appears on the artists’ or blogs’ site. Fans just enter their credit card information; they can cancel their pledge any time they like.

    More here.

  • A Strange New Battle Begins Over Who Owns Cruise Automation

    Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 4.52.59 PMA strange new battle over valuable startup equity took another step forward late yesterday afternoon.

    Jeremy Guillory, a Bay Area mechanical engineer, has filed a cross-complaint against 2.5-year-old Cruise Automation and its longtime CEO, Kyle Vogt. At issue: Guillory says that the self-driving car company — which developed an autopilot system for existing cars and is being acquired by General Motors for reportedly north of $1 billion — is cheating him out of his rightful 50 percent ownership stake in the business, which he says he helped form. (In legalese, Guillory is accusing Vogt and Cruise of promissory estoppel, conversion, unjust enrichment and accounting.)

    You knew this counter-claim was coming Wednesday, when the president of Y Combinator, Sam Altman, tried to get ahead of things publicly in a blog post.

    As you may have read then, Altman, who has known Vogt for years and whose accelerator program provided Cruise its first check, acknowledged that Gillory “collaborated with Kyle for a very short period early on in the life of Cruise.”

    Some time in the weeks since GM announced it was buying the company in mid March, Guillory requested a percentage of Vogt’s equity in the company, even though, according to Altman,  “Kyle and Jeremy parted ways” after roughly one month of working together. “This event happened more than two years ago, and well before the company had achieved much of anything.”

    The matter was private at first, with Vogt making what Altman described as an “extremely generous offer to settle this claim,” presumably to keep it from derailing Cruise’s acquisition. When Guillory didn’t accepted Vogt’s offer by a deadline last Friday, Vogt hired the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to sue Guillory for so-called declaratory relief.

    Guillory’s new cross-complaint seems to confirm Altman’s account from yesterday (which itself echoes Vogt’s suit).

    The filing acknowledges that Guillory and Vogt first met in mid October 2013 and began working on Cruise. By October 21, 2013, they had submitted an application to Y Combinator, whose deadline that year was October 31. By November 7, 2013, after the duo had been accepted into the accelerator, Vogt told Guillory that he no longer wanted to work together.

    Guillory’s attorneys note that on that print application to YC, Guillory and Vogt list themselves as co-founders and 50 percent shareholders of Cruise.

    That seems to be the only documentation Guillory has to support his claim, along with this one-minute video, which Guillory and Vogt also submitted as part of their application. Whether it’s enough could determine whether or not Guillory is entitled to up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

    More here.

  • Ground Delivery Robots — Passing Fancy or Next Wave?

    Dispatch“Every failed on demand startup will reappear as a successful robotics driven business in five to 10 years.” So tweeted Jeremy Conrad, founding partner of the San Francisco-based hardware fund Lemnos Labs, one recent afternoon.

    Conrad apparently means what he tweets, having investing in Marble, a new, San Francisco-based ground-delivery robot that will focus on ground-based last-mile delivery for business, then consumer, applications. (Conrad wouldn’t discuss the still-stealth startup’s funding picture, but another source tells us it’s currently meeting with investors.)

    He’s hardly alone in thinking that ground robots will be bringing us everything from canned goods to Christmas lights sooner than we think. For example, last week, Andreessen Horowitz announced it had led a $2 million investment in Dispatch, a company whose self-driving ground delivery robots look like minibars on wheels.

    And Dispatch’s machines look an awful lot like the robots of Starship, an Estonia-based outfit created by Skype cofounders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who took the wraps off their still-in-beta machines late last year. The robots, which also look like little refrigerators, are designed to deliver goods like groceries – about two bag’s worth – in 30 minutes of less.

    In each case, the idea is to save money on deliveries by cutting out costly humans. Starship is also promising to give customers more control over the delivery process. It says it will enable residents to schedule deliveries only when the timing works, as well as track in real time the whereabouts of the robots, whose tech includes GPS, gyroscopes, and nine cameras. (As an added bonus, its robots will produce zero emissions, says Starship.)

    Whether these new ground-based robot couriers represent the beginnings of a broader trend or a series of one-off bets remains a question mark. We’d bet on the former, though.

    More here.

  • Luma, a Sleek WiFi Router, Raises $12.5 Million from Accel and Amazon

    Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 9.37.35 PMFinally, companies have begun to recognize a long overlooked opportunity to develop a next-generation router that looks sleek and is far more user-friendly than the networking hardware of yesteryear.

    Some contenders are the established companies themselves, including Asus, D-Link and Netgear, all of which have now have bells and whistles like parental controls, the ability to prioritize traffic based on network and device, and apps that help users repair their home network via smartphone or tablet.

    Newer entrants, including Google’s new OnHub router and two-year-old Eero, feature both more elegant designs and far greater ease of use, though OnHub gets mixed performance reviews. Meanwhile, Eero strongly suggests that users buy more than one, which can quickly become expensive. (The company says that each router covers roughly 1,000 square feet. A three-pack of Eero units costs $499.)

    Luma, a two-year-old, Atlanta-based entrant, may give them all a run for their money.

    For one thing, like the Eero, Luma’s glossy WiFi routers look like something Apple might have come up with. Luma, which like Eero, works best when sprinkled around the home, also offers more coverage and is more affordable by design. Each unit covers roughly 1,500 square feet, and a three-pack costs $299, compared with an individual unit, which costs $149. (Originally, Luma planned to feature pricing similar to Eero: $199 per unit and $499 for a three-pack.)

    Perhaps most important, especially to parents: Luma features the kind of network controls you might find at a large company.

    More here.

  • Longtime Tesla Motors CIO Jay Vijayan Has Formed Stealth Startup

    Tesla MotorsJay Vijayan, who spent four years as the Chief Information Officer of Tesla Motors, and who served as its VP of IT and business applications for a year before that, left the company in January to form his own Bay Area startup.

    Vijayan isn’t talking yet about that company. (StrictlyVC reached out to him last Monday and he hasn’t responded.)

    But his departure comes at an interesting time, given the almost unprecedented excitement surrounding the Model 3 car that Tesla unveiled to the public last Thursday night.

    As you may have already read, the company had booked more than 253,000 orders in the first 36 hours after CEO Elon Musk revealed several prototypes in a showy display reminiscent of Apple product releases.

    That kind of demand is surely putting to the test a proprietary software system called Warp that Vijayan and his team of engineers at Tesla designed to support the company’s direct sales efforts in the U.S. (In 2014, the WSJ had taken a long look at the platform here.)

    Vijayan also appears to be doing some angel investing, which may or may not be related to his new startup. Last Monday, numerous India-based outlets reported that FixNix, a Bangalore-based governance, risk management, and compliance platform, had raised $500,000 in seed funding led by Vijayan, along with other, unnamed, Silicon Valley-based angel investors.

    More here.

  • Is Tony Fadell in Nest’s Way?

    Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 12.05.13 AMLast week, we witnessed something fairly remarkable. A major Alphabet executive — Nest Labs CEO Tony Fadell — publicly shamed the cofounder and employees of Dropcam, the connected camera company that Nest had acquired in 2014 for $555 million.

    In an article in The Information, Fadell said that he didn’t think Dropcam cofounder and CEO Greg Duffy had “earned” the right to report to him directly. Fadell also explained away an exodus of Dropcam staffers by suggesting they were subpar. “A lot of the employees were not as good as we hoped,” he told The Information. It was “a very small team and unfortunately it wasn’t a very experienced team.”

    Fadell may have been reacting to comments by Duffy, who painted a highly unflattering portrait of Fadell in the same article. However, Fadell’s comments and his poor performance underscore what an ill fit Fadell is for Alphabet and why Alphabet needs new leadership at Nest.

    It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion in January 2014, a feat that earned Fadell plenty of accolades. Worried about competition and in awe of Fadell, who’d created the iPod as an Apple SVP, Duffy concluded that selling was his smartest play when Nest came knocking that spring.

    Despite what seemed like a handsome payday for everyone involved with Dropcam, the bet soon looked like a poor one.

    As we’d reported here in November 2014, not only did Duffy’s beloved VP of marketing almost immediately leave Nest over an apparent culture clash, but numerous employees we interviewed, along with scathing write-ups by former employees on Glassdoor, pointed surprisingly to trouble.

    “Everything revolves around the CEO,” wrote one Glassdoor reviewer at the time. “It’s a dangerous mix of cult of personality and Stockholm syndrome. Comments like ‘[Fadell is] the next Steve Jobs are not uncommon, while people proudly say things like ‘I’m used to Tony screaming at me.’”

    It wasn’t just the different management styles of Fadell and Duffy, whose organization was one-eighth the size of Nest and who was well-liked by his employees. There was suddenly an inability to get anything meaningful done. One Nest employee described to me a “huge meeting culture, to the point where anyone at the director level or up spends their entire day in meetings, many of them duplicative meetings about the same subject, over and over to the point where a lot of people have complained.”

    Things remain much the same 16 months later, suggests The Information, whose report says Nest’s culture of micromanagement has more recently led the firm to plaster its offices with the phrase “Step Up” to ostensibly encourage lower-level employees to take more initiative.

    More here.

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