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Andy Rubin’s Essential Gem Isn’t Just a New Phone

On Tuesday, Andy Rubin emerged from his nearly year-long Twitter silence to show off a prototype of a mobile device, an elongated product that marries the body of a tiny TV remote with a more modern touchscreen.“GEM Colorshift material,” Rubin tweeted, followed by “…still dialing in the colors.” His third tweet could have been ripped…

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Andy Rubin’s Essential Gem Isn’t Just a New Phone

On Tuesday, Andy Rubin emerged from his nearly year-long Twitter silence to show off a prototype of a mobile device, an elongated product that marries the body of a tiny TV remote with a more modern touchscreen.

“GEM Colorshift material,” Rubin tweeted, followed by “…still dialing in the colors.” His third tweet could have been ripped directly from the script of a technology keynote and, in a way, was a callback to an earlier era in tech, when the inventors of newfangled things made declarations about their products and willed new truths into existence: “New UI for radically different formfactor,” Rubin said.

In that earlier era, tech enthusiasts and journalists would have no reason not to take that statement at face value—to give the unabashed benefit of the doubt that this shiny, colorful object and new user interface might usher in a new phase of mobile computing. And who better to put this forth into the universe than Andy Rubin, the cofounder of the Android mobile operating system? After the Twitter reveal on Tuesday, one prominent journalist tweeted that he didn’t know what the product was, but he wanted one; another said he was ready for this “super-shiny prong of weirdness.”

But if you happened to scroll through Rubin’s timeline, you’d see that his most recent prior tweets, from October 25, 2018, were in response to a thoroughly reported New York Times article. The story chronicled the sexual misconduct allegations made against Rubin during his time at Google, which Google reportedly investigated and found credible. These ranged from pressuring a woman into having oral sex, to berating subordinates, to viewing bondage sex videos on a work computer. Still, he was given a friendly farewell (in the form of tens of millions of dollars). Rubin tweeted that the story contained “numerous inaccuracies” about his employment at Google and “wild exaggerations” about his compensation, and said the allegations were part of a smear campaign. Then he went silent.

Until this week, when Rubin decided to share the phone-like thing. Based on geolocation information displayed on the device, the photo appears to be taken from Playground Global, the Palo Alto–based investment firm and engineering lab Rubin founded after he left Google. The map on the device happens to show a route to Palo Alto Airport, where Silicon Valley’s wealthiest park their private aircraft. Post-Google, Rubin also started a smartphone company called Essential. This new product, named Gem, is part of the Essential group.

Does it matter, though? Does it matter which umbrella the product falls under, whether it has a 12-megapixel camera, how many widgets it runs, or whether it has a new UI for a radically different formfactor? Does it matter if it has a color-shifting case? For tech enthusiasts and early adopters, these things might matter, if and when it ships. But the bigger question is whether, in an era of heightened scrutiny of the technology sector, it is possible to divorce new gadgets from the people who make them and the ethos of the corporations that fund them. And even if it’s possible, should we compartmentalize these factors? Or should we just accept new products as new products?

Almost as swiftly as some people embraced the new Rubin prototype, and a couple of press outlets published articles with hardly a mention of Rubin’s prior alleged misconduct and Google payout, others were quick to remind everyone that the internet never actually forgets. “Created by ‘$90m-payoff-from-Google’ Rubin,” NBC News technology editor Olivia Solon tweeted. “Just going to recirculate this terrific NY Times story from last year instead of tweeting about a smartphone company with zero market share,” said Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide.

Then, on Wednesday morning, David Ruddock, the editor in chief of Android Police, published a lengthy statement regarding the publication’s plans for covering Essential products going forward. Ruddock said that, while Android Police may eventually write about a new Essential phone, it will no longer be accepting any access from Rubin’s startup, including press conferences, briefings, or review devices.

“If Rubin was just one executive with limited, peripheral power over the larger decisions made by a business—someone involved incidentally, and not essentially—this would be different. But Andy Rubin is Essential. Essential is Andy Rubin,” Ruddock said. “His company would not meaningfully exist, receive funding from investors, or attention in the media if it did not personally ride on the back of his reputation as a legend in mobile technology.”

Rubin, through a spokesperson, said he stands by his earlier tweets and declined to comment on the editorial published by Android Police or the question of whether products should be disassociated from the people who create them.

Ruddock’s line was firmly drawn, although one could easily point out that the existence of a publication called Android Police is due in no small part to the man who invented Android. Declining to partake in certain levels of access becomes a much more wobbly stance when you consider that much of the tech press, myself included, writes about the world’s most popular operating system, which Rubin cofounded, on a regular basis.

Ruddock’s observation about power is the part worth unpacking. Rubin’s fall from tech-god grace didn’t occur simply because he had outsize power. It happened because of allegations that he abused that power. And yet even after he left, Google became an investor in his new firm, Playground. Back in 2017, when information about the terms of Rubin’s 2014 Google departure started to come to light, Rubin took a brief leave of absence from Essential, yes, but only to report to work at Playground—in the same physical building. Rubin still had all of the opportunity in the world to toil away on new projects. And now, with a few tweets, he’s sharing that work.

When it comes to tech’s “playground” for the powerful, there traditionally have been few consequences. And who’s to say, exactly, where the blame lies for this? We have spent decades now boosting tech entrepreneurs, holding them up as the rock stars of our time. We have put inventors like Andy Rubin on the covers of magazines like this one. In 2017, I was part of another media organization that hosted a conference where Rubin revealed the Essential phone, and I was as excited and intrigued as anyone around me. That year, I met with Rubin at least twice to discuss new products, which I later wrote about, because they struck me as innovative. We’ve all sat in meetings with other humans and paid more attention to the shiny things laid out before us than to the influence of the people across from us.

At the time, the chronological lines weren’t as clearly drawn between money and payouts and even more subsequent money and the resulting products. The power dynamics that had been playing out behind closed doors—on Silicon Valley campuses, in Hollywood, in politics, in academia—hadn’t yet spilled out into the metaphorical open office spaces. #MeToo hadn’t yet gone viral, and the connections weren’t always being made between sources of funding and the ability for those sources to overtly influence the ideas being put into our brains.

In the case of consumer tech products, the simple idea that companies often want to put in our brains, through brilliant marketing and digital osmosis, is “You should buy this.” And as a writer who covers the consumer technology market, I’m often trying to answer that simple question of whether or not people should invest their time and money to acquire a product. But with so much information at our fingertips, the answer is no longer a straightforward yes or no.

Now, it’s nearly impossible to disassociate Amazon’s Ring DIY camera kit from its role as a police surveillance tool. It’s difficult to disentangle Amazon’s consumer bonanza days, like Prime Day, from stories about the stress being put on the company’s logistics workers—not to mention the global environment. Facebook now makes a home video portal with cool AR features, but its reception in your home probably depends on how your roommates or family members feel about Facebook’s privacy policies, its role in politics, its position as a veritable vacuum for your personal data. Apple often boasts about its polished and impeccable industrial design, but it has accomplished this by making it nearly impossible for consumers to repair their own products or, God forbid, try to leave its ecosystem.

Andy Rubin’s Essential has made another phone, despite reports that highlighted his alleged abuse of power. Eventually, we may write about this phone; consumers will ultimately decide on their own whether they want to buy it or use it. They may not care at all about other factors, like a founder’s reputation. And the caveats attached to new consumer tech products may change or evolve over time.

But the caveats are real, and it’s getting harder to look at consumer products and their pretty packages without thinking about the people making them, and the power behind them.


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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion. This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would…

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These ten enterprise M&A deals totaled over $40B in 2019

It would be hard to top the 2018 enterprise M&A total of a whopping $87 billion, and predictably this year didn’t come close. In fact, the top 10 enterprise M&A deals in 2019 were less than half last year’s, totaling $40.6 billion.

This year’s biggest purchase was Salesforce buying Tableau for $15.7 billion, which would have been good for third place last year behind IBM’s mega deal plucking Red Hat for $34 billion and Broadcom grabbing CA Technologies for $18.8 billion.

Contributing to this year’s quieter activity was the fact that several typically acquisitive companies — Adobe, Oracle and IBM — stayed mostly on the sidelines after big investments last year. It’s not unusual for companies to take a go-slow approach after a big expenditure year. Adobe and Oracle bought just two companies each with neither revealing the prices. IBM didn’t buy any.

Microsoft didn’t show up on this year’s list either, but still managed to pick up eight new companies. It was just that none was large enough to make the list (or even for them to publicly reveal the prices). When a publicly traded company doesn’t reveal the price, it usually means that it didn’t reach the threshold of being material to the company’s results.

As always, just because you buy it doesn’t mean it’s always going to integrate smoothly or well, and we won’t know about the success or failure of these transactions for some years to come. For now, we can only look at the deals themselves.

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom. Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition. To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and…

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Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in…

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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

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