The legacy of Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, who passed today at 91

One of the great entrepreneurs of the 20th century, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, passed away today. As Reuters pointed out in its short biography, Kamprad created a store — as a teenager mind you — that today has more than 400 locations, revenues of $62 billion, and a cultural ubiquity that very few consumer products could ever hope to attain.

Having read the IKEA story over the years and in various forms, there are just so many lessons to take from the one-time startup turned corporate behemoth.

The biggest innovation that Kamprad discovered was that consumer inconvenience could be massively lucrative. As Youngme Moon, a business professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in her book Different (my TechCrunch review here): “Most global brands build their reputations around a set of positives—the good things they do for their customers. What’s intriguing about IKEA is that it has consciously built its reputation around a set of negatives—the service elements it has deliberately chosen to withhold from its customers.”

IKEA is quite literally the antithesis of the view that the consumer is always right.

Kamprad realized that furniture could be “flat-packed” to massively reduce the cost of shipping and transportation, which at the time were among the product’s largest cost drivers. Table legs are unwieldy, so why not just take them off?

Except, now every consumer buying furniture would have to assemble it. In the case of complicated furniture items like armoires, there can easily be fifty or more steps involved in the construction of the piece, with an instruction guide that remains as confusing as ever at all the key steps.

Yet consumers love it, so much so that researchers have actually studied the effect of consumers investing their own labor into a product as The Ikea Effect. What researchers have found is that consumers love products far more when they complete the assembly themselves, because the labor we invest makes it seem as though the product is ours. Irrational, yes, but that predictable love ensured that consumers repeatedly flocked to IKEA stores.

Indeed, that investment of labor is so key to the brand that IKEA has famously resisted building out a delivery and installation crew à la Geek Squad to continue to force customers to build their furniture (or at least switch to TaskRabbit).

Flat-packing was hardly the only inconvenience that IKEA created though. It purposely built big-box warehouses to sell its products on the outskirts of cities near major ports or transportation hubs — improving logistics while cutting costs due to cheaper rents and larger scale.

Kamprad and his team knew that with the right price and product mix, consumers would drive to IKEA as a destination shopping experience — they had to bring their cars anyway of course to bring their purchases home. The team also understood that unlike a grocery store, furniture shopping is not a daily or weekly occurrence, and so people tended to invest significant time at the store when they finally did make the trip. That’s one of the reasons that IKEA has restaurants serving those scrumptious Swedish meatballs. The more time consumers spent in the store, the more they spent with their wallets.

And when they did open their wallets, they were able to buy more and more furniture over the years as the company grew in scale. IKEA’s product lines rarely shift, and so the company can fine-tune the production of each product to minimize cost. As FiveThirtyEight analyzed, the Poäng chair’s price has decreased from $300 at its launch in the late 1980s to just $79 today, inflation adjusted.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, Kamprad understood that furniture didn’t have to be like a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. He might have just gotten the timing right, but the latter half of the 20th century saw some of the first evidence that workers would actively move between cities to seek the best employment. IKEA wasn’t furniture you shipped across the country, it was furniture you dumped and bought new again. Environmentally devastating perhaps, but efficient and convenient for newly mobile young people.

There is more to the story of IKEA of course, and Kamprad has received his fair share of criticism around early youth activities as a member of a far-right nationalist group and his resistance to paying taxes.

What’s a shame though is how many founders have never learned the stories and the lessons of the company and its success. Kamprad is hardly a household name, anymore than James Sinegal (founder of Costco) or John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods, who might be a bit more familiar to Austin-based entrepreneurs). At times in the tech startup world, we can be so narrow in our definition of a startup and of entrepreneurship, that these sorts of founders who have done things in other industries or just in very different ways don’t even register on our scopes.

Yes, Larry and Sergey, Steve, and Elon are all important in the annals of our industry. But ultimately we are in the debt of hundreds of of founders who have been brilliant in their own ways. In Ingvar Kamprad’s passing, let’s try to expand our vernacular to encompass more startups, and celebrate the kind of original thinking that has completely reshaped our world.

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Compounds in herbal supplement kratom are opioids, FDA says

(CNN)US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb warned the public about the herbal supplement kratom in a statement on Tuesday, saying “There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use” and likening its chemical compounds to opioids.

Native to Malaysia, the leaves of the kratom plant are traditionally crushed and made into tea to treat pain as well as heroin or morphine dependenceand possibly reduce withdrawal cravings. Kratom also found a following overseas. According to the American Kratom Association, there are 3 million to 5 million users in the US.
The supplement can be found in head shops and gas stations sold as powders, pills, capsules or even energy drinks. It is very loosely regulated by the FDA.

    Growing concerns

    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a tenfold increase in calls about kratom to poison control centers over a five-year period, from 26 in 2010 to 263 in 2015. However, while 7% of the calls were for serious side effects, including one death, most reported minimal to moderate side effects.
    But the FDA has growing concerns about the herb, pointing to 44 deaths associated with the plant in its Adverse Event Reporting System.
    In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced its intention to temporarily list kratom as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would put it in the same category as heroin or LSD.
    But after a public outcry, including from some members of Congress, the DEA withdrew its plan. Instead, the agency requested public comment about the plant and called for a scientific review from the FDA. The DEA has not taken any action since then, but lists kratom as a drug of concern.
    To better understand the plant, the FDA conducted computer modeling that predicted that many of the chemical compounds found in kratom bind to the same receptors as narcotic drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
    “The model shows us that kratom compounds are predicted to affect the body just like opioids,” Gottlieb said in Tuesday’s statement. “Based on the scientific information in the literature and further supported by our computational modeling and the reports of its adverse effects in humans, we feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids.”

    Researchers question FDA

    But researchers who study the plant, including Scott Hemby, say the agency is making too broad of a statement. Hemby chairs the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences at High Point University in North Carolina and has been researching the abuse liability or “addictiveness” of kratom.
    It comes as no surprise to Hemby that the kratom compounds bind to opioid receptors; he’s seen the same thing.
    Hemby has been studying kratom’s two principal alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. He found that these chemicals can bond to the body’s opioid receptors and act very much like opioids do, providing some pain relief and causing a release of dopamine, but at a much more toned-down level than prescription pills or heroin.
    Testing the alkaloids’ abuse potential using the gold standard of mouse studies, Hemby found that 7-hydroxymitragynine may have some addictive qualities. But when looking at the plant as a whole, the ratio of that element is so small that kratom overall has very low abuse potential, he says.
    As for the FDA’s findings, “They make a lot of hay of using a computer model, but it’s really nice to validate the findings with actual science,” Hemby said.
    What’s key about kratom’s compounds, he said, is that they don’t bind to opioid receptors the same way the chemicals in heroin or oxycodone do. “Just because it binds, it doesn’t mean it has the same efficacy” as an opioid, he said.
    Rather, kratom’s compounds sit on different parts of the receptor and fit differently than the chemicals in heroin and oxycodone. And that distinction means it doesn’t lead to overdose fatalities the way opioids do.
    “It doesn’t cause respiratory depression because of where it sits on the receptor,” he said.

    When kratom isn’t kratom

    Hemby also questions the 44 deaths cited by the the FDA, which are not fromtoxicology or autopsy reports. Rather, they are self-reported. Some reports include other drugs.
    Christopher McCurdy, a medicinal chemist at the University of Florida, has analyzed samples of kratom from emergency room patients and found that they frequently aren’t what they claim to be.
    “We’ve, unfortunately, seen them spiked with morphine in some cases, and we’ve also seen ones that have been spiked with oxycodone,” McCurdy said. He’s also seen them spiked with increased concentrations of 7-hydroxymitragynine, the more addictive of the plant’s naturally occurring alkaloids.
    Researchers such as McCurdy and Hemby believe that the FDA is speaking too broadly when it likens kratom to an opioid, and they worry about the potential regulatory implications.
    “When it comes to drugs for cancer, we wouldn’t rely on a computer model to drive policy. People would find that unacceptable,” Hemby said.

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    In its statement, the FDA said it is “ready to evaluate evidence that could demonstrate a medicinal purpose for kratom. However, to date, we have received no such submissions and are not aware of any evidence that would meet the agency’s standard for approval.”
    That research would be costly and extensive, McCurdy says. The issue is getting funding.
    “We must be able to do the research,” he said. “If (kratom) goes Schedule I, this will make it nearly impossible to do so. … We must understand the science in intact animal models and humans before this can be definitively stated.”

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    Snap stock falls as Kylie tweets, but banker ratings are in the mix too

    At this point, if you haven’t accepted the celebrity influence of the Kardashian/Jenner machine, you probably haven’t been paying attention to pop culture at large. Snap is definitely paying attention. Yesterday, Kylie Jenner tweeted a pretty brutal takedown of Snapchat with the nonchalance that only a celebrity who has mastered social media better than most can do.

    The words were significant not only because of who was saying it, but because it fits a pretty clear narrative that Snap is slowly losing its bread-and-butter users to Instagram and that its controversial redesign has alienated the core who were still holding on. It’s also important because Snap’s stock has had a rough week on Wall Street after Citi downgraded the stock Tuesday in response to some of the blowback to the redesign. Snap’s stock price is down 8 percent today.

    “While the recent redesign of its flagship app could produce positive long-term benefits, the significant jump in negative app reviews since the redesign was pushed out a few weeks could result in a decline in users and user engagement, which could negatively impact financial results,” Citi’s Mark May wrote Tuesday.

    Even though Snap CEO Evan Spiegel voiced that the company was anticipating some blowback from the app’s redesign, things have still been a bit of a disaster with the company being forced to respond to a petition decrying the redesign that currently has more than 1.2 million signatures. This PR nightmare has had negative impacts on the company’s business, as well.

    Kylie Jenner is just about as influential a celebrity as they come; many of the product advances of social media companies like Snap have been borne on the backs on influencers like Jenner, who have hundreds of millions of followers across these platforms that she uses to push her makeup products and lifestyle onto culture.

    Snapchat’s advantage has always been that it’s been a bit of a youth-centric enigma; investors have assumed that the audience of DAUs that it has in its back pocket is the most highly valuable demographic of young, loyal users. It turns out that after a divisive redesign, people are discovering that the kids aren’t alright with change and that they are just as aware of the creeping sense of stagnation as everyone else.

    After sending a tweet that signified Snapchat hadn’t done anything to hold her attention, Jenner went one further, basically signaling that the app was a point of nostalgia for her now. As my colleague Jon put so succinctly, “Live by the influencer, die by the influencer.”

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    Suicides in US rose 10% after Robin Williams’ death, study finds

    (CNN)A 10% increase in suicides — nearly 2,000 additional deaths — was recorded in the United States in the four months after actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life in 2014, according to research published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

    The “celebrity-suicide effect” — in which copycat suicides follow that of someone famous — has been documented in previous research.
    “This is the first study to examine the consequences of a celebrity suicide in the digital era,” said David S. Fink, lead author of the new study and a post-doctoral researcher in epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
      Williams, 63, was found dead in his Tiburon, California, home August 11, 2014, of what investigators suspected was a suicide by hanging.

      1. Do not leave the person alone.

      2. Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

      3. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

      4. Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

      Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. For more tips and warning signs, click here.

      Fink began his research by forecasting the number of suicides that could be expected to occur between August and December 2014. He and his colleagues analyzed monthly suicide rates in the United States, based on data gathered from January 1999 through December 2015 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
      Based on Fink’s analysis, 16,849 suicides would be expected from August to December 2014.
      Yet 18,690 suicides were reported in the four months after Williams’ death: an additional 1,841, or a 9.85% increase, compared with the expected number. Both females and males as well as all age groups showed more-than-expected suicides.
      However, the highest number of unexpected suicides was observed among men (1,398 excess suicides) and people between the ages of 30 and 44 (577 excess suicides).
      The researchers also found a greater-than-expected number of suffocation suicides — which includes hanging — in the months after Williams’ death: a 32% increase in the method used by the comedian himself. By comparison, other methods of suicide rose by just 3%.
      Media reports — some of which described how Williams hanged himself — might have provided the “capability necessary for a high-risk segment of the US population, middle-aged men in despair, to move from suicidal ideation to attempt,” Fink said.
      “We found both a rapid increase in suicides in August 2014, and specifically suffocation suicides, that paralleled the time and method of Williams’ death,” Fink said. He also found, by conducting a news trend search on a Bloomberg terminal, “a dramatic increase in news media reports on suicides and Robin Williams during this same period.”
      Though he cannot say for sure that Williams’ death inspired copycat suicides, the significant rise in suicides coupled with frequent media reports about the actor’s death suggests a connection, he said.
      “This study supports much of what we already know about the influence our environment has on our behaviors in general and suicide in particular,” Fink said. Policy-makers and researchers need “to better understand the role that traditional and social media have on suicidal behaviors to understand how to better mitigate these deaths.”
      However, there’s one problem, said John Ayers, a computational epidemiologist who works as an adjunct associate professor at San Diego State University.
      “The problem with this study is: ‘So what?’ ” said Ayers, who was not involved in the research.
      Ayers said Fink’s new research is “rigorous science; it’s a well thought-out study; it asks an engaging question and provides a very precise set of conclusions.”
      “But there’s no urgency there,” he said.
      “Robin Williams died in 2014,” Ayers noted, and all the people who were vulnerable to following the actor by committing a copycat suicide have done so.
      Just as the common cold is contagious, so too is suicide.
      If you witness self-destructive behavior within your family, within your peer group or through the media, you may be at greater risk for suicidal behavior yourself, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “Suicide contagion” affects some people, including those who face a chronic medical condition or who are depressed, more than others.
      “What we need to do is extend this research beyond living in the past to the present,” Ayers said. “And try to develop strategies where we can have these types of insights while they’re happening so we can respond.”
      Celebrity influence occurs in all areas of life, he said. But when it comes to suicide, celebrity copycat effects are a concern for public health experts, including the World Health Organization, which established media guidelines for reporting a high-profile death.
      “The WHO standards on how to discuss suicide in the media, one, they’re well-known, and two, they’re based on decades of research,” Ayers said. He explained that the guidelines include “don’t mention the modality of suicide, don’t dwell on the suicide act or speculate on the reasons why, and paint suicide as a rare event that should be avoided.” And media should never sensationalize or normalize suicide or present it as a solution to problems, he said.
      In Williams’ case, Fink and his colleagues found that traditional media headlines deviated from the WHO guidelines. For example, headlines of some media reports speculated on the cause of his death while others divulged details of his suicide.
      “We don’t know much about how these events happened and what type of message is spread that may be violating these standards when it comes to how we report on suicide,” Ayers said. “They may ultimately be the culprit for increases in suicide ideation or actual suicide attempts or suicide itself.”
      Just as traditional media reports about Williams’ death and suicide drastically increased in the weeks after his death, so did posts on social media sites.
      “Reddit has been a tremendous success in terms of how to provide a forum for people to discuss suicide safely,” Ayers said. “The suicide forums on Reddit are carefully curated.”
      Reddit says the volunteer moderators of its suicide support communities offer guidance and keep lines of communication open for those seeking help.
      These moderators monitor the posted content to provide a safe place for people to discuss suicide. But if a discussion moves into the realm of “tacit encouragement” of suicide, Ayers says, they step in and curtail the conversation.
      Fink points out that many people now receive the news of a celebrity suicide via social media. And so Williams’ death stands “in contrast to another high-profile US entertainment star suicide: Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the enormously popular rock band Nirvana, in 1994,” Fink said.
      Cobain’s death had minimal impact on the subsequent suicide rate in his hometown of Seattle, though suicide crisis calls increased in the days after his death. One study indicated that traditional media reports restricted details of his death and provided consistent messages regarding suicide prevention.
      This careful reporting “may have played a pivotal role in preventing subsequent suicides,” Fink said. By comparison, social media posts may not align with WHO guidelines and so may act “as a new and emerging risk factor” after the suicide of a celebrity.
      Ayers said that in certain jurisdictions in Canada, “when you talk about suicide on certain social media forums, they actually inform the Mounties, right? And the police come and intervene when they know you’re on the edge of committing suicide.”
      “You have a potential opportunity here,” he said. The classical finding that the celebrity effect can cause copycat suicides can be used to consider how to find people online when they are at risk and in need of help and how to intervene, he said.
      In his own recent study, Ayers tracked internet searches for “suicide” after Netflix’s release of “13 Reasons Why,” a fiction show that explores a teen’s suicide. Believing that the program did not follow the WHO suicide guidelines, he called for Netflix to remove it until the producers got the messaging right.

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      Ayers hopes to create “a rapid response ecosystem for public health” in which social media can “be a pathway by which we listen,” he said. “If we spent more time listening to the public and anticipating their needs, we could intervene when it’s happening and respond.
      “Places like Reddit are emblematic of the kinds of successes we can have where people go to seek help and get help,” Ayers said. “On all other social media channels, what type of help are people getting? Unfortunately, we don’t know.”

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      SpaceX sets historic first Falcon Heavy launch for February 6

      SpaceX has set February 6 as the target for its Falcon Heavy launch, the first ever test flight of the new, high-capacity rocket that the company is building to allow it to send nearly three times as much payload per mission into orbit.

      SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted the target date on Saturday, adding that there will be plenty of viewing opportunity for the public from the nearby causeway. The launch will take place from launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX has refurbished and modified for its big rocket – and which previously played host to the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs for NASA.

      The February 6 date was rumored late this past week, and SpaceX had previously said they were aiming to have the launch take place roughly a week after their successful static test fire of the rocket, which took place on January 24. But Musk’s confirmation gives us something to look forward to that’s far more specific.

      SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy flight will be about testing it in real-world flight. The company has done a lot of preparation and simulation, but you can’t know how a rocket’s going to behave in the air until it actually launches. Musk has previously suggested this could end with the rocket exploding post-launch and pre-orbit, but that would still be a major step forward for SpaceX’s heavy booster.

      The cargo on board for this mission is a cherry red original model Tesla Roadster – and if things go very well, it’ll be put into a long looping Mars orbit, a nod to everything Musk’s ventures have accomplished thus far, and also what they hope to achieve in the future.

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      Coffee may come with a cancer warning in California

      (CNN)California coffee shops may soon be forced to warn customers about a possible cancer risk linked to their morning jolt of java.

      The state keeps a list of chemicals it considers possible causes of cancer, and one of them, acrylamide, is created when coffee beans are roasted.
      A lawsuit first filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics targets several companies that make or sell coffee, including Starbucks, 7-Eleven and BP. The suit alleges that the defendants “failed to provide clear and reasonable warning” that drinking coffee could expose people to acrylamide.
        The court documents state that, under the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65, businesses must give customers a “clear and reasonable warning” about the presence of agents that affect health– and that these stores failed to do so.
        In addition to paying fines, the lawsuit wants companies to post warnings about acrylamide with an explanation about the potential risks of drinking coffee. If the suit is successful, the signs would need to be clearly posted at store counters or on walls where someone could easily see them when making a purchase.
        Raphael Metzger, the attorney representing the nonprofit, said it really wants the coffee companies to reduce the amount of the chemical to the point where there would be no significant cancer risk.
        Coffee has been much studied over the years, and research has shown that itprovides several health benefits, including lowering your risk of early death. It may reduce your risk of heart disease, multiple sclerosis, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and even some cancers like melanoma and prostate cancer. However, a review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, found that drinking very hot beverages was “probably carcinogenic to humans” due to burns to the esophagus; there was no relation to the chemical acrylamide.
        The science on human exposure to acrylamide still needs “future studies,” according to a 2014 review of scientific research on the chemical’s relationship to a wide variety of cancers in the Journal of Nutrition and Cancer.
        In addition to coffee, acrylamide can be found in potatoes and baked goods like crackers, bread and cookies, breakfast cereal, canned black olives and prune juice, although its presence is not always labeled. It’s in some food packaging and is a component of tobacco smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute, people are exposed to “substantially more acrylamide from tobacco smoke than from food.”
        In 2002, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified acrylamide as a group 2A carcinogen for humans based on studies done in animals. Studies done on humans have found “no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers,” according to the 2014 research review.
        A few additionalstudies have seen an increased risk for renal, ovarian and endometrial cancers; however, “the exposure assessment has been inadequate leading to potential misclassification or underestimation of exposure,” according to the 2014 research review.
        Even the studies showing cancer links between acrylamide in rats and mice used doses “1,000 to 100,000 times higher than the usual amounts, on a weight basis, that humans are exposed to through dietary sources,” the research review said.
        Humans are also thought to absorb acrylamide at different rates and to metabolize it differently than rodents, earlier research showed.
        The National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens considers acrylamide to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
        The Food and Drug Administration website says it “is still in the information gathering stage” on the chemical, but the FDA gave consumers suggested ways to cut it out of their diet. The FDA also provided guidance to the industry intended to suggest a range of approaches companies could use to reduce acrylamide levels. The recommendations are only a guide and are “not required,” according to the website.

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        California added acrylamide to its carcinogen list in January 1990, and the state has successfully taken companies to court over it.
        In 2008, the California attorney general settled lawsuits against Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc. when the companies agreed to reduce the levels of acrylamide found in potato chips and French fries.
        In 2007, fast food restaurants in California posted acrylamide warnings about fries and paid court penalties and costs for not posting the warnings in prior years.
        “We have a huge cancer epidemic in this country, and about a third of cancers are linked to diet,” Metzger said. “To the extent that we can get carcinogens out of the food supply, logically, we can reduce the cancer burden in this country. That’s what this is all about.”

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        WhatsApp cofounder who made billions in Facebook sale tweets #deletefacebook

        It looks like WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton has joined the delete Facebook movement.
        Image: LatinContent/Getty Images

        It turns out even $19 billion isn’t enough to convince people of the merits of Facebook.

        In what will surely be another blow to Facebook, WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton appears to have joined the growing movement to leave the social network.

        In a tweet, Acton said that “it is time,” adding the hashtag #deletefacebook.

        He didn’t elaborate, but Acton, who previously headed engineering for WhatsApp, is a well-known advocate for privacy and encryption.

        The WhatsApp cofounder left the company six months ago, four years after Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion (the acquisition netted Acton as much as $3 billion from the deal). After leaving, he joined the Signal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that oversees the encrypted messaging app Signal. 

        He isn’t the first former exec to criticize the company, but he’s one of the most high profile to do so, which will no doubt be embarrassing for Facebook, which is facing numerous investigations, a tumbling stock price, and questions about its current leadership (or lack thereof).

        Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that Acton has taken his own advice just yet. His Facebook profile is still live. 

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        This former Uber (and Lyft) exec just raised $15 million for his controversial e-scooter startup: Bird

        Travis VanderZanden. If you’ve been following the fast-changing transportation industry, it’s a name that may sound familiar. Until September 2016, VanderZanden was VP of growth at Uber and before that, COO of its fierce rival Lyft, which had acquired his on-demand car wash company, Cherry, in 2013.

        It was a dramatic few years for VanderZanden, once he joined the ride-hailing race. Not only were his employers experiencing growing pains, but Lyft sued him for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement when he joined Uber, with the two sides later settling for undisclosed terms. Little wonder that after leaving Uber, VanderZanden wanted to take some time off to decompress with his wife and two daughters.

        That was the idea, anyway. The thing is, VanderZanden, whose mother drove a public bus for 30 years, says he couldn’t stop thinking about transportation. Within six months, he was testing out different short-range electric vehicles. By last summer, he’d quietly launched his newest company, Bird.

        Now, VanderZanden’s dockless electric scooter company is the talk of Santa Monica, Ca., where it’s based. That’s largely because over the last six months, Bird has plunked roughly 1,000 “Birds” on the streets of the city — and people are riding them: 50,000 people so far have taken 250,000 rides, he says.

        But Bird, which just moved into Westwood and is easing its way into San Diego, also has local officials in all three places somewhat flummoxed — and not entirely delighted. A Washington Post piece published Saturday characterized Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer as highly irked that VanderZanden reached out to him — via a LinkedIn message — after putting Bird’s scooters on the streets.

        The message reportedly offered to introduce Winterer to Bird’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica.”  Winterer says he responded: “If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss.”

        Legal issues and other complications, as it turns out. For example, according to that same Post story, local police officers issued 97 citations involving Bird scooters in the first six weeks of this year; the city’s fire department has responded to eight related accidents, some including minors and adults; and according to a senior marketing and communications manager for downtown Santa Monica, there have been numerous complaints of the scooters being left in front of doorways, in the middle of driveways and on wheelchair ramps.

        Despite outward appearances, VanderZanden suggests he hasn’t stolen from the playbook of his last employer, which under the leadership of longtime CEO Travis Kalanick taught employees to ask forgiveness — not permission.

        He paints a rosier picture of that exchange with Winterer, for example, telling TechCrunch that the “first week we put Birds out in the wild [in early September], I emailed the mayor directly about how excited we were and the impact we thought we could have.”

        Bird employees have since met with Santa Monica’s director of transportation and mobility and had “a series of really productive conversations,” says VanderZanden, noting that with “any new innovation, you have to work with the city to figure out how you best fit into the regulatory model.”

        In Bird’s case, he says there isn’t an existing permit scheme currently, though the city plainly disagrees. It filed a criminal complaint last month, citing Bird’s failure to obtain the same kind of permit it asks food vendors to secure; the two sides meet in court later this month.

        Naturally, VanderZanden thinks the focus instead should be on the benefits of Bird’s scooters, which can be used by anyone over the age of 18 who has a valid driver’s license, who agrees to wear a helmet,  and who will stay off the sidewalk (not that Bird can enforce the last two).

        For starters, they are cheap to use, he notes. In addition to a driver’s license, new customers need only plug a credit card number into the app. After that, it’s $1 per ride, plus 15 cents per minute, and riders can go as far as the scooter’s electric charge will take them at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. VanderZanden says some have made it to LAX. Others have ridden from Santa Monica into downtown L.A.

        VanderZanden says that Bird is willing to share some of the data it’s collecting with cities. “We really want to work with cities and go in early with figure out how Bird best fits in. We realize we’re just one part of the transportation puzzle.”

        VanderZanden, who says Bird ships riders free helmets when they request one from the app, also says it does its best to educate riders, including on where to park Birds (near bike racks, ideally), where to ride them (bike lanes), and via stickers that it plasters on the floorboards of the scooters that list safety regulations.

        He stresses, too, that Bird employees begin collecting the scooters at 8 p.m. every night, clearing all of them off the street and only returning them to the fronts of coffee shops and other local businesses — at their own request, he says — by 6 a.m. the next day.

        As for what happens if someone is injured, we gather that Bird pays if one of its scooters breaks but not if a rider is being reckless. VanderZanden declines to get into specifics, offering instead that, “Every mode of transportation is dangerous . . . but you can’t protect against people not obeying traffic laws.”

        At any rate, investors don’t mind at all that Bird is still figuring things out. It just closed on $15 million in Series A funding, including from Tusk Ventures, Valor, Lead Edge Capital, and Goldcrest Capital.

        Somewhat unsurprisingly, the round was led by Craft Ventures, the new venture fund cofounded by serial entrepreneur David Sacks. Before Cherry (and Lyft and Uber), VanderZanden was VP of revenue at the enterprise software company Yammer, where Sacks was cofounder and CEO. In fact, when VanderZanden left to start Cherry, Sacks wrote him a check for $500,000 — the biggest check Sacks had written to a single company as an angel investor at that point.

        Indeed, if the company starts looking for another round of funding very soon, it will be even less surprising. While VanderZanden calls Bird “first to do dockless electric scooters,” competition is springing up around it — fast.

        Last week, Spin, a dockless bike-sharing company that brought its wares to South San Francisco last August, announced that it’s working to launch stationless electric-scooter sharing. Two days later, LimeBike, a Spin competitor, similarly revealed plans to build its own dockless electric scooters. Bird’s own scooters are made via an exclusive manufacturing agreement with an unnamed company.

        It’s the kind of battle that VanderZanden has seen before and seems prepared to fight — though he takes a far softer tone publicly than the famously combative Kalanick.

        “People are taking notice of how quickly Bird is growing and they want to pivot in and clone us,” says VanderZanden. Yes, that could eventually create clutter for cities, he acknowledges. Still, it’s better than all the greenhouse gases being generated by cars and trucks.

        “Preventing car ownership is the goal of all these companies,” he says. ” I think if all of us are successful, that’s fine.”

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        New credit card skimmer worked in plain sight at Aldi stores

        Police in Lower Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania have spotted a group of thieves who are placing completely camouflaged skimmers on top of credit card terminals in Aldi stores. The skimmers, which the gang placed in plain sight of surveillance video cameras, look exactly like the original credit card terminals but would store debit card numbers and PINs of unsuspecting shoppers.

        “While Aldi payment terminals in the United States are capable of accepting more secure chip-based card transactions,” writes security researcher Brian Krebs. “The company has yet to enable chip payments (although it does accept mobile contactless payment methods such as Apple Pay and Google Pay). This is important because these overlay skimmers are designed to steal card data stored on the magnetic stripe when customers swipe their cards.”

        Interestingly, commenters reported that many Aldi stores support chipped EMV credit cards but that they would often tape over the slots and ask users to swipe instead.

        “The Aldi stores near me got chip readers early last year with Apple Pay and everything enabled. After ~5 months they taped over the card insertion slot and now require customers to swipe again,” wrote one commenter. “I asked one of the managers and he said corporate required them to switch back because ‘swipes are faster.’”

        I love these stories primarily because point of sale terminals are widely unguarded and offer the best of security theatre – you think you’re safe because they look like the egg sacs of some armored beast but, with a quick addition of a skimmer, you create something that is deeply unsafe. That this skimmer ended up at a town of just 12,000 souls is particularly poignant.

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