Gig workers, SEIU file lawsuit alleging Prop 22 is unconstitutional

A group of rideshare drivers in California and the Service Employees International Union filed a lawsuit today alleging Proposition 22 violates California’s constitution. The goal of the suit is to overturn Prop 22, which classifies gig workers as independent contractors in California.

The suit, filed in California’s Supreme Court, argues Prop 22 makes it harder for the state’s legislature to create and enforce a workers’ compensation system for gig workers. It also argues Prop 22 violates the rule that limits ballot measures to a single issue, as well as unconstitutionally defines what would count as an amendment to the measure. As it stands today, Prop 22 requires a seven-eights legislative supermajority in order to amend the measure.

“Every day, rideshare drivers like me struggle to make ends meet because companies like Uber and Lyft prioritize corporate profits over our well-being,” Saori Okawa, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “With Prop 22, they’re not just ignoring our health and safety — they’re discarding our state’s constitution. I’m joining this lawsuit because I know it’s up to the people we elect to make our laws, not wealthy executives who profit from our labor. I’m confident the court will see Prop 22 for the corporate power grab that it is, and that Prop 22 will live in infamy along with unconstitutional ballot measures like Prop 8 and Prop 187.”

This suit is the latest in a long battle between gig workers and tech companies. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have their eyes on pursuing Prop 22-like legislation elsewhere. Given Uber and Lyft’s anti-gig-workers-as-employees stance, it came as no surprise when Uber and Lyft separately said they would pursue similar legislation in other parts of the country and the world.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash were not immediately available for comment. But the group behind Yes on 22, Protect App Based Jobs & Services, provided a statement to TechCrunch:

“Nearly 10 million California voters — including the vast majority of app-based drivers — passed Prop 22 to protect driver independence, while providing historic new protections,” Jim Pyatt, an Uber driver who supported Prop 22, said in a statement. “Voters across the political spectrum spoke loud and clear, passing Prop 22 in a landslide. Meritless lawsuits that seek to undermine the clear democratic will of the people do not stand up to scrutiny in the courts.”

Descript raises $30M to build the next generation of video and audio editing tools

The popularity of podcasting and online video shows no signs of slowing down, and so we continue to see a wave of creators publishing a profusion of audio and video content to fill out the airwaves. Today, a company building a platform to make that work easier and more interesting to execute is announcing a round of growth funding to double down on the opportunity.

Descript, which builds tools that let creators edit audio and video files by using, for example, natural language processing to link the content to the editing of text files, has picked up $30 million in a Series B round of funding.

Andrew Mason, the CEO and founder of the company, said in an interview that the plan will be to use the money to continue building out tools not just for mass-market and individual professional and amateur creators, but also, increasingly, organizations that might be using the tools for their own in-house video and audio needs, a use case that has definitely grown during the last year of global remote working.

“We see ourselves… as an all encompassing platform for all media needs,” Mason said.

The company had early wins by signing on customers like NPR, Pushkin Industries, VICE, The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as smaller and more modest media outfits.

Mason said that it’s also now seeing startups and bigger businesses using video for communication also adopting Descript tools, especially in cases where it makes more sense to visualize the answers, but the content could still use the ability to be edited.

“Whether it’s externally or internally, for things like bug reporting or personalized introductions or helpdesk videos, we’re seeing people using Descript for company video,” he added, “sometimes in place of something like an email.”

Spark Capital, and specifically Nabeel Hyatt (who in a past life co-founded a music games specialist, Conduit Labs, acquired by Zynga), led the round, with Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint Ventures also participating (both backed Descript in its $15 million Series A in 2019).

A number of individuals — some investors, and some investors also famous for their own video, podcasting and publishing work — also participated this Series B, among them Devdatta Akhawe, Alex Blumberg, Jack Conte, Justine Ezarik, Todd Goldberg, Jean-Denis Greze, John Lilly, Tobi Lutke, Bharat Mediratta, Shishir Mehrotra, Casey Neistat, Brian Pokorny, Raghavendra Prabhu, Lenny Rachitsky, Naval Ravikant, Jay Simons, Jake Shapiro, Rahul Vohra, and Ev Williams.

The news comes on the heels of an eventful several months for the company. In October, Descript released its first major update to its editing suite by expanding from audio editing tools to cover video as well.

In an interview last week, Mason said that the feedback so far has been “excellent” for the technology, although he is declined to say how many users or usage Descript has had for this or its older audio technology.

Descript’s move expanding into the newer medium, in any case, makes a lot of sense, when you consider how closely aligned a lot of audio-based podcasting content has been with corresponding videos — with many of the most popular podcasters often posting videos of their recordings on YouTube and other platforms, for those who prefer to watch as well as listen to recordings.

It helps, too, that video is highly monetizable. Podcasting is on track to make more than $1 billion in ad revenues in the U.S. in 2021, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Meanwhile, even in a year that was considered a downturn, digital video pulled in more than $22 billion.

That double-platform approach, however, has largely been executed on auto pilot up to now, as Mason points out, describing a lot of the video as “window dressing.”

“We watch a lot of video and podcasts and think about how we can create a tool that makes it fun and easy to craft great content,” Mason said. “One thing we’ve observed is that a remarkable amount of video is just audio with window dressing. You don’t notice it until you start looking through that lens. A ton of video is about what is happening with the audio, and so a lot of that video is just filler.”

A lot of the editing is no more than a series of jump cuts, he said, and notwithstanding other challenges like bad equipment, it’s just not a very exciting experience.

That lays the groundwork for Descript not just to create tools to make it easier to edit but in the future to conceive of how to do so in a way that creates a better and potentially more original product at the end of the process, too.

Mason’s turn to audio-based services for his two past startups — prior to Descript, he founded and eventually sold (to Bose) an audio-based city guide service called Detour — has been something of a left turn for a man probably still better known as the quirky co-founder of the once wildly popular sales platform Groupon.

However, Mason studied music at university, and if you talk to him, it is more than obvious that audio and sound-based experiences — not just music but the impact that aural experiences can have — are really where his passion lies.

Mason is long gone from Groupon, but he remains a bit of a wag. He is quick to quip that his ability to raise money for completely different concepts that are a world away from e-commerce are in no smart part due to his having already won the “startup lottery”.

And yes, like many jokes, it’s a telling and often true term, in my experience and observation. But in this case, I’d say it undersells some of the really interesting innovations that Descript has built and is building using innovations in AI to think about how to address some of the challenges that have emerged out of media production — at once so easy to do (so many creator platforms today) yet hard to get right.

More generally, audio technology is not only proving to be in demand with customers, but (as it happens) it is also being sought out larger tech companies, including (most recently) Amazon, Spotify, Apple, Google and Facebook, which are picking up a lot of smaller audio startups in their own efforts to build out their bigger media business.

And this is at the heart of why Descript has attracted this latest round of investment.

“We’ve been convinced of machine learning’s power to be used as a creative tool for some time,” Hyatt at Spark noted to me. “Descript is perhaps the best example of that in a startup today. The company takes some very complicated technology, but presents it in a way that’s actually easier to use than the status quo products. It’s very rare that you come across a company that uses technology to both empower a creative professional to work ten times faster, and simultaneously makes the creative process ten times easier for an amateur, growing the addressable market. Anyone editing audio or video, which is most of us nowadays, can see the benefits.”

Vantage makes managing AWS easier

Vantage, a new service that makes managing AWS resources and their associated spend easier, is coming out of stealth today. The service offers its users an alternative to the complex AWS console with support for most of the standard AWS services, including EC2 instances, S3 buckets, VPCs, ECS and Fargate and Route 53 hosted zones.

The company’s founder, Ben Schaechter, previously worked at AWS and Digital Ocean (and before that, he worked on Crunchbase, too). Yet while DigitalOcean showed him how to build a developer experience for individuals and small businesses, he argues that the underlying services and hardware simply weren’t as robust as those of the hyperclouds. AWS, on the other hand, offers everything a developer could want (and likely more), but the user experience leaves a lot to be desired.

Image Credits: Vantage

“The idea was really born out of ‘what if we could take the user experience of DigitalOcean and apply it to the three public cloud providers, AWS, GCP and Azure,” Schaechter told me. “We decided to start just with AWS because the experience there is the roughest and it’s the largest player in the market. And I really think that we can provide a lot of value there before we do GCP and Azure.”

The focus for Vantage is on the developer experience and cost transparency. Schaechter noted that some of its users describe it as being akin to a “Mint for AWS.” To get started, you give Vantage a set of read permissions to your AWS services and the tool will automatically profile everything in your account. The service refreshes this list once per hour, but users can also refresh their lists manually.

Given that it’s often hard enough to know which AWS services you are actually using, that alone is a useful feature. “That’s the number one use case,” he said. “What are we paying for and what do we have?”

At the core of Vantage is what the team calls “views,” which allows you to see which resources you are using. What is interesting here is that this is quite a flexible system and allows you to build custom views to see which resources you are using for a given application across regions, for example. Those may include Lambda, storage buckets, your subnet, code pipeline and more.

On the cost-tracking side, Vantage currently only offers point-in-time costs, but Schaechter tells me that the team plans to add historical trends as well to give users a better view of their cloud spend.

Schaechter and his co-founder bootstrapped the company and he noted that before he wants to raise any money for the service, he wants to see people paying for it. Currently, Vantage offers a free plan, as well as paid “pro” and “business” plans with additional functionality.

Image Credits: Vantage 

Eden office management platform rebrands to Eden Workplace

Eden, the office management platform that has raised nearly $70 million since inception, is today making a tweak to its nomenclature to reflect its push into SaaS tools. Henceforth, the startup will be called Eden Workplace.

“We had a lot of clients in different categories like retail, some industrial and some classic real estate and we wanted to reaffirm that we’re really building software and a service marketplace for the modern office,” said cofounder and CEO Joe Du Bey. “We also felt that the company is fundamentally different because of all the SaaS tools that we’re building, so it acknowledges that there’s a change in our business.”

Eden also acquired the rights to edenworkplace.com, which Du Bey believes will lend more credibility to the brand who is looking to sell into corporations and organizations and IT departments.

Image Credits: Eden

This isn’t the first evolution for the office management startup.

Eden started out as a service to help folks troubleshoot tech issues using on-demand specialists. Over time, the company moved into office management services, such as cleanings, repairs, re-stocking, IT help and more. The vertically integrated startup turned into a marketplace, working with multiple vendors to provide services to clients.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Eden has had to shift yet again, introducing SaaS products to help people return to and work in their office spaces. That includes the ability to offer COVID-safety questionnaires, track the people coming in and out of the office, alongside tools for visitor management and room booking.

Eden is also introducing a desk reservation system for workers to ensure they can maintain social distancing. This feature was teased at the time of the SaaS launch but is available now to new and existing customers.

Thus far, Eden’s SaaS tools have been growing revenue by more than 100 percent month over month, and Du Bey believes the SaaS side of the business will grow 5x by the end of 2021.

Capchase nabs $60M in credit to help founders avoid dilution

No one likes dilution, and that’s why every founder is looking for alternatives to traditional equity investing by venture capitalists. Financial entrepreneurs have launched a number of products, from SaaS securitization to debt-based financing, to help founders avoid that dilution, particularly when they have recurring revenues clocked on the books.

Capchase is one of this new crop of startup-focused fintech companies. It allows startups to receive their future recurring revenue today in the form of debt, allowing founders to spend future money earlier and potentially avoid at least some of those expensive, dilutive rounds of venture capital, particularly when they are just getting started. I profiled the Boston-based company a few months ago, when they had raised a $4.6 million seed led by Caffeinated Capital.

Now, the company is swimming in new funds, and it’s ready to start lending out to even more startups. This morning, the company announced that it has raised $60 million in an “asset-backed credit facility” from i80 Group. That should allow Capchase to expand the number of startups it works with, as well as the amount of revenue prepayment it could potentially extend to each startup as well.

i80 itself has built an investment firm based around credit underwriting just these sorts of projects for startups. In addition to this facility for Capchase and similar fintech underwriting, the group also backs real estate underwriting projects like for Properly, where it co-led a $100 million facility with Silicon Valley Bank.

Capchase, which was founded in early 2020, claims that its initial customers have delayed fundraises by an average of 8 months and saved about 16% in overall dilution. Of course, those number will vary widely depending on the startup, its growth, its recurring revenues and other variables.

Capchase’s goal isn’t just to extend revenue prepayment to startups, but to do it fast, sometimes in just days or even hours depending on the complexity of the recurring revenues of its clients. With $60 million more, it’s hungry to lend even faster.

Lenovo introduces a wireless charging mat for its e-ink sporting laptop

Lenovo keeps rolling out unique takes on familiar categories this year at CES. Last week it was the screen-swiveling all-in-one and some AR glasses, and today (the first official day of the show), the company’s got an interesting update to last year’s dual-display ThinkBook Plus.

Like the original, the ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 i sports an e-ink display on the lid. Lenovo’s been experimenting with the technology for a number of form factors, and this one makes more sense than previous shots — essentially offering up a quick-glance notification center. I suppose you could also use it as an e-reader if you’re so inclined.

Ultimately, like a lot of what Lenovo does, it’s perhaps more interesting than honestly useful. Though, as ever, points for trying something new. This time out the screen is significantly larger, at about the same size as the primary screen. It now measures 12 inches and sports a 2560 x 1600 resolution (also matching the main screen). The refresh rate has been enhanced, and now it’s possible to run some of the apps on the lid without opening it.

The laptop also sports a built-in stylus for use with the touchscreen. Also interesting is the arrival of the new ThinkBook Charging Mat, which uses Energysquare’s Power by Contact to power the battery. The battery itself gets 15 hours on a charge, or 24 if just using the e-ink screen. I suspect charging it up using just the pad is a fairly time-consuming process.

Dell notably introduced its own take on the category back at CES 2017. The technology, of course, hasn’t gained much traction in the intervening years.

ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 i arrives this quarter, starting at $1,549. No word on the pricing for the mat accessory.

Grafana Labs adds a free tier to its managed observability platform

Grafana Labs, the company behind the increasingly popular open-source monitoring and observability platform, today announced both an updated version of its cloud service and the launch of a free tier for it.

The free plan for Grafana Cloud has some limitations, but it includes access to virtually all of Grafana Labs’ tools for monitoring modern applications. In addition, Grafana’s paid Pro plan for its hosted service is also getting an update and will now include access to five times more metrics per month.

With the free plan, users get a 14-day retention period for metrics and logs, access for up to three team members, 50 GB of log storage and up to 10,000 series for Prometheus and Graphite metrics. For Pro plans, those numbers increase to 15,000 series, 13 months of retention for metrics (up from 3,000 previously) and 100 GB of logs with a one-month retention period.

Image Credits: Grafana

Offering a hosted service is par for the course for open-source companies. For most of them, after all, this is the most obvious way to monetize their tools.

“The origin story of Grafana Cloud is one of open source,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “Just like the development of our features, Grafana Cloud was first born from the pains and needs of our open source community. We were looking to give users a quick way to get Grafana up and running. It was a product created out of necessity, and it made sense at the time because it’s what our customers wanted back then.”

Given its open-source origins, the team decided that it made sense to also offer a free plan. In addition, though, adding a free plan will also make it easier for new users to get started — and maybe become paying users over time.

Image Credits: Grafana

Slim.ai announces $6.6M seed to build container DevOps platform

We are more than seven years into the notion of modern containerization, and it still requires a complex set of tools and a high level of knowledge on how containers work. The DockerSlim open-source project developed several years ago from a desire to remove some of that complexity for developers.

Slim.ai, a new startup that wants to build a commercial product on top of the open-source project, announced a $6.6 million seed round today from Boldstart Ventures, Decibel Partners, FXP Ventures and TechAviv Founder Partners.

Company co-founder and CEO John Amaral says he and fellow co-founder and CTO Kyle Quest have worked together for years, but it was Quest who started and nurtured DockerSlim. “We started coming together around a project that Kyle built called DockerSlim. He’s the primary author, inventor and up until we started doing this company, the sole proprietor of that community,” Amaral explained.

At the time Quest built DockerSlim in 2015, he was working with Docker containers and he wanted a way to automate some of the lower-level tasks involved in dealing with them. “I wanted to solve my own pain points and problems that I had to deal with, and my team had to deal with dealing with containers. Containers were an exciting new technology, but there was a lot of domain knowledge you needed to build production-grade applications and not everybody had that kind of domain expertise on the team, which is pretty common in almost every team,” he said.

He originally built the tool to optimize container images, but he began looking at other aspects of the DevOps lifecycle. including the author, build, deploy and run phases. He found as he looked at that, he saw the possibility of building a commercial company on top of the open-source project.

Quest says that while the open-source project is a starting point, he and Amaral see a lot of areas to expand. “You need to integrate it into your developer workflow and then you have different systems you deal with, different container registries, different cloud environments and all of that. […] You need a solution that can address those needs and doing that through an open source tool is challenging, and that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity to provide premium value and have a commercial product offering,” Quest explained.

Ed Sim, founder and general partner at Boldstart Ventures, one of the seed investors, sees a company bringing innovation to an area of technology where it has been lacking, while putting some more control in the hands of developers. “Slim can shift that all left and give developers the power through the Slim tools to answer all those questions, and then, boom, they can develop containers, push them into production and then DevOps can do their thing,” he said.

They are just 15 people right now including the founders, but Amaral says building a diverse and inclusive company is important to him, and that’s why one of his early hires was head of culture. “One of the first two or three people we brought into the company was our head of culture. We actually have that role in our company now, and she is a rock star and a highly competent and focused person on building a great culture. Culture and diversity to me are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

The company is still in the very early stages of developing that product. In the meantime, they continue to nurture the open-source project and to build a community around that. They hope to use that as a springboard to build interest in the commercial product, which should be available some time later this year.

Study finds around one-third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook

Around a third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook, according to the latest study from Pew Research Center, whose surveys aim to better understand the current media landscape in the U.S. In the updated report, Pew Research found that around half of U.S. adults, or 53%, said they “often” or “sometimes” use social media to get their news. This is spread out across a number of sites, but Facebook is at the top of the list.

The study found that 36% of U.S. adults said they “regularly” access Facebook to get news. This is a significantly larger percentage than almost any other social media platform, with the exception of YouTube, which is used regularly for news by 23% of U.S. adults.

Beyond that, the percentages are much smaller. Even Trump’s preferred platform for communication (well, until recently), Twitter, is only used regularly for news by 15% of U.S. adults, Pew found.

Only around one in 10 Americans or fewer said they regularly got their news from other social media platforms, including Instagram (11%), Reddit (6%), Snapchat (4%), LinkedIn (4%), TikTok (3%), WhatsApp (3%), Tumblr (1%) and Twitch (1%).

Pew notes that the lower percentages for using these sites as a source of news also has to do with the fact that fewer Americans report using these sites at all.

But even if their audiences are smaller, the site’s users may be heavily engaged with the news. Twitter, for instance, is used only by 25% of U.S. adults, but over half the users (59%) say they get news on the platform, compared with 54% of Facebook users. Meanwhile, 42% of Reddit users get news regularly on its site, even though it has a significantly smaller user base than Facebook.

In other words, the list of “top news platforms” looks a bit different when you count how many of a social media site’s own users gets the news regularly from the platform, instead of just how many U.S. adults altogether get their news from the site.

When measured this way, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit lead, followed by YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, then Twitch.

Pew additionally examined the demographic makeup of those who use social media for news, and found that white adults make up the majority of the regular news users for sites like Facebook and Reddit. Both Black and Hispanic adults, meanwhile, made up around a quarter of Instagram’s regular users (22% and 27%, respectively.) Facebook was found to also skew toward women (63% versus 35%) when it came to regularly using it getting the news, while Reddit skews toward men (67% versus 29%).

What’s also interesting about the report’s findings is that, despite Americans’ widespread usage of social media for getting the news, a majority (59%) said they believed it to be “largely inaccurate.” This figure has stayed fairly consistent over the past couple of years, as well. It’s up from 57% in 2018 and the same as on 2019.

Nearly half of social media users also said reading the news on social media has not made much of a difference in helping them to understand current events.

This finding seems to contradict reports and studies that say social media sites — and their algorithms that personalize news to the interests and beliefs of their users — have helped radicalize people online. Last week, the results of that was on full display as a mob of people who have consumed misinformation and conspiracy theories, often for years, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

However, keep in mind that Pew’s study is based on self-reported data. So while respondents may have claimed social media posts didn’t really help them “understand” the news, they may be underestimating those posts’ power and influence over time.

The Pew Research Center regularly runs studies like this. For example, last year it reported how social media news consumers tend to be less engaged and less knowledgeable about the facts on key news topics, like the U.S. election or COVID-19. The same study also found that the social media news consumers were more frequently exposed to fringe conspiracies.

The platforms themselves have done little to help prevent the spread of misinformation, beyond adding basic fact-checks. Facebook waited years to ban QAnon groups, but many still remained after the sweep, as did “Stop the Steal” conspiracy groups, after a similar crackdown on the hashtags and other incitements of violence.

The latest report is here.

The Cadillac personal drone is the Cadillac of personal drones

GM revealed Tuesday a Cadillac-branded electric vertical takeoff and landing drone concept that is designed — if it’s ever built — to let owners cruise the skies in isolated luxury.

The single-seat eVTOL, which was showcased alongside an autonomous vehicle during GM’s keynote presentation at the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show, is the automaker’s first foray into aerial mobility. This is a mere concept, which means it’s unlikely to become a real product. However, these concepts can signal where a company is headed on the design or product front. And when it comes to electric and autonomous vehicles, GM has proven its willingness to invest in the technologies.

“We are preparing for a world where advances in electric and autonomous technology make personal air travel possible,” Michael Simcoe, GM’s global design chief, said during the presentation. “It is a concept designed for the moment when time is of essence and convenience is everything.”

GM electric evtol ces

Image Credits: GM

The eVTOL concept is equipped with a 90-kilowatt hour electric motor to power four rotors that can whisk the passenger off of a rooftop to their destination. It also comes with air-to-air and air-to-ground communications capabilities.

Simcoe said the company has more concepts planned, including a “luxurious two-seater designed for you and someone very special to decompress, relax and enjoy a multi sensory experience choreographed for more intimate journeys.”

The entire exercise, as Simcoe explained, is to show the world what autonomy and Cadillac luxury might look like in the “not too distant future.” 

Of course, these concepts are also designed to convey just how serious GM is about the future of transportation, which in its view centers around electrification, automated vehicle technology and connected car services.