Pi Day wasn’t pleasant for a lot of tech execs

Pi Day is apparently New Job day for tech execs and VCs these days.

Leaving: Lee Fixel

It’s not every day that one of the top VC investors heads out from their shop. TechCrunch’s @cookie aka Connie Loizos has the story:

Lee Fixel, the low-flying head of Tiger Global’s private equity business, is leaving at the end of June, the firm announced today in a letter sent to clients and seen by Reuters . Scott Shleifer and Chase Coleman will continue as co-managers of the portfolios Fixel has overseen, with Shleifer taking over as its head, according to the letter.

Fixel, 39, is reportedly planning to invest his own money and “may start an investment firm in the future,” Tiger Global wrote in the letter.

Tiger Global has become a major force in late-stage investing. As I wrote last fall, it is also part of a small coterie of investment firms which have pushed their portfolio companies to IPO with reasonable speed (the other firm I noted at the time was Benchmark).

One challenge for Tiger has been the rise of the SoftBank Vision Fund, which has driven up valuations for startups and has almost certainly complicated the return profile of many of Tiger’s investments. The two also share a penchant for investing internationally, where Tiger had almost a monopoly position before the Vision Fund burst on the scene.

Another wrinkle worth tracking is the increasing opposition of Indian founders to both Tiger (and specifically Fixel) and SoftBank. As I wrote in the newsletter just a few weeks ago:

There is a clear lack of trust between India’s startup and venture communities, which ultimately threatens the sustainability and growth outlook of the country’s tech sector.

But a solution to the problem is not so cut and dry. Mega growth funds like SoftBank and Tiger Global have given limited control to their Indian portfolio companies and have forced their hands on numerous occasions. Yet Ola’s avoidance of SoftBank has led to lower valuations and more difficult and lengthier fundraising processes.

Leaving: Chris Cox & Chris Daniels

Facebook’s chief product officer is leaving along with Chris Daniels, the VP of WhatsApp. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine summarized the situation:

The changes solidify that Facebook is entering a new era as it chases the trend of feed sharing giving way to private communication. Cox and Daniels may feel they’ve done their part advancing Facebook’s product, and that the company needs renewed energy as it shifts from a relentless growth focus to keeping its users loyal while learning to monetize a new from of social networking.

There has been much ink spilled here about what this all means strategically, but I do think that there are no good times for prominent 13-year and 8-year veterans to leave their positions. Zuckerberg seems ready to begin a whole new era for Facebook, and perhaps neither wanted to make the multi-year commitment that his new vision entails.

That, or Cox unplugged the servers yesterday.

Leaving (America): Jay Jorgensen

A very rare move from the United States to Korea for a senior exec, from TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu:

Coupang, the unicorn that is defining e-commerce in Korea, announced today that it has hired Jay Jorgensen, Walmart’s former global chief ethics and compliance officer, to serve as its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Jorgensen will relocate to Seoul for the position.

Founded in 2010, with a total of $3.4 billion raised from investors, including SoftBank, and a valuation of $9 billion, Coupang currently operates only in Korea, where it is the largest e-commerce player, but has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Seattle and Shanghai.

Coupang has been the outlier success of the Korean startup ecosystem for the past few years. The company’s founder, Bom Kim, who holds a bachelor’s and an MBA from Harvard, has worked to apply American management models to Coupang, attempting to eschew the insular culture typical of Korea’s technology companies. Clearly, that vision is drawing international talent.

Staying: Zachary Kirkhorn

Tesla is getting some financial help from itself, from TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec:

The automaker officially tapped as its next chief financial officer Zachary Kirkhorn, a longtime employee who has been part of the automaker’s finance team for nine years, according to securities filings posted Thursday. The automaker also appointed Vaibhav Taneja, who led the integration of Tesla and SolarCity’s accounting teams, as its chief accounting officer. Taneja, who will report to Kirkhorn, will oversee corporate financial reporting, global accounting functions and personnel.

No telling whether Kirkhorn knows how to blow a whistle though….

No Longer Admitted: Bill McGlashan

Sometimes when you venture to make an investment, it doesn’t always pan out, from Maggie Fitzgerald at CNBC:

TPG’s Bill McGlashan was fired from the private equity firm on Thursday amid the massive college cheating scandal.

McGlashan, 55, has been terminated for cause from his positions with TPG and Rise effective immediately.

“After reviewing the allegations of personal misconduct in the criminal complaint, we believe the behavior described to be inexcusable and antithetical to the values of our entire organization,” said a TPG spokesperson.

McGlashan founded TPG Growth, which has had a litany of successes investing in later-stage startups such as Airbnb.

Leaving (but not by choice): Bird employees

Once high-flying and now somewhat not as high-flying scooter startup Bird announced that it was laying off around 40 employees. From TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey:

“As we establish local service centers and deeper roots in cities where we provide service, we have shifting geographic workforce needs,” a Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are expanding our employee bases in locations that match our growing operations around the world, while developing an efficient operating structure at our Santa Monica headquarters. The recent events are a reflection of shifting geographical needs and our annual talent review process.”

I hope they flip them the Bird on the way out.

India fintech and the growing proxy war between global tech giants

Photo by anand purohit via Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

South African media conglomerate and investment giant Naspers is reportedly planning to invest $1 billion in India this year.

According to reports earlier this week, Naspers is looking towards India’s budding fintech market in particular to unload the fresh pile of dough it’s sitting on after recently lowering its stake in Tencent and cashing out on Walmart’s $16 billion acquisition of portfolio company Flipkart last year.

The fintech heavy thesis directionally makes sense in the context of Naspers’ broader strategy. Naspers has openly discussed its attraction to India’s financial services market and the company already has an established footprint in the region as the owner of payments platform PayU.

That said, the amount Naspers is reportedly looking to gift in just one year is astounding. Indian fintech startups saw around $2.6 billion of investment in 2018 according to Pitchbook. Naspers’ investment alone would represent a 40% spike in India’s total fintech venture capital.

Though one billion dollars in one year may seem ambitious, Naspers has proven it’s not afraid to pour billions into India and emerging verticals, having just led a $1 billion round in Indian food delivery startup Swiggy only a few months ago.

More importantly, Naspers’ push shows that the company is seriously doubling down in the escalating competition to become the dominant force in India’s booming fintech ecosystem. As we discussed in our recent conversation with Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree, India’s financial system is ripe for disruption. With secular tailwinds like growing mobile penetration and financial literacy, innovative financial models in India have begun leap-frogging traditional institutions, with Google and Boston Consulting Group even forecasting that the market for digital payments in India would reach $500 billion in size by 2020.

And many have taken notice — the number of fintech investments in India has grown at a 200%-plus compound annual growth rate over the last five years, according to data from Pitchbook, as leading investors and global tech powerhouses all battle to become the layer of financial infrastructure on which the future Indian economy sits.

A recent deep dive in the WSJ highlighted how crowded the ongoing fight for Indian payments dominance has become in the context of Paytm, an Indian startup that received a $1.4 billion investment from venture behemoth SoftBank:

The Indian market is one worth fighting for, with hundreds of millions of Indians getting online and starting to transact for the first time, thanks to plummeting prices for mobile data and smartphones.

Digital payments in India are soaring” and “set to explode,” Credit Suisse said in a February research note. They should rise nearly five times to $1 trillion by 2023, the report said…

…Meanwhile, it isn’t just Google and WhatsApp challenging Paytm . Indian e-commerce titan Flipkart, in which Walmart Inc. bought a controlling stake for $16 billion earlier this year, has a popular payments service called PhonePe. Amazon.com Inc. has its own payments service and two of India’s biggest telecom players, Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., offer digital wallets, as well.”

Next to peers like Alibaba, SoftBank, or Google, Naspers can often seem like the biggest tech company no one has ever heard of. But if its latest swan dive into India can help Naspers strike gold — as it did with its early investment in Tencent — it might just become the company powering the next economies of the world.

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog, Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bite-size form in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently, nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit. Of those who responded, all said they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

Two hours after we published this story, Bird spokesperson Rebecca Hahn said the company supports freedom of speech, adding: “In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow.”

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped, but not before more than 50 experts, advocates and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle and silence security researchers.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably Dropbox and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

Updated at 6pm ET: with statement from Bird.

Bird and Skip secure Portland e-scooter permits and there’s already drama

Electric scooter startups Bird and Skip have landed permits to operate in Portland under a new pilot program that aims to gauge how the controversial form of micro-transportation will fit in the city. And already there’s a bit of drama, or call it skeptical-scooter feelings, scuttling about.

The permits issued by Portland Bureau of Transportation will run until November 20, when the pilot program is set to end. Scooters could be available for rent as soon as this week, PBOT officials said.

The PBOT will conduct an evaluation of the program and survey Portlanders to determine whether scooters are compatible with the safe, efficient and equitable operation of Portland’s transportation system, the department said.

And while the official line from PBOT is neutral, there’s at least one staffer whose snarky tweet suggests that the scooters are something more repugnant: just another toy for tech bros.

It all started after PBOT tweeted a PSA about the rules for scooters. In response, one person wrote, “Instead of preemptively shaming and chastising e-scooter users PBOT should be bending over backwards to encourage this alternative. I would like @PBOTinfo staff to reread the climate action plan, bike plan, and comp plan to come to grips with the magnitude of their failure.”

A staffer within PBOT wasn’t too pleased and posted this retort.

“Or maybe they’re toys that tech bros leave strewn about, blocking corner ramps needed for people with disabilities. Also, people need to know the helmet laws for scooters are different than for bicycles. We’ll see how it goes during this pilot period!”

And then later, another tweet. This time the PBOT staffer tries to walk back the previous comments. Another 15 minutes later and it looks like that staffer’s tweeting privileges have been taken away.

The PBOT scooter skeptic, and the initial tweet that prompted the snippy response, is a symptom of a wider controversy bubbling up in densely populated cities throughout the U.S. as traditional car ownership — and the traffic congestion that comes with it — collides with public transit and newer forms of mobility such as ride-hailing, bike sharing and scooters.

The scooters have had a polarizing effect on residents living in cities. Some love the dockless scooter services because they provide a fast and cheap means of traveling short distances. Others loathe them, or more accurately, the misuse of them. (Scooters are supposed to be used in the bike lane, not on sidewalks.)

Still, the wave of scooters doesn’t appear to be slowing. Bird, for instance, launched in Portland and Cincinnati on Thursday. The company has launched in about 30 U.S. cities to date. Although not all of those have gone smoothly.

For instance, after Bird entered into Milwaukee on June 27, the city attorney issued a cease-and-desist letter and sued the scooter-share startup. The Milwaukee City Council is now considering a ban of all electric scooters.

Meanwhile, the streets of San Francisco remain scooter-less while the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency continues its review of the 12 applications from companies to operate electric scooters in the city. Bird, Lime, Lyft, Uber and others have applied for permits to operate electric scooter-share services in San Francisco. The ban, and subsequent permit process, was the result of several startups deploying their electric scooters without permission. 

Meanwhile, back in Portland, the number of scooters will be capped at 2,500, with each permitted company receiving a portion of the total. PBOT says it will continue to issue permits to companies that qualify under the pilot rules. In other words, Bird and Skip may soon have competition.

The PBOT is limiting the rollout, as well. Companies are allowed to deploy up to 200 scooters during its first week of operation. The department is also requiring that each company deploy a portion of their fleets in East Portland.

State law requires scooter riders to wear a helmet and prohibits use on sidewalks. Riders will be required to park scooters on the sidewalk close to the curb, so that scooters do not interfere with pedestrians, according to PBOT rules.