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- 01/13/19--04:00: _How to watch the Cr...
- 01/13/19--22:00: _These future-proof ...
- 01/13/19--22:00: _Pump up the volume:...
- 01/13/19--22:00: _There are so many F...
- 01/13/19--22:00: _An egg has dethrone...
- 01/13/19--22:22: _Apple buys $150 mil...
- 01/13/19--22:25: _Hours after rocket ...
- 01/13/19--23:00: _The most powerful p...
- 01/13/19--23:00: _This is the first t...
- 01/14/19--00:00: _Inside Netflix̵...
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- 01/14/19--04:00: _Is Netflix’s ...
- 01/13/19--04:00: How to watch the Critics’ Choice Awards online without cable
- 01/13/19--22:00: Pump up the volume: Podcast apps keep pushing toward the money
- 01/13/19--22:00: An egg has dethroned Kylie Jenner for most Instagram likes
- 01/13/19--22:22: Apple buys $150 million worth of plane tickets a year from United
- Apple is United’s biggest corporate client.
- The iPhone-maker spends $150 million every year on United flights.
- Almost a quarter of the $150 million, about $35 million, is spent on flights just from SFO to PVG, making it the number-one market for Apple.
- After Shanghai, the other most popular routes that Apple employees fly from SFO are (in order): Hong Kong (HKG), Taipei (TPE), London (LHR), South Korea (ICN), Singapore (SIN), Munich (MUC), Tokyo (HND), Beijing (PEK), and Israel (TLV).
- After Apple, Facebook, Roche, and Google are United’s next biggest customers. All three spend over $34 million on tickets annually.
- 01/13/19--22:25: Hours after rocket launch, SpaceX announces huge layoffs
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- 01/13/19--23:00: This is the first truly great Amazon Alexa and Google Home hack
- 01/14/19--00:00: Inside Netflix’s all-out blitz to win a Best Picture Oscar for Roma
- They spend way more than anyone else.
- They pursue any and all ways to promote their projects for awards.
- And most importantly: They, and especially Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, really, really, really want to win.
- 01/14/19--00:00: How parents talk about money differently to their sons and daughters
- 01/14/19--00:00: Pentagram promotes civil disobedience with “Acid Brexit”
- 01/14/19--01:00: West Elm snaps up prestigious independent design brand
- 01/14/19--02:00: How to feel more accomplished at the end of the day
- 01/14/19--02:00: The smartwatch Tony Fadell helped design will cost $48,800
- 01/14/19--03:00: The perfect pepper grinder for food and design snobs
- 01/14/19--03:00: How many goals should you have at once?
Much of Hollywood is probably still hungover from last week’s Golden Globes, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from having a good time at the 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards.
Taye Diggs, star of the CW’s All American and everyone’s favorite Twitter BFF, will host the gala event tonight at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. The awards are presented by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.
Some 10 movies are competing for best picture this year, including Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, First Man, Green Book—the last of which cleaned up at the Globes last week but is also swimming in numerous controversies. We’ll see if the backlash has any effect on its performance tonight.
You can see the full list of nominations here. The Critics’ Choice Awards gala is set to air live on The CW Network tonight (Sunday, January 13) at 7:00 p.m. ET.
If you’re a cord cutter looking to watch the awards live on your smart TV, computer, or phone, you have a few options. CW is a broadcast network, meaning you may be able to find it just by using an over-the-air antenna. (Check the CW website to find your local channel.)
Chances are, you don’t have an antenna, though, which is why you’re here. If that’s the case, you may be able to find your local CW channel on one of the few live-TV streaming services that offer CW as part of their bundles. Right now, those include YouTube TV, Hulu With Live TV, and DirecTV Now. Unfortunately, live CW is only offered in a limited number of markets, so check your zip code before signing up. Good luck!
At a 13-story office tower under construction in Hollywood that will soon serve as the headquarters of Netflix, two floors of parking are designed for a different future: As the need for parking dwindles, that parking space can be easily converted into new office space.
Even today, parking garages are typically underused. In the not-too-distant future, car shares, self-driving cars, increased investment in transit, or simple behavioral change could all shift the amount of parking people think they need. And the U.S. also has far more parking than necessary–in Seattle, for example, there are five parking spaces for every resident. Architects and city planners are increasingly realizing that valuable city space could be put to better use than storing cars.
“There are 500 million parking spaces in the United States and 350 million people,” says Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, the architecture firm that designed the Hollywood office tower. “Think about all that real estate, all that attention to parking, that could be revitalized and reused for the future of our cities.”
In downtown Boston, a parking lot will become the site of a 30-story high-rise with affordable housing. In Wichita, Kansas, a former parking garage was converted into an apartment building in 2018. Near downtown Cincinnati, a former parking garage is now a hotel. The U.K.-based organization Make Shift transformed an empty parking garage in Brixton into a new hub for small businesses in 2015, and in 2018 converted a seven-story parking garage in London into studios for artists, coworking offices, and community space. This type of conversion isn’t new–a “hotel for autos” built in Manhattan in the 1930s was converted into a warehouse a decade later, and then became apartments. But it’s happening at a faster rate now, and, increasingly, architects are designing new buildings with a vision of a future of fewer cars.
“We’re kind of at this interesting moment right now,” says Kristen Hall, a senior urban designer at the architecture firm Perkins + Will. “We’re probably going to be seeing full absorption of autonomous vehicles on the streets in anywhere from 10 to 30 years, and a lot of the financing for projects is on a 30-year basis. So if you’re a developer looking at building a parking garage and you don’t really know if you’re going to be able to finance or have a consistent revenue stream for a parking garage for the next 30 years, we’re finally at that point where we’re actually having a lot of developer clients who are questioning the financial feasibility of building parking garages.”
Some cities are eliminating requirements to have a minimum number of parking spaces in new buildings, and some buildings, like a high-rise in Oslo, include space for parking bikes, but virtually no room for cars. Other buildings, built in areas where developers believe there’s a need for parking now, are designed for future conversion–with building owners deciding that the extra cost is worth it for the potential of extra income in the future. At the Cincinnati headquarters of the data analytics and marketing company 84.51, also designed by Gensler, three floors of indoor parking were designed to convert into office space in the future. (The office can already easily be reached without a car.)
Retrofitting existing parking garages can be more difficult–they’re not designed for human habitation, and typically have low ceilings, sloped floors, and, in areas like California, aren’t built to the same seismic standards as an office or apartment building. They also can’t handle the same loads. “Being able to say I’m just going to convert this parking garage into apartments is often not really the way to go because it’s structurally not really possible,” says Marcus Martinez, a founder of the Houston-based design firm UltraBarrio, who started studying the potential future of parking garages when he was an urbanism student at MIT and collaborating with others looking at the impact of autonomous cars. “We have to really rethink the DNA of the garage altogether.”
But conversion of old garages is possible in some cases–or at a certain cost–as the projects in London and Wichita show. In the Chicago area, a former parking garage at Northwestern University is now an on-campus startup incubator called, predictably, The Garage. Some former garages could be reused as affordable housing or shelters; after creating a concept called the Mod that looked at ways to retrofit old garages with pod-like housing (like in the picture on the top of this article), Gensler is now in discussions with cities such as Los Angeles about the potential of the concept as a solution.
“If the city and county took their parking structures and retrofit them into homeless structures where we have these pods–inexpensive living units that plug into these parking structures–it could solve some of our homeless problem,” says Cohen.
Underground garages pose greater challenges, since they typically don’t have windows, but also have the potential for reuse. “I actually think that’s interesting–what are all the other things that you can do in these leftover spaces that are less ideal for people?” says Hall. The spaces could potentially be used for urban agriculture, or storage, or data centers.
As parking shrinks–in lots, garages, and on streets–neighborhoods will change. Some of the space could go to housing. Cities often build about 1.6 parking spaces per new unit of housing; in a parking garage or lot, a single space can use 450 square feet, if you consider the space also needed for cars to move. “Four hundred and 50 square feet is the size of a one bedroom,” says Hall. “In a place like the Bay Area, where we have a housing crisis and every square foot is so valuable and we are literally fighting for every square foot for housing, to require that developers be building parking at these ratios is really limiting the housing supply, especially in areas that are really well served by transit.” (Though San Francisco recently eliminated its parking requirements, many other Bay Area communities still have them.)
Street parking could become a combination of drop-off and pickup zones and green space, or could transform into protected bike lanes. That could change cities further; the majority of less frequent bike riders say that they’d be more likely to commute by bike if they felt safer. Sidewalks could also widen.
“When you look at the best cities in the world, they’re the walkable cities,” says Cohen. “Especially in the U.S., our cities have to start thinking about our streets as people places. And I think cities now can use this as the nexus, as the reason why to take the city streets back for people [from] the automobile. Just think about that real estate that we can take back for parks, for amenities, for people space, space for development.”
By many measures, Castro might seem modest. The company that makes the freemium podcast-listening app doesn’t disclose usage numbers, stating only that it’s among the top 10 podcast apps for iOS—a market segment dominated by Apple’s bundled Podcasts, which overshadows everything else. Castro might have as many as the low hundreds of thousands of users, the vast majority paying nothing.
But Castro has ambitions. While the podcast industry raked in over $300 million in ads in 2017, that number is estimated at $400 million for 2018, and is expected to cross $600 million by 2020, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. That’s a tiny sum relative to newspaper and radio ad sales, which are around $17 billion each. Still, it’s up from nearly nothing in just a few years.
Counting advertising alone misses an important and growing part of podcast revenue, however. Other forms of income come from paid content that’s either charged as a premium or included as part of a subscription. This money is collected by companies as varied as Audible, Spotify, and Stitcher. They don’t disclose details about the income they receive that is solely attributable to selling podcast content, but some observers believe it could reach billions in a few years, based on rapidly growing demand.
Castro would like a piece of that future, and the two-man band that developed the app— Pádraig Ó Cinnéide and Oisín Prendiville—recently sold their creation to Tiny, a Vancouver, B.C., venture-capital firm that specializes in boosting the fortunes of generally profitable middle-stage startup firms and app makers. Castro’s developers will remain at work on their creation. Tiny’s cofounder Andrew Wilkinson also founded MetaLab, a user-interface shop that’s designed products and handled launches for firms like Slack, Coinbase, Amazon, and Google.
Castro’s revenue currently comes entirely from users who opt to pay for Castro Plus at $3 a quarter or $9 a year. That in-app upgrade brings a number of minor improvements, including an option to recognize and trim silences in podcasts—offering a minor speedup of listening time—and per-podcast customization of settings, such as how many episodes to retain.
Tiny believes in Castro as a product and thinks it’s positioned to take advantage of burgeoning revenue in a rapidly growing space. “We think Castro is the best [app] we’ve used,” says Wilkinson via email. “So it was a no-brainer to team up with Pádraig and Oisín to help them keep going to be able to capture that opportunity versus continuing the brutal indie app-store grind with limited resources.”
The potential listening market is huge. In 2006, in podcasting’s relative infancy, just 11% of Americans 12 or older had ever listened to even one episode. But by 2018, according to Edison Research, that number had climbed to 44%, or about 124 million people. The firm said 17% of Americans who are 12 and older currently listen to podcasts at least once a week. There’s more growth potential yet to come in other countries. The U.K.’s telecom and broadcast regulator, Ofcom, noted in September 2018 that weekly podcast listeners there had doubled from 7% of people aged 15 and over in 2013 to 11% in 2018–nearly 6 million people–but they still have a long way to go to match the U.S.
Wilkinson notes that Tiny is happy to invest in listeners without obsessing about short-term profits for now, but will seek “revenue over the long term.” The goal is to become one of the “top 10 players.” The landscape of podcast apps, advertising, and consumer-paid content doesn’t make that a boast or implausible. Castro is just the latest in a series of moves on the app side of things, as more companies enter the fray.
Here’s a map of the current rocky terrain.
You can’t talk about the podcast ecosystem without starting with Apple. It’s the 100,000-watt gorilla radio station, if that radio gorilla were benign and shared its bananas by broadcasting any tape sent in.
The Apple Podcasts app ships as part of iOS, and thus is in the hands of a billion or more iPhone and iPad users. By many reports, listeners who use this app form 70% or more of podcast consumers. All other apps, no matter how popular, have just a few percentage points of listeners, at least for podcasts that aren’t behind a walled garden.
Over the years, Apple’s interest in podcasts has ranged from indifferent to supportive. Currently, it’s in a supportive arc. The company doesn’t offer any way for podcasters to charge for content, but it puts them in its directory without charge, and offers a streamlined way for listeners to subscribe to new episodes and select from back catalogs.
Apple shows podcasts in its audio search results with the same level of visibility as music, spoken word, and audiobooks. The Podcasts app is not great, but it’s good enough, and it fits neatly into this ecosystem. The Podcasts app’s existence is certainly a reason podcast listening has grown steadily over several years from a niche audience. (Google released its own Google Podcasts app for Android in June 2018, but it has to be downloaded. Google has no plans for an iOS version, nor is Apple likely to offer anything for Android–although given that it just announced plans to bring formerly proprietary services to LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio TV sets, who knows what the future might bring?)
For all the benefits of Apple’s support of podcasts, its dominance has led to an advertising monoculture. Podcasters couldn’t charge directly for episodes or shows, and couldn’t assemble rigorous information about listenership or, critically, how long into a podcast people listened before dropping off or whether they skipped over ads. Advertisers on terrestrial and satellite radio rely in part in listening data collected by Nielsen’s tracking systems.
In this monoculture, “host-read ads” leapt to the fore. A throwback to old-time radio, they involve the podcast’s host reading ad copy–often improvising a bit or speaking from personal experience–in the same natural cadence of the rest of the show.
That sort of read “will not necessarily scale to billions of dollars, we don’t think,” says Erik Diehn, the CEO of Stitcher, an E.W. Scripps company that offers its own subscription-based app, sells ads for podcast creators, and produces its own shows for free and premium distribution. “If you’re Starbucks and want to reach people in five cities for a seven-day holiday promotion,” he said, a host-read ad doesn’t meet the bill. That’s despite the success of Midroll, a pioneering podcast ad-sales firm acquired by Scripps before it bought Stitcher.
These ads also typically benefit advertisers who can measure direct response from codes or URLs read by the hosts. There’s a reason why it seems like direct-to-consumer businesses such as Audible, Casper, Harry’s, MeUndies, and Squarespace are the only companies paying for podcast ads. For programs that don’t have many regular listeners or aren’t focused around a host, these sorts of ads are a poor fit. (Some podcasts rely on voluntary support or a patronage model, but this largely works best for those with low production costs or vast listenership.)
In the last few years, there’s been some shift. A number of companies offer software that can insert audio ads dynamically for each download of an episode. Some podcasts use host-read ads for an initial release, and then mark those sections to deliver dynamic ads when an episode becomes part of the back catalog. Some popular podcasts may have as many cumulative downloads from a back catalog in a month or so as any new episode.
And Apple opened its kimono at least partly. In mid-2017, it began to offer podcast creators access to analytics for their shows, aggregating information from iOS users who opted in at a system-wide level to sending diagnostic and usage information to Apple. Charts and lists reveal overall and per-episode data, such as unique devices and time listened.
But most importantly, Apple displays listenership across the duration of a podcast episode, providing a graphical and quantitative insight into when people stop listening. That lets podcasters know (and prove to advertisers) that listeners keep listening rather than abandoning an episode after a few minutes.
With Apple’s new features, podcasts fed out through a feed, rather than through custom apps, could get unfiltered and direct insight for the first time. There were fears that this knowledge would poison the podcast pool. What if it turned out listeners tune out before the first ad? Those concerns were misplaced. However, people generally listen through episodes at a declining rate that largely matched expectations.
But dynamic advertising and partial metrics don’t offer enough options for every podcast that’s after revenue to thrive and expand. That’s let to a proliferation of podcast apps with specialized features—some aimed at listeners and some for show producer and podcast networks—designed to create listener loyalty, accept payments, and gather metrics outside of Apple’s constraints.
Hungry for data
A few dozen apps, like Apple Podcasts, have no monetization or network affiliation built in. In iOS, that includes Castro, Overcast, Downcast, Pocket Casts, and others. These can use public or private podcast feeds. (A consortium of public-radio groups, including NPR and This American Life, bought Pocket Casts in May 2018.) These apps typically have an in-app purchase, likely a recurring but modest subscription, to unlock certain features, or request a voluntary contribution. But none offer premium content or pass-along payments to podcast creators.
Dozens of other podcast apps and streaming-audio apps that include podcast support have a huge diversity of models. Some, like Spotify, embed ads in third-party podcasts unless someone is a premium Spotify subscriber. Others, like Stitcher, allow subscriptions to a significant percentage of free podcasts, but also offer access to premium programming through a monthly subscription. And NPR One, created by that public-radio network, is a combination of public-radio-only podcasts and streaming audio. iHeartRadio has a similar app that centers around streaming radio from its stations, but also allows podcast subscriptions of programs it produces and others it lists in a directory.
Still others, like the podcast-hosting platform Libsyn, create custom or template-based apps for programs or networks that can optionally collect subscription fees or other revenue.
Many of these apps gather the kind of listening data that advertisers and media-company executives love seeing: granular and comprehensive. It’s used for selling ads, but also analyzing the popularity of programs, especially for subscription-based services.
This tendency to track listeners and their behavior will take a strong tick upwards with NPR’s release of a a podcast measurement standard called Remote Audio Data (RAD). RAD will allow podcast producers to tag their content, dropping markers in audio files at specific time stamps using an existing metadata format. The standard comes with wide support among other app developers, podcast platforms, and both public and commercial radio and podcast networks.
When a listener uses any of these apps with RAD support and the app encounters a marker, it shoots back an anonymized bit of data to an analytics URL that’s part of the marker. RAD will let podcasters, advertisers, and other members of the ecosystem aggregate listening data across a variety of apps into a single dashboard. (Apps will have to work through how they disclose or allow opt-in or opt-out of RAD data collection in a way that conforms with Apple’s and Google’s privacy policies, too.)
That will overcome some of the fragmented podcast app landscape. But Apple hasn’t signed on, and some podcast app developers are opposed to the idea. Marco Arment, whose Overcast app typically has more listeners than any other independent podcast app, has long taken a strong privacy stance. On Deccember 11, he tweeted about his objections to RAD.
Yes. I understand why huge podcast companies want more listener data, but there are zero advantages for listeners or app-makers.
I won’t be supporting any listener-behavior tracking specs in Overcast. Podcasters get enough data from your IP address when you download episodes. https://t.co/mplhnrmCsc
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) December 11, 2018
The Stitcher example
The focus on listener metrics and ad delivery means that most podcasting companies haven’t delved deeply into other possible forms of revenue. This is partly because the firms generating the most revenue with subscription-only podcast series and premium content for shows that are otherwise freely available share almost no information about revenue attributable to podcasts.
Stitcher is a rare exception, as its parent company, E.W. Scripps, breaks out the division’s revenue, which was $13 million in the most recent quarter, or a 90% year-over-year increase. That combines ad commissions and subscription/premium content. (E.W. Scripps put its podcast ad sales, original series development, apps, and premium services under the Stitcher brand earlier this year, folding in Midroll.)
Stitcher combines a bit of nearly every existing revenue model in one place. It pioneered the “Netflix for podcasts” model, which has gradually become a value-added extra in a number of audio-subscription services, including Audible, Spotify, and Pandora. Listeners to those networks can subscribe to podcasts available for free on the larger internet, but just as Netflix supercharged its subscription growth by producing programming in-house in ever-larger quantities, it seems like that’s the direction for audio-subscription services with podcasts as well.
According to Stitcher CEO Diehn, “There will an increasing volume of content that will not be available via RSS,” the venerable technology used to push out free podcast feeds. Partnering with Marvel, Stitcher just coproduced the first season of a Wolverine series, available only to paying subscribers. The cast had fairly well-known TV and movie actors, including Richard Armitage in the lead role. (Stitcher also launched a Conan O’Brien podcast with his production company, but it’s broadly available and free.)
Despite the scope of listenership, none of these models have fully shaken out yet. At some point, people may own enough mattresses and razors, and stop responding to ads. Locked in by premium content, listeners subscribing to one network may not want to subscribe or buy audio from others.
Even with Apple’s domination of mass listenership, the fragmentation of the rest of the market makes it unlikely that podcasts turn into what’s happened in streaming media, with original, subscription-only programs available uniquely at Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and TV and movie company apps such as CBS All Access and Disney’s Disney+. Netflix and Hulu have scored some remarkable subscription increases, but at some point–as with cable TV bills–people look at what they’re paying each month and make hard decisions.
This gives Castro and a host of other apps with existing user bases a toehold to help explore the future. Tiny’s principals didn’t want to discuss the details of Castro’s future on the record, but they’re eager to be part of riding the podcast wave and shaping its direction. And as Stitcher’s Diehn says, “I don’t think it’s all shaken out yet.”
Listeners currently reside in the catbird seat. Everybody wants to cater to their listening interests, nobody knows what to charge or fully how to collect money from them, and their listening habits remain only partly tracked. Whatever model or models emerge will have to contend with a lifetime’s worth of already-released podcast episodes that hundreds of millions of people have yet to listen to.
The Social Network was one of the most celebrated movies of 2010. Written by The West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, the movie charted Mark Zuckerberg’s rise from insecure Harvard student to the CEO of the most popular social media platform ever created.
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost nine years since the movie released. But good news for fans of the film: Aaron Sorkin has told the Associated Press that The Social Network producer Scott Rudin–along with everyone else–wants him to write a sequel:
“First of all, I know a lot more about Facebook in 2005 than I do in 2018, but I know enough to know that there should be a sequel. A lot of very interesting, dramatic stuff has happened since the movie ends with settling the lawsuit from the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo Saverin . . . I’ve gotten more than one email from [Rudin] with an article attached saying, ‘Isn’t it time for a sequel?'”
As for what the sequel would focus on, Sorkin didn’t say, but he has a huge list of Facebook scandals to choose from, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company’s use of shadow profiles, Myanmar’s military’s use of the platform to fuel genocide against Rohingya Muslims, and Zuck’s appearance before Congress, just to name a few. You can check out Sorkin’s comments about a possible sequel below.
— AP Entertainment (@APEntertainment) January 11, 2019
Let’s all take a trip down memory lane to about five years ago, when Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars, snapped a quick celebrity-filled selfie on her phone, and posted it to Twitter. The moment of perfectly manufactured spontaneity took the internet like wildfire, and quickly became the most shared tweet of the time. It was a perfect encapsulation of the online moment; platforms were only just becoming ubiquitous, yet users weren’t jaded with their dominance. A celebrity could take a picture of themselves with their fellow celebrity friends, and others could share in the unbridled enthusiasm. How cute, how authentic, we thought.
That, however, was 2014. We’ve just entered 2019, and the online image taking the world by storm now is . . . an egg.
Yes, you read that right: an egg. As of this morning, a picture of a light-brown egg has become the most-liked picture ever to hit Instagram–with currently over 25 million likes (yes, you read that right). It beat out Kylie Jenner’s Instagram post announcing her child. Sorry Kylie!
I know you’re on pins and needles to see this beautiful egg, so here you go:
It’s . . . an egg!
Though the egg has eclipsed Jenner on the individual post’s like-count, it pales in comparison to her follower tally. She even responded, posting a video of herself throwing an egg on the sidewalk. Look, she’s in on the joke, too!
It’s an impressive achievement for a random account to do, nonetheless, and perhaps explains the online moment we’re currently in. Services like Instagram and Twitter have become dominant modes of our existence. Before, they were new platforms people had fun experimenting with and using to connect with others. Now, they’re an extension of our being–they are how people consume news, personal updates, celebrity content, and everything in between. Sometimes social media is fun, but it’s a different type of fun. The novelty has worn off.
It’s extremely telling that, up until now, the most popular post on Instagram was by one of the Jenner/Kardashians. They are a perfect illustration of what the online world has become: They’re a family who rose to cultural relevance by strategically telegraphing their lives to the world and milking a profit every step of the way. They encapsulate the aesthetic and power that platforms like Instagram have engendered. That a picture of an egg, simply because it’s such a stark difference from everything else, would overtake the Kardashian’s dominance is perhaps prescient.
Maybe this means we’re at an inflection point, one where social media users are fatigued by the onslaught of influencers and coiffed authenticity. People are thirsty for something, anything, that’s irreverent and different and reminds them of the online of yore. On the other hand, maybe a lot of people just like eggs.
United Airlines has revealed that Apple is by far its largest corporate client. We’re just not sure if they meant to do it publicly. On Friday, airline operations, management, and security company LAflyer posted a photo to Twitter of a United Airlines banner from an unknown location–probably an internal company event or trade show–that boasted of the company’s biggest corporate clients.
The banner revealed a number of things about Apple’s customer-client relationship with United, including that Apple buys 50 business class seats every single day from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) in Shanghai. Other revelations from the banner:
Whether United will still have Apple as a client after this leak is unknown. The blurry small print on the bottom of the flier appears to read: “This is confidential information. Please do not share outside of United.”
Curious who are @United largest global corporate accounts? @Apple is in the top spot and contributes very much to success of SFO international flying especially the Shanghai service #UnitedAirlines#United#Apple#SFO#PVG#Shanghai#Chinapic.twitter.com/HNvIrz8wDg
— LAflyer (@LAflyr) January 11, 2019
Last week, SpaceX successfully launched its first rockets of 2019 into the sky. Following that, the Elon Musk-run company told employees they may be getting fired.
According to Bloomberg, the company informed its workforce that about 10% were being laid off. “Stunned workers were sent home early to await notification to their private email addresses about their fate,” writes the report. About 6,000 people currently work at SpaceX–mostly at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. About 577 positions have reportedly been cut.
The company decided to take these measures because of an anticipated lower demand for their services in the coming year. Though it saw a record number of launches in 2018, 2019 is expected to be much slower.
In a statement to Bloomberg the company said: “To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company . . . This action is taken only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead and would not otherwise be necessary.” I reached out to SpaceX for additional comment and will update this post if I hear back.
A number of positions were reportedly let go, including production managers, avionics technicians, and more.
You can read the full report here.
It’s a bright September morning in San Carlos, California, and Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank, is throwing me off schedule. I’d come, as he had, to meet with the people he’s tapped to run the Vision Fund, his $100 billion bet on the future of, well, everything. After almost four decades of building SoftBank into a telecom conglomerate, Son, an inveterate dealmaker, launched this unprecedented venture two years ago to back startups that he believes are driving a new wave of digital upheaval. He has staked everything on its success–his company, his reputation, his fortune. We’d both arrived with the same basic question: Where is this massive vehicle heading? But because I wasn’t the one footing the 12-figure allowance, I understood that I’d be the one to wait.
In the hubbub of Son’s visit, my 9 a.m. meeting gets rescheduled multiple times until it’s set for 4:30 p.m. When I finally arrive at the Vision Fund’s offices, just off California’s Highway 101, I’m struck by how mundane they are. Son is known for big, showy statements. He reportedly paid $117 million for a home in Woodside in 2013, the highest price ever in the U.S. This glass and concrete building, on the other hand, could be found in any part of suburban America.
The room where I wait is spartan. There is an empty desk in one corner, and a conference table with a fake-wood veneer. I try to read the pale gray scribbles on a whiteboard, hoping they might shed light on what happens in this place, but the surface has been too well scrubbed. The interior glass walls of the conference room have been lined with a white, papery substance that turns anyone on the other side into apparitions.
Finally, Rajeev Misra, CEO of the entity overseeing the Vision Fund, rushes into the room, smiling broadly and apologizing profusely. Misra, who has flown in from London for these meetings, looks exhausted but jacked up, as if he’s gotten a shot of adrenaline. Son has this effect on people. It is an exceptionally busy day at the Vision Fund. Not only is the big boss in from Tokyo, but unbeknownst to me, the team is preparing to announce billions of dollars in new investments: a $1 billion round for Oyo, the Indian hospitality startup; $800 million split evenly between Compass and OpenDoor, two real estate disrupters; $100 million for Loggi, a Brazilian delivery startup. It also would lead a $3 billion round in Chinese startup ByteDance, which makes several popular news and entertainment apps, including TikTok. At the same time, Son and his partners are in the midst of launching a second $100 billion fund, with plans already underway to raise an additional $45 billion investment from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—the Vision Fund’s primary backer. Neither Misra nor I knew it then, but this relationship would soon get complicated.
“So what do you want to know?” Misra says, clapping his hands loudly. “You want the road map? I’ll start from 10,000 feet. . . .”
On the surface, the story of the Vision Fund is about money. How could it not be? The numbers are eye-popping. The Vision Fund’s minimum investment in startups is $100 million, and in just over two years since its October 2016 debut, it’s committed more than $70 billion. Son, 61 years old, will also back companies he likes via SoftBank itself or other means: He’s put some $20 billion–and counting–into Uber and WeWork through a combination of financial instruments. (Son’s machinations have always been highly complex and it’s not worth getting lost in the minutiae; regardless of the means, the deals are at his behest.) His big-money bets agitate the venture capitalists who have long inhabited the dry stretch of lowlands between San Francisco and San Jose, a place where any fund over $1 billion was head-turning as recently as three years ago. Turns out, nobody likes competing with a bottomless-pocketed behemoth. “Have you seen the movie Ghostbusters? It’s like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man tramping around,” one VC tells me before I visit SoftBank. Then he asks me to ask Misra the question everyone in town wants to know: Who is Son investing in next?
Underneath, though, lies a more complex story. Computers, Son believes, will run the planet more intelligently than humans can. Futurist Ray Kurzweil coined the term “the singularity” to describe the moment when computers take over—and he predicts it will be here by 2040. The Vision Fund could move up this date. And Son is pouring unprecedented amounts of capital into the people and companies employing artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize every industry that affects our lives—from real estate to food to transportation.
When Son first detailed his vision, during an investor presentation in 2010–slides depicted chips implanted in brains, cloned animals, and a human hand giving a robotic one a valentine–there were plenty of scoffs. Many see this machine-driven future as frightening, or even dystopian. But Son believes that robots will make us healthier and happier.
He has long told people, “I have a 300-year plan,” and that declaration is not just the fantastic ambition of a billionaire. He has the means to pursue these dreams, and they’re starting to become very real. He is one of the few people with the power to make decisions that could have global consequences for the future of technology and society for decades, if not centuries. As Facebook and Google have demonstrated, machines take on the attributes of their makers. Algorithms, software, and networks all have biases, and Son likes to bet on founders who remind him of himself, or at least share his ideals. Son’s values, then, will become our own, dictating the direction of this machine-powered world.
So where is this massive vehicle heading?
Our story begins with a dinner Son hosted one summer night in 2016 at his nine-acre estate in Woodside. The table was set in the garden so the guests could enjoy the crisp summer air of a northern California evening, as well as the breathtaking hilltop views of San Francisco horse country.
Among the attendees was Simon Segars, who had no idea when he sat down to eat that this would be one of the most important events of his life. Segars, CEO of chip designer Arm, had imagined that he might win some new business from Son–perhaps SoftBank would agree to put Arm’s chips in the cell phones it sells through its telecommunications businesses. He didn’t fully appreciate at that moment that one of his dining companions, Ron Fisher, has been one of Son’s trusted consiglieri for more than 30 years and is almost always present when Son is considering a major deal. “We started talking about AI and all these future-looking technologies,” Segars recalls, and Son grew visibly animated. They discussed how Arm’s technology could be used to turn anything–tables, chairs, refrigerators, cars, doors, keys–into a wired object. Son pressed Segars: If money were no constraint, how many devices could his technology create? As the leader of a publicly traded company, Segars had never been asked to think this way before. “I remember Simon’s eyes getting very wide,” Fisher recalls.
A few days later, Segars was at his desk when a call came from Tokyo: It was Son, who said he needed to see him and Arm chairman Stuart Chambers right away. Chambers was on vacation, on a yacht off the Turkish coast, but Son didn’t want to wait. He sent a private jet to fetch Segars and persuaded Chambers to dock his boat in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The day unfolded like a scene from a James Bond movie: Segars landed at a small airstrip near the village of Marmaris, Turkey, where two security men picked him up and whisked him to an empty restaurant overlooking the marina. (Son had arranged to have it cleared of other customers.) “It was surreal,” Segars says.
Son got right to it: He wanted Arm and was willing to pay for it. In a deal that would astound Wall Street for its speed and audacity, SoftBank offered $32 billion for the company, 43% more than its market value at the time. Son negotiated and closed the deal in two weeks. A photo of that trip to Turkey shows Son standing by the port of Marmaris, boats bobbing on the sea behind him. He is smiling, as though he knows how big this moment is.
To pursue his sweeping vision of interconnecting everyday objects to create intelligent machines, Son would need more money. So he created the Vision Fund. The first investor was the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, with a $45 billion commitment that October. It’s hard to overemphasize the significance of the Saudis coming in at this stage. The entire global venture capital industry invested just over $70 billion annually, so the idea of a single $100 billion fund seemed fantastical. The move conveyed such confidence in Son’s vision and ability to execute on it that it quickly attracted other investors, such as Apple, Foxconn, and Qualcomm. By the following May, the fund had secured $93 billion. As Son explained at the time, he needed this much capital because “the next stage of the Information Revolution is underway, and building the businesses that will make this possible will require unprecedented large-scale, long-term investment.” Now he was ready to start what Bloomberg has called “an all-out blitz on the heart of Silicon Valley.”
When I step off the elevator at WeWork’s headquarters in New York City one Thursday morning in October 2018, a dozen or so children have taken over the reception area. They’re students from WeGrow, an elementary school the company launched a year earlier, and they’re hosting their weekly pop-up vegetable stand. “Would you like to buy something?” asks a girl of around 6 or 7, holding an iPad listing products and prices. I’m here to learn how Vision Fund’s money is being spent and would rather not walk into my meetings holding a head of lettuce, so, feeling like the Grinch, I tell her I’ll pick something up on the way out. She shrugs; there are plenty of other customers.
Sunlight pours in through tall windows overlooking West 18th Street. The open floor plan lets me see from the reception area across rows of tables populated by WeWork members tapping away on laptops. At the far end of the space, there’s a wall of glass, behind which Adam Neumann, WeWork’s CEO, is taking a meeting. He looks like a rock star, with long, dark curls brushing his shoulders, black jeans, and a wide-brimmed black fedora, and as far as the Vision Fund is concerned, he is. “There is a sense of massive opportunity,” says Fisher, who sits on WeWork’s board. Son has even called WeWork his next Alibaba. In 2000, he put $20 million in the untested Chinese commerce startup. Today, Alibaba’s market cap is nearly $400 billion.
WeWork’s potential lies in what might happen when you apply AI to the environment where most of us spend the majority of our waking hours. I head down one floor to meet Mark Tanner, a WeWork product manager, who shows me a proprietary software system that the company has built to manage the 335 locations it now operates around the world. He starts by pulling up an aerial view of the WeWork floor I had just visited. My movements, from the moment I stepped off the elevator, have been monitored and captured by a sophisticated system of sensors that live under tables, above couches, and so forth. It’s part of a pilot that WeWork is testing to explore how people move through their workday. The machines pick up all kinds of details, which WeWork then uses to adjust everything from design to hiring. For example, sensors installed near this office’s main-floor self-serve coffee station helped WeWork discern that the morning lines were too long, so they added a barista. The larger conference rooms rarely got filled to capacity–often just two or three people would use rooms designed for 20–so the company is refashioning some spaces for smaller groups. (WeWork executives assure me that “the sensors do not capture personal identifiable information.”)
“We can go to Berlin,” Tanner says, tapping another monitor. He’s now using Field Lens, project-management software that WeWork acquired in 2017. Field Lens helps WeWork track building construction and maintenance. A live image appears. Zooming in, Tanner shows me how the system can pick up granular details about a site. We’re 4,000 miles away, but I see a nail sticking up from a floorboard. “We’ll have to get someone to fix that,” he says nonchalantly.
I ask what else we can spy on. He taps the screen and calls up a large map displaying each of the 83 cities in which WeWork operates. From here, we can drop down into any of them: Around the world in 80 nanoseconds.
“Basically, every object will have the potential to be a computer,” adds David Fano, WeWork’s chief growth officer, who is overseeing development of this new technology. “We are looking at, what does that world look like when the office is this highly connected, intelligent thing?”
This is why Son is investing billions in WeWork. As of mid-December, the tally was up to $8.65 billion (including debt and funding of subsidiaries), and the real estate company was valued at $45 billion. [In early January 2019, SoftBank invested another $2 billion.] To meet Son’s lofty expectations, WeWork is spending as fast as it can to spread its footprint. It has more than doubled its locations in the 15 months since SoftBank’s initial investment, and WeWork has acquired six companies and invested in another half dozen. It has grabbed so much office space that it is now the largest commercial tenant in New York City, Washington, D.C., and London. It has expanded into Brazil and India. In the fourth quarter of 2018, the company planned to add more than 100,000 desks. This pace may only accelerate: SoftBank is in talks to take an even larger stake in WeWork for up to $20 billion, according to a source familiar with both companies.
These moves have accelerated WeWork’s revenues but also its losses. In the first nine months of 2018, WeWork shed $1.22 billion, even as it grossed $1.25 billion. The company owes $18 billion in rent from office space it has leased. When WeWork issued bonds last spring to raise another $700 million, ratings agencies labeled them of lower quality, aka junk. “We cannot get comfortable with the company’s financial and operating position, which includes a massive asset/liability mismatch that is usually a recipe for disaster, significant cash burn, cyclically untested real estate business model, and uncertain path to profitability,” CreditSights analyst Jesse Rosenthal wrote at the time. The price of those bonds dropped almost 5% below their list value in their first five days of trading, a signal of investor skepticism.
As a result of WeWork’s hypergrowth, both physical and technological, the company is increasingly viewing itself less as a real estate company than “a spatial platform,” helping connect humans with intelligent machines. A 2018 internal WeWork presentation depicted the scope of the company’s aspirations as a series of concentric circles. On the outermost ring sit its actual business units, from its school to its gym to its live events (such as its annual adult summer camp, a mashup of the Governors Ball Music Festival, Bhakti Fest, and Burning Man). The next layer is the fundamental elements of human existence–live, love, play, learn, and gather–which those products seek to fulfill. Then, at the very center: We.
Neumann has always been the kind of entrepreneur who thought about having 100 buildings when he had three, but with Son backing him, WeWork’s expansion has been extraordinary. “Adam and Masa have a special relationship,” says Artie Minson, WeWork’s CFO. Those who work closely with them say Son sees in Neumann a younger version of himself–hungry and willing to move at top speed. Those inside WeWork say that Son’s mentorship has been critical. “He’s helped us move from asset-based thinking, how a building is performing, to how an account is performing,” says Fano, who joined WeWork in 2015 when the company acquired his building management startup. WeWork’s aim, he explains, is to “shed ourselves of any remnants of being like a real estate company.”
“Masa wants to meet with you. Can you get on a plane tomorrow?”
For many, the call to Tokyo comes out of the blue, as it did with Stefan Heck, founder and CEO of Nauto, a startup that builds AI-powered cameras to enable self-driving vehicles. Heck had been preparing for a board meeting and was reluctant to cancel it, but one of his board members told him to get going, saying, “People spend their whole lives trying to get a meeting with Masa.”
Every entrepreneur who receives money from the Vision Fund eventually sits down with the SoftBank boss. The Vision Fund’s 11 partners (based in California, London, and Tokyo) decide which entrepreneurs are ready at a weekly meeting, after months spent getting to know a company and its founders. Usually, CEOs are ushered into a large conference room atop SoftBank’s sleek Shiodome tower in Tokyo, which has expansive views of the harbor and beyond, a metaphor for how Son searches wider than almost all other venture capitalists for his investments. One of Son’s Vision Fund VCs, Jeffrey Housenbold, ex-CEO of the photo service Shutterfly, is leading an effort to build a system to track emerging startups, which he hopes will help the fund identify its next investments even faster and more efficiently.
Son is small in stature and soft-spoken. Those who know him well say he’s quick-witted and humble, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When friends teased him about his vague resemblance to Charlie Brown, he put a Snoopy doll on his desk. One time, at an investor conference, he called himself “big mouth.” He loves the movie Star Wars. “Yoda says, ‘Listen to the Force,’ ” he told an interviewer, who asked him in May 2018 how he makes his investment picks. He rarely wears suits. When Nauto CEO Heck met Son for the first time, Son was dressed in jeans and slippers. “I have seen young founders come in very apprehensive to meet Masa,” says Fisher, who is often with Son during these pitch meetings. “By the end they are talking to him about their dreams.”
Colleagues say Son is at his happiest when chatting with startup founders–brainstorming, strategizing, inventing. “If Masa could spend the whole day doing what he loves, it would be meeting with entrepreneurs,” says Marcelo Claure, SoftBank’s chief operating officer and the former CEO of Sprint (the wireless carrier that boasts SoftBank as its majority owner).
Son is not focused on profit margins during these meetings. What he wants to know is, How fast can the company go? This has a hypnotic effect on his portfolio CEOs. “Masa told me, ‘The entrepreneur’s ambition is the only cap to the company’s potential,’ ” recalls Robert Reffkin, cofounder and CEO of the real estate brokerage platform Compass (who says Son also asked him the question about what he would do if money were no object). Sam Zaid, CEO of the car-sharing platform Getaround, remembers Son inquiring, “How can we help you get 100 times bigger?” before ultimately giving him $300 million in August 2018. Even proven winners are not impervious to Son’s motivational gifts. “It is people like Masa who can accelerate our world,” says Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who counts Son as his biggest investor. Khosrowshahi says Son’s backing will be key to helping him build Uber into “the Amazon of transportation.” And when Housenbold first met Son, the SoftBank chairman told his future Vision Fund partner, “We are going to change the world.”
Dave Grannan, cofounder and CEO of Light, another startup building 3-D cameras to be the eyes of self-driving vehicles, met the SoftBank leader in Tokyo last spring. (Son’s strategy is to make multiple bets in the same categories; the house wins either way.) Grannan was in Son’s office presenting how his technology works when Son grabbed a camera that the founder had brought with him as part of the demonstration. Son aimed its lens at a picture hanging on the wall, a portrait of a man who looked like a Japanese samurai from long ago. He then handed the camera back to Grannan without explanation. Later, Grannan, feeling that it might be significant, looked up the image. The subject was Sakamoto Ryoma, a famous ronin adventurer who rose from humble beginnings to overthrow the feudal shoguns of the Tokogawa era and launch Japan into the modern age. He is Son’s childhood hero. “Every morning when I come to work, it reminds me to make a decision worthy of Ryoma,” Son once told an audience. “Ryoma was the starting point in my life.”
Son grew up poor on the remote island of Kyushu, in southern Japan. His family had emigrated from Korea in the 1960s at a time when racism and anti-foreign sentiment were rampant. His parents had named him Masayoshi, the Japanese word for “justice,” because they hoped an honorable-sounding name would deflect cultural prejudices that cast Koreans as crooks, liars, and thieves. It didn’t work: Son was bullied at school.
Son drew strength from his relationship with his father, who was convinced that his child was destined for greatness. Once, while in elementary school, Son told his father, Mitsunori, that he wanted to be a teacher. Mitsunori, now 82, told him he was thinking too small about his future: “I believe you are a genius,” he said, according to Japanese biographer Atsuo Inoue in his 2004 book, Aiming High. “You just don’t know your destiny yet.” When Mitsunori was struggling to start a coffee shop, he asked his son to help him find customers. Son told him to offer free coffee to lure them in–and make up the losses once they came through the door. Mitsunori handed out drink vouchers on the street, and soon the café was full.
After earning a degree from UC Berkeley in economics and computer science, Son returned to Japan and launched SoftBank in 1981. He had only two part-time employees and no customers, but he had mapped out a 50-year plan for the company that started with selling computer software. It didn’t matter that, back then, very few people had computers and there was virtually no software business. When he told his two employees, “In five years, I’m going to have $75 million in sales,” the pair promptly quit.
To drum up business, he even followed the same advice he once gave his father: He handed out free modems on the street. Another time, Son reserved the largest booth at an electronics trade show and spent everything he had on fliers, displays, and a sign that read now the revolution has come. His booth drew a crowd, but still no sales. But he persevered, and by the mid-1990s, SoftBank was the largest software distributor in Japan and Son took the company public on the Japanese stock market.
Son was drawn to the burgeoning internet boom of that era, and his attention turned to the United States. Success with investments in Yahoo and E-Trade led the company to make others, and by 1997, Silicon Valley’s local newspaper labeled SoftBank the most active internet investor. “Our über-strategy is to get everyone’s eyeballs, then their money, then a piece of everything they do,” one of the company’s VCs later told Forbes. In January 2000, two months before the peak of the dotcom era, Son claimed to own more than 7% of the publicly listed value of the world’s internet companies, via more than 100 investments. As Son has told the story, at one point his personal net worth was rising by $10 billion per week; for three days, he was richer than Bill Gates. But SoftBank’s stock slid as investors started to question Son’s relentless dealmaking, particularly his decisions to acquire a bank and bring the Nasdaq stock market to Japan via a joint venture. Rivals and skeptics believed these moves would be used, respectively, to fund SoftBank investments and take them public. Then the U.S. markets crashed, in April 2000, and the stocks of such SoftBank high-fliers as Buy.com, Webvan, and even Yahoo collapsed. Son, a true believer, only sped up his investing in the face of the dotcom apocalypse. By March 2001, The Wall Street Journal reported that SoftBank had bet on 600 internet companies. By that count, he’d more than tripled his exposure in 14 months. During that same time, SoftBank’s stock fell 90%, and $70 billion of Son’s net worth disappeared.
“Most human beings who’ve had the kinds of experiences he’s had become tentative,” says Michael Ronen, who has worked with Son for 20 years, first as a banker at Goldman Sachs and now as a partner in the Vision Fund. But Son, friends say, thrives on the edge. “You’ve never seen someone so fearless,” says Ronen.
Even as Son’s empire was tanking, he invested $20 million for a 34% stake in a then obscure Chinese e-commerce site run by a former teacher. Fourteen years later, when that company, Alibaba, went public, that stake was worth $50 billion.
“Twenty years ago, the internet started, and now AI is about to start on a full scale,” Son told investors and analysts this past November while reporting SoftBank’s second-quarter results. Standing on stage in Tokyo, he laid out the numbers to back up his assertion. Behind him, a slide featured dozens of companies in the Vision Fund’s portfolio, many now valued at more than $1 billion (in part due to SoftBank’s largesse). The Vision Fund’s returns–after selling its stake in Indian e-commerce company Flipkart to Walmart in May 2018–had boosted SoftBank’s operating profits by 62%.
Son and his colleagues refer to his strategy by using the Japanese phrase gun-senryaku, which can mean a flock of birds flying in formation. (Son also refers to his investments as his cluster of number ones.) Collectively, these enterprises are moving faster–and more forcefully–than they ever could individually. Those on the inside say it is even more rapid than anyone on the outside realizes. Over the summer, Son asked Claure, his COO, to start a new internal division devoted to “value creation.” Its purpose is to help Vision Fund entrepreneurs access SoftBank’s vast global resources and partnerships. Claure currently has 100 people working on the team, technically known as the SoftBank Operating Group, and expects to have 250 dedicated to these efforts by sometime next year.
A key element of this value creation comes from connecting companies to help each other grow. Son hosts dinners and events to bring people together, and he suggests they use each other’s services (a strategy he also deployed in the 1990s). For example, Compass and Uber rent space from WeWork. Mapbox, an AI-powered navigation system, inked a deal with Uber last fall. Nauto has met with executives from GM Cruise, the self-driving software maker in which SoftBank invested $2.25 billion last spring. Son’s introductions help entrepreneurs feel more connected to a bigger purpose. “The family concept really does work,” says Nauto CEO Stefan Heck. “There is a level of trust among us that we are all building toward this vision.”
One evening last fall, Son hosted a dinner at his home for his senior investing team. Gathered around Son’s dining table, the group discussed the company’s future. Son mentioned some companies he’d recently met with in Asia that were finding new ways to apply artificial intelligence to their businesses. He explained why he believed AI could cross into so many different industries, which spurred a lively conversation about the new opportunities others at the table were seeing. There was a sense of enormous forward momentum. Where else could they go?
Sometimes, though, the universe presents an unexpected detour. Right around the time of the dinner, news broke that operatives working directly for SoftBank’s biggest investor, the Saudi Arabian government, had murdered Saudi journalist (and American resident) Jamal Khashoggi. Almost immediately, Son was thrown into a geopolitical maelstrom. SoftBank’s stock plummeted as investors fretted about the implications of his close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA concluded had personally issued the kill order. Only a month earlier, after committing $45 billion to back a second fund, bin Salman told Bloomberg that without Saudi backing, “there will be no Vision Fund.”
As gruesome details about the murder emerged, the pressure on Son became intense. “Right now, any CEO taking money from SoftBank would put him or herself at risk of an employee revolt,” one top Silicon Valley investor told me a week after the murder. “No one wants to be connected with blood money.” Some of Son’s Vision Fund companies publicly tried to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia (Compass’s Reffkin issued a statement saying, “The death of Jamal Khashoggi is beyond disturbing because the freedom and safety of the press is something that is incredibly important to me.”) Uber’s Khosrowshahi and Arm’s Segars pulled out of a major Saudi investment conference in Riyadh in October. Son did as well, but another Vision Fund partner did participate—and Son met privately with bin Salman that week in Riyadh. What they discussed has not been disclosed, but it is clear that somehow Son was reassured. In November, he announced plans for a $1.2 billion solar grid outside of the Saudi capital. “As horrible as this event was, we cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people as we work to help them in their continued efforts to reform and modernize their society,” Son said in a statement. “MBS seems to be riding out the controversy,” says Karen E. Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, pointing out that for anyone interested in doing business in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia cannot be ignored. “[Son] is a businessman. He is not going to turn his back on $45 billion.”
The global network that Son has built during his four-decade career is as vast–and important to him–as his war chest, friends say. It includes business leaders such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jack Ma, and world leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Nahendra Modi, and Donald Trump. “You have to remember who helped you along the way and the loyalty that one has to show for your partners during good times and bad times,” says one person close to Son.
Son is working to ensure that the Vision Fund can survive, with or without Saudi money: SoftBank secured some $13 billion in loans from banks last fall, including Goldman Sachs, Mizuho Financial, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial, and Deutsche Bank. Son has also made clear that the Vision Fund is very much open for business, announcing a slew of new deals, including $1.1 billion for View (a maker of “smart” windows), $375 million for Zume (which builds robots that can cook), and that lead investment in ByteDance and its AI-powered news and video apps. “This is just the beginning,” Rajeev Misra tells me in December. Over the next year, the Vision Fund plans to back dozens of new AI-driven startups, almost doubling its portfolio from 70 to 125 companies.
There is no one on the planet right now in a better position to influence this next wave of technology as Son. Not Jeff Bezos, not Mark Zuckerberg, not Elon Musk. They might have the money but not Son’s combination of ambition, imagination, and nerve. The network of companies within the Vision Fund, if they succeed, will reshape critical pieces of the economy: the $228 trillion real estate market, the $5.9 trillion global transportation market, the $25 trillion retail business. We won’t be able to turn Vision Fund–backed services and technologies off like computers and smartphones. They will, ultimately, have minds and thoughts of their own.
Of course, Son is not an unstoppable force. Any number of factors–economic downturns, geopolitical crises, government regulators–could upend his best-laid plans. There’s always the possibility he could be betting on the wrong companies. Son, however, doesn’t have time to traffic in doubt. “There are good times and bad times,” he proclaimed when he launched the Vision Fund, “but SoftBank is always there.”
Fungi of the rain forest can be nasty parasites. Eager to reproduce, they’ll infect a far larger, more powerful insect, taking control of its brain, and using its strength against it–animating the zombie insect to climb to the far reaches of the rain forest canopy. The insect dies, of course, but the spores are released in the perfect spot, giving the fungus its best chance of living on.
Project Alias is the technological equivalent to parasitic fungus. But instead of latching onto an insect, it latches onto a Google Home or Amazon Alexa device–taking control of their strengths for its own purposes. Project Alias serves as a gatekeeper between you and big corporations. It effectively deafens the home assistant when you don’t want it listening, and brings it to life when you do.
It’s a dramatic metaphor, but an apt one to Tellart designer Bjørn Karmann and Topp designer Tore Knudsen. After all, Google’s and Amazon’s voice assistants are now listening on more than a billion devices worldwide, even sharing them by mistake.
“This [fungus] is a vital part of the rain forest, since whenever a species gets too dominant or powerful it has higher chances of getting infected, thus keeping the diversity in balance,” says Tore Knudsen. “We wanted to take that as an analogy and show how DIY and open source can be used to create ‘viruses’ for big tech companies.”
Project Alias is designed as a completely open-source hardware/software solution for a world where big corporations have the ability to listen to us all the time. The hardware is a plug-powered microphone/speaker unit that can sit on top of your smart speaker of choice. It’s powered by a pretty typical raspberry pie chipset, the tool of choice for homebrew electronics aficionados.
The speaker sounds like a white noise machine to the assistant, covering your speech with an inaudible, omnipresent static. That is, until the software side comes into play. You can train the Alias through local machine learning (no cloud here!) to learn how to wake the assistant to a unique keyword, disabling the static.
The Google Assistant makes you call it “Google.” The Echo makes you call it “Computer,” “Amazon,” or “Alexa.” So instead of talking to something you own, you’re talking to a brand. Alias lets you train it to recognize “Hey Jim” or “Pizza party!” or whatever else you imagine.
“When a family gets a puppy into their home, there is always this name-giving ritual, where the kids get to wish for the name,” says Knudsen. “We don’t see a reason why this should be different with home AIs.”
When you utter your chosen word, it prompts the Alias to whisper, “Hey Google,” to activate the assistant. And then Alias goes quiet, allowing you to communicate with Google or Amazon as you normally would.
The most appealing part of Project Alias is its promise of privacy. Amazon has a relatively poor track record here, having been busted for storing past conversations on the device. Google, too, collects spoken data. Of course they aren’t meant to listen in to your private conversations, but by nature, the devices must always be listening a little to be listening at just the right time–and they can always mishear any word as a wake word. But whether these devices are true privacy invasions or not, frankly, it’s hard to trust big companies with relatively poor privacy track records to always hear only what you want them to hear.
Project Alias offers an independent layer of protection to any privacy-minded person. To be honest, I wish it weren’t just an open source maker project. I wish it were a real product that I could buy right now.
“If somebody would be ready to invest, we would be ready for a collaboration,” says Knudsen. “But initially, we made this project with a goal to encourage people to take action and show how things could be different . . . [to] ask what kind of ‘smart’ we actually want in the future.”
It’s no secret that winning awards in Hollywood goes beyond how good a movie or TV show is. There is a sophisticated art to a so-called awards campaign. There’s the schmoozing those who vote on the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and all of the other awards shows that fill up the Hollywood calendar every fall and winter. There’s the creation of a tsunami of promotions. There’s the crafting of a compelling narrative around a project–The underdog! The passion project! The movie that almost didn’t get made!–and then peddling that myth to tastemakers, pundits, and anyone else who will listen, all the while pretending that you’re not actually selling anything.
The master of this art was Harvey Weinstein, particularly in his 1990s Miramax heyday when he shepherded films like Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chicago to Best Picture glory. Known as a relentless–and ruthless–salesman, Weinstein would run his talent around town in an exhaustive flurry of meet-and-greets, shamelessly trash talk competitors, and practically hunt down Oscar voters in order to button-hole them about his movie or introduce them to a filmmaker or star. “If there was an Academy voter sitting in a Starbucks in Gardena, Harvey would send a director over to talk to them,” quips film critic Pete Hammond, who covers the awards race for Deadline.
Today, of course, Weinstein has been all but obliterated from Hollywood, disgraced by numerous stories of serial sexual assault. Although no single individual, be it a studio chief or an awards consultant, has emerged as Weinstein’s successor on the campaign trail, there is a company that elicits the same kind of sighs, eye-rolls, and begrudging praise that he once did: Netflix.
Talk to anyone in Hollywood this year about the Oscars season, and Netflix’s name will come up almost immediately. Among the comments and gripes:
“They’re the 800-pound gorilla,” says one publicist, who did not wish to be quoted. “It seems like they have unlimited resources.”
Indeed, since entering the original content game back in 2013 and quickly building up a roster of its own TV shows and now movies, Netflix has been an aggressive awards player, seeing trophies as invaluable marketing vehicles that help drive the company’s one and only business: subscriptions. Since entering into original movies in a significant way last year, awards are now also a way to gain credibility among filmmakers who fear that making a film for Netflix means missing out on audiences who prefer to see films in theaters, not to mention getting lost in the abyss of content on the app.
Until now, Netflix’s awards muscle was mostly felt during the lead up to the Emmy’s, when Netflix–which is expected to spend $12 billion on content this year and has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes–erects its elaborate For Your Consideration event. The annual pop-up, which is open for two months, invites mobs in to view and interact with installations based on shows like Stranger Things, The Crown, and House of Cards, as they sip cocktails, nibble on hors d’oeuvres, and mingle with stars from the shows. (Amazon also creates an immersive experience at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.) Then there are the endless screenings and Q&A sessions for each show, not to mention trade ads and ubiquitous billboards all around town. The company is speculated to have spent more than $15 million on Emmy campaigning last year, but rivals say that figure is on the low side.
Arguably, however, the investment paid off: Last year, Netflix tied reigning champ HBO with 23 Emmy wins, more than anyone else.
Now this Netflix effect is being felt in the Oscar race. Although Netflix has campaigned for films in the past, including Mudbound, which was nominated for four Oscars last year (it walked away empty-handed), the company has never been in the position of having an Oscar frontrunner on its hands, as it does this year with Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood nanny in Mexico City, which critics have been ooh-ing and ah-ing over ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last August. Nor has the company ever been this mobilized for a real Oscar battle. Last year, it acquired Oscar consultant Lisa Taback’s firm, which was behind the campaigns for Oscar winners Moonlight and Spotlight. Like many top awards whisperers in town, Taback worked with Weinstein back in the day, though she was never in-house at Miramax.
Making the situation even riper this year is the wide-open Best Picture race, which has no real frontrunner. In the mix are A Star Is Born, Black Panther, BlackKklansman, and Green Book, but each is dealing with its own challenges. A Star Is Born was snubbed at the Globes, and Green Book is in the midst of controversies over racist Tweets from one of the film’s writers and resurfaced stories about director Peter Farrelly’s lewd behavior in the past. A superhero movie like Black Panther has never won for Best Picture. Spike Lee, the director behind BlackKklansman, has never won an Oscar before, fueling the “Is he likable enough?” debate.
Then there’s Roma. The film is beloved by critics and has picked up awards at all the major film festivals; it also won for Best Director and Best Foreign Language film at the Globes (it wasn’t eligible for Best Drama). On Sunday, it nabbed the top award at the Critics Choice Awards, which has recently presaged Best Picture Oscar wins for The Shape of Water and Spotlight. Cuarón is a distinguished, respected–and Oscar-winning (Gravity)–director who’s equally beloved. And yet, a foreign language film, not to mention one that’s black and white, has never before won a Best Picture Oscar. (Consider Academy Award-winner The Artist a footnote; because it was a silent picture, the French film wasn’t eligible in the Foreign Language category.) There is also a contingent of the Academy that believes that a vote for Roma is a vote for Netflix. In other words, a vote for a company whose streaming model is destroying the traditional film business.
Given these headwinds, Taback and Co. has been campaigning for the film in a way that’s vigorous even by Netflix’s standards. In the lead-up to the Globes, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association–the group that votes on the Golden Globes–and awards journalists were showered with gifts, including a box of Oaxacan dark chocolates with a note signed by Yalitza Aparicio, the actress who plays the nanny Cleo in the movie. (The chocolates came with a list of all the categories that Roma was eligible in, including Best Actress.) The company also sent out a glossy Roma coffee-table book, and a Roma poster signed by Cuarón. Recipients were asked if they wanted it framed or rolled. Netflix also set up a Roma immersive experience on a Hollywood production stage; it hosted cocktail parties celebrating the film, including one led by Angelina Jolie; and it bought a slew of print, digital, and television ads, including a full two-minute Roma spot that aired during CBS Sunday Morning. According to one media buyer, the cost of that ad alone is about $170,000. (Netflix took out the same ad slot for Mudbound.) Members of the HFPA and other journalists were also invited–as they are annually–to a Christmas party at Sarandos’s manse.
“Lisa is leaving no stone unturned,” says one executive at a major studio. “If someone comes to town, she sets up some event” to introduce them to talent. “There are billboards all over the place. Her budget has to be huge.”
Netflix declined to comment for this story.
Indeed, more than anything else, Netflix’s seemingly limitless budget is the subject of endless fascination–and kvetching–within the industry. (It’s worth noting that lavish spending was not actually one of Weinstein’s core techniques; Miramax, even when it was owned by Disney, always had a modest budget.)
“[Netflix] doesn’t spend a little more than everyone,” says one publicist. “They spend millions and millions more.”
“There’s no question its Roma campaign is the most expensive since The Social Network, which has often been cited in the $25 million area,” one Hollywood marketer tells me via email. That 2010 movie, released by Sony’s Columbia Pictures, won three Academy Awards (adapted screenplay, editing, and original score), but The King’s Speech, a Weinstein Company film, won Best Picture.
A source close to Netflix says that because Roma‘s release in December converges with the awards race, as opposed to, say, a film like A Star Is Born, which was released in early October, the film’s launch and awards campaigns have been combined.
Yet even people inside Netflix are floored by the company’s sky’s-the-limit-attitude. “They spend so much money,” says one marketer who has worked on campaigns at Netflix. “It’s insane. Someone will say, ‘Oh, I want to do X, I have this great idea. It’s going to cost $600,000.’ And they say, ‘Just send us the invoice.’ You’re supposed to work within a budget, but if you have a great idea, they’ll find a way to do it.”
Internally there is also an obsessive fixation on how many awards competitors have won, according to two sources. If HBO or Amazon won, say, 15 Emmys the previous year, then Netflix wants to win 16. “It’s all about data and numbers,” one of the sources says.
Netflix, of course, isn’t the only one opening up its pocket book. Before the Globes, Universal sent the HFPA and other press a bound copy of the First Man script and a companion coffee-table book. HBO sent chic totes tied to Succession. (There are much looser rules around what gifts the HFPA can receive in comparison to Oscar voters.) Universal also hosted parties to celebrate Green Book, including one at the see-and-be-seen Sunset Tower. Oprah held one for Disney’s Black Panther, and a Black Panther book was polybagged with an issue of the Hollywood Reporter. Warner Bros, which one publicist says “is advertising like crazy,” recently put up an enormous billboard promoting Ally, the fictitious singer played by Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, in front of the Chateau Marmont–which is where that poster appears in the film.
But with movies no longer guaranteed much of a post-Oscar box office bump, studios see awards as prestigious validations of their work, but not much else. Thus there is less incentive to get too carried away with lavish parties and over-the-top campaigning. Studios also don’t have the same resources as billion-dollar tech companies like Netflix and Amazon. (Amazon, for the record, is also busy campaigning for its films Cold War and Beautiful Boy, though neither are considered Best Picture contenders.)
“Netflix is getting a bad rap because some people are jealous,” says one publicist. “The studios don’t have as much money as they used to. If they did have money to spend, they would spend it. Netflix has the money. Obviously, Ted really wants a nomination. I don’t blame him. They’re doing everything they can. Harvey did everything he could. And so did studios when they had the money.”
The question is whether the sweat, toil, and money will pay off come February 24. The Oscars, after all, is a much different animal than the Emmys or the Golden Globes, which Netflix dominated last week with five wins. The next few weeks will begin to shed light on things as the Oscar nominations are announced on January 22, and the guilds host their awards ceremonies.
Until then, expect Netflix to keep up its lavish push for Roma.
“They want it,” says Hammond. “Ted has made a big point to send a message to filmmakers that we can win you Oscars. That’s the whole game here. Roma‘s the best shot they’ve ever had.”
If you were looking for tickets from Portugal to Hong Kong yesterday, there’s a chance you saw an insanely good deal from Cathay Pacific Airlines. For a short while, the company was selling first-class tickets–worth around $16,000–for only $1,512, according to the South China Morning Post. It seems people bought the tickets, too.
In a statement to the Chinese news outlet, Cathay admitted there was a technical error causing the prices to be significantly reduced, but added that it would honor the cheap tickets it sold. “For the very small number of customers who have purchased these tickets, we look forward to welcoming you on board to enjoy our premium services,” the company said.
This isn’t the first time Cathay has had technical difficulties that led it to sell reduced fares for premium seats. Just two weeks ago, a similar glitch occurred, which allowed people to buy first-class tickets from Vietnam to North America at a 95% discount. That time, too, Cathay said it would honor the sold tickets.
The airline has certainly been having a rough go of it. Last October, Cathay admitted to a data breach, which allowed 9.4 million of its customers private data to be accessed. Since then, the company has been trying to re-earn user trust.
I suppose one way to do that is to sell tickets at an extremely reduced price, so perhaps this is all just some large viral marketing plan. Either that, or Cathay really needs to figure out which one of its vendors keeps messing up its prices.
Our parents are often our first teacher and most lasting example of how to manage money. A new study, however, suggests that parents are talking to boys and girls about personal finance in different ways, and it might be responsible for shaping habits and expectations that can last a lifetime.
According to a survey of 1,000 parents conducted by Giftcards.com, respondents were more likely to teach their daughters fiscal restraint, while their sons were more likely to be taught about building wealth. For example, 61% of boys received a lesson from their parents on credit scores by the time they reached high school, compared with 46% of girls. Boys were also 9% more likely to be taught how to pay taxes, 5% more likely to be taught about bank accounts, 3% more likely to be taught about credit cards, and 2% more likely to receive an education on investing.
Girls, on the other hand, were roughly 13% more likely to be taught how to track their spending, 5% more likely to be taught about budgeting, and 3% more likely to receive a lesson on investing by the time they reached the same age.
The discrepancy, however, wasn’t only found in the lessons taught to each gender. The study also found that girls receive less money from their parents, with boys in high school and elementary school getting roughly $20 more on Christmas, $3 more for completing chores, and $1 more for allowance.”Girls are paid less, and are taught that they need to save and budget, while boys are paid more and taught about investing and credit scores,” says Bri Godwin, a media relations associate for Giftcards.com.
The study also found that moms were more likely to teach personal finance to their daughters while dads were more likely to teach their sons, which Godwin says could serve to pass the expectation of a gender pay gap to the next generation. “Girls are watching their moms do one thing and boys are watching their dads do another thing,” she said. “It definitely could set the foundation for the future of a gender pay gap, and for men to be more financially successful than women.”
Nature or nurture?
Men and women tend to view money, and its purpose, in dramatically different terms. Whether by nature or by nurture, experts say there is a significant discrepancy in financial priorities, outlook, and management between the average male and female adult.
“Men tend to trade much more frequently, they tend to be overly confident with regard to their investment performance, and much more willing to take risks,” says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst.
McBride, however, believes there are much more powerful forces at play than parental instruction during childhood. “The tendency for women to trade less frequently, to be more risk-adverse, and to be more focused on the long haul are byproducts of longer lifespans, the greater likelihood of having to support themselves and their children on one income, and a greater likelihood of outliving a spouse,” he says.
Author, television host, and financial adviser Suze Orman, however, believes that when it comes to personal finance, the most significant discrepancy between men and women is who they feel their money belongs to.
“Women will always think, especially if they have children, that their money is for their parents, their spouses, their brothers, their sisters, their pets, and everybody but them, because a woman’s nature is to nurture,” Orman tells Fast Company. “Men, on the other hand, know absolutely that the money that they make is for them; they don’t have trouble saying no, they have no problem keeping it for themselves, investing it for themselves, and not sharing it with their spouses.”
Setting an example
While direct lessons from parents can help shape a child’s perception of money and finances, experts agree that the most effective education is through demonstration.”It’s impossible to train a child how to grow up financially fit if you’re a financial wreck,” says Orman. “Kids do not listen to what you say; they do what you do.”
Orman adds that simply reframing how parents approach financial conversations in the home can go a long way in teaching children healthy financial habits. For example, rather than complaining about work and portraying it as a negative experience, Orman says parents should strive to celebrate their employment, emphasizing the value of hard work and the importance of having an income.
“There’s so many parents who will offhandedly make these money-negative statements like, ‘We’re so broke,’ or, ‘The taxman takes everything,’ but a kid is going to take that at face value,” adds Paula Pant, the founder of AffordAnything.com. “If parents can instead make extremely thoughtful remarks, like, ‘In a year and a half we’d like to all go to Hawaii for a week, here’s how we’re thinking about it in advance,’ those types of conversations are quite useful,” she says.
Pant explains that these conversations can be helpful in establishing healthy personal financial habits, but parents can take those lessons a step further by helping their children put them into practice.”If there’s something that a child really wants, help that child plan for that purchase,” she says. “See what it costs and work backwards to see how much money they need to save over what length of time in order to buy it. There are people in their 30s who still haven’t mastered that.”
Orman, who published a children’s book on personal finances titled The Adventures of Billy and Penny, believes it’s also important for children to understand the distinction between wants and needs. “A want is you’re going out to a restaurant to get food; a need is you’re buying food at a grocery store,” she says. “Every time you buy something, you should start asking, ‘Do you think this is a need or a want?'”
Orman says that she will “forever thank” her parents for raising her in poverty, adding that the most important lesson to teach both boys and girls when it comes to money is that it’s not what really matters in life.
“If you think money is the key to raising a successful, financially literate child, I’m here to tell you that it is not,” she says. “Teaching [the importance] of who you are, what you’re capable of, and putting the importance on ‘who’ versus ‘what’ will be the key to a financially fabulous kid.”
Brexit threatens the very creative soul of the U.K. And so one creative is responding the best way he knows how: by fueling civil disobedience through art.
Pentagram partner Yuri Suzuki–who immigrated to London a decade ago himself–has spearheaded a fascinating new project, a freely sharable protest kit called Acid Brexit. Acid Brexit is basically a brand built to protest Brexit, consisting of music, images, and videos that the public is free to reproduce, recut, and redistribute at will.
It’s inspired by the sonic and graphic designs of acid house music. While born in the United States in the 1980s, acid house exploded in the U.K. in the late 1980s into the 1990s. The fast-paced club music gave birth to the rave scene–drug-friendly mega parties that were a decidedly inclusive atmosphere–which would cause a rift with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the government, prompting laws that turned partying itself into an act of protest, with acid house as its anthem.
Fast-forward 20 years, and the broader genre of house music itself has survived and even thrived in the U.K. club scene–all while social paranoia–and particularly, isolationist policies driven by bigotry, has escalated to new heights. In this climate, Suzuki has imagined a branding campaign that aims acid house music right at the xenophobic, anti-immigration laws of Brexit.
“Politically, it’s quite important to what’s happening now in the world,” says Suzuki. “Acid house music creates a tension [feeding] the young generation’s urge for opinion.”
The protest kit–with contributions from Pentagram Partners Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell–includes a play on the European Union flag, with an upside down smiley face (the unofficial logo of Acid House) filling in for Britain’s lost star. An accompanying video features the smiley as a figure dancing through London’s streets.
The most unexpected twist is that Suzuki, a sound designer by trade, dropped three acid house tracks along with the branding package. The first, and most memorable track, is a supercut of Theresa May promising “strong and stable leadership” immediately followed by various voices saying, “my ass.” The message is adolescently subversive, making it the perfect complement to the overly simplistic, dance-friendly club beat.
“Music always tends to be ignored [as a protest symbol], because it’s a temporary thing. It will never be physical,” says Suzuki. “Protest is about finding people with the same opinion–and gathering people–[for this] music, and sound is really strong media.”
Pentagram has done plenty of pro bono work over the years, and its partners have released protest work, too. But combining free work with protest work to create a publicly usable protest kit is new. The firm has put Acid Brexit out there without fine print or legalese, encouraging people to post the media “anywhere” and use it in “any way.”
“I’m not expecting people to remix [the music], but I wanted people to use it for a party or any musical occasion as a reminder of what we’re facing now, and we shouldn’t forget what happened in the past as well,” says Suzuki. “The music is nothing serious, to be honest, it’s just funny music. But at the same time, young people need to remember what we’re facing now. I hope this is an element to help people take individual action.”
In 2014, furniture designer Jamie Wolfond started a small business with the goal of making affordable, well-designed products. Called Good Thing, the company’s ambition was to support up-and-coming American designers while making good design accessible to the rest of us.
Now, Good Thing is relinquishing its direct-to-consumer business and will be sold exclusively at West Elm. Wolfond will continue to act as creative director of a scaled-back version of Good Thing. Crucially, the company will no longer manufacture its own products; instead, West Elm will take care of production as well as marketing, sales, and distribution, both online and in-store. Wolfond still owns Good Thing, which will continue to be a separate company, but West Elm is the brand’s exclusive retailer.
This enables Wolfond and his team of three full-time staffers to focus entirely on design. It also gives Wolfond the time to launch his own studio, which will debut its first prototypes at the Stockholm Furniture Fair in February, with the aim of selling to the Scandinavian market. After four and a half years of working in the U.S., Wolfond believes he’ll find an audience there that’s more receptive to his design aesthetic abroad because of the region’s design heritage.
The partnership is one of many West Elm–which is owned by one of the world’s largest etailers, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.–has inked with independent designers over the past five years. Other brands include Goods That Matter, Dusen Dusen, and Hemlock & Heather, making West Elm an unlikely incubator for small studios. By working with smaller makers, West Elm hopes to lure consumers with more unique offerings than some of its biggest competitors–Wayfair and Amazon.
As for what the partnership says about the ability of small design outfits to survive independently in the United States, Wolfond suggests that American consumers haven’t embraced design as fully as consumers in other parts of the world: “Not a lot of the North American market is really ready to place the emphasis on design that the Scandinavian market does,” he says. Indeed, Scandinavia has countless affordable design brands–so many, in fact, that some are now opening in the United States.
It is also exceedingly difficult to run a small design business in the U.S., especially one that focuses on inexpensive wares. Margins are slim, and Trump’s trade war with China is only exacerbating the problem, making it more difficult for businesses to source materials and manufacture goods. Even West Elm is more of an aspirational brand for the upper-middle class than one for the masses. For now, if consumers want to support independent design, they might need to get comfortable supporting large corporations, too.
The death of the American manufacturing sector made ghost towns out of cities across America.
In these challenging times, some cities were successful at reinventing themselves and went on to forge new economies and transform their once-sprawling, empty lands into something new, something remarkable. Year after year, Pittsburgh appears on best cities for jobs lists, thanks to its burgeoning tech industry after a desperate decline following the fall of American steel. Then there are other cities, like Detroit, that have a tougher time recovering after their major industry dried up.
What is it that allows some cities to escape the “boom and bust” town narrative to become livable, workable, and sustainable? And can these models be replicated in other small, struggling towns?
An ecosystem for innovation
Christina Cassotis, the Pittsburgh International Airport’s first female CEO, hopes that the city’s economic innovation can be felt from the moment visitors land. The airport has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to run an “innovations lab” that will test how automation and robotics can help the airport run “more efficiently, raise revenue, operate better, and improve the passenger experience,” Cassotis says.
“If we do it right, we will impact the industry from here,” she adds. “From here, there will be learning, there will be products, there will be processes that comes out of this [new] terminal and the way we work that will make the (airport) industry better.”
In Pittsburgh, CMU is the epicenter of innovation where the self-driving car was born in the 1980s. Since then, CMU has acted as a hub for collaborations and entrepreneurial activity, filling the city’s Oakland and Lawrenceville neighborhoods with coworking spaces, incubators, and accelerators.
CMU’s spin-offs include RE2 Robotics, which develops robotic arms to help dismantle explosives and underwater robots for missions deemed dangerous for humans, and Bossa Nova, which makes scanning-inventory robots deployed in 50 stores across the U.S., including Walmart.
When Sarjoun Skaff, cofounder and CTO of Bossa Nova, moved to Pittsburgh from Beirut, Lebanon to study robotics at CMU in 1999, he described the city as “not a joyful place.”At that time, Pittsburgh was still crumbling, had suffered a loss of population, and no one knew what a future without steel would look like. But it was CMU, which Skaff describes as “absolutely awesome,” that shaped his success.
“My life revolved around Carnegie Mellon,” he tells Fast Company. “Everyone helped in creating Bossa Nova.” The company, which has offices in Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley, recently secured $29 million in investment capital, bringing its total funding to $70 million.
By the time Felix Lloyd moved to Pittsburgh in 2007, the city was in much better shape, and is described by Lloyd as “a simple cosmopolitan.”
“[Pittsburgh] has good food, but is unassuming in the ways that D.C. is not,” says Lloyd, who is from Virginia and was named Teacher of the Year in Washington, D.C. in 2001.
“It’s smart, but not in an elitist way.”
Lloyd points to Pittsburgh’s rich startup culture as contributing to his success in entrepreneurship. Shortly after moving to the city that he only knew as “a steel city full of smoke,” Lloyd founded his first company, Skill-Life, which developed MoneyIsland (formerly called CentsCity), a platform that allows young people to learn financial skills and earn rewards. He sold the company and founded a second, Zoobean, with his cofounder Jordan Bookey. When the two were invited on the ABC reality pitch show Shark Tank in 2014, Lloyd turned to Innovations Works, the seed-stage investor in the Pittsburgh region, to rehearse for their appearance (the company went on to receive investment from businessman Mark Cuban). Since its inception in 1999, Innovations Works has invested $78 million in 367 companies, including the seed funding it provided RE2 Robotics.
Similar to Pittsburgh, Madison, Wisconsin is another city relying on its university community for its bread and butter. The city’s nonprofit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) Accelerator Program is the nation’s first designated patent and licensing organization. Since 1925, the organization has provided everything from funding to advice to turn research and innovation that comes out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) into commercially promising technologies.
Jon Eckhardt, cofounder of accelerator program Gener8tor–considered one of the best startup accelerators in the country–moved to Madison 15 years ago and says he’s most excited about “the current change in the [city’s] mood.”
“If you look at educated people per capita, this place is off the charts,” he says. “People are more action-oriented and there’s been much more involvement in the entrepreneurship community.”
Eckhardt, who is also a faculty member at the UW-Madison, recently received funding for a three-year study to examine entrepreneurship among students.
A new identity: keeping the past in the past
At its peak, Pittsburgh produced 60% of the nation’s steel during its “Golden Age,” between 1870 and 1910. The manufacturing decline came in the 1970s and cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit were hit hard with massive population loss, high unemployment rates, and crumbling infrastructures.
Perhaps Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the past in the past led to its success ahead of Rust Belt cities with similar legacies, like Detroit and Cleveland. Instead of injecting more money into steel, long after these jobs traveled overseas, Pittsburgh forged ahead in industries like healthcare, medicine, and education, and sectors like robotics.
Pittsburgh’s transformation from “Steel City” to brain city helps it get the attention of big-time players from coastal cities (80% of VC dollars in the first quarter of 2018 went into companies in three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York).
Dietrich Stephan completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Pittsburgh–first at CMU, then at the University of Pittsburgh–but the city didn’t come back on his radar for another 20 years. In 2012, while writing an article for the Harvard Business Review about regions that had the ecosystem and innovation base needed to develop solutions to solve the world’s biggest health problems, Stephan saw the opportunity in Pittsburgh and moved back to the city from Silicon Valley.
He founded LifeX to provide the infrastructure and funding to early-stage health science research companies seeking to commercialize their work.
“The visual image that I always have is of the super collider where you accelerate a particle around a ring and then collide it with another particle,” says Stephan of Pittsburgh’s ecosystem. “And what emerges is something that the world has never seen before.”
When comparing Pittsburgh to Silicon Valley, Stephen, who is a serial entrepreneur with 14 companies under his belt, says “the innovation is just as good,” but “the entrepreneurs are hungrier.”
“This is historically a blue collar town,” he adds, “and people are willing to work hard to make things happen. There is very little sense of entitlement.”
Forging ahead and creating a new identity isn’t always a one-size-fit-all model. The model can be hard to replicate for other small, struggling towns. About 50 miles from the capital city of Madison, Beloit, Wisconsin is going through a sort of economic revival, thanks to the millions of dollars poured into the city’s development by Diane Hendricks, who is Forbes’s 2018 richest self-made woman in America. Hendricks is the cofounder of ABC Supply Company, which started as a modest roofing company and is now the largest roofing distributor in the U.S., with more 700 locations and $9 billion sales. Hendricks is a business engine felt in every part of the city, from the real estate she owns to her investments in companies like Beloit-based NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, which provides mo-99, a scarce substance used to detect cancer and other potentially life-threatening illnesses (Wisconsin is home to NorthStar and Shine Medical Technologies Inc.–the only two companies providing mo-99 in the U.S.). Hendricks woos startups to come to Beloit and is said to have convinced Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker to personally call and persuade cofounders to help her efforts, according to this 2017 New York Times profile.
In Verona, Wisconsin, health records company Epic Systems employs about 10,000 people, who mostly live in nearby Madison. The result has a major impact in the local economy, and you can see it in the increasing numbers of high-rises sprouting up in recent years to accommodate those employees (Epic Founder and CEO Judy Faulkner is the third-richest self-made woman in America, according to Forbes).
What happens to what’s left behind?
It makes sense that cities are doing what they can to bring in new tech havens and new industries to attract new, young talent to the area. Kansas City is deploying public Wi-Fi throughout its downtown area to close the digital divide and collecting data in real-time, like how long it takes a car to drive around before it finds a parking space, to inform decision-makers about infrastructure design, says Bob Bennett, the city’s chief innovation officer.
“I would really like us to get to a point that people think about our technology in the same way as they think about our BBQ,” says Bennett.
However, as industries come and go, cities can’t truly transform into “smart” cities of the future without thinking about how to transform what’s left behind, like vacant properties and workers from former industries left without an identity or purpose.
In Baltimore, companies like Catalyte are providing skills and opportunity to unlikely engineers, no matter their background. In an interview with Fast Company, Michael Rosenbaum, a former advisor in the Clinton White House and founder of Catalyte, said: “If the model is successful, the wage gap narrows and desolated, post-manufacturing cities forgotten about after their industries collapsed, can start rebuilding themselves.”
In Pittsburgh, nonprofits like Grounded Strategies work with local communities to transform vacant lots–sometimes entire blocks–into greenspace projects. Since its founding in 2007 out of research from CMU’s School of Public Policy & Management at Heinz College, Grounded Strategies has been involved in nearly 200 projects in 45 neighborhoods (Pittsburgh has 90 neighborhoods).
Working closely with residents is key to the projects’ sustainability, says Evaine Sing, executive director of Grounded Strategies.
“It encourages the independence of decision-making and implementations of strategies versus waiting for new people to come in and do it for you,” Sing tells Fast Company. “People who live there know it best but in the cities that we’re in, no one else is coming, so if you’re waiting, you’re waiting for a very long time.”
Another nonprofit, 412 Food Rescue, called the “Uber of food recovery,” was created by CMU graduate Leah Lizarondo to recover food that would otherwise end up in the trash. The organization currently has 7,000 volunteers–called “food rescue heroes”–on its app and has moved 4.5 million pounds of food into the hands of people who need it most.
Unlike food banks, 412 Food Rescue does not keep food as inventory: “Before the driver picks up [the food], it has a route and it has a nonprofit that it’s going to,” says Lizarondo. “[They] pick up then deliver to nonprofits that [412 Food Rescue] works with to serve people in poverty. They see a value in it. They feel good about it. They see the good in it. They see the impact right away. The food never goes to a warehouse.”
Getting cities to adapt and be “smarter” isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. Cities are complex, living ecosystems that can only thrive if they look toward the future, rather than getting dragged down by the past. At the same time, cities can’t truly transform if they’re only focused on inviting new talent and new economies without preparing workers from the old economies on how to foster and thrive. What will happen when 50% of U.S. jobs are lost to automation? How will cities prepare then?
vAt the end of the workday, do you get in your car or sit on the train and mentally run through the list of things you got done? Feeling a sense of accomplishment is an important part of our sense of self-worth. Beating up on yourself because you think you could have accomplished more can dent your confidence and self-esteem and leave you feeling depleted at the end of the day.
Maybe you could have used the hours in your day more effectively and accomplished more on your to-do list, but you probably accomplished more than you think.
Try these five tips to help end your day feeling more accomplished.
1. Break down your goals
If your goals are too big to accomplish in one day, you are more likely to suffer from feeling unaccomplished because there’s simply no way to get that item crossed off your list quickly enough. Jamie Gruman, psychologist and author of Boost: The Science of Recharging Yourself in an Age of Unrelenting Demands, says breaking down goals into sub-goals can demonstrate that you’ve made progress. “Establishing sub-goals will make you feel more confident and on track because you’re genuinely making progress, and you can track that progress,” says Gruman.
If you’re starting the day with the goal of creating a PowerPoint presentation, for example, that might be too large of a goal to get done in one day. Instead, start by identifying all the steps you’ll need to take to reach that goal. The first step might be to establish content. You might break that step down into brainstorming thoughts on the topic, researching the topic, and asking other people for their thoughts and input. You might not have written out all the content you need for the presentation by the end of the day, but you can probably check off researching and brainstorming, allowing you to show yourself that you have in fact accomplished something.
2. Journal your accomplishments
One of the reasons we tend to feel unaccomplished at the end of the day is because we simply forget all that we’ve done. Make note of the tasks you’ve completed during the day, and those you’ve made progress on. Gruman advises not to focus solely on performance goals (those tasks that you can check off the list), but to consider learning goals as well. This is especially important if you’re working on something new to you. “If you’re learning how to put a PowerPoint presentation together, your goal shouldn’t be to put together the presentation, it should be learning how to use PowerPoint,” he says.
When focusing on learning goals, instead of writing down all the tasks you accomplished, write down the things you know at the end of the day that you didn’t know that morning.
3. Save an easy task for tomorrow
When nearing the end of the day, Gruman likes to pick an item still on his to-do list that will take no longer than 15 minutes and move it to the top of the next day’s to-do list. “When I start the next day, I can easily zoom into that task and have an accomplishment,” he says.
Starting the day intentionally with an easy task also helps to get your momentum going for the day and means you don’t have to waste time in the morning thinking about what you’re going to tackle first. You already have a task waiting for you that you know will be easy to check off.
4. Ask for feedback
Feedback is the best way to get clarification on whether you’re making progress toward a goal. Seek feedback from your boss, coworkers, or clients. Often, we think we aren’t making enough progress, but the people around us believe that we’re killing it. Asking others how they think you’re doing is a great way to get clarity on your progress.
5. Be kind to yourself and re-goal if necessary
If you find yourself often overwhelmed by the number of tasks still left to do on your to-do list at the end of the day, it’s possible that you need to spread those tasks out over a longer period of time, or spend some time re-examining your goals. If you had to take a day off to care for a sick child, for example, reorganize your goals for the week and move things to the next week. “We often plan things in the abstract, the perfect world, but we don’t execute them in the perfect world,” says Gruman. Practice self-compassion and realize that you can modify your goals.
Remember the Ressence Type 2 smartwatch? The one that was unveiled early in 2018, and designed with the help of iPod co-creator Tony Fadell? The watch’s creators promised to solve some of the long-standing problems with high-end mechanical timepieces–and also hinted that the Type 2 would have a matching price tag.
Well, almost exactly a year later, we’ve learned that the watch will cost $48,800 when it debuts next April. That’s 32 times the price of the most expensive Apple Watch, the $1,500 Hermes Series 4.
The luxury smartwatch is loaded with technological feats–two of them–that are aimed at improving mechanical timepieces. One is a series of high-performance photovoltaic cells, like the ones used in satellites, that can recharge its 36-hour battery. These cells only appear when needed, revealed by a set of micro-shutters.
The other is something called the e-Crown. It’s the only digital component in an otherwise purely mechanical watch. The e-Crown can do three things: First, switch between two time zones that can be stored in the watch–time zones that you can set by pushing a lever on the back of the watch or using an app that connects the Type 2 and your phone via Bluetooth.
Second, the e-Crown checks the mechanical watch mechanism to adjust it every day so it’s always perfect. While other high-end mechanical watches can lose or gain time each day, the e-Crown is an electro-mechanical device that corrects the Type 2’s mechanical timekeeping errors. Every day, this custom-made printed circuit board compares its digital time to the analog time showed by the watch’s hands. Then it automatically adjusts the latter time so it’s correct. That means that once you set the time on the Type 2, you’ll never have to adjust it again. For comparison, the previous previous mechanical king–the $30,500 Zenith Defy Lab–can accumulate 0.3 seconds of error per day.
Lastly, the e-Crown is also used to detect if you’re not wearing the watch. If it’s not on your wrist, the Type 2 will stop its mechanism to save battery power. When you put it on again, it automatically resets the time to the correct hour, minute, and second.
And that’s… about it. Call me old-school, but for roughly $43,000 less, I’d rather pick up a regular old mechanical timepiece–a $5,000 Omega Speedmaster, for instance. It may not be perfect, but it’s precise enough to take astronauts to the Moon. But if you’ve got money to spare, Ressence says the Type 2 will go into production later this spring.
Grinding your own spices is great, but most chefs recognize that manually pulverizing them is superior for flavor–better for releasing oils and aromas, while giving you more precise control over spice coarseness. That’s what makes the ancient mortar and pestle the perfect cooking tool, still used in kitchens today. But I’ll be honest: A pepper grinder fits a lot better on a dining room table than a 5-pound hunk of volcanic rock.
Now the Japanese design firm Nendo–in a partnership with the boutique label Valerie Objects–has designed a charming product that brings pulverization to the form of traditional salt and pepper shakers. Dubbed Bottle of Spices, it’s a pair of glass bottles that contain whole salts and peppers. Removing their corks, you pour a bit of the spice onto each shaker’s base. And then you use the bottles to smash the spices small.
While most mortar and pestles are carved out of stone, these spice bottles are constructed out of more fragile glass. (They’re still built for the job, though, with indentations for your hand to grip the bottle, and a thick, ridged bottom to crush spices without shattering.)
In this sense, Bottle of Spices is designed as a collection of contradictions. These are seemingly fragile objects, but you’re supposed to smash with them. Along the same lines, these bottles appear to be simple objects, when in reality, they turn the simple act of shaking salt onto your plate into an overwrought foodie ritual. “Using the pepper or the salt becomes an almost absurd act of play,” according to Valerie Objects. And it’s true. Imagine a table of eight passing the pepper. It would take 15 minutes for the shaker to make its way around as each person tap-tap-tapped the pepper to their liking, with dark, spicy spheres firing off in all directions, hitting plates and silverware along the way.
Seen through a critical eye, Bottle of Spices could be interpreted as a commentary on design itself, seeming to prove that the most perfect solution can also be the most ridiculous. But if that’s not enough to deter you, you really can buy these mortar and pestle bottles for $36 apiece.
The gyms are full. Your phone is loaded up with motivational podcasts. And you’re even contemplating a Veganuary. Tis the season for all sorts of resolutions and goals to help you be a bright, shiny new person in 2019.
But how many goals should you be setting for optimal achievement without diminishing returns? While some goal-setting advice directs you to focus on one big goal at a time, while other advice suggests creating a list of potential achievements for every area of your life, there isn’t really any science behind what’s more effective, says keynote speaker and educator Caroline Adams Miller, author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide, who specializes in goal setting and grit.
“There’s no hard-and-fast three, five, seven. What really matters is the personality type that you’re dealing with,” she says. “It’s somebody’s ability to focus or hyperfocus, as well as their perseverance and creativity that makes the biggest difference in terms of whether or not they’re going to be flooded.”
Instead of focusing on a concrete number, ask yourself these questions to determine the optimal number of goals for you.
Do you have a mix of goals?
“Individuals should take a deeper look at the types of goals they are setting instead of being tied to a specific number,” says life coach Cherelle Palmer. If they’re able to do so, she likes her clients to have at least one personal, career, and long-term goal at a time. While the goals should be distinct, Palmer says that similarities between goals can help you find ways to achieve multiple goals at once.
Long-term goals are key, Miller says. While it’s tempting to set a bunch of “flash-in-the-pan” goals—those you can easily accomplish, possibly building some momentum—focusing on that short-term achievement is a mistake, she says. If you just start with what you want to accomplish now, you skip the important step of really digging into your values and thinking about your legacy in favor of “bumper sticker goals,” she says.
How do you feel about the legwork?
Some approaches to goal setting simply improve your chances of achieving them. Writing down your goals helps, according to a 2017 study from Dominican University. Creating an action plan for each also helps, says Cynthia Fuhrmann, PhD, assistant dean, career & professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. “When you write down actions so specifically, it pushes you to be more specific and concrete than you might be just when you’re thinking about it in your head,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to like doing it. For some, committing to a list of steps to achieve the goals feels energizing and exciting. For others, it feels restrictive and limiting. If you dread the process of writing down and mapping out your goals, you may initially find the process more palatable for a smaller number of goals.
Are your goals in conflict?
Let’s say you’ve decided to go for that big promotion this year. You’re also going to take a dream vacation, save more money, and spend more time with friends.
See a problem?
While it may be possible to achieve each of these things to one degree or another, they may also represent conflicting priorities. For example, if you need to buckle down and spend more time at work proving yourself for a big promotion, it may not be the best time to plan two weeks in Europe. If you’re trying to save more money, a big vacation and a booming social calendar may undermine that goal.
“Goals in conflict means a lot of people have ping-pong balls in their heads,” Miller says. This gets back to long-term planning and not being distracted by short-term goals that may feel satisfying in the moment. When you think about who you want to be years from now and the impact you want to have, it’s easier to prioritize your goals. “I start with that. Then, when you go into the future and back it up, what you end up creating that’s far more valuable is leveraged goals,” she says.
Are your goals causing you undue stress?
Perhaps you don’t feel like you’re making the right amount of progress or you feel hopeless or defeated because of the goals you’ve set. That’s a sign that something’s got to give. If you have negative feelings related to your goals, it’s time to do some self-examination and figure out what’s triggering those feelings, Fuhrmann says. Perhaps your goal was not specific enough and you stalled on progress. Or, perhaps you set an audacious goal and overcommitted yourself. In such cases, it’s okay to pivot and adjust your goals so that they’re productive and not painful, she says. Learn from the experience and move on.
“You start to learn what strategies you can take when you do set goals, including the number of goals that might be appropriate for you to set. And over time, you get better and better at that,” she says.
Imagine for a moment that when the 2017 Brooklyn Nets finished last in the NBA, they got demoted to the G-League, lost major TV deals, saw revenues plummet, and the team had to fire half its staff.
Unlike American sports, finishing last in English professional soccer isn’t just a major hit to a team’s ego, resulting in maybe a fired coaching staff but also the reward of a higher draft pick. When your team is kicked out of the entire league, there are major consequences that reverberate far beyond the pitch. After Sunderland Football Club was relegated from the Premier League in 2017, it lost tens of millions in TV revenue and was forced to lay off more than 90 people.
Sunderland Til I Die, an eight-episode documentary series that premiered in December on Netflix, chronicles the club’s first season in the Championship, England’s second-tier league. What starts as an ambitious project to gain promotion back up to the top tier quickly becomes (spoiler alert) a dramatic downward spiral. While the story of the team’s plight on the pitch is compelling, the doc’s real power is how it puts the club’s trials into context through the hearts of its fans, and the very real effects of relegation on its employees and the community.
The series is produced by Fulwell 73, the production company behind The Late Late Show with James Corden, and its spin-offs Carpool Karaoke and Drop the Mic. When Netflix came calling looking for a behind-the-scenes series to rival Amazon’s popular All or Nothing: Manchester City, little did they know that, aside from ardent West Ham fan Corden, the company is made up of lifelong Sunderland supporters. And while Sunderland are a historically successful and popular club in England, for most of the last decade it has sat somewhere between the middle and bottom of the Premier League standings.
Not exactly anyone’s idea of a first choice when you imagine Netflix looking for its first English Premier League documentary.
Fulwell 73 executive producer Leo Pearlman says that while they did consider approaching clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea, they saw more compelling story potential in the northern English industrial city. Ellis Short, an American-born but U.K.-based real-estate investor who bought the team in 2008, agreed to participate in the series in the hope of making enough soccer brand magic to attract some potential suitors to take the club–and its considerable debt–off his hands.
Pearlman says that was exactly their argument to Short to get him to grant access. “We needed him to be on board for this project at a time when the club was teetering on the brink, and it was definitely not necessarily the best decision to let the cameras in,” says Pearlman. “They took a risk in doing so, and part of our pitch to Ellis was, ‘Look, there are 135 million eyeballs on Netflix. So far they’ve done Juventus and Boca Juniors [giants of Italian and Argentinian soccer, respectively]. If you can add Sunderland to that list, that’s quite a coup.'”
It’s obviously a sports story, a clear-eyed tribute to true fan culture. But it’s also very much a business tale. Loss after loss on the pitch is coupled with crippling debt, bad investments, mismanagement, and other pitfalls that companies in any industry will recognize.
What makes Til I Die such a breath of fresh air is the sheer amount of access producers were given–everything from transfer negotiations to a meeting between a player and a sports psychologist. Its biggest strength is that it manages to tell a truly dramatic story, as opposed to coming across as little more than an eight-part Nike or Adidas ad.
“Football is an incredibly closed shop,” says Pearlman. “In American sports there is a world now where these access docs exist, and everyone kind of accepts it and understands it. Whether that’s individual players or management. In soccer, that is absolutely not the case. Yes, you get the odd documentary, but as is clear if you watch the Man City one, the Juventus one, or the Boca Juniors one, they’re all very manicured, polished pieces of corporate content. This wasn’t that.” The result is a show that sometimes comes across as The Office: Sunderland, airing the club’s dirty laundry in front of the camera.
I’ve been watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die on Netflix, and it’s fucking amazing. One of the best sports doc series I’ve ever seen. It’s like Premier League Hard Knocks meets a super dramatic 30 for 30. Worth your time. Karms never lied.
— Ian G. Karmel (@IanKarmel) January 12, 2019
But the main characters in the series are its fans and community, and as it ends on a (somewhat) high note, the series becomes a masterstroke of sports marketing. Sunderland got its badly needed new ownership, and now millions of people who never heard of Sunderland Football Club have learned of it through this story.
Craig Howe, the CEO of digital strategy agency Rebel Ventures, works with clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Juventus, and agrees that Sunderland was a curveball when it comes to Netflix’s first foray into the Premier League. But that goes for Sunderland as well. Because the streaming service doesn’t disclose viewership numbers, it’s tough to measure direct impact, with the closest measure so far being the global media coverage of the series, as well as its theme song by local singer-songwriter The Lake Poets hitting number four on the U.K. iTunes charts. “I don’t think we’ll know for a few years, to see the true impact it’s had on the club,” says Howe.
On the pitch it may have ended with (sort of a spoiler alert!) another devastating relegation to English soccer’s third tier, but it also culminates in new, optimistic ownership. Veteran football club owner Stewart Donald led a new ownership group, and he put renown marketing maven Charlie Methven in place as Sunderland’s new executive director.
Methven says that agreeing to participate was easy since it really only covered their first few weeks running the club. But deciding to film for a second season, which is ongoing right now even though Netflix hasn’t yet announced plans to pick it up, was more complicated. “We took the view that part of our strategy is to broaden the appeal and audience for Sunderland AFC,” he tells me. “And if we’re going to spend a lot of time and money trying to express that passion, history, and intensity to the market, why wouldn’t we do this? This is free and an opportunity to express the club to a very broad, global audience who in many cases had never heard of [us].”
Howe, the digital strategist, says there is significant potential for Sunderland, whether in attracting more sponsorship, or a higher caliber of players. “The ultimate win here is if this becomes a tool they can use to contribute to getting back to the Premier League,” he says. “I’d love for it to create a case study example that you can build a halo effect for your brand, and that can create a better performance on the pitch through the revenue you’ve generated through efforts like this, but it’s just too early.”
Methven and Donald have quickly built a reputation for their transparency with supporters regarding club business–and for trying to involve fans in as much of it as possible. When 35,000 seats in the stadium needed replacing, the owners rolled up their sleeves and invited fans to do it with them.”People may have thought we were crazy, but thousands took part, and afterwards during games, they can look around, point to a row of seats and say, ‘I did that,'” says Methven. “That feels like a true sense of ownership.”
That’s exactly the sentiment Donald and Methven are hoping to continue to showcase to the people of Sunderland–and, thanks to Netflix, the rest of the world. The power of this documentary series, as awkward and painful as it may be at times, is in its transparency and truth. By embracing that, Sunderland has managed to accomplish what all brands are striving for–real emotional connection. “What you see in Sunderland Til I Die is that Sunderland fans are actually the central part of the drama,” says Methven. “They’re actually the whole point of the exercise. The one thing we’re determined to do as we run the club is to make sure they’re absolutely at the center of what we do.”
It’s a long way back to the Premier League–and its $100 million TV revenues. But if Sunderland can make it happen and keep the cameras rolling, the club will have its Hollywood ending.