Report: SoftBank-backed Brandless gets a new CEO amid turmoil at the company

Brandless, a direct-to-consumer purveyor of food, beauty, and personal care products, says that every item it makes is non-genetically modified, kosher, fair-trade, gluten-free, often organic and, in the case of cleaning supplies, EPA “Safer Choice” certified. Beginning with its 2012 launch, items were also priced at $3 across the board.

That changed in January, when the company added baby and pet products to its stable of offerings, some of them at a $9 price point. But according to a new report in The Information, that’s far from the only change afoot at the company. Instead, the outlet paints a picture of a company that sold 40 percent of its business to SoftBank for a stunning $240 million before it had found its footing,  and where things have been sliding downhill since.

Indeed, while cofounder and longtime CEO Tina Sharkey suggested to Bloomberg that SoftBank loved Brandless’s uniform price points, its messaging to customers, and that Brandless was focused on a “highly curated collection” in contrast to Amazon’s everything-store ethos, Brandless has steadily been losing customers since the round closed  — a lot of them, according to The Information.

Specifically, it says that analysis provided to it by Second Measure, a company that analyzes anonymized debit and credit card purchases, found that Brandless had 26.5% fewer customers last month than it did in May 2018.

We’ve reached out to both Brandless and SoftBank for more information. (Brandless’s earlier backers include Redpoint Ventures, New Enterprises Associates, GV, and Cowboy Ventures. It has raised $292 million altogether, shows Crunchbase.)

SoftBank declined to comment and we’ve yet to hear back from Brandless. In the meantime, The Information says it has talked with numerous former employees who cite quality control issues as one of the company’s biggest challenges over time — from silicone serving spoons that detached from their handles, to glass containers that arrived broken on customer’s doorsteps and, in some cases, sliced their fingers.

They also recount inventory challenges, including buying too much perishable inventory and not buying enough of other, popular items. And they say that some of the inventory for sale on Brandless in its early days came from  Beach House, a company that was cofounded by Ido Leffler, an Israeli entrepreneur who also cofounded Brandless with Sharkey.

A bigger revelation by The Information is that Sharkey stepped down as CEO in March, which Sharkey had herself quietly revealed in a Medium post in March titled “More Goodness.”

A source familiar with the situation says Sharkey made the decision, approaching the board about replacing herself and moving exclusively into a co-chairman role. The Information cites its own source, who seems to echo that Sharkey was not pushed out, but who suggests her decision stemmed from tensions with SoftBank, which was pushing for Brandless to turn a profit.

The Information also reports that Brandless recently appointed a new CEO to replace Sharkey: serial founder John Rittenhouse, whose LinkedIn profile says he began the job last month. Rittenhouse spent several years as a C-suite executive at Wal-Mart nearly 20 years ago. He has since cofounded two beverage industry companies, VinAsset and the business-to-business software firm Fortera.co.

A source tells us he was introduced to the company through New Enterprise Associates .

The Information report is definitely worth a read, offering as it does other interesting details while leaving open the question of whether Brandless is going through the growing pains of a young company that raised too much capital too soon, or its problems run deeper.

Either way, the bet is looking like a troubled one for SoftBank, and at a time when the Japanese conglomerate reportedly has other, seemingly major challenges with which to contend.

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SF Pride says it won’t exclude Google from the Pride parade

Despite Google employees petitioning San Francisco Pride to exclude the company from participating in the Pride parade this weekend, SF Pride says Google will be allowed to march in the parade.

Earlier today, about 100 Google employees urged SF Pride to ban the company from participating in this weekend’s Pride parade and drop the company as a sponsor. That came after activists expressed concerns regarding Google’s participation in Pride in light of YouTube’s response to homophobic and racist content on its platform. Earlier this month, YouTube said conservative commentator Steven Crowder’s racist and homophobic remarks did not violate its policies.

“We feel we have no choice but to urge you to reject Google’s failure to act in support of our community by revoking their sponsorship of Pride, and excluding Google from official representation in the Pride parade,” the employees wrote on Medium. “If another official platform, YouTube, allows abuse and hate and discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons, then Pride must not provide the company a platform that paints it in a rainbow veneer of support for those very persons. On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, in a Pride celebration whose very slogan is “Generations of Resistance”, we ask you to join us in resisting LGBTQ+ oppression on the internet, and the subjugation of our right to equality in favor of calculated business concerns. The first Pride was a protest, and so now must this Pride be one.”

“We appreciate the engagement of community members who reached out to San Francisco Pride with their concerns about Google,” SF Pride said in a statement. “Google and YouTube can and must do more to elevate and protect the voices of LGBTQ+ creators on their platforms, and we’ve found that Google has been willing to listen to this criticism and is working to develop appropriate policies. They have acknowledged they have much work to do to promote respectful discussion and exchange of ideas.”

SF Pride goes on to say Google has been a long-term supporter for years and that the company has historically been a good ally to the LGBTQ+ community. But employees feel otherwise. Despite claims from the company that it will look at the policies, employees say they’re never given a true commitment to improving.

“We ask that, even if you will not consider excluding Google so soon before Pride, that you will issue a determination, absent a real change in these policies and practices, and a strong position statement to that effect, that Google will not be permitted to sponsor or be officially represented in future San Francisco Pride celebrations,” the employees wrote.

I’ve reached out to Google and will update this story when I hear back.

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Verizon gets FCC approval for a 60 day network lockdown on new phones

Verizon (disclosure: the company that owns the company that owns TC) celebrated an FCC victory this week, as the agency approved a request for a temporary network lockdown on new phones.

The carrier request the feature in February as part of a “safety check period.” The ruling presents a kind of temporary waiver on an FCC dating back to 2008. As the agency auctioned off the C block of the 700MHz spectrum to the carrier, it put a ruling in place requiring it to keep unlocked devices open to all compatible carriers.

This year Verizon argued successfully that this presents a security loophole and that a two-month waiting period would effectively help it implement a kind of fraud safety check. The company argued back in February that offering all phones unlocked upon sale has led to theft that impacts customers at a rate of around 7,000 a month.

“As a result of this activity, these customers have to deal with the inconvenience and hassle of identity theft, and Verizon sustains financial losses,” the company wrote. “While we actively work with law enforcement to stop this growing trend, it’s time that we take a stand to protect our customers.”

The FCC agreed. “This limited waiver will not undermine the underlying policy objectives of the handset unlocking rule and will, in fact, better serve the public interest,” the ruling reads. “The locking rule was adopted to enable consumers to migrate from one service provider to another on compatible networks. Allowing handsets to be locked for 60 days will not interfere significantly with this policy objective.”

Verizon says the waiting period is set to go into effect “very soon.”

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Oppo shows first under-screen camera in bid to eliminated the hated notch

Ever since the notch was first added to smartphones, everyone in the world except the deeply deluded and my editor have wished it gone. Oppo has done it — or at least shown that it can be done — with a demonstration unit at Mobile World Congress in Shanghai. iPhone users can console themselves that Oppo kind of sounds like Apple.

Oppo and Xiaomi both teased their upcoming under-screen cameras in recent weeks, but it’s one thing to put out a video and quite another to show a working model to the public. And Oppo’s device was unmistakably present in Shanghai.

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Unfortunately, if you were hoping that the first device would knock it out of the park… not quite. Eyes-on photos and impressions from Engadget China show that the transparent LCD used to cover the camera assembly is, or can be, noticeably different from its surroundings. Of course the team there was trying to capture it, and from straight on when you’re not looking for it this effect may not be particularly pronounced. But it’s there.

The camera itself, since it loses a lot of incoming light to the LCD layer, has a larger sensor with bigger pixels on it to better capture that light. This suggests a lower resolution for the unit than other front-facing cameras, and obviously shooting through an extra layer will reduce sharpness and increase artifacting. Oppo says it is working on reducing these in software, but there’s only so much you can do. The sample photos don’t look so hot.

It’s not going to set the world on fire, but Oppo’s less visible camera is a step towards a notchless future, and that I can support. No word on when it’ll actually be available for purchase, or in what models — perhaps Xiaomi will take the opportunity to announce its under-screen camera with a few more of the relevant details.

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YouTube update gives users more insight and control over recommendations

YouTube today announced a series of changes designed to give users more control over what videos appear on the Homepage and in its Up Next suggestions — the latter which are typically powered by an algorithm. The company also says it will offer more visibility to users as to why they’re being shown a recommended video — a peek into the YouTube algorithm that wasn’t before possible.

One new feature is designed to make it easier to explore topics and related videos from both the YouTube Homepage and in the Up Next video section. The app will now display personalized suggestions based on what videos are related to those you’re watching, videos published by the channel you’re watching, or others that YouTube thinks will be of interest.

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This feature is rolling out to signed-in users in English on the YouTube app for Android and will be available on iOS, desktop and other languages soon, the company says.

If YouTube’s suggestions aren’t right — and they often aren’t — users will now be able to access controls that explicitly tell the service to stop suggesting videos from a particular channel.

This will be available from the three-dot menu next to a video on the Homepage or Up Next. From there, you’ll click “Don’t recommend channel.” From that point forward, no videos from that channel will be shown.

However, you’ll still be able to see the videos if you Subscribe, do a search for them, or visit the Channel page directly — they aren’t being hidden from you entirely, in other words. The videos may also still appear on the Trending tab, at times.

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This feature is available globally now on the YouTube app for Android and iOS starting today, and will be available on desktop soon.

Lastly, and perhaps most notably, YouTube is giving users slight visibility into how its algorithm works.

Before, people may not have understood why certain videos were recommended to them. Another new feature will detail the reasons why a video made the list.

Now, underneath a video suggestion, YouTube will say why it was selected.

“Sometimes, we recommend videos from channels you haven’t seen before based on what other viewers with similar interests have liked and watched in the past,” explains the company in its announcement. ” Our goal is to explain why these videos surface on your homepage in order to help you find videos from new channels you might like,” says YouTube.

For example, the explanation might say that viewers who also watch one of your favorite channels also watch the channel that the video recommendation is coming from.

YouTube’s algorithm is likely far more complex than just “viewers who like this also like that,” but it’s a start, at least.

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This feature is launching globally on the YouTube app for iOS today, and will be available on Android and desktop soon.

The changes come at a time when YouTube — and other large social media companies — are under pressure from government regulators over how they manage their platforms. Beyond issues around privacy and security, the spread of hate speech and disinformation, platform providers are also being criticized for their reliance on opaque algorithms that determine what is shown to their end users.

YouTube, in particular, came under fire for how its own Recommendations algorithm was leveraged by child predators in the creation of pedophilia wormhole. YouTube responded by shutting off the comments on kids’ videos where the criminals were sharing timestamps. But it stopped there.

“The company refused to turn off recommendations on videos featuring young children in leotards and bathing suits even after researchers demonstrated YouTube’s algorithm was recommending these videos to pedophiles,” wrote consumer advocacy groups in a letter to the FTC this week, urging the agency to take action against YouTube to protect children.

The FTC hasn’t commented on its investigation, as per policy, but confirmed it received the letter.

Explaining to end users how Recommendations work is only part of the problem.

The other issue that YouTube’s algorithm can end up creating “filter bubbles,” which can lead users to down dark paths, at times.

For instance, a recent story in The New York Times detailed how a person who came to YouTube for self-help videos was increasingly shown ever more radical and extremist content, thanks to the algorithm’s recommendations which pointed him to right-wing commentary, then to conspiracy videos, and finally racist content.

The ability to explicitly silence some YouTube recommendations may help those who care enough to control their experience, but won’t likely solve the problem of those who just follow the algorithm’s suggestions. However, if YouTube were to eventually use this as a new signal — a downvote of sorts — it could influence the algorithm in other more subtle ways.

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