Shorter Runways For Startups = Opportunities for BigCos


Hussein Abdallah | Flickr

Deal frenzy means investors are holding back. Walmart’s acquisition of — like Unilever’s purchase of Dollar Shave Club, and Uber’s sale of its China arm to Didi Chuxing — can be read as a sign of just how much scarcer venture capital has recently become (Wall Street Journal). Each of these operations was burning through cash, and each decided not to stick it out. Of course, the VC business is notoriously cyclical — no need to let the sound of its gears get too distracting. For anyone building a mission-driven company, the lesson here is about control. Selling to a bigger player can reward investors and employees and tack a tidy ending on a startup story. But once you hand the keys over to a new owner, the organization may wind up at a very different destination than its inspiring mission statement once mapped. Then again, big companies are getting religion around new ways to go to market — and so far this year they’re willing to pay for that privilege. Is this the start of a NewCo-BigCo trend?

Think tanks in the tank for funders. The next time you read a report from a big-name research mill, you might want to ask who paid for it. This week a New York Times series is going deep on just how broadly corporate money is shaping the studies that get published and the recommendations that get made under the esteemed scholarly logos of big think tanks. One story describes how Brookings took cash from a developer while it was promoting the company’s big San Francisco redevelopment project; another chronicles the work of an American Enterprise Institute scholar who received consulting fees from Verizon while he campaigned against net neutrality rules. These investigations aim to get your hackles up, and they should. But let’s pause before we all start chanting “Get corporate money out of our research!” We need more data, studies, and scholars taking on our intractable social problems and political logjams. If the private sector wants to pay, why not take the money — and for each new project, report where every dollar comes from? Instead of throwing out this research, let’s use real transparency to assess it, and then put it to work.

Reading, writing, and burn rates. Can startups help bring down the global 10 percent illiteracy rate? This summer, an accelerator brought 16 startups to the Bay Area to find out (Fast Coexist). Among the participants, Lightsail adjusts students’ assignments based on their levels; Livox adapts lessons for children with motor, cognitive, and visual impairments; Karadi Path takes an “intuitive,” “non-instructional” approach.The accelerator, backed by Pearson and the Unreasonable Group, looks to boost companies that “already have some traction” in the fight to end illiteracy. Rather than measure success purely financially, companies get tracked according to their sustainability — and how many people ultimately learn to read.

Screen time, good time. Conceptual artist Kenneth Goldsmith teaches a course at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet” — which means that his students get credit for doing what many of them do all day anyway. Now he’s got a new book with the same title as the course, which, he says, turned him into a “radical optimist” about digital media (New York Times). When his students rambled the net together, Goldsmith found, they “became more creative with each other.” Should we stop feeling guilty about clicking on cat videos? Goldsmith says give in — the new renaissance is all about understanding one another through what we make and share online.

No sex workers please, we’re Airbnb. Arianna Travaglini was just another Airbnb customer with high ratings from hosts — until the company sent her a form letter banning her from the platform (Fusion). Travaglini says she is a legal sex worker who is up front about her work in porn and as a dominatrix. She believes that’s why Airbnb yanked the welcome mat, even though she wasn’t using her Airbnb-hosted rentals for business purposes. Platform management is messy! Sure, you get to set rules — but rules ought to be clear and fair. Otherwise, services like Airbnb will become free-fire zones for discrimination and caprice.

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