Unilever gets serious about Honest Company. With the help of its celeb co-founder, Jessica Alba, Honest Company sells green household goods and beauty products. Now it may be about to sell itself. According to The Wall Street Journal, the firm is in “early stage” talks to be acquired by Unilever for more than $1 billion — a big price tag but not as high as Honest’s last investment round, which valued it at $1.7 billion. Last month Unilever paid a similar price for the male-focused Dollar Shave Club; now it’s going after women. Honest has had its woes — including reports that its ostensibly green laundry detergent contained an ingredient it had promised to exclude. However the deal plays out, it’s another sign that BigCos are hunting around for smaller rivals that can fill holes in their product lines and services — and appeal to younger consumers who just don’t feel the love for impersonal conglomerates.
Do idle hands need work or play? In the glorious future that John Maynard Keynes and other economists envisioned nearly a century ago, advances in productivity would make it possible for hard-working strivers to slack off a bit while staying well-off. But it hasn’t turned out that way, writes Derek Thompson (The Atlantic). Instead, well-educated, professionals are working harder than ever, and surplus leisure time is accumulating among degree-less have-nots instead. These unemployed masses turn out to be more contented than you might expect, thanks to the entertainment surplus tech has built for us — chiefly in the form of videogames. There’s a touch of Huxley’s Brave New World in Thompson’s portrait of the hedonistic underside of our employment landscape: Should we be relieved that at least there’s something enjoyable for people to do — or outraged that there’s no alternative? Over in The New York Times, you can read a more narrow-eyed take by Michael Lind: We’re never going to get back “good old jobs” with high pay, stable futures and great benefits, Lind maintains. And the government already does a lot more to help underpaid workers, via tax credits and hidden subsidies, than it admits or we realize. So maybe we should just be honest about the less-employed future, and make it possible for all of us “to have good lives, even if [we] can’t all have good jobs.” (With at least some time for videogames, too.)
Management by algorithm. It’s not just the gig-economy platforms that are using code to apply factory-style productivity principles and redefine the nature of employment. Software to manage shifts and boost sales is fast spreading to the retail and service economies (The Financial Times) and turning the lives of workers there upside down. In one sense, this trend is simply the rebirth of the stopwatch-driven “scientific management” techniques that Frederick Taylor introduced a century ago, when “Taylorism” became synonymous with a kind of dehumanizing focus on productivity metrics. In another, it represents an entirely new way of approaching the relationship between employer and worker: less committed on both sides, more fluid, continuously tweaked. If we manage this change thoughtfully and sensitively, it has the potential to make businesses way more efficient and give employees much more freedom. But if we blow it, we could be in for an era of labor-management strife like we haven’t seen since — well, since the era of Taylorism.
The perfect company, piece by piece. In a new series, Quartz sets out to find companies that have aced specific aspects of their businesses. WordPress maker Automattic, for example, makes a fully distributed organization work by regularly swapping new tools into its communications kit. Japan’s MUJI tackles sustainability through nuts-and-bolts thinking rather than flashy do-gooder campaigns. Online furniture merchant Wayfair rethinks customer service by hiring millennials with a passion for gaming who are good at problem-solving, then giving them the power to authorize returns or take other quick steps to resolve issues. You can’t cut and paste these exceptional parts into any kind of “perfect” whole, of course. But there’s plenty to learn from each patch of the quilt.
What happens to Uber’s drivers when the car drives itself? Do they just collect unemployment? CEO Travis Kalanick argues that Uber’s demand for human beings, far from evaporating, will only increase — they’ll be needed to take people where the autonomous cars can’t go, and to service the self-driving fleet (Business Insider). Meanwhile, a legal fight over the status of Uber’s drivers is entering a new phase in California, where a federal judge threw out a proposed $100 million settlement between Uber and its contractors (Quartz). That could be good news for the drivers, who are suing to be reclassified as Uber employees. (Such a change would win them benefits but potentially wreck Uber’s business model, which depends on freeing the company from owning a huge fleet and supporting a vast workforce.) Alternately, Uber could now just walk away from the settlement negotiations and gamble on winning an appeals court ruling to throw out the whole suit (Bloomberg).
To see where Uber is heading, hail a ride in Pittsburgh. Before the end of the month in that city, Uber’s souped-up Volvo SUVs will be randomly assigned to customers summoning cars on their phones (Bloomberg). And the trips will be free. For now, though, the autonomy part is still in beta; each test car comes with a backup driver at the wheel. Uber also acquired Otto, a self-driving truck startup in San Francisco founded by exiles from Google’s autonomous-car program. With Google/Alphabet, old-line auto giants like Ford and GM, NewCos like Tesla and Uber, and wild-cards like Apple all racing down the self-driving road, it’s getting crowded out there. That increases the likelihood of crack-ups along the way. It also suggests this market is neither a mirage nor a bubble.
Look, ma, no hands! What Ford’s driverless plan means. Tuesday, Ford announced it’s hitting the accelerator on a self-driving car program and aims to roll out a fleet of autonomous vehicles by 2021. (CEO Mark Fields details the plan in NewCo Shift.) Ford’s news connects three big trends in the NewCo world. First trend: Driverless cars are coming, faster than many thought, and they’re going to uproot lots of assumptions about how our businesses, cities, and lives run. Ford aims to leap straight to self-driving cars — no steering wheels, no pedals — rather than incrementally refine driver-assistance systems. The first vehicles Ford envisions will be costly, so it plans to sell to ride-hailing and sharing services initially, individuals later. (GM is a partner/investor in Lyft, but Ford has no such alliance — yet.) Second trend: Big industrial transitions like this are making BigCos like Ford return to first principles and think the way they did when they were smaller and younger. Ford CEO Mark Fields says its autonomous vehicle will have “as big an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did a hundred years ago.” He frames Ford’s new plan as a refresh of the company’s populist, autos-for-everyman heritage. Ford is also increasing its Silicon Valley presence and investing in tech firms (like Velodyne, which makes distance sensors that use “lidar,” or light radar) to accelerate its self-driving program. Third trend: Ford’s move, like so much else that’s happening in business today, will speed up the handoff of decisions from people to algorithms. At the end of this road, the code that runs your car won’t only be picking routes — it will be making life-or-death choices. For a preview of that world, read up on MIT’s “moral machine” (Quartz) — a thought-experiment project that asks people how driverless cars should prioritize human lives when the cars’ brakes fail.
War is hell, and climate is war. World War III is here, and it’s not a shooting war with a foreign enemy — it’s humanity’s fight against climate change. That military language isn’t just a metaphor, writes activist-author Bill McKibben (The New Republic): The planet’s carbon-driven warming is seizing territory and causing casualties as swiftly and mercilessly as a hostile army would, and if we’re going to have any hope of stopping it, we need to launch an effort as vast, and as unified, as the one that, last century, saved the world from Hitler. What would a climate-focused version of the Second World War’s mobilization and Manhattan Project look like? Stanford researchers offer one vision (pdf). We have the technology; we need the will. The good news is, we’ve mounted this kind of all-out effort before — and it works.
What’s Next: Lobbyist Bots? Self-driving cars now have lobbyists (The Verge). Google, Ford, Lyft, Volvo, and Uber are behind the initiative. In keeping with Washington tradition, the new group has an inoffensive, inarguable name (Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets) and follows revolving door hiring practices at its top (it’ll be run by David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
What’s a Company Without A Purpose? Apparently, the answer is “one of the largest companies in the world.” In his weekly column, NewCo’s editor in chief reviews the purpose of the five largest companies from Fortune’s 2015 500 list, and finds them severely lacking.
Borrowing From Peter to Pay Them All Finally, one of the ratings agencies is calling out a Wall Street stalwart, downgrading Exxon’s debt and questioning its core financial strategy. Too bad S&P found its backbone years after our last debt bubble burst. Let’s hope it’s not too late this time.