The Gayest Chick-fil-A, House-Flipping Is Back, and Amazon Is Listening

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DAYLIGHT  

Yes, Amazon workers are listening to what you tell Alexa: “Amazon.com Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands. …

“The work is mostly mundane. One worker in Boston said he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as ‘Taylor Swift’ and annotated them to indicate the searcher meant the musical artist. Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.”

REAL ESTATE  

House-flipping is back to pre-crisis levels but it’s different this time: “Flipping has evolved from the days when cocktail waitresses and cab drivers lined up to purchase lots in new subdivisions in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix. They hoped to profit from runaway price appreciation, but many became trapped when prices declined. This time, the market is dominated by professionals who are purchasing older homes that likely need work …

“One Tennessee-based company, Memphis Invest, buys about 1,000 properties a year in Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It renovates homes, finds a rental tenant, then resells them to individuals who want to own single-family rental properties. The company often resells to people in the Bay Area or other expensive markets who can’t afford to buy a home where they live and want an investment property instead. ‘They’d much rather buy three or four [homes] in the Midwest,’ said Chris Clothier, a partner at Memphis Invest.”

RETAIL

Amid criticism that they discriminate against poor shoppers, Amazon Go stores will start accepting cash: “In an internal all-hands meeting last month, Steve Kessel, Amazon’s senior vice president of physical stores, told employees that the company plans ‘additional payment mechanisms’ at its Go stores. Kessel was responding to a question about how Amazon plans to address ‘discrimination and elitism’ at the cashierless stores, which charge purchases using an app connected to a bank or credit card. The company has 10 Amazon Go stores, and Bloomberg reported in September that the company is considering opening up to 3,000 cashierless stores by 2021.”

San Jose is not going to ban Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain with a history of funding anti-LGBTQ causes, from its international airport: “Instead, the City Council—by Tuesday’s unanimous vote—is going to try to ensure that airport patrons know the new chicken outlet coming to Terminal B is the ‘gayest Chick-fil-A in the country,’ in Councilmember Raul Peralez’s words later echoed by others, by flying rainbow and transgender flags that broadcast the city’s different values.”

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MEDIA

The National Enquirer is now on the selling block after accusations the publications buried several Trump scandals and extorted Jeff Bezos: “[Principal owner] Chatham Asset Management, run by Anthony Melchiorre, has grown increasingly disgusted with the reporting tactics at the Enquirer and pushed for the sale, according to the Washington Post. … The scrutiny extended to Chatham, which was questioned by New Jersey officials over the matter. The firm also has come under review by securities regulators.”

ZACK ELLER’S DEAL OF THE DAY

YieldStreet, an alternative investment company, has acquired Athena Art Finance, a company that provides loans to art dealers, collectors, and museums and galleries to buy fine art collectibles for $170 million. “Art finance is a huge business that has grown as the mean price of top quality works continues to creep up, and sales volumes continue to grow. Those interested in buying for investment or love (ideally love) turn to financing as they compete to buy works against a super-wealthy cadre of collectors. A recent report put the global art finance market at some $20 billion annually, the majority of that being secured by individuals rather than organizations or businesses.”

VENTURE CAPITAL

In yet another reason to be wary of venture capital, Bhavish Aggarwal, co-founder of the Indian rideshare company Ola, is fighting to keep from being taken over by SoftBank Group, one of his own investors: “The Japanese conglomerate, led by Masayoshi Son, was an early backer of Ola, but Aggarwal has grown concerned about its influence as SoftBank took a stake in his archrival, Uber Technologies Inc., and then encouraged the rivals to merge. Son struck a preliminary deal to put another $1.1 billion into Ola to boost his stake to more than 40 percent, according to people familiar with the matter. But Aggarwal tried to include terms to guarantee his own control over the startup, and the deal ultimately fell apart.

“When Aggarwal balked [at the Uber merger], SoftBank attempted to buy out the stake of another Ola investor, Tiger Global. Ola had modified its corporate bylaws so any sale between investors would need approval of the board—effectively blocking the Tiger-SoftBank transaction. Meanwhile, Aggarwal appears to be girding for a future onslaught. He’s collecting cash and hoarding what he can. Ola has become more prudent with its spending, cutting incentives for drivers and trimming subsidies for both ride-hailing and food-delivery businesses. If he expects Uber—and SoftBank—to come after him again, he’ll need all the money he can to protect his business.”

CANNABUSINESS

Florida recently made smokable medicinal cannabis legal, but there are already some proposed limits to the measure, such as putting a cap on the THC content: “‘We’ve only had smokable medical cannabis legal in this state for two weeks,’ [Representative Ray] Rodrigues said. ‘So, it’s not like these folks have been buying this product and now if this bill passes, they are going to lose something they have had for a long time. That is not the case.’ Those who oppose the bill include Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith: ‘By putting a cap arbitrarily at 10 percent THC on medical cannabis, it’s just going to incentivize people to get cannabis on the black market, which we don’t want.’”

TECHNOLOGY

Biocarbon Engineering and non-profit WorldView Impact are partnering to use drones to restore the world’s forests, starting in Myanmar. “The drone fires biodegradable pods—filled with a germinated seed and nutrients—into the ground. People who previously made money making charcoal, for example, are now employed as mangrove planters. They’re also learning how to run aquaculture businesses within mangrove forests. ‘We have to incentivize people,’ says [Worldview Impace CEO and founder of Worldview Impact Bremley] Lyngdoh. ‘It’s all about creating livelihoods. We have to create jobs that are long-term that can sustain the family, then they see the benefit of the project, and they get engaged in the long term.’”

Oil companies are investing in a Canadian startup that is developing technology to remove carbon from the air: “Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and the Australian mining giant BHP this year have invested in Carbon Engineering, a small Canadian company that claims to be on the verge of a breakthrough in solving a critical climate change puzzle: removing carbon already in the atmosphere.

“At its pilot project in Squamish, an old lumber town about 30 miles north of Vancouver, the company is using an enormous fan to suck large amounts of air into a scrubbing vessel designed to extract carbon dioxide. The gas can then be buried or converted into a clean-burning—though expensive—synthetic fuel.”

SOCIAL MEDIA

Facebook wants to stop reminding you to wish your dead friend a Happy Birthday: “On Tuesday, Facebook announced several changes aimed at easing users’ grief. The social media company is using artificial intelligence ‘to minimize experiences that might be painful,’ Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a statement posted to the company’s website. ‘We use AI to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events or sending a birthday reminder to their friends. …

“Facebook has for years tried to automate ways to identify those profiles so they don’t send possibly painful notifications to users. Ms. Sandberg did not specify how the new artificial intelligence technology announced Tuesday would do this better than the company’s previous efforts. Facebook would not provide further details other than to say in an emailed statement, ‘We look at a variety of signals that may indicate the person is deceased.’”

SPOTLIGHT

Reminder: Gabriel Shaoolian, founder of Blue Fountain Media and DesignRush, will be Loren’s guest on Mind Your Business today. Call in when the show airs at 1:00 p.m. ET on SiriusXM 132 if you have a question or comment about e-commerce or digital marketing: 1-844-942-7866.

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com.

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