Retail Sales Fall, Silicon Valley Gets a Labor Movement, and Monitoring Every Step Your Employees Take

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STARTUPS

An $85 million investment in Australian web design firm Canva, co-founded by CEO Melanie Perkins, makes it one of the most valuable female-led technology startups in the world: “Canva’s website and apps help people and companies create banners, logos, social media graphics and presentations. Since its inception in 2013 with a mission to make it easier for anyone to design, the Sydney-based startup has expanded with offices in Manila and Beijing. … The company’s focus for the near future will be expanding services for businesses and building presentation products, she said. Canva’s pitch is that non-designer employees in different time zones will be able to easily collaborate and produce brand-consistent marketing and presentation materials any time. About 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies already use the service, lending credibility to Canva’s claims.”

Thousands of California garages could be refurbished into below-market apartments to solve the state’s growing housing crisis: “The housing crisis in California means that architects and builders have had to get creative, and Steven Dietz said he is up for the challenge. … Garage conversions, granny flats, backyard cottages, in-law apartments, guesthouses, crash pads: In California as of 2017, they’re all ‘accessory dwelling units,’ or ADUs, and state laws regulating their construction have been relaxed. … Mr. Dietz, a longtime venture capitalist who invested in Costco and Starbucks and has taught a class on entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, took inspiration from the new laws to focus on a garage-based solution—with research help from his students at USC. His idea is simple: United Dwelling enters a partnership with a homeowner, pays for the garage conversion, manages the rental of the apartment to a qualified applicant and splits the rent with the homeowner.”

Opus 12 wants to make removing carbon from the atmosphere profitable by turning CO2 into useful products: “Making stuff out of CO2 could be a trillion-dollar industry by 2030, and it creates an economic incentive to start removing carbon from the atmosphere sooner rather than later, which is a critical piece of most scenarios for limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius. By using different catalysts, the Opus 12 team has figured out how to turn CO2 into 16 molecules. They’ve chosen to focus on commercializing three—synthetic gas, methane and ethylene—based on market size, performance and potential climate impact. These molecules can be the building blocks for a wide variety of products: synthetic gas and methane are used for fuels, while ethylene is used for plastics.”

PRIVACY

A Google executive, Rick Osterloh, says that if you have a smart speaker you should warn your guests they might be recorded: “‘Does the owner of a home need to disclose to a guest? I would and do when someone enters into my home, and it’s probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate.’ To be fair to Google, it hasn’t completely ignored matters of 21st Century privacy etiquette until now. As Mr. Osterloh points out, its Nest cameras shine an LED light when they are in record mode, which cannot be overridden. But the idea of having to run around a home unplugging or at least restricting the capabilities of all its voice- and camera-equipped kit if a visitor objects is quite the ask.”

THE ECONOMY

Retail sales fell in September raising concerns about the holiday season: “Retail sales slipped 0.3 percent in September from the month before, the US Commerce Department said Wednesday, as shoppers spent less on automobiles, building materials and sporting goods. Sales at department stores fell 1.4 percent from the month before, while online shopping slipped by 0.3 percent. Retailers, already rattled by President Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, are watching closely as they prepare for the all-important holiday shopping season. Recent sales declines signal ‘an early chill for retailers,’ Diane Swonk, chief economist at professional services firm Grant Thornton, wrote in a Wednesday note to clients. ‘The consumer is slowing,’ she said. ‘We are looking for a further slowdown in the fourth quarter, but hoping to avoid the panic we saw in December of 2018 when the stock market collapsed and the government was shut down.’”

GM and the UAW have a tentative deal: “General Motors and the autoworkers’ union, confronting a period of flagging sales after years of record profits, reached a tentative contract deal on Wednesday that could end the company’s longest strike in half a century. The four-year agreement provides for a signing bonus of more than $8,000, as well as wage increases of three percent in some years and lump-sum payments of four percent in others, according to people familiar with the terms. They said it also included a path to permanent employment for temporary workers. The United Automobile Workers, in announcing the agreement, said it had ‘achieved major wins.’ It plans to lay out the terms to representatives of its GM locals at a meeting in Detroit on Thursday morning, a chance for the leadership to frame the victories it feels it won. GM confirmed the accord in a terse statement.”

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INTERNATIONAL

There may be a Brexit deal: “Britain and the European Union agreed on the draft text of a Brexit deal on Thursday, an 11th-hour breakthrough in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s effort to settle his country’s anguished, yearslong debate over Brexit and pave the way for its departure from the bloc. The deal, details of which were published shortly after the announcement, must still clear several hurdles, including approval from Europe’s leaders and, most crucially, passage in the British Parliament. Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had also struck a deal with Brussels but suffered three thunderous defeats in Parliament. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, seen as vital to the passage of the agreement in Parliament, said it did not support the agreement. And the opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called on members of Parliament to reject it, saying, ‘It seems the prime minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May’s.’”

FINANCE

Major League Baseball has decided to play with private equity: “Traditionally, baseball owners have been wealthy individuals, but the new policy could bring in cash from Wall Street firms and college endowments, according to the people familiar with the change, which was made earlier this year. It’s MLB’s answer to a problem affecting all the major US sports leagues: Teams’ multibillion-dollar valuations have made it difficult for part-owners—known as limited partners, or LPto find buyers for their stakes when it’s time to sell. MLB teams are worth an average $1.78 billion, up eight percent from the previous year, Forbes estimates. And the Yankees, tops in the league, are approaching $5 billion.

“One sports banker is already taking advantage of the change. Galatioto Sports Partners has created a $500 million vehiclethe GSP Baseball Fundto invest in teams, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans haven’t been announced. The GSP Baseball Fund will accept a maximum of 100 investors and has a minimum contribution of $1 million, one of the people said. The fund has received regulatory approval from all of the required federal agencies, that person said.”

REGULATION

Imagine running a marijuana dispensary on an island: “The Green Lady Dispensary on Nantucket island sells cannabis products, but that’s not all it does. The shop also grows and processes its own marijuana flower, cooks or bakes all the weed-infused candy and other edibles sold on the shelves, and tests everything for safety and chemical content. In fact, everything the Green Lady sells is made completely in-house—something very uncommon for a dispensary. Being single-origin might be a business model for other dispensaries in Massachusetts, but that’s not why Green Lady owner Nicole Campbell does everything herself. She has no choice. Campbell’s problem is Nantucket Sound, the roughly 30-mile-long, 25-mile-wide stretch of ocean between mainland Massachusetts and Nantucket. Some of that water is federal territory, and since cannabis is federally illegal, no cannabis products can cross it. … Nantucket’s situation is just one example of the unexpected complications of what is arguably the largest and most widespread contradiction between state and federal law since the Civil War.”

OXFORD STRATEGIC ADVISORY DEALS OF THE DAY  

Thrive Global, a consumer platform designed to end burnout, has acquired Boundless Mind, a developer of persuasive and behavioral technology. “Roughly 70 percent of healthcare spending in the US goes to behavioral change and lifestyle-related conditions … Thrive Global tackles the issue through a combination of live events and digital platforms dispensing pop psychology and celebrity advice, while Boundless uses artificial intelligence and machine learning nudges.”

HUMAN RESOURCES

Crowdfunding company Kickstarter might have a problem with its “socially responsible” image as employees push for a union: “Kickstarter pushed back against the union, and as the effort dragged on, two of the organizers were dismissed last month in what they say was retaliation. Kickstarter maintains it is not anti-labor, and has repeatedly said the firings had nothing to do with the union drive. It said the two workers were let go because of performance issues unrelated to their union organizing. Labor organizers and tech industry observers are watching carefully: Will the workers be among the first white-collar employees at a major tech company to unionize? Silicon Valley has been swept by a larger movement of employee activism of late, including at major tech companies like Google, Amazon and Wayfair.”

AI could soon replace supervisors: “Even the most vigilant supervisor can only watch over a few workers at one time. But now, increasingly cheap AI systems can monitor every employee in a store, at a call center or on a factory floor, flagging their failures in real time and learning from their triumphs to optimize an entire workforce. A network of surveillance cameras hooked up to special software can tally the seconds of each worker’s bathroom break or time each step of their work. It can also keep workers safe, automatically detecting the absence of hard hats and gloves, for example, or people straying into the path of dangerous machines. In some call centers, AI listens into every conversation, cataloging every word, who said it and how, and then scoring each agent. … 

“In a handful of factories in the US, cameras have been installed over each worker’s head in assembly lines as they put together car parts or electronics. Software developed by Drishti, a Silicon Valley startup, watches these assemblers work, timing each step and checking for mistakes. The videos let supervisors quickly figure out where something went wrong and teach a worker how to avoid repeating an error, says Drishti CEO Prasad Akella. It can also be used for training new hires.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

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