Morning Report

What you need to know one minute before daylight

Supertemps, Human Composting, and Why One Startup Failed

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DAYLIGHT  

With a historic spike in (Baby Boomer) deaths on the way, the funeral industry is thinking “outside the box”: “Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee. In Oregon, where cremation rates are near 80 percent, Musgrove has organized memorial celebrations at golf courses and Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. He sells urns that resemble giant golf balls and styles adorned with the University of Oregon logo. In a cemetery, his firm installed a ‘Peace Columbarium,’ a retrofitted 1970s VW van, brightly painted with ‘Peace’ and ‘Love,’ to house urns.

“Change has sparked nascent death-related industries in a culture long besotted with youth. There are death doulas (caring for the terminally ill), death cafes (to discuss life’s last chapter over cake and tea), death celebrants (officiants who lead end-of-life events), living funerals (attended by the honored while still breathing), and end-of-life workshops (for the healthy who think ahead). The Internet allows lives to continue indefinitely in memorial Facebook pages, tribute vlogs on YouTube and instamemorials on Instagram. …

“‘My work is letting people connect with the natural cycle as they die,’ says Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, who considers herself part of the ‘alternative death-care movement.’ If its legislature grants approval this month, Washington will become the first state in the nation to approve legalized human composting. Her company plans to use wood chips, alfalfa and straw to turn bodies into a cubic yard of topsoil in 30 days. That soil could be used to fertilize a garden, or a grove of trees, the body literally returned to the earth.”

HUMAN RESOURCES

Small business owners have slowed hiring because of fears about the economy: “The latest evidence of a hiring slowdown came earlier this month, when payroll provider ADP said its small-business customers created just 6,000 jobs in March. February’s tally of 19,000 new jobs was also weak and down sharply from January’s 98,000.

“TruePublic’s last four hires were part-timers. CEO Kaben Clauson had planned on taking on full-time staffers, but partly because of the economy decided against the added risk. ‘We could hire those people full time now—we have the money to do so—but it would give us only six months of a cash cushion,’ says Kaben, whose Chicago-based company conducts online surveys. ‘We’d feel more comfortable with a year’s cushion.’”

Some individuals are working as for-hire executives, aka supertemps. “Supertemps are top managers and professionals—from lawyers to CFOs to consultants—who’ve been trained at top schools and companies and choose to pursue project-based careers independent of any major firm. They’re increasingly trusted by corporations to do mission-critical work that in the past would have been done by permanent employees or established outside firms. New intermediaries have sprung up to create a market for such marquee talent. Supertemps are growing in number, and we think they’re on the verge of changing how business works.”

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma fully endorsed the Chinese tech sector’s rigorous standard of working 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. six days a week, aka 996. “In a lengthy Sunday blog post, China’s richest man expanded on comments from last week, in which he dismissed people who expect a typical eight-hour office lifestyle. ‘As I expected, my comments internally a few days ago about the 996 schedule caused a debate and non-stop criticism,’ Ma wrote. ‘I understand these people, and I could have said something that was ‘correct.’ But we don’t lack people saying ‘correct’ things in the world today, what we lack is truthful words that make people think.”

IMMIGRATION

While the travel ban has receded somewhat from the public eye, it continues to have an impact on many business owners, who “struggle with access to capital, hiring and the distress of prolonged family separation. …

“Abdirahman Kahin, from Somalia by way of Djibouti, is the owner of Afro Deli, a chain of three eateries in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The menu reflects his Somali roots, with dishes like chicken keke, noodles made from chapati bread and sambusas, a Somali-style samosa. Kahin is opening a fourth location this summer and has ambitious business plans for the future: 100 new Afro Deli locations across the US over the next ten years.

“Kahin wants to hire chefs and consultants directly from Somalia during Afro Deli’s expansion, which is impossible under the travel ban. He is training chefs who aren’t from Somalia but, he said, ‘We really want people with deep knowledge to keep the authenticity of the food.’”

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TECHNOLOGY

Vence is taking expensive fencing out of livestock farming and looking to fight climate change in the process: “Vence makes a collar that can be placed on animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. It contains GPS and a magnetometer that detects which way an animal is facing. If the animal strolls somewhere it shouldn’t, the collar emits a buzzing noise. If it goes further, it gets shocked. … When it’s time for the herd to move to a new area, the buzzing starts again and stops when the animals walk in the right direction.

“Farmers have the option of creating their own rotational schedule or letting Vence’s series of algorithms do the work. The entire system, which also monitors the animals’ vitals, can be controlled from a phone, tablet, or another device. The startup will charge between $15 and $25 per collar annually, depending on the amount of livestock. With improved grazing techniques, estimates global warming think tank Project Drawdown, the world could sequester an additional 16.3 gigatons of carbon—nearly three years’ worth of total US emissions—over the next 30 years.”

ENVIRONMENT

Everlane, a fashion brand, wants to remove all new plastic from its supply chain in the next two years. “Everlane is still a relatively small player in the $1.3 trillion fashion industry…The ReNew line alone is on track to divert 100 million plastic bottles from landfills over the next five years. But [CEO and founder Michael] Preysman isn’t particularly concerned with absolute numbers. He’s more interested in proving to the industry that running a plastic-free business is both economically feasible and a competitive advantage. …

“As he pulls back the curtain on what his clothes are made of, Preysman is confident that his customers will respond. ‘Consumers don’t understand where things come from, and until you educate them, they don’t care,’ he says. ‘If there was full transparency, everybody would know the impact of fashion, and they would make better decisions.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA

Snap is bleeding, well, more like hemorrhaging cash at the pace of $68 million a month since going public in 2017. “The Financial Times said Snap would have three years to turn a profit before it would require a fresh injection of finance. It posted an operating loss of nearly $195 million in Q4. … It follows a wildly unpopular Snapchat redesign, persistent problems with its buggy Android app (which got a big update earlier this month), competitors like Facebook cloning features including Stories, and underwhelming sales of its Snapchat Spectacles. Snap has also suffered a management exodus, with about 20 executives abandoning the company since its IPO in March 2017.”

STARTUPS

We hear a lot of stories about success; here’s another one about the failure of a startup that seemed to have everything ( huge market, seasoned operators and $3.5M in venture capital from name brand investors): “My postmortem largely boils down to one question: Whose company were we really building?

“I’d spent my entire career working at early stage startups and had developed an itch — no, a dream — to build something myself. Matt and I had long talked about starting our own thing, regularly pitching ideas back and forth, and in 2016 he was approached by a group of well-known investors. They weren’t looking for his ideas; rather, they were on the hunt for an operating team to launch a business that was already being incubated: Warby for sports nutrition, or, said another way, We’re going to burn GNC to the ground.

“They chose Matt to be their guy, and he asked me to join. I was pretty sober and honest with myself (and him) about it. No, I wasn’t passionate about sports nutrition, and this didn’t exactly feel like mine — but I believed in the opportunity, and I thought the mission was a good one: building a better supplement company, one with transparency and integrity at its core (Hell, I’d be a customer). Most importantly, here was my chance to start a company — how could I pass it up? I joined (as COO), and we quickly brought on Alex (as CMO). She was the perfect complement — unlike Matt and me, she had extensive experience in the health & wellness space. I could already see the three of us on the cover of Fast Company.”

“There were competing visions from day one …”

And that’s what’s ahead.

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

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