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Tony Hsieh, iconic Las Vegas tech entrepreneur, dies aged 46

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Tony Hsieh, the former head of Zappos who catapulted the shoe company into the big leagues with a sale to Amazon and then used the proceeds of his success in a huge project kickstarting regeneration of a run-down part of Las Vegas, Nevada, with tech and wider business investments, has died at the age of 46.

The cause was injuries he sustained from a house fire, a spokesperson for Hsieh confirmed to TechCrunch. He was with his brother in Connecticut at the time of the fire. It’s not clear if anyone else was injured.

The ultimate cause of Hsieh’s death is still under investigation. We will update this as and if we learn more. The full statement from DTP Companies, which ran the Downtown Project (Hsieh’s mammoth initiative to regenerate the very run-down, older part of Las Vegas) is below.

The news has sent shock waves in the midst of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and through a community in a city — heavily dependent on tourism — that has been hit extraordinarily hard by the Covid-19 global health pandemic.

Hsieh was a brilliant, offbeat, and — to many people, often very directly — kind-hearted person who was regularly described as a visionary.

That was not an overstatement. Growing up in the Bay Area, he sold his first company — a marketing tech firm called LinkExchange — to Microsoft when he was just 24, in 1998.

Using some of the proceeds from that, he formed a venture capital firm called Venture Frog. One of his early investments there was ShoeSite.com, founded in 1999 by Nick Swinmurn at a time when the latter could see a shift happening in how people were shopping for footwear, doing a lot more of it online.

Hsieh was entrepreneurial in his investing instincts and subsequently took a more hands-on role in the startup, which eventually rebranded to Zappos. As Zappos’ CEO, Hsieh moved the company from the Bay Area to the outskirts of Vegas in 2004 to build out a bigger customer service operation, run under a particularly strong ethos of flat management aimed at empowering and inspiring employees. His leadership helped catapult it to huge growth: by 2009 he had sold Zappos to Amazon for around $1.2 billion (a truly giant sum for an e-commerce startup at the time).

He then continued to run the company, and used the proceeds of that work to focus on his next big project: urban regeneration.

Las Vegas is a city that leaves little to sentimentality. Situated in the middle of the desert, the city’s relentless focus has long been on growth, breaking new, seemingly limitless, ground to do so. For years, that meant huge swathes of “older” Vegas enterprises, in the Downtown region, simply sat empty, leading to the larger area eventually becoming a hotbed of crime and poverty. As with many other urban centers, it has been a vicious cycle: people focus on building newer homes and businesses elsewhere, and that makes the older areas even more neglected and vulnerable.

Hsieh saw the charm of Downtown, full of 20th-century modernist flourishes underneath its more obvious signs of decline, and proceeded to buy up huge chunks of the area: apartment buildings, houses, small business structures, old casinos and hotels, and empty lots.

His vision was not just to be a real estate magnate — although that is clearly something that interested him, too — but to regenerate Vegas in the mold of what he knew best: tech.

He proceeded to invest in a huge run of startups, provided they move to Vegas to build their businesses Downtown, to bring entrepreneurs and jobs to the area.

There were lots of quirky elements to the effort: it was not all about hard-nosed business, and some of it was just about trying to have fun on a grand scale. Inspired by Burning Man, for example, Hsieh paid to have several of the structures built for the festival in the desert to be transported and installed permanently in the Downtown area.

A couple of memorable evenings I spent with him in Vegas really underscored to me his profile in the city.

Hopping from casino to bar to restaurant, one night we ended up in an excellent piano karaoke dive where his best friend from childhood and I sang Duran Duran duets and he knocked back Frenet Brancas. People flocked around him wherever he went (so many breathless “Hi, Tony”‘s from many women we walked past). I remember wondering if this was what being a mafia boss (with friend playing the role of a consigliere, or me a guest for the night) was like back in the day.

Of course, the Downtown Project, as it came to be called, was a grand vision, and like many grand visions, it has had its ups and downs.

Some of that is unsurprising: Simply willing something to exist isn’t always enough, and the strike rate for success in tech is, in reality, very low. And the offbeat approach didn’t always play in the best way, and sometimes obscured what might actually be going on. Case in point: Hsieh abruptly stepped down as CEO of Zappos earlier this year, with no explanation provided for the move, after being in the role for 21 years.

Still, between Zappos and what Hsieh built in the city, his work and bigger ideas were and are an important testament to the impact that the tech industry can have with a little imagination and a lot of hard work and persistence.

Our condolences go out to his family and his many friends, and also those in the slice of the tech and business world he helped to create.

Statement from DTP below:

Good Afternoon, my name is Megan Fazio and I handle public relations for DTP Companies, formerly known as Downtown Project, which Tony Hsieh serves as the visionary of. With a heavy and devastated heart, we regret to inform you that Tony Hsieh passed away peacefully on November 27, 2020 surrounded by his beloved family.

Tony’s kindness and generosity touched the lives of everyone around him, and forever brightened the world. Delivering happiness was always his mantra, so instead of mourning his transition, we ask you to join us in celebrating his life.

On behalf of all DTP Companies employees and staff, we would like to express our deepest condolences to Tony’s family and friends who have all lost Tony as a cherished loved one, visionary and friend. Tony was highly regarded by all of his fellow friends and colleagues in the tight-knit family at DTP Companies, so this heartbreaking tragedy is one that affects many involved.

We ask that you continue to respect the family’s privacy during this most difficult and challenging time.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/28/tony-hsieh-iconic-las-vegas-tech-entrepreneur-dies-aged-46/

Techcrunch

Apple said to be planning new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros with MagSafe and Apple processors

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Apple has planned new upgraded MacBook Pros for launch “later this year” according to a new report from Bloomberg. These new models would come in both 14-inch and 16-inch sizes, with new and improved Apple Silicon processors like those that Apple debuted on the new MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro model late last year. They would also see the return of Apple’s MagSafe charger, a magnetic dedicated charging port that would replace USB-C for power, and they could potentially do away with the Touch Bar, the small strip of OLED display built in to the keyboard on modern MacBook Pros.

Bloomberg’s report suggests that these MacBook Pro models will have processors with more cores and better graphics capabilities than the existing M1 chips that power Apple’s current notebooks with in-house silicon, and that they’ll also have displays with brighter panels that offer higher contrast. Physically, they’ll resemble existing notebooks, according to the report’s sources, but they’ll see the return of MagSafe, the dedicated magnetic charging interface that Apple used prior to switching power delivery over to USB-C on its laptops.

MagSafe had the advantage of easily disconnecting in case of anyone accidentally tripping across the power cord while plugged in, without yanking the computer with it. It also meant that it kept all data ports free for accessories. Bloomberg says that the revitalized MagSafe for new notebooks will also offer faster charging vs. USB-C, in addition to those other benefits.

As for the Touch Bar, it has been a topic of debate since its introduction. Pro users in particular seem to dislike the interface option, especially because it replaces a row of dedicated physical keys that could be useful in professional workflows. The report claims that Apple has “tested versions that remove the Touch Bar,” so it seems less clear that Apple will finally unring that particular bell, but I personally know a lot of people who would be excited if that does come to pass.

Finally, Bloomberg says Apple is also planning a new redesigned MacBook Air. That was updated most recently just a couple of months ago, and the report says it’ll only follow “long after” these new MacBook Pros, so it seems unlikely to arrive in 2021.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/apple-said-to-be-planning-new-14-and-16-inch-macbook-pros-with-magsafe-and-apple-processors/

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Entrepreneur

Want a job in tech? Flockjay pitches its sales training service as an on-ramp to tech careers

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“Most people don’t even know that a job in tech sales is even a possibility,” says Shaan Hathiramani, the founder and chief executive of Flockjay, a company offering a tech sales training curriculum to the masses.

Hathiramani sees his startup as an onramp to the tech industry for legions of workers who have the skillsets to work in tech, but lack the network to see themselves in the business. Just like coding bootcamps have enabled thousands to get jobs as programmers in the tech business, Flockjay can get talented people who had never considered a job in tech into the industry.

The company, which had previously raised $3 million from investors including Serena Williams and Will Smith, along with tech industry luminaries like Microsoft chairman John Thompson; Airtable head of sales Liat Bycel; Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit; and former Netflix CPO Tom Willerer, has just raised new capital to expand its business in a time when accelerated onramps to new jobs have never been more important.

The healthcare response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, which has closed businesses and torn through the American economy. The unemployment rate in the country sits at 6.4% and the nation lost 140,000 jobs again in December — with all of those job losses coming from women.

A former financier with the multi-billion dollar investment firm, Citadel, Hathiramani sees Flockjay, and the business of tech sales as a way for a number of people to transform their lives.

“We provide a premier sales academy,” Hathiramani said. “It costs zero dollars if you take the course and don’t get a job and costs 10% of your income for the first year if you do get a job. That nets out to 6 or 7K.”

A few hundred students have gone through the program so far, Hathiramani said, and the goal is to train 1,000 people over the course of 2021. The average income of a student before they go through Flockjay’s training program is $30,000 to $35,000 typically, Hathiramani said.

Upon graduation, those students can expect to make between $75,000 and $85,000, he said.

Increasing access among those students who have not necessarily been exposed to the tech world is critical for what Hathiramani wants to do with his sales bootcamp.

Flockjay founder Shaan Hathiramani. Image Credit: Flockjay

The entrepreneur said roughly 40% of students don’t have a four-year college degree; half of the students identify as female or non-binary, and half of the company’s students identify as Black or hispanic. About 80% of the company’s students find a job within the first six months of graduation.

These are students like Elise Cox, a former Bojangles’ manager and Flockjay graduate, who moved from Georgia to Denver to be a sales tech representative for Gusto. Tripling her salary from $13 an hour in the food service industry to a salaried position with wages and benefits.

“I enjoy being able to generate revenue for the company,” Cox, a 41-year-old grandmother, whose five-year plans include a sales leadership role, told Fast Company two years ago. “The revenue is the lifeblood of the company and being part of the team gives me sense of fulfillment.”

Partnerships with Opportunity@Work, Hidden Genius Project, Peninsula Bridge, and TechHire Oakland, help to ensure a diverse pool of applicants and a more diverse workforce for the tech industry — where diversity is still a huge problem.

As Hathiramani looks to take his company from training a couple of hundred students to over a thousand, the founder has raised new cash from previous investors including Lightspeed, Coatue, and Y Combinator, and new investors like eVentures, Salesforce Ventures, along with the Impact America Fund, Cleo Capital and Gabrielle Union.

For the New Jersey-born entrepreneur, Flockjay was a way to give back to a community that he knew intimately. After his family settled in New Jersey after immigrating to the United States, Hathiramani went first to Horace Mann on a scholarship and then attended Harvard before getting his job at Citadel.

Even while he was working at the pinnacle of the financial services world he started non-profits like the Big Shoulders Fund and taught financial literacy.

After a while, he moved to the Bay Area to begin plotting a way to merge his twin interests in education and financial inclusion.

“That led to me spending a year helping startups for free and trying to understand their problems with hiring and training” said Hathiramani. “It helped me surface this economic waste in plain sight. There were all these people talking to customers and they were spending three months on the job learning the job and they didn’t want to do the job or they weren’t very good at it.”

Tech salesforces were a point of entry in the system that almost anyone could access, if they could get in through the door, Hathiramani said. Flockjay wants to be the key to opening the door.

So, the company now has $11 million in new funding to bring its sales training bootcamp to a larger audience. Hathiramani also wants to make the bootcamp model more of a community with continuous development after a student completes the program. “I view education as a membership and not a transaction,” he said. “We focus on continuous learning and continuous up-skilling.”

Part of that is the flywheel of building up networks in a manner similar to YCombinator, the accelerator program from which Flockjay graduated in 2019.

“We went through YC to learn… how they manufacture the privilege in the world that they have afforded,” said Hathiramani. “How do you take some of that and provide it to someone who is starting their careers in tech. You get better at your job the more connections you have. As we accelerate the alumni piece… they can draw on other alums that they’re selling into.”

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/backed-by-marc-benioff-flockjay-pitches-its-sales-training-service-as-an-onramp-to-tech-careers/

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Amazon’s newest product lets companies build their own Alexa assistant for cars, apps and video games

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Amazon is selling access to the underlying technology stack of Alexa to let companies — starting with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — build their own intelligent assistants with unique voices, skills and wake words.

The new Alexa Custom Assistant product, which was announced Friday, can coexist and cooperate with the Alexa assistant. Theoretically, this means an automaker could choose to use the custom assistant to interact with drivers on specific products and services tied to the vehicle as well as integrate the Alexa voice assistant for other needs. For instance, if a driver asks Alexa to roll down a car window, the request will be routed to the brand’s assistant, Amazon explained. If a customer asks the brand’s assistant to play an audio book, the request will be routed to Alexa.

Yes, that means your next car could have two Alexas.

Here’s a video showing how it works.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will be the first Alexa Custom Assistant customer. An FCA-branded intelligent assistant is being built for integration in select vehicle models, according to Amazon.

Amazon’s pitch isn’t just to automakers, however. The e-commerce giant said it can be used to build intelligent assistants into mobile applications, smart properties, video games and consumer electronics. The Alexa Custom Assistant is based on the Alexa technology stack. The custom wake words are created with the same process used for developing the Alexa wake word. Amazon will give companies access to Alexa’s voice science experts to help guide them through the recording process and develop the voice using advanced machine learning algorithms. Developers also have access to Alexa’s pre-built capabilities such as communications, local search, traffic, and navigation, to further accelerate time to market.

The aim of this new product, Amazon says, is to give companies an efficient and cost-effective way of delivering an intelligent assistant to its customers. The path of building an intelligent AI-based assistant is complex, typically involves long development cycles, and requires resources to build it from scratch and maintain over time, Amazon argues.

Of course, it’s also another way to ensure Alexa is in more devices, even if it goes by another name.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/amazons-newest-product-lets-companies-build-their-own-alexa-assistant/

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Techcrunch

A security researcher commandeered a country’s expired top-level domain to save it from hackers

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In mid-October, a little-known but critically important domain name for one country’s internet space began to expire.

The domain — scpt-network.com — was one of two nameservers for the .cd country code top-level domain, assigned to the Democratic Republic of Congo. If it fell into the wrong hands, an attacker could redirect millions of unknowing internet users to rogue websites of their choosing.

Clearly, a domain of such importance wasn’t supposed to expire; someone in the Congolese government probably forgot to pay for its renewal. Luckily, expired domains don’t disappear immediately. Instead, the clock started on a grace period for its government owners to buy back the domain before it was sold to someone else.

By chance, Fredrik Almroth, a security researcher and co-founder of cybersecurity startup Detectify, was already looking at nameservers of country code top-level domains (or ccTLDs), the two-letter suffixes at the end of regional web addresses, like .fr for France or .uk for the United Kingdom. When he found this critical domain name was about to expire, Almroth began to monitor it, assuming someone in the Congolese government would pay to reclaim the domain.

But nobody ever did.

By the end of December, the clock was almost up and the domain was about to fall off the internet. Within minutes of the domain becoming available, Almroth quickly snapped it up to prevent anyone else from taking it over — because, as he told TechCrunch, “the implications are kind of huge.”

It’s rare but not unheard of for a top-level domain to expire.

In 2017, security researcher Matthew Bryant took over the nameservers of the .io top-level domain, assigned to the British Indian Ocean Territory. But malicious hackers have also shown interest in targeting top-level domains hack into companies and governments that use the same country-based domain suffix.

Read more on TechCrunch

Taking over a nameserver is not supposed to be an easy task because they are a vital part of how the internet works.

Every time you visit a website your device relies on a nameserver to convert a web address in your browser to the machine-readable address that tells your device where on the internet to find the site you’re looking for. Some liken nameservers to the phone directory of the internet. Sometimes your browser looks no further than its own cache for the answer, and sometimes it has to ask the nearest nameserver for the answer. But the nameservers that control top-level domains are considered authoritative and know where to look without having to ask another nameserver.

With control of an authoritative nameserver, malicious hackers could run man-in-the-middle attacks to silently intercept and redirect internet users going to legitimate sites to malicious webpages.

These kinds of attacks have been used in sophisticated espionage campaigns aimed at cloning websites to trick victims into handing over their passwords, which hackers use to get access to company networks to steal information.

Worse, Almroth said with control of the nameserver it was possible to obtain valid SSL (HTTPS) certificates, allowing for an attacker to intercept encrypted web traffic or any email mailbox for any .cd domain, he said. To the untrained eye, a successful attacker could redirect victims to a spoofed website and they would be none the wiser.

“If you can abuse the validation schemes used to issue certificates, you can undermine the SSL of any domain under .cd as well,” Almroth said. “The capabilities of being in such a privileged position is scary.”

Almroth ended up sitting on the domain for about a week as he tried to figure out a way to hand it back. By this point the domain had been inactive for two months already and nothing had catastrophically broken. At most, websites with a .cd domain might have taken slightly longer to load.

Since the remaining nameserver was running normally, Almroth kept the domain offline so that whenever an internet user tried to access a domain that relied on the nameserver under his control, it would automatically timeout and pass the request to the remaining nameserver.

In the end, the Congolese government didn’t bother asking for the domain back. It spun up an entirely new but similarly named domain — scpt-network.net — to replace the one now in Almroth’s possession.

We reached out to the Congolese authorities for comment but did not hear back.

ICANN, the international non-profit organization responsible for internet address allocation, said country code top-level domains are operated by their respective countries and its role is “very limited,” a spokesperson said.

For its part, ICANN encouraged countries to follow best practices and to use DNSSEC, a cryptographically more secure technology that makes it nearly impossible to serve up spoofed websites. One network security engineer who asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media questioned whether DNSSEC would be effective at all against a top-level domain hijack.

At least in this case, it’s nothing a calendar reminder can’t solve.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/15/congo-comandeered/

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