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Can you solve the podcast business?


Good morning! This Monday, complicated new ideas in the podcast business, crazy stuff is happening on Robinhood, and Light gets out of the smartphone camera biz.

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People Are Talking

On Protocol: When we talk about "the metaverse," we're really talking about social connection, Roblox's Craig Donato said:

  • "What the internet is for information, the metaverse is going to do for social connections. I'm no longer bound by physical distance, or all these constraints in terms of who I interact with, or how I represent who I am. All these things are suddenly unleashed. It's insanely disruptive."

Not all co-founders have to be at the company from the beginning, Reid Hoffman said:

  • "The mistake people frequently make in recruiting CEOs rather than later-stage co-founders is that they focus on bringing in the best corporate athlete, rather than hiring someone where the company's mission was an integral part of their life story."

Want to increase your company's diversity? Measure it and talk about it, said BLCK VC co-founder Sydney Sykes:

  • "That makes a firm pay attention to the lack of diversity. Even if you only have six investors, it's important to say to yourself every month, 'Zero of them are Black,' 'Zero of them are still black,' on and on and on again."

After scientists complained to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative about Facebook's misinformation problem, Mark and Priscilla acknowledged a certain awkwardness:

  • "Although CZI & Facebook are entirely separate and independent organizations with different missions and teams, we do share the same co-leader. And in this moment, we understand that CZI's relationship to Facebook is not an easy tension to bridge."
  • The scientists, suffice to say, were not terribly impressed.

The Big Story

A subscription service for podcasts, with a big twist

The podcast business is a strange one. More people listen every month, advertising dollars keep climbing, but from a business and investment perspective there hasn't been much happening outside of Spotify's splashy content deals. I mean, there's Luminary, but … yikes.

Now there's a new podcast model trying to succeed. Pete Curley, the former founder of HipChat and currently the creator of an app called Podhero, told me his goal was to build "the reverse Luminary."

  • Rather than try to build a walled garden full of original shows, he wanted to help podcast makers get paid in a way that respected the podcast ecosystem's RSS-based, thoroughly untameable history. But he still wanted a way to pay for, and support, the stuff he liked.

Podhero's business model is … weird. You pay $5.99 a month to use the app, and the company distributes that money (minus $1 a month for overhead) to the shows you listen to. Curley says you don't even have to use his app to listen to them! Just sign up, pick the shows you like, and be done. Then, podcast creators can claim their show, and receive their portion of the proceeds.

  • It's part business, part charity? You don't get merch or exclusive content, you just get to support the shows you listen to.

When it launched last week, the immediate response was this guy is trying to kill podcast ads, and ads are podcasts' lifeblood! Curley told me that he believes that couldn't be further from the truth — though he did point out that more than 97% of podcasts don't make any money at all.

  • He's not trying to build a full Netflix For Podcasts, he says, just a way to pay for shows like one. "You can imagine a world in which we integrate with Pocket Casts, or something like that," he said.

Podhero's first big challenge is convincing enough people to give podcasters money that the pennies per show matter. Curley said he's hoping to get podcasters to do their own promo: Instead of saying "go to our Patreon!" they might say "subscribe to us on Podhero!"

  • But convincing podcasters to work with Podhero might be even harder. Remember when GoFundMe and Yelp set up fundraisers for every small business, and businesses revolted? Podhero's going to go through the exact same thing — as did Luminary, and as will any business that appears to be trying to centralize the open podcasting world.
  • Curley said he's ready for this. "If The New York Times is like, shut it off on The Daily, I'd be very happy to have a little note that says 'instead of support, the NYT encourages you to sign up for a subscription,' or whatever you want."

Back to Work

The future office: kill the server, keep the printer?

A lot of tech employees I've talked to recently feel like they're in limbo. They're working from home, which is fine, but they're pretty sure the office job is coming back. Maybe. Eventually. I mean, it's hard to know what's going to happen, which makes planning really tough.

To give people a view of the current consensus, Xerox commissioned a study of IT and tech decision-makers.

  • It found that 82% of the workforce is estimated to be back in the office in the next 18 months.
  • 72% of those surveyed said their companies weren't ready, from a technology perspective, for the shift to remote work. Almost a third said technology was their company's single biggest pain point in the process.
  • Why are companies eager to get back to the office? Data security ranked as the #1 reason.

Going forward, most companies figure to have some remote-work capabilities. But how should execs be investing in changing the company to support remote, when most people will be back in the office next year?

  • Xerox found that most companies are at least re-evaluating their tech budgets, and confirmed one trend that's been clear for months: Everybody's buying into cloud-based business tools. The company server is a dying breed.
  • But it turns out there's one irreplaceable feature of office life: 85% of people in Xerox's study said they missed the office printer. Xerox is probably pretty happy about that.



Protocol's Transformation of Work Summit

How can tech help identify and match in-demand skills with job opportunity? Speakers include Future of Work Caucus co-chairs Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Representative Bryan Steil (R-WI), CEO of Jobs for the Future Maria Flynn, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies Matthew Sigelman, and CEO of Colorado State University Global Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker. Presented by Workday.

Register here


Another camera startup quits the consumer biz

It seemed like a great idea at the perfect time. A few years ago, as smartphone cameras were getting better and becoming more important, a company called Light offered hardware and software that could use multiple cameras to make totally new kinds of three-dimensional, depth-aware images.

  • Its tech did end up in a Nokia phone. But Light seemed forever poised to be The Next Big Thing — and never quite got there.

Now, Light's getting out of the smartphone game altogether. The company's shifting instead to using its tech to "enable vehicles to see like humans." Its big claim is being able to see in 3D much further out than lidar or radar. It's also looking into security and robotics applications.

  • It's clearly a move to increase revenue — which may have something to do with the fact that Light raised millions of dollars from SoftBank's Vision Fund. SoftBank is now pushing all its portfolio companies to increase revenue.
  • But even in 2018, when Light announced the SoftBank investment, enterprise uses were clearly on the company's mind. The company said it was looking beyond consumer uses "to security, robotics, automotive, aerospace, and industrial imaging."

Light's move feels similar to Magic Leap's recent jump to the enterprise world, or Lytro's from a few years ago. Having great tech is a start, but companies can only afford to wait so long to see if consumers care.

  • At least for now, consumers continue to be very happy snapping photos with their two-dimensional cameras and looking at them on their two-dimensional screens.

In related news: Don't miss Mike Murphy's story about Mira, an AR startup that pivoted to enterprise much more quickly than Magic Leap did — and it worked out brilliantly.

Coming This Week

Cisco Live starts tomorrow, with two days full of virtual sessions and keynotes.

Oracle and Groupon both report earnings this week. Oracle's forward-looking guidance will be particularly interesting, after signing up Zoom and 8x8 to its cloud services in the last few weeks.

In Other News

  • Something odd has been happening on Robinhood these last few days. Trading in Hertz stock spiked on the platform, which led Hertz to try to issue more shares — despite the fact that it's in bankruptcy and all those shares are likely worthless. That raises a question: Does Robinhood have a responsibility to help users make good decisions, a la Facebook trying to protect people from misinformation? The platforms may change but the messiness never does.
  • Don't miss this story from The Wall Street Journal about the tense early days at Quibi – including Meg Whitman threatening to quit not long after starting as the company's CEO.
  • ByteDance is going all-in on TikTok in India. It's shutting down Vigo Video and Vigo Lite, two similar apps, and encouraging everyone to focus on TikTok instead — which is already far more popular in the country.
  • Google created a task force called the Equity Project Management Office, and Business Insider reported that the group has already sent management more than 500 suggestions.
  • Another week, another huge Jio Platforms investment. This time, TPG is putting $600 million into the Reliance subsidiary, and L Catterton is putting in $249 million, both at that same $65 billion valuation that everybody but Facebook seems to have gotten.
  • Looking for a side project? Investor Balaji Srinivasan is offering $10,000 in bitcoin to anyone who can build a good open-source Twitter export app. "Context is that a lot of people want to get off Twitter into something like Substack or Ghost," he said.

One More Thing

Never iPhone and tweet

I admit, there are few things I enjoy more than people being outed by that little "Sent from Twitter for iPhone" message on their tweets when they should have been using a different device. The internet got Gal Gadot; it got the official account of Samsung Nigeria; years ago, it spotted that BlackBerry Creative Director Alicia Keys wasn't using a BlackBerry. But we may not top this one: BTS, the K-pop group that's approximately the biggest thing on the internet, tweeted a fun anniversary group shot from an iPhone. Which would be fine, except BTS just launched special-edition Samsung phones and earbuds over the weekend. The band quickly deleted and reuploaded the tweet, but, sorry BTS, nothing's ever gone on the internet.



Protocol's Transformation of Work Summit

How can tech help identify and match in-demand skills with job opportunity? Speakers include Future of Work Caucus co-chairs Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Representative Bryan Steil (R-WI), CEO of Jobs for the Future Maria Flynn, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies Matthew Sigelman, and CEO of Colorado State University Global Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker. Presented by Workday.

Register here

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me,, or our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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