Dec
15
2018
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The limits of coworking

It feels like there’s a WeWork on every street nowadays. Take a walk through midtown Manhattan (please don’t actually) and it might even seem like there are more WeWorks than office buildings.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Co-working has permeated cities around the world at an astronomical rate. The rise has been so remarkable that even the headline-dominating SoftBank seems willing to bet the success of its colossal Vision Fund on the shift continuing, having poured billions into WeWork – including a recent $4.4 billion top-up that saw the co-working king’s valuation spike to $45 billion.

And there are no signs of the trend slowing down. With growing frequency, new startups are popping up across cities looking to turn under-utilized brick-and-mortar or commercial space into low-cost co-working options.

It’s a strategy spreading through every type of business from retail – where companies like Workbar have helped retailers offer up portions of their stores – to more niche verticals like parking lots – where companies like Campsyte are transforming empty lots into spaces for outdoor co-working and corporate off-sites. Restaurants and bars might even prove most popular for co-working, with startups like Spacious and KettleSpace turning restaurants that are closed during the day into private co-working space during their off-hours.

Before you know it, a startup will be strapping an Aeron chair to the top of a telephone pole and calling it “WirelessWorking”.

But is there a limit to how far co-working can go? Are all of the storefronts, restaurants and open spaces that line city streets going to be filled with MacBooks, cappuccinos and Moleskine notebooks? That might be too tall a task, even for the movement taking over skyscrapers.

The co-working of everything

Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov / iStock via Getty Images

So why is everyone trying to turn your favorite neighborhood dinner spot into a part-time WeWork in the first place? Co-working offers a particularly compelling use case for under-utilized space.

First, co-working falls under the same general commercial zoning categories as most independent businesses and very little additional infrastructure – outside of a few extra power outlets and some decent WiFi – is required to turn a space into an effective replacement for the often crowded and distracting coffee shops used by price-sensitive, lean, remote, or nomadic workers that make up a growing portion of the workforce.

Thus, businesses can list their space at little-to-no cost, without having to deal with structural layout changes that are more likely to arise when dealing with pop-up solutions or event rentals.

On the supply side, these co-working networks don’t have to purchase leases or make capital improvements to convert each space, and so they’re able to offer more square footage per member at a much lower rate than traditional co-working spaces. Spacious, for example, charges a monthly membership fee of $99-$129 dollars for access to its network of vetted restaurants, which is cheap compared to a WeWork desk, which can cost anywhere from $300-$800 per month in New York City.

Customers realize more affordable co-working alternatives, while tight-margin businesses facing increasing rents for under-utilized property are able to pool resources into a network and access a completely new revenue stream at very little cost. The value proposition is proving to be seriously convincing in initial cities – Spacious told the New York Times, that so many restaurants were applying to join the network on their own volition that only five percent of total applicants were ultimately getting accepted.

Basically, the business model here checks a lot of the boxes for successful marketplaces: Acquisition and transaction friction is low for both customers and suppliers, with both seeing real value that didn’t exist previously. Unit economics seem strong, and vetting on both sides of the market creates trust and community. Finally, there’s an observable network effect whereby suppliers benefit from higher occupancy as more customers join the network, while customers benefit from added flexibility as more locations join the network.

… Or just the co-working of some things

Photo: Caiaimage / Robert Daly via Getty Images

So is this the way of the future? The strategy is really compelling, with a creative solution that offers tremendous value to businesses and workers in major cities. But concerns around the scalability of demand make it difficult to picture this phenomenon becoming ubiquitous across cities or something that reaches the scale of a WeWork or large conventional co-working player.

All these companies seem to be competing for a similar demographic, not only with one another, but also with coffee shops, free workspaces, and other flexible co-working options like Croissant, which provides members with access to unused desks and offices in traditional co-working spaces. Like Spacious and KettleSpace, the spaces on Croissant own the property leases and are already built for co-working, so Croissant can still offer comparatively attractive rates.

The offer seems most compelling for someone that is able to work without a stable location and without the amenities offered in traditional co-working or office spaces, and is also price sensitive enough where they would trade those benefits for a lower price. Yet at the same time, they can’t be too price sensitive, where they would prefer working out of free – or close to free – coffee shops instead of paying a monthly membership fee to avoid the frictions that can come with them.

And it seems unclear whether the problem or solution is as poignant outside of high-density cities – let alone outside of high-density areas of high-density cities.

Without density, is the competition for space or traffic in coffee shops and free workspaces still high enough where it’s worth paying a membership fee for? Would the desire for a private working environment, or for a working community, be enough to incentivize membership alone? And in less-dense and more-sprawl oriented cities, members could also face the risk of having to travel significant distances if space isn’t available in nearby locations.

While the emerging workforce is trending towards more remote, agile and nomadic workers that can do more with less, it’s less certain how many will actually fit the profile that opts out of both more costly but stable traditional workspaces, as well as potentially frustrating but free alternatives. And if the lack of density does prove to be an issue, how many of those workers will live in hyper-dense areas, especially if they are price-sensitive and can work and live anywhere?

To be clear, I’m not saying the companies won’t see significant growth – in fact, I think they will. But will the trend of monetizing unused space through co-working come to permeate cities everywhere and do so with meaningful occupancy? Maybe not. That said, there is still a sizable and growing demographic that need these solutions and the value proposition is significant in many major urban areas.

The companies are creating real value, creating more efficient use of wasted space, and fixing a supply-demand issue. And the cultural value of even modestly helping independent businesses keep the lights on seems to outweigh the cultural “damage” some may fear in turning them into part-time co-working spaces.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Dec
08
2018
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Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Nov
23
2018
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BlueCargo optimizes stacks of containers for maximum efficiency

Meet BlueCargo, a logistics startup focused on seaport terminals. The company was part of Y Combinator’s latest batch and recently raised a $3 million funding round from 1984 Ventures, Green Bay Ventures, Sound Ventures, Kima Ventures and others.

If you picture a terminal, chances are you see huge piles of containers. But current sorting methods are not efficient at all. Yard cranes end up moving a ton of containers just to reach a container sitting at the bottom of the pile.

BlueCargo wants to optimize those movements by helping you store containers at the right spot. The first container that is going to leave the terminal is going to be at the top of the pile.

“Terminals spend a lot of time making unproductive or undesired movements,” co-founder and CEO Alexandra Griffon told me. “And yet, terminals only generate revenue every time they unload or load a container.”

Right now, ERP-like solutions only manage containers according to a handful of business rules that don’t take into account the timeline of a container. Empty containers are all stored in one area, containers with dangerous goods are in another area, etc.

The startup leverages as much data as possible on each container — where it’s coming from, the type of container, if it’s full or empty, the cargo ship that carried it, the time of the year and more.

Every time BlueCargo works with a new terminal, the startup collects past data and processes it to create a model. The team can then predict how BlueCargo can optimize the terminal.

“At Saint-Nazaire, we could save 22 percent on container shifting,” Griffon told me.

The company will test its solution in Saint-Nazaire in December. It integrates directly with existing ERP solutions. Cranes already scan container identification numbers. BlueCargo could then instantly push relevant information to crane operators so that they know where to put down a container.

Saint-Nazaire is a relatively small port compared to the biggest European ports. But the company is already talking with terminals in Long Beach, one of the largest container ports in the U.S.

BlueCargo also knows that it needs to tread carefully — many companies already promised magical IT solutions in the past. But it hasn’t changed much in seaports.

That’s why the startup wants to be as seamless as possible. It only charges fees based on shifting savings — 30 percent of what it would have cost you with the old model. And it doesn’t want to alter workflows for people working at terminals — it’s like an invisible crane that helps you work faster.

There are six dominant players managing terminals around the world. If BlueCargo can convince those companies to work with the startup, it would represent a good business opportunity.

Jan
23
2018
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Tradeshift Frontiers innovation lab hopes to drive blockchain adoption in the global supply chain

Today, Tradeshift, a procure-to-pay supply chain management platform for SMBs and enterprise, announced Tradeshift Frontiers.  Frontiers is an innovation lab and incubator that will focus on transforming supply chains through emerging technologies such as distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things. “The use cases we’re working through Frontiers cover… Read More

Dec
01
2017
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Flowspace is AWS for warehouses

 Got too much internet traffic? Get servers on demand from Amazon Web Services. Got too many pallets of physical goods? Well now you can get on-demand warehousing from Flowspace. The startup aims to become the next critical logistics service by making atoms as easy to store and ship as bits. Read More

Nov
28
2017
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Mapping company Here buys ATS to boost its over-the-air tech

 Here, the mapping company that powers location services in 100 million cars, is today announcing an acquisition to vastly improve how it distributes and updates its data. The company is buying Advanced Telematic Systems (ATS), a Berlin-based developer of secure over-the-air (OTA) technology, the basis for how wireless devices — including not just cars but smartphones and other… Read More

Oct
06
2017
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Flexport’s epic plan to build a freight empire with its $110M raise

 “We’re actually out here trying to create value, not just give venture capital money away” says Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. “It’s counterintuitive. The more the business works, the more cash it needs.” That’s because Flexport doesn’t ship bits, it ships atoms. Lots of them. Flexport is a freight forwarding logistics network. If you produce a… Read More

Jul
11
2017
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SAP wants to bridge the gap between IoT and business data

 SAP announced a new tool today called the Leonardo IoT Bridge designed to help bridge the gap between data coming from sensors in the field and business systems operating inside a firm.
The manufacturing sector is in the middle of a massive shift where machines are being equipped with sensors that transmit torrents of data about their health, and the environment around them, over the… Read More

Aug
01
2016
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Verizon buys Fleetmatics for $2.4B in cash to step up in telematics

shutterstock verizon sign Hot off the heels of its acquisition of Yahoo last week for $4.8 billion, today Verizon announced another huge purchase: it’s buying Fleetmatics, a telematics company based out of Dublin, Ireland, for $2.4 billion in cash, to build out the products that it offers to enterprises in the areas of logistics and workforces that are on the move. The deal will make Fleetmatics a part… Read More

Jun
23
2016
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Narvar raises $22 million to help internet retailers deliver physical goods without frustrating customers

A Sephora customer tracks their order with a Narvar-powered app. Battery Ventures led a $22 million, Series B investment in Narvar Inc., a company helping internet retailers keep their customers happy post-purchase, meaning until their packages are delivered, and if need be, successfully returned for an exchange or refund. Battery was joined by Fung Capital, a logistics-focused fund, and Narvar’s earlier backers Accel Partners and Freestyle… Read More

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