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An Astonishing 773 Million Records Exposed in Monster Breach

There are breaches, and there are megabreaches, and there’s Equifax. But a newly revealed trove of leaked data tops them all for sheer volume: 772,904,991 unique email addresses, over 21 million unique passwords, all recently posted to a hacking forum.

The data set was first reported by security researcher Troy Hunt, who maintains Have I Been Pwned, a way to search whether your own email or password has been compromised by a breach at any point. (Trick question: It has.) The so-called Collection #1 is the largest breach in Hunt’s menagerie, and it’s not particularly close.

The Hack

If anything, the above numbers belie the real volume of the breach, as they reflect Hunt’s effort to clean up the data set to account for duplicates and to strip out unusable bits. In raw form, it comprises 2.7 billion rows of email addresses and passwords, including over a billion unique combinations of email addresses and passwords.

The trove appeared briefly on MEGA, the cloud service, and persisted on what Hunt refers to as “a popular hacking forum.” It sat in a folder called Collection #1, which contained over 12,000 files that weigh in at over 87 gigabytes. While it’s difficult to confirm exactly where all that info came from, it appears to be something of a breach of breaches; that is to say, it claims to aggregate over 2,000 leaked databases that contain passwords whose protective hashing has been cracked.

“It just looks like a completely random collection of sites purely to maximize the number of credentials available to hackers,” Hunt tells WIRED. “There’s no obvious patterns, just maximum exposure.”

That sort of Voltron breach has happened before, but never on this scale. In fact, not only is this the largest breach to become public, it’s second only to Yahoo’s pair of incidents—which affected 1 billion and 3 billion users, respectively—in size. Fortunately, the stolen Yahoo data hasn’t surfaced. Yet.

Who’s Affected?

The accumulated lists seem designed for use in so-called credential-stuffing attacks, in which hackers throw email and password combinations at a given site or service. These are typically automated processes that prey especially on people who reuse passwords across the whole wide internet.

The silver lining in Collection #1 going public is that you can definitively find out if your email and password were among the impacted accounts. Hunt has already loaded them into Have I Been Pwned; just type in your email address and keep those fingers crossed. While you’re there you can also find out how many previous breaches you’ve been a victim of. Whatever password you’re using on those accounts, change it.

Have I Been Pwned also introduced a password-search feature a year and a half ago; you can just type in whatever passwords go with your most sensitive accounts to see if they’re out in the open. If they are, change them.

And while you’re at it, get a password manager. It’s well past time.

How Serious Is This?

Pretty darn serious! While it doesn’t appear to include more sensitive information, like credit card or Social Security numbers, Collection #1 is historic for scale alone. A few elements also make it especially unnerving. First, around 140 million email accounts and over 10 million unique passwords in Collection #1 are new to Hunt’s database, meaning they’re not just duplicates from prior megabreaches.

Then there’s the way in which those passwords are saved in Collection #1. “These are all plain text passwords. If we take a breach like Dropbox, there may have been 68 million unique email addresses in there, but the passwords were cryptographically hashes making them very difficult to use,” says Hunt. Instead, the only technical prowess someone with access to the folders needs to break into your accounts is the ability to scroll and click.

And lastly, Hunt also notes that all of these records were sitting not in some dark web backwater, but on one of the most popular cloud storage sites—until it got taken down—and then on a public hacking site. They weren’t even for sale; they were just available for anyone to take.

The usual advice for protecting yourself applies. Never reuse passwords across multiple sites; it increases your exposure by orders of magnitude. Get a password manager. Have I Been Pwned integrates directly into 1Password—automatically checking all of your passwords against its database—but you’ve got no shortage of good options. Enable app-based two-factor authentication on as many accounts as you can, so that a password isn’t your only line of defense. And if you do find your email address or one of your passwords in Have I Been Pwned, at least know that you’re in good company.


More Great WIRED Stories

Apple, Amazon called out for 'incorrect' Taiwan, Hong Kong references

TAIPEI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – One of China’s top government-linked think tanks has called out Apple Inc, Amazon.com Inc and other foreign companies for not referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China in a report that provoked a stern reaction from Taipei.

FILE PHOTO: An electronic screen displays the Apple Inc. logo on the exterior of the Nasdaq Market Site following the close of the day’s trading session in New York City, New York, U.S., August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said in a report this month that 66 of the world’s 500 largest companies had used “incorrect labels” for Taiwan and 53 had errors in the way they referred to Hong Kong, according to China’s Legal Daily newspaper. It said 45 had referred to both territories incorrectly.

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a wayward province of China and the former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and operates as a semi-autonomous territory.

China last year ramped up pressure on foreign companies including Marriott International and Qantas for referring to Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate from China in drop down menus or other material.

The report was co-written by CASS and the Internet Development Research Institution of Peking University. An official at the Internet Development Research Institution told Reuters that it had not yet been published to the public and declined to provide a copy.

A spokesman for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not bow to Chinese pressure.

“As for China’s related out-of-control actions, we need to remind the international community to face this squarely and to unite efforts to reduce and contain these actions,” Alex Huang told reporters in Taipei.

Beijing has stepped up pressure on Taiwan since Tsai, from the pro-independence ruling party, took office in 2016.

That has included rising Chinese scrutiny over how companies from airlines, such as Air Canada, to retailers, such as Gap, refer to the democratic island in recent months.

Nike Inc, Siemens AG, ABB, Subaru and others were also on the list. Apple, Amazon, ABB, Siemens, Subaru and Nike did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Reporting By Yimou Lee, Jess Macy Yu, Josh Horwitz; Additional Reporting by Shanghai Newsroom, Gao Liangping, Cate Cadell, Pei Li, Brenda Goh and Naomi Tajitsu in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie

On the autofarm: China turns to driverless tractors, combines to overhaul agriculture

Xinghua, China (Reuters) – A brand new combine harvester buzzes up and down a field in eastern China without a driver on board, chopping golden rice stalks and offering a glimpse of what authorities say is the automated future of the nation’s mammoth agricultural sector.

Staff members taking part in the experiment on automated farming machinery load fertilizer onto an automated tractor near a field in Xinghua, Jiangsu province, China October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Hallie Gu

The bright green prototype was operating last autumn during a trial of driverless farm equipment as the government pushes firms to develop within 7 years fully-automated machinery capable of planting, fertilizing and harvesting each of China’s staple crops – rice, wheat and corn.

That shift to automation is key to the farming sector in the world’s No.2 economy as it grapples with an ageing rural workforce and a dearth of young people willing to endure the hardships many associate with toiling on the land.

Other countries like Australia and the United States are taking similar steps in the face of such demographic pressures, but the sheer scale of China’s farming industry means the stakes are particularly high in its drive to automate agriculture.

“Automated farming is the way ahead and demand for it here is huge,” said Cheng Yue, general manager of tractor maker Changzhou Dongfeng CVT Co Ltd, which provided an autonomous vehicle that was also used at the trial in the rice field in Xinghua, a county in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

However, the road to automation is long and littered with obstacles such as high costs, the nation’s varied terrain and the small size of many of its farms.

“I have heard of driverless tractors. But I don’t think they are practical, especially the really large ones,” said Li Guoyong, a wheat farmer in China’s northern Hebei province.

Most farms in his area are only a few hectares in size, he said by phone.

GOING LOCAL

To try to achieve its ambitious 7-year goal, Beijing is supporting trials of local technology across the country organised by industry group Telematics Industry Application Alliance (TIAA).

Members include state-owned tractor maker YTO Group, navigation systems producer Hwa Create and Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Co Ltd, which helped develop the combine harvester used in the Xinghua trial along with Jiangsu University.

The next trials are slated for the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and for the hills around the southwestern city of Chongqing in the first half of this year.

Those come after a string of automated developments in the sector.

YTO developed its first driverless tractor in 2017 and is aiming to start mass production soon, depending on market demand, said Lei Jun, an executive at the firm’s technology center, without giving a more detailed timeline.

Lovol Heavy Industry Co Ltd signed a deal with Baidu in April to apply the tech giant’s Apollo automated driving system to its agricultural machinery.

“China is expected to climb the autonomous technology ladder very quickly, mainly because Chinese companies can access the local navigation satellite system, which gives them an advantage over their international peers,” said Alexious Lee, Head of China Industrial Research at Hong Kong brokerage CLSA.

He was referring to China’s ‘Beidou’ homegrown satellite navigation system, a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).

Beijing has included agricultural machinery in its ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign, meaning the vast majority of its farm equipment should be produced at home by that time.

Semi-automated technology is already fairly common on farms in places such as the United States, but fully-automated tractors and combines have yet to be mass-produced anywhere.

TOO SMALL

But with many Chinese farms still too small for a regular tractor, driverless ones that could be as high as four times more expensive at around $90,000 will be a long way out of reach for many in the short-term.

More than 90 percent of farms in China are less than 1 hectare, while in the United States nearly 90 percent are larger than 5 hectares.

“It is not about whether you have the product. It is about the entire system. It is about commercializing agriculture,” said Lee.

Although analysts and industry officials said that the underlying trend would be for farms to get larger as ongoing reforms to land rights should allow farmers to lease more space.

Sensors in equipment that help monitor crop conditions also need to be improved so that machines can adjust more quickly to different situations, said Wei Xinhua, deputy director of the school of agriculture equipment engineering at Jiangsu University.

China’s $60 billion farm machinery industry has been burdened by overcapacity and low profit-margins after a years-long subsidy scheme to promote mechanization in farming led to mass production of low-quality tractors. Analysts said it was too early to say how much the automated farming machinery sector could eventually be worth.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Automated farming machines are also useful in recording data on details such as volumes of fertilisers or other materials used in churning out crops, potentially helping farmers target consumers demanding higher-quality produce as some of that information could be included on food labels.

“Take a bowl of rice. I want to know exactly how it was planted, and how much fertilizer or pesticide was applied to it,” said Cheng at Changzhou Dongfeng.

($1 = 6.8450 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton; Editing by Joseph Radford

HSBC settles forex deals worth $250 billion on blockchain in last year

FILE PHOTO: HSBC’s building in Canary Wharf is seen behind a City of London sign outside Billingsgate Market in London, Britain, August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters) – HSBC (HSBA.L) has settled $250 billion worth of forex trades using blockchain in the last year, it said on Monday, suggesting the heavily hyped technology is gaining traction in a sector until now hesitant to embrace it.

The bank has settled over three million forex trades and made over 150,000 payments since February using blockchain, it said in a statement. HSBC would not give data on forex trades settled by traditional processes, saying only that those settled by blockchain represented a “small” proportion.

Still, the data marks a significant milestone in the use of blockchain by mainstream finance, which has until now been reluctant to start using the technology at any scale.

Blockchain is a shared database that can process and settle transactions in minutes. Originally conceived to underpin the cryptocurrency bitcoin, the technology does not require third-parties for checks and its entries cannot be changed, making it highly secure.

Banks and other financial firms have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology, hoping it will simplify and slash costs in processes from settlements to payments.

But few banks moved from testing to implementation of blockchain in large-scale projects. Many are worried about high costs, uncertainty over regulation and the risk of disruption to existing systems.

HSBC said its blockchain technology has automated manual processes and reduced its reliance on external technology.

Blockchain has also lowered the risks of errors and delays, cut costs, and helped the bank to better optimize its balance sheet, it said.

Richard Bibbey, the bank’s acting head of forex and commodities, said in a statement the bank was looking at how the technology could help multinational clients better manage forex flows.

Reporting by Tom Wilson, Editing by William Maclean

The Final Season of 'Game of Thrones' Has a Launch Date

Happy Monday, and welcome to another installment of The Monitor, WIRED’s roundup of the latest in the world of culture. In today’s news, HBO has finally coughed up a release date for the final season of Game of Thrones, Netflix is facing a lawsuit, and it looks like the Super Bowl won’t be marooned without a halftime show act.

Finally, a Date to Watch the Thrones

Always one to keep fans waiting in anticipation, HBO waited until three months out before to announce the launch date for Season 8 of Game of Thrones. Sunday night, just before the season premiere of True Detective, the network aired a teaser revealing that the epic fantasy’s final run will begin on April 14. What will the show look like when it does return? Snowy, as the Stark children—Arya, Sansa, Jon Snow—are about to confront some family demons at Winterfell. Or, at least, that’s what it seems like if the show’s new vague-as-hell-trailer is to be believed. Don’t worry, we’re sure plenty of third cousins you don’t remember will show up as well. And maybe Ed Sheeran.

[embedded content]

If You Want to Sue Netflix, Turn to Page Petty-Seven

In “Huh, didn’t see that coming!” news—there’s a lot of that these days, admittedly—Chooseco, the publisher behind the Choose Your Own Adventure books, is suing Netflix over its interactive Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch. In the interactive episode, a young videogame programmer designs a game based on a “choose your own adventure” book, and the episode itself lets viewers make choices about what the characters will do in the story. Chooseco’s suit claims it has the trademark to the phrase “choose your own adventure” and that Netflix doesn’t have a license to use it. The company is seeking at least $25 million in damages, though it’s also possible that if the judge doesn’t like the way the arguments proceed, she’ll just bang her gavel and restart things from an earlier point.

Hold Up, Is That Adam Levine?!

After Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z, and others reportedly passed on the gig, the NFL announced Sunday that Maroon 5 will be playing the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl. The band—along with Big Boi and Travis Scott, who are joining them in hopes of stemming a mass Puppy Bowl exodus—will bring their Jagger-like moves to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on February 3. And while he’s not part of the proceedings, we can only hope A$AP Ferg is nearby, his long quest at an end.


More Great WIRED Stories

Huawei Canada executive leaves post as scrutiny of company grows

NEW YORK/OTTAWA (Reuters) – One of Huawei Canada’s top executives on Friday disclosed he was leaving his post after more than seven years with the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker, which is facing heightened scrutiny over security issues from Canada and its allies.

FILE PHOTO: Huawei Canada Vice President of Corporate Affairs Scott Bradley stands outside after the B.C. Supreme Court bail hearing of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was released on a $10 million bail in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

Scott Bradley disclosed his departure as the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs in a post on LinkedIn that did not give a reason for the move. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Huawei Technologies Co is under intense scrutiny in the West over its relationship with the Chinese government and U.S.-led allegations that its equipment could be used by Beijing for spying.

On Friday, sources told Reuters that Poland arrested a Huawei employee and former Polish security official on spying allegations, a move that could fuel Western concerns about the security of the company’s technology.

Bradley was a key public spokesman for Huawei Canada, which has been under the spotlight since Canadian authorities in December arrested the chief financial officer of its parent company at the request of the United States.

Huawei is a major supplier of telecommunications equipment in Canada, where Bradley had served as chair of the 5G Canada Council, a national trade group promoting adoption of next-generation high-speed wireless technology.

The Canadian government last year launched a new security review of Huawei’s 5G technology, which at least two major Canadian carriers have said they plan to test in small-scale pilots.

Bradley will serve as special adviser to the company, assisting the company “as required,” Huawei Canada President Eric Li said in a memo to staff that was obtained by Reuters.

“We are saddened to see him leave but grateful for the tireless work he has put in to help us grow our brand and public image, and build various relationships with government,” Li said.

Bradley confirmed on LinkedIn that he intended to advise the company.

“As we start 2019, it is time for a change,” Bradley said in the post. “I continue to believe passionately in all of the values our Canadian team represents, and I believe that our team is one of the most innovative in the world.”

Jim Finkle in New York and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Tom Brown

Ockam provides easy to deploy identity, trust, and interoperability for IoT developers

Featured stories

Maybe you’re not going to buy a $7,000 smart toilet, but the Internet of Things (IoT) is on its way to your home and office. Silly gadgets aside, IoT device inventors face many programming challenges. It’s hard adding identity, trust, and interoperability to IoT hardware. The Ockam startup will change this for the better.

Customers want IoT devices to be trustworthy and work with other vendors gear. Programmers know that’s easier said than done. Many IoT vendors’ answer is to not bother to add sufficient security or interoperability to their gadgets. This leads to one IoT security problem after another.

Ockam’s answer is to make it easy to add identity, trust, and interoperability by providing programmers with the open-source, Apache-licensed Ockam Software Developer Kit (SDK). With it, developers can add these important features to their devices without a deep understanding of secure IoT network architecture or cryptographic key identity management.

Also: Internet of Things (IoT): Cheat sheet TechRepublic

This is provided by a Golang library and a Command Line Interface (CLI). Additional languages, features, and tools will be supported in future releases.

Once properly embedded within a device’s firmware, the Ockam SDK enables the device to become an Ockam Blockchain Network (OBN) client. OBN provides a decentralized, open platform with high throughput and low latency. It also provides the infrastructure and protocols underpinning Ockam’s SDK.

Devices are assigned a unique Decentralized ID (DID). The DID is cryptographically secure identities for an array of entities. While used primarily to identify devices, it can also represent people, organizations, or other entities. With this, developers can codify complex graph relationships between people, organizations, devices, and assets.

Once on OBN, devices can can share data as verified claims with any other registered network device. This is secured by Ockam-provided, blockchain-powered Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).  Devices can also verify data that they receive from other registered OBN IoT devices. OBN is free of charge for developers until its general availability release later this year.

This may all sound complex, but the complexities are hidden away behind its serverless architecture: A developer only needs the SDK. OBN’s complications, such as PKI, are abstracted away.

Some of Ockam’s structure may sound familiar. That’s because it’s taking a page from Twilio. Just like Twilio provides a common layer between telecommunications infrastructure and developers, to make it easy to incorporate messaging into applications, Ockam provides a “common rail” for adding secure identify to IoT devices. With a single line of code, Ockam enables developer to provision an immutable identity to a device.

Also: 7 ways to use Alexa around the office CNET

OBN is built on Microsoft Azure confidential compute. Microsoft Engineering is a dedicated technical partner, and Ockam CEO Matthew Gregory led Azure’s open-source software developer platform strategy.

Together, Ockam and OBN provides a backbone for the next generation of high performance IoT ecosystems. Ockam is interoperable and built for multi-party IoT networks. So, in theory, your devices will be able to work with other vendor’s gear.

According to Yorke Rhodes, co-founder of blockchain at Microsoft Azure: “Ockam’s team is best in class, bringing together skills and experience in enterprise, IoT, secure compute, scale-up, and Azure. We are thrilled to be collaborating with them on their innovative solution for the IoT developer community.”

I don’t know about “thrilled,” but I do know if I were building IoT devices, which I want to work and play well and securely with other devices, I’d be working with Ockam. It promises to make high-quality IoT development much easier.

Related Stories:

Get to Know Jeff Bezos’ Almost-Ex, MacKenzie Bezos, Who Could Soon Be One of the World’s Richest Women

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. While the Amazon founder’s name is well known, the news has left some people wondering, who is MacKenzie Bezos? Who is the wife of the richest man in the world, someone who has led a relatively private life as the partner of the powerful founder and executive?

MacKenzie Bezos was also instrumental in the founding of Amazon in 1994, a year after marrying Jeff in 1993. She was one of the first employees at the online bookseller, according to USA Today. MacKenzie and Jeff were married six months after they first met at Wall Street hedge fund firm D.E. Shaw, where Jeff was a vice president and interviewed MacKenzie. Together, they have four children.

But she is perhaps best known as the author of several novels, including Traps and her debut, The Testing of Luther Albright, which won an American Book Award. She studied at Princeton University and served as a research assistant to famed author Toni Morrison, who called Bezos “one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative-writing classes” in a 2013 Vogue profile. And in 2014, she founded an anti-bullying organization, Bystander Revolution.

In 2018, the Bezoses also jointly committed $2 billion of their combined fortune to create the Day One Fund, which will fund a network of preschools in low-income communities as well as support existing nonprofits that assist homeless families.

MacKenzie may also soon be one of the world’s richest women. Jeff Bezos is worth roughly $139 billion, and under communal property laws in Washington State, that could mean each individual Bezos could walk away from the marriage with around $69.5 billion. That would make MacKenzie roughly 26 times richer than Oprah Winfrey and 100 times richer than the Queen of England, according to Marketwatch. She would also end up with some serious real estate holdings, as the Bezoses reportedly own at least five homes around the country.

Jeff Bezos announced the couple’s plan to divorce in a tweet posted Wednesday. MacKenzie Bezos has yet to release her own statement.

5 Key Steps to Convert Your Idea Into a Business

In my role as a new business advisor and occasional investor, I hear lots of people talking about their dreams of “someday” starting and running a new venture.

They can talk with passion about their innovative new idea, and ask lots of questions, but never seem to really get started. The challenge we all have as business founders is to move from the idea stage to a real business.

The solution I recommend is to move forward with a few quantifiable steps, to turn your dreams into specific goals and milestones, and then measure your progress and celebrate each small success in achieving these goals and milestones.

I found these bite-sized chunks to be far more achievable and satisfying than making that one big step from your dream to a success business:

1. Get the idea out of your head and onto paper.

Even if it’s only a few PowerPoint slides or typed paragraphs, writing something down is the first step toward making it real. 

he process will force you solidify the specifics, and mentally commit to them. Always write in the future tense, what you will do, and name yourself as the key person responsible.

Before you know it, you will have a ten-slide pitch that you can use to gauge interest from potential customers, as well as friends, family, and early investors. Suddenly you will find that writing a ten-to-twenty page business plan with details is easy rather than daunting.

2. Create a specific plan to network to get the help you need.

If you need funding, make a list of people you know who might help, and plan to attend specific business events where you can use your pitch and written plan.

Do the same for partners and co-founders that will buttress your strengths. Consult with business peers to learn what you need.

Take the initiative to join recognized new business support groups and the local chapter of relevant industry associations to meet people you can help, as well as people who can help you. Don’t forget the local Chamber of Commerce and local business executives.

3. Set target date milestones and metrics to gauge progress.

Pick a reasonable desired business rollout date, and work backward, assigning completion dates to all the interim tasks required.

Quantify expected results, and the measurements you will use. Your goal should be smaller chunks and more milestones, allowing regular celebration of progress.

For example, every business needs a company name and logo, incorporation, an Internet domain name and website, social media accounts, prototypes, intellectual property, and key executive positions filled. Set milestones for each and measure progress to success.

4. Take action on your plan, and finish something every day.

You need to build momentum, and every milestone completion builds momentum. Celebrate each step forward, and check off completions to keep the team motivated and moving forward.

Don’t get caught up in the crisis of the day, or be satisfied with just working hard.

Now is the time to build your company culture, and make it one with a can-do attitude, team collaboration, and empowered people with a constant focus on the customer. Also, your culture must be not afraid to pivot and to adapt your plan as things change.

5. Narrow your focus daily to the key things that really matter.

Dilution of focus kills too many small businesses, as they try to attract more customers and counter more competitors. The best are determined to do one thing well, rather than many things poorly, with limited resources. Time is also of the essence, so make your impact early.

I once worked in a software startup that continually delayed initial shipment to add new features, based on feedback from early adopters and competitor concerns. The result was a product that was bloated and late to market. I recommend the minimum viable product (MVP) strategy.

For aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, ideas will not turn into businesses, no matter how long you wait, or how hard you work, until someone builds and executes a plan with specific milestones and expected results.

If your dream is to change the world in your lifetime, now is the time to stop dreaming and start executing.

Will Microsoft Break the Internet?

When the Internet became popular in early 1990s, Microsoft was late to the partly. In a desperate catch-up move, Microsoft decided to drive Netscape (the most popular browser of the time) out of business by grafting Internet Explorer onto Windows.

The U.S. government slapped Microsoft with an anti-monopoly lawsuit, which hung around in court for about a decade, by which time Netscape had become an historical footnote, rendering the issue moot.

By that time, though, Microsoft no longer dominated high tech. Industry growth was shifting to up-and-comers like Google and Facebook, as well as a resurgent Apple. And so it remains today: Microsoft is too big to ignore but, frankly, about as exciting as IBM.

All that might change in the next few years, though, according to a recent article in Business Insider. Turns out that Microsoft is quietly testing a product, code-named “Bali,” that would completely disrupt and even destroy the business models of its chief rivals.

Today, online firms gather information about us, and use that information to increase the effectiveness of the ads they display by better targeting them to prospective buyers. Under this business model, Facebook and Google get 90% of the world’s online ad revenue.

Microsoft’s Bali turns that equation around. With Bali, you own your personal online data, which you can (if you choose) sell to the companies that want to target you with ads. Facebook and Google would only know what you want them to know.

Everything about you would, by default, be private. If you wanted it to remain so, fine. But you’d also have the choice to tell Facebook, Google and other online firms that “you can track me and sell ads to me but only if I get a piece of the action.”

In short, you’d get paid to use the Internet.

Will it work? Well, in the wake of multiple privacy scandals, this seems like an idea whose time has definitely come. And there’s no question whatsoever that Microsoft has the technical chops to develop and bulletproof the environment.

On the downside, though, Microsoft’s most successful products (Windows, Xbox, Azure, etc.) are imitations of innovations from other firms. The company’s track record launching something completely new is spotty, at best.

Still, if Microsoft pulls this off and Bali catches on, Microsoft might easily find itself in the same enviable position of massive market dominance it had back before the Internet upended their erstwhile Windows monopoly.

Frankly, I’m not sure I want Microsoft to have that kind of power. I am sure of this, though: if a single company is destined to dominate the future of the Web, I’d damn sight rather it be Microsoft than Facebook.

Before You Quit Your Day Job for a Startup, Make Sure You Can Answer These 7 Questions

I’ve heard pitches from more than 20,000 entrepreneurs over the last two decades.  The top question I’m asked (other than “Will you invest in me?”) is, “Is my idea any good?”

Wantreprneuers from far and wide track me down to get my blessing before they quit their well-paying job to start a startup. Over the decades and in conjunction with other angel investors and venture capitalists, I’ve developed a seven-question list that potential founders should ask themselves before coming to ask me.

If your answer to all seven of these questions is “yes,” your idea is probably excellent. If not, you have some work to do.

1. Are you obsessed with the industry, customers, or problem?

Successful founders love what they do. They would learn about the industry, customer segment or problem even if they weren’t being paid. To be successful, you must be obsessive about your startup opportunity.

The difference between obsessive and caring is quite large. Caring is a given, and it’s not enough. Being obsessive means that you think about something dozens a time a day. If you aren’t obsessive, you won’t be able to accumulate the insights needed to garner strategic advantage–insights that only come from focusing on something for thousands of hours. 

2. Can you build the solution? 

Ideas are worthless until combined with relentless execution. You must be able to execute both your idea and your product. At the very least, you need to be able to create a prototype or minimum viable product, something you can get into the hands of early adopters and generate early proof of concept traction.

3. How elastic is demand?

Pain killer or vitamin? Cost saver or revenue generator? The best opportunities solve unmet market needs where demand is inelastic. This yields better margins in the long run and quicker traction in the short run.

Your opportunity must satisfy a need, not a want. A need is something you can’t live without. Air, water, and food are the classic examples. A want is something you can live without, like fancy shoes or expensive cars.

As the price of wants go up, demand for them peters out. Startups that satisfy needs will always have easier times attracting early adopters and generating revenue. 

4. Is the market large and growing?

Today, the market for anti-hacker security is hot. The market for thoroughbred horseshoes is not. Why focus on a small win? You’re investing your blood, sweat, and tears. Make sure the win is worth it.

By the way, the risk is actually much greater when you focus on a niche. Since you have less pool to swim in, you have less chance to learn through iteration. Always focus on bringing your solution into a market that is large and growing. It’s OK to start with a niche, but there must be lots of room to grow.

5. Are you exponentially better?

If you’re entering an extant market, you’re automatically at a disadvantage with sunk costs and less brand recognition than your competitors. To overcome that, you must be ten times faster, cheaper, stronger, and lighter than every other company in your industry to get people to switch from incumbent products.

Netflix killed Blockbuster by offering ten times the quantity of content at one-tenth the cost. Your solution must be exponentially better than any alternatives.

6. Are you ready to go all in? 

Design thinking and the Lean Startup method allow you to start most businesses as a side hustle. Your long-term goal still needs to be full time, all the time, all in. No one has ever changed the world with half measures.

7. Do you have frictionless access to early adopters?

Early adopters are customers who have the problem you solve, and are currently trying to solve that problem with a radically less efficient method. Before spell-check software, we used third party proofreaders, which were ten times more expensive and time consuming.

To be successful, you need a clear and low cost to get early adopters and turn them into your beachhead. Make sure you’re able to get your product directly to customers.

Samsung, Huawei supply majority of own modem chips, Qualcomm says

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Reuters) – The two largest smart phone makers in the world supply a majority of their own modem chips to help their devices connect to wireless data networks, according to evidence presented at an antitrust trial for chip supplier Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O).

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Qualcomm is seen during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

A trial between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm kicked off in a federal courtroom in California on Friday, with the regulators arguing that Qualcomm engaged in anticompetitive patent licensing practices to preserve a monopoly on modem chips. The case is being closely watched because it may shed light on the likely eventual outcome of the global legal battle between Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Qualcomm.

Apple has alleged that Qualcomm engaged in illegal business practices, and Qualcomm in turn has alleged Apple violated its patents, scoring victories in China and Germany last month.

Qualcomm has argued its licensing practices follow long-established industry norms and that it charges broadly the same licensing rates that it had for many years before it ever started selling chips.

That has become a big market for Qualcomm, which controlled 59.6 percent of the $15.3 billion market for 4G modem chips in 2017, according to IDC’s Phil Solis, who studies mobile chips for the research firm.

But Bob Van Nest, an attorney representing Qualcomm in the case, also sought to show that Qualcomm is not dominant in the world’s two biggest handset makers.

During opening arguments, Van Nest’s presentation said that Huawei [HWT.UL] internally sources 54 percent of the modem chips it puts in its devices and gets only 22 percent of its modems from Qualcomm, with the remainder coming from other unnamed makers. Samsung (005930.KS) internally sources 52 percent of the modem chips it uses, with 38 percent from Qualcomm and the rest from other makers, according to the presentation.

Huawei and Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Also, the FTC’s case centers not on the overall modem chip market – which includes slower chips that go into cheaper handsets – but rather the market for speedy “premium” chips where Qualcomm is among the only options.

Huawei and Samsung are both large diversified technology corporations that make many other products aside from premium-priced smart phones. Huawei’s HiSilicon unit supplies the chips for its high-end phones such as its Mate and P series. Samsung’s chip division supplies processors and other components for many of its handsets and is also a dominant global supplier of memory chips beyond its own products.

The two firms are also Apple’s fiercest rivals in the market for premium smart phones costing $700 or more. Apple depends entirely on Intel Corp (INTC.O) and Qualcomm for modem chips, though the iPhones released in 2018 use Intel modems exclusively.

Technology news publication The Information last month reported here that Apple was designing its own modem chip, citing Apple job listings and a source briefed on Apple’s plans. Apple declined to comment on its plans.

For the second quarter of 2018 – the most recent figures available from IDC – Apple was the third-largest smart phone supplier by volume, with Samsung and Huawei in first and second place, respectively.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by James Dalgleish

The Simple Engineering That Will Keep NYC's L Train Rolling

Ever since the last of the brackish water slithered out of the Canarsie Tunnel in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers have been bracing for the pain. Public transit officials have long warned that the water damage to the 94-year-old tunnel, full of just-as-old subway equipment, would eventually require a long, painful, deeply inconvenient rehabilitation. That’s the tunnel that runs under the East River, carrying many of the L subway train’s 400,000 daily riders from popular Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick into Manhattan.

The surgery was scheduled for April 2019, when the stretch of L train that takes New Yorkers across Manhattan and into Brooklyn was scheduled to shut down for a 15-month repair job. Ahead of what they officially deemed the “L-pocalypse,” local officials created piles of plans to ramp up bus service, encourage biking, and run new ferry routes, and everything else they could think of to keep all those commuters from taking to cars and making already bad traffic fully catastrophic.

Those plans (as well as wilder ones proposed by concerned citizens) became a lot less necessary Thursday morning, when Governor Andrew Cuomo called a surprise press conference to proclaim that no, the L train won’t close completely, and yes, it will still be fixed for the future.

The new plan for the next few years is to keep the train open and running as normal during weekdays, whilst doing repairs on nights and weekends (the details remain fuzzy). The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, has yet to adopt the new plan, which was proposed by a commission of half a dozen engineers based at Columbia and Cornell Universities that Cuomo assembled last month, two years after the decision was made to close the line. But the agency put out a press release Thursday afternoon saying it “accepted the recommendations.”

Curious politics are clearly at work here, but New Yorkers are unlikely to care, as long as the subway keeps running. And if it does, it’ll be thanks to two bits of subway engineering infrastructure: benchwalls and cable racking.

Let’s start with benchwalls. If the train stopped in the tunnel and you had to get out, these are the stretches of concrete, running along each wall and resembling big benches, that you’d be walking on. Facilitating emergency exits is one of their main functions—without them, you’d have to jump out of the train, onto the ground and risk hitting the third rail. Benchwalls also hold most of the goodies that make the subway work, including the power and communications cables. When workers were building the line, which started service in 1924, putting the cables in the concrete was the best way to protect them from things like hungry rats and water damage.

Over the past century, those benchwalls have started to deteriorate, a process accelerated by the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Explaining its full shutdown plan in 2016, the MTA said the tunnel’s bench walls “must be replaced to protect the structural integrity of the two tubes [east and west] that carry trains through the tunnel.”

Replacing these things involves jackhammering away concrete, removing the rubble, replacing the cabling inside, setting new concrete, and having it dry. It’s work you can’t do overnight or on weekends, because any one section takes several days. And you can’t run trains without leaving a walkway to lead people to safety in an emergency.

The new plan involves giving those benchwalls a bit of a demotion. They’ll still be used for emergency egress, but they won’t hold the cables anymore. Instead, the L train will use a “cable racking” system, in which new power and comms lines will be strung up and attached to the sides of the tunnel, above the benchwalls. Turns out, their protective jacketing has advanced since the Prohibition Era. “We’ve had tremendous progress in materials,” says Peter Kinget, a Cornell electrical engineer who served on the panel. , If the jacketing catches fire, it doesn’t produce noxious fumes. It’s impervious to vermin and H2O, obviating the need for the concrete armor. The workers will also shore up the sections of benchwall that are crumbling with fiber reinforced polymer, Cuomo says, leaving the old, inactive cables entombed inside.

That decoupling of the benchwall’s duties is a big deal, because it makes the work much easier to execute. You can cut back service at night and on weekends (by running trains in just one of the tunnel’s twin tubes) and have workers slip underground, setting up the racks and new cables segment by segment. During normal hours, the train operates as it usually does, pulling power from the cables already in the benchwalls. Once the work is done, the MTA will switch the trains over to the new set of cords.

Cable racking has been used for new metro lines in London, Hong Kong, and the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Cuomo says. This would be its first use in the US, and the first time it’s been used to fix up an existing line.

“It’s a clever solution,” says Matt Cunningham, a civil engineer and global director of infrastructure for Canadian engineering firm IBI. It’s cheaper and easier than replacing all the cable-filled benchwalls, and it’s a proven method. “It’s going to work.”

Which brings up the unanswered question of why this idea is just surfacing now. Why not before the MTA decided on the full shutdown, then spent two years preparing for it? It makes Cuomo the politician who averted the traffic-spewing L-pocalypse—but it also makes one wonder why he didn’t come to the rescue earlier. (He’s been governor of New York since 2011.) In his press conference, he presented this as new solution, which is true if you compare it to the techniques used to build the subway in the previous century, but not if you take a slightly narrower view. “It’s not new technology that’s only now become available,” Cunningham says.

Of course, limiting service during nights and weekends to make this fix will still inflict some suffering, and the MTA has a terrible record of mismanaging this sort of operation, so any promises about deadlines or costs should be doubted. “You’re not getting a root canal on five teeth, you’re getting a root canal on three teeth,” says Allan Rutter, of Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. “There’s gonna be pain.”

In infrastructure as well as in dental surgery, you’ve got to accept some drilling and discomfort. But less is definitely more.


More Great WIRED Stories

How Can We Best Prepare for Job Automation?

The best way to prepare is to transition away from things that are largely routine and predictable. Try to find a role that is largely focused on tasks that are not easy to automate.

I think this generally includes 3 areas:

  1. Creative work — where you are building something new, thinking outside the box in non-predictable ways, etc.
  2. Human-centered work — where you build sophisticated relationships with people. This would include caring roles, as with a nurse or social worker, but also business roles where you need a need understanding of your clients.
  3. Skilled trade work — this includes jobs that require lots of mobility, dexterity and flexibility in unpredictable environments. Examples would be electricians or plumbers. Building a robot that can do these jobs is probably far in the future.

What you do NOT want is to be the person who’s only role is to sit in front of a computer performing some predictable task–like cranking out the same report again and again. If you have a job like this you should worry and look to transition in other roles in the 3 areas I listed above.

One very important part of adapting is to realize that future careers will nearly all require continuous learning. So whether you are concerned with yourself or your children, a focus on learning–getting good at it and truly enjoying it–will be one of the most important components of success.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

Published on: Jan 3, 2019

The 10 Most Googled People of 2018 (Who'd You Look Up?)

There’s perhaps no better log of what’s on your mind than your browser search history. (Who hasn’t deleted their search history on a shared computer?)

It stands to reason, then, that getting a window into our collective psyche is as simple as perusing Google’s list of most-searched terms of the year. Google recently released The Year In Search–a comprehensive breakdown of everything we searched for this year, organized by category.

So what was on our minds in 2018? When it comes to people, these individuals were. Don’t worry–if you don’t know one … I Googled it for you:

10. Cardi B

American rapper whose standout hits include Bodak Yellow and this year’s breakout, I Like It, which currently has 674M streams on Spotify and counting. 

9. Stormy Daniels

Her legal name is Stephanie Clifford, and she is an American stripper, porn star, and director who got into a legal battle with Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen this year. Trump and company paid Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet about an affair she says had with Trump in 2006.

8. Hailey Baldwin

Daughter of Stephen Baldwin, she’s a model and TV personality who married Justin Bieber this year. While legally married, the couple has yet to stage a large-scale wedding with family and friends.

7. Brett Kavanaugh

A polarizing figure, Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court this year following what some described as an excruciating and exhausting battle for confirmation. Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against him. 

6. Jair Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in October, 2018. A very right-wing figure, many have compared him to Trump.

5. Khloé Kardashian

Younger sister of Kim Kardashian, Khloe nearly broke the internet this year when she had her baby girl, True Thompson, in April 2018.

4. Logan Paul

On December 31, 2017, controversial vlogger Paul uploaded a YouTube video showing the corpse of a suicide victim. The video gained 6.3M views within 24 hours, sparked outrage on many fronts, and almost cost Paul his YouTube channel. Paul has since been reinstated on the platform and contributed $1M to suicide prevention agencies.

3. Sylvester Stallone

Stallone did not die this past year, but a lot of people feared otherwise. In February, popular searches included “Sylvester Stallone dead 2018” and “Did sylvester stallone die.” The countries where the hoax was passed around the most? South Africa, Ghana, and Bolivia (the U.S. came in 22nd on the list of Stallone searches).

2. Demi Lovato

A Grammy-nominated musical artist, Lovato was hospitalized this year for a suspected overdose. “I have always been transparent about my journey with addiction,” Lovato said on social media. “What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time. It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet. I will keep fighting.”

1. Meghan Markle

Markle married Prince Harry in a royal wedding this year, the guest list of which included Serena Williams, George Clooney, Oprah, Elton John, and the Spice Girls.

General Electric's Healthcare IPO Is Actually Just What The Doctor Ordered

2018 has been an eventful year for General Electric (GE) and its shareholders, as this storied company will finish the year with a new CEO, Mr. Larry Culp, and in the midst of major restructuring efforts (not the first time hearing this, right?). As such, it should come as no surprise that GE shares have significantly underperformed the broader market over the last 12 months.

Chart

GE data by YCharts

Yes, it has been that bad. GE is positioned to spin/sell off several major businesses, including GE Healthcare, and I believe that most of the bad news is already baked into the stock. However, as I described in GE: It Ain’t Goin’ Be Easy, it is going to be tough sledding to turn around this large conglomerate, but, in my opinion, Mr. Culp is the right guy for the job. But, it is important to also remember that Mr. Culp and team have some great assets that can be utilized to jump start the recovery process, and it all starts with the GE Healthcare spinoff, in my mind.

Therefore, while I agree with many of the points made in General Electric Healthcare IPO Is Too Risky In This Environment, I believe that the GE Healthcare spinoff is just what the doctor ordered, even in this market.

GE Healthcare, Just What The Doctor Ordered

The GE Healthcare spinoff should be viewed as a direct attempt to unlock shareholder value. Many people ask why it would make sense for GE to get rid of a promising business like GE Healthcare, and while it would be great if a large collection of “good” businesses could be managed under one umbrella, I believe that it is now time for GE to create a more focused, simpler business.

Source: GE, Investor Presentation

To the point of unlocking shareholder value, GE Healthcare does not get the respect/love that it deserves from the market so, at the end of the day, something has to be done. In my mind, this is the overarching reason to proceed with a spinoff.

Let’s consider a few important points:

1) A promising business with an impressive track record

GE Healthcare is a growing business that has been able to report strong operating results over the last five years.

Source: 2017 10-K

The segment’s revenue is up single digits (5%) over the last five years, but, more importantly, profit is up by an impressive 13%. Additionally, management has been able to improve GE Healthcare’s operating profit margin by over 100 bps.

$ – in mil 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 (Chg ’13 to ’17)
Revenue $19,116 $18,291 $17,639 $18,299 $18,200 $916
Chg 5% 4% -4% 1% 5%
Profit $3,448 $3,161 $2,882 $3,047 $3,048 $400
Chg 9% 10% -5% 0% 13%
Operating Profit Margin 18.0% 17.3% 16.3% 16.7% 16.7% 1.3%
8%

2) The recent results for GE Healthcare tell a similar story

Over the first nine months of 2018, GE Healthcare’s operating results show that this business unit is in a great position heading into 2019.

Source: Q3 2018 10-Q

And management has continued to improve the unit’s cost structure, as shown by the fact that the profit margin is up 50 bps YoY.

Source: Q3 2018 10-Q

3) What really matters, it’s all about creating value

The takeaway from the first two points is: GE Healthcare is a collection of assets with promising business prospects, and the numbers prove it. When taking a step back, I believe that the benefits of a GE Healthcare spinoff are threefold: (1) GE Healthcare will be valued like it should be, (2) the new GE will receive some much needed capital [let’s also not forget that approximately $18B in liabilities are going with the business unit], and (3) Mr. Culp and team will be able to focus their attention on a more streamlined business, which is especially important given the current state of this conglomerate – the Power unit should be front of mind.

It was reported that GE confidentially filed for the GE Healthcare IPO, and Mr. Culp recently floated the idea of spinning off a larger portion of the unit, so the market should get ready for this soon-to-be new publicly traded entity.

There are several good examples for what type of valuation GE Healthcare may receive when it’s eventually spun off and, as a shareholder, I like what I have seen so far. For example, American Money Management LLC provided this breakdown:

Source: AMM Research Report

Observations from AMM’s results:

  • GE Healthcare could have a market cap in the range of $33B-$60B.
  • GE Healthcare represents a material amount of the current share price for GE (the stock is trading at $7.51 per share).

I could provide at least three additional research reports estimating the value that GE Healthcare may receive, but I will save you the time by saying that most, if not all, analysts believe that the business unit makes up at least 50% of GE’s total market cap as of today (approximately $65B). I previously calculated a pre-liability market cap for GE Healthcare of $75B. AMM’s report is more conservative, and probably a little more realistic given the broader market dynamics.

Risks

Downside risks: (1) The company has significant fines related to the DOJ/SEC investigations, (2) Power takes longer than 18-24 months to recover and burns through cash, (3) management has a fire sale and disposes of assets at rock bottom prices, (4) the company’s credit rating hits junk status, and (5) additional insurance reserve charges are booked.

Upside risks: (1) the spins [Transportation, Healthcare, and Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHGE)] bring in more capital than anticipated, (2) the pension deficit shrinks as a result of the positive tailwinds, and (3) well-known investors put money to work in GE which leads to a positive change in sentiment.

Bottom Line

Make no mistake about it, GE is a high risk/high reward stock at this point in time. A turnaround will not be easy, and it will likely take an extended period of time (years instead of months), but I believe that management is already heading in the right direction. In my mind, the GE Healthcare spin will be a giant step forward.

Mr. Culp has a finite amount of capital that can allocated across the business portfolio so, at this point in time, it simply makes more sense for GE Healthcare to operate as a standalone entity. It helps that GE Healthcare is a great business that operates in a promising environment. In my opinion, GE Healthcare could turn out to be the catalyst that gets GE’s stock back into the double-digit range.

Lastly, I believe that the spins (Healthcare, Baker Hughes, & Transportation) will eventually lose the conglomerate discount that is currently being applied in the years ahead. As such, the asset disposals (including the GE Healthcare spin) will benefit the newly created entities and the “New GE” in 2019 and beyond. GE is definitely still a 3- to 5-year story, but I believe that the stock is a great long-term investment, if it meets your risk/return profile.

Disclaimer: This article is not a recommendation to buy or sell any stock mentioned. These are only my personal opinions. Every investor must do his/her own due diligence before making any investment decision.

Disclosure: I am/we are long GE. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Elon Musk Adds Larry Ellison to Tesla's Board, Fulfilling SEC Requirement–Sort of

Tesla announced today that Oracle co-founder and Chairman Larry Ellison, and an investor in Tesla, has been added to the Tesla board. Also joining the board is Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, global head of HR at Walgreens. 

The move fulfills the letter, although not the spirit, of Tesla’s agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sued the company after Elon Musk posted an inaccurate and ill-advised tweet saying he was planning to take Tesla private and had the funding to do so. The settlement required that Tesla name a new chair to replace Musk, and add two independent directors to the board. 

The company has now met both those conditions, though maybe not the way the SEC  wished. Robyn Denholm, Tesla’s new chair, lives in Australia, where she’s CFO of that country’s largest telecom company. She won’t move to California for at least another four months and maybe never. That might make it tough for her to oversee Musk, as the SEC wanted the new chair to do. She’s also a longtime member of Tesla’s board, which is famous for failing to oversee him, at least so far.

Ellison is certainly more local and more vocal. He has a lot in common with Musk–he’s another iconic entrepreneur who built a hugely successful enterprise but sometimes gets himself in trouble by publicly saying exactly what he’s thinking, for instance when he called cloud computing “complete gibberish” at a 2008 analyst conference. Perhaps most important from Musk’s point of view, he’s a good friend and a staunch defender of both Tesla and Musk. 

Case in point, an October analyst call, where Ellison momentarily diverged from the topic at hand to defend Musk. “He’s landing rockets on robot drone rafts in the ocean,” Ellison said. “And you’re saying he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Well, who else is landing rockets? You ever land a rocket on a robot drone? Who are you?”

Ellison may not be the truly independent voice the SEC was hoping for. And yet, his arrival is probably very good news for Tesla. Ellison is one of the world’s richest people precisely because he knows how to build a profitable company. He also has a proven track record as an outside director, particularly at Apple, where he helped guide that company’s legendary turnaround after Steve Jobs returned as CEO in 1997. He has skin in the game, having bought 3 million shares of Tesla earlier this year. And, while he’s obviously a big fan of Elon Musk, he’s clearly capable of standing up to him if Ellison believes Musk is headed in the wrong direction. 

Tesla’s other new director, Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, is  more in the mold of Denholm–an un-flamboyant executive who has spent decades working her way up the corporate ladder, first at Kellogg, then at Walgreens. Having a longtime HR executive on the board is another good move for the company, in light of complaints about working conditions, especially during the Model 3 production ramp-up

The SEC has not publicly commented on the choice of new directors. But the markets seem to approve. Tesla’s share price is up by more than 5 percent on a day when most of the market headed downward. 

Disclosure: I’m a contributor to Oracle’s magazine Profit.

Got a McDonald's or Burger King Coupon? Here's the Smart, Surprising Thing to Do With It. (You Only Have 3 Days)

This is a story about a smaller restaurant chain trolling McDonald’s, Burger King, and other giants of the business. And it’s kind of brilliant. Before the details, a quick explanation.

The fast food industry is a smart and fun one to follow no matter what business you’re in, and for two big reasons.

First, there’s the pure scale. Make a menu change at McDonald’s for example, and you’re upending the routines of hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans. You can learn a lot just by watching how they develop and test new products.

But second, there’s the marketing.

Think of McDonald’s, which spends $2 billion a year on marketing and ads. That’s half the entire value of its much smaller competitor, Wendy’s. It’s an incredible chance just to unpack what they do, and figure out why they think that various ideas will work.

Which brings us to some shoot-the-moon marketing campaigns that can actually turn the big chains’ efforts on their heads.

The only catch? You had to place the order from a McDonald’s restaurant. (Technically, just being within 600 feet was close enough to trigger the offer.)

Of course, Burger King isn’t small; just smaller than McDonald’s. But it shows how if you’re creative, you can use a competitor’s strength–in that case the fact that there are roughly twice as many McDonald’s in the U.S. than there are Burger King locations–to your advantage.

But what if you don’t have 1.7 million Twitter followers and a full time social media marketing operation, like Burger King, to get word of your deal out.?

What if you don’t even have a mobile app (or a burning desire to get people to download your app, which is what the Burger King promotion and so many others these days are all about)?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Smoothie King.

Again: not exactly tiny, although very small compared to McDonald’s and Burger King. Smoothie King has close to 800 stores, heavily concentrated in warmer weather parts of the country.

It’s privately held, and even if you’ve never tried it, you might recognize the name from the $40 million naming deal it has for the NBA New Orleans Pelicans home arena (“Smoothie King Center“).

Now, like its bigger competitors, Smoothie King also has a rewards app, and it’s launched a contest to try to incentivize people to download and use it. (The “Change-a-Meal Challenge.”)  

But what attracted me to this whole thing is how Smoothie King is kicking off its promotion: By letting you use any coupon from any other fast food restaurant — McDonald’s or Burger King included — at Smoothie King.

It’s good for only one day, New Year’s Eve, and regardless of the competitor’s coupon’s value, it gets you $2 off a smoothie at Smoothie King on December 31.

And in truth, I don’t know how many people would take advantage of it. But that doesn’t really matter in a way; what matters in this social media age is whether you can find a truthful, fun way to troll your competitors and turn their strengths to your advangage.

As a marketing strategy, I think it’s brilliant.

As for the Smoothies, well, I don’t know. I’m writing this from New Hampshire, and it looks like the nearest Smoothie King would be a three hour drive away. You’ll have to let me know in the comments.

General Electric: Expect A Big 2019

To call 2018 a bad year for shareholders of General Electric (GE) would be a grave understatement. Throughout the year, the company has undergone expanded investigations by the government, shuffled top management, sold off various assets, and, on multiple occasions, revise down performance expectations before ultimately eliminating them for the foreseeable future. By practically all accounts, the industrial conglomerate has been hit harder, and in almost every way possible, more than it has ever been hit before in its more than 100-year history. Now, as 2019 approaches, the big question facing shareholders is “what’s next?” While it’s possible 2019 will bring with it even more pain than 2018 has, the more likely scenario is that the firm will use the New Year to restructure its operations (out of bankruptcy) and will, if all appropriate steps are taken, prepare for a turnaround that could bring to shareholders significant value.

Expect the breakup to occur

One thing that very few people will disagree with, I think, is that a breakup of General Electric must occur. The business has become so large that it is, from a management and capital allocation perspective, inefficient. When you have so many divisions, figuring out where and how to deploy limited capital can be hard, while as separate entities, the fact of the matter is that individual management teams can focus on their core operations. By breaking up, the firm will also, for the most part, rid itself of GE Capital, which is likely where any currently undisclosed problems probably reside.

As management indicated while John Flannery was still General Electric’s top dog, I fully expect the company to divest of itself its GE Healthcare segment in some way, shape, or form. Management has indicated that this will take place through an IPO, but it’s expected that shareholders might still retain some of the business, though all of this could change over time. We already know thanks to an announcement earlier this year that the firm is likely to continue winding down its ownership in Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE), by selling off its stake in the firm, but a big question here might relate to timing. Since the end of September, shares of the oilfield services firm have plummeted 34.6%, so while the company has struck a deal for a sale of some of its stock, I suspect that additional sales will only happen following a recovery in unit price.

Following the spinoff of its Transportation segment into a commanding interest in Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation (WAB), also known as Wabtec, next year, I believe management will likely begin monetizing its interests there as well. Personally, I see monetizing both Wabtec and Baker Hughes further as a sizable mistake given the future outlook I have for both energy and transportation in the US, but the cash generated from these deals will allow management to reduce debt and/or to invest further into what operations are left.

One thing I would love to see transpire is the sale or spinning off of General Electric’s Power segment. At this time, the firm intends to separate that into two different sets of operations, which may be setting the stage to sell or spin off at least one of them. I see this new decision under CEO Culp as a sign that he understands Power is General Electric’s most significant problem at the moment, and since plans to retain power occurred while Flannery was still in charge, I have modest hope that management will divest of the segment or at least part of it.

Don’t expect a distribution hike

During its third quarter earnings release earlier this year, management made a significant change to General Electric’s dividend policy. They said that, effective this month, the company would only pay out $0.01 per share each quarter as a distribution, down from $0.12 per quarter previously. This decision, though controversial, will result in the firm’s annual distribution falling from $4.175 billion per year to just $347.925 million per year. While I would have loved to see it cut all the way to zero so that management would have even more cash to put toward debt reduction and investing in core assets, the savings seen are material regardless.

Investors hoping for the distribution to recover in the near future are, I think, engaging in wishful thinking. As of the end of its latest quarter, General Electric had cash, cash equivalents, restricted cash, and marketable securities worth $61.69 billion, which is a lot to work with, but it also had $114.97 billion worth of debt (inclusive of $2.70 billion of non-recourse debt). Admittedly, debt was down from the $134.59 billion the firm had at the end of its 2016 fiscal year, but as assets come off the books, debt also must be reduced. Some of this could be taken off by spinning off various assets (for instance, the firm could probably spin in the low tens of billions of dollars off with its Healthcare segment if it so decided), but it’s likely that a lot of the work toward reducing debt will be tied to asset sales and the cash that otherwise would have been allocated toward its quarterly dividends. Until management can reduce debt, it’s unlikely we’ll see a hike, and that probably won’t occur until, at the very best, late next year.

*Taken from Moody’s

Where does debt need to be in order for management to consider raising its distribution again? The short answer is that it’s anybody’s guess, but more likely than not, it’s by whatever amount would allow the firm’s credit rating to rise back into the As. As you can see in the image above, the firm’s credit rating, as calculated by Moody’s (MCO), used to be Aaa until it fell in 2009. Since then, the rating has fallen further and, today, the firm’s long-term debt rating is Baa1. This still places it in a category known as “investment grade,” as the image below illustrates, but the drop, even though it’s not on watch for a further downgrade at this time, will weigh on financing options until the situation can be improved.

*Taken from Moody’s

A lot of cost-cutting and wheeling-and-dealing

If General Electric is going to not only survive but thrive for the long haul, there’s no doubt the firm will need to cut costs. This is especially true if the company elects to keep its Power segment, but irrespective of it, certain corporate costs will need to be slashed as the firm works to spin off its assets. Although management has, in recent times, done well to push for cost cutting, when the company actually starts to break up, we will know whether, and to what extent, this is actually true. One strategy that could work quite well could be what the firm struck with Baker Hughes. As part of its share divestiture, the two companies have entered into a series of joint agreements that will keep their operations intertwined through things like guaranteed low pricing and joint buying of key assets. I suspect this kind of wheeling-and-dealing to continue as the conglomerate sells off more of itself.

Takeaway

Based on the data provided, it’s clear that 2018 has been awful for General Electric, but investors who are expecting more pain to follow through 2019 might be on the wrong side of the bet. If 2018 was the crash for the business, 2019 will likely be the start of a true recovery for the firm, especially if management can work to restructure the entity in the way that they should. Obviously, whether the firm is successful or not, investors should expect a tremendous amount of volatility during the process, but that could present opportunities to buy and sell at attractive prices for the emotionally-detached investor.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Exclusive: White House mulls new year executive order to bar Huawei, ZTE purchases

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is considering an executive order in the new year to declare a national emergency that would bar U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment made by China’s Huawei and ZTE, three sources familiar with the situation told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a sign board of Huawei at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia 2018 in Shanghai, China June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

It would be the latest step by the Trump administration to cut Huawei Technologies Cos Ltd [HWT.UL] and ZTE Corp, two of China’s biggest network equipment companies, out of the U.S. market. The United States alleges that the two companies work at the behest of the Chinese government and that their equipment could be used to spy on Americans.

The executive order, which has been under consideration for more than eight months, could be issued as early as January and would direct the Commerce Department to block U.S. companies from buying equipment from foreign telecommunications makers that pose significant national security risks, sources from the telecoms industry and the administration said.

While the order is unlikely to name Huawei or ZTE, a source said it is expected that Commerce officials would interpret it as authorization to limit the spread of equipment made by the two companies. The sources said the text for the order has not been finalized.

The executive order would invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a law that gives the president the authority to regulate commerce in response to a national emergency that threatens the United States.

The issue has new urgency as U.S. wireless carriers look for partners as they prepare to adopt next generation 5G wireless networks.

The order follows the passage of a defense policy bill in August that barred the U.S. government itself from using Huawei and ZTE equipment.

Huawei and ZTE did not return requests for comment. Both in the past have denied allegations their products are used to spy. The White House also did not return a request for comment.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in early May that the order was under consideration, but it was never issued.

HIT TO RURAL NETWORKS

Rural operators in the United States are among the biggest customers of Huawei and ZTE, and fear the executive order would also require them to rip out existing Chinese-made equipment without compensation. Industry officials are divided on whether the administration could legally compel operators to do that.

While the big U.S. wireless companies have cut ties with Huawei in particular, small rural carriers have relied on Huawei and ZTE switches and other equipment because they tend to be less expensive.

The company is so central to small carriers that William Levy, vice president for sales of Huawei Tech USA, is on the board of directors of the Rural Wireless Association.

The RWA represents carriers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers. It estimates that 25 percent of its members had Huawei or ZTE equipment in their networks, it said in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month.

The RWA is concerned that an executive order could force its members to remove ZTE and Huawei equipment and also bar future purchases, said Caressa Bennet, RWA general counsel.

It would cost $800 million to $1 billion for all RWA members to replace their Huawei and ZTE equipment, Bennet said.

Separately, the FCC in April granted initial approval to a regulation that bars giving federal funding to help pay for telecommunication infrastructure to companies that purchase equipment from firms deemed threats to U.S. national security, which analysts have said is aimed at Huawei and ZTE.

The FCC is also considering whether to require carriers to remove and replace equipment from firms deemed a national security risk.

FILE PHOTO – The logo of China’s ZTE Corp is seen on the building of ZTE Beijing research and development center in Beijing, China June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

In March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “hidden ‘back doors’ to our networks in routers, switches — and virtually any other type of telecommunications equipment – can provide an avenue for hostile governments to inject viruses, launch denial-of-service attacks, steal data, and more.”

In the December filing, Pine Belt Communications in Alabama estimated it would cost $7 million to $13 million to replace its Chinese-made equipment, while Sagebrush in Montana said replacement would cost $57 million and take two years.

Sagebrush has noted that Huawei products are significantly cheaper. When looking for bids in 2010 for its network, it found the cost of Ericsson equipment to be nearly four times the cost of Huawei.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Sanders and Leslie Adler

Hate Telemarketers? This Brilliantly Simple Legal Trick Totally Destroys Most of Them (Why Did It Take So Long?)

My fellow Americans, we live in a divided time. But there is one thing we all agree on.

It’s only getting worse. By next month, nearly half of all incoming cell-phone calls will be spam. Half! Sure, the government cracks down on a few of the worst offenders. But they’re fighting with a hand tied behind their back. Now, a small group of lawmakers wants to change that.

So here’s the problem, the reason why it hasn’t been fixed before — and why a laughably simple legal trick could very likely be the solution.

Surprise: it’s totally legal!

The scenario has to do with spoofed Caller ID. You’re at home, or at work, or wherever, and you’re suddenly interrupted by a call you don’t recognize. Only… it’s from the same area code and exchange as your cell phone. 

As an example, my phone number is (424) 245-5687. I might get a call from say, (424) 245-9999.

Now, the call isn’t really originating from that number — or likely from any real traceable number. It’s just set up that way to make it look like a local call, so I might be more likely to answer.

You might assume that doing this would be illegal. I mean, I’m a lawyer (not practicing, but still), and I was pretty sure people had been prosecuted for wire fraud for doing less.

But it turns out that’s not the case at all. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission says it’s only illegal to make this kind of spoofed Caller ID call if you do so “with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value.”

No provable bad faith or fraud? No problem, under the current law.

Welcome to Kentucky

It’s in this context that an unlikely savior might come to the rescue.

Meet Kevin Bratcher, a state legislator in Kentucky who introduced a bill to make it illegal to spoof a Caller ID for almost any reason at all.

It wouldn’t matter if you could later prove that, for example, “technically if the person jumped through all these hoops and paid these upfront fees they could get a free trip to the Bahamas.” 

Simply “causing misleading information to be transmitted to users of caller identification technologies, or to otherwise misrepresent the origin of the telephone solicitation,” would result in a very significant fine: $500 for a first offense, and $3,000 for each subsequent offense.

There would be  few minor exceptions for things: things like if the recipient knew his or her true phone number or location, or friends playing an innocuous prank on one another.

But beyond that, it would be a strict law.

“I came up with this because I just had a campaign, and everywhere I went people were asking me, ‘Why can’t you do something about all these calls with fake IDs?'” Bratcher, a Republican who has been in office for 22 years, told me recently. “And I was receiving them too. Just a light bulb went off on my head: Why is anyone trying to give you a call with a fake ID? That needs to stop.:

A big part of the problem

I realized something after Bratcher and I talked: it’s not just the scammers who have latched onto this spoofing strategy. 

For example, Bratcher didn’told me about receiving spoofed Caller ID phone calls from a 501(c)(3) he supports, and that’s based in Washington, D.C. The calls looked like they were coming from Kentucky.

That’s also what he says to those who might suggest that anyone sophisticated enough to spoof a Caller ID might also be sophisticated enough not to get caught. For a big part of these calls — maybe even a majority — the fraud stops with the spoofed number.

Legitimate charities aren’t going to want to be tarred with this brush.

Why can’t the government work for us?

For now, if the law were only changed like this in one state, it would be a complicated and potentially expensive strategy for legitimate charities to risk fines and bad press for spoofing IDs in Kentucky.

But while the initial news coverage of Bratcher’s bill suggested it might be the first attempt like this in the country, I’ve talked with Indiana officials who say they’ve been doing something similar.

It’s hard to believe that other states and the federal government itself would be far behind.

I’ve written a lot recently about other ways to cut down on telemarketing calls. There’s the “Lenny” bot, which is truthfully one of my favorites from an entertainment standpoint, as it’s simply an Australian chatbot designed to waste telemarketers’ time.

And since Lenny hasn’t actually been widely released, I also suggested perhaps we could all team up to do a sort of “manual Lenny” — basically stringing telemarketers along, wasting their time, and driving up their employers’ costs so as to destroy their business model.

Those stories got a giant response. Because it’s a problem everyone faces.

And so, shouldn’t our government work for us, instead of us having to hack together ideas on our own to solve these kinds of problems?

It feels like a winner issue for any lawmaker who wants to run to the head of the crowd, and become known as a champion of the people. People seem to want this.  

It's Now Or Never For The Bulls

In April of this year, I wrote an article discussing the 10 reasons the bull market had ended.

“The backdrop of the market currently is vastly different than it was during the ‘taper tantrum’ in 2015-2016, or during the corrections following the end of QE1 and QE2. In those previous cases, the Federal Reserve was directly injecting liquidity and managing expectations of long-term accommodative support. Valuations had been through a fairly significant reversion, and expectations had been extinguished. None of that support exists currently.”

It mostly fell on “deaf ears” as the market rallied back to highs. But the “worries” of the market have continued to mount despite the speculative rally. As Barbara Kollmeyer penned yesterday morning:

“The markets have enough to worry about these days, right? With major U.S. indexes in or near bear territory, a government shutdown underway and the White House falling over itself to assure us no one is firing Fed Chief Powell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gobsmacked market participants by revealing that he made a weekend call from a beach in Mexico to the country’s six biggest banks, presumably to assure Wall Street that there’s ample liquidity sloshing around in the financial system.”

I can only presume the phone call between President Trump and Steve Mnuchin went something like this:

Trump: Hey, Steve. This market is bad. I mean it’s really bad… really bad. You need to do something to make it go up. I mean really go up.

Mnuchin: No problem. I’ll just call my buddies and tell them they need to start buying. You know, we can always hit up the “Plunge Protection Team” if we need too.

Trump: The what? Oh yeah… I’ve heard of those guys. Yeah, you do that. We need this market to go up really big. I mean really big. I got a whole big pile of s*** going on here, my ratings are down, and I need the market to go up. I mean go up a lot. You make that happen, okay. Cuz that a**hole Powell ain’t helpin’ me one bit.

Mnuchin: Check… I’m on it.

Of course, the only real reason that you would call the 6 major banks, and meet with the “Plunge Protection Team,” would be in the event there was a real concern about the financial stability of the markets. It didn’t take long for the markets to figure out there may be a real liquidity problem brewing out there (aka Deutsche Bank) and as Mark Decambre penned Monday afternoon:

“The S&P 500 index fell by 2.7% Monday, marking the first session before Christmas that the broad-market benchmark has booked a loss of 1% or greater – ever.”

That’s the bad news.

My Christmas Wish

If we take a look back at the markets over the last 20 years, we find that our weekly composite technical gauge has only reached this level of an oversold condition only a few times during the time frame studied. Such oversold conditions have always resulted in at least a corrective bounce even within the context of a larger mean-reverting process.

What this oversold condition implies is that “selling” may have temporarily exhausted itself. Like a raging fire, at some point the “fuel” is consumed and it burns itself out. In the market, it is much the same.

You have always heard that “for every buyer, there is a seller.”

While this is a true statement, it is incomplete.

The real issue is that while there is indeed a “buyer for every seller,” the question is “at what price?”

In bull markets, prices rise until “buyers” are unwilling to pay a higher price for assets. Likewise, in a bear market, prices will decline until “sellers” are no longer willing to sell at a lower price. It is always a question of price, otherwise, the market would be a flat line.

Again, what the weekly composite indicator suggests is that “sellers” have likely exhausted themselves to the point that “buyers” are likely starting to outnumber “sellers” to the point that prices will rise, at least temporarily.

This also highlights the importance of long-term moving averages. Again, as noted above, given that prices rise and fall due to participant demand, long-term moving averages provide a good picture of where demand is likely to be found. When prices deviate too far above, or below, those long-term averages, prices have a history of reverting back to, or beyond, that mean.

Currently, the market has started a mean reversion process back to the 200-week (4-year) moving average. As you will notice, with only a couple of exceptions, the 200-week moving average has acted as a long-term support line for the market. When the market has previously confirmed a break below the long-term average, more protracted mean-reverting events were already in process.

Currently, the bulls remain in charge for the moment with the market sitting just a few points above the long-term average. A weekly close below 2,346 on the S&P 500 would suggest a deeper decline is in process.

The same goes for the 60-month (5-year) moving average. With the market currently sitting just above the long-term trend support line, the “bull market” remains intact for now.

Again, a monthly close below 2,251 would suggest a more protracted “bear” market is underway.

How Much Of A Bounce Are We Talking About

Looking at a chart of weekly closes, the most likely oversold retracement rally would push stocks back toward the previous 2018 closing lows of 2,620-2,650.

On a monthly closing basis, however, that rally could extend as high as 2,700.

From yesterday’s closing levels, that is a 12.7% to 14.8% rally.

A rally of this magnitude will get the mainstream media very convinced the “bear market” is now over.

It likely won’t be.

The one thing about long-term trending bull markets is that they cover up investment mistakes. Overpaying for value, taking on too much risk, leverage, etc., are all things that investors inherently know will have negative outcomes. However, during a bull market, those mistakes are “forgiven” as prices inherently rise. The longer they rise, the more mistakes that investors tend to make as they become assured they are “smarter than the market.”

Eventually, a bear market reveals those mistakes in the most brutal of fashions.

It is often said the religion is found in “foxholes.” It is also found in bear markets where investors begin to “pray” for relief.

Very likely, there are many investors who have learned of the mistakes they have made over the past several years. Therefore, any rally in the market over the next few weeks to a couple of months will likely be met with selling as investors look for an exit.

Here is the other problem, there is currently no supportive backdrop for stocks on the horizon:

  • Earnings estimates for 2019 are still way too elevated.
  • Stock market targets for 2019 are also too high.
  • The Federal Reserve is still targeting higher rates and continued balance sheet reductions.
  • Trade wars are set to continue
  • The effect of the tax cut legislation will disappear and year-over-year comparisons revert back to normalized growth rates.
  • Economic growth is set to slow markedly next year.
  • Chinese economic growth will likely weaken further
  • European growth, already weak, will likely struggle as well.
  • Valuations remain expensive
  • The collapse in oil prices will weigh on inflation targets and economic activity (CapEx)

You get the idea.

There are a lot of things that have to go “right” to get the “bull market” back on track. But there is a whole lot more which is currently going wrong.

As I wrote in “The Exit Problem” last December:

“My job is to participate in the markets while keeping a measured approach to capital preservation. Since it is considered ‘bearish’ to point out the potential ‘risks’ which could lead to rapid capital destruction; then I guess you can call me a ‘bear.’

Just make sure you understand I am still in ‘theater,’ I am just moving much closer to the ‘exit.'”

After having sold a big chunk of our equity holdings throughout the year, and having been a steady buyer of bonds (despite consistent calls for higher rates), my “Christmas Wish” is for one last oversold rally to “sell” into.

The most likely outcome for 2019 is higher volatility, lower returns, and a still greatly under-appreciated risk to capital.

But, for the bulls, it’s now or never to make a final stand.

Just remember, getting back to even is not the same as growing wealth.

Ready, headset, go: Retailers racing ahead with VR for staff training

The circa 5,000 virtual reality (VR) videos viewed over two weeks by Costa Coffee staff, looking to understand how best to prepare the company’s Christmas drinks range, highlight the appetite for learning in the organisation using this technology.

That is the view of Laura Chapman, head of learning at Costa, who says festive-themed training videos were not mandatory for its workforce, but they really captured the imagination of its people at this busy time of year.

“It’s still early days for us, but feedback show us teams are motivated to learn this way,” she says, commenting on the recent introduction to over 1,500 Costa stores of Google Cardboard headsets and associated tools, enabling teams to access 360-degree footage of coffee-making tips and techniques.

The move was announced at the end of October, and was primarily a way of helping induct new staff in the ways and methods of Costa baristas ahead of the busy Christmas trading period. However, it’s a platform that can be used for training all year round.

Chapman says the VR element is embedded into what she describes as an already comprehensive training programme, and currently includes tips on how to make an Americano or the Black Forest Hot Chocolate which appears on the menu in December.

And as consumers continue to seek out more compelling experiences, expertise and different types of engagement during a trip to a retail or food and beverage outlet, there are several ways the Costa VR staff training tool is catering for these demands by preparing staff accordingly.

“We have a high volume of millennials in the workforce, so we wanted to be able to provide an engaging and innovative way of training them, one which would really excite them to learn,” says Chapman.

“The VR 360 videos we currently have provide a wider insight into the coffee growing process with footage of coffee plantations in Peru along with sneak peaks inside our state of the art roastery and coffee lab in Basildon.

“In addition to this, we also feature drinks tutorials on our key products, so teams can learn faster by immersing themselves in a real-life environment.”

Walmart is another big retail business that is well under way with its use of VR for operational gain. Facebook-owned Oculus Go VR headsets are being used by the grocer’s staff across the US, with the STRIVR-created content teaching people about technology and compliance, and aiding soft skill development like empathy and customer service.

To indicate the scale of the technology’s usage, the plan is for four VR headsets in every Walmart “supercenter”, and two units to every neighbourhood market and discount store. In total, the retailer says 17,000+ headsets are in use at Walmart today.

VR training must run deep

Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte, agrees that some of the best cases of VR usage in retail are around staff training.

“If you want to change the behaviour of your staff, that’s something you can do with VR in a way you couldn’t do with text-based e-learning,” he says.

“Some organisations are still using paper-based learning, and these are organisations that in other areas are very technical, but VR can enhance this process.”

Greig backs VR’s ability to improve the soft skills of store associates to align them with company values or to provide a platform for helping more senior staff improve management and empathy, but ultimately he sees the biggest gains for retailers coming from its wider deployment by human resources departments.

Wider recruitment

He acknowledges the idea of VR being used as a staff training tool has opened up conversations with Deloitte clients about their wider recruitment and subsequent learning strategy. As retailers embark on widescale digital transformation, he sees VR playing a central role in improving store design, supply chain operations, and general processes.

“Our motto is ‘fall in love with the problem not the solution’,” says Greig.

“There is a real danger with a new tech like VR and the subsequent modifications to that tech that people can fall in love with the solution [and forget why they need it in their businesses]. If you’re going to use VR, it should be about reshaping your entire learning strategy and how you look to develop people throughout the organisation.”

“It’s really effective when it’s used as part of the recruitment process, providing a consistency of experience for employees right from the first moment they have contact with a certain company,” he says.

“If retailers can nail that, it gives them a whole load of additional time where they’ve got people thinking about their brand values, and they can hit the ground running once they’re on the team.”

In a future internet of things (IoT) environment, Greig predicts multiple ways VR could play a part in the “digital twin” process, where a retailer’s physical premises are effectively digitally cloned. One can imagine staff using VR in this format to remotely change a retail store’s lighting or signage setting in real time, he asserts.

VR as standalone entertainment

VR is cropping up in various guises across retail, be it Virgin Holidays using Google Cardboard in stores to help customers experience locations before they book them, or Tommy Hilfiger kitting out global flagships with WeMakeVR-loaded SamsungGear devices to showcase its catwalk shows to in-store visitors.

But some of the most impactful uses of it revolve around creating an event out of VR technology. At Westfield Stratford City in 2016, Samsung ran an in-shopping-centre pop-up, enabling around a quarter of a million people to try out its Gear VR to experience roller coaster rides in North America or holidays in remote destinations.

Judging by that success, it is perhaps clear why ImmotionVR, a company that designs content for VR and operates simulators in public places around the UK, is continuing to scale its business based on a similar cinematic-like premise.

With 12 locations across the country, including at Manchester’s Arndale Centre, Birmingham’s Star City, Intu Derby, and most recently, Wembley’s London Designer Outlet, the company is creating theme-park-like, family-friendly experiences starting from £5 in shopping centres around the UK.

Martin Higginson, CEO of Immotion Group, says his company is looking to help the wider retail industry not by selling it VR technology as an internal solution, but by setting up its simulators and VR installations deep within retail – in the aisles of shopping centres or in locations left behind by collapsed or down-sizing retail chains.

“We’re focused on delivering an out-of-home experience,” he says.

“Currently shopping in general needs to bring theatre, because without that retail will wither on the vine. The high street and shopping malls need to change and start creating more theatre be it additional dining spaces, VR or something else; there needs to be a unique mix that creates a ‘theme park’ within shopping centres.”

Incentivising shopping mall visits

Higginson argues that venues from ImmotionVR, which creates its own content from its Manchester studios and offers VR experiences covering scenarios ranging from roller coaster rides to swimming with sharks off the coast of Tonga, can give families an added incentive to visit a shopping mall.

There is also a focus within the business on providing VR-enabled destinations for work parties and educational trips for schoolchildren.

“We want to create Disneyland in Westfield or Lakeside, or wherever – shopping centre owners have massive challenges with the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams going through turmoil,” he says.

“We can bring experiences to shopping centres and fill them with guests throughout the week, helping malls become leisure destinations rather than venues for straight-out shopping.”

Higginson also argues the continued growth of his brand will open up VR to the mainstream. As a result, the tech might become more widely used in the home and in the workplace. In short, society could be about to see more of it in its various forms.

Costa and Walmart are clearly on the start of their VR journeys, but the staff engagement it has resulted in, and – in the case of Walmart – the rapid extended roll-out of the technology to date, suggests further exploration and usage is imminent.

VR roll-out a reality

Walmart announced in September that its VR technology was set to be accessible for all employee training across its entire US store portfolio, following initial usage solely for staff development in Walmart Academies. More than one million Walmart associates will now receive the same level of training as those in the academies, the retailer said.

Meanwhile, all of Costa’s fully owned stores – as opposed to its franchise and concession partners – have a Google Cardboard headset that allows staff to experience VR. And Chapman acknowledges the business is looking to make them available to its partnerships and international stores, while additional ideas for its usage keep arising.

“We could provide ‘on-the-job’ experiences to potential candidates so they get an idea as to what it’s like working in one of our stores,” she says.

“The coffee growing process and following the coffee journey from bean to cup is also something that we feel would be useful for inductions for everyone in the Costa family both among our store teams and in our support centre.”

Why SMS Marketing Could Be Your Brand's Secret Weapon in 2019

While still an essential marketing channel for brands of all kinds, it’s no secret that email marketing has become a much tougher nut to crack since its inception. With open rates dipping below 25 percent across the board, spam filters becoming more sophisticated and privacy laws continuing to pile on, alternatives to email marketing are looking more enticing than ever before.

Additionally, with social media channels like Facebook continuing on the path of slashing organic reach and becoming a “pay to play” platform, the time to explore new marketing opportunities is now.

One promising opportunity that’s often overlooked is SMS marketing, or text message marketing. Here are the reasons why SMS marketing could be the medium that takes your brand to new heights in 2019, how to get started and some best practices to ensure you’re using the channel most effectively.

People are always connected to their phones.

We live in a mobile-first world where people of all ages are increasingly becoming glued to their smartphones. In fact, it’s been recorded that, on average, people check their phones a whopping 80 times per day. As a result, it’s no wonder why open rates for SMS marketing typically hover around 82 percent. This makes sending texts to customers and members of your brand’s community the closest thing to being absolutely certain your content won’t get overlooked.

Additionally, unless the medium becomes saturated with every brand on the planet, it’s unlikely this trend will change anytime soon given how mobile-centric contemporary culture has become. 

Lastly, when taking a look at how often people change their social media profiles, email addresses and more, phone numbers are certainly updated the least. This essentially guarantees your SMS marketing will have longevity, something that can’t always be said about alternative marketing channels.

Here are some tips for getting started and making the most of your SMS marketing:

1. Get the right software. 

There are loads of mobile marketing platforms out there, but two of the best – based both on how long they’ve been in business, reviews and quality of their features – are Textedly and Avochato. Take some time to browse through other options though to see which product best fits your organization’s particular needs.

2. Begin collecting user’s phone numbers.

The next step is to begin collecting customer’s phone numbers. In the same way you try to snag the email addresses of website visitors and prospects, you need to begin collecting phone numbers as well. You can get started by inserting a field in all your company’s opt-in forms that asks for a prospect’s phone number. 

You can also run social media ads on Facebook, Twitter and beyond which asks viewers to opt-in through mobile for a discount, for entry into a contest or something similar. Lastly, you can also beef up your phone number list by giving away free content, such as a webinar or ebook, in exchange for their contact information. This tactic has proven fruitful for collecting email addresses, and the same can be done for phone numbers.

3. Make 100 percent sure you have the user’s permission to text them. 

Be absolutely sure you have a person’s explicit permission to use their phone number for promotional purposes. Not only is it the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, it’ll also make sure you’re not breaking the law. On top of that, be sure all your text messages used for marketing purposes have an unsubscribe option. 

4. Don’t bug your audience. 

Don’t exploit access to a person’s phone number. Be mindful of how personal and private a text message is, and act accordingly. Only send text messages when absolutely necessary. If you spam your list with a massive amount of messages, they’ll quickly get annoyed, unsubscribe and lose trust in your brand as a whole.

5. Know the limits of text messaging.

Let me be clear here. SMS marketing should, by no means, be a replacement to your email marketing. Instead, think of it as a supplement to your email efforts.

There are a couple limits of SMS marketing to keep in mind. For one, you have to keep your character count to a minimum, so maintaining your brand voice or telling a compelling story is difficult. Also, you can’t alert your audience as frequently as you can on social media for the reasons listed above.

If you’re looking for fresh ways to market your business in 2019, SMS marketing could be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for. Because of the exclusive nature of texting, stellar open rates and longevity of a person’s phone number, the future of SMS marketing looks bright. Be sure to give it a try in 2019. Best of luck.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Raises Questions of Bank Stability: Hold Onto Your Hat

The entire financial system that everyone, including all businesses, depends on sits on the need for trust. And in a couple eof tweets, the Treasury Department and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may have shaken that trust loose.

The Treasury Department said that Mnuchin held a series of calls with CEOs of major banks: Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo.

The CEOs confirmed that they have ample liquidity available for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations. He also confirmed that they have not experienced any clearance or margin issues and that the markets continue to function properly.

Equity markets have been rocky for various reasons, including tariff wars, general uncertainty, and the Fed increasing interest rates. No markets rise forever and we’ve seen a long run. A recent survey of global CEOs showed that chief financial officers overwhelmingly expect a recession by 2010 and many think 2019 will be the year.

In turbulent times, there are tremendous reasons for businesses to be wary and for governments to be concerned about basic banking issues like liquidity. Without enough money available, institutions can’t lend money and an economy can grind to a halt.

But aside from public inquiries like bank stress tests mandated by law, deep inquiries happen out of public views. No one wants to start a panic, undermine public confidence, and potentially start runs on banks, with people looking in total to take out more money than the banks actually have. (The lending business depends on institutions leveraging deposits, which means lending out many times more than they have on hand.)

Mnuchin’s move might have made sense if there were public concerns about bank stability. Bank stocks have been taking a hit with market oscillations. When people worry about the economy, they expect that banks may suffer. When things slow, fewer people and companies take out the loans that are the source of institutional income.

But there hasn’t been a lot of concern about underlying bank stability. At least, there wasn’t until Sunday evening when the tweets hit the fan. Particularly as Mnuchin was reportedly on vacation in Mexico.

While apparently intended to as a pre-emptive reassurance to investors, the tweet may have done just the opposite, stoking fears that the government is bracing for the worst.

MarketWatch then copied a number of investor tweets. Here’s one.

The substance was much of what I heard in my circle of financial people and business and economics reporters. One could only manage “WTF?”

It may be that all is well. But markets react to expectation and emotion and things have been shaken already. You now much reexamine your strategy in the wake of decreasing confidence in the economy and keep a close eye on new statements that could further shake things up.

After What President Trump and Congress Did on the Friday Before Christmas, the Government Is (Partially) Shutting Down. Here's What That Really Means

Less than two weeks ago, President Trump warned he’d shut down the U.S. Government if he didn’t get $5 billion for his border wall with Mexico in the new budget.

Democrats called his bluff; Trump didn’t blink. And so, a partial shutdown began at midnight.

So, what does it mean in practical terms to have a partial shutdown, which Trump himself predicted could go on for a “very long time?”

1.    About 75 percent of the government stays open.

Let’s start with the fact that it’s just a “partial” shutdown. There are some agencies that will be hit much harder than others, but most of the truly essential functions of government will continue.

Among these, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Health and Human Services are already funded through 2019, so they shouldn’t be affected.

2.    But about 38 percent of employees will be hit.

There are 2.1 million federal employees. Of them, about 400,000 will be sent home without pay, and another 400,000 will be required to come to work, but won’t be paid.

Some of the affected departments here include Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, and Treasury. As an example, all 60,000 employees of the Customs and Border Protection would be required to go to work without pay. 

This also includes Transportation Security Administration officials — so airports should remain open and more or less unaffected. It also includes the Border Patrol — ironic, since Border Patrol officers will have to work without pay, in a dispute over funding a border wall.

Also, “air-traffic controllers, prison guards, weather-service forecasters and food-safety inspectors, and would continue coming to work. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Forest Service firefighters” have to work, according to the Journal.

3.    The National Parks stay open

This is interesting — in earlier shutdowns, the spectacle of National Parks closing became big symbols of government ineptitude in a shutdown. But this time, the Parks Service is keeping most of its facilities open, even as about 80 percent of its employees will be furloughed.

On the National Mall for example, you’ll still be able to tour the monuments, but there won’t be Park Rangers available to offer information and assistance. The Smithsonian museums will remain open, too– at least through Jan. 1.

4.    It’s a good time to cheat on your taxes.

That’s because nine out of 10 IRS employees will be furloughed, so far fewer audits and return exams. That also means less chance of being able to call the IRS to ask for help on a tax issue.

5.    The Mueller investigation continues.

About 85 percent of Justice Department employees still have to go to work, even if they don’t get paid. The special counsel investigating possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election however, will continue apace. That office’s funding is guaranteed.

6.    You can get your passport (probably) and the mail will still be delivered.

The Postal Service basically continues unaffected too, “because the Postal Service funds its operations through its own sales rather than tax dollars.”

7.    We sort of get a four-day repreive.

The shutdown began at midnight on Saturday December 22, which also happens to be the first of a four-day weekend for the government, since next Tuesday is Christmas.

All of which means that many of the 800,000 employees who won’t be paid, weren’t planning to work anyway the next four days. (In most past shutdowns, they ultimately got back pay when the government reopened.)

So, next Wednesday is that day when people will really start to notice — and then, if it lasts long enough, into the day after New Year’s Day.

8.    Weirdly, many workers have to come in, only to be told to go home.

Acording to the Post: Some will have to — briefly, anyway.

“This is what’s known as an “orderly shutdown,” during which employees who are furloughed can be allowed up to come in for up to four hours to preserve their work, finish timecards or turn in their government-issued phones. … What can we tell you? The federal government is a quirky enterprise.”

9.    Meat will be okay

At the Agriculture Department, the government will still inspect meat and other food. And support programs like food stamps will keep going.

10.    Sandwiches will be free. 

This is mostly for Washington DC area employees anyway, but if they’re affected by the shutdown, celebrity chef Jose Andres says his restaurants will offer free lunch sandwiches

You Should Definitely Work Over the Holiday Break

I’ve written about this previously but in brief but it’s that time of the year, so I’ll emphasize the point: if you have and office job and you’re given a choice and don’t have family commitments, it’s a smart move to work over the holiday break.

Now, you probably think I’m about to spout one of those rah-rah posts about how you’ll be getting more done than your coworkers, you’ll get a head start on the New Year, you’ll impress your boss by your commitment, and so forth. 

Screw that stuff.

IMHO, you should work over the holiday break because going into the typical office between Christmas and New Year‘s is like going on vacation… without getting charged for (and wasting) any of your real vacation days.

The typical office is pretty much empty during the holiday break. Nobody expects to get any work done because there aren’t enough coworkers to hold a meaningful meeting. Plus your customers figure you’re off, so they’re not going to bother you.

What happens over the holiday break is that people come in at around 10am, hang around, drink coffee, shoot the bull, flirt, goof off, play computer games, and so forth until about 2 or 3pm, and then go home.

I once worked in an office where the culture was so dysfunctional that calling it a “snake pit” would be an insult to serpents. During the holiday break, though, that office was downright pleasant. Everyone was relaxed and in a good mood.

When January 2nd came around it was a real shock and not a pleasant one when everything returned to its usual hellishness. But even then, because I “worked” over the holiday break, I had five extra vacation days to escape later in the year.

Even better, I could tell my boss and the coworkers who were out that I was so committed to the job that I worked over the holidays so that I could get a running start on the new year. It was hard to deliver that line with a straight face but somehow I managed.

Of course, I had to summon up the courage to actually TAKE those vacation days, since there was significant pressure to not to take vacations (it was seen as a lack of team commitment), but I’ve always been pretty impervious to peer pressure.

I’ve also worked in environments that weren’t that negative and even then, working over the holiday break was a good idea. Because while the snake pit was fun over the holiday break, the non-snake pit was an absolute riot. Every coffee (at least the ones I drank) were distinctly Irish.

As somebody who’s freelanced for the past two decades, the only things that I really miss about working a regular office job were the paid vacations and working over the holiday break. Heck, if I could, I’d drive back to the ol’ snake pit and hang out, even today.

China watchdog flags video game approvals; Tencent shares jump

FILE PHOTO: A Tencent sign is seen during the fourth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, Dec. 4, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Tencent Holdings Ltd’s shares jumped by as much as 4.2 percent on Friday after a regulatory official said that some new games have been cleared for sale after a lengthy freeze in approvals.

Feng Shixin, a senior official of the ruling Communist Party’s Propaganda department, said in a speech at a gaming conference in Haikou on Friday that a first batch of approvals for games had been completed, according a transcript of the speech and the organisers of the event.

China, the world’s biggest gaming market, stopped approving new titles from March amid a regulatory overhaul triggered by growing criticism of video games for being violent and leading to myopia as well as addiction among young users.

The freeze on new approvals has pressured gaming-related stocks and clouded the outlook for mobile games, rattling industry leader Tencent and smaller peers.

“We hope through new system design and strong implementation we could guide game companies to better present mainstream values, strengthen a cultural sense of duty and mission, and better satisfy the public need for a better life,” Feng said.

Earlier this month, state media reported that Chinese regulators set up an online video games ethics committee, raising hopes the government was preparing to resume an approval process that has been frozen for most of this year.

“This is clearly exciting news for China’s gaming industry,” a Tencent spokesman said in written comments.

“We’re confident that after the publishing license approval, we will provide more compliant, high-quality cultural works to society and the public.”

The gaming freeze in China has dragged down Tencent’s shares this year and wiped billions of dollars of its market value. The Hong Kong-listed firm’s stock is down around 23 percent this year.

Reporting by Adam Jourdan and Brenda Goh in SHANGHAI and Pei Li in BEIJING; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Christopher Cushing

This St. Louis Startup Believes Crickets Might be the Food of the Future

Want the bad news?

Despite dramatic increases in agricultural productivity, the world faces significant food shortages now and in the near future. Specifically, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people suffer from a chronic lack of nutritious food. And in order to prevent the widespread chaos that would come from mass hunger, agricultural productivity must increase by 60% by 2050 to meet the world’s food demands.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the only bad news.

Much of the developed world’s protein sources are produced in an unsustainable way. Recent research shows that while meat and dairy production is the source of just 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein the world consumes, those same agricultural products account for 83% of the world’s farmland–and loss of wild habitat to farmland is the single biggest reason for wildlife extinction.

It’s all very depressing.

Unless you’re willing to give eating crickets a try.

Seriously.

“Crickets are the world’s most sustainable protein,” said Sarah Schlafly, founder of St. Louis-based Mighty Cricket. “Cricket also has the highest quality protein out there, even higher than beef. It also has more iron than spinach, and as many Omega-3 fatty acids as salmon per 100 grams.”

Schlafly also notes that crickets are also a far more sustainable source of protein than beef.

“One pound of beef protein requires 1700 gallons of water. One pound of chicken protein requires 700 gallons of water. One pound of soy protein requires 5 gallons of water. One pound of cricket protein requires 1 gallon of water. We simply don’t have the resources to continue to support relying almost exclusively on beef, pork, and chicken in the West. By 2050 we will not be able to sustain the world’s current protein diet. Crickets and other edible insects are an important part of addressing those challenges.”

Yeah, but…they’re crickets.

The things that make my otherwise tough-as-nails daughter leap onto a chair and scream like she’s trying out for an ’80s horror remake.

Crickets can’t possibly taste very good, right?

Actually, they do.

Since food reviews aren’t normally a subject of my articles, I had to taste the product before writing about it.

My wife and I tried a pancake mix sold by Mighty Cricket, and while the consistency is a bit different than typical pancakes, the taste was excellent. Our kids didn’t notice a significant difference until after they were done eating and we told them we had just fed them pancakes made of crickets.

(Though the food was good, the big reveal was the best part of dinner. As a parent of a nineteen-year-old, thirteen-year-old, and ten-year-old, I can tell you that raising children can feel at times like being on the wrong end of an ISIS-style terror campaign inexplicably conducted by tiny people you love more than anything else in the world. So, you have to take the small wins–like secretly feeding them bugs.)

On a serious note, the earth is not getting any more land or water–but it is getting a whole lot more people. Helping American consumers become more comfortable with insect protein has become Schlafly and Mighty Cricket’s mission.

“We simply won’t be able to continue getting our protein exclusively from traditional sources,” said Schlafly. “Alternative proteins like crickets will be an important part of solving long-term food and resource challenges. Plus, cricket just tastes good.”

Good food that helps the environment and doubles as a fast and easy way to prank your kids?

Mighty Cricket sounds like a mighty good bet.

(That’s right. I’m closing out this article with a cricket pun, which research shows is roughly 2,000% better than a beef pun.)

The 1 Type of Job Candidate You're Almost Definitely Overlooking (and That's a Huge Mistake)

The U.S. unemployment rate is at a record low and is projected to continue decreasing in the coming years. That’s a big deal: There are more open roles than available talent to fill them, making the hiring market highly competitive for employers.

You’re probably looking for every hiring edge you can get, and your team might be overlooking a key candidate pool that is right in front of you — past candidates with whom you’ve interacted previously.

You probably chose not to move forward with them because they weren’t a fit for your team from a culture standpoint, or didn’t have the relevant background or experience to join your team. Maybe you couldn’t afford them, or maybe someone else was just better. That doesn’t always mean he or she will never be a fit for your team.

You always have the option to stay in touch and consider these candidates for open roles in the future–and the way the job market is going, you should seriously consider it. Here are two tips to build relationships with those quality candidates:

1. Share honest feedback.

Whether job seekers don’t make it past the initial application stage or don’t end up receiving an offer following a final interview — or anywhere in between — it’s critical to close the loop with job applicants. Recent data from the Society of Human Resources Professionals (SHRM) found that only 20 percent of candidates on average receive an email from a recruiter or hiring manager, and only 8 percent receive a phone call letting them know they aren’t moving forward in the hiring process.

That can be really frustrating. If their initial applications aren’t a fit for your open roles or team, an automated email letting candidates know you are moving in another direction works just fine.

But if candidates complete several steps of your hiring process — such as a prescreen surveys, skills tests and multiple interviews — it’s best to provide personalized, honest feedback. For example, a candidate who isn’t a fit for a given role for a handful of reasons can potentially join your team as a top employee several months down the road in a different role. Let candidates know how their skill sets and experience fit with other roles you foresee filling in in the future if this is the case.

2. Keep in touch.

This one’s easier said than done. Your team can’t hire every great candidate who applies to your open roles. But if you think they might be a fit for your team down the road, you should make an effort to stay in touch.

A simple way to keep in touch by connecting with top candidates on LinkedIn. Then, when new roles come up that past candidates are qualified for, you can easily scan through your LinkedIn network to jog your memory about some of your top candidates from the past.

You might come into contact with candidates you want on your team but don’t have the resources to hire them right away. For example, you might meet a great sales leader at a networking event but don’t have the budget for that particular role at the time.

Consider meeting with them informally every so often — either for lunch, coffee or something similar. Or, if you host job fairs or networking events at your business, invite top connections you have crossed paths with to show you’re still interested. Then, when you do have the perfect open roles for these candidates, they’ll remember all the effort you put into building the relationship, feel valued by your team and be more interested in applying.

Today’s stiff competition for top talent means employers need to think outside the box to attract and hire their best teams. By building relationships with previous candidates, you’ll have a leg up on other employers and fill open roles with quality employees sooner.

These 5 Productivity Hacks and Tools Can Save You a Bunch of Time in 2019

From reducing inefficiencies in often redundant and overlooked regular tasks to providing more advanced resources tailored to specific professions and businesses, productivity tools are increasingly prevalent. Conversely, simple methods for managing time more effectively and taking necessary breaks can alleviate stress and reduce instances of wasted time.

Time Boxing & Limiting Technology

Timeboxing has become an essential method for managing overloaded schedules, reducing stress, and increasing productivity. Timeboxing is predicated on the concept of managing tasks through interval time periods of topic-oriented work with small breaks interspersed between them.

 Similar to the Pomodoro Technique–which has been optimized and implemented in a variety of fields and applications–timeboxing aims explicitly to create a more consistent focus and mental clarity that mitigates fatigue. Stress is a byproduct of being overworked, which frequently stems directly from inefficient work and time management. Health concerns around stress are well-documented, and improving time management and productivity is not only good for your career but also your general health.  

Timeboxing takes some practice to develop into a habit and requires that you learn more about your attention and energy patterns. Dividing your time into intervals where you focus intensely on work for extended periods followed by shorter small breaks are designed to facilitate concentration. Our brains tend to work the most efficient through small intervals, and short breaks in between these intervals can provide a reprieve from stress and the feeling of work overload.

Limiting technology usage–mainly before bedtime–has also been touted as a practical way to improve efficiency in work, improve sleep, and increasing morning focus. Staring at screens at night or throughout the day can reduce energy and motivation the following morning. Overexposure to blue-screened device light can even throw off your circadian rhythm.

It’s exceptionally challenging to limit technology use in today’s world, especially considering the prevalence of screens everywhere, seemingly endless news feeds, and social media. However, reducing the use of technology–or at least monitoring it better with an app like Forest–can increase focus and even improve mood.

Tools and Tech

Digital tools for enhancing productivity are everywhere nowadays. Many of them provide automated task and project management while others offer more field-specific resources like software libraries. Regardless of how you’re looking to tackle time-saving and improved productivity, the variety of productivity technology and tools available today is seemingly endless.

Evaluating more general day-to-day time-saving tools, Vivid Technologies — led by founder and CEO Omer Khan — distinguishes itself as the company behind their Digital IVR product. The goal is to remove the frustrating customer service experience by transitioning the phone call into an interactive, user-friendly interface. Users can exchange voice, text, and picture messages with agents while concurrently working on other tasks. There is no waiting for a customer service rep to answer as the call service integrates directly with the user’s phone to alert them once an agent is available. Vivid developed out of a Google and Microsoft Accelerator and has now partnered with Telenor–one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world–to offer their products to all customers of Telenor.  Phone customer service is a largely outdated model, and Vivid caters to millennials with a more efficient and interactive approach.

Other platforms like ActiveCollab are comprehensive project management tools for working with clients and teams. The integrated payment and invoicing functionality bridges many of the challenges facing entrepreneurs, small businesses, and freelancers who have to jump back and forth between task management services and payment applications. Users can either select from a self-hosted application option on your own server or through their monthly cloud service plan. Communication tools, project management, and payment are primarily siloed technologies, incorporating them into one platform can ease learning curves for new tools and support business processes within one interface.

Another emerging collaborative tool is LucidChart, designed for working on diagrams and charts with other team members on any device. A diverse template gallery can be used for building diagrams on anything from financial portfolios to software development workflows. Businesses are trending to an increasingly visual medium, with the ability to confer their message easily projected through informative graphics and interactive guides to their products. LucidChart is available to anyone who needs to diagram rapidly and effectively.

The Productive Road Ahead

Increasing productivity to save time is one of the most effective ways to reduce work overload and balance your schedule. Subsequent effects on improved health through reduced stress are profound. For businesses, specific productivity tools and platforms can help reduce inefficiencies by heightening collaboration and providing the fundamental resources to build new products and designs. In a professional world moving faster than ever, sometimes it is vital to slow down and take measure of how to subtly improve productivity and save precious time.  


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