Bitcoins were worth nothing in 2009, when the digital cryptocurrency was first minted on the computer of its mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, who claimed to live in Japan.
Four years later the value of one Bitcoin surpassed $1,100, thanks in large part to a surge in speculative interest from China. A little-known Shanghai company called BTC China met the demand and quickly became the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange, with more than 100,000 of the virtual coins, or $100 million, traded on a single day, nearly double the market share of its closest competitor, Japan’s Mt. Gox.
BTC China attracted headlines and a $5 million investment in the fall from Silicon Valley’s Lightspeed Venture Partners as well as its China arm. But its rapid growth, and that of Bitcoin, also attracted the attention of the Chinese government.
Unwanted attention, as it turned out. In December the People’s Bank of China decreed that merchants may not accept Bitcoin and forbade banks and payment processors from converting Bitcoin into yuan. The price of Bitcoin fell below $500 in response.
Bitcoin is still widely embraced by technophiles and libertarians (and porn and pot-dealing websites) because the currency is all digital, easily transported across borders and resistant to state controls. A Bitcoin is “mined” on privately owned, specialized computing equipment and passed around by a global, peer-to-peer network of computers. Transactions are trackable, but the parties to each transaction are not. Bitcoin has attracted entrepreneurs and investors excited about its legitimate use: cutting out the middlemen in online payments. In December venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz placed the biggest Bitcoin bet so far with a $25 million investment in San Francisco’s Coinbase, a platform for buying, selling and storing Bitcoins in the U.S. “As the world becomes more digital, paying physically with bills, gold or credit cards will seem archaic. Everyone will have Bitcoins,” says BTC China CEO Bobby Lee.
But China’s actions over the past weeks have put BTC China’s future in doubt. After Chinese regulators held a closed-door meeting to warn financial companies against working with exchanges, BTC China was swiftly abandoned by two payment processors. “There are 300 payment processors in China. We’re going to go down the list and find one that will work with us,” says an optimistic Lee. He doesn’t think the government is trying to put him out of business but rather put the screws on Bitcoin to cut down on the rampant speculation. “They haven’t declared exchanges illegal. That gives us room to maneuver, so there’s still hope.”
Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew is keeping a distant focus. “Anyone investing in Bitcoin companies and Bitcoin specifically should be doing so with the expectation that there will be a lot of volatility driven by regulatory announcements. We invest over 5- to 10-year horizons, not over two-week horizons,” says Liew. “For Bitcoin to be credible, we need executives who have the gravitas to make its case to regulators. That’s Bobby.”
Lee, 38, was born in the Ivory Coast to parents who had moved there from China to set up a flip-flop factory. He was sent to an elite boarding school in the States, graduated from Stanford and spent eight years as an engineer at Yahoo in California. He moved to China in 2006 to work as an engineer at EMC. In 2011 he became Wal-Mart’s chief technology officer in China, charged with helping to build its commerce site.
Lee first heard about Bitcoin in the spring of 2011 while visiting his family in California. Lee’s brother, Charles, was using some of his computer equipment to mine Bitcoin at home. Lee thought he would do the same back in China and bought a bunch of graphics cards from his brother. He started mining in July, the same month he started at Wal-Mart. Neither lasted long.
“It was a hot summer, and the computers created a lot of heat,” says Lee. “My wife said it was too noisy and hot, and so I turned it off in October.” He mined 25 coins, which struck him as a “waste” because they were worth just $300 total at the time and he had spent $1,000 on mining gear.
When Wal-Mart decided to partner with an existing e-commerce site in 2012 rather than build its own, Lee found himself jobless. His mind returned to those Bitcoins gathering digital dust on his computer. His brother had founded a competing cryptocurrency called Litecoin, but Lee wanted to focus on bringing Bitcoin to China. BTC China had popped up two years earlier as the country’s first site for Bitcoin trading. “It was just two guys working part-time on it,” says Lee. They were charging a 0.3% trading fee, but seeing just a few hundred trades per day. Lee sought out its cofounders to convince them it could be bigger. Lee became CEO in April.
They relaunched the site in June and went out looking for venture capital. When they landed the round from Lightspeed in September, they eliminated their fee. That kicked off a bidding frenzy fueled also by the free Bitcoin p.r. that came when the FBI took down Bitcoin-only drug site Silk Road and Baidu announced it would accept Bitcoin for security services, plus the positive buzz around U.S. Senate hearings on the digital currency.
But then the People’s Bank of China, responding to what it says was a wave of consumer concerns, declared in December that Bitcoin wasn’t a recognized currency and shouldn’t be used in the market, prompting Baidu and other Chinese firms to stop taking it as payment. As the extent of the real-world ban became clear, the price of a Bitcoin dropped to $345 on BTC China.
Lee initially saw the declaration as just a speed bump. Chinese citizens were still free to trade Bitcoin. BTC China stayed on the good side of the government’s concerns about money-laundering by asking customers for official identification. BTC also reinstated trading fees to cut down on the frenzy. But days later the government crushed hopes of a thriving trading business when it unofficially barred payment processors from working with Bitcoin exchanges. Suddenly BTC China and others would no longer be able to move their customers’ funds from yuan to Bitcoin and back—which is what exchanges exist to do. “We’re reading the tea leaves,” says Shanghai Bitcoin entrepreneur Jack Wang. “But it looks like they’re going to squeeze the exchanges until they’re not able to operate.”
China’s move is not without precedent. Eleven years ago Chinese Web service Tencent created a virtual currency called Q Coin for use in games. It became increasingly valuable offline and started trading on exchanges along with renminbi and gold. The government declared such use illegal in 2007, sending its real world value crashing to nothing.
China is still letting people play with Bitcoin in its country, but by cutting off ways to convert it to real money, it is turning it into the digital Monopoly money that skeptics have always dismissed it as being. “If necessary, we’ll go into other Bitcoin services,” says Lee. The company plans to launch a secure online Bitcoin wallet called Picasso at the end of December. “This is not the end. It may be the end of a chapter, but it’s not the end of our company.”
TikTok Launches $200 Million Fund To Finance Up-And-Coming Stars
TikTok will begin financing emerging creators on its short-form video platform with a $200 million fund that it announced today, an unusual move by a social media company and one that comes after several weeks of concerns about TikTok’s future.
The company, which is owned by China-based ByteDance, didn’t provide many specific details about how it will give out that money or who may qualify for it. It may be directed toward users from minority groups—with the press release about the fund’s debut singling out creators like Boman Martinez-Reid, a LGBTQ comedian who has signed with CAA, and Tabitha Brown, who’s become famous for her videos about family life and veganism.
TikTok is in a multi-front battle right now. The Trump Administration is considering banning the app over concerns it may share data with the Chinese government, and the users who flocked to TikTok over the past year have been exploring other platforms for their content. In the past few weeks, TikTokers have posted videos urging their fans to also follower them on apps like Instagram, while others have turned to rival music-and-video apps such as Dubsmash and Byte to produce work.
The best way to keep them on TikTok is to offer a clear path toward earning money. Instagram and other social platforms have struggled to do that, and YouTube’s ad-sharing scheme—based on the views generated by someone’s videos—remains the quickest and simplest monetization for influencers. Companies such as Chipotle and E.L.F. cosmetics are already paying for sponsored content on TikTok, where influencers post videos advertising these companies for a fee, as much as six figures now for the top stars. But those deals are typically hashed out between the brands and the influencers without the social media companies getting involved.
TikTok’s $200 million fund is a different step, something neither Instagram nor YouTube have done. It theoretically would allow more creators to flourish as they start out and begin searching for commercial work, such as the sponsored content posts.
The Billionaire’s Startup
The world is awash in streaming services, and Meg Whitman already had her fortune — but then Jeffrey Katzenberg came calling with a mobile-focused startup. With nearly $1.8 billion raised and America on lockdown, consumers may have no choice but to try Quibi.
Minutes after Meg Whitman announced she was stepping down as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise in November 2017, her phone rang. It was Jeffrey Katzenberg, whom she has known since they both worked for Disney in the late 1980s and early 1990s — Whitman was in strategic planning; Katzenberg ran the film studio. ‘What are you doing?’ ” Whitman remembers her friend asking. “I don’t know,” she replied.
“I’m the chairman of Teach for America. I’ll probably do stuff with my husband and travel.” She continues: “He goes, ‘No. What are you doing tonight?’ And I said, ‘Knowing you, Jeffrey, I’m having dinner with you.’ ”
Katzenberg flew to Silicon Valley and, over dinner at Nobu in Palo Alto, pitched his idea for bringing high-caliber entertainment to mobile phones. For Whitman, the idea checked all her boxes: The potential market for the service was huge, prevailing trends were right and it occupied a unique niche.
“I ultimately said, ‘You know what? I think I have another startup in me,’ ” says Whitman, 63, who first got rich (she’s worth $3.3 billion) working with another visionary founder, Pierre Omidyar. She helped build eBay from 30 employees and $4 million in revenue when she joined in 1998 to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue when she left a decade later.
“We’re pioneering into a space that only exists because of two things: YouTube, and Steve Jobs and the iPhone,” Katzenberg says. “Those two things have now created a new piece of real estate, and that real estate is 7 in the morning until 7 at night… That’s the thing that’s exciting to me.”
Two years after that dinner, Quibi (an awkward portmanteau of quick and bites) is poised to launch its mobile streaming service offering original movies, reality TV, comedies and news edited into bite sized nuggets of 10 minutes or less, optimized for viewing on phones.
Many in Hollywood think it’s a terrible idea. At a time when viewers are awash in entertainment options, many of them free, who is going to pay for another? “If I’m going to watch Game of Thrones in eight-minute chunks, what’s the difference between what he’s doing and me hitting the pause button?” scoffs one powerful Hollywood insider, who requested anonymity because his clients sell shows to Quibi. Barry Diller, perhaps the greatest Hollywood visionary of his generation, recently called Quibi a “gutsy speculation” for his former protégé (Katzenberg, 69, worked for Diller at Paramount in the ’70s). “He’s so naked out there with this.”
It’s not a new idea. Back in 1999, Katzenberg tried something similar with Pop.com, which was supposed to deliver short animated and live-action films across the internet. With the technology for viable video streaming still in its infancy, it was an uncertain notion at best. Despite being backed by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Paul Allen, Pop.com was dead within a year.
This time around, Katzenberg raised enough money to play it out, including $1 billion in August 2018 from the likes of Alibaba, Disney and Sony. It fortuitously wrapped up a $750 million follow-on round in March, just days before the coronavirus froze the country. “I’ve never seen an environment change this fast,” Whitman says. “Every day is a new day, with new data and new concerns.” Luckily, Kevin Hart and Jennifer Lopez already finished work on their shows, and Spielberg has a movie in the works, attracted by a “cash plus” deal that lets them retain rights to their material. After two years, they can stitch together their “quick bites” and release them as a full-length movie.
Inadvertently, America’s lockdown might have created the perfect moment for Quibi. Nielsen projects media viewing will spike by as much as 60% due to COVID-19. People will certainly know it’s available: Quibi is spending a gargantuan $400 million to promote its new service and in mid-March announced that it will offer the service free for three months.
“This is a moment in time in which we have a chance to do something that is putting some happiness and some joy and some fun and some laughter into people’s hands,” Katzenberg says.
Quibi also has the advantage of being loaded with fresh content just as the production of all new shows and movies has been stilled by the pandemic. Quibi has been stockpiling programming since last September in anticipation of a possible writer’s strike, fearing a replay of 2008, when a union walkout halted new production for 100 days.
The service debuts on April 6 with 50 original shows, including movies offered in cliff-hanger chapters such as the thriller Survive, starring Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) and Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKlansman); 120 reality shows and documentaries; plus news, weather and sports. In all, Quibi promises to deliver 8,500 quick bites from 175 shows in its first year.
But the $1.8 billion question remains: Will anyone pay to watch them? Some Hollywood players are adopting a “DBA Jeffrey” — Don’t Bet Against Jeffrey — attitude.
“Jeffrey has only taken a couple of big swings in his life, and he’s hit it out of the park,” says a senior executive at one of Hollywood’s major talent agencies. “If you had blindly bet on Jeffrey Katzenberg for the past 30 years, you’d have made a lot of money.”
– Dawn Chmielewski
‘WFH’ here to stay?
The home will be hub and flexible working the norm. The result? Renewed employee trust, wellness and cost savings, say more companies.
Even the words out-of-the-box seem out of date at a time when shipping containers are turning into ICU hospitals and arms firms are making ventilators and personal protective equipment.
If technology is being repurposed, so too homes and humans.
Over the last few months the world over, the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’ has seen homes turning into head offices, with the volatile economy forcing businesses to rethink long-term strategies in a work from home (WFH) environment that looks here to stay.
Even the big corporates say this could extend post-pandemic.
Barclays CEO Jes Staley said its staff will not revert fully to its pre-January work habits. “There will be a long-term adjustment in how we think about our location strategy; the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” he said after the company reported its first quarter profits for 2020.
Internet giant Google said all staff are expected to work from home until 2021, according to a May 2020 report in Bloomberg. S,imilarly, Facebook will let staff work remotely through 2020. Twitter, on the other hand, announced a short while later it would let staff work from home “forever”.
Euromonitor International’s Global Consumer Trends 2020 report has highlighted areas that Covid-19 will have an impact for the year ahead. Some of these include multi-functional homes where, in the long-term, the home becomes the hub and businesses will adapt accordingly; private personalization, which will put privacy concerns on hold in the short term but will return in the long term; and inclusivity for all would see disabled communities benefitting from technology.
In South Africa, the government has stipulated five levels of lockdown dictating how businesses may be carried out, including which sectors can operate as levels change. This requires flexibility and being able to adapt from one week to the other.
Jordan Rittenberry, Edelman Africa CEO, says the company’s transition towards more flexible working policies has been sped up by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the process has been a success with renewed trust in employees.
“We believe that flexibility, particularly in the current environment, is a useful way for companies to treat their staff right and foster mutual trust,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. “The pandemic has required a rapid mind-set change as companies take on new responsibilities towards the people that work for them and employee wellness is the first port of call as we navigate these uncharted waters.
“Every crisis presents opportunities and new ways of doing things. The shift we are seeing now is one of those that could help to meaningfully improve employer-employee relationships if managed carefully.
“As more people work from home, we will naturally require less space over time and this will yield cost savings to the business that can be passed on to clients.
“Besides employee costs, real estate is our biggest expense,” he says. Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice President at Sage Middle East and Africa, has come to a similar conclusion. “We realized that we do not need as much office space going forward and working remotely using cloud technology tools has maintained productivity levels from our colleagues,” says Bensch to FORBES AFRICA.
“Our entire workforce began working remotely before lockdown and are in no rush to return until it is safe but have encouraged video calls so they can see each other.
“Our cloud accounting and payroll product sales have increased, which is a clear indication that our customers now understand the power and benefits of cloud solutions to maintain business continuity.”
The mental wellbeing of employees has also been top priority. “All Sage colleagues received a free subscription to Headspace, a brilliant award-winning app and guide to everyday mindfulness,” adds Bensch. The company also formed a ‘[email protected]’ community for staff looking for peer support on how to adapt with differing family needs and challenges.
A Johannesburg-based agency called BetterWork that specializes in design thinking for human resources has been hosting weekly lunchtime Zoom calls since the beginning of lockdown in South Africa. Attendees include a mix of its professional network, members of The GoodWork Society and other members of the general public. Some of its takeaways have proven that WFH is more productive than working in the office, which cited minimal distractions and the extra hours gained from not having to sit in traffic. Additionally, introverts seem to be thriving and tend to feel more comfortable with contributions to teamwork. On the other hand, BetterWork says parents on the call have expressed being overwhelmed with not just their own work but also the additional responsibility of being teacher-guides to their children.
The company believes the home-office is now the responsibility of the employer where people-focused services such as tele-therapy, support for parents and social programs become an additional duty to ensure a healthy, productive team. It adds that an obvious benefit would be the compensation or subsidizing of laptops, stable internet connectivity, webcams, etc.
Palesa Sibeko, Co-founder of BetterWork, says offices are typically expertly assessed and constructed to suit an organization’s work activity needs, but the same is not true for the millions of homes that are now acting as places of work. “There is not a concerted effort to view home-work life more holistically, to identify the needs and address them to create environments conducive to doing great work.” BetterWork says it is currently looking into how to support organizations on this important mission.
– Nafisa Akabor
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