U.S. universities unplug from China's Huawei under pressure from Trump

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Top U.S. universities are ditching telecom equipment made by Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies to avoid losing federal funding under a new national security law backed by the Trump administration.

FILE PHOTO: Graduates attend commencement at University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Berger/File Photo

U.S. officials allege Chinese telecom manufacturers are producing equipment that allows their government to spy on users abroad, including Western researchers working on leading-edge technologies. Beijing and the Chinese companies have repeatedly denied such claims.

The University of California at Berkeley has removed a Huawei video-conferencing system, a university official said, while the UC campus in Irvine is working to replace five pieces of Chinese-made audio-video equipment. Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, are in the process of reviewing their suppliers.

UC San Diego, meanwhile, has gone a step further. The university in August said that, for at least six months, it would not accept funding from or enter into agreements with Huawei, ZTE Corporation (000063.SZ) and other Chinese audio-video equipment providers, according to an internal memo. The document, reviewed by Reuters, said the moratorium would last through February 12, when the university would revisit its options.

“Out of an abundance of caution UC San Diego enacted the six-month moratorium to ensure we had adequate time to begin our assessment of the equipment on campus and to prevent the campus from entering into any agreements that could later be viewed as inconsistent with the NDAA,” UC San Diego spokeswoman Michelle Franklin said in response to Reuters’ questions about the memo.

These actions, not previously reported, signal universities’ efforts to distance themselves from Chinese companies that for years have supplied them with technical equipment and sponsored academic research, but which are now in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.

The moves are a response to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which President Donald Trump signed into law in August. A provision of that legislation bans recipients of federal funding from using telecommunications equipment, video recording services and networking components made by Huawei or ZTE. Also on the blacklist are Chinese audio-video equipment providers Hikvision, Hytera, Dahua Technology and their affiliates.

U.S. authorities fear the equipment makers will leave a back door open to Chinese military and government agents seeking information. U.S. universities that fail to comply with the NDAA by August 2020 risk losing federal research grants and other government funding.

That would be a blow to public institutions such as the sprawling University of California system, whose state funding has been slashed repeatedly over the last decade. In the 2016-2017 academic year, the UC system received $9.8 billion in federal money. Nearly $3 billion of that went to research, accounting for about half of all the university’s research expenditures that year, according to UC budget documents.

HUAWEI UNDER SIEGE

The new law is part of a broader Trump administration strategy to counter what it sees as China’s growing threat to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.

The president has slapped tariffs on a slew of Chinese goods and made it tougher for foreign companies to purchase minority stakes in U.S. tech companies, causing Chinese investment in Silicon Valley to plunge.

In addition, Trump last year signed legislation prohibiting the U.S. government from buying certain telecom and surveillance equipment from Huawei and ZTE. And he is considering a similar ban on Chinese equipment purchases by U.S. companies.

At the center of the storm is Huawei, a global behemoth in smartphones and telecom networking equipment. The company’s chief financial officer has been under house arrest in Canada since December for allegedly lying about Huawei’s ties to Iran. Another Huawei employee was arrested this month in Poland on espionage allegations.

Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. universities have already felt the sting of Trump’s China policies. The State Department shortened the length of visas for certain Chinese graduate students. And the administration is considering new restrictions on Chinese students entering the United States. Chinese students are by far the largest group of international students in the United States and provide a lucrative source of revenue for universities.

Pressure to dump Huawei and other Chinese telecom suppliers is adding to the strain.

In addition to the University of Wisconsin, a half dozen institutions, including UC Los Angeles, UC Davis and the University of Texas at Austin, told Reuters they were in the process of reviewing their telecommunications equipment, or had already done so and determined they were NDAA compliant.

At Stanford University, Steve Eisner, the director of export compliance, told Reuters the school did a “scrub” of the campus, but “luckily” did not find any equipment that needed to be removed.

But for Stanford and other academic institutions, Huawei is more than an equipment vendor. Huawei participates in research programs, often as a sponsor, at dozens of schools, including UC San Diego, the University of Texas, the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In addition to an explicit equipment ban, the NDAA calls for creating regulations that would limit research partnerships and other agreements universities have with China. The law requires the Secretary of Defense to work with universities on ways to guard against intellectual property theft and create new regulations aimed at protecting academics from exploitation by foreign countries. Universities that fail to comply with those rules risk losing Defense Department funding.

UC San Diego highlighted this section of the law in a campus newsletter in September.

Fears of a more rigorous crackdown from Washington would seem to be justified. In June, 26 members of Congress sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, sounding an alarm over Huawei’s research partnerships with more than 50 U.S. universities that “may pose a significant threat to national security.”

The lawmakers called on DeVos to require universities to turn over information on those agreements.

Separately, a White House report from June points to a research partnership on artificial intelligence between UC Berkeley and Huawei as a potential opening for China to gather intelligence that could serve Beijing’s military and strategic ambitions. That partnership started in 2016.

“COOLING” RELATIONS WITH HUAWEI

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said the university does not participate in research involving trade secrets. He said the school only enters research partnerships whose findings can be published publicly. Such open-source research is not subject to federal regulations.

Mogulof said UC Berkeley has no plans to change any of the research partnerships it has with Huawei. The company is involved in at least five UC Berkeley research initiatives, including autonomous driving, augmented reality and wireless technology, in addition to artificial intelligence.

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Still, a person with knowledge of the matter said the university’s relationship with Huawei had “cooled,” and that some Berkeley researchers are choosing not to proceed with their research agreements with the company to avoid scrutiny from university and government officials.

The chill is spreading. The United Kingdom’s Oxford University this month cut ties with Huawei, announcing it would no longer accept funding for research or philanthropic donations.

“The decision has been taken in the light of public concerns raised in recent months surrounding UK partnerships with Huawei,” a university spokesman said in a statement.

Reporting by Heather Somerville and Jane Lanhee Lee; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Marla Dickerson

Google, Facebook spend big on U.S. lobbying amid policy battles

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google disclosed in a quarterly filing on Tuesday that it spent a company-record $21.2 million on lobbying the U.S. government in 2018, topping its previous high of $18.22 million in 2012, as the search engine operator fights wide-ranging scrutiny into its practices.

FILE PHOTO – The outside of the Google offices is seen in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

In its filing to Congress on Tuesday, Facebook Inc disclosed that it also spent more on government lobbying in 2018 than it ever had before at $12.62 million. That was up from $11.51 million a year ago, according to tracking by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Google’s spent $18.04 million on lobbying in 2017, according to the center’s data.

Google and Facebook declined to comment beyond their filings.

U.S. lawmakers and regulators have weighed new privacy and antitrust rules to rein in the power of large internet service providers such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.com Inc. Regulatory backlash in the United States, as well as Europe and Asia, is near the top of the list of concerns for technology investors, according to financial analysts.

Microsoft Corp spent $9.52 million on lobbying in 2018, according to its disclosure on Tuesday, up from $8.5 million in 2017 but below its $10.5 million tab in 2013.

Apple Inc spent $6.62 million last year, compared to its record of $7.15 million in 2017, according to center data going back to 1998.

Apple and Microsoft did not respond to requests to comment. A filing from Amazon was expected later on Tuesday.

Google disclosed that new discussion topics with regulators in the fourth quarter included its search technology, criminal justice reform and international tax reform. The company is perennially among the top spenders on lobbying in Washington along with a few cable operators, defense contractors and healthcare firms.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, who testified in December before a U.S. House of Representatives panel for the first time, has said the company backs the idea of national privacy legislation. But he has contested accusations of the company having a political bias in its search results and of stifling competition.

Susan Molinari, Google’s top U.S. public policy official, stepped down to take on an advisory role this month.

Facebook said discussing “election integrity” with national security officials was among its new lobbying areas in the fourth quarter. The filing said the company continued to lobby the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating its data security practices.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall

Glassdoor Just Announced the 50 Best Jobs in America for 2019 (Is Your Job on the List?)

Some of the highlights in the 2019 best jobs rankings include:

  • A red-hot tech job — Data Scientist — takes the #1 spot

  • #1 most in-demand bob: Software Engineer (#10) with 49,007 open jobs.

  • Twenty-two jobs are new to the list this year, including Security Engineer (#17), Recruiter (#28), and Brand Manager (#48).

According to Amanda Stansell, Glassdoor economic research analyst, the results point out some important trends. Says Stansell:

“As we look closer at the Best Jobs in America for 2019, we’re seeing continued demand for highly-skilled workers, especially in tech and health care roles. Paired with today’s tight labor market, this demand heightens competition among employers to recruit and retain top-performing talent. This is why we’re seeing more employers across industries invest in workplace culture, transparent communication with senior leadership, clear career mobility and attractive compensation packages in order to keep employees satisfied in their jobs long-term.”

Here’s Glassdoor’s list of the 50 Best Jobs in America for 2019. Is your job on it?

1. Data Scientist
Number of Job Openings: 6,510
Median Base Salary: $108,000

2. Nursing Manager
Number of Job Openings: 13,931
Median Base Salary: $83,000 

3. Marketing Manager
Number of Job Openings: 7,395 
Median Base Salary: $82,000  

4. Occupational Therapist
Number of Job Openings: 17,701
Median Base Salary: $74,000

5. Product Manager
Number of Job Openings: 11,884
Median Base Salary: $115,000

6. Devops Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 4,657
Median Base Salary: $106,000

7. Program Manager
Number of Job Openings: 14,753
Median Base Salary: $87,000

8. Data Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 4,739
Median Base Salary: $100,000

9. HR Manager
Number of Job Openings: 3,908 
Median Base Salary: $85,000 

10. Software Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 49,007 
Median Base Salary: $104,000 

11. Mechanical Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 5,949  
Median Base Salary: $75,000  

12. Physician Assistant
Number of Job Openings: 9,819   
Median Base Salary: $105,000  

13. Sales Manager
Number of Job Openings: 21,695 
Median Base Salary: $65,000  

14. Sales Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 3,145 
Median Base Salary: $90,000  

15. Operations Manager
Number of Job Openings: 18,311  
Median Base Salary: $68,000  

16. Strategy Manager
Number of Job Openings: 2,783   
Median Base Salary: $140,000  

17. Security Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 4,683    
Median Base Salary: $102,000 

18. Construction Manager
Number of Job Openings: 3,334   
Median Base Salary: $75,000 

19. Speech Language Pathologist
Number of Job Openings: 29,467    
Median Base Salary: $72,000 

20. Project Manager
Number of Job Openings: 30,107  
Median Base Salary: $75,000 

21. Product Designer
Number of Job Openings: 2,158   
Median Base Salary: $100,000 

22. Java Developer
Number of Job Openings: 6,636  
Median Base Salary: $85,000 

23. Executive Assistant
Number of Job Openings: 4,858  
Median Base Salary: $60,000 

24. Electrical Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 7,191  
Median Base Salary: $77,000 

25. Finance Manager
Number of Job Openings: 3,747  
Median Base Salary: $118,000 

26. Business Analyst
Number of Job Openings: 13,340   
Median Base Salary: $72,000 

27. Solutions Architect
Number of Job Openings: 6,969    
Median Base Salary: $127,000 

28. Recruiter
Number of Job Openings: 9,782     
Median Base Salary: $48,000 

29. Business Development Manager
Number of Job Openings: 6,348    
Median Base Salary: $80,000 

30. Dental Hygienist
Number of Job Openings: 2,805   
Median Base Salary: $67,250  

31. Data Analyst
Number of Job Openings: 5,456  
Median Base Salary: $60,000

32. Nurse Practitioner
Number of Job Openings: 18,997   
Median Base Salary: $102,000

33. Applications Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 2,591   
Median Base Salary: $77,000

34. QA Manager
Number of Job Openings: 1,923  
Median Base Salary: $91,250 

35. Risk Manager
Number of Job Openings: 3,924 
Median Base Salary: $100,500 

36. Communications Manager
Number of Job Openings: 2,009 
Median Base Salary: $80,000 

37. Physical Therapist
Number of Job Openings: 34,899 
Median Base Salary: $70,000 

38. Facilities Manager
Number of Job Openings: 3,472 
Median Base Salary: $65,000  

39. Systems Engineer
Number of Job Openings: 16,793  
Median Base Salary: $90,000  

40. Customer Success Manager
Number of Job Openings: 2,601  
Median Base Salary: $65,000 

41. Radiologic Technologist
Number of Job Openings: 6,115 
Median Base Salary: $48,000

42. Restaurant Manager
Number of Job Openings: 21,754  
Median Base Salary: $49,000  

43. Software Engineering Manager
Number of Job Openings: 1,445 
Median Base Salary: $153,000  

44. Software Developer
Number of Job Openings: 11,833  
Median Base Salary: $80,000 

45. Safety Manager
Number of Job Openings: 2,180   
Median Base Salary: $71,000  

46. UX Designer
Number of Job Openings: 3,333    
Median Base Salary: $89,000   

47. Office Manager
Number of Job Openings: 18,681     
Median Base Salary: $42,000  

48. Brand Manager
Number of Job Openings: 1,500      
Median Base Salary: $85,000   

49. Software Development Manager
Number of Job Openings: 1,178      
Median Base Salary: $140,000    

50. Systems Administrator
Number of Job Openings: 8,278   
Median Base Salary: $68,000     

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

Bracing for a Hazy Robo-Future, Ford and VW Join Forces

Sensor partnerships. Subsidiary acquisitions. Software collaborations. The autonomous driving world is about as incestous a place as Caligula’s palace, and it got a little more so today, when Ford and Volkswagen announced a formal and long-anticipated alliance.

“The alliance we are now building, starting from first formal agreement, will boost both partners’ competitiveness in an era of rapid change,” Herbert Diess, the CEO of Volkswagen, said on a call with reporters. He and Ford CEO Jim Hackett said the partnership—which is not a merger—will begin with the companies jointly developing and building medium-sized pickups and commercial vans, to debut as early as 2022. The automakers said the arrangement should “yield improved annual pre-tax operating results” by 2023. So hopefully, this makes everyone richer.

After that, well, the companies have signed a “memorandum of understanding” to collaborate on electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and mobility services. The shape and details of those partnerships are yet to be determined.

Diess is right about that “rapid change” bit. The automotive industry has shifted remarkably in the last decade, with new vehicle and vehicle-adjacent tech players—Tesla, Waymo, Aurora, Argo AI—injecting fresh blood (and panic) into the business of building cars. Ford and VW seem to believe that banding together will help them not only survive, but thrive.

The companies will need to do that in a world where, eventually, someday, the human driver is obsolete. The path to self-driving domination is not yet clear. What services will automotive manufacturers manage for themselves? Which technologies will they build and own? Ford and VW have spent the last few years toying with different answers to these questions, and by joining forces, each has diversified its AV portfolio. It might be evidence, as automotive writer Pete Bigelow points out, that the companies are making smart, strategic decisions about how to spend their R & D dollars in this confusing, in-between time. Or that they’re flailing. Maybe both.

Both VW and Ford already have (quasi) in-house automated vehicle software teams. VW has built up a 150-person “Autonomous Intelligent Driving” unit as part of its Audi brand, which is building a full AV software stack. (Audi itself has pledged to spend $16 billion on electric and self-driving vehicles through 2023.) And the German automaker is working on self-driving with the AV developer Aurora, which is headed up by self-driving tech veterans.

Ford has a large stake in Pittsburgh-based AV software company Argo AI, whose work is a key element of the automaker’s pledge to have a fully automated robotaxi in operation by 2021. And it has spent time and money boning up on “mobility” tech, purchasing companies like transit software-maker TransLoc, transportation cloud platform Autonomic, (recently killed) shuttle service Chariot, and scooter-share company Spin. It’s trying to figure out how best to connect customers to transportation, and what they’d like to see out of a transportation service, anyway.

It’s not clear yet how these various minglings will affect Ford and VW’s work. Argo AI is involved in the discussions between the companies, but specifics are scarce. “We’re not going to speculate on the details of the advanced discussions that are ongoing,” says Alan Hall, a spokesperson for Ford.

Khobi Brooklyn, a spokesperson for Aurora, did not say what role the company might play in the alliance. “As we continue to build relationships across the transportation ecosystem with providers of vehicles, transportation networks and fleet management operations, we are confident that we will be able to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly,” she wrote in a statement. Aurora has said that it has not ruled out working with other automotive manufacturers on self-driving cars; it also has partnerships with Hyundai and EV startup Byton.

Another element of this “diversification” that should benefit both companies: They get easier access to the others’ regional strengths—and regulatory environments. VW has invested serious money in South America, Africa, and China. But despite a new plan to establish a plant in Tennessee, the German carmaker is weaker in the US, Ford’s home turf. “From Volkswagen’s perspective, it would make a lot of sense to cooperate with an American player given that the regulatory conditions for preparing the breakthrough of autonomous driving are more advanced in the US than they are in Europe,” Diess told reporters. Break out those German-English dictionaries.


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Exclusive: Facebook brings stricter ads rules to countries with big 2019 votes

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc told Reuters on Tuesday that it would extend some of its political advertising rules and tools for curbing election interference to India, Nigeria, Ukraine and the European Union before significant votes in the next few months.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

As the largest social media service in nearly every big country, Facebook since 2016 has become a means for politicians and their adversaries to distribute fake news and other propaganda.

Buying Facebook ads can widen the audience for such material, but some of those influence efforts may violate election rules and the company’s policies.

Under pressure from authorities around the world, Facebook last year introduced several initiatives to increase oversight of political ads.

Beginning on Wednesday in Nigeria, only advertisers located in the country will be able to run electoral ads, mirroring a policy unveiled during an Irish referendum last May, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global politics and outreach, said in an interview.

The same policy will take effect in Ukraine in February. Nigeria holds a presidential election on Feb. 16, while Ukraine will follow on March 31.

In India, which votes for parliament this spring, Facebook will place electoral ads in a searchable online library starting from next month, said Rob Leathern, a director of product management at the company.

“We’re learning from every country,” Leathern said. “We know we’re not going to be perfect, but our goal is continuing, ongoing improvement.”

Facebook believes that holding the ads in a library for seven years is a key part of fighting intereference, he added.

The library will resemble archives brought to the United States, Brazil and Britain last year.

The newfound transparency drew some applause from elected officials and campaign accountability groups, but they also criticized Facebook for allowing advertisers in the United States to obfuscate their identities.

The Indian archive will contain contact information for some ad buyers or their official regulatory certificates. For individuals buying political ads, Facebook said it would ensure their listed name matches government-issued documents.

The European Union would get a version of that authorization and transparency system ahead of the bloc’s parliamentary elections in May, Leathern said.

The ad hoc approach, with varying policies and transparency depending on the region, reflects local laws and conversations with governments and civil society groups, Harbath said.

That means extra steps to verify identities and locations of political ad buyers in the United States and India will not be introduced in every big election this year, Leathern said.

In addition, ad libraries in some countries will not include what the company calls “issue” ads, Leathern said.

Facebook’s U.S. archive includes ads about much-debated issues such as climate change and immigration policy even though they may not directly relate to a ballot measure.

Australia, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines are among nations holding key votes this year for which Facebook said it is still weighing policies.

Leathern and Harbath said they hoped to have a set of tools that applies to advertisers globally by the end of June. They declined to elaborate, saying lessons from the next couple of months would help shape the worldwide product.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Facebook is pictured during the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

“Our goal was to get to a global solution,” Harbath said. “And so, until we can get to that in June, we had to look at the different elections and what we think we can do.”

Other Facebook teams remain focused on identifying problematic political behavior unrelated to ads.

Last month, researchers working for a U.S. Senate committee concluded that the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency used social media ads and regular posts on inauthentic accounts to promote then presidential candidate Donald Trump to millions of Americans. Russia has denied the accusation.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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.

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.


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Why Building a Business Today Is More About Selling Skills Than Selling Products

Most of you who start new ventures don’t think of yourselves as sales experts. In fact, you may feel on the opposite end of the spectrum, more focused on delivering the perfect solution and managing the finances to grow the business.

Yet in today’s competitive and rapidly changing world, top notch sales and marketing skills are critical to the success of every business.

As an advisor to technical entrepreneurs, the most common mistake I see is the “If we build it, they will come” approach with no sales plan, under the assumption that the technology is so spectacular that customers will buy the product.

In todays’ rapidly changing world, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, so it’s easy to slip into that unseen majority and fail.

Thus, in my view, it’s never too early to brush up on your selling and marketing skills. Here are the key steps I have found to work from my own experience in large companies, as well as startups:

1. Practice showing some passion in every conversation.

Being positive and excited about what you offer should not be reserved for stand-up pitches and closing large deals.

Everyone inside your company, as well as potential customers, needs to be inspired by your message before they believe it. Stand tall – keep your fears and doubts to yourself.

It always helps to ask questions first, and keying off an element of passion in the other person’s perspective. For example, if they show a passion for fitness and life balance, highlight how your solution shortens the time and pain of solving their business problems.

2. Work hard on perfecting your value proposition.

The value of your solution may be self-evident to you, but everyone has a different perspective.

Make sure you engage fully and often with your ideal customer, to understand what will appeal most to their heart, mind, and pocketbook. Then craft an irresistible pitch, and iterate often to keep tuning it.

Effective value propositions are quantified and personalized for each customer or target segment. For example, “reduces your cost per application by 30 percent” is far better than “easier and faster to apply.” Eliminate the fuzzy hype words from your message.

3. Hone in and capitalize on your best assets.

Your strongest asset may be your personality, expertise, location, or your solution. Highlight what you do best, unique benefits to your customers, and an honest statement of why you do what you do.

Make it real for your customers with professionally prepared collateral based on these assets.

Dale Carnegie, for example, was recently ranked as one of the ten greatest salespeople of all time, by virtue of his presence and conviction, even though his courses on public speaking contained no great innovations or breakthroughs. He was the asset he sold.

4. Build real relationships with people who can help.

Starting and growing a business is not a solo operation. You need all the help you can get, and people will help you if they know and trust you.

These may be partners who can complement your skills, mentors who can show you what you need, or customers who can be your best sales people.

Even the most successful business executives have mentoring relationships with helpful peers. Bill Gates has a long-standing mentor relationship with Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg openly acknowledges that he was mentored in the early days by Steve Jobs.

5. Don’t forget to ask for the close, with confidence.

You can’t win if you don’t ask, and confidently asking a customer for their decision shows leadership on your part.

The best sales people look for ways to inspire a customer’s emotional involvement, create the urgency to take ownership, and then ask for the decision. Don’t be shy on this point.

Five basic rules for closing include treating closing as a process, setting a closing objective, waiting for the right moment, wrapping a conversation around it, and then celebrating every victory. If you can’t close deals, you don’t have a business, no matter how great the product.

I’m not suggesting that you as the business founder has to do all the selling, but you do have to be the role model that the rest of team follows. You also have to deeply understand what sells to your customers, or you can’t properly lead the other key business areas of development, finance, and operations.

In reality, leadership requires first selling yourself, so these same steps apply.

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.

The Trump Administration Just Revealed a Brutal Truth About the Shutdown That Nobody Saw Coming

Late on Friday, we heard a brutally honest truth, attributed to senior Trump administration officials, about how unprepared we were for this unexpectedly long shutdown–and what that could mean for our economy and our counry.

Ironically, it came just hours after the Trump administration released some really great economic news: 312,000 new jobs in December. Those are fantastic numbers, but they’re pre-shutdown numbers. 

And they only highlight how much we suddenly have to lose. Here’s the money quote, as reported late Friday by The Washington Post:

The Trump administration, which had not anticipated a long-term shutdown, recognized only this week the breadth of the potential impact, several senior administration officials said.

The officials said they were focused now on understanding the scope of the consequences and determining whether there is anything they can do to intervene.

By next weekend, the partial government shutdown will be the longest in U.S. history, and the “scope of the consequences” that the administration is now trying to understand suddenly seems quite severe.  

Much of the problem comes from the fact that the government can’t pay and distribute literally hundreds of billions of dollars that are owed to Americans while it’s shut down. And that is likely to have a huge ripple effect on the economy. Here are a few examples.

$100 billion in tax refunds that won’t be issued on time

We start with the IRS, which cannot legally distribute people’s tax refunds during a shutdown. In any event, it’s super-understaffed (just 12 percent of IRS employees are working). Here are what the numbers looked like last year, according to The Wall Street Journal:

  • February 2, 2018:    $12.6 billion in refunds paid
  • February 16, 2018:    $101.2 billion in refunds paid
  • March 30, 2018:        $212 billion in refunds paid

None of that would get paid out under current plans. To put it in context, the dollar amounts here are roughly the annual economic output of entire cities, like Austin and Denver.

“That would hurt retailers that rely on consumers who file their taxes early and spend their refund money in February or March. And any such pullback in spending would weigh on the overall economy,” the AP reported.

Almost $5 billion in ‘food stamps’ won’t be paid

Next up is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). About 38 million Americans rely on SNAP, aka “food stamps” each month, but it’s no not funded in a shutdown.

January payments did go out, thanks to an emergency reserve. The government has enough left to afford about 63 percent of February’s tally. So, about $3 billon out of roughly $4.7 billion would be paid.

After that, if the shutdown lasts into March, the SNAP funds go to zero. While the total amount here is a lot less than the tax refunds, it’s extremely important to some people — and to businesses that rely on them as customers. 

Maybe $5 billion a month in federal salaries

About 800,000 federal workers are either on unpaid furlough or working without pay. What’s the total impact?

In 2015, the average annual federal salary was $84,500. Multiply that by 800,000, divide it by 12 months, and I get about $5.6 billion per month. 

In previous shutdowns, Congress ultimately authorized back pay, so let’s and assume that will happen here too. Meanwhile however, people can’t spend money in January and February if they don’t have it.

It has second and third order effects, too as businesses that count on these employees as customers also get paid less.

All the other government spending and its effects

My colleague Chris Matyszczyk wrote earlier about how the pilots’ union at Delta and United wrote to President Trump urging him to end the shutdown because it affects “the safety, security and efficiency” of the aviation industry.

Already we’re seeing TSA screeners, calling in sick rather than show up to work without pay. Beyond that, air traffic controllers, maintenance personnel and air marshals are not getting paid

Would you want to fly in a situation like that if you didn’t have to? What happens to the airlines, and to the businesses that rely on them? Pick an industry, the story is the similar.

This article isn’t about the border wall, and it’s not about which political side is at fault. You can blame whomever you like. But if the shutdown that nobody expected continues, it’s starting to look like it could well be brutal.