Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

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I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

Essential Phone’s new ‘Halo Gray’ color goes on sale exclusively at Amazon


The Essential Phone is currently in the midst of being rolled out in a range of new colors, including three that will be released excessively on Essential’s own website, with a staged release schedule that began Thursday. On Friday, however, Essential revealed a surprise fourth new color, “Halo Gray,” which will be exclusive to Amazon and which is now available to pre-purchase.

Amazon is a partner to Essential both as a sales channel, and as an investor. The distribution partnership with Amazon has been particularly fruitful, among all its sales channels, according to Essential President Niccolo de Masi, so it made sense to do something unique for Amazon with the ‘Halo Gray’ colorway.

With the Halo Gray Essential Phone, customers get the dark, matte finish of the ‘Stellar Gray’ color it released itself, along with the natural titanium, silver look of the band on the current white Essential model. The combination should be a good one, I can say from having seen both the matte finish and the titanium bands separately on other versions of Essential’s device.

The phone will also be unique in another way: It’ll include the Alexa app in the app drawer right from setup (though it’s still user removable, too, unlike pre-loaded stuff on most other Android devices). Given the popularity of Echo devices, and the gadget–buying audience Amazon is probably reaching anyway, it’s very likely that Essential buyers will appreciate saving a step with Alexa ready to go out of the box.

Amazon has been a solid partner for Essential, de Masi says, especially given its relative youth. The Essential Phone was one of the top-selling unlocked phones for Amazon on Cyber Monday last year, for instance, and also been an avenue for bringing the unlocked device to other markets via international shipping options.

  1. ph1-halo-gray-angled-hi-res

  2. ph1-halo-gray-34-hi-res

I asked De Masi about the recent IDC report that claims Essential sold just around 90,000 phones in its first six months of availability. Essential has always been upfront about the fact that it wouldn’t approach sales volumes of giants like Apple or Samsung in its first few years, but de Masi said he’s been pleasantly surprised by their performance, and called those estimates off-base relative to their actual sales volume thus far.

“I have yet to see any estimate throughout the life of this company that wasn’t low,” De Masi said. “Every single industry number has been low throughout the life of this product. I’m comfortable saying we sold in the six figures last year. We weren’t in the seven figures, but we certainly weren’t in the five figures.”

The Essential President also noted that Xiaomi’s first-year sales were in the same ballpark, so in general it’s happy with the company it’s keeping. De Masi also hinted about more to come, though he wouldn’t provide any specifics on any potential Essential Phone successors. New accessories are also in the pipeline, as are additional software improvements to build on the great work the company has done with the Essential Phone’s camera to date.

Like the other limited edition new colors from Essential, this Halo Gray version will be sold out once all the inventory is gone. de Masi acknowledged that Essential is taking cues from other limited release products in the lifestyle, including watches and sneakers, in pursuing this kind of strategy. Essential’s industrial design is unique and distinct enough that it seems like a good fit, but it’ll be interesting to see how it impacts overall sales numbers for the smartphone startup.

Salon’s Monero mining project might be crazy like a fox


In the age of altcoins, at least one news site is taking a novel approach to making ends meet. Salon announced today that it would give readers a choice between turning off ad-blocking software or “allowing Salon to use your unused computing power” in order to access their content. If you say yes to the latter deal, Salon will then invite you to install Coinhive, a software plugin that mines the cryptocurrency known as Monero.

Salon explains its program, which it calls a beta, like so:

“… Like most media sites, ad-blockers cut deeply into our revenue and create a more one-sided relationship between reader and publisher.

We realize that specific technological developments now mean that it is not merely the reader’s eyeballs that have value to our site — it’s also your computer’s ability to make calculations, too. Indeed, your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists.”

The offering is a clever if controversial way to recoup lost ad revenue. It’s no secret that digital media companies are hurting, and crowdsourcing the process that generates some virtual currencies is certainly an innovative solution, though definitely an experimental one.

Still, running software like this, which is often inserted onto unsuspecting machines via malware, is a big ask from readers and it’s important that less technical readers know what they’re getting into. Salon sets this up as an opt-in process which is good, though it only mentions Coinhive’s name in the small opt-in box (“powered by Coinhive”) and not in its full FAQ page. Coinhive gets a bad rap because it can be used for illicit purposes, though the software is widely regarded as legitimate, as is the coin that it mines. Readers should have a chance to make up their own minds and be provided with all of the specifics.

While Bitcoin soaks up most of the spotlight, some virtual currency projects are specifically looking to reshuffle the stacked relationships between platforms and content creators. One called Steemit actually launched its own platform to pair with its coin, and users there built up a healthy, cryptocurrency-centric social network, upvoting one another and earning actual money in the process. Like Salon’s proposition, some other projects including Siacoin and MaidSafeCoin seek to pay people for spare computing cycles or hard drive space.

On the whole, Salon sounds surprisingly bullish on blockchain technology, announcing that it “[plans] to further use any learnings from this to help support the evolution and growth of blockchain technology, digital currencies and other ways to better service the value exchange between content and user contribution.”

Like publishers, plenty of internet users are waking up to the raw deal of modern day social media use and looking for novel ways to make a little passive income or otherwise get paid for the content they push out to the world. Blockchain projects that aren’t too busy overhyping ICO gains to actually build something cool could have a shot at democratizing the online content game.

While that might be idealistic, Salon sounds like it understands that emerging technologies offer some unique opportunities for anyone who isn’t afraid to rock the big blue boat. Since it’s clear that the model we have now isn’t working for anyone outside the high walls of tech’s major platforms, there’s no shame in that game.

Featured Image: hocus-focus/Getty Images

Amazon reportedly paid around $90 million for security camera maker Blink


Amazon acquired Blink late last year, a maker of affordable, easy to use security cameras powered by AA batteries. The acquisition was reportedly worth around $90 million to Amazon, according to a new report from Reuters, though the terms of the deal were not disclosed by Amazon and it hasn’t provided any comment on the specifics.

The Blink acquisition is something that could help Amazon further develop its connected come strategy, which includes its Cloud Cam and its Amazon Key program for allowing deliveries within their homes while they’re away. It’s not yet clear how the two product lines will integrate, however.

Blink’s cameras are still available on Amazon, and the company was planning a video doorbell for release in 2018, similarly powered by standard batteries.

Amazon said to launch delivery service to compete with UPS and FedEx


Amazon is gearing up to compete directly with UPS and FedEx, according to a new Wall Street Journal report. The so-called “Shipping with Amazon” program will be an end-to-end shipping solution, with pickups from businesses and shipments made to consumers, per the report.

The timeframe for rollout is soon, too: Amazon is said to be readying the service for its first launch in LA in the “coming weeks,” starting, not surprisingly, with companies that sell stuff via its website. After its initial launch in LA, Amazon will look to expand it out to other cities, possibly as soon as later this year, the WSJ says.

Of course it makes sense that Amazon would extend its service to third-dparty merchants working on its ecommerce platform, but the report goes further, saying Amazon would eventually like to offer shipping services to basically any other business, too – with the goal of undercutting both UPS and FedEx on rates.

This should not be surprising to anyone following Amazon’s moves on the logistics front – the retail giant has its own fleet of cargo jets, its own warehouses, its own last-mile contract couriers and can even act as an ocean shipping agent, just like both FedEx and UPS. It’s been reported for a while now that Amazon would eventually compete directly with its longstanding delivery partners.

Neither UPS nor FedEx seem to be especially taken aback by this, based on their non-comment comments in the WSJ report. For now, at least, Amazon will still definitely have to rely on its shipping partners to make things work.

Tronc starts its new digital strategy with a majority stake in product review site BestReviews


Tronc, the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing, announced today that it now owns a majority stake in BestReviews, which publishes in-depth reviews of consumer products. In another announcement today, Tronc said that it intends to use funds from the sale of its California News Group, which included the Los Angeles Times, to focus on a new digital growth strategy that includes investing in or acquiring more online companies like BestReviews.

BestReviews’ current owners will retain minority ownership and continue to manage operations. Tronc did not disclose the deal’s financial details.

Founded in 2014, BestReviews is similar to other review sites like the Wirecutter and Consumer Reports in that it buys products for reviews, instead of relying on company-provided samples, and publishes detailed articles with information about how items were tested and ranked. The site claims it now has more than five million monthly unique visitors.

In statement, Tronc chief executive officer Justin Dearborn said “BestReviews dedication to independent and high-quality content aligns with our ongoing mission to provide valuable information and experiences for our readers. We look forward to combining BestReviews deep product research and fully optimized commerce engine with Tronc’s digital properties, a combination which we believe will strengthen our e-commerce efforts.”

The Wirecutter was acquired by The New York Times in fall 2016 for a reported $30 million in cash. Like Tronc, which owns newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times wanted to expand its “service journalism” category.

Publishing in-depth product reviews not only attracts more online readers, but also creates a new revenue stream, since sites get a portion of sales made through e-commerce affiliate links. So far, the New York Times’ purchase of the Wirecutter has been worth it. In September 2017, about one year after the deal, the publisher said the Wirecutter’s sales had grown 50 percent thanks to new categories that expanded its scope beyond tech products.

Tronc is trying to recover from a difficult transitional period after investor Michael Ferro Jr., former owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, took over as its majority shareholder and chairman two years ago amid controversy and clashes with other investors. Its challenges have included a much maligned name change, an AI strategy that was also widely ridiculed, layoffs at several of its publications, including the New York Daily News, and conflicts with journalists at The Los Angeles Times, which Tronc recently sold to healthcare billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.

Featured Image: BestReviews

Inside Joymode: a subscription service saving you from buying all of the things

The company offers a degree of convenience for buyers of stuff that’s never been equalled (which, while being hyperbolic may also be true), and it has made consuming new crap nearly effortless. In the process it’s become the boogeyman that haunts the dreams of small retailers and big box stores alike.

However, few businesses are completely unassailable, especially in consumer retail. And there have been a number of venture investments into startups that are challenging Amazon’s business in interesting ways — by challenging the notion of ownership itself.

What began as a movement among couture culturati with the success of Rent the Runway has moved into everything from cars (Porsche’s got a subscription service ) to construction equipment and furniture.

Well, the Los Angeles-based startup Joymode has just raised $14 million to be the subscription service for nearly everything else.

The company raised its cash from the international technology conglomerate, Naspers — an investment that signals the global opportunity that Joymode presents.

Thinking about worldwide markets (or threatening Amazon) may seem premature for a company that’s still operating from a single location. But the warehouse in downtown Los Angeles that Joymode calls home — which operated as an underground nightclub before becoming Joymode HQ — isn’t as far removed from the other far flung locations where Naspers has invested as one might think. Nor is it impossible to envision it as a counterweight to Amazon’s mass.

Joe Fernandez, Joymode’s founder and chief executive, has a knack for finding the right model for a particular moment. Klout, his last company (which raised $40 million and sold for $200 million) was launched in the early days of social media as an attempt to wrestle with a problem companies still struggle with — gauging the importance and influence of an online presence.

With Joymode, Fernandez is riding a wave of consumer sentiment that’s become increasingly thrifty with their purchases as costs for things like healthcare, pensions and insurance climbs.

A fascinating study by Deloitte indicated that consumers are spending less on things, not because they’re more interested in experiences per se, but because the costs associated with the social safety net are going up.

And while older consumers are increasing their insurance and pension payments to recover from the financial crisis of a decade ago, younger consumers are constrained by the mountain of debt their higher educations cost them, which puts an additional cap on living a louche life of luxury.

The average Joymode spends $296 and gets $3189 worth of products in their first year. Fernandez tells me.

Of course, services like Joymode and Rent the Runway — and, yes, Amazon’s low cost virtual superstore — are driving down costs for goods and services, likely contributing to spending declines as well.

Here’s a Goldman Sachs report on what’s going on in the retail world right now.

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Walking through the warehouse at Joymode is like walking through a department store designed to cater to the kid in all of us. Metal shelves are stacked with cotton candy makers, popcorn machines, projectors, folding chairs, board games, margarita mixers, and blankets… and that’s just for movie night.

The idea Fernandez came up with was to create a subscription business for people looking to rent those things that they don’t use every day.

Since its soft launch to a small list of subscribers one year ago, Joymode has grown considerably. The company now has 5,000 products leaving its warehouse every weekend in Joymode branded vans delivering anything from the movie night kit, to board games, to camping equipment for a weekend away in the woods.

The most common first experiences are things like the company’s Backyard Movie Night, but utility experiences like the Essential Cleaning Kit drive the highest engagement, Fernandez tells me. One of the company’s key stats for Joymode is “share of closet” — and over 40% of its reservations are for things that historically you would assume people own (vacuums, luggage, or cooking things like pots and pans).

Ultimately, Joymode is providing access to products that people don’t need to own so that they can have the life they want.

“You pay for a membership to access to this economy and then you pay for access to the goods,” Fernandez told me as we walked through the company’s modest warehouse. Think of it like a Costco, but instead of owning, members get access for even a fraction of what an item would cost at even one of those discount warehouse retailers.

On average, a Joymode customer spends $296 and gets $3189 worth of products their first year, Fernandez says.

“Our whole premise is people should own less. We’re trying to help you fight the consumption hangover of debt and clutter and clutter and environmental impact,” says Fernandez. “People are going to own stuff. My hope is that people own fewer things that they are truly passionate about,” he said.

The logistics company

Behind Joymode’s collection of popcorn poppers and cotton candy machines, its karaoke and smoke machines, and, yes, its vacuum cleaners and mops (the cleaning package is surprisingly popular and paired with a margarita mixer turns weekend duty into a party) is a hefty bit of logistics technology.

Because Joymode delivers on weekends and most subscribers book in advance, the company runs a pretty tight ship. “We’re able to create density,” says Fernandez. “When a truck leaves a warehouse it’s full, and that route is well-planned so our unit economics are actually amazing,” he said.

The company is profitable on a per-reservation basis (at 40% to 50% margins), but operations and expanding inventory have kept the company from flipping the switch to becoming a cash cow.

Keeping customers constrained to a weekend delivery has helped control expenses on the delivery side, and increased the density. In addition, a number of Joymode customers like the experience of going to the warehouse to pick up their own stuff, Fernandez said.

There’s an average of eight days between when someone books a reservation and Joymode delivers the package, but on any given weekend the company has 5,000 products leave its warehouse.

With a rental business, there’s a lot that can go wrong once a product leaves the storage facility, so Joymode’s staff is incredibly vigilant about quality control as well, says Fernandez.

“We think of what we call unforced errors,” says Fernandez. “What I can live with is if the projector goes to you and a fuse blows that’s out of our control. If we deliver the projector to you and we forget the plug that’s on us.”

Every Wednesday the company goes through a careful review of went wrong with the orders, so that management can build out process to ensure that mistakes don’t happen in the future.

“You can’t have 20 people at your house for karaoke night and something goes wrong and you’re out of luck,” says Fernandez.

Managing and maintaining the store of goods in the Joymode warehouse is one challenge, but there’s also an incredible amount of data science and software that’s gone into establishing the business.

At Klout Fernandez and his co-founder Keith Walker, processed a ton of data — about 15 billion pieces every day. Joining the founding Joymode team is Waynn Lue, someone Fernandez tried to recruit from Google to the Klout team for over five years.

Joymode takes the same data centric approach in building what the company calls the “JoyEngine”.

That software tool lets Joymode know what products to add to its inventory, how many of each product it needs, and then add additional items to its deliveries that the company can upsell en route through its app.

“We had to build our own inventory system, driver app and cleaning team app as inputs into the JoyEngine because we couldn’t find any tools that could properly handle 100% of the products that are “shipped” coming back and being re-used,” Fernandez told me.

The local and global market

Fernandez, came up with the idea in New York, refined it in the years after the sale of Klout in San Francisco, but wanted to develop it outside of those two regions, in part to prove that it could work anywhere.

Los Angeles, with its sprawling reach both geographically and socio-economically, seemed like it would be an ideal testbed for Fernandez to get the service off the ground (and the weather’s better).

And while downtown Los Angeles is a huge center of activity for Joymode customers, residential neighborhoods in LA — like the predominantly upper middle class Beverlywood neighborhood — also has a high penetration of Joymode users.

That reach gives investors like Homebrew, which led the seed round for the company, and new lead investor Naspers a good feeling about the company’s future.

Founded as a media company in South Africa in 1915, Naspers has grown to become one of the most successful technology investors in the world — largely on the back of an incredibly prescient investment in the Chinese gaming and social networking company, Tencent, which is now one of the largest technology companies in the world (with a market cap over $500 billion).

Unlike other companies (including Omnia, which just raised $25 million for Ripple) that are trying to create marketplaces of used goods which are basically networks of consumers sharing household unused things, Joymode’s chief executive stressed the importance of having Joymode act as the hub.

“The only way this would work is if we owned everything. Trust and consistency and brand were critical,” says Fernandez. It makes sense. With other people’s things, a user never can be assured that the toaster will work without shorting, or even that a board game will arrive as a complete set. Joymode’s ownership guarantees a level of quality.

With the $14.3 million that the company just raised it’s hoping to expand its footprint in Los Angeles before taking the concept nationwide.

“We are negotiating for a 50,000 square foot warehouse,” says Fernandez, up from the 5,000 foot space that the company currently occupies.

For Naspers, the thinking is that Joymode’s strategy is today LA, tomorrow the world. The company has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in companies that solve problems for the global consumer (and problems attendant with global consumption).

“First, we were attracted to several emerging consumer trends that Joymode supports, including increasing urbanization causing smaller living spaces, a shift towards experience-spending versus ownership, and a breakaway from excessive ownership. By introducing a rental, experience-based model, the company offers an alternative to consumers who, in the aggregate spend $1.2 trillion on low-utility products per year in the U.S. (estimated $4.5 trillion globally),” wrote Mike Katz, head of U.S. Investments for Naspers Ventures, in an email.

“We really are seeing a generational shift, particularly in space-starved urban areas around the globe — people are renting not buying. However, no-one is effectively enabling that shift across the trillion-dollar recreation space, so the potential for Joymode is vast in the U.S. and abroad,” Katz said.

Other retail investments in the Naspers portfolio include OLX and letgo, which have both received hundreds of millions in capital from Napsers investment team.

“I honestly believe we can change the way people think about ownership, especially in emerging markets and these mega cities around the world with these young populations that want a certain lifestyle,” says Fernandez. “In Los Angeles we are props for your Instagram life but in Jakarta we can fundamentally change the life of someone. And that, to me, is compelling.”