Wordle is now integrated in The New York Times Crossword app

The spelling puzzle app phenomenon, Wordle, is making its debut on The New York Times Crossword application, The Times announced today. After tons of doppelgangers and wannabes of the infamous app, the NYT Crossword app is now appearing at the top of iOS and Android app store searches. 

Users won’t have to worry about losing their scores and streaks because The NYT will allow consumers to create an account to track their gameplay. Though the app itself is free to download, this so-called “free account” is only available for a seven-day trial where users are then prompted to either pay $4.99 per month or $39.99 for the year. The subscription would also include access to puzzles like Spelling Bee, The Mini and The Crossword. 

Image Credits: New York Times

 

The move to further integrate Wordle comes after The NYT acquired the rights to the game earlier this year at an undisclosed price. According to first-quarter financial results, the publication said the game drove the company’s best quarter ever, in relation to net subscribers for Games. Since its acquisition, the publication has advertised its other games through Wordle.

Though the game was created to be a pass time for the creator Josh Wardle and his partner, its popularity has become a daily habit for some. Back in July, The Times announced the WordleBot to help users strengthen their skills. The tool gives word enthusiasts a score from 0-99 based on skills and luck, but also provides advice on how they can improve their search. 

As The NYT tries to capitalize on the game’s popularity, they announced the online word game would be turned into a board game. The company has partnered with toymaker Hasbro to release Wordle: The Party Game in October. 

TechCrunch previously reported, that upwards of two million players were playing Wordle and was mentioned in over 32 million tweets since its launch. According to The Times, “10% of active players have played 145 or more games of Wordle.”

a16z says ‘WeBack’ to WeWork’s Neumann with its biggest check ever

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) seems determined to keep the capital flowing to controversial WeWork founder Adam Neumann. The storied venture firm wrote its largest individual check ever, at $350 million, to Flow, Neumann’s new residential real estate company focused on rentals, the New York Times reported today.

The funding round values Flow at over $1 billion, making it a unicorn before it even commences operations, which it plans to do in 2023, according to the Times. The startup is set to operate over 3,000 apartment units Neumann has purchased in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Nashville as part of its vision to bring community-oriented features to the rental market, the Times added.

In a blog post on a16z’s website today, Marc Andreessen described Neumann as a “visionary leader” and credits him with “revolutionizing” real estate. Andreessen’s post did not address any of the financial terms of the investment.

The investment marks a16z’s second show of support for a Neumann-founded company this year: In May, the firm put $70 million into the entrepreneur’s blockchain-based carbon credit platform, Flowcarbon, which appears to have no relation to Flow besides its shared co-founder. Curiously, Andreessen’s blog post today calls Flow Neumann’s “first venture since WeWork,” although he is listed as a co-founder of Flowcarbon in a16z’s earlier post about that investment.

“We understand how difficult it is to build something like this and we love seeing repeat-founders build on past successes by growing from lessons learned,” Andreessen wrote in today’s blog post, implicitly referring to Neumann’s time at WeWork.

WeWork’s attempt at an IPO under Neumann (remember community-adjusted EBITDA?) was so calamitous that its Silicon Valley and Wall Street investors ended up paying Neumann an enormous exit package, worth ~$1 billion, just to leave the company.

Neumann managed to get that handsome payout despite that under his reign, the company tanked in value from ~$47 billion to ~$8 billion and gained a reputation for mismanagement and poor treatment of employees.

Throughout Neumann’s tenure, missteps abounded. He famously trademarked the word “We” and sold it back to his own company for nearly $6 million, though he ended up returning the money to the company after this arrangement was revealed during the company’s IPO attempt and subsequently lambasted by investors and the public.

After Neumann burned investors’ cash on copious amounts of booze for the office, a school for his wife’s vanity project and a wave pool, it’s somewhat surprising to see Silicon Valley coming back for seconds. a16z’s deal with Flowcarbon may well have been negotiated before the rout in the equity markets but its deal with Flow announced today likely was not, meaning today’s deal is an even bigger sign of the investor’s confidence in Neumann’s leadership amid broadly difficult market conditions.

To be sure, WeWork’s approach to co-working spaces was prescient in a pre-pandemic world, regardless of the company’s other controversies. As remote work rises in popularity, there may well be a tremendous opportunity in building community among renters — an idea Neumann has been keen to pursue for years. He took a pass at this concept before with WeLive, a set of residential communities he planned to build under the WeWork brand that fizzled out after opening just two locations.

In his blog post today, Andreessen mused at length about how Flow is poised to solve the nation’s housing crisis, writing that “limited access to home ownership continues to be a driving force behind inequality and anxiety,” though details in the post about exactly how Flow will set out to achieve this were scant.

Today’s investment in Flow comes just after reports surfaced that Andreessen fought against a proposal to build new affordable housing units in his ultra-wealthy hometown of Atherton, CA.

Runa Sandvik’s new startup Granitt secures at-risk people from hackers and nation states

A newsroom in Europe with computer screens

For much of her career, hacker Runa Sandvik has worked to protect journalists and newsrooms from powerful adversaries who want to keep wrongdoing and corruption out of the public eye. Journalists and activists are increasingly targeted by the wealthy and resourceful who seek to keep the truth hidden, from nation-state aligned hackers hacking into journalist’s inboxes to governments deploying mobile spyware to snoop on their most vocal critics.

Few know the threats that journalists face better than Sandvik, a native Norwegian. She defended The New York Times newsroom from hackers and nation-state adversaries, trained reporters to cloak their online activity in anonymity at the Tor Project, and helped organizations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation to build tools that allow journalists, like us at TechCrunch, securely communicate with sources and receive sensitive source documents. Sandvik is also a renowned hacker and security researcher and, as of recently, a founder.

With her new startup, Granitt — with Sandvik as its principal — aims to help at-risk people, like journalists and activists but also politicians, lawyers, refugees and human rights defenders, from threats they face doing their work.

“At any point someone finds themselves in a category where there might be some repercussions for them doing whatever it is they’re doing, that’s something I would consider ‘at risk’ and something that I can help with,” Sandvik told me when we spoke in New York City this week.

Sandvik told me about her work and her new bootstrapped startup, how leaders should prioritize their cybersecurity efforts, and, what piece of security advice she would give that every person should know.

Our chat, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, follows.

ZW: You’ve been laying the groundwork for Granitt for the past decade. Tell me how you got here.

RS: If you look at a decade ago when I worked for the Tor Project and they got funding, we set out to teach reporters how to use the Tor Browser. And very quickly realized that it’s not super impactful to just teach someone how to use the Tor Browser if they’re not also familiar with good passwords, two-factor authentication and software updates — things to consider when they’re traveling to conflict zones, for example. And we started building out a curriculum around what you should do to be safe online. I later consulted for the Freedom of the Press Foundation doing somewhat similar work, and also then working on SecureDrop. And my role at The New York Times was building on that type of work as well. And after the Times eliminated my role, I worked with ProPublica, Radio Free Europe, and the Ford Foundation to look at not just security for individuals but also how to help the business side of media organizations to support the newsroom.

Headshot of Runa Sandvik

Runa Sandvik, founder of Granitt. Image: (supplied)

Some of the work that I’ve done has sort of been workshops directly for the newsroom. I’ve had one-on-one chats with reporters about some project that they’re about to take on. But I’ve also had a lot of conversations with the IT and security folks on the business side to help them understand what are the challenges that the newsroom is facing. How can I best solve them? What should they be aware of? And also, how do they go about getting up to speed, and how do they then later on educate staff in the newsroom? There’s sort of been some “train the trainer” type of work as well, because 10 years ago Tor was around but the user experience was clunky. Now in 2022, we have a lot of really neat tools that are very user friendly for being safe online for doing research in safe ways.

One thing that I saw at the Times is that you had a team to do cybersecurity. You had someone focusing on physical security, you had human resources taking care of emotional safety, and you had legal taking care of any sort of legal challenges that might pop up. But if we look at what it’s going to take for a journalist to be safe, it’s really the combination of those four groups — and that means those four groups that need to come together and have a working group, talk to each other, understand what each person brings to the table, and what can actually be done holistically to better support staff.

Right, and we’re starting to see that across newsrooms when it comes to targeted harassment and doxing, but supporting journalism is a team effort and it takes a village and everyone working from the same page. So, why the name Granitt?

The name is the Norwegian spelling of granite. It is really that simple. Over the years I’ve had close friends who have encouraged me to do something on my own, and have pointed out how the work that I do doesn’t really exist anywhere else and that I’m in a good position to do it.

What kind of work will you be doing with your new startup and how do you plan to solve both the security aspect and getting different teams communicating and collaborating with the aim of supporting journalists?

It’s still consultancy, so, I think training workshops and public speaking are still going to be a part of it. There’s still going to be everyday security guidance for newsrooms, guidance around specific projects, so whether it’s someone who’s about to take on a sensitive project, travel, or someone wants to set up a tips channel, how do you create the process to support that internally? That’s definitely still a part of what I do. But then also working more with different teams on the business side to ensure that those four groups of people can actually come together in a working group and better understand what the staff really need, and to understand what are the threats that they’re facing, how do they actually work, and what do we need to figure out to better support them?

There’s a lot of bridge building. I don’t think it’s a case that people don’t care about this, I think that some are not necessarily aware of the challenges that certain people are facing. And also, in many ways, how easy it can be to spin up that kind of effort internally. If you’re The New York Times, you’ll have the resources. But if you’re a smaller newsroom, you can still have a working group of dedicated reporters who can figure out how we can best support our staff with online threats and harassment, or what to do if someone gets phished. If you’re a smaller newsroom, there’s still a lot you can do, and something is better than nothing.

Was there an impetus for you starting this company? Was there a single event that made you think, ‘I have to do this,’ or was it more akin to a gradual series of events over the course of years?

I’ve always been aware that there aren’t a lot of people that do what I do. There aren’t a lot of people that focus on security for reporters. And over the years that has changed and there are more people doing this type of work, educating newsrooms and educating the business side at media organizations. I think that part of my reluctance to just start something on my own was I thought it would just be just this thing I do on the side, and I think I was just getting in the way of myself. Now it’s an official thing with a name, a logo, and website. It’s something that I’m more excited about and ready to invest in. For me, it’s the thing that I’ve always done, but having a company plants the flag that this is something that’s needed, important, and worth investing in.

Tell me more about the threats that you seek to counter and who you are trying to protect. What makes these kinds of individuals a higher risk or a greater target than the average citizens?

I’ve been shifting from talking about people as “high risk” and just talking about it as “at risk.” I’ve found that it’s easier for some to understand or relate to. Just the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade is a good example. A lot of people suddenly became “at risk,” but not necessarily high risk. And while I have certainly focused my work on security for newsrooms and for reporters — that’s still what I am very passionate about — the guidance that I give at the end of the day is good guidance for anyone who’s trying to do whatever it is that they want to do, but in a safe way. At any point someone finds themselves in a category where there might be some repercussions for them doing whatever it is they’re doing, that’s something I would consider “at risk” and something that I can help with.

My goal is to help you work safely and help you do whatever it is that you’re trying to do in a safe way. That means we have to talk about, and take into account, any sort of threat that you’re aware of. We need to come up with a plan for you, it becomes very contextual driven, and it’s about coming up with the right mitigations for you and the work that you’re trying to do at that point in time. Whether the concern is NSO-style spyware, phishing, or traveling and you’re worried about losing your laptop, we can talk about the risks, the challenges, what you can do and come up with something that actually works for you.

It sounds like a very collaborative process between you and your clients; a mix of technical, and education and teaching your clients what to do and what not to do by way of threat modeling and determining what risks you may face.

I could tell you that you should work on a laptop that runs Tails [a highly secured operating system] and a persistent volume and only ever use Tor. But if even the idea of moving to a different browser is something you’re not comfortable with, that whole example is just going out the window. Yes, from a security perspective, it’s a good option, but if it does not fit your workflow or lifestyle as an individual, it’s not guidance that’s likely to stick. In some cases, it really just comes down to figuring out what is actually going to work for you so that we can help you work more safely.

The threats out there vary wildly, depending on the kinds of activities of at-risk individuals, and every person’s threat model is different, if not unique. How does that collaboration work for finding what works for them and what they need as part of the threat model?

I’m sure you’ve seen this post before. “Your threat model is not my threat model.” It’s just fantastic and it’s worth sharing again and again. In some cases, I’ll communicate directly with a person that needs assistance, and in others it will be an individual and one or two other people, like an editor or the security person or lawyer at the company, and it’s very specific to the individual. In other scenarios, it could be a conversation with the teams on the business side supporting the newsroom trying and figure out what guidance that we give to everyone. What would we consider our everyday security guidance that everyone should just know? And then you can build out both a baseline security level for the organization and find ways to then level up year after year, but you also then figure out exactly what are the challenges that you’ve had to date, what do the slightly more complex or sophisticated threats look like, and how do you go about addressing that? And to your question, security guidance and context-specific security guidance is really hard, if not impossible to scale. I think at some point, you do need to invest in having people talk to each other.

You and I both know that attacks are getting smarter and more complex with new capabilities. Is there a single cybersecurity issue that concerns you today more than anything else?

In May I gave a talk at Paranoia 2022 titled “How the Media Gets Hacked.” And instead of looking at how reporters get hacked — because we can talk about anything from your typical scam or phishing, to nation-state backed spyware and zero-click exploits — if you look at how media organizations get hacked, I give several examples in my talk. When The New York Times was hacked by China in 2012, that was phishing. Tribune Publishing in 2018 got ransomware, also because of phishing or outdated systems. Dagbladet [Norwegian newspaper] and Schibsted [Norwegian media giant] had some issues with someone who found credential dumps and decided to try them against their systems, no two-factor authentication was enforced, and they got access. And the last one, Amedia [Norwegian newspaper] again got ransomware, so again, phishing or outdated systems.

We know how to address all of these. So what is happening? It’s interesting that what it really comes down to is: we know what best practices are, so why are they so hard to do? We need to have more of a conversation around that. Every single day, leadership at different organizations have to make choices around what to focus on, what to invest in, where to spend money, and what risks they choose to accept at that point in time. But if the end result is that organizations are compromised as a result of something as foundational as phishing and lacking two-factor, it really begs the question — are we actually prioritizing the right things?

And before we end. If you could give one key piece of security advice that every person should know. What would that be?

Turn on two-factor authentication!

Lead image credits: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images.

As Coinbase falters, Binance.US is waiting in the wings

As the largest publicly traded crypto exchange in the United States, Coinbase has become something of a household name. But as the going gets tough in the crypto markets, the company seems to be fumbling the bag, leaving it vulnerable to competition.

Coinbase’s stock price is down nearly 80% from where it started the year and it recently made headlines for laying off one-fifth of its staff. The company posted a $430 million loss in the first quarter of 2022, underperforming Wall Street analysts’ expectations. Its trading volumes and number of monthly transacting users were both down from Q4 last year — bad news for a company that depends heavily on transaction fees for its revenue.

The exchange got over its skis quicker than even Coinbase itself probably imagined, a point evidenced by its decision to rescind job offers last month from candidates who had already accepted them. Its competitors, though, have been lying in wait for their moment to close in on the U.S. market. Now, sensing Coinbase’s moment of weakness, the two largest crypto exchanges in the world by volume (Coinbase is third globally) — Binance and FTX — are hoping to seize their opportunity stateside.

The three crypto giants all have different established customer bases and are trying to steal each other’s market share. Retail investors comprise around 95% of Coinbase’s transaction revenue, according to its latest quarterly filing. FTX, in contrast, already has a strong institutional trading business anchored in its founder and chief executive Sam Bankman-Fried’s background working at a quant hedge fund.

SBF, as he’s known in the crypto world, has been pulling out all the stops to gain retail customers, including introducing zero-fee U.S. stock trading in May, to try to turn FTX into a one-stop shop for the retail investor’s needs. After all, if Coinbase ascended to the No. 3 spot buoyed almost entirely by U.S. retail investors, its decline presents a valuable opportunity for global, institutionally focused exchanges to poach its users and boost their own trading volumes.

It makes sense, then, that Binance has its sights set on luring more retail investors, but the largest global exchange is still a bit of a dark horse in the race for the U.S. market as it battles against FTX for customers. Its Binance.US division saw spot trading volumes below $300 million as of July 12. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to its global business, which saw volumes of $10 billion for the same period — about seven times higher than volumes at both FTX and Coinbase.

Today, 70% of trading volume on Binance.US, the American offshoot of the global exchange, comes from institutional customers, its CEO Brian Shroder told TechCrunch in an interview. Still, retail investors bring in more revenue overall, in part because of the steep discounts Binance.US offers to its highest-volume customers, he added.

Binance is also taking a markedly different approach from FTX in luring U.S. retail investors, focusing on its core competency in crypto.

“Some exchanges want to go back to stock trading and target that market. That’s, again, not a wrong or right approach. We are a pure web3 company. We’re not going back; we’re moving forward. We want to build more web3 tools,” Binance founder Chanpeng Zhao told Decrypt in an interview this week.

The exchange is also taking a less flashy tack when marketing in the U.S. While other competitors including Coinbase, FTX and Crypto.com were spending millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads during the crypto bull run, Binance.US stayed relatively quiet.

Under Shroder’s tenure, Binance.US seems to be reversing its reputation, once marred by rapid management turnover and ongoing regulatory battles, and pulling ahead in the fight to win over the U.S. retail investor. From a customer perspective, its strategy is undeniably appealing — undercut competitors by offering lower fees.

Coinbase’s fees are notoriously high at up to 3.99% for certain spot trades compared to FTX.US, which charges up to 0.20%. Binance.US, meanwhile, reaffirmed its commitment to keeping costs low for its customers last month when it launched fee-free bitcoin spot trading for all users, saying it is the first U.S. crypto exchange to have done so, though it’s worth noting that exchanges still make money from the spread on trades even if they don’t charge an upfront fee. It also rolled out a staking product last month that it claims provides some of the highest APY rates compared to its competitors and said it plans to add fee-free trading for more currencies in the future.

“On the cost side, it is unquestionable that we are the lowest-cost provider in this space,” Shroder said.

When asked about how Binance.US is able to provide above-market yields from its staking product, Shroder’s response was: “My guess is that when you look at the other firms having much lower APYs, it’s just that they are taking that themselves, and we are passing it on to the customer.”

Naturally, investors gravitate toward lower fees and higher returns, giving the deep-pocketed Binance a potential advantage over Coinbase in that it can afford to sacrifice profits in the U.S. to attract users as long as it makes them elsewhere. The same goes for FTX, which is able to offer no-fee equity trading only because it’s making money in other parts of its business.

Customers have shown enthusiasm for Binance.US, although investors, at times, have seemed more hesitant. Still, this April, the company was able to raise its first external funding from investors in a $200 million round valuing it at $4.5 billion. The fundraise marked a crucial first step on its path to an IPO — a milestone Shroder told TechCrunch he sees happening in the next two to three years.

Armed with the new cash and an extension to the round that Shroder says is coming soon, the company seems well positioned to weather a choppy market. It is actively hiring for 80+ new roles to add to its current employee base of ~400, TechCrunch reported last month.

“What I experienced at Uber, I’m living through again”

Despite Binance’s recent efforts in the U.S. market, its messy history with local regulators makes it easy to underestimate. The company is currently under investigation by the U.S. Commodities and Futures Trading Commission for allegations that it engaged in market manipulation. The U.S. Justice Department and IRS are also reportedly examining whether the exchange engaged in money laundering and tax evasion.

For context, Binance.US launched in 2019 as a standalone entity that licenses its branding and core technology from Binance itself. Zhao is said to have spun off the division in a bid to appeal to U.S. regulators who refused to greenlight the global exchange.

Zhao still wields significant influence over the U.S. exchange today as a major shareholder, although he told Decrypt this week that Binance “is no longer top-down driven” by him. The New York Times reported last August that Zhao held 90% of Binance.US shares.

Zhao’s ownership stake, according to the Times, became a sticking point with outside investors when former Binance.US CEO Brian Brooks tried to raise a venture round for the company as a step to an eventual IPO. Brooks ended up leaving the company just three months after taking over the top job, perhaps in part because the deal fell through.

Brooks isn’t the only top exec at Binance.US who has left unexpectedly. The company’s founding CEO, Catherine Coley, left the company so quietly last May that numerous unconfirmed rumors began swirling regarding her whereabouts. Last October, when Shroder took over the company as its next permanent CEO after Coley, Binance.US’s founding CFO Joshua Sroge made his exit. Last week, after nine months of searching, the company finally filled Sroge’s role, appointing former Acorns exec Jasmine Lee as its new permanent CFO.

In addition to its troubles in the U.S., Binance has also faced heavy regulatory scrutiny in Japan, the EU, Germany, Thailand and other regions. Shroder, who previously led Uber’s Asia-Pacific strategy, likened the exchange to the controversial ride-share startup.

“What I experienced at Uber, I’m living through again,” Shroder said. “When I was at Uber, we were bad boy No. 1, you know? We were the big bad guys picking on the taxi industry and hurting the taxi employees and things like that.”

“What was true about Uber is also true about Binance, globally, and then Binance in the U.S., which is that basically there was an entrepreneur who had an innovative approach to expanding technology that has never been contemplated by regulators,” he continued. “To support that, the regulators had to play catch-up to the technology, and I think that’s exactly what we’re experiencing now in the crypto space.”

Shroder is determined to shepherd Binance.US to its longstanding goal of going public, a milestone he believes it will achieve in the next two to three years. He said Binance.US is strong enough to continue growing even amid tough market conditions, citing the firm’s plans to hire some employees who were let go by Coinbase and competing crypto exchange Gemini as evidence that his company is better positioned for the challenges ahead.

“Coinbase and Gemini have multiple products and services, and they have them out there; they’ve been out there for a while. We historically have only had spot [trading] up until really this [quarter]. So as we add more products and services, which we have a very aggressive roadmap to do. We require more products and tech talent; we require more operations people to actually run those new business units. With the infusion of capital that we just got from our very first seed round, we’re taking all the funding, and we’re plowing it back into growth,” Shroder said.

Only time will tell if Shroder’s ambitious plan will work, but he is determined to reshape the narrative surrounding Binance.US in the public eye. One of the biggest misperceptions the public has about Binance.US, he said, is around its “desire to be a fully compliant and regulated entity,” a goal Shroder said has been central to the company since its founding.

“In the vacuum of you telling your own story, your story is being told by your competitors, or your story is being told based on your click rate. And to the extent that negative headlines drive views more than positive ones, I think that that just creates a misperception in the market that is not based on reality,” Shroder said.

The IRS’s crypto tax partner, ZenLedger, raises $15 million Series B

Government tends to struggle when it comes to keeping up with tech innovation. The past U.S. tax season that just wrapped up in April was particularly stressful for investors and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) alike, as both struggled with the implications of 2021’s crypto investing boom.

The IRS, for its part, turned to Seattle, WA-based startup ZenLedger for help. Since its founding in 2017, ZenLedger has managed to secure four contracts with the U.S. government worth just over $500,000, none of which are expected to expire, the New York Times reported. While $500,000 seems like a paltry sum for a federal agency, the contracts are significant in the small, hypercompetitive world of crypto tax prep startups. Heading into this year’s tax filing period, ZenLedger had raised just $11.5 million in its latest funding round — significantly less than competitors such as CoinTracker and TaxBit had in their coffers at the time.

Still, ZenLedger gained the trust of the U.S. government, and it’s been doubling down on that strategy ever since, its CEO and founder Pat Larsen told TechCrunch. The company announced today that it has taken in $15 million in fresh funding from investors through a Series B fundraise.

ZenLedger founder and CEO Pat Larsen

ZenLedger founder and CEO Pat Larsen Image Credits: ZenLedger

New investor ParaFi Capital led the round alongside existing investor Bloccelerate VC, which led ZenLedger’s Series A last August. A mix of old and new investors also participated, including King River Capital, G1 Ventures, Main Street Investment, Three Point Capital, Shorooq Partners, VaynerFund, Blizzard the Avalanche Fund, and AngelList Quant Fund, the company says.

“We are moving ahead with more government contracting, which is interesting, because, basically, what we do is we build a plan for crypto. We have to ingest all the transactions from on-chain off-chain, NFTs, decentralized exchange income, sales of NFTs, and clean that up and then report it out,” Larsen said. “That turns out to be extremely useful for an individual when you do accounting and tax. It also turns out to be very useful for accounting firms.”

ZenLedger’s historical focus on individual tax filers rather than enterprise contracts differentiates it in some ways from competitors like TaxBit too, Larsen said. Still, Larsen added that ZenLedger is used by “Big Four” accounting firms, ultra-high-net-worth tax practices and CPA firms.

As for other competitors like TokenTax and Koinly, Larsen said ZenLedger aims to win by building out more, and better, integrations. The company supports over 500 exchanges, 50 blockchains, and 40 DeFi protocols including NFTs today, it says. While Larsen didn’t share details on how much ZenLedger makes in revenue, he said that its revenue has grown 5x from last year.

The company announced it had hired multiple C-suite executives in April, including a CTO and CFO.

The latest funding comes about a month after ZenLedger landed in the spotlight because its former COO, Dan Hannum, was found by the New York Times to have misrepresented his educational and work credentials to the company itself, investors, and the general public. ZenLedger found out about Hannum’s untruths well before the Times article went up and immediately fired Hannum, Larsen said.

In its April announcement, the company said it had hired Greg Adams, an army veteran with an MBA from Harvard, to serve as its new COO. Larsen said the situation with Hannum didn’t affect investors’ attitude towards the funding round, and that ZenLedger had already secured ParaFi as a lead investor before Hannum’s misdeeds were made public.

“Some investors can be pretty fickle, but we didn’t have low conviction investors. We weren’t the super-hot deal where people just wanted to get in because Tiger Global is here or something,” Larsen said. “[Our investors] weren’t here just because other people were in. They were in because they really liked the team and the business. We weren’t any individual token that had some rug pull that just explodes the whole value proposition…nothing changed materially about the business.”

Wordle brought “tens of millions” of new users to the New York Times

The New York Times Company’s first-quarter financial results prove what we’ve all known all along: people really like Wordle.

You know the story by now: Josh Wardle made a fun little word game for his partner, shared it with some friends (who happened to be some influential tech people, since, Wardle has worked at places like Reddit and MSCHF), who shared it with some more friends, and eventually, it was all anyone with an internet connection could talk about.

At first, Wardle wasn’t trying to profit off of his ad-free, lightweight word game. But being solely responsible for a viral word game is a big commitment, so at the end of January, he sold the game to the New York Times for an undisclosed amount in the “low seven figures.”

“If you’ve followed along with the story of Wordle, you’ll know that NYT games play a big part in its origins and so this step feels very natural to me,” Wardle said in a tweet. “When the game moves to the NYT site, it will be free to play for everyone, and I am working with them to make sure your wins and streaks will be preserved.”

About three months after Wordle’s sale to the New York Times, the paper announced today that the game brought “an unprecedented tens of millions of new users to The Times.” This drove the company’s best quarter ever for net subscriber additions to Games. Even though Wordle remains free, the New York Times has been covertly advertising its other games like Spelling Bee through Wordle. A subscription to New York Times Games costs $5 per month, or $40 per year.

When Wardle spoke to TechCrunch weeks before the acquisition, he noted that New York Times Games served as an inspiration for the game. Unlike past viral games — think Flappy Bird — the game isn’t addicting, since you cannot play more than once each day. That game design is intentional.

“My partner and I play a lot of The New York Times word games, and they follow that one-a-day model,” he told TechCrunch.

Also similar to The Times, Wordle forges a sense of community among players, since everyone is solving the same puzzle. Wardle added, “One thing that is interesting to reflect on, though, is that Wordle could be one a day, but if everybody was getting a different word on that day — if the word was random but you could still only play one — it wouldn’t have caught on the way it has.”

But perhaps what propelled Wordle to an unexpected level of virality is the ease of sharing your Wordle results emoji grid.

People share their Wordle results in WhatsApp chats, Facebook posts and texts to their mom, but Twitter played a significant role in its popularity too.

Twitter data scientist Lauren Fratamico published a case study yesterday examining how Wordle spread on the platform over time.

The study revealed that 3.3 million people have tweeted about Wordle since mid-October for a total of 32.2 million tweets. Tweets about Wordle have earned over 6.6 trillion views, 58 million likes, and 9 million replies.

At its peak popularity, there were 500,000 tweets about Wordle per day — but, this peak in late January coincides with the New York Times’ purchase of the game, which certainly contributed to the discourse. Even though there’s a downward trend in tweets about Wordle (now, it’s about 200,000 per day), that doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t playing as much. Rather, maybe it became a bit cheugy to share your scores every day.

“One thing I will say is that the majority of players are not actually posting their results on Twitter,” Wardle told TechCrunch in January. “There’s an account called Wordle Stats that looks at Twitter, then collects all the grids people share, then posts it the next day and says, ‘Okay, 30% of people got it in four,’ and I think it was two days ago that it collected 100,000-something, whereas at that time, close to 2 million people played Wordle.”

In case you’re wondering, according to the sample size of people who posted Wordle results on Twitter, the hardest word was SWILL (2/19/22), which took tweeters an average of 4.88 guesses to solve. The easiest was PLANT (4/22/22), which was solved on average in 3.32 guesses.

Hypnosis for health? Investors have placed a $1.1 million bet on Mindset Health that it can work

Chris and Alex Naoumidis came to hypnotherapy through dresses.

As The New York Times reported last year, the two brothers initially started their careers as startup entrepreneurs with a peer-to-peer dress-sharing app for women. The Australian natives, overcome with doubt, about their ability to succeed in startupland and when apps didn’t work, their father suggested they try hypnotherapy.

Those sessions led the brothers to launch Mindset Health and raise $1.1 million in funding from investors including Fifty Years, YC, Gelt VC, Giant Leap VC, and angel investors across the US and Australia

It’s a lot of backers for a small round that closed in November of 2019, but it’s indicative of the kind of bets that investors are willing to take in the mental health space these days.

A whole slew of apps have come to market to treat the mental disorders that seemingly accompany living in the modern world. There are companies that facilitate matching with therapists, companies that provide mental wellness tools in the form of cognitive behavioral therapies, billion-dollar companies that offer mindfulness and meditation, and companies that offer hypnotherapy.

The hypnotherapy sessions that Alex and his brother took gave them an idea. “Could we do this similar to meditation and bring this to market in a way that would be helpful?” Alex Naoumidis told me.

Meditation is a multi-million dollar business with apps like Calm and Headspace raking in millions of dollars in venture financing and giving them billions of dollars in perceived valuation.

Alex Naoumidis stresses that the app isn’t therapy — the company can’t pitch it that way under current regulations. “It’s more of a self-management tool,” he said. “Helping people with anxiety or [irritable bowel syndrome] to manage those symptoms at home to compliment the work they’re doing.”

The goal, according to Naoumidis, is to have a number of apps under the Mindset umbrella that deal with specific conditions. While it began as a more general mental wellness app, the company now has Nerva, its IBS focused product, alongside its general mental wellness Mindset toolkit.

Nerva’s not a cheap subscription. There’s an upfront payment of $99 and then $88 three-month subscription. The Mindset subscription service costs $11 (priced to sell in the COVID-19 era) down from $64 when the Times’ writer, Nellie Bowles first tried the product.

Here’s how she described it:

As a first step, the app suggested that I text a friend or tweet to the public the quote “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” For the next 19 minutes, a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.

I did another module, Increase Productivity, which is voiced by a peppy younger man — a start-up bro right in my ear asking me to repeat after him: “I give myself permission to know what I want to be and what I want to do and do it efficiently.”

These mental health apps, or any app, supplement, or business that’s promoting wellness need to have some clinical studies to back up their claims and mindset is working with doctors on the products. The initial Mindset app was designed in concert with Dr. Michael Japko while the IBS app was designed with Dr. Simone Peters.

Both receive revenue share with the company for their work developing the course of therapies.

The company’s co-founder says that they’re unscientifically seeing successes come from the service. People self-report their symptoms at the start and at the end of the program. For people who complete the program, 90 percent have reduced symptoms (I’m not sure what percentage of signups complete the program).

“Our idea is we want to help researchers who develop these amazing programs deliver them digitally,” said Naoumidis. “We worked with world leading researchers to make it more accessible.”

MSCHF’s latest stunt is to pirate video from Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ and maybe build a brand

It’s very likely that you don’t know MSCHF. It’s also likely that you’ve come across one of their wild ass projects. From “Jesus Shoes” filled with holy water to a collar that lets your dog finally tell you what it thinks about you to IRL loot crates that dare you not to open them — MSCHF has been launching highly viral stunts for the past year or so.

Hell they even got a vanity piece in the Times while they’re still ascendant. Pure magic given how famous the NYT has been at times for its ability to catch viral trends on the down slope.

The latest stunt officially launches tomorrow (today for early adopter fans that subscribed via text). It’s a “pirate video” station called Allthestreams.fm and it’s live now.

The premise is that MSCHF has picked up subscriptions to Hulu, Disney+, Netflix, HBONow, Prime Video and Showtime and it is broadcasting a continuous stream of one random program from each live to anyone who hits the site. At time of publish over 100,000 people are currently watching one of the ‘channels’.

There’s even a pirate radio-esque commercial interstitial that will surprise you if you watch long enough.

If you’re wondering whether this is legal, well, so did I. “We have a standard check with these types of things. Doesn’t mean it’s legal per se, but it means the risk profile is acceptable to us,” says Daniel Greenberg, one of MSCHF’s founding team.

The goal, Greenberg explained in a chat last week, is not to launch a product or company but instead to build a brand that stands for…something. Even MSCHF isn’t quite sure what that will be, though, by design.

Hell even when asked to provide a succinct summary of what the fuck MSCHF actually is, Greenberg pushes back.

“MSCHF is a multi angled mirror. Whenever we release something, people see different reflections of the same thing.”

I can’t actually argue, because even the latest stunt defies definition. MSCHF doesn’t earn anything from it, it’s a free stream. Though they have made money off of previous goods releases like the shoes or boxes, the goal is decidedly not to make money right now and instead to spend a great deal of it.

Though they’re reluctant to talk about it, MSCHF has raised $11.5M in venture led by Laura Chau at Canaan Partners . Money that they seem intent on burning.

The MSCHF plan of attach (yes, attach) is based on a key ideal: that one of the strongest stances any brand could have is “no matter what”.

No matter what they sell, what road they take you down or how weird it is, you’re in. Even if an offering isn’t for you, you’ll be there when it is.

This thinking isn’t super rare these days, though the anarchist viral experiment framework is a new application.

The thought process behind modern brand building is becoming centered around the idea that the audience should come first, providing a reason for the product.

Influencer culture is probably the shorthand people would use the most, but being known for something and then using that to build out a durable direct-to-consumer brand is becoming vital for small creators and entrepreneurs that know that their conduit to their consumer is as fickle as the platforms they sit on. One too many references to reefer or sex and their livelihood could go poof. Not so much if your audience will follow you wherever you go.

A new cluster of slow food brand builders is carving out their own path to this durability.

Even more so as the ad business becomes a media business. Though MSCHF is very decidedly not yet a merchandise brand, it absolutely has marketed and sold merchandise — extremely effectively too.

But that ability to do so came from not trying to build any real business at all. MSCHF is, by Greenberg’s own admission, just spending money to create attention. No more, no less. What sets it apart from any other marketing effort, in my opinion, is the tone-perfect nature of those experiments.

The average MSCHF stunt (that’s what they are, for sure) is funny, hotly traded in a particular vertical or ideally across several verticals — that have high audience counts and a natural tendency to amplify. The biggest hits of the company so far have traded on  the base powers of the internet like pets and profanity — but every one of them has something super interesting going on.

Each idea comes out of a regular weekly meeting that the team has to throw out potential ideas. They’re then picked out and refined over weeks or months and ‘dropped’ in a manner that resembles limited edition streetwear or collectibles. Every ounce of a MSCHF stunt is viral muscle, no fat. And every one of them goes over like crazy on the net.

Even the ideals that surround each experiment are loosely held. The cleverness evident here is that by defining the goals too clearly you lose the ability for people to attach their own personal vibes and therefore get invested.

“Streaming is a mass common denominator,” Greenberg offers by way of reason for this particular drop. “We all use it. We all have feelings on it. We all hate paying more and more for it. Why not now?”

There are some interesting things about this particular experiment that bear some pondering, outside of the stunt-based brand building apparatus that MSCHF has set up. In poking around at it I found myself watching several of the brands ‘hot’ shows that I never actually got around to seeing.

A random button could actually be a nice advertisement for content (Netflix tested a random shuffle feature last year) for any streaming platform, given the well documented issues people have picking something to watch.

There’s also the side-by-side comparison that you get to draw between the plans of attack of the various entities. Disney is BRAND FIRST, Netflix is new money premium content, Showtime is mostly old with a couple really good ones and HBO the grandaddy trying to stay relevant.

For what it’s worth, there’s also an interesting side point here in how they gather zero data on watching behavior other than pure traffic — and given MSCHF’s repertoire, the side point is probably also a point.

But, as with all of MSCHF’s projects, the takeaways may just be the things I’m bringing to the table.

That interchange of ideas is one of the things that sets MSCHF apart from a lot of brands that have manufactured interest in their products. It generates brand loyalty no matter what is being sold — which in turn results in durability.

One guarantee is that whatever MSCHF drops next, a metric ton of people are going to be interested. No matter what.

U.S. response to the COVID-19 coronavirus moves from “containment” to “mitigation”

In interviews across the major television networks on Sunday, U.S. officials all-but-admitted that efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have failed and that the country now needs to move to mitigate the effects of the continuing spread of the disease on the nation’s health and economy.

“We now are seeing community spread and we’re trying to help people understand how to mitigate the impact of disease spread,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday.

Dr. Adams’ concerns were echoed by Dr. Anthony Fauci head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

“There comes a time,” Fauci said in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, “when you have containment which [sic] you’re trying to find out who’s infected and put them in isolation. And if and when that happens — and I hope it’s if and not when — that you get so many people who are infected that the best thing you need to do is what we call mitigation in addition to containment.”

The admissions are supported by data from Johns Hopkins University, which indicates that despite government efforts to contain the novel coronavirus from spreading in the U.S. there are now at least 474 people infected with the virus across at least 31 states.

Exact information is difficult to ascertain since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it would no longer be able to provide an official tally of tests conducted or under investigation, earlier this week. The CDC made the decision because states and private institutions are now authorized to conduct their own tests — making it difficult for the agency to keep up with the latest information.

“We are no longer reporting the number of PUIs or patients under investigation nor those who have tested negative,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at the CDC. “With more and more testing done at states, these numbers would not be representative of the testing being done nationally.  States are reporting results quickly and even — states are reporting results quickly and in the event of a discrepancy between CDC and state case counts, the state case counts should always be considered more up to date.”

A coronavirus (COVID-19) test kit from the CDC.

Mistakes were made

Faulty test kits and internal divisions over how to respond the spread of the virus in the United States hamstrung early efforts to get an accurate picture of how rapidly the virus was moving through the population, according to multiple reports.

“They’ve simply lost time they can’t make up. You can’t get back six weeks of blindness,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and an Obama-era administration staffer involved in the government’s response to the spread of the ebola virus, told The Washington Post. “To the extent that there’s someone to blame here, the blame is on poor, chaotic management from the White House and failure to acknowledge the big picture.”

There is a world in which a coordinated U.S. response to the outbreak of the coronavirus, which the Chinese government first reported to the World Health Organization in late December, would have been led by the global health security team within the National Security Council, but that group was dissolved in 2018 by the National Security Advisor at the time, John Bolton.

In that world, perhaps the U.S. could have ramped up the production and acquisition of testing kits, provisioned facilities in communities deemed to be more at-risk with the necessary equipment, and issued emergency authorizations to enable public institutions to administer tests without undergoing formal approval processes. In that world, the CDC would not have needed to impose severe restrictions on who could be tested for the virus, because they would not have needed to limit the number of tests they could conduct to only the most pressing — or obvious — cases.

Instead, as reporting in both The Washington Post and the New York Times indicates, a series of poor decisions, slow responses, and technological missteps limited the government’s ability to respond effectively to the threat.

The problems seem to have been threefold — the Centers for Disease Control did not move quickly enough to manufacture test kits at scale (either because of lack of funding or political will) nor did it open up testing options to other institutions that could have worked to develop tests — and because of the limited availability of tests, the CDC rationed how many tests were performed. Those issues were compounded by the initial release of faulty tests by the CDC in early February.

As former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official Scott Gottlieb wrote on Twitter in early February, “Since CDC and FDA haven’t authorized public health or hospital labs to run the tests, right now #CDC is the only place that can. So, screening has to be rationed. Our ability to detect secondary spread among people not directly tied to China travel is greatly limited.”

There are many reasons to have testing kits run through the CDC and state labs affiliated with the center. Chiefly, tests developed and distributed by the CDC can be conducted free-of-charge at public health labs, while corporate labs and private healthcare facilities can charge for the tests they develop.

(There has already been one story involving a man from Florida who was stuck with a $3000 bill for his decision to be pre-emptively tested for the coronavirus after returning from a trip to China.)

However, the inability of the CDC and federal public health officials to respond quickly enough was soon apparent throughout February.

A system for tracking travelers who were returning from China went down just as federal officials were directing state agencies to track their movements, according to a report in The New York Times.  Meanwhile, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, was estimating that the U.S. needed at least 300 million respirator masks for healthcare workers — the national emergency stockpile only had 12 million on hand, and many of those were expired, according to the Times.

Meanwhile, the CDC’s coronavirus test had a flawed component that led to inaccurate tests, which limited the testing efforts even further. And the limitations imposed on who could receive the tests have meant that there is still no accurate picture of how widely the disease has spread.

As recently as Friday, a nurse at a hospital in California was being denied access to the coronavirus test.

“I am currently sick, in quarantine, after caring for a patient who tested positive. I am awaiting permission from the federal government to allow for my testing even after my physician and county health professional ordered the test,” the nurse said in an issued statement. “The national CDC would not initiate the test. They said they would not test me, because if I was wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus… Later they called back and now it’s an issue with something called the identifier number. They claim they prioritize running samples by illness severity and that there are only so many to give out each day. So I have to wait in line for the results. This is not a ticket dispenser at a deli counter, it’s a public health emergency…. I’m appalled at the level of bureaucracy that’s preventing nurses from getting tested. Delaying this test puts the whole community at risk.”

“When the CDC test was delayed, then the cases started appearing outside of China, there should have been a quicker response to get diagnostic testing going,” Melissa Miller, a director of the clinical molecular microbiology laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, told the Washington Post.

“We have an epidemic underway here in the United States”

The Federal Government is now facing an epidemic, according to health experts, and the question now is how can it help states and local governments respond.

“We have an epidemic underway here in the United States,” said former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, in an interview on Face the Nation.

Gottlieb, who recently returned to his position as a managing partner at the venture capital firm NEA, has been monitoring the government’s response from afar and was once rumored to be a candidate for the position of “Coronavirus Czar” overseeing the Administration’s response to the outbreak.

“We have to implement broad mitigation strategies. The next two weeks are really going to change the complexion in this country. We’ll get through this, but it’s going to be a hard period. We’re looking at two months probably of difficulty,” said Gottlieb. “To give you a basis of comparison, two weeks ago, Italy had nine cases. Ninety-five percent of all their cases have been diagnosed in the last 10 days. For South Korea, 85 percent of all their cases have been diagnosed in the last 10 days. We’re entering that period right now of rapid acceleration. And the sooner we can implement tough mitigation steps in places we have outbreaks like Seattle, the- the lower the scope of the epidemic here.”

Part of mitigation involves continuing to track the spread of the disease, and Gottlieb has been encouraging the FDA to move quickly to get new tests approved for weeks. Already, the Gates Foundation and private companies are rushing to bring an at-home coronavirus test kit to market — and ways to share the results from testing with appropriate government agencies.

But testing alone isn’t enough, says Gottlieb. The U.S. needs to “[close] businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events,” Gottlieb said.

Businesses have started to cancel large conferences and events, and universities like Stanford are turning to remote classes for the remainder of their winter term. No city or state has yet to take measures as drastic as Italy, which closed down the entire Northern region of the country over the weekend in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“I think we need to think about how do we provide assistance to the people of these cities who are going to be hit by hardship, as well as the localities themselves to try to give them an incentive to do this.”

His recommendations align with policy suggestions issued recently by the International Monetary Fund, which are all steps that the U.S. government could take should it choose to proactively approach its response to the virus’ spread.

Indeed, the over $8 billion coronavirus response package approved by Congress last week goes a long way to addressing the first suggestion from the IMF, which is to spend on the prevention, detection, control, treatment and containment of the virus.

Equally as important, according to the IMF, is to provide cash flow relief to the people and firms that are most affected — either in the form of wage subsidies, accelerated and expanded unemployment benefits, or tax benefits for companies affected by the virus outbreak.

“We’re going to end up with a very big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states,” said Gottlieb. “We’re better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we’ve had a very big epidemic.”

Meanwhile, leadership in the U.S. at the highest level insists that there’s nothing to worry about.

Gates Foundation-backed program will soon be issuing home testing kits for COVID-19 in Seattle

A project funded by the Gates Foundation will soon begin issuing at-home testing kits for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The study, based on a nose-swab should be able to return results in up to two days and will be shared with health officials who can then notify people who test positive. Individuals who have been infected will then be encouraged to answer an online questionnaire to give health officials information about their movements so that those officials can identify and notify other people who may need to be tested or quarantined, according to the Seattle Times report.

“Although there’s a lot to be worked out, this has enormous potential to turn the tide of the epidemic,” Scott Dowell, who leads the coronavirus response effort from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told the Seattle Times.

There’s no clear timeline for the project’s launch as the Foundation looks to finalize the supporting software and draft a final questionnaire for people who request the tests. The Foundation estimates that it could run up to 400 tests per-day, according to Dowell.

The Gates Foundation isn’t the only entity moving quickly to develop at home test kits. In a Twitter thread on Saturday, serial healthcare entrepreneur Jonathan Rothenberg outlined a similar approach, and is apparently now in discussions with a manufacturer on how to bring it to market.

Seattle and the surrounding area has been the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The state has confirmed 71 cases and 15 deaths from the disease as of Saturday. At least one health expert estimates that Seattle could have as many as 600 cases, based on computational modeling.

“One of the most important things from our perspective, having watched and worked on this in other parts of the world, is the identification of people who are positive for the virus, so they can be safely isolated and cared for, and the identification of their contacts, who can then be quarantined,” Dowell told the Seattle Times.

The project to do develop at-home testing evolved from a two-year-old research project from the University of Washington that was intended to track the spread of diseases like influenza, according to the Times reporting.

All told, the Gates Foundation has poured about $20 million into the effort. The foundation has also committed $5 million to the local response efforts to combat the disease in the area — including the expansion of testing and analysis.