Lifeproof Next Review: Make Your New iPhone Tougher, Not Bulkier

, I help you make the most of your Apple gear and other technology Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

The first thing any iPhone owner should buy is a protective case. There are cases that add minimal protection along with style. There are military grade cases that look ugly but make an iPhone all but impervious to physical harm. The $79.99 Lifeproof Next aims at the middle ground, offering more protection than most –including a claim of being drop-proof, dirt-proof and snow-proof– in a case that has a little style. You can even customize your look by choosing from versions with different colored rubber bumpers.

The Lifeproof Next is available for the Samsung Galaxy S9 series, Apple iPhone X, and the iPhone 7 and 8 series. I tested the version made for the iPhone 8 Plus and 7 Plus, with a Beach Pebble (light gray) bumper.

Brad Moon.

Those rubber bumpers add a little width, but provide significant drop protection.

Protection, But Not Bulkier

Protection is relatively easy to pull off. There are dozens –if not hundreds– of protective cases for the iPhone. The trick is to offer a high degree of protection without turning the svelte iPhone into a bulky, heavy, brick. If you take the case off because it makes your iPhone too big to comfortably carry around and use, you’re getting zero protection. Plus you’re out the cost of the case that’s now shoved in a drawer.  

Lack of bulk is one of the key selling points of the Lifeproof Next. I think Lifeproof’s description of a “slim, sleek profile” is maybe a little optimistic. Still, at 0.45-inches thick and 1.73 ounces (for the iPhone 8 Plus and 7 Plus version) it’s trimmer than many alternatives.

Installation is a matter of setting the iPhone with screen facing up in the main case half, then securing the trim layer, which snaps firmly into place. Once installed, there’s a notch in one corner where an included plastic pick can be inserted to work the two halves of the case apart. 

Brad Moon

Ports and buttons are sealed, speakers are covered by fine mesh.

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Fox spirits and demons: China's tech giants splash out in cartoon arms race

HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – Growing up in the Chinese port city of Dalian in the 1990s, Zhang Hongchang spent hours immersed in Japanese cartoons like Dragon Ball and Naruto.

People walk past a booth of NetEase Comics at the China International Cartoon and Game (CCG) Expo in Shanghai, China July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

China’s home-grown cartoons paled in comparison to the Japanese anime series on television and in comic books that captured the imaginations of Zhang and his generation.

Today, Zhang is one of China’s hottest cartoonists and at the forefront of a new wave of Chinese animation that is being driven by the country’s technology and internet giants. His latest hit comic – which stars a high school student who is also a Taoist priest with secret super powers – has been viewed 160 million times online.

China’s tech firms are engaged in a cartoon arms race to develop or buy Chinese characters in an animation market expected to hit 216 billion yuan ($33.22 billion) by 2020, according to the EntGroup consultancy, trying to emulate the success of Walt Disney Co’s (DIS.N) ensemble, which ranges from Mickey Mouse to Iron Man.

A key to that effort, has been the development of artists like Zhang.

“When I started, I was copying Japanese cartoons, but slowly I got my own style,” Zhang said in the Hangzhou studio where he draws comics that are made available to readers on a platform operated by the local gaming firm NetEase Inc (NTES.O).

“I had to spend a lot time getting to understand the Chinese market and what Chinese comic readers wanted.”

Chinese tech giants like Tencent Holdings (0700.HK), Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) and NetEase are trying to figure out the same thing.

Part of the winning formula has been the use of traditional Chinese religious and cultural themes, and characters. That, and improved quality in terms of art and storytelling, helped China’s comic and animation market reach 150 billion yuan last year, according to EntGroup’s estimates.

China still lags behind the Japanese and American markets, but is catching up. Japan is the top producer of animation, while the United States dominates in terms of sales, taking a nearly 40 percent share of the global industry, estimated at $220 billion in 2016, according to a report from Research & Markets. China had around 8 percent that year.

For Chinese companies, the development of compelling series and characters could also open up new business opportunities that companies like Disney have exploited, like branded theme parks, games, movies, TV shows, lunch boxes and clothes.

“To make it work there have to be good stories, good production, and content that can resonate with consumers,” said Xu Zhiwei, animation and comic copyright senior manager at Tencent in Beijing.

Tencent is already seeing some success that could help the firm maintain rapid growth and a high valuation.

The gaming-to-social media company bought up “Fox Spirit Matchmaker”, which depicts romances between humans and demons, when it was a little-known comic, created by an artist called Xiao Xin.

The comic has been developed into an animation series that’s been viewed more than 3 billion times, Tencent told Reuters, making it one of the hottest hits on its video platform, which has over 60 million paying subscribers.

Tushan Susu, the animation’s main character, has been featured in a commercial for the fast food chain KFC (YUM.N) (YUMC.N). Tencent is now looking to create a television series and a video game using Fox Spirit characters.

LOCAL HEROES

China’s tech giants play an outsized role in Chinese entertainment. Tencent, the search company Baidu, and Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, control most of the top online platforms from movies to sport, and are dominant in social media and online gaming.

These firms are looking to latch on to a surging sub-culture being driven by a young generation with a taste for animation, called “dongman” in Chinese. This group is keen for more local-style heroes, according to industry executives.

They are also wealthier than their parents were, and have money to spend.

“Youngsters, especially the post-2000s, are very willing to spend money,” Geng Danhao, senior vice president at Baidu’s online streaming platform, iQiyi, said at an event in Beijing.

Zhang Tuo, a 21-year-old college student in Sichuan, said he had spent more than 7,000 yuan on comic-related merchandise, from plastic figurines to t-shirts. His favorites are local comics like Spiritpact and Monster List. Tao Jie, 20 a student in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said Chinese cartoons had improved in terms of story lines and animation technique. The use of local tales was also an attraction, he said.

“A lot of the Chinese comic and animation are developed from online novels that I have already read. I like them because I’m already a fan of the stories,” said Tao.

That shift has been helped by supportive government policies to ensure that peak-time television slots are kept for domestic animation.

The big tech firms are starting to spend, though not yet at the level of Disney, which bought Pixar Animation Studios for $7.6 billion, as well as Marvel Entertainment, and the Star Wars producer Lucasfilm Ltd for around $4 billion each.

Tencent has invested in more than a dozen comic and animation companies since last year, according to public records, while its film arm launched a “100 animations” project to support domestic productions.

Baidu’s iQiyi (IQ.O), is also splashing out on domestic comics, planning to spend 200 million yuan to sign Chinese artists and develop local characters, which comes on top of an earlier investment in 10 animation projects, the company said in May.

Alibaba and the news aggregator Toutiao have snapped up production companies and launched animation platforms on their own sites. NetEase signed a deal last year with Disney to create Marvel style superheroes, but with Chinese characteristics.

Luo Qiandan, marketing director of NetEase Comics, said the firm was using big data from its platform to analyze what comic consumers wanted and would feed this back to artists.

It was also adopting other elements such as Chinese brush painting techniques and religious themes.

“Everybody is trying to use Chinese elements and Chinese style,” she said.

Reporting by Pei Li in BEIJING, Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI and Anita Li in HANGZHOU; Editing by Philip McClellan

Apple Admits to Sticky MacBook Pro Keyboards, Will Fix Them for Free

MacBook and MacBook Pro laptop owners with flaky keyboards can get them fixed for free and receive refunds for out-of-warranty repairs they have already made, Apple said today. The company has extended the warranty for keyboards for nine affected models released starting in 2015 to four years from the usual one year.

In a statement provided to Fortune, an Apple spokesperson said, “Today we launched a keyboard service program for our customers that covers a small percentage of keyboards in certain MacBook and MacBook Pro models which may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors: letters or characters that repeat unexpectedly or don’t appear when pressed or keys that feel ‘sticky’ or aren’t responding in a consistent manner.”

The laptop models affected rely on a new key switch design Apple introduced in 2015 with a complete revision of its MacBook laptop and brought to the MacBook Pro in an overhaul in 2016. The so-called “butterfly” keys allowed for a much lower-profile keyboard with reduced travel distance when pressed. Many users disliked the feel compared to standard “scissor” switch laptop keys. Beyond finger feel, the shorter travel distance also increased the likelihood that trapped grit—even small particles of dust—could lodge in place, preventing a key or keys from working.

The cost of out of warranty repair can be as high as $700, as keys can often not be repaired singly. Replacing the keyboard as a whole requires swapping out the entire top side of the main laptop body.

Apple currently faces three lawsuits over the keyboard flaw. Its offer to pay for repairs to the keyboard already performed may affect these suits, but no settlements were announced today.

It has been impossible to date to know how rare the problem is, as Apple doesn’t disclose rates of repair. In October 2017, technology journalist Casey Johnston wrote about her pervasive problem with a MacBook Pro’s keyboard, and said Apple repair technicians (known as Geniuses) repeatedly chalked it up to dust. Johnston spoke to an anonymous source at a company that provides MacBook Pros to its users, who said the problem was extensive but below 5% of laptops.

Apple posted special cleaning instructions for laptops with butterfly key switches in 2017, but no other information. Jason Snell, editor of Six Colors and former editor-in-chief of Macworld magazine, wrote in April 2018, “Apple’s relative silence on this issue for existing customers is deafening.” Snell called for a recall if the problem was pervasive as it seemed.

In April 2018, Johnston wrote a follow-up story that even after a replacement of her first keyboard, problems arose again, and she sold the laptop back Apple. She recommended against purchase of any butterfly-key models. (This reporter owns a 2015 MacBook with the butterfly design, which had its keyboard replaced in 2017 under a three-year paid warranty extension due to the key faces wearing off across all its most-used keys.)

Apple said affected customers can receive service at no charge via a retail Apple Store, through Apple’s mail-in repair program, or through an Apple-authorized service provider. If a laptop has other damage that has to be fixed before the keyboard can be replaced, Apple said in its service program page that a charge may apply.

Amazon Employees Want Jeff Bezos to Stop Selling Rekognition to Law Enforcement, According to Report

Amazon employees are asking CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling Rekognition facial recognition technology to law enforcement, and to kick the data mining company Palantir from Amazon Web Services, according from a report from Gizmodo.

In the letter circulating the company, which was obtained by Gizmodo, employees wrote that they are “troubled by the recent report from the ACLU exposing our company’s practice of selling AWS Rekognition, a powerful facial recognition technology, to police departments and government agencies.”

Rekognition was released in 2016, and according to an Amazon blog post from that year, Rekognition can scan and recognize images including people, pets, scenes and objects.

“You can use Rekognition in several different authentication and security contexts,” the blog post explains. “You can compare a face on a webcam to a badge photo before allowing an employee to enter a secure zone. You can perform visual surveillance, inspecting photos for objects or people of interest or concern.”

In a May letter to Bezos, the American Civil Liberties Union along with more than three-dozen other organizations demanded that Amazon stop selling Rekognition services to law enforcement agencies. The ACLU also released documents and a report criticizing Amazon’s marketing to law enforcement, and Rekognition’s use at a police department in Orlando, Florida and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon.

The letter from Amazon employees to Bezos also cites President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S. border as a cause for consternation.

“In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS,” the letter reportedly states.

Amazon employees also called for the company to not provide services to companies — like Palantir — that partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Fortune contacted Palantir for comment.

Employees are not alone in voicing their unease. Earlier this week, 19 Amazon shareholders wrote a letter (which was posted publicly by the ACLU) to Bezos about Rekognition. It reads in part:

“In addition to our concerns for U.S. consumers who may be put in harm’s way with law enforcement’s use of Rekognition, we are also concerned sales may be expanded to foreign governments, including authoritarian regimes. Without protective policies in place, it seems inevitable the application of these technologies will result in Amazon’s Rekognition being used to identify and detain democracy advocates.”

When reached for a comment, Amazon pointed Fortune to a blog post written by Dr. Matt Wood, general manager of artificial intelligence at AWS, following the release of the ACLU report:

“Each organization choosing to employ technology must act responsibly or risk legal penalties and public condemnation.” Wood wrote. “AWS takes its responsibilities seriously. But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future. “

The Amazon employees’ letter is the latest in a trend of employees at large tech companies sharing ethical concerns about the use of products. Employees at both Google and Microsoft have recently objected to contracts with the Department of Defense and ICE, respectively. Google said it would not renew its contract with the DoD. Microsoft discussed its contract with ICE in an email to employees.

Index provider MSCI delays decision on unequal voting rights stocks

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Stock index provider MSCI said on Thursday it extended its review of how to treat stocks with unequal voting rights and expects to make a decision by the end of October.

FILE PHOTO: The MSCI logo is seen in this June 20, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo

That decision, which could affect dozens of stocks around the world, including technology heavyweights Facebook and Google parent Alphabet, had been expected by Thursday.

But MSCI said in a statement that it “determined that it is appropriate to give further consideration to the full breadth of views expressed by the investment community before announcing a final conclusion.”

MSCI has been considering a plan to reduce the influence within its indexes of stocks that have share structures with unequal voting rights. Such a move could have resulted in portfolio managers selling their shares to rebalance their holdings.

More than $660 billion in passively managed funds track MSCI indexes around the world, according to Lipper data.

Uneven voting structures has been a hot corporate governance topic, especially as a number of newly listed U.S. technology firms, such as Snap Inc and Dropbox Inc, have listed shares that retain lopsided decision-making power with insiders.

Last year, S&P Dow Jones Indices started excluding companies with multiple classes of shares from the S&P 500 and other indexes, although it did not apply the rule to existing index components, including Alphabet and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

FTSE Russell implemented a similar rule last July, requiring new constituents of its indexes to have at least 5 percent of their voting rights in the hands of public shareholders, while giving a five-year grace period to existing constituents that do not meet the threshold.

The MSCI proposal, made in January, has not been universally welcomed.

BlackRock Inc, the world’s largest asset manager, in April said securities regulators, not index providers, should set international standards for shareholder voting rights. It said MSCI’s proposal could distort markets.

Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf and Noel Randewich; editing by Bill Berkrot

Optimism Running High Ahead Of Micron's Earnings Report

Micron Technology (Nasdaq: MU) is set to release earnings on Wednesday, June 20 after the market close. Micron has been on an incredible run over the last two years with the stock gaining over 400%, but the sentiment toward the stock is a little concerning.

The rally in Micron has certainly been warranted. The company has seen its earnings grow by an average of 31 percent per year over the last three years with the last quarter showing growth of 213 percent. Analysts expect the earnings to grow by 133 percent for the current year.

Sales have also been growing, but not as fast as the earnings. The average sales growth over the last three years has been 13 percent and the most recent quarterly report showed growth of 58 percent.

The company sports a return on equity of 36.8 percent and a profit margin of 28.6 percent. All of these stats are impressive and thus the reason the rally is justified.

As far as past earnings reports, the company has a history of beating expectations. Each of the last four earnings reports has beaten consensus estimates anywhere from 3.3 percent to as much as 10.9 percent. The current consensus is for EPS of $3.12.

This is the beginning of why there are concerns heading in to the report. The consensus EPS number was $2.85 only 30 days ago, meaning that analysts have ramped up their expectations by 9.5 percent in the last 30 days. That is a sign of increasing optimism and it means the bar has been raised considerably.

In addition to ramped up expectations for the earnings report, the short interest ratio and the overall analysts’ ratings show excessive optimism as well. The short interest ratio is a meager 1.14 currently and that is after short interest rose from 57.8 million shares to 60.3 million in the past month. Even with the increase in short interest, it would only take short sellers a little over one day of average volume to cover their positions.

As far as the analyst ratings, there are currently 30 analysts following the company and 27 of them have the stock rated as a “buy”. The other three have the stock rated as a “hold”.

Between the jump in the EPS estimate, the low short interest ratio, and the analyst ratings, the optimism toward Micron is excessively bullish. When the sentiment is this bullishly skewed, it is almost impossible for the company to beat estimates by a wide enough margin to spur a post-earnings rally. If recent history tells us anything, the company will likely beat the EPS estimate. But with the sentiment being so bullish, beating the EPS estimate doesn’t mean the stock will jump.

In addition to the extreme bullish sentiment, the pattern in the chart is eerily similar to the company’s last earnings report. The blue circle on the chart shows the pattern while the arrow points to big drop that occurred the day after the earnings report in March. You can see how the stock ramped up to a new high, dropped a little, and rallied again before the earnings report. Then the stock dropped almost 20 percent in the two weeks following the report.

MU SA.png

The current pattern shows a similar rally throughout May, dropping slightly, and then rallying for a week or so. The stock has dropped in recent days as it has been caught up in some of the tariff battle exchanges between the U.S. and China. But the tariffs will not have any impact on Wednesday’s report.

The bottom line is this—it is going to be very difficult for Micron to beat estimates by enough of a margin to drive the stock up immediately given all of the optimism toward the stock. The company’s fundamental performance and price action are really good, so shorting the stock wouldn’t be wise.

I like the idea of waiting until after the earnings report and then waiting a week or two to buy the stock at a better price. After the pullback from the last earnings report, the 10-week RSI dipped below the 50 level for only the third time in the last two years. If we see the same thing happen this time, I would look to buy Micron. All three times the 10-week RSI dipped below 50 in the last two years, it presented a great buying point in the stock.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

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

Mellanox, Starboard select directors to join board: sources

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Mellanox Technologies Ltd, a chipmaker based in Israel and the United States, has picked three directors to join its board as part of a settlement with activist investor Starboard Value LP, sources familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Mellanox Technologies is seen at the company’s headquarters in Yokneam, in northern Israel July 26, 2016. Picture taken July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Mellanox is planning to add two directors from Starboard’s proposed nominees including Greg Waters, the chief executive officer of semiconductor company Integrated Device Technology Inc and Jon Olson, a former chief financial officer at programmable chipmaker Xilinx Inc, three sources said asking not to be named because the matter is private.

The company and the activist have mutually agreed on adding another independent director, Jack Lazar, a former chief financial officer at camera maker GoPro Inc, the sources added.

Mellanox could announce these board appointments as early as Tuesday. It will not expand its 11-person board so these new directors will replace sitting directors, but it was not clear who will leave.

As part of the settlement, Starboard may appoint a direct representative to the board at a later date if the company does not reach certain operating metrics, the sources said.

Mellanox declined to comment and Starboard could not be reached for comment.

Reuters previously reported that Mellanox was nearing a deal with Starboard.

Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

Silicon Valley-style coding boot camp seeks to reset Japan Inc

TOKYO (Reuters) – Barely six months after inaugurating a tiny software-coding boot camp in a basement in Tokyo, Silicon Valley transplant Kani Munidasa stood before some of Japan’s top business leaders in February with a warning: software was threatening their future.

Students attend Code Chrysalis, a software-coding boot camp, at a basement room in Tokyo, Japan, May 23 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

A Sri Lankan native with a Japanese mother and wife, Munidasa was speaking at the invitation of Nobuyuki Idei, a former chief executive of Sony Corp.

Idei had offered to become an adviser to the boot camp, called Code Chrysalis, whose mission of bringing Japan’s software engineering up to global standards and helping its companies transform aligned with his own.

“Idei-san told me, ‘Tell it as it is; don’t sugar-coat anything. They need to hear that change has to happen,’” Munidasa said, recalling how he showed up at the executives’ meeting in a T-shirt and hoodie.

Long known as a “monozukuri” – or manufacturing – powerhouse, Japan is in danger of getting left behind as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning sweep through industries from cars to banking, Idei and others say.Japanese companies have traditionally treated software as a means to cut costs rather than add value, and code-writers as second-class citizens. Entry-level software engineers in Japan make about $40,000 on average – less than half their U.S. counterparts.

Programs like Code Chrysalis are trying to change that by injecting Silicon Valley training methods into Japan’s slow-to-change corporate culture.

Coding, “soft skills” like public speaking and even physical fitness are all on the agenda. Since Code Chrysalis opened last July, a dozen students have graduated from its 12-week course, with six more in the pipeline. The camp currently accepts up to eight applicants per session.

For the students, the benefits are clear: their salaries increased by an average of nearly 80 percent after graduation, according to Code Chrysalis.

Japanese companies are desperate for skilled developers, with top IT recruiter Computer Futures seeing 2.3 job openings for every applicant so far this year, and most positions being filled by foreigners.

Educators and industry leaders hope programs such as Code Chrysalis will be transformative for Japan.

“Even if the numbers are small, I think (Code Chrysalis) can have a big impact,” Idei told Reuters, noting that Japan had focused too much on “physical goods” in the post-Internet age.

A student at Code Chrysalis, a software-coding boot camp, is reflected in a laptop in a basement room in Tokyo, Japan, May 23 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“The United States has Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon,” said Idei, now CEO of his consultancy, Quantum Leaps. “China’s got Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Japan doesn’t have a single platform company. That’s the No. 1 difference.”

A TEXTBOOK PROBLEM

Japan’s English-language education, notoriously focused on standardized testing, has hindered the development of good programmers, industry insiders say.

Without a good grasp of the language, programmers are always a step behind, waiting for translations to access cutting-edge tools and methods.

Toyota is making English the common language for the 1,000 software engineers it plans to employ at a new automated-driving unit launching in Tokyo next month.

James Kuffner, CEO of the unit, Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development (TRI-AD), said Japan’s computer science education was also overly based on textbook learning.

Recalling the “horrible and boring” lectures he sat through at the prestigious University of Tokyo as a post-doctoral research fellow in 1999, Kuffner said the classes did little to prepare students for the real world. Coding boot camps are a step in the right direction, he said.

“I want to figure out a way to fix the education system because it’s also important for our company,” said Kuffner, who still serves as an adjunct associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. “I would love to make a university where (everything) you did was project-based.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

REBOOTING THE SYSTEM

Munidasa and his co-founder, Yan Fan, tailored their course around project-based learning, teaching exclusively in English.

Just one other English-language coding boot camp exists in Japan, run by French chain Le Wagon since late 2016, with 75 graduates so far. That program, which costs 790,000 yen ($7,200) for a nine-week course, targets beginners looking for a job in software development, who want to freelance, or who are launching their own start-ups.

“The positioning is very different because we work with beginners to bring them to a junior-developer level,” said Paul Gaumer, co-founder of Le Wagon Japan.

Munidasa and Fan’s program, which is aimed at higher-level training, has so far rejected nearly 80 percent of applicants, some of whom couldn’t meet the English requirement. To help, they added a four-week English-communication course.

During Code Chrysalis’ 1.03 million yen ($9,390), full-time course, students learn to become “full-stack” engineers, covering servers, user interfaces, and everything in between.

Beyond coding, they get unconventional instruction: voice training from an opera singer, squats challenges, and assignments requiring intense teamwork.

BABY STEPS

Code Chrysalis has already caught the attention of some big Japanese firms, including information technology giant NTT Data.

Its applied software engineering center is using Code Chrysalis for part of its training and has placed an engineer in the current cohort.

“Our customers are increasingly looking for faster and cheaper software development, and we need to be able to meet those demands,” said human resources manager Kotaro Kimura. Masataka Shintoku, an engineer in NTT Data’s sales and planning group who found Code Chrysalis on his own and graduated in March, says he’s already putting his new skills to work.

“I’m now able to create an app on my own and show prospective clients what we can do,” he said.

Kuffner said he hopes to emulate the storied Toyota Production System to create the software world’s “best process for writing bug-free software” as automated cars incorporate millions of lines of code.

“Japanese people are hard-working, very dedicated,” he said. “I have no question in my mind that with the right training they could be some of the best software engineers in the world.”

Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle

Get-Rich-Quick Scheme to Game Amazon Lands a $102 Million Fine from FTC

The FTC today announced that a group of people who had run a get-rich-quick-on-Amazon scheme have agreed to pay $102 million in fines and restitution. The people, operating under different names in Nevada and Massachusetts got people to pay from $995 to as much as $35,000 for “secrets” that were supposed to let them make big money on Amazon’s marketplace, although they had no real connection with Amazon at all.

According to the FTC, the people behind the scheme had taken their victims for at least $36.1 million, and possibly significantly more.

It’s not the first scheme to target businesses. Online ad fraud has been rampant for years, and even a large company like Amazon can find itself scammed.

But we’re not talking about sophisticated corporations or businesses advertising without control over those who fake traffic and ad views. The subjects of this scheme were people who desperately wanted to get ahead and were taken by well-faked stories about how much the founders had made and come-ons pretending to have expertise they lacked.

If you’ve ever thought of getting into online reselling and marketing or otherwise trying to build a side business to start, pay attention. There are lots of people out there who want your money and whose claim to fame is really selling virtual snake oil.

The FTC alleged in a complaint in March that Christopher Bower, Adam Bower, and Jody Marshall were doing business as a number of companies: AWS, LLC; FBA Distributors; FBA Stores; Info Pros; and Online Auction Learning Center, whether in Nevada, Massachusetts, or both. Here’s the core set of charges:

Defendants prey on consumers who seek the American dream of starting a new business. Defendants lure consumers into purchasing expensive business opportunities with purported “secrets for making money on Amazon.” They represent that purchasers are likely to “create financial freedom” and earn thousands of dollars a month by implementing Defendants’ “systems for success on Amazon.” Contrary to Defendants’ promises, most, if not virtually all, purchasers do not earn the advertised income. Moreover, many elements of Defendants’ “system” violate Amazon.com Inc.’s policies. As a result, purchasers who deploy Defendants’ “system” often experience problems with their Amazon stores, including suspension and the loss of their ability to sell on Amazon.com.

The details are worse. The $995 package was for a three-day workshop, videos, and webinars for “tips, tricks, and techniques.” The top package, $34,995, included 16 one-on-one coaching sessions as well as additional videos and webinars. The contents of the coaching sessions were apparently largely what was delivered in online, video, and webinar sessions.

If you a little prowling around online, you find things like a WordPress-hosted blog that claimed these people were legitimate. Uh, yeah. You can also see a Massachusetts Better Business Bureau post stating that Online Auction Learning Center would not respond to BBB questions about their business claims and that the company was now out of business.

The three defendants did not admit to any criminal charges but agreed to pay the walloping fine and to a permanent restraining order keeping them from making any earnings claims unless they can prove them and from misrepresenting anything material to consumers about a product or service.

There are scoundrels everywhere, looking to part you from your hard-earned cash. Here are some things to consider the next time you see a business “opportunity”:

  • If something sounds too good to be true — in this case, for example, spending 30 to 60 minutes a day to make an “extra $5,000 to $10,000 a month” — then it is. Not it probably is. It is. Success in business is hard work.
  • Anyone who has really succeed has details they can share and prove.
  • They should be able to show success in business beyond selling systems on how to make money. Don’t take someone’s word for it. There should always be public records or information for insight. If someone claims to have made a bundle in real estate, then there have to be details showing ownership of property.
  • Do some research and find others who have done this before and ask how they’ve done. Don’t settle for references the people touting the opportunity offer.
  • Recognize that building a business takes time. Don’t expect shortcuts that are illusory.

7 Things I Learned in Business School That Aren't True in 2018

Being an entrepreneur is hard. That is pretty much a universal truth. But it becomes exponentially harder when you operate under false assumptions, outdated conventions, and myths that are no longer true.

I graduated with my MBA in 1997 and almost immediately got involved in startups and venture capital. For the last 21 years, I’ve worked with, mentored, invested in, and been pitched by thousands of entrepreneurs. It pains me to see them undermine their potential by relying on outdated assumptions, and ultimately fail because they believed a lie.

So without further ado, here are seven things entrepreneurs tell themselves, all of which I “learned” in business school, that simply aren’t true today.

1. Entrepreneurship is a black box, unknowable and mysterious. 

When I was in school and wanted to study entrepreneurship, I was literally handed biographies of Lee Iacocca and Benjamin Franklin. Because entrepreneurship was a nascent field of academia, the only way to teach best practices was through case study.  Then along came Steve Blank, Bill Aulet, and Eric Reis, and they showed that entrepreneurship is neither a black art nor an unknowable science. These luminaries used hundreds of dot-com startups to map the path to startup success. That path is generally referred to as the Lean Startup method. 

2. You need money to start a business. 

When I was in school, investors were always a founder’s first stop. Without a commitment of $2 million, most startups in 1997 wouldn’t get started. Today, the cost to launch has dropped from $2 million to below $2,000. So don’t start with investors–start with your own money. Build a prototype, get that prototype to early adopters, and use what you learn to grow the business. Bring in money from friends and family if you need to. Crowdsource if you need to. Venture capital today is focused on taking businesses to scale, and VCs only invest millions after you’ve reached product market fit.

3. You must write a business plan. 

Business plans are dead. Business planning is alive and well. Two decades ago, I was taught to plan everything in advance, write a perfect business plan, and only then go out into the world. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Lean Startup movement, which entered our zeitgeist around 2008, teaches that to be successful, entrepreneurs must “get out of the building” and engage in customer discovery. 

Today, you must take your idea to market, and develop it through iteration and customer interaction. Startup founders who obsess over a detailed business plan prior to launch are missing the point. The best written business plans don’t survive first contact with users. Startups are living things; business plans are static. Today, it is better to launch early and iterate often. A lean canvas beats a business plan.

4. Keep your ideas to yourself.

Speaking of ideas, I was taught never to share my startup idea for fear it would be stolen.  While there are a handful of such idea-theft incidents, there are literally tens of thousands of startups that benefit from early customer interaction. Today, having a big idea is only the start; the focus is on the execution. You have to show traction, and that requires exposing your opportunity to the feedback of others.

5. It is all about who you know. 

In business school, a lot of emphasis was placed on networking. We were told that to get ahead we needed to have a network to leverage. We simply couldn’t succeed without some gatekeeper inviting us in. 

Today, networks are still important, but they’re not the most important thing. Access to early adopters lets you generate insights and revenue and show your solution satisfies an unmet market need–all without “knowing” someone. Further, sites like Angellist and LinkedIn provide viable channels to those outside your direct network.

6. Fake it until you make it. 

In school, I was told to pretend I knew what I was doing. The thinking was that being honest in my naivete would lead to negative outcomes. But faking is dishonest and stressful. By all means, project confidence in your abilities. But don’t stretch the truth–it will only hurt you in the long run. 

I always tell the startup founders I mentor that they can fake it when it comes to confidence, but never when it comes to knowledge. The former is necessary (or no one will try your solution); the latter is unsustainable. 

7. Investors always come first. 

As mentioned above, entrepreneurs should chase customers, not investors. Investors are only interested once you have shown your solution works–once you have shown the dogs will eat the dog food, and you have a viable, scalable business.