A16Z-backed Shift.org announces veterans hiring pipeline partnership with Better.com

While across much of Asia, November 11th is either “singles day” (a $38 billion Alibaba extravaganza this year) or Pepero Day (named because 11/11 looks like a bunch of chocolate dessert sticks), here in the United States and parts of Europe, November 11th also marks the end of World War I and the commemoration of Veterans Day.

Every year in the U.S., tens of thousands of soldiers leave active duty and transition into the civilian workforce, a route that can be startlingly difficult to navigate. How do you describe what an ordnance specialist does to civilians who have no idea what an MOS is? While the military teaches skills useful to a wide number of professions, holding the right conversations in a job search is key to making the leap.

That’s why a spate of new programs aims to help make it easier for veterans to head into the civilian workforce, and particularly into tech, which obviously has huge growth and great jobs waiting for those who can lock them up. I’ve previously covered one TechStars-connected non-profit, Patriot Boot Camp, which helps veterans looking to launch startups navigate the founder route.

One company that we haven’t covered on TechCrunch before though is Shift.org, an a16z-backed for-profit startup that aims to help veterans learn the key career skills needed to “shift” from the military into the civilian workforce.

Today for Veterans Day, the company announced a new employer partnership with mortgage fintech startup Better.com that will see Better.com hire 80 veterans in the next few months using Shift.org as a sourcing pool, with a projected hiring target of 5,000 veterans and their spouses by 2025 (assuming, as with all high-growth startups, that the high-growth continues firing on all cylinders).

In a press statement, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg said that “Veterans are an untapped source of talent that learned, operated and adapted to some of the world’s most innovative technologies from VR to robotics, nuclear technology and cyber.”

I chatted a bit with Shift.org CEO Mike Slagh about how he sees these partnerships and his own path into building a company. “I got started three years ago after serving in the Navy for just over five years as a bomb disposal officer,” he explained. In many ways, Shift.org was trying to fix his own challenge in moving back into the civilian workforce:

… My story was, I was going on base to the career fairs — there are these big aircraft hangers — and you’re sitting across the table from these employers, and they’re telling you what it’s like to work at their company, they’re telling you what [their] culture is like, and it’s just really hard to picture and it’s such an anxiety-ridden decision, and a big high-stakes moment in your life where you want to get it right for your family, you want to get it right for your future career trajectory.

Part of that anxiety is that saying the right things is often more crucial in recruitment settings than having the right skills. Slagh said that “I actually think that the gap is much narrower than many people naturally assume,” but, “you have to oftentimes have industry-specific context for somebody to take a bet on you when you have a non-traditional background.”

Since launching, Shift.org has partnered with employers like Better.com, Major League Baseball, and Symantec to help bridge the divide and open the pipeline to a wider and more diverse set of candidates.

The company was first funded by Garrett Camp of Expa Labs, and netted a reported $4 million round from Jeff Jordan at Andreessen Horowitz early last year. Slagh said his hope is to eventually work with hundreds of thousands of veterans not just secure great jobs, but also to train them in the skillsets they need to succeed in the future. The company is exclusively partnered today with Lambda School to help provide some of that technical background, for instance.

Smartphone maker Realme is taking India and other emerging markets by storm

As Xiaomi widens its smartphone lead over Samsung in India, a new competitor is increasingly posing a challenge.

Realme, a one-and-half-year-old smartphone vendor that spun out of Oppo, commanded 14.3% of the world’s second largest smartphone market in the quarter that ended in September, research firm IDC said on Monday.

While Xiaomi, with 27.1% of the local smartphone market share, still dominates the market, the volume of handsets that Realme has shipped in India rose at a staggering 401.3% since the same period last year, according to IDC.

Market share of smartphone vendors in India

What’s fascinating about Realme’s expansion in India is just how closely it is replicating Xiaomi’s playbook in the country. Like Xiaomi, Realme for a year sold phones only through an online channel to cut overhead costs. Last quarter, the company began selling phones in India through offline stores, which still account for more than two-thirds of all smartphone sales.

In terms of online-only shipment, the company’s market share has ballooned to 26.5% in Q3 2019 from 16.5% in Q2 this year, the research firm said.

Realme has launched more than a dozen aggressively priced smartphone models so far, all priced between $80 to $240 — the sweet spot in the local market. In fact, IDC says Realme’s C2, 3i and 3 models — priced between $80 and $110 — were the top-selling phones for the company in Q3 this year.

Like Xiaomi’s handsets, Realme smartphones pack above the punch — sporting some of the highest-end hardware modules for their price range. The $80 Realme C2 features a six-inch HD+ display, 3+2 rear megapixel cameras, 4,000 mAh battery, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage — and it supports 4G networks and has a facial unlock feature.

Other markets

Realme today operates in 18 countries, including its home market China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Egypt. In May this year, the company entered the European region.

In a report Counterpoint shared with its clients recently, the research firm said that based on the number of smartphones that Realme has shipped, the company’s rank went from 47th in Q3 2018 to 7th as of September this year. By shipping more than 10 million smartphones, the Chinese firm’s shipment grew by a whopping 808% during this period, the research firm said.

India and Indonesia accounted for more than 80% of smartphones that Realme has shipped to date, according to Counterpoint.

“We expect realme to become a serious contender in the market next year as growth will continue in emerging markets and online channels. The value for money proposition is also powerful in times of stagnant economic growth globally,” Counterpoint analysts wrote.

The aggressive growth of Realme hasn’t gone unnoticed with Xiaomi. The two companies have already exchanged testy words with one another and made allegations.

And you thought smartphone wars were over.

Adidas backpedals on robotic shoe production with Speedfactory closures

An expensive experiment in global distribution has been abandoned by Adidas, which has announced that will close its robotic “Speedfactories” in Atlanta and Ansbach, Germany, within 6 months. The company sugar-coated the news with a promise to repurpose the technology used at its existing human-powered factories in Asia.

The factories were established in 2016 (Ansbach) and 2017 (Atlanta) as part of a strategy to decentralize its manufacturing processes. The existing model, like so many other industries, is to produce the product in eastern Asia, where labor and overhead is less expensive, then ship it as needed. But this is a slow and clumsy model for an industry that moves as quickly as fashion and athletics.

“Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue,” said Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke in an interview last year at Disrupt SF about new manufacturing techniques. The Speedfactories were intended to change that: “Instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in Jersey, we can have a micro-factory in Jersey.”

Ultimately this seems to have proven more difficult than expected. As other industries have found in the rush to automation, it’s easy to overshoot the mark and overcommit when the technology just isn’t ready.

Robotic factories are a powerful tool but difficult to quickly reconfigure or repurpose, since it takes specialty knowledge to set up racks of robotic arms, computer vision systems, and so on. Robotics manufacturers are making advances in this field, but for now it’s a whole lot harder than training a human workforce to use standard tools on a different pattern.

In a press release, Adidas global operations head Martin Shankland explained that “The Speedfactories have been instrumental in furthering our manufacturing innovation and capabilities,” and that for a short time they even brought products to market in a hurry. “That was our goal from the start,” he says, though presumably things played out a bit differently in the pitch decks from 2016.

“We very much regret that our collaboration in Ansbach and Atlanta has come to an end,” Shankland said. Oechsler, the high-tech manufacturing partner that Adidas worked with, feels the same. “Whilst we understand adidas’ reasons for discontinuing Speedfactory production at Oechsler, we regret this decision,” said the company’s CEO, Claudius Kozlik, in the press release. The factories will shut down by April, presumably eliminating or shifting the 160 or so jobs they provided, but the two companies will continue to work together.

The release says that Adidas will “use its Speedfactory technologies to produce athletic footwear at two of its suppliers in Asia” starting next year. It’s not really clear what that means, and I’ve asked the company for further information.