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Recent from Big Business

Updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for fully vaccinated people from July 27 have prompted Walmart to revise its policy regarding wearing face coverings in its stores. The largest retailer in the world has again made it mandatory for all of its employees to wear masks in stores, clubs, and distribution centers in areas with substantial or high COVID-19 infection rates and where there are state or local face-covering mandates. In May, the retailer announced that immunized employees were allowed to work without masks. On July 30, this decision was reversed. The move came as US health officials said that even Americans who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus should go back to wearing face coverings in indoor public places in counties where the virus is spreading rapidly. Walmart’s memo also indicated that the company’s retail workers would post signage at its stores asking customers to wear masks, practice social distancing, and make payments using their debit or credit cards rather than cash. Furthermore, Walmarts has announced that all of its workers will receive a $150 incentive for getting inoculated against COVID-19. This is double the amount the retailer has previously been offering, and those who have already received $75 will get the rest in their August paychecks. The memo also states it has been made a part of store managers’ job to regularly check the CDC website for potential changes to public health recommendations and mask guidance in their locations. Doug McMillon, the company’s CEO, told corporate staff and managers they must be vaccinated by October 4. “We want to get to a place where we can use our offices and be together safely. It’s important for our business, our culture, our speed, and our innovation,” McMillon said. Publix, another supermarket chain, has also made it mandatory for all employees to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Florida-based retailer The Lakeland is also urging all shoppers to use face coverings, even though they aren’t required to do so in all US counties.

By Julija A. August 06,2021

Mutual funds, hedge funds, sovereign-wealth groups, and pension funds are overtaking the tech startup investing landscape, leading to higher valuations and more leverage for business founders in 2021. Large money-management companies took over Silicon Valley in the second quarter, dwarfing venture capitalists in a once-niche business and putting 2021 on the right path to potentially double 2020’s record in startup financing. Non-traditional venture investors were more active in the Q2 of 2021 than ever before, participating in 42% of startup financing deals. Furthermore, those deals constituted more than three-quarters of the total capital invested. Startup funding in the United States reached the $150-billion mark in the first half of 2021, eclipsing the full-year total investment of every year before 2020. There are a few aspects that make large asset firms more appealing to startup founders and could explain the dizzying deal-making pace we’re now witnessing. Big money-management companies have huge capital pools, move quickly, and aren’t likely to request board seats or ask to get involved in the company’s decision-making process in any other way. It’s true that big money-managers have been allocating a small percentage of their portfolios to invest in companies that typically draw the attention of traditional venture-capital funding providers for a long time. However, many began investing directly about 10 years ago in a near-zero-interest-rate economy, hoping to make the most of excellent returns from tech companies that were remaining private longer. Throughout the last decade, traditional venture capitalists considered them tourist investors who lacked a certain skill set needed for startup investing. Nevertheless, large asset firms stuck around. Nowadays, non-traditional VC investors such as Tiger Global Management and Fidelity Investments Inc. are among the top 10 US investors in startups by dollar amount. Additionally, according to the information provided by research firm PitchBook, the number of startup funding rounds that include zero venture-capital firms and other non-traditional venture capital investors has doubled throughout the last decade. It’s interesting to mention that despite these changes, many startups still need to turn to alternative funding resources such as crowdfunding, particularly if they are just starting out.

By Julija A. August 05,2021

Recent from Retail

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. announced on September 1 that, starting from October, it will raise the minimum wages for all its employees to $15 an hour.   The pharmacy store chain’s move aimed at retaining and luring more people to work after the COVID-19 outbreak is just one more in a series of similar announcements from other US drugstores. Rival CVS Health announced it would increase the minimum wage to the same amount earlier, but the implementation will not start before July next year. With the nationwide labor shortage brought on by the pandemic, many other companies announced raising wages, including Walmart and Chipotle. “Investing in and rewarding our team members is not only the right thing to do; it’s highly important to retaining and attracting a talented workforce,” said Chief Executive Officer Roz Brewer. Currently, about half of Walgreens’s 190,000 employees are already earning $15 an hour, but the starting wage stands at $10. Walgreens will invest nearly $450 million in the wage increase in the course of the next three years. One-third of the amount will be invested in fiscal 2022.  Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, and Walmart will likely also play a key role in administering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines. These booster shots are currently available solely to the immunocompromised. Still, if US health regulators give it the green light, the booster dose will likely be available to anyone starting September 20.  President of Kroger Health Colleen Lindholz said in an interview that dedicated workers providing vaccinations would be working in about a hundred of Kroger’s US locations.  Meanwhile, wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and using debit and credit cards for payments instead of cash are still recommended in pharmacies and other stores, even for fully vaccinated Americans. 

By Julija A. September 03,2021

Simon Property Group and NorthPark Center are stepping in to help stores fill open job positions as COVID-19 restrictions loosen up, and shoppers start heading back to malls in Dallas, Texas. With the economy slowly opening up, shopping centers are chipping in to assist their tenants in finding workers by holding job fairs and posting consolidated lists of available positions on dedicated landing pages, mobile apps, and social media accounts. Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the United States, has been organizing virtual job fairs since the global health crisis hit as a courtesy to its tenants. The shopping mall owner has a consolidated list of hundreds of employment opportunities available nationwide. The list can be found on Simon’s website and is searchable by the retailer, state, and shopping center. Dallas’ NorthPark Center is also promoting job opportunities at the mall on its website and via other digital channels. With positions available at about 80 stores, there’s plenty of choice for job seekers. Despite these recent efforts, the US still has about 400,000 fewer jobs in retail compared to the prepandemic data. However, based on the most recent State Employment and Unemployment Summary report, the unemployment rate in Texas was 6.7% in April this year, which is nearly a half down from the state’s record-high joblessness rate of 12.9% in April 2020. While the Texas retail employment rates have almost recovered to pre-COVID levels - approximately 1,322,500 Texans were employed in retail in April in comparison with 1,324,500 in February 2020 - more than 50% of business owners in this sector say that they’re still recruiting. That’s especially good news for high school and college students who may seek out many of the retail job opportunities. There’s been a significant increase in mall traffic as more people are getting vaccinated against COVID-19. According to March data provided by Placer.ai, foot traffic in US malls went up by 86% compared with the same month last year. Although this is still below March 2019 numbers, there’s an upwards trend and people are not only browsing but also spending more.

By Julija A. June 03,2021

Google announced it would be partnering with Shopify and included new details of its plans to take over a larger piece of the booming eCommerce market in the process. The deal comes together in an effort to stave off Amazon’s rising dominance as the starting point for online shopping searches. Google’s President of Commerce and Payments, Bill Ready, announced the Shopify partnership during the company’s developer conference on May 18. After the announcement, Shopify shares rose by 3%, while Google’s dropped about 1%. “When it comes to shopping, what we’re really trying to build out and support is a free and open commerce ecosystem. This is really important for consumers to have choice, and especially for small and mid-sized businesses to be able to participate in the rise of digital commerce as well,” said Bill Ready. Reintroducing the free listings incorporated into Google Shopping is at the center of the “online shopping democratization” strategy presented by Ready. These listings were initially launched in April 2020 but have since been exchanged for a pay-to-participate model. However, now that the partnership with Shopify has brought its network of around 1.7 million retailers to Google’s fold, the free listings are back. According to Ready, at least one billion shopping searches occur daily via Google, but they remain a largely untapped resource. The improvements that Google is developing could prove to be of great value for businesses that have yet to develop an online presence. The SmallBizGenius team recommends exploring ways to build an eCommerce presence for your business to take advantage of Google’s growing commercial platform. “We want to help people discover, learn about and shop for the products they love — whether those products come from a big-box retailer, new direct-to-consumer brands, or the mom-and-pop shop down the street. We're supporting an open network of retailers and shoppers to help businesses get discovered and give people more options when they're looking to buy,” said Ready about the Google Shopping platform. The platform’s design will be advantageous for Google Ads, which in 2020 earned $147 billion for Alphabet, and accounts for more than 50% of all US ad spending. Still, while Google is still at the top of the game, Amazon’s share of the ad market grew from 13.3% in 2019 to 19% in 2020 and is likely to increase further in 2021.

By Milja May 21,2021

Recent from Startups

Silicon Valley startup, Gatik, secured $85 million in its latest funding round. The investment cycle was led by Koch Industries, and this cash infusion will play a vital role in the startup's expansion. The money will go towards expanding its operations, hiring new staff, and increasing its truck fleet. Since its founding in 2017, Gatik has raised $114.5 million. The startup already has well-developed robotic truck operations for hauling consumer goods and groceries for Walmart in Arkansas and Louisiana and Loblaw supermarkets in Toronto. The company suggested that it will be spreading its network to include Texas. Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Gatik, says that the new financing enables better scaling for the company: “The way we look at the business, the technology, the companies we work with, we have all the key components in place.” The funding will be giving this company “a runway of at least two and a half, three years," Narang added. Gatik's revenue is also on the rise, so it seems like there is no pressure on the team to pursue any alternative investment sources, bigger rounds, or to go public.  “We have meaningful revenue coming in. Last year we did revenue in the millions, and this year, we are projecting to increase that by 400% year over year,” Narang disclosed.  Koch Disruptive Technologies - the venture branch of Koch Industries - was accompanied in the funding round by existing investors, such as Innovation Endeavors, FM Capital, Dynamo Ventures, and Intact Ventures. Trucking and delivery services, one of the fastest-developing areas of the autonomous driving industry, are on track to generate their highest revenue in the next couple of years. Gatik's delivery method relies on repetitive routes, and minimizing variables allows for its success. Other companies, such as TuSimple, that focus on longer routes, still have ways to go in terms of testing and further improvement. Since the company has already made some of its trucks in Arkansas fully driverless, Gatik plans to expand its fleet five times by 2023. “These are not one-off demos or one-time runs. We are doing these runs repeatedly on public roads,” Narang said. “On the technology front, we are at a point where we have validated the technology in one market, and now the focus is to scale from here.”

By Danica Jovic September 03,2021

Payments startup Marqeta Inc. is eyeing a valuation of more than $12 billion in its US initial public offering, capitalizing on a surge in online shopping and food delivery payments processed through its platform during the coronavirus pandemic. The California-based company plans to sell approximately 45.4 million shares priced at $20 and $24 apiece, thus raising $1 billion at the top end of the range. Well known for enabling companies to issue debit and credit cards to their staff, Marqeta was launched with the aim to digitize commercial payment transactions between businesses and their clients via its open API. Headed by its founder and CEO, Jason Gardner, the payments startup previously announced that its revenue doubled to $290.3 million in 2020 as homebound customers made more online purchases. Marqeta’s primary offerings include issuing physical, virtual, and tokenized cards, transaction processing, and applications for development, administration, anti-fraud, and chargebacks. Additionally, one of the startup’s most popular features is the Just-In-Time (JIT) Funding functionality that overcomes the need to maintain sufficient balances for each cardholder transaction. Essentially, JIT Funding is a method of funding an account automatically - in real-time - during the transaction process. The company has been operational since 2010, and its growing list of customers now includes Uber, Square, Klarna, and DoorDash. It doubled its valuation to $4.3 billion in May 2020 when it raised $150 million in funding. With about 530.2 million Class A and Class B shares outstanding, Marqeta could be valued at over $12 billion this year. The paperwork for Marqeta’s listing was confidentially submitted in February. The stock is expected to trade on the Nasdaq under the symbol MQ with JP Morgan Goldman Sachs as lead underwriters of the offering.

By Julija A. June 07,2021

Recent from Small Business

The latest data compiled by payroll services company Paychex and information provider IHS Markit shows that national job growth maintained an upward trajectory throughout the month of August. According to the Paychex/IHS Markit employment watch, the economic recovery is continuing despite the Delta variant weighing on small businesses.  Despite concerns about inflation, worker shortages, and the growing number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, hourly earnings growth increased to 3.42% in August. Meanwhile, the Small Business Jobs Index gained 0.45% last month. It’s now 99.80, increasing 5.74% over the past 12 months. This is a record-high year-over-year growth rate and the highest index level since January 2018.   The fastest-growing sector was leisure and hospitality, with more than double the growth of any other industry. According to Frank Fiorille, Paychex’s Vice President of risk management, compliance, and data analytics, this sector is driving the recovery.  “Wages are starting to go up, especially in the leisure and hospitality segment. We track new hires at these establishments, and the wages are really rising pretty fast as well as signup bonuses, competition to get people to come to work,” Fiorille said. Once the unemployment insurance benefits end on September 6, more workers are expected to flock to job posting sites. Other aid programs are also expiring, such as eviction moratoriums. This is likely to further boost employment figures but will also have a significant impact on the economy at large.  All regions of the country recorded employment gains in August, but the south remains a leader in small business job growth, with Arizona topping the list. Washington had the strongest growth rate, climbing to 12th place among states after being ranked last between June 2020 and July 2021. Meanwhile, Tampa, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Houston are leading the charge in employment growth among metropolitan areas.  “The West had a really strong month and quarter as well, so the West is starting to come back pretty strongly as well,” Fiorille said. “You’re still seeing new business formation is very strong, so that’s another nice indicator that we’re looking at.”

By Ivana V. September 03,2021

The Paycheck Protection Program, a disaster relief program aimed at helping small businesses recover from the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, ended May 31, after it had provided over $798 billion in economic relief to more than 8.5 million small businesses and nonprofits, said US Small Business Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman in a statement issued last week. She pointed out that this program helped small businesses across the US overcome the “once-in-generation economic crisis” and that she is proud of the changes in the system which provided underserved businesses access to this program in the later rounds. “In 2021, 96% of PPP loans went to small businesses with fewer than 20 employees,” added Guzman. The PPP is only one of the eight relief programs established to assist nonprofits and small businesses throughout the pandemic. The other seven programs include the SBA Debt Relief program, Economic Injury Disaster Loan, its three advances, Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, and Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The PPP played a significant role in economic recovery. It was among the first debt relief programs to provide much-needed help to small businesses affected by the pandemic to keep workers on the payroll and their operations running. The overall implementation was very effective, especially in later rounds, when the program opened its doors for the underserved. While some small-business owners looked for banks that could cater to small businesses, others got lucky with the changes to the PPP funds introduced in 2021. Thirty-two percent of the loans from the PPP went to Low-and-Moderate Income, and PPP loans averaged $42,000 in 2021, which clearly shows that the relief went to the smallest of small businesses. Community financial institutions stepped in in this case, providing more than $30 billion through 1.5 million loans.

By Julija A. June 08,2021

The US job growth rate remained largely unchanged in May, based on payroll data provided by approximately 350,000 Paychex clients. The Paychex | IHS Markit Small Business Employment Watch May report reveals that the Small Business Jobs Index has experienced a slight decrease, slowing 0.07% month-on-month. Additionally, as a result of part-time and hourly workers with lower wages reentering the workforce, weekly earnings growth fell below 3%. “Small businesses are struggling to return to normal operations and expand due to labor shortages,” said IHS Markit’s chief regional economist, James Diffley, and added that the Small Business Jobs Index held steady in May. Hiring challenges are still present nationwide. Job growth decline in the construction industry has significantly affected the positive momentum seen over the last few months, according to Martin Mucci, Paychex’s CEO and president. Mucci also added that the low availability and high cost of building materials dragged the construction job growth down by 1.78% in May. On the other hand, with more people dining out and going on vacations across the United States, both job growth and wages in the industries of leisure and hospitality have rebounded significantly. These sectors have gained 1.94% in May and 12.4% during the past quarter. The May report also reveals that the national index has gone up 4.58% over Q1 2021, driven mainly by the lower employment comparison level the economy saw last year. Overall, the national index has managed to bounce back to prepandemic levels, even though early 2020 data indicated small business job growth had slightly declined since 2017. With Texas claiming the top ranking among states for job growth rates, the South of the country has remained a clear leader of all regions in small business job growth. Meanwhile, the West was the only region with positive gains in May and has improved for the third month in a row. Additionally, for the first time since 2019, the West has overtaken the Midwest and become the runner-up among US regions. 

By Julija A. June 03,2021

Recent from Finance

Square, a popular payments system, has recently launched its new product, Square KDS, a display system for restaurants that focus on delivery and don’t necessarily have a front-of-house or even a POS system. Square’s Kitchen Display System helps restaurants streamline their processes, connecting the front-of-house to the back-of-house and order fulfillment. Likewise, orders from delivery apps and the Square Online site are all sent directly to the kitchen via Square KDS. It has already replaced post-it notes in many restaurants due to its ease of use. Restaurant owners can also benefit from additional features, such as ticket timers, performance reports, and notifications that can be customized to meet the restaurants’ specific needs. It seems that Square has jumped to cater and adapt to the pandemic-related trend of delivery-only restaurants. These ghost kitchens and other businesses that don’t have a front-of-house can take advantage of Square’s technology. Originally released in November 2020 as part of the Square for Restaurants POS software package, Square KDS has now become available as a stand-alone product. Some other big names in the restaurant industry, such as Kitchen United, have focused on developing their own solutions to keep up with the new trends, but smaller businesses rarely have enough time and funds to do so, making solutions such as Square KDS even more valuable. Square’s new product is currently available as a standalone in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and Ireland. Square is currently offering a special price for this new solution, standing at $10 per month per device until the end of 2021. Alternatively, users can get it if they opt for Square’s Plus plan, which costs $60 per month per location. Large businesses might also consider purchasing Square’s Premium plan, which can be tailored to a particular restaurant’s needs.

By Julija A. May 28,2021

Check Point Software Technologies researchers gained access to the data of over 100 million Android users due to misconfigured cloud-based storage solutions. They published their findings on May 20, citing 23 highly sought-after mobile apps as dangerous for internal user data due to oversights in cloud-based-storage security configurations. Real-time databases, cloud-based storage, and notification managers were misconfigured, leaving both developers and users exposed. Both secret and access keys were embedded in the same service that stores personal data. The mishandling of these cloud-based solution services revealed personal information like passwords, email addresses, device location, private messages, user identifiers, and more. For example, Astro Guru - an astrology app downloaded more than 10 million times - exposed its users’ personal info and payment details due to unsecured syncing, which could have been avoided with appropriate identity theft protection. Similarly, Check Point’s researchers managed to acquire chat messages exchanged between drivers and passengers on the T’Leva taxi app. Over 50,000 users had their in-app correspondence leaked with a single request sent to the app’s real-time database. Users’ full names, locations, and phone numbers were also contained in the leak. The last example is a screen-recording and storing app called Screen Recorder; the app has over 10 million users. Its developers embedded access keys in the same database they used to store recordings, essentially offering them to anyone who decided to look. Cloud storage on mobile apps is a very convenient solution for developers. However, this widespread mishandling of configuration and implementation put both developer and user data at risk. Check Point Software researchers have found dozens of cases where developers tried to hide how they keep cloud service keys in their apps by providing a solution that doesn’t fix the issue. Researchers had contacted Google and app developers before they published their findings. However, only a few apps have evaluated their configuration since.

By Julija A. May 28,2021

Goldman Sachs Chief Economist Jan Hatzius has recently said that a cryptocurrency intended to compete with the dollar is likely to be made at some point by the Federal Reserve. Crypto traders are not enthusiastic about this news, as it brings a level of regulation to the traditionally unregulated market. “The Fed is still in the research stage,” Hatzius explained for Yahoo Finance Live and added that there is an appetite for introducing a digital currency. However, he also says that the Fed needs to move cautiously to avoid undermining the current payment and financial system. “I think small steps are not likely to be very disruptive ,” Hatzius said. “Large steps could be disruptive. That’s why I think you need to move slowly, and gain a lot more experience before you ramp it up.” Crypto traders look unfavorably on the US government’s initial attempts to regulate Bitcoin. The same goes for China. Authorities in that country have already openly said that cracking down on Bitcoin mining and trading is necessary, so this news has a bitter taste for crypto traders around the world. Following the Chinese authorities’ announcement, Bitcoin plunged on Sunday, May 23, by more than 15%. At the moment of writing, it stood at $32,652, half its peak in April. Ether, too, initially shed 18% but recovered the following morning. Currently, both the Fed and the Treasury consider cryptocurrencies to be highly speculative assets. US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says that “to date, cryptocurrencies have not served as a convenient way to make payments, given, among other factors, their swings in value.” Considering Bitcoin’s volatility, many small businesses are likely better off opening checking accounts in banks than using this and other cryptocurrencies. Still, a new currency, coming from the Fed, shouldn’t pose any risk to the current financial system, according to Hatzius. He believes that its introduction could work, provided that the Fed takes its time to research the digital currencies and fit them into the current financial system.

By Julija A. May 27,2021

In the latest ID theft and Cybersecurity research study conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group and Generali Global Assistance, 76% of respondents expressed concern about ID theft, while 34% stated they’re very concerned. The research findings were published on May 18, based on a survey of 702 adults aged 25 and older. The respondents were more worried about ID theft than about severe illness or injury (74%), car accidents (64%), or home robbery (56%). Nearly half the respondents (49%) think their lives would be seriously impacted if their identity was stolen. They believe this is highly likely, too - one in five respondents consider falling prey to cybercrime or ID theft in the next five years to be 75-100% probable. CEO of Generali Global Assistance, Chris Carnicelli, has stated that what consumers want is a savior, or identity-theft hero, who can give them complete protection before cybercrime happens. They turn to institutions that already earned their trust for advice on privacy data protection, ID theft, and cyber protection services. CEO of Global Identity and Cyber Protection at Generali Global Assistance, Paige Shafer, added that the company expected consumers to be more confident about protecting themselves from ID theft and cybercrime than they were in 2017. Unfortunately, the results of the second study showed that 50% of respondents still lack sufficient education to handle ID theft and cybercrime threats, same as they did in 2017. An overwhelming majority (84%) of respondents consider themselves incapable of handling all relevant aspects of cybersecurity and ID-theft protection alone. Just above three-quarters (76%) expect they would need assistance from a qualified expert. 90% claimed that there’s a possibility they’ll become victims of ID theft and cybercrime. 80% were afraid of various methods that can endanger their identity info, with 63% of surveyed adults said they wouldn’t know what to do if this happens. The number of people who seek to protect their sensitive data using cloud backup services is also increasing. To help allay their concerns, 60% of respondents plan on buying ID-theft protection software in the next two years, and 54% would turn to cybercrime protection software. In the spirit of using companies they already trust, 77% of respondents would consult with their credit-monitoring or ID-theft protection company. 64% of surveyed members would get the ID-theft and cybercrime protection services from insurance companies, 63% from credit unions or banks, 61% from credit card companies, and 58% as a part of a computer software bundle.

By Julija A. May 27,2021