Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TGI Fridays Is Trying A New Restaurant Design To Bring In Younger Customers

The new restaurant includes a weekend “Hangover Brunch” with buckets of bacon and chicken and waffles.

TGI Fridays is now courting the children of its baby boomer patrons under a redesigned restaurant with a new name, Fridays.

TGI Fridays is now courting the children of its baby boomer patrons under a redesigned restaurant with a new name, Fridays.

TGI Fridays

The restaurant chain is testing out the new decor and menu to keep up with younger guests who have different tastes than older patrons when it comes to choosing a place to work or socialize, said Fridays spokesperson Mary Ann Schoppman to BuzzFeed News.

The restaurant chain is testing out the new decor and menu to keep up with younger guests who have different tastes than older patrons when it comes to choosing a place to work or socialize, said Fridays spokesperson Mary Ann Schoppman to BuzzFeed News.

TGI Fridays

"Since the inception of Fridays (you know, when it was a singles bar), our guests have expected us to be a place where they can have fun and meet up with new and old friends," said Schoppman. "But that looks differently today. We're testing and making changes to the Fridays brand to align with what our guests are looking for today."

The Corpus Christi restaurant's brighter and more vibrant contemporary design includes new "flexible areas, where guests can make the space their own to relax and enjoy comfortable however they’d like," said Schoppman.

The Corpus Christi restaurant's brighter and more vibrant contemporary design includes new "flexible areas, where guests can make the space their own to relax and enjoy comfortable however they’d like," said Schoppman.

TGI Fridays

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Instacart Fires Its Delivery Drivers In Minneapolis

Leo Chen / Via Flickr: hjc218

Instacart, the grocery delivery startup, has run into challenges in Minneapolis, one of its newer markets, and will dismiss its delivery drivers there, an email obtained by BuzzFeed News shows.

The change, while relatively minor, shows how the four-year-old Instacart is continuing to evolve as it seeks to become profitable. While the company once relied entirely on contractors doing both shopping and delivery, its delivery drivers are part of an effort to divide labor in a bid for increased efficiency.

But the Minneapolis market, where Instacart arrived last September, seems to have challenged the logic behind this effort.

"Given the market’s size and geographic layout, we’ve found it difficult to efficiently provide enough opportunities for delivery drivers to receive orders," Instacart said in an email to its Minneapolis drivers on Friday. "As our market has evolved, we've found that the delivery driver service is not the best fit for the Minneapolis market at this time."

The email said drivers, who are independent contractors, would be dismissed on April 3.

An Instacart spokesperson, Esther Hallmeyer, said in an email, "This is really a non-story."

A person close to the company, who insisted on anonymity, said Instacart was "still operating" in Minneapolis and "growing very quickly." The change follows several reports showing how Instacart is seeking to make its business sustainable without continued infusions of venture capital.

Recode reported this month that Instacart was cutting pay for some high-performing workers, while Quartz reported on strict new policies for workers in New York.

Bloomberg News reported that the company had started an advertising program with major consumer goods companies. That article also said that the majority of Instacart orders lose money.


College Opens New Frontier In Education Outsourcing

Afp / AFP / Getty Images

A community college in Ohio has opened a new frontier in the outsourcing of public education to private companies, striking an unprecedented deal for its student marketing, recruitment, admissions, and retention efforts to be handled by Pearson, the world's largest education company.

Pearson's deal with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, a two-year school of some 9,000 students, is the first time the company has taken over recruiting for an entire university. It's also the first time Pearson will handle recruiting for a community college — earning as much as 20% of the school's tuition revenue from new students.

"This deal really represents the pushing of boundaries in a bid to combat declining enrollments and weak finances," said Phil Hill, an industry analyst. "This deal gets into uncharted territory."

Cincinnati State is partnering with Pearson, which had a valuation of $10.5 billion as of Monday, for one main reason: money. Like thousands of community colleges across the country, the school needs more students, and it needs more of them to graduate.

The school's enrollment has slid sharply in recent years, prompting widespread concerns over its finances that led to the resignation of the school's president last year. And a looming funding provision in Ohio will soon tie more of Cincinnati State's funding to its performance — metrics like the percentage of the school's students that graduate, an area that Pearson is promising to improve with its retention plans.

Pearson has long handled marketing and recruiting for online programs that make up only a small fraction of a school's total enrollment, like Arizona State University's. But a contract obtained by the website Inside Higher Education shows that at Cincinnati State, Pearson will be at the end of virtually every interaction between students and the college, outside of academic programs: the company will create and direct marketing and advertising and handle recruiting and enrollment services once students reach out about signing up for classes. Once students enroll, Pearson will be in charge of retaining them.

Facing flagging sales, Pearson has been working to make itself into more than a textbook company, investing deeply in businesses that provide services to colleges, like recruiting and managing of online programs at schools like ASU. If it can figure out how to translate those businesses to in-person students, as it is experimenting with at Cincinnati State, the company could significantly expand its footprint in education services, working with colleges that don't have or want robust online programs.

But Pearson's business recruiting students for online programs hit some snags in the past when the company failed to live up to its promises. Two schools, the University of Florida and Cal State, ended lucrative contracts with the company after it couldn't recruit enough out-of-state students. A University of Florida spokeswoman called the inability to bring in out-of-state students a "significant failure."

The Cincinnati State deal, which was first inked in October 2015, will leave the two institutions closely entwined, with a financial relationship that is especially complex. Pearson will collect fees based on how many new students it brings into Cincinnati State, as well as how many existing students remain enrolled in the school. Pearson even pays the salaries of some Cincinnati State employees.

Among the questions raised by Pearson's new business, Hill, the analyst, said: "What does it mean to have an open-access institution compensating a company to increase enrollment?"

The deal could strain some Education Department rules meant to rein in the unrestricted recruiting of students — a practice that led in the past to serious violations by for-profit colleges. While Department regulations allow schools to pay outside companies, like Pearson, based on the numbers of students they enroll, it justifies those rules because the college — not the recruiter — is the ultimate arbiter of admissions criteria and enrollment numbers.

The problem arises, Education Department rules say, "when the recruiter is determining the enrollment numbers and there is essentially no limitation on enrollment."

But because it is an open-access community college, Cincinnati State has no limitation on its enrollment, and almost no admissions criteria beyond rules about materials applicants must supply, like high school transcripts. That means that Cincinnati State must accept virtually every student Pearson recruiters send its way.

"When we say that community colleges are open admissions, we don't mean that literally," said Todd Hitchcock, a Pearson executive overseeing the Cincinnati partnership. "There are still requirements that students must meet, and Cincinnati oversees all of those."

The Education Department declined to comment on specific colleges' adherence to regulations.

Trace Urdan, an analyst at Credit Suisse, pointed to echoes between Pearson's arrangement with Cincinnati State and several arrangements that have run afoul of accreditors, the third-party organizations that give colleges a stamp of approval on behalf of the government.

Earlier this month, the Higher Learning Commission, which also accredits Cincinnati State, rejected a plan that would have had Grand Canyon Education, a for-profit company, handling many of the services for a nonprofit, Grand Canyon University, in a complicated spinoff plan. And the HLC also killed a 2013 partnership between a community college, Tiffin University, and a for-profit company over concerns about the school's independence.

But both of those plans involved a private company's involvement with university academics, according to HLC statements — something Pearson is carefully avoiding.

"We're very aware" of regulations, said Hitchcock. "We're offering a very finite set of resources that don’t cross those lines."


Investors Dump Timeshare Companies After News Of Federal Inquiry

David Manning / Reuters

Investors are dumping stock in timeshare operators in the wake of news that federal regulators are taking a close look at the largest player in the industry.

On Friday, BuzzFeed News reported that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is looking into the sales, marketing, and financing practices of Westgate Resorts, the country's largest privately held timeshare operator. On Monday, the share prices of its publicly traded competitors dropped sharply.

Diamond Resorts International, the subject of two recent extensive media investigations, closed the day down more than 11%, while Marriott Vacations and Wyndham Worldwide both fell over 4%. A Wyndham spokesperson declined to comment, while Diamond and Mariott Vacations did not respond to requests for comment

At one point on Monday Diamond shares were down 16%, the biggest drop since the New York Times published a lengthy report on its sales and marketing practices, in late January.

BuzzFeed News was first to report on Friday that the CFPB had denied Westgate's request to modify or set aside its civil investigative demand. Such demands, which are similar to a subpoena, do not necessarily mean the recipient is under investigation; the CFPB could be looking at the industry more broadly, or at a company that does business with Westgate.

Carlo Santarelli, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said in a note Monday that he "expect[s] the investigation to be lengthy" and that it will be an overhang on the entire industry. Santarelli also said that the CFPB inquiry "appears broad" and described the information requested as "abundant."

A Westgate attorney told the Orlando Sentinel: "Westgate cannot comment on the pending investigation except to say that it believes that it is in compliance with all consumer protection finance requirements under the CFPB's jurisdiction.”

The company's petition to the CFPB said the regulator was looking at “information and documents that go to the heart of non-financial matters in what is, in essence, a real estate development and management company," and said that the financial elements of its business are "merely a piece of a much larger vertically integrated operation.”

Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point, described Westgate's response to the regulator — which included claims that the CFPB was unconstitutional — as "both inflammatory and unsuccessful."

Boltansky suggested that Siegel, best known outside the timeshare industry for his appearance in the documentary Queen of Versailles and for a strongly worded letter where he encouraged Westgate employees to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012, "suggests that a protracted and public enforcement battle between the bureau and Westgate may lie ahead which could ultimately weigh on the whole space."

An investigation into the timeshare industry isn't a complete surprise. In a February regulatory filing, Diamond Resorts International said "certain third parties have indicated that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) might increase their oversight of the vacation ownership industry," but said that it would not be affected by rules that concern real estate financing and mortgages.

According to data cited by Diamond, there are 1,600 resorts that make up the timeshare industry, with 198,000 individual units and 8.7 million "ownership week equivalents." Timeshare sales peaked in 2007, right before the financial crisis and have not yet made back to pre-crisis levels, following a construction slowdown and less credit availability. Diamond Resorts said in a regulatory filing that 80% of its revenue comes from sales and financing of timeshares.

While Westgate does not disclose what portion of its revenue comes from sales and what comes from interest on loans — at rates that run around 15% — it regularly bundles loans and sells them to investors as securities and has raised almost $3 billion from investors since 1992.

Westgate itself has 28 resorts and its parent company, Central Florida Investments, has a 10,000-strong staff.


Friday, March 18, 2016

This On-Demand Economy Startup Is Giving Workers Equity

Managed by Q

Office management startup Managed by Q is giving all employees — cleaners, handymen, and field staff — the option to have an ownership stake in the company.

Co-Founder and CEO Dan Teran announced the new stock option plan with U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez at the company's headquarters on 6th Avenue in New York Friday. The Secretary praised Teran's stated goal of creating "real ownership in the company for the people working tirelessly to make it a reality."

Over the next five years, Q will give 5% of shares in the business to front-line workers, allocated based on experience, role, and tenure.

Q is about two years old and has raised $17.4 million in funding to date; $15 million in the most recent round, led by RRE Ventures.

Unlike on-demand companies like Uber and TaskRabbit, who run on the labor of so-called independent contractors or freelancers, Q employs its workforce directly, providing them with healthcare, 401(k) plans, and paths for career development.

"The company has always treated its cleaning staff in the same way as its office staff— as employees," said Rebecca Smith, Deputy Director of the National Employment Law Project, a labor law advocacy group. "That means that its cleaners have the same legal rights and benefits, the same access to flexible work hours, and now, the same option to purchase stock in the company as its office staff."

US Labor Secretary Tom Perez steps off Air Force One with International President of the Service Employees International Union Mary Kay Henry.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

So-called 1099 contract workers (after the tax form they file) have less employment security and fewer protections than full employees, who file W2 forms. W2 workers are covered by anti-discrimination law and have a guarantee of compensation iIf hurt on the job, for example. For forgoing these rights, 1099 workers receive a much-touted autonomy and be-your-own-boss flexibility, so the theory goes.

But some on-demand companies are changing course, finding better pay, benefits, and job stability can lead to reduced turnover and a more loyal workforce. Still-young companies that began with a 1099 model, but have switched to W2 employees include home-care provider Honor, grocery delivery service Instacart, and packaging service Shyp.

"This is not an act of charity," said Secretary Perez Monday. "This is an act of enlightened self-interest."

As the IRS counts both cash and equity compensation as taxable income, employees may be required to pay taxes on the stock options, a spokesperson from Q confirmed. The company will provide accounting and tax advice for workers related to the options, the spokesperson said. (Q recently had employees come to their offices to help them prepare their taxes free of charge, Teran said Monday.)

Q also hopes to have more information on the secondary market liquidity of the shares by the time the program launches in July. Equity holders at DropBox were burned recently when a sale of common stock was offered at a 34% discount, reflecting doubts over the company's valuation. EquityZen, a company that lets startup employees and others sell stock in privately held startups, facilitated the transaction.


Financial Regulators Are Looking Into America's Largest Timeshare Seller

billy kerr/flickr / Via

The federal government is looking into Westgate Resorts — the largest privately-held seller of timeshares in the United States.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau demanded reams of information on Westgate's sales and marketing practices in October, documents posted online by the regulator show. BuzzFeed News is first to report on the legal order.

Westgate, like other timeshare companies, aggressively markets its properties. Tactics include free information sessions at vacation destinations where Westgate employees put on the hard-sell. The regulator is also looking into the financing for the purchases, which is provided by Westgate.

The Orlando-based Westgate contested the CFPB's legal order for documents — also known as a civil investigative demand — claiming the regulator did not have constitutional authority to investigate, that its document demands were too burdensome, and that the CFPB were looking at parts of the company that didn't relate to the selling of a consumer financial product. Westgate did, however, partially comply before requesting to modify the demand.

A civil investigative demand does not necessarily mean the company receiving it is the target of an investigation — the CFPB also uses them to gather information from companies related to another company being investigated. The scope of the demand contested by Westgate, however, shows that the CFPB is looking into many aspects of its operations.

Westgate said the CFPB is demanding "information and documents that go to the heart of non-financial matters in what is, in essence, a real estate development and management company that develops, markets, sells and operates timeshare resorts, where financing a consumer transaction is merely a piece of a much larger vertically integrated operation."

Westgate's core business is selling timeshares in its 28 resorts, many of which it built and developed. Westgate then markets partial ownership to buyers and finances the purchases by lending them money to buy the timeshare. Westgate also manages the resorts. Westgate has locations in popular vacation areas like Orlando and Las Vegas.

A CFPB spokesperson declined to comment, saying the Bureau could not comment on potential enforcement matters. Westgate's chief operating officer, Mark Waltrip, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Westgate has run into trouble with federal regulators before for its marketing practices. In 2009, Westgate and companies affiliated with it settled with the Federal Trade Commission for over $1 million for violating Do Not Call rules with its telemarketers. Last April, Westgate lost a lawsuit in Tennessee over its high pressure sales tactics resulting in a $500,000 judgment. A couple sued Westgate claiming that commitments made during the sale of a timeshare were not followed up on after they bought a unit in the Tennessee mountain town Gatlinburg — the couple won $500,000. Westgate claimed that the case was not representative of the company's operations.

Another timeshare operator, Diamond Resorts, has come under scrutiny recently, with a long New York Times article questioning aspects of its sales and marketing practices.

Westgate's founder and chief executive officer David Siegel became widely known outside the timeshare industry when he wrote a memo to his employees saying that "our present government believes that taking my money is the right economic stimulus for this country" and that if taxes were increased in a second Obama term "I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company." Siegel founded Central Florida Investments, Westgate's parent company, in 1970.

Westgate says that its timeshares are a better value for vacationing families, claiming that timeshare buyers can get 25 years of one-week vacations for $25,000 along with the value of its timeshare ownership, while it would cost $84,000 at hotels

Siegel also appeared in the critically acclaimed documentary Queen of Versailles, which follows he and his family as they construct the largest residential estate in the United States in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis.

While Westgate is a privately held company, it is active in selling off its timeshare receivables as securities to investors. In November, Westgate sold $156 million worth of securities and has sold $2.75 billion since 1992. Loans included in a 2013 securitization deal had an average mortgage rate of 15% with a term of almost 10 years. Rates for ten year mixed residential mortgage loans are closer to 3%.

In October, Westgate sought to modify or even set aside the CFPB's subpoena, claiming that it was too broad, burdensome to comply with, and rested on uncertain constitutional authority.

Westgate's petition gives an idea of how broad the CFPB's inquiry is. Westgate said the CFPB "seek[s] a list and description of all methods of advertisement employed to solicit buyers of its timeshares," as well as data on the compensation of its sales staff and data on how often borrowers refinanced their mortgages.

The company claimed that the CFPB wanted to look into non-financial aspects of its operation, including the marketing, which Westgate says is mostly taking prospective buyers on tours of the resorts.

The CFPB said in a response to Westgate's petition that it had requested the identities of everyone who worked at Westgate since September 1, 2012, except for greeters. The regulator said that Westgate only then "provided the identities of those employees who processed mortgage applications, but withheld the identities of its sales employees who engaged in the offering and sales of the timeshare properties."

"Westgate has various means of marketing its timeshares, in most cases—
especially at the stage of simply bringing consumers to a property to take a tour—such marketing would not touch upon any financial aspects of the transaction," the company said in its request to the CFPB.

Westgate said the CFPB had requested "documents and information that precede the first contact with a consumer," and thus are not strictly related to financing the timeshare purchase.

Consumer complaint websites abound with accounts of tourists being invited to Westgate presentations with inducements like casino chips and free flights and then going through a mutli-hour, intense sales process.

The CFPB, in its denial of Westgate's petition, said that "Westgate has not shown that the sales process is completely separate from the financing of the timeshares," and the CFPB said it has obtained complaints that "suggest that sales representatives made statements directly relating to financing." The CFPB also argued that Westgate couldn't show its demands "would unduly hinder its day-to-day operations."

The CFPB also said that Westgate had withheld consumer complaints "that it deemed to be unrelated to its financing of timeshares."

In its decision to deny Westgate's request, the CFPB said that its enforcement staff had met with Westgate's lawyers in October and narrowed some of its requests.

Westgate's petition:

CFPB's denial:


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dropbox Shares Offered At 34% Discount In Secondary Market

Dropbox CEO and co-founder Drew Houston.

Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images

Dropbox, the cloud storage startup facing questions about its $10 billion valuation, is expected to authorize a sale of its common stock at a 34% discount to its most recent round of private funding, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The shares, to be sold by shareholders on the so-called secondary market, have been priced at $12.60 each. Yet, in January 2014, in its Series C round of funding, Dropbox sold shares to big investors at $19.10.

The deal is being handled by EquityZen, a company that allows startup employees and others to sell stock in closely held tech startups whose shares aren't publicly traded. EquityZen says on its website that all of its deals are approved by the companies whose shares are being sold.

While Dropbox itself is not the seller, the previously unreported transaction will likely be seen as setting a market price for the startup's stock.

Representatives of Dropbox and EquityZen declined to comment.

Dropbox, founded in 2007 and based in San Francisco, has faced skepticism from investors over its $10 billion valuation, amid a frosty climate for highly valued startups in general. Last fall, The Information reported that two of the startup's mutual fund investors had marked down their shares by a little more than 20%. Later, a third mutual fund company marked down its shares by 51%.

Valuing privately held startups is a tricky business, since their shares rarely change hands. Dropbox investors tend to look to Box, a publicly traded cloud storage company, as a point of reference. Box's shares have fallen 47% from the closing price after their trading debut in early 2015.

Any investors in the Dropbox deal won't be buying shares directly. They'll purchase an interest in an EquityZen fund that is expected to buy the common shares, according to the documents. Investors, who must be wealthy enough to be considered "accredited" in the eyes of regulators, have until April 5 to commit to buying shares. BuzzFeed News could not determine how many shares are being offered for sale.

These investors will be at a significant disadvantage compared with the institutional investors that have provided Dropbox with capital. The EquityZen documents pitching the investment do not contain any confirmed information about Dropbox's financial health.

Instead, the documents cite information from outside parties, like the data provider Crunchbase and the news sites Business Insider, VentureBeat, and TechCrunch.

"All figures are publicly reported unless noted otherwise," a disclaimer reads. "When not reported by the company or any of its representatives, financial information may not have been verified by the company."