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The Signal

July 20, 2021

Good morning! Duolingo is going public. The passive-aggressive owl, who makes it a point to remind you that you have not completed your language lessons at the worst possible time, is going to list at a valuation of $3.4 billion. We can’t believe it won.

Anyway, on to the day’s stories:

  1. Have you cashed out your ESOP?

  2. Biden and Xi clash again.

  3. Stream, boomers, stream.

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Today's newsletter was written by Venkat and Debarati. It is a four-and-a-half-minute read.






- 1.07%




- 1.10%




+ 0.42%




- 0.19%




+ 0.07%




- 0.72%




- 1.96%




- 3.26%

*As of market close

Stocks: Indian indices echoed the weakness shown by counterparts across the globe to post their biggest single-day drop in nearly three months. The uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in several parts of Asia and the UK has investors on edge.

The stock markets will remain closed tomorrow (Wednesday) for Eid al-Adha.



India’s ESOP Bonanza Is Worth $100M

India’s ESOP Bonanza Is Worth $100M

It's a good time to be a mid-to-senior level employee in an Indian tech firm. We’re a little over halfway through 2021, and about a dozen companies have already announced ESOP buyback plans worth over $100 million.

These companies include Udaan, Sharechat, Razorpay, CRED, and the largest buyer of ESOPs so far - Zerodha.

New trend: The practice is fairly new in the Indian startup space. Flipkart's 2018 ESOP buyout is seen as a turning point, with several mid-senior employees becoming millionaires. In 2018, 300 Paytm employees sold stocks worth $300 million to Canada-based Discovery Capital in a secondary deal.

Here to stay: ESOPs are now a key component of employee compensation in startups. In fact, senior employees are increasingly receiving ESOP components that are a  considerable multiple of their CTC. And buybacks are a sign that the tech ecosystem is maturing.

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US And Friends Call Out China

The US, along with a broad group of allies, including all NATO members, accused China of breaching Microsoft email systems used by many of the world’s leading companies. The hack reportedly exploits weaknesses in Microsoft email.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said China’s Ministry of State Security “has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain”.

The US also accused four Chinese officials of a global hacking campaign between 2011 and 2018. While there is nothing new about digital infiltration from Russia and China, this is the first time that the US has accused China of hiring criminals to conduct large-scale penetrations.

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The Hack That Was: Pegasus

The Hack That Was: Pegasus

The monsoon session of Parliament began with a furore over alleged surveillance of smartphones used by opposition leaders, activists, and journalists.

A globally coordinated investigation by newspapers, digital publications, and Amnesty International, revealed that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, virologist Gagandeep Kang, several cabinet ministers, and journalists might have been targeted by Pegasus, a military-grade spyware developed by the Israeli company, NSO Group. Others included political strategist Prashant Kishor and Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Bannerjee.

Tell me more: NSO Group sells its spyware to government-vetted clients, who deploy it to extract confidential data from smartphones, including those from encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, as was revealed in 2019.

The extent: More than 50,000 smartphone numbers “appear on a list of phones”, spanning “more than 50 countries around the globe.” The countries include Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Most NSO clients have used it to spy on outspoken journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and dissident leaders.

The Signal

Surveillance is a much-abused political tool. The most infamous incident was the Watergate scandal of the 1972 US elections when the Nixon administration spied on the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters. In 1988, Ramakrishna Hegde, the then chief minister of Karnataka had to resign over allegations of tapping telephones of journalists and opposition politicians. In 2010, hundreds of phone conversations of lobbyist Niira Radia with politicians, business leaders and journalists were leaked to the media, revealing extensive spying of citizens by state agencies. Bugging episodes often had the fig leaf of authorisation, however flimsy the reasons may have been. The Pegasus hack appears to be vast in scale, sinister in scope and, if true, totally illegal.

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Cash Or Crypto?

For all the talk about cryptographic currencies’ fungibility and the accompanying privacy, there’s another with the same advantages that’s much more popular: cash. Turns out the latter might also be manifold kinder on the environment.

This Financial Times report looks at estimates on energy consumption from the central bank of the Netherlands. Apparently cash payments generated 17,000 tonnes of CO2, or 0.01% of the total CO2 produced in the nation in 2015. The main contributors are the electricity to power ATMs and card readers, and transportation, usually by diesel vans.

The carbon footprint of the world’s existing cash and card payment systems is pegged at 7.2 million tonnes of CO2 — about one-sixth the estimated carbon footprint of Bitcoin alone. Makes one think.

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Netflix Wants Boomers To Stream

Netflix Wants Boomers To Stream

Netflix is growing up. For a decade, Netflix was aggressively courting young adults (read: chill!). It now wants the older ones, err, boomers, aged above 55 years.


Netflix has hit a bump as economies open up and people come out of their pandemic PJs. Tuesday’s results could very well validate that, with the US’ top streamer expecting “to have added just one million subscribers” in Q2.  

Banner year: 2020, for OTTs, was weirdly godsent. Netflix boomed, adding a record 37 million new subscribers. But now, Gen Z audiences are stepping out of their coops, bringing down screen time. So who does it look to? Older subscribers; a cohort showing a 12% jump between Q3 2020 and the end of March. Netflix has also been tweaking the content mix, adding more crime and documentaries to suit their tastes.

Closer home: Amazon’s miniTV is looking to win some subscribers of its own. It has taken the comedy content route (with ads, of course), with one eye on Netflix’s Fast Laughs, launched earlier this year.

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Lights out: Amazon Web Services has shut down the infrastructure linked to the NSO Group, maker of the Pegasus spyware. The use of Amazon’s CDN cloud services protected it from some Internet scanning techniques.

Eyeing funds: Lenskart has raised $220 million from various investors, including Temasek Holdings and Falcon Edge Capital.

Delivery tip: Indian startup Delhivery is getting investments worth $100 million from FedEx Express, a subsidiary of the US-based delivery giant FedEx.

Gimme more: Global investment firm Blackstone is in talks to acquire a majority stake in an ed-tech platform called Simplilearn. This comes shortly after its sale of Aakash Educational Services to Byju’s three months ago.

Monkey virus: After coronavirus, a new Monkey B virus (BV) has caused the death of a 53-year-old vet in Beijing, China.

Adding to the stable: Tencent is buying out British game maker Sumo, in which it already owns an 8.75% stake, at a valuation of $1.26 billion.

Merry men: Stockbroker Robinhood is set to raise over $2 billion with its IPO. At a likely valuation of over $35 billion, it would be the fifth-biggest US public issue of 2021.



Iron ‘em out: There has been a literal crypto crackdown in Malaysia. Authorities caught hold of 1,069 bitcoin mining rigs and destroyed them with a road roller for stealing electricity worth $2 million. Yikes.

Foretelling: The Tokyo Olympics is taking place in a dystopian setting. We know that. But more than 30 years ago, Japanese artist Katsuhiro Otomo predicted this would happen. In the sci-fi film Akira, he portrayed the 2020 Olympic Games in Neo-Tokyo.

Pssst, set it right: A video game player in the UK was so annoyed with the design of a tank in the game that they shared classified defense information to have it rectified. A War Thunder player put up actual excerpts of the tank in a bid to get it redesigned in the game.

Dinesh, Chinmay, and Aashika contributed to this newsletter.

*A head’s up. Wednesday is a holiday on account of Bakr-Id, so there will not be a newsletter on Thursday.

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