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Today — September 24th 2019Your RSS feeds

Honestbee owes almost $1 million in unpaid salary to employees, according to affidavit filed by its CEO

By Catherine Shu

Honestbee, the Singapore-based grocery delivery startup that has been struggling with financial issues, owes 217 employees a total of almost USD $1 million in unpaid salary. The Strait Times reported that the figure was revealed in an affidavit filed in court on Sept. 20 by Honestbee CEO Ong Lay Ann as part of the startup’s debt moratorium application.

The Ministry of Manpower told the Strait Times that 44 employees have filed claims with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, with some of the employees settling mediation by agreeing to a payment schedule with Honestbee that will be monitored by the alliance.

In an emailed statement to TechCrunch, an Honestbee spokesperson said, “There is a communicated salary delay for Honestbee’s ex-employees and employees currently serving notice. While there are regular injections of working capital, the amount remains insufficient for all headcount. As a result, the company has made the difficult decision to prioritize existing staff in Singapore. The company has the full intention in meeting its obligations to staff and will be, if not already in active discussions with staff in relation to a feasible payment schedule.”

TechCrunch reported in April that Honestbee was running out of money and trying to find a buyer. The company, which used to operate in eight markets across Asia, has stopped operating in Hong Kong and Indonesia, temporarily halted services in Japan and the Philippines and suspended its food delivery service in Thailand.

The affidavit filed by Ong says Honestbee currently has 190 employees, down from 523 full-time employees and 77 part-time workers in January.

Ong also said that Honestbee chairman Brian Koo resigned from the board on on Sept. 12.

According to the affidavit, Koo and associates including investment vehicles he set up, are owed about $258 million, or about 90% of Honestbee’s debt. Koo, a founding managing partner of venture capital firm Formation Group, was one of Honestbee’s earliest investors and served as interim CEO from May to July after former chief executive Joel Sng stepped down.

Messaging app Kik shuts down as company focuses on Kin, its cryptocurrency

By Catherine Shu

Kik Interactive CEO Ted Livingston announced today that the company is shutting down Kik Messenger to focus on its cryptocurrency Kin, the target of a lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company’s team will be reduced to 19 people, a reduction that will affect over 100 employees, as it focuses on converting more Kin users into buyers.

“Instead of selling some of our Kin into the limited liquidity that exists today, we made the decision to focus our current resources on the few things that matter most,” Livingston wrote in a blog post, adding that the changes will reduce the company’s burn rate by 85%, enabling it to get through the SEC trial.

Kin launched two years ago, raising nearly $100 million in its ICO, one of the first held by a mainstream tech company.

But in June, the SEC filed a lawsuit against Kik Interactive, claiming the ICO was illegal, as part of the Commission’s wider crackdown on companies it alleges are issuing securities illegally.

The SEC also claimed that the company’s management had predicted Kik Messenger would run out of money by 2017, when it started planning the launch of Kin. Kik Interactive hit back in a court filing last month, saying that the SEC’s claims about its finances were “solely designed for misdirection, thereby prejudicing Kik and portraying it in a negative light.”

One of the core issues in the lawsuit is whether or not Kin is a security. The SEC alleges that it is and that the token sale violated securities laws. Kik Interactive denies Kin is a security.

“After 18 months of working with the SEC the only choice they gave us was to either label Kin a security or fight them in court. Becoming a security would kill the usability of any cryptocurrency and set a dangerous precedent for the industry,” Livingston wrote in today’s blog post. “So with the SEC working to characterize almost all cryptocurrencies as securities we made the decision to step forward and fight.”

Livingston added that since Kin isn’t available on most exchanges, it doesn’t rely on speculative demand. Instead, Kin is used by “millions of people in dozens of independent apps,” with more than two million monthly active users and 600,000 monthly active spenders, he wrote. Kik Interactive’s objective now is to increase those numbers.

To get more people who buy Kin to use the currency, Livingston said the company will focus on three things: enabling the Kin blockchain to support a billion consumers making a dozen transactions a day, with confirmation times of less than a second; increasing adoption and growth for developers who use Kin in their apps; and building a mobile wallet that makes it easier to buy and use Kin.

Hear about investing in African tech at Disrupt SF with Marieme Diop, Wale Ayeni and Sheel Mohnot

By Jake Bright

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.

Join us at TechCrunch Disrupt SF where we will host a Q&A session on VC in Africa with Orange Digital Ventures’ Marieme Diop, International Finance Organization‘s Wale Ayeni and 500 Startups’ Sheel Mohnot, three Africa-based investors who bring plenty of experience screening startups across its top tech hubs. We’ll open up the bulk of the session to allow Disrupt attendees to ask questions of each speaker.

Marieme Diop oversees Africa VC investments at Orange Digital Ventures, the funding arm of France’s largest telecom, Orange.

Under her tutelage, Orange Digital Ventures  (ODV) participated in a $16 million round for South African fintech startup Yoco and the $8.6 million round to Africa’s Talking—a Pan-African business enterprise software startup.

Formed in 2017, ODV is a €150 fund with €50 allocated for Africa, according to Diop. Orange was one of the early investors in Africa focused e-commerce unicorn, Jumia, which recently went public in a NYSE IPO.

Diop is also working to bridge the resource gap for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

This year she was a co-founder of Dakar Angels Network, a seed fund offering $25,000 to $100,000 investments and entrepreneurial guidance to early-stage ventures in Francophone Africa.

Wale Ayeni leads the IFC venture capital practice focused on Sub-Saharan Africa — IFC is part of the World Bank Group. The IFC’s venture capital team focuses on technology companies in frontier markets, and has deployed ~$800 million in early/growth-stage tech investments over the past decade.

Recent funding includes co-leading a $6.5 million Series A round in South African fintech company Lulalend and participating in one of the larger tech investments in African tech this year — the $20 million Series A round raised by Nigerian trucking logistics startup Kobo360.

Sheel Mohnot leads fintech investments for 500 Startups . The San Francisco based accelerator has been out front on Africa, taking its Geeks on a Plane tour to the continent in 2017, and racking up over 40 Africa related investments, according to Mohnot.

He recently led 500 Startups’ seed-stage investment in Chipper Cash, an Africa focused cross-border payment venture.

Startups building financial technologies for Africa’s 1.2 billion population are gaining greater attention of investors. As a sector, fintech (or financial inclusion) attracted 50% of the estimated $1.1 billion funding to African startups in 2018, according to Partech.

So bring your bring your questions on investing in fintech and other sectors in Africa to Disrupt SF on October 4, where speakers Diop, Ayeni, and Mohnot will take the Q&A stage to share their expert insights.

Yesterday — September 23rd 2019Your RSS feeds

Facebook buys startup building neural monitoring armband

By Lucas Matney

Facebook is buying CTRL-labs, a NY-based startup building an armband that translates movement and the wearer’s neural impulses into digital input signals, a company spokesperson tells TechCrunch.

CTRL-labs raised $67 million according to Crunchbase. The startup’s investors include GV, Lux Capital, Amazon’s Alexa Fund, Spark Capital and Founders Fund, among others. Facebook didn’t disclose how much they paid for the startup, but we’re digging around.

The acquisition, which has not yet closed, will bring the startup into the company’s Facebook Reality Labs division. CTRL-labs’ CEO and co-founder Thomas Reardon, a veteran technologist whose accolades include founding the team at Microsoft that built Internet Explorer, will be joining Facebook, while CTRL-labs’ employees will have the option to do the same, we are told.

Facebook has talked a lot about working on a non-invasive brain input device that can make things like text entry possible just by thinking. So far, most of the company’s progress on that project appears to be taking the form of university research that they’ve funded. With this acquisition, the company appears to be working more closely with technology that could one day be productized.

“We know there are more natural, intuitive ways to interact with devices and technology. And we want to build them,” Facebook AR/VR VP Andrew Bosworth wrote in a post announcing the deal. “It’s why we’ve agreed to acquire CTRL-labs. They will be joining our Facebook Reality Labs team where we hope to build this kind of technology, at scale, and get it into consumer products faster.”

CTRL-labs’ technology isn’t focused on text-entry as much as it is muscle movement, and hand movements specifically. The startup’s progress was most recently distilled in a developer kit that paired multiple types of sensors together to accurately determine the wearer’s hand position. The wrist-worn device offered developers an alternative to camera-based or glove-based hand-tracking solutions. The company has previously talked about AR and VR input as a clear use case for the kit. Facebook did not give details on what this acquisition means for developers currently using CTRL-labs’ kit.

This acquisition also brings to Facebook the armband patents of North (formerly Thalmic Labs). CTRL-labs purchased the patents related to the startup’s defunct Myo armband earlier this year for an undisclosed sum.

CTRL-labs’ acquisition brings more IP and talent under Facebook’s wings as competitors like Microsoft and Apple continue to build out augmented reality products. There is plenty of overlap between many of the technologies that Oculus is building for Facebook’s virtual reality products, like the Quest and Rift S, but CTRL-Labs’ tech can help the company build input devices that are less bulky, less conspicuous and more robust.

“There are some fundamental advantages that we have over really any camera-based technology — including Leap Motion or Kinect — because we’re directly on the body sensing the signal that’s going from the brain to the hand.” CTRL-labs’ head of R&D, Adam Berenzweig, told TechCrunch in an interview late last year. “There are no issues with collusion or field-of-view problems — it doesn’t matter where your hands are, whether they’re in a glove or a spacesuit.”

Facebook is holding its Oculus Connect 6 developer conference later this week, where the company will be delivering updates on its AR/VR efforts.

Engage:BDR raises $26.25M to fund its NetZero publisher payments

By Anthony Ha

Engage:BDR announced today that it has raised $23.25 million in new funding.

CEO Ted Dhanik told me that this includes both debt and equity funding, and will be used to the grow the company’s NetZero payments program.

NetZero is designed to address the ongoing issue of long delays faced by publishers before they get paid by advertisers. Dhanik said “the terms are getting worse and worse,” with publishers being asked to wait 30, 60, 90 or even 120 days after they invoice their advertising partners before payment.

Other companies like FastPay have tried to fill in the gap, but Dhanik said these loans can have interest rates as high as 25%. So the team at Engage:BDR (which is publicly traded on the Australian Securities Exchange) asked itself: “Hey, what if we could just pay publishers exact same day that they invoice us?”

Rather than making money by charging interest, Dhanik said his company is trying to drive more publishers to its programmatic advertising platform.

“We just want the business — the incremental revenue,” he said.

Engage:BDR says web, mobile and connected TV publishers in North America, Australia and Europe are eligible to participate in the NetZero program, though they’ll need to be approved by the company first.

“If you think about NetZero, you might think: Hey, if there’s fraud, it’s pretty dangerous you don’t have the ability to clawback [the payment],” Dhanik said. But apparently Engage:BDR has “a lot of technology in place to qualify them pretty quickly, within the first few days.”

Social radio startup Stationhead moves beyond live broadcasts

By Anthony Ha

Stationhead, the mobile app that turns its users into streaming radio DJs, got a big upgrade today. Where Stationhead DJs were previously limited to broadcasting live, they can now record their shows, making them available on-demand for anyone to listen later.

The idea behind Stationhead is to democratize and recapture the personality of traditional radio broadcasts — the kind of conversation and personal connection that’s missing from a playlist.

The app includes features like the ability to call guests to join the show, and integration with Spotify and Apple Music. For Stationhead, that means it doesn’t have to make its own licensing deals with the music labels; for listeners, it means that when a DJ plays a song, you’re hearing it stream from the music service of your choice.

That integration will continue with these new on-demand broadcasts — so they don’t really exist as a single, continuous recording, but rather as DJ recordings interspersed with cued-up songs from Apple or Spotify. (That’s presumably why these broadcasts won’t be available for offline listening.)

CEO Ryan Star has said that he co-founded Stationhead as a result of his own frustrations as an independent musician, particularly the difficulty and cost of getting a single played on the radio.

More recently, he told me that Stationhead is becoming a real alternative for independent musicians trying to get attention, with more than 200,000 shows created since November of last year.

Stationhead

“Some shows are mostly talk, some shows are mostly music, but just having the ability to play the song completely changes the way it’s consumed,” said COO Levison.

The company isn’t sharing overall listener numbers, but it pointed to success stories like Burrell Kobe, who said he drove 23,000 streams on Stationhead.

And Star described the Stationhead approach as combining “creative freedom and real human connection. While the most popular Stationhead broadcasts can get more than 1,000 live listeners, he suggested that the connection can happen even when the audience is much smaller:  He recalled stumbling on a broadcast where he was literally the only person listening, but the host was “spilling her guts — this was her therapy.”

And by making these broadcasts available on-demand, he said Stationhead is “tapping into something proven to be the most intimate form of communication.”

He added, “For the first time, you’re actually able to create binge-able audio content around these streams.”

What’s the right way to sponsor a YouTube influencer?

By Arman Tabatabai
Julian Shapiro Contributor
Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing agency that trains you to become a marketing professional. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month, we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this Growth Report.

This is how you’re going stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice you can’t get elsewhere.

Our community consists of 600 startup founders paired with VP’s of growth from later-stage companies. We have 300 YC founders plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo, and Ritual.

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group, or marketing training program. See past growth reports here, here and here.

Without further ado, onto the advice.


How do you sponsor YouTube influencers cost-effectively?

Based on insights from Bjarke Felbo of Rune (LinkedIn). Lightly edited with permission.

  • Influencers often expect compensation proportional to subscribers, but conversions happen proportional to views. So go after the influencers with high views and low subscribers. That’s the trick.
  • We’ve had the best success with 30-60 second promo spots at the beginning of the influencer’s video.
  • We’ve seen success depend on the video it’s attached to and what time of day/week it’s posted, so we’re strict about setting rules around that. Or, we give them a bonus based on the video’s view count to incentivize them to put our spot on a high-quality video.
  • Be careful with repeat promotions with the same influencer. These haven’t yielded noteworthy returns for us — even after months. It’s likely that the audience becomes saturated.

For SEO, how much does link building really matter in 2019?

From Nat Eliason of Growth Machine. Lightly edited by Demand Curve with permission.

  • Links are still important, but their importance is decreasing steadily. Google is getting better at evaluating content quality, and it’s focusing more on that.
  • Consider this: Google doesn’t want to be gameable, and domain authority and link building are very gameable. But content quality is not. You can’t fake good content.
  • Many major blogs outside of high authority spaces have grown rapidly using less link-building. Much of their energy is instead spent on choosing the right keywords (low competition, but still acceptable volume) and writing useful content that satisfies the searcher’s intent.
  • However, link-building can still speed up the process quite a bit if you’re on a tight timeline, or if you’ve given content 3-4 months to rank and aren’t seeing the results you want.

Growth masterclasses kick off now

Today, the advanced growth masterclasses kick off. They’re all free.

These are rapid-fire, short, and advanced webinars. They’re not boring introductory lectures. This is some of the best content we produce. Don’t miss these, especially when they’re free.

Enroll here: demandcurve.com/webinars

What’s the best way to take over a Twitter account from an inactive user?

Based on insights from Andrew Ettinger of Atoms. Lightly edited with permission.

Someone has your brand name as their Twitter handle and their account is inactive. How do you get access to it?

  1. Create an ads account with an existing handle you want to swap for the one you’re trying to claim.
  2. Go to twitter.com/en/help
  3. Click on Account issues -> Claim an inactive username.
  4. Submit a case.

You’ll then want your Twitter ads account manager to escalate your case (give them the case #).

This is not guaranteed. Your best chance of claiming that handle will be to have an existing Twitter employee escalate your case.

Demand Curve’s Asher King Abramson will lead a growth marketing session where he’ll tear down your landing pages and Facebook/Instagram ads in front of a live audience. He’ll deconstruct how effective they are at (1) conveying what you do (2) and doing so enticingly — so that people click.

If you’re attending Disrupt and want to participate, you can submit your assets to ec_editors@techcrunch.com for him to consider.

Unity bets on cloud testing with new Simulation product

By Lucas Matney

For the past several years, Unity’s valuation has ballooned alongside their public ambitions to become essential to customers beyond game developers.

One of the more interesting use cases of the real-time rendering game engine had been helping companies train their systems inside a virtual environment. This has become a key part of the workflows for robotics startups and self-driving car companies that build technologies that need to be trained repeatedly on ever-changing circumstances.

Today at the company’s Unite conference, Unity announced that they’re building a dedicated product for these use cases, called Unity Simulation. The product is currently in closed beta, but it allows customers to run simulations on cloud-connected hardware thanks to a partnership between Unity and Google Cloud.

“By combining Unity’s real-time 3D development platform with the scale and flexibility of the cloud, Unity Simulation will help businesses accelerate the creation of better, safer and more reliable products,” said Unity VP of AI Danny Lange, who previously led machine learning at Uber.

For self-driving car companies, these simulations can help the cars build up virtual experience on roads in fringe situations that can test the technology at its limits. Robotics companies can similarly test products virtually on realistic models that haven’t even been built yet.

Larger customers had already been using Unity for these kinds of problems, but they had been doing so with their own hardware. Unity Simulation relies on Google Cloud for running these parallel tests and can make it a bit easier for small customers that want to leverage testing in virtual environments.

The product may appeal to customers outside the gaming world, but the use cases don’t exclude game studios. An example from Unity’s website details how the service can help studios quickly simulate thousands of outcomes of gameplay to help developers adjust the level of difficulty for users appropriately. For multi-player titles, a tool like this could explore whether new items or power-ups could be combined to make a single user too powerful. The service could also help studios identify how stable their title is.

Unity’s announcement comes at a sensitive time for the gaming company, which has been rocked by a sexual harassment allegation against its sitting CEO John Riccitiello filed by a former female executive at Unity. Riccitiello spoke onstage at Unity’s “Unite” conference in Copenhagen this morning, but did not address the recent lawsuit.

The startup recently disclosed it had closed a $525 million funding round at a $6 billion valuation and is reportedly targeting an IPO next year.

 

Five (more) reasons to come to Disrupt SF next week

By Alexandra Ames

Disrupt SF will light up San Francisco on October 2-4, and as usual we’ve designed the show to be unmissable for founders, investors and just about anyone in the global startup scene. In a post two weeks ago, we spelled out five of the best reasons to attend, including the amazing speaker agenda, the perennial favorite Startup Battlefield and the new founder-focused Extra Crunch stage

Needless to say, we can think of many more reasons to join the show, and here are a few: 

#1 Diversity (and a far better Disrupt SF for it). TechCrunch is the leader in the tech media world when it comes to delivering diversity in programming. The editors work extra hard to find great investors, founders and technologists who got to Silicon Valley on paths less traveled, to paraphrase the poet. To show our progress, we publish our programming diversity stats. To take just one intriguing example from the upcoming show, consider the winner of Battlefield Africa 2018, M-Scan, a Ugandan startup that developed a highly affordable sonogram for rural healthcare workers helping expectant mothers. They will join us at Disrupt SF. 

#2 Celebrities! Startups are very Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t crossovers from the big screen or the arena floor or even the “deep state.” This year our lineup includes Will Smith, Ang Lee, Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Curry, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Admiral Mike Rogers. TechCrunch’s editors are really looking forward to those sessions, and there’s nothing like being there in person to watch them.

#3 The Disrupt SF Tracks. Every year we designate official tracks for Disrupt SF and focus on recruiting both speakers and exhibiting startups for those categories. We also run a contest that awards the top early-stage startups in each category a free exhibit spot. As usual, we will have hundreds of early-stage startups on the floor, all arranged neatly in tracks. This year they cover most of the major and emerging startup categories, including: 

  • Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning
  • Biotech/Healthtech
  • Blockchain
  • Fintech
  • Mobility
  • Privacy/Security
  • Retail/E-commerce
  • Robotics/IoT/Hardware
  • SaaS
  • Social Impact & Education

#4 The Moscone Center (our venue in the heart of SF). There’s nothing like the creature comforts of a thoroughly modern convention center. Working bathrooms everywhere! Reliable HVAC. Plush carpet underfoot. Plenty of room to sit down and chat or work. For attendees who knew our pre-2018 Disrupt SF events, that might sound surprising, given the tough conditions at our former venues — but we listened to you. A day at Moscone is far better than a day at the office, and you’ll be engaged with the future even while you keep up with work.

#5 The Hackathon. TechCunch’s legendary hackathon is back, but in a new format, which runs concurrently with the show and finishes with a final round of presentations from the top hacks, selected by a team of hacker judges, on the Extra Crunch stage. In the past, those presentations always took place the weekend before the show, so we’re delighted to make them a part of the regular programming so all show attendees can watch the hack final presentations.

So now’s the time to grab a pass to the show to save some serious money before things kick off next week. Remember, it’s the Innovator, Investor and Founders passes that get access to all the above! 

Amazon might reveal fitness-tracking Alexa wireless earbuds, Echo with better sound this week

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon is building wireless earbuds that offer Alexa voice assistant access, and fitness tracking for use during activities, according to a new report from CNBC. These earbuds, combined with a new, larger Echo designed to provide more premium sound, could feature into Amazon’s hardware event taking place this Wednesday in Seattle, though the outlet is unclear on the release timeline for this gear based on its source.

These earbuds would be a major new product for Amazon, and would be the company’s first foray into personal health and fitness devices. While Amazon has either built or bought products in a wide range of connected gadget categories, including smart home and smart speakers in particular, so far it hasn’t seemed all that aggressive in personal health, even as Apple, Samsung and others have invested heavily in these areas.

CNBC’s report says that these new Alexa buds will have an accelerometer on board for measuring motion, and will be able to also provide distance tracking, calories burned and pace – in other words, all the things that you’d expect to track with a fitness wearable like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit.

Leaving aside their fitness features, earbuds would provide Amazon a way to deliver a more portable Alexa for people to take with them outside of the house. The company has partnered with other headphone makers on similar third-party Alexa integrations, and they’ve also experimented with bringing Alexa to the car, for instance, but it’s largely still a home-based assistant, successful as its been.

Helping the appeal of these reported new products, the buds are said to be retailing for under $100, which will put them at a big price advantage when compared to similar offerings from either dedicated audio companies and headphone makes, and to potential rivals like Apple’s AirPods. Though the report indicates that they’ll still rely on being connected to an iPhone or Android device for connectivity, as they won’t have their own data connection.

Amazon is also readying a bigger echo that has a built-in woofer and overall better sound than its existing lineup, according to CNBC . That mirrors a report from July from Bloomberg that also said Amazon was readying a high-end echo, with a planned launch for next year.

Some or all of these new hardware devices could make their debut at Wednesday’s event, but it seems likely a lot of what we’ll see will be a surprise.

Twitter details new policies designed to crack down on financial scams

By Sarah Perez

Twitter today says it’s expanding its policies to prohibit financial scams on its platform — something you’d think would have already been banned, but apparently was never directly addressed through Twitter’s policy documentation. Instead, financial scams until now have been handled through Twitter’s spam reporting tool which was expanded last year to specifically identify what exact type of spam a tweet contained.

Among the choices were options to indicate if the tweet contained malicious links, was from a fake account, or was using hashtags or the reply function to post spam, among other things. It didn’t address the numerous sorts of financial spams that appear on Twitter, however.

The new policy better spells out what Twitter considers a financial scam.

Specifically, it says that using scam tactics to obtain money or private financial information is prohibited under the new policy, and users may not create accounts, tweets or send Direct Messages for this purpose.

We’re always updating our rules based on how online behaviors change. Today we're expanding our policies to prohibit financial scams.

Read more: https://t.co/ihBxbTGKk5

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) September 23, 2019

It also details what kind of scams it’s on the lookout for, including relationship/trust-building scams, money-flipping schemes, fraudulent discounts, and phishing scams. These are detailed in its help documentation here.

The new policy arrives at a time when Twitter has been criticized for allowing crypto scams to proliferate on its service. Many of these involve impersonation, using the reply function to spam, and general promises to make victims lots of money. Twitter also this year allowed an obvious PayPal phishing attempt to run as a promoted tweet, which spoke to the need for stronger oversight in this area.

With regard to the new policy, users are still instructed to report the tweet, as before. That means clicking the “report tweet” option from the menu, then selecting “It’s suspicious or spam,” followed by the option that best explains how the tweet is suspicious.

Twitter also clarified that it doesn’t intervene in other financial disputes that fall outside this policy, like claims related to the sale of goods on Twitter, disputed refunds, or complaints about poor quality goods.

As with other scams, financial scammers will risk permanent suspension if they continue to post scams, phishing, and fraud, Twitter says.

Daily Crunch: WeWork CEO faces investor pressure

By Anthony Ha

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. As Adam Neumann reportedly faces pressure to step down; it’s looking like a fight for life between WeWork and SoftBank

Members of WeWork’s board of directors are pressuring controversial CEO Adam Neumann to step down and become non-executive chairman, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Apparently the pressure originates with investor SoftBank, which needs The We Company’s IPO to go well. The idea is to keep Neumann involved, while also making room for new leadership that could make Wall Street more comfortable with a WeWork IPO.

2. How Peloton made sweat addictive enough to IPO

Speaking of IPOs, Josh Constine breaks down 13 reasons why this fitness company — which is about to go public — has built up such a devoted cult. Ultimately, he says he’s bullish about Peloton because people will always be busy, lazy and competitive.

3. Amazon’s ‘Fleabag’ wins four Emmys, including best comedy series

Netflix didn’t go home empty-handed either, with wins for “Ozark,” “When They See Us” and “Black Mirror.”

disrupt braun haag

4. 100 Thieves’ Nadeshot and Scooter Braun are coming to Disrupt

The esports organization, founded by Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, has grown over the past couple of years into a household name for those who follow gaming. Haag will be joined on the Disrupt stage by 100 Thieves co-owner Scooter Braun, who also manages megastars like Justin Bieber and Arianna Grande.

5. Kabbage founders drum up $11M for Drum, an SMB marketplace for sourcing salespeople, goods and services

Drum bills itself as a marketplace for businesses to source sales people and sell their goods and services. Co-founder Rob Frohwein said the startup is “democratizing access to a physical salesforce.”

6. How Kobalt is betting on music’s middle class and DIY stars

This is the latest installment in our in-depth EC-1 profile on Kobalt Music Group. The company’s CEO Willard Ahdritz predicted years ago that streaming and social media would increasingly undercut the gatekeeping power of the major label groups, realigning the market to center on a vast landscape of niche musicians. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The Equity team debates one of the most cherished beliefs in Silicon Valley, the “cult of the founder.” Meanwhile, Original Content catches up on the soothing Netflix reality show “Terrace House.”

Amazon’s Echo Show can now identify household pantry items held in front of its camera

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is introducing a new feature to its Alexa Show device designed to help blind and other low-vision customers identify common household pantry items by holding them up in front of Alexa’s camera and asking what it is. The feature uses a combination of computer vision and machine learning techniques in order to recognize the objects the Echo Show sees.

The Echo Show is the version of the Alexa-powered smart speaker that tends to sit in customers’ kitchens because it helps them with other kitchen tasks, like setting timers, watching recipe videos, or enjoying a little music or TV while you cook.

But for blind users, the Show will now have a new duty: helping them better identify those household pantry items that are hard to distinguish by touch — like cans, boxed foods, or spices, for example. 

To use the feature, customers can just say things like “Alexa, what am I holding?” or “Alexa, what’s in my hand?” Alexa will also give verbal and audio cues to help the customers place the item in front of the device’s camera.

Amazon says the feature was developed in collaboration with blind Amazon employees, including its principal accessibility engineer Josh Miele, who gathered feedback from both blind and low-vision customers as part of the development process. The company also worked with the Vista Center for the Blind in Santa Cruz on early research, product development, and testing.

“We heard that product identification can be a challenge and something customers wanted Alexa’s help with,” explained Sarah Caplener, head of Amazon’s Alexa for Everyone team. “Whether a customer is sorting through a bag of groceries, or trying to determine what item was left out on the counter, we want to make those moments simpler by helping identify these items and giving customers the information they need in that moment,” she said.

Smart home devices and intelligent voice assistants like Alexa have made life easier for disabled individuals, as it allows them to do things like adjust the thermostats and lights, lock the doors, raise the blinds, and more. With “Show and Tell,” Amazon hopes to reach the wide market of blind and low-vision customers, as well. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 1.3 billion with some sort of vision impairment, Amazon says.

That being said, Echo devices aren’t globally available — and even when they are offered in a particular country, the device may not support the local language. Plus, the feature itself is U.S.-only at launch.

Amazon isn’t alone in making accessibility a selling point for its smart speakers and screens. At Google’s I/O developer conference this year, it introduced a range of accessibility projects, including Live Caption which transcribes real-time audio; Live Relay for helping the deaf make phone calls; Project Diva, for helping those who don’t speak use smart assistants; and Project Euphonia that helps make voice recognition work for those with speech impairments.

Show and Tell is available now to Alexa users in the U.S. on first and second-generation Echo Show devices.

 

Hear about being ethical in tech with Ellen Pao, Tracy Chou and Harry Glaser

By Megan Rose Dickey

Running an ethical tech company is underrated. From fostering a diverse and inclusive company to examining your technology’s impact on society, it all comes down to ethics.

Ellen Pao, who previously served as CEO at Reddit and sued her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination, has made it her life’s work to foster diversity, inclusion and ethics in the tech industry.

The same goes for Tracy Chou, who first hit the spotlight when she provoked tech companies to release their data around employee demographics by setting up a database to track such information in 2013. Now, Chou, who is also a co-founder at Project Include, is focused on tackling the problem of online abuse and harassment at her startup, Block Party.

Through Chou and Pao’s work at Project Include, the two have worked with a number of startups that wish to foster diversity and inclusion at their own startups. Sisense, a business intelligence platform led by Harry Glaser, is one of those startups.

While the diversity and inclusion movement has made some gains in the last few years, it has still suffered severe setbacks. On one hand, tech employees are recognizing their immense power when they speak up and organize. On the other hand, those accused of sexual harassment and misconduct are too often facing too few consequences. Meanwhile, people of color and women still receive too little venture funding, and tech companies are inching along at a glacial pace toward diverse representation and inclusion.

Tech workers at Salesforce, Microsoft and Amazon have spoken out against their employers for having contracts with military and government agencies, and Twitter and Facebook continue to thrive as platforms where harassment and abuse is prevalent. Meanwhile, gig economy workers for the likes of Instacart, DoorDash, Uber and Lyft have also organized around low wages, wage theft and lack of benefits.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done. At TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, you’ll hear from Pao, Chou and Glaser about how they grapple with ethics, and how focusing on diversity can positively impact a company’s bottom line.

Still need tickets? Head over here.

Apple confirms it will build the new Mac Pro in the US

By Brian Heater

After several months of speculation, Apple today confirmed that it will be manufacturing the latest version of the Mac Pro in the United States. The move is in keeping with earlier versions of the high-end, pro-focused desktop. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple would move production of the long-awaited desktop to a plant outside of Shanghai.

Apple didn’t deny the report at the time, instead stating, “Like all of our products, the new Mac Pro is designed and engineered in California and includes components from several countries including the United States.”

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This week, however, the company reported that manufacturing will be returning to Austin, Texas, using manufacturers from a variety of states, including Arizona, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Vermont. Suppliers include Intersil and ON Semiconductor.

“The Mac Pro is Apple’s most powerful computer ever and we’re proud to be building it in Austin. We thank the administration for their support enabling this opportunity,” Tim Cook said in a press release. “We believe deeply in the power of American innovation. That’s why every Apple product is designed and engineered in the US, and made up of parts from 36 states, supporting 450,000 jobs with US suppliers, and we’re going to continue growing here.”

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The move is in keeping with Apple’s commitment to invest $350 billion in the States by 2023. The early reports that the company was shifting to Chinese manufacturing was a major sticking point for Trump, who called out Cook and Apple by name in a series of tweets.

“Apple will not be given Tariff wavers, or relief, for Mac Pro parts that are made in China,” Trump tweeted in July. “Make them in the USA, no Tariffs!”

Chef CEO does an about face, says company will not renew ICE contract

By Ron Miller

After stating clearly on Friday that he would honor a $95,000 contract with ICE, CEO Barry Crist must have had a change of heart over the weekend. In a blog post, this morning he wrote that the company would not be renewing the contract with ICE after all.

“After deep introspection and dialog within Chef, we will not renew our current contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire over the next year. Chef will fulfill our full obligations under the current contracts,” Crist wrote in the blog post.

He also backed off the seemingly firm position he took on Friday on the matter when he told TechCrunch, “It’s something that we spent a lot of time on, and I want to represent that there are portions of [our company] that do not agree with this, but I as a leader of the company, along with the executive team, made a decision that we would honor the contracts and those relationships that were formed and work with them over time,” he said.

Today, he acknowledged that intense feelings inside the company against the contract led to his decision. The contract began in 2015 under the Obama administration and was aimed at modernizing programming approaches at DHS, but over time as ICE family separation and deportation polices have come under fire, there were calls internally (and later externally) to end the contract. “Policies such as family separation and detention did not yet exist [when we started this contract]. While I and others privately opposed this and various other related policies, we did not take a position despite the recommendation of many of our employees. I apologize for this,” he wrote

Crist also indicated that the company would be donating the revenue from the contracts to organizations that work with people who have been affected by these policies. It’s a similar approach that Salesforce took when 618 of its employees protested a contract the company has with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). In response to the protests, Salesforce pledged $1 million to organizations helping affected families.

After a tweet last week exposed the contract, the protests began on social media, and culminated in programmer Seth Vargo removing pieces of open source code from the repository in protest of the contract in response. The company sounded firmly committed to fulfilling this contract in spite of the calls for action internally and externally, and the widespread backlash it was facing both inside and outside the company.

Vargo told TechCrunch in an interview that he saw this issue in moral terms, “Contrary to Chef’s CEO’s publicly posted response, I do think it is the responsibility of businesses to evaluate how and for what purposes their software is being used, and to follow their moral compass,” he said. Apparently Crist has come around to this point of view. Vargo chose not to comment on the latest development.

Google Play Pass launches with 350+ premium apps and games, initially for $1.99 per month

By Sarah Perez

Following the well-received launch of Apple Arcade, Google today is officially introducing its own take on subscription-based access to premium mobile games — or, Google’s case, premium mobile apps, too. The new Google Play Pass subscription, arriving this week, will offer over 350 apps and games that are completely unlocked, with no upfront fees, in-app purchases, or advertisements. And the initial price point is something of a no-brainer — it’s just $1.99 per month for the first year, Google says.

That price will increase to $4.99 per month after the first 12 months have passed, which is the same price as Apple Arcade at launch. This launch promotion is only available until October 10, 2019, however.

The two services are similar in concept, as both are providing a large library of premium content for a monthly subscription. But there are some differences between the two.

For starters, Apple Arcade is filled with exclusives — meaning its games will not be found on Andriod. The reverse is not true for Google Play Pass. Instead, the Play Pass catalog includes many cross-platform titles, including some that even found their fame first on iOS, like ustwo’s Monument Valley.

In addition, Play Pass’s launch titles aren’t all games. There are also ad-free versions of popular mobile apps, like AccuWeather, Facetune, and Pic Stitch, for example.

Notable launch titles include Stardew Valley, Risk, Terraria, Monument Valley, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Reigns: Game of Thrones, Titan Quest, and Wayward Souls. Some lesser-known additions include LIMBO, Lichtspeer, Mini Metro, and Old Man’s Journey. Others, like This War of Mine and Cytus, are coming soon. And for little kids, there are some preschooler-friendly titles like Toca Boca classics and the My Town series.

More titles are added on a monthly basis, Google says.

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Because it’s not relying on exclusives, Google’s catalog is more than triple the size of Apple’s at launch. That being said, Apple’s Arcade library is filled with gorgeous, high-quality games while Play Pass is rounded out with a lot of more utilities, like weather apps and photo editors.

Play Pass ticket logoLike Apple Arcade, the new subscription gets its own tab in the Google Play app, where the games are organized by genre, popularity and other factors — just like a mini app store. However, unlike Apple Arcade, where games are only found in the Arcade tab or through search, Google Play Pass titles will appear directly in the Play Store. They’ll be designated with a Play Pass ticket badge, so you can easily identify them.

The Play Pass subscription also allows the games to be shared with the whole family. The family manager can share their Play Pass subscription with up to five other family members, who can each access the titles independently. This is comparable to Apple Arcade.

We already knew Google was working on an Apple Arcade competitor before today. The Play Pass subscription’s existence had been leaked, and Google later confirmed the service with a tweet. What we didn’t yet know was the launch date, lineup, or the official pricing.

Google Play Pass service is rolling out this week to Android devices in the U.S., with more countries coming soon. A 10-day subscription is available, before it converts to the $1.99 per month limited promotion, followed by the $4.99 per month price point when the promotion ends.

While neither Apple nor Google is discussing the terms of their deals with developers, Google says that the more people who download a Play Pass title, the more the revenue developers receive on a recurring basis. It also explained that Google itself is funding the initial launch offer, so developers can gain more subscriber interest without impacting their revenue.

 

 

Oprah’s Book Club comes to Apple TV+

By Sarah Perez

Apple and Oprah will be working together to bring Oprah’s Book Club to the Apple TV+ streaming service. In a new series, the talk show host and producer will interview the authors of her book club picks, starting with Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “The Water Dancer.” A new episode will then be available every two months, allowing viewers time to read the titles being discussed.

The series will debut alongside Apple TV+’s launch on November 1, and is part of a larger, multi-year partnership Apple and Oprah announced last year. In addition to the book club, Oprah is also developing two documentaries for Apple: “Toxic Labor” about sexual harassment in the workplace and another, in partnership with Prince Harry, that will focus on mental health.

While the documentaries bring much-needed attention to worthy topics, Oprah’s Book Club TV series will be mutually beneficial for both parties from more of a financial standpoint. Apple is promoting Oprah’s book club selections in its Apple Books app, where “The Water Dancer” can now be pre-ordered as either an e-book or audiobook, for example. The TV show will then help to bring more attention to this and other titles, which in turn could boost book sales.

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Apple also says it will make a contribution to the American Library Association to support local libraries and fund their programs.

As older readers may recall, Oprah’s Book Club originally got its start as a recurring segment on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” After a 15-year run, it relaunched in 2012 as a joint project between OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, and O: The Oprah Magazine. But those selections have been few and far between. With the launch on Apple TV+, it seems the club will be back on a more regular pace.

“Few people in the world can bring us together like Oprah, whose compassion and grace celebrating the power of books are unmatched,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, in a statement. “It’s our honor to provide a new platform for Oprah’s Book Club and support the American Library Association in opening hearts and minds to the joy of reading.”

“I am who I am today because of the experience of learning to read at an early age. Reading opened up a whole world for me beyond the red dirt road and my grandmother’s porch in Mississippi,” Oprah Winfrey, added, in a press release. “I want to do that for everybody. And the opportunity to do this with Apple, to speak to people all over the world about the pleasures, the excitement, the tension, the drama that a good book can bring you … I don’t know what’s better than that.”

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In addition to the Oprah’s Book Club news this morning, Apple also gave last night’s Emmy viewers a first look at several other upcoming Apple TV+ shows, including the Octavia Spencer-led drama “Truth Be Told,” and M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller “Servant.” Last week, it showed off kids’ shows “Ghostwriter” and “Helpsters.”

Five months later, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold arrives this week

By Brian Heater

There’s fashionably late and then there’s the Galaxy Fold. Initially scheduled for an April 22 launch, the device was delayed after multiple reviews returned broken devices. Samsung was quick to blame users, only to ultimately go back to the drawing board.

A few months later, the company offered a broad September time frame. Samsung hit the mark with time to spare in its native South Korea, launching the device a few weeks back. Now it’s time to do the same here in North America. The company’s first foldable (and, really, for that matter, the first “commercially viable” foldable) arrives this Friday, September 27.

The handset will be available as a carrier-branded version through AT&T stores or unlocked through Best Buy and other retail locations. As noted, the company’s also offering a “Galaxy Fold Premier Service” — apparently part of the reason it canceled the original round of pre-orders. Basically the company wants to personally help users who buy the $2,000 deal with any specific problems.

Notably and somewhat humorously (albeit unintentionally so), the company recently issued a “Caring for your Galaxy Fold” video, which highlights how to not break the expensive new device. Samsung appears somewhat resigned to the fact that, although the device has been improved over the first attempt at going to market, the product is still more fragile than what we’ve come to expect from our smartphones.

To quote Samsung, “Just use a light touch.” That comes with the somewhat redundant, “Do not apply excessive pressure” footnote. Not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence in a product’s durability. 

Customer marketing platform Ometria raises $21M Series B round led by Octopus Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Back in 2017 Ometria, an “AI-powered” customer marketing platform raised $6m in Series A funding to add to the $11m it had already raised. Its platform is all about allowing retailers to send individually personalized marketing messages across several brand touchpoints.

Today it’s announced that it’s raised $21m in a Series B funding led by London-based Octopus Ventures, with existing investors Sonae IM, Summit Action, Samos and Adjuvo, as well as ten early angel investors, making further investments. Marieke Christmann from Octopus Ventures and Eduardo Piedade from Sonae IM both join Ometria’s board.

The funding will be used to accelerate Ometria’s product development, expanding the platform’s specialist retail marketing capabilities and further innovating its AI-based technology.

Off the back of the funding round, Ometria will also be opening its first US-based operation in New York.

Ometria’s schtick is that it addresses the fact that consumers will no longer tolerate the torrent of communication send towards them that is basically irrelevant to them, especially as the retail environment becomes ever more competitive.

Its main competitors are spread across companies like email service providers (Emarsys, Sailthru, Selligent, Bronto, Dotmailer), behavioral marketing tools (CloudIQ, SaleCycle, Yieldify) and customer insight companies (More2, AgileOne). Its argument is that none of these companies were developed specifically for retail, or to create and use a unified predictive profile of each customer.

Ometria’s CEO and Founder Ivan Mazour says: “We’re all overloaded with information and communication, it’s relentless and must be addressed. Retail marketing has contributed heavily to this, with most marketing experiences being ones we simply don’t enjoy. Ometria solves this ever-increasing problem for hundreds of retailers, and hundreds of millions of customers.”

It now has a client base of 200 retailers, including Hotel Chocolat, Fred Perry, MADE.com and Notonthehighstreet.com. Its senior leadership team now includes Pete Crosby (formerly of Triptease) as Chief Revenue Officer, Rob Lord (formerly of CheetahMail) as VP of Professional Services and Jennifer Yorke (formerly of Bazaarvoice) as VP of Customer Success.

Marieke Christmann, Investor, Octopus Ventures, says, “We are very excited to have led Ometria’s Series B – a great example of how we invest in truly pioneering entrepreneurs that are creating innovative solutions through tech. Ometria will use this investment to revolutionize the retail marketing industry with its AI capabilities. We want to see entrepreneurs put their customers at the heart of the business and that is precisely what the team is doing.

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