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The time Animoto almost brought AWS to its knees

By Ron Miller

Today, Amazon Web Services is a mainstay in the cloud infrastructure services market, a $60 billion juggernaut of a business. But in 2008, it was still new, working to keep its head above water and handle growing demand for its cloud servers. In fact, 15 years ago last week, the company launched Amazon EC2 in beta. From that point forward, AWS offered startups unlimited compute power, a primary selling point at the time.

EC2 was one of the first real attempts to sell elastic computing at scale — that is, server resources that would scale up as you needed them and go away when you didn’t. As Jeff Bezos said in an early sales presentation to startups back in 2008, “you want to be prepared for lightning to strike, […] because if you’re not that will really generate a big regret. If lightning strikes, and you weren’t ready for it, that’s kind of hard to live with. At the same time you don’t want to prepare your physical infrastructure, to kind of hubris levels either in case that lightning doesn’t strike. So, [AWS] kind of helps with that tough situation.”

An early test of that value proposition occurred when one of their startup customers, Animoto, scaled from 25,000 to 250,000 users in a 4-day period in 2008 shortly after launching the company’s Facebook app at South by Southwest.

At the time, Animoto was an app aimed at consumers that allowed users to upload photos and turn them into a video with a backing music track. While that product may sound tame today, it was state of the art back in those days, and it used up a fair amount of computing resources to build each video. It was an early representation of not only Web 2.0 user-generated content, but also the marriage of mobile computing with the cloud, something we take for granted today.

For Animoto, launched in 2006, choosing AWS was a risky proposition, but the company found trying to run its own infrastructure was even more of a gamble because of the dynamic nature of the demand for its service. To spin up its own servers would have involved huge capital expenditures. Animoto initially went that route before turning its attention to AWS because it was building prior to attracting initial funding, Brad Jefferson, co-founder and CEO at the company explained.

“We started building our own servers, thinking that we had to prove out the concept with something. And as we started to do that and got more traction from a proof-of-concept perspective and started to let certain people use the product, we took a step back, and were like, well it’s easy to prepare for failure, but what we need to prepare for success,” Jefferson told me.

Going with AWS may seem like an easy decision knowing what we know today, but in 2007 the company was really putting its fate in the hands of a mostly unproven concept.

“It’s pretty interesting just to see how far AWS has gone and EC2 has come, but back then it really was a gamble. I mean we were talking to an e-commerce company [about running our infrastructure]. And they’re trying to convince us that they’re going to have these servers and it’s going to be fully dynamic and so it was pretty [risky]. Now in hindsight, it seems obvious but it was a risk for a company like us to bet on them back then,” Jefferson told me.

Animoto had to not only trust that AWS could do what it claimed, but also had to spend six months rearchitecting its software to run on Amazon’s cloud. But as Jefferson crunched the numbers, the choice made sense. At the time, Animoto’s business model was for free for a 30 second video, $5 for a longer clip, or $30 for a year. As he tried to model the level of resources his company would need to make its model work, it got really difficult, so he and his co-founders decided to bet on AWS and hope it worked when and if a surge of usage arrived.

That test came the following year at South by Southwest when the company launched a Facebook app, which led to a surge in demand, in turn pushing the limits of AWS’s capabilities at the time. A couple of weeks after the startup launched its new app, interest exploded and Amazon was left scrambling to find the appropriate resources to keep Animoto up and running.

Dave Brown, who today is Amazon’s VP of EC2 and was an engineer on the team back in 2008, said that “every [Animoto] video would initiate, utilize and terminate a separate EC2 instance. For the prior month they had been using between 50 and 100 instances [per day]. On Tuesday their usage peaked at around 400, Wednesday it was 900, and then 3,400 instances as of Friday morning.” Animoto was able to keep up with the surge of demand, and AWS was able to provide the necessary resources to do so. Its usage eventually peaked at 5000 instances before it settled back down, proving in the process that elastic computing could actually work.

At that point though, Jefferson said his company wasn’t merely trusting EC2’s marketing. It was on the phone regularly with AWS executives making sure their service wouldn’t collapse under this increasing demand. “And the biggest thing was, can you get us more servers, we need more servers. To their credit, I don’t know how they did it — if they took away processing power from their own website or others — but they were able to get us where we needed to be. And then we were able to get through that spike and then sort of things naturally calmed down,” he said.

The story of keeping Animoto online became a main selling point for the company, and Amazon was actually the first company to invest in the startup besides friends and family. It raised a total of $30 million along the way, with its last funding coming in 2011. Today, the company is more of a B2B operation, helping marketing departments easily create videos.

While Jefferson didn’t discuss specifics concerning costs, he pointed out that the price of trying to maintain servers that would sit dormant much of the time was not a tenable approach for his company. Cloud computing turned out to be the perfect model and Jefferson says that his company is still an AWS customer to this day.

While the goal of cloud computing has always been to provide as much computing as you need on demand whenever you need it, this particular set of circumstances put that notion to the test in a big way.

Today the idea of having trouble generating 3,400 instances seems quaint, especially when you consider that Amazon processes 60 million instances every day now, but back then it was a huge challenge and helped show startups that the idea of elastic computing was more than theory.

This Week in Apps: Another App Store settlement, Apple asks to personalize ads, Twitter launches Super Follows

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions… and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too!

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Story

Apple settles another App Store antitrust case…but it’s still winning the war with developers

Netflix app icon iOS

Photo: TechCrunch

Another day, another App Store settlement announced late at night in the hopes that reporters will miss it. (Apparently, publishing press releases after 8 PM ET is a good time to try to hide the news, huh?)

PR theatrics aside, this week’s settlement is only a minor concession on Apple’s part that its aggressive anti-steering guidelines could be considered anticompetitive. The company said it reached a settlement with Japanese regulator, the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC), to change its policies for “reader apps” that would allow them to point users to their own website. Yes, Apple literally had to be drug through an antitrust investigation to agree to allow a subgroup of developers the ability to add a link to a website inside their app.

Anyone celebrating this as a major win for developers needs to think again. Apple is still winning this war.

The rule change, which kicks in globally in early 2022, will only apply to “reader” apps, Apple says. Reader apps provide access to purchased content, like books or audiobooks, or content subscriptions, like streaming music and video. The rule could also apply to apps that provide access to digital magazines or newspapers. Think: Spotify, Netflix, Kindle and others. Of course, “reader apps” is a sort of made-up category Apple invented years ago in hopes of forcing a revenue share, but instead forced some smaller apps out of business. But now, having this category allows Apple to make up rules that only apply to a subgroup of apps. That is some forward thinking.

Historically, reader apps that have not wanted to share subscription revenue with Apple (or that got big enough to no longer need the in-app purchase option) have offered only a sign-in form for existing subscribers on the home screen that appears at first launch. Some also don’t offer any way to buy their content through the app itself, forcing users to figure out how to purchase the content they want through the company’s website. Now they can finally say, “here is our website.” Big whoop, we knew where Netflix.com was.

Overall, the iOS reader app experience from a consumer perspective has been a crappy one. It doesn’t “just work,” it’s a hassle. It’s an annoyance.

Now, Apple says these apps will be able to offer users a link to a website that launches inside their app so users can “set up and manage their account.” Presumably, that could include entering in payment information — after all, once the website is open, it would seem users could navigate it freely, right? But Apple hints that it will have specific rules about these links to come, saying the company “will also help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases.” (Hopefully, Apple just means something like https is required, not that it’s planning to tell developers how to design their own websites and payment processing.)

Apple critics largely panned the settlement, saying they want better rules for everyone.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “App developers want clear, fair rules that apply to all apps. Our goal is to restore competition once and for all, not one arbitrary, self-serving step at a time. We will continue to push for a real solution.”

For whatever reason, Apple appears to want to battle App Store antitrust complaints on a case-by-case basis, instead of just rewriting its rules to even the playing field. That decision seems pretty obstinate, not to mention expensive. But, so far, it’s working. The changes emerging from these settlements so far (including last week’s) are the very smallest of updates to App Store guidelines. Apple is ceding very little ground here.

But the fight is far from over. As soon as the JFTC ruling hit, news broke that Apple is facing another antitrust challenge in India over in-app payments. There are similar cases underway in the EU, too, and U.S. lawmakers have been pursuing their own legislation, as well. Time will tell.

Apple asks users to opt-in to its personalized ads

Does this seem fair?

Today, developers have to show their users a pop-up box that asks if they can track their users, with options like “Ask App not to Track” or “Allow.” Most users decline tracking. After Apple introduced this new policy, aka App Tracking Transparency (ATT), there was some pushback around the fact that Apple didn’t have to follow its own rules — even though it had an ads business of its own where personalized ads were switched on by default.

While Apple, to be clear, is only sharing its data in-house — and not, say, with a third-party data broker — it also was doing so without any sort of opt-out screen presented to users who would prefer that data wasn’t gathered by anyone, you know, at all. 

Image Credits: iOS 15 screenshot

Now, things are changing. In iOS 15, Apple has begun popping up a message that allows users to turn off personalized ads in the App Store and other Apple apps. But wow, does it have a lot of screen space to make its case. Not only does Apple explain the many ways its personalized ads are beneficial to users, it also says its ad platform “does not track you” because it doesn’t link the data it collects with other data, nor does it share any personally identifiable information with third parties.

But there is an argument to be made here that Apple’s distinction between data-gathering across a set of first-party apps (Apple News, App Store and Stocks) and what it calls “tracking” — where app data is shared externally, or combined with others — is a line in the sand that is not only about Apple’s user privacy mission, but also about harming other ad-dependent businesses (like Facebook’s, naturally) in order to boost its own.

Weekly News

Apple updates

  • Apple delays plans to roll out CSAM detection in iOS 15. Apple says it will delay its CSAM detection tech in light of the feedback from customers and policy groups. While everyone agrees that a system to discover and report CSAM is overall a good thing, critics are concerned about how the system itself was built. They’re worried that it could be abused by authoritarian governments in the future, who would use it to implicate innocent victims or to detect non-CSAM materials they find objectionable. (China comes to mind here.) Apple says it will now take the time to make improvements before releasing these “critically important child safety features.”
  • Apple’s Wallet app will soon be able to hold your ID. The company said it now secured two states, Arizona and Georgia, to bring digital driver’s license and state IDs to the app. Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah are expected to follow. The TSA will allow you to present your digital wallet by tapping it on an identity reader, similar to how Apple Pay works.

Android updates

  • Android apps will not run on Windows 11 when the new OS launches on October 5. Although support for Android apps was touted as one of Windows’ biggest new features, Microsoft said it will only start previewing the feature in the “coming months.”

E-commerce

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram is kicking off a live shopping event on September 1. Instagram’s 10+ Days of Live Shopping will feature events with Selena Gomez, Kacey Musgraves, Lil Yachty and other surprise guests, and will be found in the “Live” section in the Shop tab. Participating brands include Outdoor Voice, Hologear, Peloton, DragunBeauty, Aveda and others.
  • Time spent in shopping apps grew 49% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2021, reports App Annie. The typical mobile consumer is currently spending $88 every time they order from a shopping app. By May 2021, Android users averaged 2 billion shopping hours per week — up 51% from pre-pandemic levels.

Fintech

  • China’s Twitter-like app Weibo bans stock-tip accounts with millions of followers in an effort to comply with Beijing’s new rules focused on removing content that bad-mouths China’s financial markets or misinterprets domestic policies or economic data.
  • Indian digital payments company launched Pulse, a free product that offers insights into the digital payments market across Indian states, districts and over 19,000 postal codes.
  • PayPal is exploring a stock-trading service for U.S. customers, according to a CNBC report. The company hired Rich Hagen, previously of Ally Invest, to lead the new division. It’s unlikely that the service will launch this year, CNBC said, citing undisclosed sources.

Social

  • Twitter launched Super Follows, allowing users to subscribe to favorite creators via in-app purchases for exclusive content. But the system is chaotic on the App Store, as each Super Follow is listed as an individual IAP. The App Store can only show 10 IAPs, because there are too many options available. There’s got to be a better way to do this.
  • Twitter also launched Safety Mode to a small group on iOS for feedback and testing. The feature lets users protect themselves from harassment by temporarily blocking accounts for seven days that send harmful language or send repetitive, uninvited replies.
  • LinkedIn is shutting down Stories. The Microsoft-owned business networking platform informed advertisers they will need to adjust their ad campaigns when the format leaves the platform on September 30. Instead of Stories, LinkedIn will pursue short-form videos instead, it says.
  • TikTok added educational resources to its app to help parents using its Family Pairing parental control feature better understand how to help teens navigate their digital life.
  • TikTok launched a new Creator Marketplace API that allows influencer marketing companies the ability to tap into first-party data from the social video app, including things like audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) Alpha testers include Captiv8, Influential, Whalar and INCA.
  • Facebook said a glitch in its ad platform caused it to send faulty campaign data to advertisers — an example of how Apple’s privacy rules have impacted the adtech industry.
  • Instagram is requiring users to share their birthday with the company. The app will now start popping up a notification that asks you to add your birthday to “personalize your experience.” But the prompt can only be dismissed a handful of times before becoming a requirement. Instagram says it needs this information to aid with its new safety features aimed at younger users, including the teen privacy protections it recently added.

Image Credits: Instagram

Messaging

  • Mobile messaging app Telegram has topped 1 billion downloads, according to data from Sensor Tower. The app, launched in 2013, passed the milestone last Friday. India makes up 22% of Telegram installs, followed by Russia (10%) and Indonesia (8%). In the first half of 2021, the app saw 214.7 million installs, up from 133 million in H1 2020.
  • Telegram also expanded its livestream feature to support an unlimited number of viewers, up from the prior limit of 1,000.
  • Google’s Messages app is redesigning its attachment menu’s UI, which previously opened a scrollable list with several carousels. It now shows a four-wide grid that expands to take up more space as you scroll, with buttons for GIFs, stickers, files, location, contacts and more.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Clubhouse added support for spatial audio to give listeners a feeling that they’re really hanging out live with a group of people. To make this possible, the company is integrating licensed code from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale’s spatial audio company High Fidelity and blending it with its own custom audio processing.
  • YouTube Music says it has surpassed 50 million Music and Premium subscribers, including those on trials.

Dating

  • Tinder says daily swipe activity this summer was up 13% and messages were up 12%. Conversations were also 38% longer, compared with April, May and June 2020. And 76% of survey respondents went on more dates compared to last summer.

Health & Fitness

  • Meditation and mindfulness app Calm has topped 100 million downloads, solidifying its spot as the world’s most downloaded meditation app. The app was also the No. 1 Health and Fitness app on iOS (July 1, 2010-August 21, 2021) and Android (January 1, 2012-August 2021).
  • Strava’s iOS fitness app makes its Beacon location-sharing safety feature available to all users for free, instead of only to paid subscribers. Launched in 2016, Beacon allows users to share their live location with up to three people who can track you until you’re finished with your activity.

News/Reading

Image Credits: Flipboard

  • Flipboard added newsfeed personalization tools that help you personalize your home feed, aka the “For You” page, to your own interests. This has been a top request from users, who wanted to dial down the level of politics and other bad news about current events in their feeds.

Government & Policy

  • WhatsApp was fined $267 million for breaching Europe’s GDPR. The messaging app had been under investigation by the Irish DPC, a leading data supervisor in the EU, since December 2018. The regulator found that WhatsApp failed to fully inform its users what it does with their data, and gave the company three months to come into compliance with several provisions of Europe’s privacy law. A WhatsApp spokesperson said the decision would be appealed.
  • The grace period for compliance with the Age Appropriate Design Code (aka the “Children’s Code”) has ended. App makers offering digital services that are likely to be accessed by children now need to ensure that a high level of privacy is applied by default to users’ accounts, and geolocation and profiling should be off by default. The code also says app makers should provide parental controls while kids receive age-appropriate information about those tools. “Dark patterns” are also now forbidden.

Security & Privacy

  • The FTC bans spyware maker SpyFone, an Android stalkerware app that was marketed under the guise of parental control, but was often used by adults to spy on their partners. SpyFone secretly gathered data on people’s physical movements, phone use and online activities. The company will also be required to notify victims where the app had been installed on their devices.
  • Mozilla VPN, its private VPN that works across desktop and mobile devices, completed a security audit from cybersecurity firm Cure53 in Berlin. The audit found two medium and one high-severity issue, all of which have now been addressed.
  • A WhatsApp vulnerability discovered by Check Point could have allowed a hacker to read sensitive info from WhatsApp’s memory. The exploit, however, was complex and has now been fixed.

Funding and M&A

💰 Neobank Point raised $46.5 million in Series B funding, led by existing investor Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures. Point offers an online account, debit card and banking app for $49 per year.

💰 Callin, a new “social podcasting” app from former PayPal COO and Yammer CEO David Sacks, raised $12 million in Series A funding, co-led by Sequoia, Goldcrest and Craft Ventures, where Sacks is a founder and partner. The app competes with Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, but allows users to download a recording that can be edited into a podcast.

💰 French grocery delivery service Cajoo raised $40 million in a Series A round led by supermarket giant Carrefour. The deal allows Cajoo to take advantage of Carrefour’s purchasing organization, making more products available to Cajoo customers. Cajoo currently has more than 100,000 customers across 10 cities in France and operates 20 dark stores.

💰 Social commerce app Flip raised $28 million in Series A funding led by Streamlined Ventures for its app that combines live commerce and real customer reviews. The company claims 1 million downloads and shipped out 30,000 orders in the last quarter.

🤝  Playtika Holding Corp., the maker of games like Bingo Blitz and Slotomania, is buying 80% of Finland’s Reworks Oy, the maker of a home-decorating game, Redecor. The $400 million deal allows Playtika to acquire the balance for as much as $200 million more in 2023, if earnings meet an agreed-on target. If not, Playtika can buy the remaining portion for $1. This is Playtika’s first acquisition as a public company and eighth overall, and will bring ~$30 million in sales to Playtika this year.

💰 U.K. diet and lifestyle coaching app Oviva raised $80 million in Series C funding, co-led by Sofina and Temasek, for its service that aims to empower users to change their diet habits and improve their health, with a particular focus on treating obesity and health conditions like Type 2 diabetes. The company sells to health insurance companies or publicly funded health services, which then refer or provide Oviva to their own customers.

💰 Amsterdam-based delivery startup Borzo (previously Dostavista), which focuses on emerging markets, has raised $35 million in Series C funding in a round led by UAE-based investor, Mubadala. The service, accessible via a mobile app, has 2 million users, 2.5 million couriers and operates in 10 countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam.

💰 No-code tool Anima raised $10 million in Series A funding. The service lets designers upload from Figma to have their work turned into code, including support for React, Vue.js, HTML, CSS and Sass. The platform now has 600,000 users, up from 300,000 last October.

🤝Family safety and communication app Life360 completed its acquisition of wearable maker Jiobit on September 1. The company plans to integrate Jiobit into its offerings, and allow family members to track Jiobit users (or pets), through the mobile app.

Downloads

Clay

Image Credits: Clay

Clay is a new cross-platform app (web, mobile and desktop) that allows you to better manage your relationships, both business and personal. The service is something of a consumer-grade CRM. That is, it’s not about a sales pipeline, it’s about better recalling who you met, how and when, and other important details. This information can be useful to you ahead of meetings and other networking events, business appointments or many other situations. The system is designed to be flexible enough that it can work for a variety of use cases — so far, it’s been used by teachers, veterinarians, political candidates and others. The company, backed by $8 million in seed funding, is encrypting data, but ultimately plans to allow the data to be housed locally on users’ machines, more like the Apple model. The app, however, is pricey — it’s $20/month for the time being, but the company hopes to bring that down to a freemium model over time.

Read the full review here on TechCrunch.

Playbyte

Image Credits: Playbyte

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, full-screen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play. At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games and more. The app is a free download on iOS.

Read full review here on TechCrunch.

Instagram may not be a photo-sharing app anymore, but Glass is

By Amanda Silberling

Instagram made headlines (including this one) when product head Adam Mosseri said in June that the app is “no longer just a square photo-sharing app,” since it’s pivoting its focus to shopping and video. But where does that leave photographers who want a social photo-sharing experience?

According to Tom Watson, a former product designer at Facebook and Pinterest, photographers have lacked a social network for a while. That’s why, with co-founder Stefan Borsje, Watson built Glass, a subscription-based iOS app designed to be a home for photographers.

“I’ve always loved photography, and when Flickr got bought by Yahoo, it was a sad moment for me. I love that kind of nerdy photography community,” Watson told TechCrunch. “Then you started to see it pick up with Instagram to take the torch into the mobile space. But I was at Facebook when Facebook purchased Instagram, and you could kind of see that it would inevitably be where it is today.”

For those of us accustomed to free, ad-supported social media, it might feel unfamiliar to pay a monthly fee for an app. Glass costs $4.99 a month (or $29.99 a year) to use, but you can try it without charge for 14 days. Still, the app takes your App Store payment info right away, so it could be a barrier to entry for people who worry they won’t remember to delete Glass before the trial period ends, should they not want to continue with it. But this model is intentional. Watson and Borsje are specifically trying to build their app — which only has five team members — without any venture funding or ad revenue. They only want to have to answer to their community of photographers.

“I wanted to do something different and start with a social subscription model and to bootstrap without venture capital,” said Watson. “We’ve seen in the past what happens when you take on venture capital and go for the moon. You keep pivoting away from your photographer community in order to become more broad.”

Image Credits: Glass

From the moment you open the Glass app, it’s clear that the emphasis is on the photography itself. When you follow photographers, their posts will appear in a feed of images designed to minimize distractions. The photos take up the entire screen, and you can only see who posted them if you drag them to the right. When you click on an image, you can see its caption and other information about how the photograph was shot. You can engage socially through comments, but there aren’t likes on photos — this is an intentional design choice, though Watson says some users are asking for a like button, even if it just helps them bookmark images for later browsing. In the coming weeks, Glass will launch discovery features, like categories for photographs. Glass also has a feedback board, which allows users to request features and upvote or downvote other users’ ideas. If Glass chooses to develop a suggestion, it is noted as “in progress” on the board.

Though it’s only in its beginning stages, Glass already sets itself apart from Instagram or VSCO by offering EXIF data, which is like candy for the “photography nerds” that Glass hopes to attract. EXIF data shows what camera a photographer used, as well as the photo’s ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focal length. This data and sense of community was what drew people to Flickr in its early days, but when Yahoo gave free users up to one terrabyte of data, it became more of a personal archive than a community. Then, when SmugMug bought Flickr from Yahoo in 2018, it tried to backpedal by only allowing free users to have 1000 photos, warning that they could delete free users’ photos if they didn’t upgrade to a paid plan.

Glass also appeals to photographers by allowing for a wider variety of image sizes on the app — the maximum aspect ratio is 16 x 9, which accommodates the size of standard camera photos. But on Instagram, even after the platform moved away from its square image motif, it’s not possible to post vertical photographs from most cameras without cropping them. Like VSCO, Glass doesn’t show how many followers each user has, though you can see comments. While you can’t see how many followers someone else has, you can see who is following your own account.

“We thought that was important for safety. If someone follows you, you need to know who that is, and to be able to block them,” Watson said. “We really wanted to build blocking and reporting features from day one.”

Watson declined to share how many users have downloaded the app so far, but Watson said he’s “extremely happy with the response” to Glass. It launched with a waitlist in August, and Wednesday the app opened up to all iOS users. The goal of the waitlist wasn’t to generate hype, but rather, to make sure that the user experience remained smooth, and that the app wouldn’t get overloaded. At the time of the app’s waitlist launch in August, Watson told TechCrunch that Glass was sending hundreds of invites out every day. 

“I’ve been on the internet a long time, and I used to feel like there was a cozier, safer space,” Watson said. “I hope that by having this subscription model, these spaces can feel that way a little bit more again.”

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Barbershop technology startup theCut sharpens its platform with new $4.5M round

By Christine Hall

TheCut, a technology platform designed to handle back-end operations for barbers, raised $4.5 million in new funding.

Nextgen Venture Partners led the round and was joined by Elevate Ventures, Singh Capital and Leadout Capital. The latest funding gives theCut $5.35 million in total funding since the company was founded in 2016, founder Obi Omile Jr. told TechCrunch.

Omile and Kush Patel created the mobile app that provides information and reviews on barbers for potential customers while also managing appointments, mobile payments and pricing on the back end for barbers.

“Kush and I both had terrible experiences with haircuts, and decided to build an app to help find good barbers,” Omile said. “We found there were great barbers, but no way to discover them. You can do a Google search, but it doesn’t list the individual barber. With theCut, you can discover an individual barber and discover if they are a great fit for you and won’t screw up your hair.”

The app also enables barbers, perhaps for the first time, to have a list of clients and keep notes and photos of hair styles, as well as track visits and spending. By providing payments, barbers can also leverage digital trends to provide additional services and extras to bring in more revenue. On the customer side, there is a search function with barber profile, photos of their work, ratings and reviews, a list of service offerings and pricing.

Omile said there are 400,000 to 600,000 barbers in the U.S., and it is one of the fastest-growth markets. As a result, the new funding will be used to hire additional talent, marketing and to grow the business across the country.

“We’ve gotten to a place where we are hitting our stride and seeing business catapulting, so we are in hiring mode,” he added.

Indeed, the company generated more than $500 million in revenue for barbers since its launch and is adding over 100,000 users each month. In addition, the app averages 1.5 million appointment bookings each month.

Next up, Omile wants to build out some new features like a digital store and the ability to process more physical payments by rolling out a card reader for in-person payments. TheCut will also focus on enabling barbers to have more personal relationships with their customers.

“We are building software to empower people to be the best version of themselves, in this case barbers,” he added. “The relationship with customers is an opportunity for the barber to make specific recommendations on products and create a grooming experience.”

As part of the investment, Leadout founder and managing partner Ali Rosenthal joined the company’s board of directors. She said Omile and Patel are the kind of founders that venture capitalists look for — experts in their markets and data-driven technologists.

“They had done so much with so little by the time we met them,” Rosenthal added. “They are creating a passionate community and set of modern, tech-driven features that are tailored to the needs of their customers.”

 

SimpliFed serves up $500,000 pre-seed toward infant nutrition support

By Christine Hall

Feeding babies can take many different forms, and is also an area where parents can feel less supported as they navigate this new milestone in their lives.

Enter SimpliFed, an Ithaca, New York-based company providing virtual lactation and a baby feeding support platform. The startup announced Friday that it raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding led by Third Culture Capital.

Andrea Ippolito, founder and CEO of SimpliFed. Image Credits: SimpliFed

CEO Andrea Ippolito, a biomedical engineer and mother of two young children, had the idea for SimpliFed three years ago. She struggled with breastfeeding after having her first child and, realizing that she was not alone in this area, set out to figure out a way to get anyone access to information and support for infant feeding.

“Post discharge is when the rubber meets the goal for us,” she told TechCrunch. “This is a huge pain point for Medicaid, and it is not just about increasing access, but providing ongoing support for feeding and the quagmire that is health insurance. We want to help moms reach their infant feeding goals, no matter how they choose to feed, and to figure out what feeding looks like for them.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers nurse for up to six months. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60% of mothers don’t breastfeed for as long as they intend due to reasons like difficulty lactating or the baby latching, sickness or an unsupportive work environment.

SimpliFed’s platform is a judgement-free zone providing evidence-based information on nutritional health for babies. It isn’t meant to replace typical care that mother and baby will receive before and after delivery, but to provide support when issues arise, Ippolito said. Parents can book a free, initial 15-minute virtual consultation with a lactation expert and then subsequent 60-minute sessions for $100 each. There is also a future membership option for those seeking continuing care.

The new funds will be used to hire additional employees to further develop the telelactation platform and grow the company’s footprint, Ippolito said. The platform is gearing up to go through a clinical study to co-design the program with 1,000 mothers. She also wants to build out relationships with payers and providers toward a longer-term goal of becoming in-network and paid through reimbursement from health plans.

Julien Pham, managing partner at Third Culture Capital, said he met Ippolito at MIT Hacking Medicine a decade ago. A physician by training, he saw first-hand how big of an opportunity it is to demystify providing the best nutrition for babies.

“The U.S. culture has evolved over the years, and millennials are the next-generation moms who have a different ask, and SimpliFed is here at the right time,” Pham said. “Andrea is just a dynamo. We love her energy and how she is at the front line of this as a mother herself — she is most qualified to do this, and we support her.

 

Fintech startup Jeeves raises $57M, goes from YC to $500M valuation in one year

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Last summer, Jeeves was participating in Y Combinator’s summer batch as a fledgling fintech.

This June, the startup emerged from stealth with $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

Today, the company, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is announcing that it has raised a $57 million Series B at a $500 million valuation. That’s up from a valuation of just north of $100 million at the time of Jeeves’ Series A, which closed in May and was announced in early June.

While the pace of funding these days is unlike most of us have ever seen before, it’s pretty remarkable that Jeeves essentially signed the term sheet for its Series B just two months after closing on its Series A. It’s also notable that just one year ago, it was wrapping up a YC cohort.

Jeeves was not necessarily looking to raise so soon, but fueled by its growth in revenue and spend after its Series A, which was led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), the company was approached by dozens of potential investors and offered multiple term sheets, according to CEO and co-founder Dileep Thazhmon. Jeeves moved forward with CRV, which had been interested since the A and built a relationship with Thazhmon, so it could further accelerate growth and launch in more countries, he said.

CRV led the Series B round, which also included participation from Tencent, Silicon Valley Bank, Alkeon Capital Management, Soros Fund Management and a high-profile group of angel investors including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, Odell Beckham Jr. and The Chainsmokers. Notably, the founders of a dozen unicorn companies also put money in the Series B including (but not limited to) Clip CEO Adolfo Babatz; QuintoAndar CEO Gabriel Braga; Uala CEO Pierpaolo Barbieri, BlockFi CEO Zac Prince; Mercury CEO Immad Akhund; Bitso founder Pablo Gonzalez; Monzo Bank’s Tom Blomfield; Intercom founder Des Traynor; Lithic CEO Bo Jiang as well as founders from UiPath, Auth0, GoCardless, Nubank, Rappi, Kavak and others.

Whew.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering was live in Mexico and Canada and today launched in Colombia, the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. 

Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Jeeves claims that by using its platform’s proprietary Banking-as-a-Service infrastructure, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card (with 4% cash back), non card payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

For example, a growing business can use a Jeeves card in Barcelona and pay it back in euros and use the same card in Mexico and pay it back in pesos, reducing any FX fees and providing instant spend reconciliation across currencies. 

Thazhmon believes that the “biggest thing” the company is building out is its own global BaaS layer, that sits across different banking entities in each country, and onto which the end user customer-facing Jeeves app plugs into.

Put simply, he said, “think of it as a BaaS platform, but with only one app — the Jeeves app — plugged into it.”

Image Credits: Jeeves

The startup has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by more than 5,000% since January, and both revenue and spend volume has increased more than 1,100% (11x) since its Series A earlier this year, according to Thazhmon.

Jeeves now covers more than 12 currencies and 10 countries across three continents. Mexico is its largest market. Jeeves is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile and Thazhmon expects that by year’s end, it will be live in all of North America and Europe. Next year, it’s eyeing the Asian market, and Tencent should be able to help with that strategically, he said.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon told TechCrunch. “Our model is very similar to that of Uber’s launch model where we can launch very quickly because we don’t have to rebuild an entire infrastructure. When we launch in countries, we actually don’t have to rebuild a stack.”

Jeeves’ user base has been doubling every 60 days and now powers more than 1,000 companies across LatAm, Canada and Europe, including Bitso, Kavak, RappiPay, Belvo, Runa, Moons, Convictional, Muncher, Juniper, Trienta, Platzi, Worky and others, according to Thazhmon. The company says it has a current waitlist of over 15,000.

Jeeves plans to use its new capital toward its launch in Colombia, the U.K. and Europe. And, of course, toward more hiring. It’s already doubled its number of employees to 55 over the past month.

Former a16z partner Matt Hafemeister was so impressed with what Jeeves is building that in August he left the venture capital firm to join the startup as its head of growth. In working with the founders as an investor, he concluded that they ranked “among the best founders in fintech” he’d ever interacted with.

The decision to leave a16z also related to Jeeves’ inflection point, Hafemeister said. The startup is nearly doubling every month, and had already eclipsed year-end goals on revenue by mid-year.

It is evident Jeeves has found early product market fit and, given the speed of execution, I see Jeeves establishing itself as one of the most important fintech companies in the next few years,” Hafemeister told TechCrunch. “The company is transitioning from a seed company to a Series B company very quickly, and being able to help operationalize processes and play a role in their growth and maturity is an incredible opportunity for me.”

CRV General Partner Saar Gur (who is also an early investor in DoorDash, Patreon and Mercury) said he was blown away by Jeeves’ growth and how it has been “consistently hitting and exceeding targets month over month.” Plus, early feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, Gur said.

“Jeeves is building products and infrastructure that are very difficult to execute but by doing the ‘hard things’ they offer incredible value to their customers,” he told TechCrunch. “We haven’t seen anyone build from the ground up with global operations in mind on day one.”

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

YouTravel.Me packs up $1M to match travelers with curated small group adventures

By Christine Hall

YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.

Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.

Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.

Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”

Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.

Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.

“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”

After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.

The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.

Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.

“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”

 

Pixalate tunes into $18.1M for fraud prevention in television, mobile advertising

By Christine Hall

Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.

Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.

The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.

Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.

Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.

“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”

While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.

The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.

The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.

Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.

“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions —  more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”

 

Callin, David Sacks’ ‘social podcasting’ app, launches and announces a $12M Series A round

By Amanda Silberling

As live audio becomes more and more popular, co-founders David Sacks (former COO of PayPal and CEO of Yammer) and Axel Ericsson sought to combine social audio and podcasting into one seamless app. The resulting app Callin launches today on iOS with an announcement of $12 million in Series A funding co-led by Sequoia, Goldcrest, and Craft Ventures, where Sacks is a founder and partner.

On live audio platforms like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, once a room ends, the audio is gone. While Callin has similar live audio functionality, it sets itself apart by allowing users to save their live recording and edit it into an episode of a podcast.

“I’d been meaning to do a podcast for years, and I just had never gotten around to it, because it’s too complicated, and the barriers are too high,” said Sacks, who started his “All In” podcast in lockdown. “We have a guy in the studio who spends six hours doing post-production on every episode of the pod, and we all had to get microphones, hardware… It’s complicated to organize.”

For aspiring podcasters creating their first shows, Callin reduces the barrier to entry while allowing users to retain ownership of the content they create on the app. To start recording, users just open a room, which can be private or public — then they can invite guests to talk with them, or record alone. In a live room, Callin also has a more streamlined queue for audience participation to make it easier for hosts to manage crowds.

To edit your podcast after recording, the app generates a transcript — it takes about the same amount of time as your recording to transcribe. Then, you can tap a block of text to cut it from the podcast, including isolated filler words, like um and uh. As of now, you can’t cut individual words or phrases within each block of text identified by the AI, but Sacks says that the app will continue building out its editing system. Callin also automates the process of cutting out “dead air” at the beginning or end of a recording. After finishing edits, the host can upload the recording as an episode of a show that they create on the app. Users can also export their audio to share it on other podcasts hosts, and in the future, Sacks said users will be able to syndicate the content via an RSS feed.

“But consuming that content via a podcast app would be different from experiencing it on Callin, because you have the interactive playback to see the room as it was when the conversation occurred,” said Sacks. “So you can see the avatar of who’s talking and you can click it and follow them or browse their profile to see what else they’re interested in, so it’s a different experience than just a flat audio file.”

Image Credits: Callin, screenshot by TechCrunch

Podcasters cannot yet publish their transcripts — which, like most automated transcripts, aren’t 100% accurate — but that functionality, which Callin is working on, could create some much-needed accessibility that’s still lacking on Clubhouse. Like Clubhouse, Callin doesn’t support live captioning yet (Twitter Spaces does). But Sacks said that once it expands to allow hosts to share transcripts, live captioning would “be on the roadmap.”

“There are apps out there that do rooms, there’s apps that let you edit transcripts, and there’s apps that do social discovery or highlights, but nobody’s really put all these pieces together into one experience,” Sacks said. “So we’re trying to be this complete vertical stack for anyone who wants to create an audio show, and so I think you’ll see us keep iterating on every aspect of that experience. We want there to be nothing you can do in a podcasting studio that you can’t do on our app.”

Still, in its current form as it launches into the App Store, Callin lacks tools to edit the quality of an audio recording, add sound effects or music, and edit content in a more precise way. Plus, a podcast recorded on an iPhone won’t sound as good as a professionally produced show, or even a hobbyist’s podcast recorded on a consumer-grade USB mic. But the success of live audio apps has shown that sometimes listeners aren’t looking for quality post-production and sound design, but rather, they just want to hear people talk about a subject that interests them. So, Callin and its investors are betting on the fact that people would want to listen to pre-recorded Clubhouse rooms if they could.

Sacks has used his app to create shows like “Sacks on SaaS,” a show for software company founders, and an interview show called “Red Pills,” which is titled with a phrase that has a very fraught history on the internet. Other user-made content on the app includes shows about the NFL, startups in Berlin, cooking, and more. In its beta, Sacks says that Callin had “thousands” of users who created over 100 shows.

Per its Community Guidelines, Callin “is a place for people to speak, so whenever speech is limited on our platform, there should be a good reason.” Callin will only limit speech restricted by the host of a room, speech restricted by “underlying technology platforms” like Apple and Google, and “dangerous speech not protected by the First Amendment.”

Content moderation has been a challenge on live audio platforms like Clubhouse, which has struggled to refine its content moderation standards after reports of racist and antisemitic speech. Callin’s Community Guidelines indicate that it will host any user-generated content that won’t get the app booted off of Apple and Google stores. Recently, Parler served as a high-profile example of how a social platform’s refusal to moderate content got it removed from app stores, though it has since been reinstated after months of back-and-forth.

With its $12 million Series A round, Callin hopes to support Android and web versions of the app. Eventually, Callin could seek profit through advertisements and show subscriptions, but Sacks says that the company plans to scale first before exploring its monetization options.

“I think this is the best product that I’ve ever worked on,” said Sacks. “I mean, I think it’s better than Yammer. I think it’s better even than PayPal.”

Apple announces new settlement with Japan allowing developers to link to external websites  

By Kate Park

Apple has made a settlement with Japanese regulator that it will allow developers of “reader” apps link to their own website for managing users account. The change goes to effect in early 2022.

This settlement comes after the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) has forced Apple to make a change its polices on the reader apps, like Netflix, Spotify, Audible and Dropbox, that provide purchased content or content subscriptions for digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video.

“We have great respect for the Japan Fair Trade Commission and appreciate the work we’ve done together, which will help developers of reader apps make it easier for users to set up an manage their apps and service, while protecting their privacy and maintaining their trust,” Phill Schiller, who oversees the App Stores at Apple.

Before the change takes into effect next year, Apple will continue to update its guidelines and review process for users of readers app to make sure to be a better marketplace for users and developers alike, according to its statement.

Apple Stores announced last week several updates, which allow developers more flexibility for their customer, and the company also launched the News Partner Program to support local journalists.

Apple will also apply this change globally to all reader apps on the store.

Global lawmakers have been increasingly under scrutiny over the market dominance of Apple and other tech giants. Australia’s Competitions and Consumer Commission is also considering regulations for the digital payment system of Apple, Google and WeChat while South Korea became the first country to curb Apple and Google from imposing their own payment system on in-app purchases.

Apple provides more than 30 million registered developers.

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

Streamers are boycotting Twitch today to protest the platform’s lack of action on ‘hate raids’

By Amanda Silberling

Over the last month, Twitch users have become increasingly concerned and frustrated with bot-driven hate raids. To protest Twitch’s lack of immediate action to prevent targeted harassment of marginalized creators, some streamers are going dark to observe #ADayOffTwitch today.

Per the protest, users are sharing a list of demands for the Amazon-owned Twitch. They want the platform to host a roundtable with creators affected by hate raids, allow streamers to approve or deny incoming raids, enable tools to only allow accounts of a certain age to chat, remove the ability to attach more than three accounts to one email address, and share a timeframe for when comprehensive anti-harassment tools will be implemented.

Hey friendos, I won’t be streaming tomorrow in support of #ADayOffTwitch. (Here’s a handy graphic of some of the things those protesting are asking of @Twitch in case you’re not familiar with what’s going on.) I’ll be back on Thursday for our first swing at Senior Detective! 💜pic.twitter.com/OA9NQlTnq3

— Meg Turney (@megturney) September 1, 2021

TechCrunch asked Twitch if it has plans to address these demands. Twitch responded with a statement: “We support our streamers’ rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service. No one should have to experience malicious and hateful attacks based on who they are or what they stand for, and we are working hard on improved channel-level ban evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”

Twitch Raids are a part of the streaming platform’s culture — after one creator ends their stream, they can “raid” another stream by sending their viewers over to check out someone else’s channel. This feature is supposed to help more seasoned streamers support up-and-comers, but instead, it’s been weaponized as a tool for harassment.

In May, Twitch launched 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race and ability, which users requested so that they could more easily find creators that represent them. But at the same time, these tags made it easier for bad actors to harass marginalized streamers, and Twitch hasn’t yet added tools for streamers to deal with increased harassment. In the meantime, Twitch users have had to take matters into their own hands and build their own safety tools to protect themselves while Twitch works on its updates. Twitch hasn’t shared when its promised anti-harassment tools will go live.  

As recently as December, Twitch updated its policies on hateful content and harassment, which the platform said have always been prohibited, yet vicious attacks have continued. After facing targeted, racist hate raids on their streams, a Black Twitch creator RekItRaven started the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag on Twitter in early August, calling out Twitch for its failure to prevent this abuse. While Twitch is aware of the issue and said it’s working on solutions, many users find Twitch’s response to be too slow and lacking.

We've been building channel-level ban evasion detection and account improvements to combat this malicious behavior for months. However, as we work on solutions, bad actors work in parallel to find ways around them—which is why we can't always share details.

— Twitch (@Twitch) August 20, 2021

Along with streamers LuciaEverblack and ShineyPen, RekItRaven organized #ADayOffTwitch to put pressure on Twitch to make its platform safer for marginalized creators.

“Hate on the platform is not new,” Raven told WYNC’s The Takeaway. But bot-driven raid attacks are more difficult to combat than individual trolls. “I’ve had people come in with bots. It’s usually one or two people who program a bunch of bots, you bypass security measures that are put in place and just spam a broadcaster’s chat with very inflammatory, derogatory language.”

While Raven said they have since had a discussion with Twitch, they don’t feel that one conversation is enough.

Turns out a bunch of LGBTQUIA2+, BIPOC, Disabled, Neurodivergent, and Plural creators really can make a difference by showing up, being loud, and not backing down despite people telling us we won't accomplish anything. Just remember, we aren't done yet. #ADayOffTwitch

— Lucia Everblack (@LuciaEverblack) August 26, 2021

As part of #ADayOffTwitch, some streamers are encouraging their followers to support them financially on other platforms through the #SubOffTwitch tag. Twitch takes 50% of streamers’ revenue, so creators are promoting their accounts on platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, which take a much smaller cut. Though competitor YouTube Gaming takes 30% of revenue, and Facebook Gaming won’t take a cut from creators until 2023, Twitch remains dominant in the streaming space. According to Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch represented 72.3% of the market share in terms of viewership Q1 2021.

Still, popular creators like Ben Lupo (DrLupo), Jack Dunlop (CouRage), and Rachell Hofstetter (Valkyrae) have recently left Twitch for exclusive deals with YouTube Gaming. If Twitch remains unsafe for marginalized creators, others might be swayed to follow their lead, exclusive deals or not.

Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights and search changes

By Sarah Perez

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need to dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more market share in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long-press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes) and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

Flat.mx raises $20M from VCs, proptech unicorn founders to fix Mexico’s ‘broken’ real estate market

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Flat.mx, which wants to build a real estate “super app” for Latin America, has closed on a $20 million Series A round of funding.

Anthemis and 500 Startups co-led the investment, which included participation from ALLVP and Expa. Previously, Flat.mx had raised a total $10 million in equity and $25 million in debt. Other backers include Opendoor CEO and CEO and co-founder Eric Wu, Flyhomes’ co-founder and CEO Tushar Garg and Divvy Homes’ co-founder Brian Ma.

Founded in July 2019, Mexico City-based Flat.mx started out with a model similar to that of Opendoor, buying properties, renovating them and then reselling them. That September, the proptech startup had raised one of Mexico’s largest pre-seed rounds to take the Opendoor real estate marketplace model across the Rio Grande.

“The real estate market in Mexico is broken,” said co-founder Bernardo Cordero. “One of the biggest problems is that it takes sellers anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to sell. So we launched the most radical solution we could find to this problem: an instant offer. This product allows homeowners to sell in days instead of months, a fast and convenient experience they can’t find anywhere else.”

Building an instant buyer (ibuyer) in Mexico — and Latin America in general — is a complex endeavor. Unlike in the U.S., Mexico doesn’t have a Multiple Listing Service (MLS). As such, pricing data is not readily available. On top of that, agents are not required to be certified so the whole process of buying and selling a home can be informal.

And since mortgage penetration in Mexico is also low, it can be difficult for buyers to have access to reasonable financing options.

“To build an iBuyer, we had to solve the transaction end-to-end,” said co-founder Victor Noguera. “We had to build the MLS, a third-party marketplace, a contractor marketplace, financial products, broker technology, and a home maintenance provider, along with other services. In other words, we have been building the real estate Superapp for Latam.”

Flat.mx says its certified remodeled properties have gone through a 200+ point inspection and “a full legal review.” 

Flat.mx is growing sales by 70% quarter-over-quarter, and has increased its inventory by 10x over the last year, according to its founders. It has also nearly tripled its headcount from 30 at the middle of last year to over 85 today. So far, Flat.mx has conducted thousands of home valuations and over 100 transactions.

Image Credits: Flat.mx

The pandemic only helped boost interest.

“Our low touch digital solution was key for having a strong business during the pandemic. We were able to create quick liquidity for sellers at a time in Mexico where it was complicated to sell,” said Cordero. “Our model allows sellers to sell with one visit instead of having to receive over 40 potential buyers at a time where they wanted to sell but also wanted to avoid contact with many buyers.”

The company plans to use its new capital to continue to develop what it describes as a “one-stop shop where homeowners and buyers will be able to get all the services they need in one place.”

The founders believe that rather than just try to tackle one aspect of the homebuying process, it makes more sense in emerging markets to address them all.

“We believe that each one of our products makes the others stronger and creating this ecosystem of products will continue to give us an important advantage in the market,” said Noguera. The startup plans to also use the capital from the round to expand its presence in Mexico for iBuying, and to invest in data and financial products.

Image Credits: Flat.mx

Naturally, Flat.mx’s investors are bullish.

Archie Cochrane, principal investor at Anthemis Group, said his firm views Flat.mx as an integral part of its embedded finance thesis in the context of the Mexican property sector. 

“The iBuyer model itself is well understood and developed in many parts of the world, but it is also a complex model with many variables that requires a seasoned and astute team to execute the strategy,” Cochrane wrote via email. “When we met Victor and Bernardo, it was clear that their clarity of vision and deep understanding of the broader opportunity set would allow them to succeed over the long term.

Tim Chae, managing partner at 500 Startups, said he envisions that Flat.mx will become “the go-to route” for buyers, sellers, agents and lenders in Mexican real estate. 

“There are nuances and specific problems that are unique to Mexico that Flat.mx has done a great job identifying and solving,” he said. 

ALLVP Partner Fernando Lelo de Larrea said that essentially after years of “unkept promises,” software is finally transforming the real estate industry in Mexico. 

“Most models replicate successful models from the more mature U.S. proptech space,” he said. “Since we started investing in proptech, we’ve never seen such an innovative approach to seizing a trillion dollar opportunity.”

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

Vista Equity to acquire majority stake in SaaS startup Drift, taking it to unicorn status

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Private equity firm Vista Equity Partners announced today that it is taking a majority stake in Drift, a company which aims to be the Amazon of businesses, with a “growth investment” that propels the venture-backed startup to unicorn status.

Unfortunately, neither party would disclose the amount of the investment, or Drift’s new valuation. But co-founder and CEO David Cancel did say the SaaS company saw 70% growth in its annual recurring revenue (ARR) in 2020 compared to the year prior and is on target for a similar metric this year. It is not yet profitable, as it is focused on growth, he added.

Prior to this financing, Boston-based Drift had raised $107 million in funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital, CRV and General Catalyst since its 2015 inception.

So just what does the company do exactly? The startup says it is out to ”reimagine the B2B buying experience,” according to Cancel. By using its software, Drift’s 50,000 customers are able to bring together sales and marketing teams on one platform to “deliver personalized conversations” that the company says build trust and accelerate revenue. 

Its customers include ServiceNow, Okta, Grubhub, Mindbody, Adobe, Ellie May and Snowflake, among others. Today 75% of Drift’s customers are mid-market enterprise, according to Cancel. 

Over the past five years, Drift has worked to create and define something it describes as “Conversational Marketing” with the goal of helping marketers “harness the digital experience for lead generation.” Or to put it more simply, Drift subscribers can use chatbots to help turn web visits into sales.

The company says it is out to remove the friction between buyers and sellers so they can not only get more leads, but also close more sales. This led Drift to expand its focus to build a platform that includes conversational sales, which integrates chat, email, video and artificial intelligence to power conversations, not just on a customer’s website, but for the sales team too. 

Cancel said that Vista’s strategic growth investment will help the company move even faster, expand globally and launch a new B2B category called “Conversation Commerce,” an interactive approach to conversations that Drift believes has the potential to “transform the entire B2B revenue function.”

Basically, the company is trying to make the B2B buying/selling experience similar to that of a B2C one. At least 80% of B2B buyers are not only looking for, but expect, a buying experience similar to that of a B2C customer, according to Cancel.

So far in 2021, Drift’s customers generated $5 billion in pipeline value by making the customer side of the buying process easier, he said.

For Cancel, a serial entrepreneur who previously founded and sold four other companies, the notion of owning a company with a unicorn valuation was not something he and co-founder and CTO Elias Torres were overly consumed with.

But what did appeal to the pair was the opportunity to add to the too-short list of U.S.-based unicorns with Latin founders and serve as an inspiration for other entrepreneurs of Latin descent. Cancel’s parents emigrated from Puerto Rico and Cuba while Torres emigrated from Nicaragua in his teens.

“I didn’t really care about that [unicorn] status except for one reason and the reason was that we are both Latino and if we hit this milestone, then we would be part of the less than 1% of Latinos that had ever done that,” Cancel told TechCrunch. “And that was important to us because we believe that we have the responsibility to pay it forward and to help people and to inspire other people who are like us and are often marginalized. We want to show that they can do this too.”

Torres agreed, saying that he and Cancel were “proud to be one of the only Latino-founded companies to ever achieve over $1 billion valuation – a rare, Latino-founded unicorn.”

“We want to see more of us do the same and we will pave the way for other Latino founders and leaders to achieve success,” he added.

By having a majority owner in Vista, which focuses exclusively on backing enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses, Cancel believes that Drift can “get more efficient in some areas.” He also thinks that the firm can help it ramp up its acquisitions pace. (So far it has made three.)

The nearly 600-person company still has its sights on going public, according to Cancel, and believes that by working with Vista, it will have a “clearer path” to do so.

“It’s something we think about a lot,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s still in our future.”

Monti Saroya, co-head of the Flagship Fund and senior managing director at Vista, thinks that Drift represents a “compelling” opportunity for Vista.

“Drift is a company that is experiencing hypergrowth at scale, we and we believe the conversational marketing and sales tools it offers will continue to be in high demand as companies race to modernize their B2B commerce strategies,” he told TechCrunch.

Earlier this year, Vista — which has over $77 billion in assets under management — invested $242 million to acquire a minority stake in Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space.

Meanwhile, Vista’s acquisition of Drift is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021.

General Catalyst, Abstract back Wanderlog’s $1.5M round for collaborative travel

By Christine Hall

Twin brothers Harry and Peter Yu grew up traveling all over, an aspect of their lives that continued even into their careers. What they didn’t enjoy was figuring out all the logistics, which has become more difficult during the pandemic: vacations that could be taken quickly now require more planning and even reservations.

“People travel differently, but the common denominator is that everyone uses some kind of document to plan and share their trip information,” Harry Yu told TechCrunch. “We saw a need for something that is better than spreadsheets and ‘copy-and paste.’ ”

So they launched Bay Area-based Wanderlog in 2019 to enable users to gather and record their travel plans. The free itinerary maker and road trip planner takes the best parts of Google Docs and Maps and enables users to import the information and map out the trip. You can even add lists of places you’d like to visit, and Wanderlog will recommend the best way to get there. Reservations can also be added, Peter Yu said.

Wanderlog demo. Image Credits: Wanderlog

The company announced Wednesday it raised $1.5 million in seed funding from General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures.

“Wanderlog has built a product that has a unique understanding of how users plan trips and share their experiences — it’s no surprise that people love using it,” General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos said via email. “General Catalyst is proud to invest in Wanderlog as they change the way we travel together, and we’re excited by the growth Peter, Harry and the entire Wanderlog team have achieved.”

The company, which was part of Y Combinator’s 2019 cohort, plans to use the new funding to expand its web and mobile app features, including offering restaurant recommendations, based on Google and Yelp reviews, for those who don’t want to do a bunch of searching and reading reviews.

The founders declined to share growth metrics, but said the platform is already facilitating thousands of trips per week. Customers are already sharing with the founders that the app is good for communication among a large group, where everyone can see what the plans are and discuss them, Harry Yu said. In addition, they just launched a subscription service and are seeing good early metrics.

Wanderlog is among a number of travel startups attracting venture capital dollars as travel restrictions have begun to ease amid the pandemic. For example, just over the past month companies like Thatch raised $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper brought in $175 million, Wheel the World grabbed $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner and Elude raised $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry.

 

Web building platform Duda snaps up e-commerce cart tool Snipcart

By Christine Hall

Duda announced Wednesday that it acquired Canada-based Snipcart, a startup that enables businesses to add a shopping cart to their websites.

The acquisition is Palo Alto-based Duda’s first deal, and follows the website development platform’s $50 million Series D round in June that brings its total funding to $100 million to date. Duda co-founder and CEO Itai Sadan declined to comment on the acquisition amount.

Duda, which works with digital agencies and SaaS companies, has approximately 1 million published paying sites, and the acquisition was driven by the company seeing a boost in e-commerce websites as a result of the global pandemic, he told TechCrunch.

This was not just about a technology acquisition for Duda, but also a talented team, Sadan said. The entire Snipcart team of 12 is staying on, including CEO Francois Lanthier Nadeau; the companies will be fully integrated by 2022 and the first collaborative versions will come out.

When he met the Snipcart team, Sadan thought they were “super experienced and held the same values.”

“We share many of the same types of customers, many of which are API-first,” he added. “If our customers need more headless commerce, they can build their own front end using Snipcart. Their customers will benefit from us growing the team — we plan to double it in the next year and roll out more features at a faster pace.”

The global retail e-commerce market is estimated to grow by 50% to $6.3 trillion by 2024, according to Statista. Duda itself has experienced a year over year increase of 265% in e-commerce sites being built on its platform, which Sadan said was what made Snipcart an attractive acquisition to further accelerate and manage its growth that includes over 17,000 customers.

Together, the companies will offer new capabilities, like payment and membership tools inside of the Duda platform. Many of Duda’s customers come with inventory and don’t want to manage it on another e-commerce platform, so Snipcart will be that component for taking their inventory and making it shoppable on the web.

“Everyone is thinking about how to introduce transactions into their websites and web experiences, and that is what we were looking for in an e-commerce platform,” Sadan said.

 

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