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Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine sold to new media firm from former Disney execs

By Sarah Perez

Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s media company that has produced content for streaming services like Hulu, Apple and HBO, among others, has been sold to a yet-unnamed new media firm run by former Disney execs, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, the company announced this morning.

The Wall St. Journal first reported on the sale.

Deal terms were not officially disclosed, but reportedly, the sale values Hello Sunshine’s business at around $900 million, The WSJ says. The news outlet had previously reported Hello Sunshine was exploring a sale after receiving interest from a number of suitors, including Apple.

Hello Sunshine was co-founded by Witherspoon and Strand Equity founder and managing partner Seth Rodsky in 2016, and is best known for producing series like HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” and Apple’s “The Morning Show,” which feature Witherspoon in starring roles.

But the company has also invested in other film and media projects, ranging from Facebook Watch series to collaborations with Amazon’s Audible. It now has upcoming film and TV projects on the slate with Netflix, Amazon, ABC and Starz, and recently announced a Kids & Animation division as well as the acquisition of Sara Rea’s SKR Production to expand into unscripted content.

In addition, the company operates an online and mobile book club app, Reese’s Book Club, now with 2.1 million followers. The club’s more popular picks are often turned into the shows and movies Hello Sunshine later produces.

Per Hello Sunshine’s announcement, the company will be the first acquisition by the new media venture run by Mayer and Staggs, which is backed by private equity firm Blackstone. The firm is spending more than $500 million in cash to purchase shares of Hello Sunshine from its investors, including AT&T and Emerson Collective, The WSJ noted.

Following the deal’s closure, the senior management team will continue to run Hello Sunshine’s day-to-day operations. Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine Chief Executive Sarah Harden will join the board of new company and retain significant equity holders in the new business.

Hello Sunshine will become a cornerstone of the new media company’s strategy, which will involve being an “independent, creator-friendly home for cutting-edge, high-quality, category-defining brands and franchises,” it says.

“Today marks a tremendous moment for Hello Sunshine. I started this company to change the way all women are seen in media. Over the past few years, we have watched our mission thrive through books, TV, film and social platforms. Today, we’re taking a huge step forward by partnering with Blackstone, which will enable us to tell even more entertaining, impactful and illuminating stories about women’s lives globally. I couldn’t be more excited about what this means for our future,” said Witherspoon in a statement about the deal.

The deal arrives at a time when there’s an uptick in consolidation happening the media business, as companies adjust to the shift away from traditional TV and standard movie releases to the always-on world of streaming and cord cutting. For example, Amazon in May announced it would buy MGM Studios for $8.45 billion — a deal being investigated by the FTC for potential antitrust issues. Meanwhile, WarnerMedia and Discovery around the same time announced their plans to merge operations, in hopes of taking a bigger bite out of the streaming market. Now, Comcast and ViacomCBS are exploring ways to work together, too.

But as traditional media companies begin to stream, like NBCU did with Peacock, for instance, they also pull back content licensed to other streamers, like Netflix. That drives demand for new sources of independent programming, like what Hello Sunshine produces.

The company’s value in this market comes from its pipeline of quality projects, many of which are pre-vetted by its book club members, who serve as a built-in audience and fan base for the later film or televised release. Plus, the projects it backs are also those that tell women’s stories — a historically neglected segment of the market, and one that Hello Sunshine’s success proves there’s pend-up demand for among viewers.

Blackstone’s investment in the new company is being made through its private equity business, which previously acquired a majority stake in dating app Bumble. Blackstone has made other entertainment industry investments, as well, including music rights organization SESAC; a Hollywood studio space and Burbank office real estate portfolio; global theme park operator Merlin Entertainments; online genealogy platform Ancestry.com; online mobile ad platforms Vungle and Liftoff; and Epidemic Sound, which delivers music to internet content creators.

Spotify’s Clubhouse rival, Greenroom, tops 140K installs on iOS, 100K on Android

By Sarah Perez

Spotify’s recently launched live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom, has a long road ahead of it if it wants to take on top social audio platforms like Clubhouse, Airtime, Spoon and others, not to mention those from top social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. To date, the new Greenroom app has only been downloaded a total of 141,000 times on iOS, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This includes downloads from its earlier iteration, Locker Room — an app Spotify acquired to make its move into live audio.

On Android, Google Play data indicates the app has been installed over 100,000 times, but Sensor Tower cannot yet confirm this figure.

For comparison, Clubhouse today has 30.2 million total installs, 18.7 million of which are on iOS, Sensor Tower says.

Other top audio apps include Airtime, with 11.4 million iOS installs, out of a total of 14.3 million (including Android); and Spoon, with 7.6 million iOS installs, out of a total of  27.3 million.

International apps like UAE’s Yalla and China’s Lizhi are massive, as well, with the former sporting 48.1 total installs, 3.8 million of which are on iOS. The latter has 29.5+ million total installs, but only a handful on iOS.

There are other newcomers that have managed to stake smaller claims in the social audio space, too, including Fishbowl (759,000 total installs), Cappuccino (497,000 installs), Riff (339,000 installs) and Sonar (154,000 installs.)

Image Credits: Sensor Tower. The firm analyzed 34 social audio apps. The chart shows those with the most installs.  

Spotify Greenroom’s launch last month, meanwhile, seems to have attracted only a small fraction of Spotify’s larger user base, which has now grown to 365 million monthly active users.

The majority of Greenroom’s installs — around 106,000 — took place after Greenroom’s official launch on July 16, 2021 through July 25, 2021, Sensor Tower says. Counting only its Greenroom installs, the app is ranked at No. 12 among social audio apps. It follows Tin Can, which gained 127,000 installs since launching in early March.

Because Greenroom took over Locker Room’s install base, some portion of Greenroom’s total iOS installs (141K) included downloads that occurred when the app was still Locker Room. But that number is fairly small. Sensor Tower estimates Locker Room saw only around 35,000 total iOS installs to date. That includes the time frame of October 26, 2020 — the month when the sports chat app launched to the public — up until the day before Greenroom’s debut (July 15, 2021).

We should also point out that downloads are not the same thing as registered users, and are far short of active users. Many people download a new app to try it, but then abandon it shortly after downloading it, or never remember to open it at all.

That means the number of people actively using Greenroom at this time, is likely much smaller that these figures indicate.

Spotify declined to comment on third-party estimates.

While Sensor Tower looked at competition across social audio apps on the app stores, Spotify’s competition in the live audio market won’t be limited to standalone apps, of course.

Other large tech platforms have more recently integrated social audio into their apps, too, including Facebook (Live Audio Rooms), Twitter (Spaces), Discord (Stage Channels) and trading app Public. A comparison with Greenroom here is not possible, as these companies would have to disclose how many of their active users are engaging with live audio, and they have not yet done so.

Despite what may be a slower uptake, Greenroom shouldn’t be counted out yet. The app is brand-new, and has time to catch up if all goes well. (And if the market for live audio, in general, continues to grow — even though the height of Covid lockdowns, which prompted all this live audio socializing in the first place, seems to have passed.)

Spotify’s success or failure with live audio will be particularly interesting to watch given the potential for the company to cross-promote live audio shows, events, and artist-produced content through its flagship streaming music application. What sort of programming Greenroom may later include is still unknown, however.

Following Spotify’s acquisition of Locker Room maker Betty Labs, the company said it would roll out programmed content related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition to sports. It also launched a Creator Fund to help fuel the app with new content. 

But so far, Spotify hasn’t given its users a huge incentive to visit Greenroom.

The company, during its Q2 2021 earnings, explained why. It said it first needed to get Greenroom stabilized for a “Spotify-sized audience,” which it why it only soft-launched the app in June. Going forward, Spotify says there will be “more tie-ins” with the main Spotify app, but didn’t offer any specifics.

“Obviously we’ll leverage our existing distribution on Spotify,” noted Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. “But this feels like a great way to learn, experiment and iterate, much faster than if we had to wait for a full on integration into the main app,” he added.

Spotify’s podcast ad revenue jumps 627% in Q2

By Amanda Silberling

In the minutes before its quarterly earnings call this morning, Spotify played advertisements for its originals and exclusives, like the true crime show “Deathbed Confessions,” and the sex and relationships podcast “Call Her Daddy,” which Spotify recently acquired in a deal worth $60 million. Sure, it’s kind of hilarious to hear a recording of host Alex Cooper’s voice say, “Hey, daddy gang!” as investors log in to an 8 a.m. call, but the subtext rang clear: Spotify is serious about growing its podcast business.

Given how many podcasting companies Spotify has acquired over the past few years, it would be concerning if there hadn’t been significant growth in this realm. Among Spotify users who already listen to podcasts, podcast listening increased 30% year over year, with total hours consumed up 95%. Meanwhile, podcast ad revenue increased by 627%, which outperformed expectations. Spotify attributes this success to a triple-digit year-over-year gain at its in-house studios (The Ringer, Parcast, Spotify Studios and Gimlet) and exclusive deals with “The Joe Rogan Experience” and the Obamas’ Higher Ground studio. Spotify also referenced its November acquisition of Megaphone, a podcast hosting and ad company.

“The continued outperformance is currently limited only by the availability of our inventory, which is something we’re actively solving for,” said CEO Daniel Ek. “The days of our ad business accounting for less than 10% of our total revenue are behind us, and going forward, I expect ads to be a substantial part of our revenue mix.”

Image Credits: Spotify

In April, Spotify launched paid podcast subscriptions — through Anchor, the podcast host that it bought in 2019, creators can choose to put certain content behind a paywall. Apple launched a similar feature, but it’s still too early to know how these subscription services will impact listeners and creators. However, Spotify did share a bit more information about its Audience Network, an audio ad marketplace. Since its rollout in April, Spotify’s “monetizable podcast inventory” tripled. Spotify has also seen a “meaningful” increase in unique advertisers and a “double-digit lift” in CPMs (cost per thousand ad impressions), but didn’t provide specific figures.

Still, the more power a platform like Spotify has over the podcasting industry, the fewer options creators will have for monetization — already, the ubiquity of streaming platforms has taken a toll on musicians, who are working together to demand better compensation from Spotify. The Justice at Spotify movement points out that on average, artists get $0.0038 per stream of a song, which means that a song needs to be streamed 263 times to make a single dollar. Spotify has continued to grow during the pandemic, but because live shows are musicians’ best way to make money in the age of streaming, artists have struggled while it’s unsafe to go on tour.

On this morning’s earnings call, Ek pointed to live performances as a potential way for musicians to increase revenue. In the past quarter, Spotify has tested live concerts as an income stream, partnering with artists like The Black Keys. Still, smaller artists might not trust the platform given its refusal to make streaming itself a more viable way to get paid for their work.

“Live is a meaningful thing for many of our creators, and it’s something that we’re excited about,” said Ek, adding that Spotify saw positive results from its digital live events thus far. “We want to provide as many opportunities for creators … to turn a listen into a fan, and turn fans into super fans, and increase the monetization for those creators.”

Though Spotify missed its target for monthly active users (MAUs) in Q2, other key metrics trended upward, like paid subscriber growth and revenue. The platform attributes this road bump in MAU growth to the lingering impact of COVID-19, as well as an issue Spotify had with its third-party email verification system.

“In full disclosure, this was an issue on our end,” said CFO Paul Vogel. “The estimate right now was that it was about 1 to 2 million of MAU growth that was impacted by the friction created by this email verification change. It’s since been corrected and should not be an impact in Q3.”

Of Spotify’s 365 million MAUs, 165 million (about 42.5%) are paid subscribers — that’s still far beyond its next biggest competitor, Apple Music, which had 60 million subscribers in 2019 but hasn’t released updated figures since.

Facebook Messenger is stepping up its emoji game

By Amanda Silberling

If you can’t say it with words, say it with an emoji. Facebook is announcing a few minor updates today to its Messenger platform, which make it easier than ever to find the exact emoji you’re looking for when reacting to a friend’s message (let’s be real, there’s a big difference between the “crying laughing” and “crying” emoji). This includes a search bar for emoji reactions, and a recently used emojis section. And, if you weren’t let down by the long-awaited “Space Jam” sequel, you can sport your love for hoopster Bugs Bunny with a “Space Jam 2” chat theme, available both on Messenger and in Instagram DMs. Don’t get too excited though — even though this theme sets a basketball as the chat’s emoji, the long lost, beloved basketball mini game has not yet made its triumphant return to the Messenger app.

Image Credits: Facebook Messenger

It may not feel like there’s room for innovation in, um, the emoji space, but even Twitter has explored the option of allowing people to emoji-react to tweets. And as live audio has become ever present — from Clubhouse, to Twitter Spaces, to Spotify’s Greenroom — why not add audio to emojis?

Last week, Messenger debuted Soundmojis, which are what they sound like — emojis with sounds. On the Messenger app, you can use Soundmojis by clicking the smiley face icon in the chat box, which opens up the expressions menu. When you select the loudspeaker icon, you can select from just under 30 standard emojis, but when you click on them, they play sounds including “Brooklyn 99” quotes, Olivia Rodrigo clips, and lines from “Bridgerton.” The “X” emoji plays “Oh No” by Capone, a song that went viral on TikTok.

According to Facebook Messenger, people send more than 2.4 billion messages with emojis on the platform each day. That’s great and all, but if we can tap the car emoji to hear sounds from “Fast & Furious,” when will we be able to tap the soccer emoji to play “keepie uppie” again?

Zebra raises $1.1M in a pre-seed round for messaging that pairs photos with voice chat

By Taylor Hatmaker

A new voice-based social app that cites Clubhouse as its biggest inspiration offers a playful new way to stay in touch with close friends and family. Zebra leaves video out of the equation altogether, inviting users to snap on-the-fly photos and send them off paired with casual voice updates.

Zebra focuses on asynchronous sharing, but it also lets users call one another if they’re both already hanging out on the app. The result is a fun and casual way to stay in touch for anyone who doesn’t feel like accidentally getting sucked into Instagram’s endless, ad-strewn feed every time they want to give a friend a quick update.

For now Zebra is a two-person team consisting of CEO Dennis Gecaj, a product designer based in Berlin, and Amer Shahnawaz, Zebra’s head of engineering, who previously worked on Snap Maps at Snapchat. The pre-seed funding was led by Alexis Ohanian’s fresh early-stage venture firm Seven Seven Six, which the Reddit co-founder announced in June. The app will launch formally in August but is now open for preorders through the App Store and as a beta in TestFlight.

“It’s no secret that we are in the midst of an audio revolution, one that has ushered in a series of new audio-first social platforms and content vehicles,” Ohanian said, noting that Zebra’s unique blend of photos and voice is what caught his eye.

Gecaj sees voice-based social networking as a much richer alternative to text-dominant platforms. While products like Instagram allow voice messages and technically let users make voice calls by disabling the camera, voice usually plays second fiddle to video. But video calls are more taxing and require more commitment — it’s no coincidence more and more Zoom cameras blinked offline as the pandemic dragged on.

Unlike Clubhouse, which Gecaj calls a “huge inspiration, Zebra is social audio designed for your inner circle. “With everything opening back up we saw an incredible opportunity for an asynchronous format for that,” he told TechCrunch.

Gecaj hopes that Zebra’s “talking photos” can capture the collective imagination in a way that makes early growth natural. Anyone who downloads Zebra can invite friends individually without needing to share their full contact list (and they’ll need to — you can’t do anything on the app without friends). Because Zebra’s interface is so clean and streamlined, this process is painless and doesn’t necessitate any extra digging through menus.

The idea of a “zebra” — naturally, Zebra is trying to make “zebra” happen — is that people like to see what they are talking about. On a different messaging app, this would require sending a photo and then sending a voice message in quick succession. But on Zebra, sending a photo is the main thing you can do. The app opens right to the camera where you snap a picture. You then hold the photo to record a snippet of voice to go along with it and send it off to friends and family, who appear in a row beneath the camera.

Zebra isn’t worried about the prospect of talking people into downloading another app. Gecaj sees a natural split emerging as creators and audiences increasingly become the focus of social platforms that were initially designed to help friends stay in touch.

“I think the trend is a division between creator platforms where you go to be entertained and platforms you go to hang out with your friends,” Gecaj told TechCrunch.

On top of that, he hopes that Zebra’s dual focus on voice and photos, two aspects of social networking that platforms either don’t prioritize or are actively abandoning, can make it appealing for people who aren’t as interested in video.

“We really also think that text messaging doesn’t have the same emotion as voice… and voice has been really neglected,” Gecaj said. “There’s really a richness to voice, a power to voice that nothing else has.”

 

WebOps platform Pantheon raises $100M from SoftBank Vision Fund

By Frederic Lardinois

WebOps SaaS platform Pantheon, which started out as a Drupal and WordPress hosting service many years ago, today announced that it has raised a $100 million Series E round solely funded by the Softbank Vision Fund. With this round, Pantheon has now reached unicorn status, with a valuation of over $1 billion.

Pantheon co-founder and CEO Zack Rosen told me that the company wasn’t under any pressure to raise. “It really just helps us accelerate everything that we’re doing,” he said. “We didn’t need the funding. We had plenty of cash in the bank. We were planning to raise in a year or two years down the road. But we have a lot of conviction in and where this industry is going and our customers’ needs are pretty apparent, so we just used this as an opportunity to pull things in by six months to a year and accelerate all the things that were already on our operational plans for the company.”

Image Credits: Pantheon

As Rosen noted, the role of company websites has changed quite a bit since Pantheon launched almost a dozen years ago. While originally, they were mostly about brand building and having a publishing channel, these days, they are directly tied to revenue. “The majority of buying decisions get made before anyone talks to a customer these days,” Rosen said. “All the research is getting done — hopefully — on your company’s website. Any link in an advertisement or link in an email is going to route that customer back to the website. That’s your most important digital product. And so marketers are really starting to think about it like that.”

So while hosting and publishing may be solved problems, driving revenue through a company’s website — and measuring that — is where Pantheon sees a lot of opportunities going forward. Though at the core of the company’s offering, of course, is still its serverless hosting platform and developers remain its core audience. But it’s the collaboration between the marketing teams and developers that is driving a lot of what the company is now investing in. “In order to deliver a best-in-class digital experience — and be able to iterate it every single day and work with designers and developers and website owners and project managers — you need a system of record for that work. You need a solid workflow for those teams,” Rosen noted.

Companies, he argues, are looking for a solid SaaS platform that provides them with those workflows, in addition to the high-performance hosting, CDNs and everything else that is now table stakes for hosting websites. “[Teams] want to stop thinking about this stuff,” he said. “They just want a partner — like any other SaaS application, whether it’s Stripe, Twilio or Salesforce. They just want it to work and not to worry about it. And then, once you have that taken care of, then you can move up into the things that really drive the outcomes these teams care about.”

As for raising from the SoftBank Vision Fund, which features the likes of ByteDance, Perch, Redis Labs, Slack and Arm among its investments (and, infamously, WeWork), Rosen said that Pantheon had its choice of firms, but at the end of the day, SoftBank’s team turned out to be “huge believers in this category,” he said, and could help Pantheon reach the scale it needs to define the WebOps category.

“Digital transformation has accelerated the movement to the cloud for essential business infrastructure. By automating workflows and do-it-yourself with its SaaS offering, we believe Pantheon’s leading platform is transforming how modern website experiences are created,” said Vikas Parekh, Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. “We are excited to partner with Zack and the Pantheon team to support their ambition of helping organizations embrace a new and better way of building websites that deliver results.”

Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces are coming to Twitter

By Amanda Silberling

In Twitter’s latest appeal to one-up competitors, from Clubhouse to Patreon, the company announced today that it will begin rolling out applications for Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces.

Twitter first teased the Super Follow feature during an Analyst Day event in February. Super Follows allow creators on Twitter to generate monthly revenue by offering paywalled content to followers who subscribe to them for $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month. To be eligible, users over the age of 18 need to have 10,000 followers and at least 25 tweets in the last 30 days.

Twitter will only take 3% of creators’ revenue after in-app purchase fees — but, on the App Store and Google Play, in-app purchase fees are 30%, which means that creators will take home about two-thirds of what their followers are paying. Once they exceed $50,000 of lifetime earnings on Twitter, the app will take “20% of future earnings after fees.” When combined with the 30% in-app purchase fee, that leaves creators with about half of their followers’ payments. Meanwhile, Patreon only takes between 5% and 12% of a creator’s earnings (it bypasses in-app purchase fees since it’s a web-based platform). While creators who primarily engage with their audience on Twitter might benefit from having a way to monetize without directing followers to another app, the difference in payout here is stark. Creators might not abandon their existing Patreon systems for Super Follows, but at the very least, this could offer a supplemental income stream.

“Our goal is to elevate people driving the conversations on Twitter and help them earn money,” said senior product manager Esther Crawford. “We updated our revenue share cuts after spending more time thinking about how we could support emerging voices on Twitter.”

Image Credits: Twitter

Ticketed Spaces seem more promising though, since Clubhouse, Spotify Greenroom and other competitors don’t offer similar options yet (Discord is testing ticketed audio events on its Stage Discovery portal, but they aren’t out yet). Through Ticketed Spaces, users can set their ticket price anywhere between $1 and $999. Creators can also limit how many tickets are sold, which might incentivize someone to actually use the $999 ticket price for a one-on-one conversation with a celebrity (still… yikes?). Twitter will remind attendees that the Ticketed Space is happening through push and in-app notifications. Users over the age of 18 that have hosted three Spaces in the last 30 days and have at least 1,000 followers are eligible to apply for access.

Clubhouse and Instagram have features that let listeners tip speakers or award badges in a live audio space, but the apps don’t yet allow for advance ticket sales. Another way for top creators to make money on these apps is through Creator Funds. Spotify Greenroom and Clubhouse have both announced plans for Creator Funds, but it’s not yet clear how the earning potential will compare with selling access to Ticketed Spaces on Twitter.

This slew of updates to Twitter comes after activist shareholders attempted to oust CEO Jack Dorsey last year. Now, Twitter is rapidly adding new features and acquiring companies like Revue (a newsletter platform), Ueno (a creative agency) and Breaker (a social podcasting platform).

Image Credits: Twitter

Applications to use Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces are only available on mobile (so, no avoiding the in-app purchase fees) and for people in the U.S. Currently, only iOS users can apply for Super Follows, but Ticketed Spaces applications are available on both iOS and Android. Twitter is adding a brand new Monetization button to the sidebar in the app, where users navigate to see if they’re eligible to apply to be part of the test groups for these features. These features will launch more broadly in the coming months.

Update 6/22/21, 2:48 PM EST with additional information about eligibility criteria for new features

 

Clubhouse is building a DM text chat feature

By Taylor Hatmaker

Some Clubhouse users were treated to a surprise feature in their favorite app, but it wasn’t long for this world. A new UI element called “backchannel” popped up briefly before disappearing late last week, pointing the Clubhouse faithful to a new area of the app and generating plenty of chatter among users ready for more ways to connect.

Wow looks like accidental update of @clubhouse enabled in app backchannel & switch of side bar & full experience.

Seems it’s rolled back now but from what I saw it was beautiful!!

On stage > move to hallway > hit arrow > back channel popped up! @jowyang @GaryLHenderson pic.twitter.com/5bJfVlg7t5

— Brian Fanzo 🧢 Keynote Speaker $ADHD (@iSocialFanz) June 18, 2021

While the backchannel screen was totally blank without so much as a text entry box, it looks like the company is working on building out the text chat feature that Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison previously discussed in a company town hall.

“…. I think that there are so many people who do DM backchannels all the time, so many people who want to deepen friendships and relationships with people and do all sorts of other stuff — I think this is something that we should have,” Davison said.

Here's a comment where @pdavison mentions the need for a backchannel of sorts (where people can DM each other) for @Clubhouse during a recent town hall.

/via @_SimonLau cc @morqon @BryanMenegus pic.twitter.com/qTwTDN6GZU

— Chris Messina (@chrismessina) June 21, 2021

The Clubhouse co-founder went on to say that building the feature to suit the app’s use cases won’t be trivial and wouldn’t be happening right away. He also declined to elaborate on if the app would add traditional one-on-one DMs or a more open group text chat feature.

When reached for comment, Clubhouse didn’t dissuade TechCrunch from the assumption that a messaging feature is around the corner, but issued a coy statement.

“As part of our product building process, Clubhouse regularly explores and tests potential features,” a Clubhouse spokesperson told TechCrunch. “These functions sometimes become part of the app, sometimes they don’t.”

Spotify’s new Clubhouse copycat app Greenroom offers its own live text chatroom that users can access by swiping right in the app, giving it a bit of flexibility that Clubhouse has yet to offer. From the looks of the Clubhouse backchannel feature, it also lives in window accessed through swiping, though that’s obviously subject to change.

Equity Monday: China hates crypto, and the Vision Fund’s vision lives on

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

Our live show is this week! And we’re very excited about it! Details here, and you can register here. It’s free, of course, so swing by and hang with us.

Back on theme, we had a lot to get through this morning, so inside the show you can find the following and more:

  • The Chinese cryptocurrency clampdown is a big damn deal: With lots of the nation’s mining capacity heading offline, there’s a scramble to relocate rigs and generally figure out what a crypto market sans China might look like.
  • In the wake of the news, the value of cryptocurrencies fell. As did shares of Coinbase this morning in pre-market trading.
  • Facebook’s Clubhouse rival is out. The American social giant follows Spotify into the live-audio market. You have to give it to modern software companies, who thought that they could be both leading tech shops and Kinko’s clones at the same time?
  • Revolut is unprofitable as hell but increasingly less so. That could be good news for fintech as a whole.
  • Amber Group raised $100 million; Forto raised $240 million.

See you this Thursday at the live show!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Owning the paycheck is the key to fintech success

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week, Natasha and Danny, otherwise known as your two new favorite Book influencers (inside joke, you’ll get if you listen to the show), hopped on the mics to take everyone threw the news, with Grace and Chris in the background.

Here’s what we got into:

Well, as you can tell, it’s been a busy writing and speaking week for your humble hosts. We’re grateful for the opportunity, and will be back in your ears on Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

P.S. We can’t wait to see you all at our live show next week. If you haven’t grabbed free tickets, GET THEM!

Spotify acquires Podz, a podcast discovery platform

By Amanda Silberling

Podcasts are all the rage, but podcast discovery is a challenge. Today, Spotify announced its acquisition of Podz, a startup that’s trying to solve the problem of podcast discovery.

“At Spotify, we are investing to build and scale the world’s best (and most personalized) podcast discovery experience,” the company said. “We believe that Podz’ technology will complement and accelerate Spotify’s focused efforts to drive discovery, deliver listeners the right content at the right time, and accelerate growth of the category worldwide.”

Since podcasts are usually upwards of 30 minutes long, it’s hard for listeners to browse new shows – listening to an episode of a podcast isn’t as easy as trying out a song by a new artist. So, Podz developed what it called “the first audio newsfeed,” presenting users with 60-second clips from various shows. Podcasters often use apps like Headliner to create clips to promote on their social media accounts, and Podz follows the same idea. But instead of podcasters manually choosing how to promote their show, Podz chooses a clip using its machine learning model, which was trained on more than 100,000 hours of audio in consultation with journalists and audio editors.

Podz demo

Image Credits: Podz

Before its acquisition by Spotify, Podz raised $2.5 million in pre-seed funding from M13, Canaan Partners, Charge Ventures, and Humbition. Celebrities like Katie Couric and Paris Hilton also invested.

“Already, the average podcast listener subscribes to seven podcasts but follows almost 30 on Podz,” M13 General Partner Latif Peracha told TechCrunch via email in February. “Early signals make us optimistic the team can build a transformative product in the category.”

This acquisition marks yet another sign of Spotify’s ambition to corner the podcasting market, and audio entertainment in general – just yesterday, Spotify debuted Greenroom, its live audio Clubhouse rival. And when it comes to driving revenue from podcast subscriptions, Spotify and Apple are neck and neck. In April, Apple announced its expansion into podcast subscriptions, and the following week, Spotify began rolling out its subscription platform after teasing it in February. Apple said it will take 30% of podcast revenue in the first year, which will drop to 15% in the second. On the other hand, Spotify’s program won’t take any cut from creators until 2023, when it will take 5%.

Though podcast creators can quickly determine that it might prove more beneficial to surrender 5% of their subscription earnings than 30%, listeners will likely just flock to whatever app provides the best user experience – and if Spotify’s investment in discovery pays off, it could pose trouble for Apple’s longstanding dominance in the podcasting medium.

Spotify launches its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom

By Sarah Perez

In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. Today, the company is making good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts. It’s also announcing a Creator Fund which will help to fuel the new app with more content in the future.

The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code. In fact, Spotify tells us, current Locker Room users will see their app update to become the rebranded and redesigned Greenroom experience, starting today.

Where Locker Room had used a white-and-reddish orange color scheme, the new Greenroom app looks very much like an offshoot from Spotify, having adopted the same color palette, font and iconography.

To join the new app, Spotify users will sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’ll then be walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests.

Image Credits: Spotify

For the time being, the process of finding audio programs to listen to relies primarily on users joining groups inside the app. That’s much like how Locker Room had operated, where its users would find and follow favorite sports teams. However, Greenroom’s groups are more general interest now, as it’s no longer only tied to sports.

In time, Spotify tells us the plan is for Greenroom to leverage Spotify’s personalization technology to better connect users to content they would want to hear. For example, it could send out notifications to users if a podcaster you already followed on Spotify went live on Spotify Greenroom. Or it could leverage its understanding of what sort of podcasts and music you listen to in order to make targeted recommendations. These are longer-term plans, however.

As for Spotify Greenroom’s feature set, it’s largely on par with other live audio offerings — including those from Clubhouse, Twitter (Spaces) and Facebook (Live Audio Rooms). Speakers in the room appear at the top of the screen as rounded profile icons, while listeners appear below as smaller icons. There are mute options, moderation controls, and the ability to bring listeners on stage during the live audio session. Rooms can host up to 1,000 people, and Spotify expects to scale that number up later on.

Image Credits: Spotify

Listeners can also virtually applaud speakers by giving them “gems” in the app — a feature that came over from Locker Room, too. The number of gems a speaker earned displays next to their profile image during a session. For now, there’s no monetary value associated with the gems, but that seems an obvious next step as Greenroom today offers no form of monetization.

It’s worth noting there are a few key differentiators between Spotify Greenroom and similar live audio apps. For starters, it offers a live text chat feature that the host can turn on or off whenever they choose. Hosts can also request the audio file of their live audio session after it wraps, which they can then edit to turn into a podcast episode.

Perhaps most importantly is that the live audio sessions are being recorded by Spotify itself. The company says this is for moderation purposes. If a user reports something in a Greenroom audio room, Spotify can go back to look into the matter, to determine what sort of actions may need to be taken. This is an area Clubhouse has struggled with, as its users have sometimes encountered toxicity and abuse in the app in real-time, including in troubling areas like racism and misogyny. Recently, Clubhouse said it had to shut down a number of rooms for antisemitism and hate speech, as well.

Spotify says the moderation of Spotify Greenroom will be handled by its existing content moderation team. Of course, how quickly Spotify will be able react to boot users or shut down live audio rooms that are in violation of its Code of Conduct remains to be seen.

While the app launching today is focused on user-generated live audio content, Spotify has larger plans for Greenroom. Later this summer, the company plans to make announcements around programmed content — something it says is a huge priority — alongside the launch of other new features. This will include programming related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition the to sports content Locker Room was known for.

Image Credits: Spotify

The company also says it will be marketing Spotify Greenroom to artists through its Spotify for Artists channels, in hopes of seeding the app with more music-focused content. And it confirmed that monetization options for creators will come further down the road, too, but isn’t talking about what those may look like in specific detail for the moment.

In addition, Spotify is today announcing the Spotify Creator Fund, which will help audio creators in the U.S. generate revenue for their work. The company, however, declined to share any details on this front, either– like the size of fund, how much creators would receive, time frame for distributions, selection criteria or other factors. Instead, it’s only offering a sign-up form for those who may be interested in hearing more about this opportunity in the future. That may make it difficult for creators to weigh their options, when there are now so many.

Spotify Greenroom is live today on both iOS and Android across 135 markets around the world. That’s not quite the global footprint of Spotify itself, though, which is available in 178 markets. It’s also only available in the English language for the time being, but plans on expanding as it grows.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosts first test of Live Audio Rooms in US

By Sarah Perez

In April, Facebook announced a slew of new audio products, including its Clubhouse clone, called Live Audio Rooms, which will be available across both Facebook and Messenger. Since May, Facebook has been publicly testing the audio rooms feature in Taiwan with public figures, but today the company hosted its first public test of Live Audio Rooms in the U.S. The event itself was hosted by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who chatted with fellow execs and creators.

Joining Zuckerberg were Facebook VP and Head of Facebook Reality Labs Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Head of Facebook App Fidji Simo and three Facebook Gaming creators, including StoneMountain64, QueenEliminator and TheFierceDivaQueen.

Image Credits: Facebook screenshot

The creators used their time in the Audio Room to talk more about their gaming journeys on Facebook, what kind of games they were streaming and other gaming-related matters. Zuckerberg also briefly teased new gaming features, including a new type of post, coming soon, called “Looking for Players.” This post type will help creators find others in the community to play games with while they’re streaming.

In addition, badges that are earned from livestreams will now carry over to fan groups, Zuckerberg said, adding that it was a highly requested feature by creators and fans alike.

Fan groups will also now become available to all partnered creators on Facebook Gaming, starting today, and will roll out to others in the coming weeks.

Image Credits: Facebook screenshot

The experience of using the Live Audio Room is very much like what you’d expect on another platform, like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces. The event’s hosts appear in rounded profile icons at the top of the screen, while the listeners appear in the bottom half of the screen, as smaller icons. In between is a section that includes people followed by the speakers.

The active speaker is indicated with a glowing ring in shades of Facebook blue, purple and pink. If verified, a blue check appears next to their name.

Listeners can “Like” or otherwise react to the content as it streams live using the “Thumbs Up” button at the bottom of the screen. And they can choose to share the Audio Room either in a Facebook post, in a Group, with a friend directly or through other apps.

Image Credits: Facebook screenshot

A toggle switch under the room’s three-dot “more” menu lets you turn on or off auto-generated captions, for accessibility. From here, you can also report users or any issues or bugs you encountered.

The Live Audio Room today did not offer any option for raising your hand or joining the speakers on stage — it was more of a “few-to-many” broadcast experience.

Before today, TechCrunch received a couple of tips from users who reported seeing the Audio Rooms option appear for them in the Facebook app. However, the company told us it had only tested Live Audio Rooms in the U.S. with employees.

During the test period, Live Audio Rooms are only available on iOS and Android, we’re told.

Zuckerberg also used today’s event to talk more broadly about Facebook’s plans for the creator economy going forward.

“I think a good vision for the future is one where a lot more people get to do creative work and work that they enjoy, and fewer people have to do work that they just find a chore. And, in order to do that, a lot of what we need to do is basically build out a bunch of these different monetization tools,” explained Zuckerberg. “Not all creators are going to have the same business model. So having the ability to basically use a lot of different tools like Fiji [Simo] was talking about — for some people it might be, Stars or ad revenue share or subscriptions or selling things or different kinds of things like that — that will be important and part of making this all add up.”

He noted also that the tools Facebook is building go beyond gaming, saying that Facebook intends to support journalists, writers and others — likely a reference to the company’s upcoming Substack clone, Bulletin, expected to launch later this month.

Zuckerberg additionally spoke about how the company won’t immediately take a cut of the revenue generated from creators’ content.

“Having this period where we’re not taking a cut and more people can get into these kinds of roles, I think is going to be a good thing to do — especially given how hard hit a lot of parts of the economy have been with COVID and the pandemic,” he said.

More realistically, of course, Facebook’s decision to not take an immediate cut of some creator revenue is a decision it’s making in order to help attract more creators to its service, in the face of so much competition across the industry.

Clubhouse, for example, is currently wooing creators with a payments feature, where creators keep 100% of their revenue. And it’s funding some creators’ shows. Twitter, meanwhile, is tying its audio product Spaces to its broader set of creator tools, which now include newsletters, tips and, soon, a subscription platform dubbed Super Follow.

Zuckerberg didn’t say during today’s event when Live Audio Rooms would be available to the public, but said the experience would roll out to “a lot more people soon.”

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

Twitter redesigns its mobile app to make Spaces the center tab

By Sarah Perez

Twitter is updating its app to make its audio chat room feature, Twitter Spaces, a central part of the user experience. Today, the company will begin to roll out a dedicated tab for Twitter Spaces in the main navigation bar of its mobile app, initially on iOS to select users. The feature will see Twitter Spaces gain the middle spot in this bar, in between the Search magnifying glass icon and the bell icon for Notifications. As Spaces is not replacing any other tab, that means the navigation bar will now have to accommodate five icons instead of only four.

Not everyone will see the update immediately. Instead, only around 500 people from the original Spaces beta test will first see the new Spaces discovery tab, as it’s called, when it rolls out today.

Twitter says the tab will showcase the Spaces being hosted by people you follow, but these won’t appear like they do on the Fleet line today at the top of the Timeline. Instead, the discovery tab will present Spaces in a more visual format, similar to the promotion cards that appear when you tweet about upcoming Spaces.

Image Credits: Twitter

 

The company told TechCrunch that, even though Spaces can be fun, it understands the live events have been hard to find and keep track of, given there’s been no dedicated place where Spaces can be discovered. The new tab aims to change that.

Within the tab, users will be able to see active Spaces with more details, including Space names, hosts, and people you know who are participating. The tab will also allow users to manage reminders for scheduled Spaces so you’re be notified when they’re about to begin, and give Twitter feedback about which Spaces you’d like to see more of.

App researcher Jane Manchun Wong had uncovered Twitter’s plans to revamp its app to include Spaces on the nav bar last month.

Currently, only Twitter users with at least 600 followers have been granted the ability to host Spaces, and Twitter told us that figure has not changed with the launch of the tab. However, the company still has grand plans for the Spaces product, including not only scheduled Spaces which are now becoming easier to find with this discovery feature, but also things like ticketed events, co-hosted events, accessibility improvements and more.

Putting Spaces directly in navigation bar represents a big push for Twitter’s audio chat rooms, which have otherwise been fairly easy to ignore by those who aren’t that interested in Twitter’s Clubhouse competitor. It also arrives at a time when Clubhouse is expanding access to its own social audio app. Following its debut on Android, Clubhouse said 2 million Android users have already joined its platform.

Twitter, meanwhile, hasn’t yet publicized how many users have tested out Spaces at this point, either as a host or an end user.

Alongside today’s launch, Twitter will also begin to roll out another Spaces feature that was previously being tested: displaying the purple ring around someone’s profile pictures from the Home Timeline.

Currently, profile pics can be highlighted with a blue ring that takes you to the user’s Fleets when tapped, but the new purple ring will indicate they’re actively using Spaces at that time. You can then tap their profile pic to join them. The feature makes it easier to find Spaces while you’re just scrolling your Twitter Timeline as usual.

After the new Spaces tab is tried out with the original beta test group, it will begin rolling out more people, Twitter says.

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Twitter Spaces will be available for the web, including accessibility features

By Amanda Silberling

On Wednesday evening, Twitter announced that Spaces — its Clubhouse competitor — will start rolling out for use on the web. Earlier this month, Twitter Spaces became available for any user with more than 600 followers on the iOS or Android apps, and around the same time, Clubhouse finally released its long-awaited Android app. Still, Clubhouse has yet to debut on the web, marking a success for Twitter in the race to corner the live social audio market. 

Even Instagram is positioning itself as a Clubhouse competitor, allowing users to “go live” with the ability to mute their audio and video. How will each app differentiate itself? Twitter CFO Ned Segal attempted to address this at JP Morgan’s 49th Annual Technology, Media, & Communications conference this week. 

“Twitter is where you go to find out what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about,” said Segal. “So when you come to Twitter, and you look at your home Timeline and you see a Space, it’s gonna perhaps be people who you don’t know but who are talking about a topic that’s incredibly relevant to you. It could be Bitcoin, it could be the aftershock from the Grammys, it could be that they’re talking about the NFL Draft.” 

Twitter’s focus areas for the web version of Spaces include a UI that adapts to the user’s screen size and reminders for scheduled Spaces. Before joining a space, Twitter will display a preview that shows who is in a Space, and a description of the topic being discussed. Users will also be able to have a Space open on the right side of their screen while still scrolling through their Timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Most crucially, this update lists accessibility and transcriptions as a focus area. For an audio-only platform, live transcriptions are necessary for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to join in on the conversation. In screenshots Twitter shared of the new features, we can see how live captions will appear in Spaces. As for how accurate these transcriptions will be, the jury’s still out.

Twitter fielded well-deserved criticism last year when it failed to include captioning on its audio tweet feature. In an apology tweet, Twitter Support wrote, “Accessibility should not be an afterthought.” By September, Twitter launched two accessibility teams

Still, accessibility has often been treated as an afterthought throughout the rise of live audio. Clubhouse does not yet support live captioning. 

Poparazzi hypes itself to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

If Instagram’s photo tagging feature was spun out into its own app, you’d have the viral sensation Poparazzi, now the No. 1 app on the App Store. The new social networking app, from the same folks behind TTYL and others, lets you create a social profile that only your friends can post photos to — in other words, making your friends your own ‘paparazzi.’ To its credit, the new app has perfectly executed on a series of choices designed to fuel day one growth — from its pre-launch TikTok hype cycle to drive App Store pre-orders to its post-launch social buzz, including favorable tweets by its backers. But the app has also traded user privacy in some cases to amplify network effects in its bid for the Top Charts, which is a risky move in terms of its long-term staying power.

The company positions Poparazzi as a sort of anti-Instagram, rebelling against today’s social feeds filled with edited photos, too many selfies, and “seemingly effortless perfection.” People’s real lives are made up of many unperfect moments that are worthy of being captured and shared, too, a company blog post explains.

This manifesto hits the right notes at the right time. User demand for less performative social media has been steadily growing for years — particularly as younger, Gen Z users wake up to the manipulations by tech giants. We’ve already seen a number of startups try to siphon users away from Instagram using similar rallying cries, including MinutiaeVeroDayflashOggl, and more recently, the once-buzzy Dispo and the under-the-radar Herd.

Even Facebook has woken up to consumer demand on this front, with its plan to roll out new features that allow Facebook and Instagram users to remove the Like counts from their posts and their feeds.

Poparazzi hasn’t necessarily innovated in terms of its core idea — after all, tagging users in photos has existed for years. In fact, it was one of the first viral effects introduced by Facebook in its earlier days.

Instead, Poparazzi hit the top of the charts by carefully executing on growth strategies that ensured a rocket ship-style launch.

@poparazziappcomment it! ##greenscreen ##poparazziapp ##positivity ##foryoupage♬ Milkshake – BBY Kodie

The company began gathering pre-launch buzz by driving demand via TikTok — a platform that’s already helped mint App Store hits like the mobile game High Heels. TikTok’s powers are still often underestimated, even though its potential for to send apps up the Top Charts have successfully boosted downloads for a number of mobile businesses, including TikTok sister app CapCut and e-commerce app Shein, for example.

And Poparazzi didn’t just build demand on TikTok — it actually captured it by pointing users to its App Store pre-orders page via the link in its bio. By the time launch day rolled around, it had a gaggle of Gen Z users ready and willing to give Poparazzi a try.

The app launches with a clever onboarding screen that uses haptics to buzz and vibrate your phone while the intro video plays. This is unusual enough that users will talk and post about how cool it was — another potential means of generating organic growth through word-of-mouth.

@poparazzidotcom ‘s app & website (https://t.co/EGU0K6AVS3) experience is amazing 🤯🤯🤯🤯#poparazzi pic.twitter.com/NqJWD5T5Sg

— 𝔗𝔞𝔫𝔦𝔰𝔥 𝔄𝔯𝔬𝔯𝔞 (@tanishar0ra) May 25, 2021

After getting you riled up with excitement, Poparazzi eases you into its bigger data grab.

First, it signs up and authenticates users through a phone number. Despite Apple’s App Store policy, which requires it, there is no privacy-focused option to use “Sign In with Apple,” which allows users to protect their identity. That would have limited Poparazzi’s growth potential versus its phone number and address book access approach.

It then presents you with a screen where it asks for permission to access to your Camera (an obvious necessity), Contacts (wait, all of them?), and permission to send you Notifications. This is where things start to get more dicey. The app, like Clubhouse once did, demands a full address book upload. This is unnecessary in terms of an app’s usability, as there are plenty of other ways to add friends on social media — like by scanning each other’s QR code, typing in a username directly, or performing a search.

But gaining access someone’s full Contacts database lets Poparazzi skip having to build out features for the privacy-minded. It can simply match your stored phone numbers with those it has on file from user signups and create an instant friend graph.

As you complete each permission, Poparazzi rewards you with green checkmarks. In fact, even if you deny the permission being asked, the green check appears. This may confuse users as to whether whether they’ve accidently given the app access.

They had a killer and engaging intro video complete with gravity falling emoji and well-tuned haptics that built hype and informed proper use

(I feel like a lot of people these days actually download without knowing this stuff now, making onboarding even more important) pic.twitter.com/duUelcDm0H

— Chase Stubblefield 🛴 (@chasestubb) May 25, 2021

While you can “deny” the Address Book upload — a request met with a tsk tsk of a pop-up message — Poparazzi literally only works with friends, it warns you — you can’t avoid being found by other Poparazzi users who have your phone number stored in their phone.

When users sign up, the app matches their address book to the phone number it has on file and then — boom! — new users are instantly following the existing users. And if any other friends have signed up before you, they’ll be following you as soon as you log in the first time.

AND WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS POPARAZZI pic.twitter.com/EeeWcFIEZn

— Corey Robison (@thefomosapien) May 25, 2021

In other words, there’s no manual curation of a “friend graph” here. The expectation is that your address book is your friend graph, and Poparazzi is just duplicating it.

Of course, this isn’t always an accurate presentation of reality.

Many younger people, and particularly women, have the phone numbers of abusers, stalkers and exes stored in their phone’s Contacts. By doing so, they can leverage the phone’s built-in tools to block the unwanted calls and texts from that person. But because Poparazzi automatically matches people by phone number, abusers could gain immediate access to the user profiles of the people they’re trying to harass or hurt.

Sure, this is an edge case. But it’s a non-trivial one.

It’s a well-documented problem, too — and one that had plagued Clubhouse, which similarly required full address book uploads during its early growth phase. It’s a terrible strategy to become the norm, and one that does not appear to have created a lasting near-term lock-in for Clubhouse. It’s also not a new tactic. Mobile social network Path tried address book uploads nearly a decade ago and almost everyone at the time agreed this was not a good idea.

As carefully designed as Poparazzi is — (it’s even a blue icon — a color that denotes trustworthiness!) — it’s likely the company intentionally chose the trade off. It’s forgoing some aspects of user privacy and safety in favor of the network effects that come from having an instant friend graph.

More on @poparazzidotcom: they force you to upload your contacts to use it, as well as phone number—and also have this aggressive strategy to pull users from Snapchat. pic.twitter.com/SFx0TdCkaR

— Chase Stubblefield 🛴 (@chasestubb) May 25, 2021

The rest of the app then pushes you to grow that friend graph further and engage with other users. Your profile will remain bare unless you can convince someone to upload photos of you. A SnapKit integration lets you beg for photo tags over on Snapchat. And if you can’t get enough of your friends to tag you in photos, then you may find yourself drawn to the setting “Allow Pops from Everyone,” instead of just “People You Approve.”

There’s no world in which letting “everyone” upload photos to a social media profile doesn’t invite abuse at some point, but Poparazzi is clearly hedging its bets here. It likely knows it won’t have to deal with the fallout of these choices until further down the road — after it’s filled out its network with millions of disgruntled Instagram users, that is.

Dozens of other growth hacks are spread throughout the app, too, from multiple pushes to invite friends scattered throughout the app to a very Snapchatt-y “Top Poparazzi” section that will incentivize best friends to keep up their posting streaks.

Looking at someone else’s profile.

The “Top Poparazzi” section is genius. Really incentivizes posting for your friends (which is the biggest friction point). pic.twitter.com/7WjH0S2hQd

— Connor V. (@ConnorVO) May 25, 2021

It’s a clever bag of tricks. And though the app does not offer comments or followers counts, it isn’t being much of an “anti-Instagram” when it comes to chasing clout. The posts — which can turn into looping GIFs if you snap a few in a row — may be more “authentic” and unedited than those on Instagram; but Poparazzi uses react to posts with a range of emojis and how many reactions a post receives is shown publicly.

For beta testers featured on the explore page, reactions can be in the hundreds or thousands — effectively establishing a bar for Pop influence.

Finally, users you follow have permission to post photos, but if you unfollow them — a sure sign that you no longer want them to be in your poparazzi squad — they can still post to your profile. As it turns out, your squad is managed under a separate setting under “Allow Pops From.” That could lead to trouble. At the very least, it would be nice to see the app asking users if they also want to remove the unfollowed account’s permission to post to your profile at the time of the unfollow.

Overall, the app can be fun — especially if you’re in the young, carefree demographic it caters to. Its friend-centric and ironically anti-glam stance is promising as well. But additional privacy controls and the ability to join the service in a way that offers far more granular control of your friend graph in order to boost anti-abuse protections would be welcome additions. 

TechCrunch tried to reach Poparazzi’s team to gain their perspective on the app’s design and growth strategy, but did not hear back. (We understand they’re heads down for the time being.) We understand, per SignalFire’s Josh Constine and our own confirmation, that Floodgate has invested in the startup, as has former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine and Weekend Fund.

Clubhouse to launch Android app worldwide in a week

By Manish Singh

Voice social network Clubhouse said on Sunday it will expand its Android app worldwide in a week, days after launching a beta version of its service on Google-owned mobile operating system for users in the U.S.

The startup — backed by A16z, Tiger Global and DST Global and valued at about $4 billion — said it will roll out the Android app to Japan, Brazil, and Russia on Tuesday; Nigeria and India three days later, and rest of the world by Friday afternoon.

Clubhouse originally launched as an iPhone-only app last year. The app quickly gained popularity last year, attracting several high-profile celebrities, politicians, investors and entrepreneurs.

The startup began developing the Android app early this year and started to test the beta version externally this month. In a town hall earlier this month, the startup said availability on Android has been the most requested product feature.

Clubhouse’s global rollout on Android comes at a time when scores of technology firm including Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Spotify, Reddit and Microsoft’s LinkedIn, have either launched their similar offerings — or announced plans to do so.

Twitter’s clone of Clubhouse, called Spaces, has emerged as one of the biggest competitors.

Clubhouse has also struggled to maintain its growth pace in recent months — based on download figure estimates by mobile insight firms. The Android app could potentially help the startup expand its userbase.

The startup continues to maintain an invitation system for onboarding new users, saying this is part of its effort to “keep the growth measured.”

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