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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.

China roundup: Beijing wants tech giants to shoulder more social responsibilities

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.

Gaming curfew

China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.

The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.

A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.

It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.

As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.

For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.

Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”

These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues. 

Prosper together

While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”

Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.

The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.

Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.

In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.

Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.

“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”

This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.

Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

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.

Make accessibility part of your startup’s products and culture from day one

By Annie Siebert
Joe Devon Contributor
Joe Devon is the co-founder of Diamond, a digital agency that builds accessible experiences. He is also a co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day and chair of the GAAD Foundation.

The world of accessibility has experienced a tipping point thanks to the pandemic, which drove people of all abilities to do more tasks and shopping online.

For the last year, the digital world was the only place brands could connect with their customers. A Forrester survey found that 8 in 10 companies have taken their first steps toward working on digital accessibility.

What’s driving this change besides the increased digital interactions? Fortune 500 companies are finally starting to realize that people with disabilities make up 1 billion of the world’s market. That population and their families control more than $13 trillion in disposable income, according to Return on Disability’s “The Global Economics of Disability.”

However, only 36% of companies in Forrester’s survey are completely committed to creating accessible digital experiences.

Although digital accessibility has been around for decades, companies have not caught on to its benefits until recently. In its latest survey, the WebAIM Million analysis of 1 million home pages found accessibility errors on 97.4% of the websites evaluated.

What does this mean for you? Why should you care about this? Because this is an opportunity for your company to get ahead of the competition and reap the rewards of being an early adopter.

The benefits of digital accessibility

Companies are now realizing the advantages of creating accessible products and properties that go beyond doing the right thing. For one, people are living longer. The World Health Organization says people aged 60 and older outnumber children under 5. Moreover, the world’s population of those who are 60 and older is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, up from 900 million in 2015.

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides an overview on Web Accessibility for Older Users. Here’s what it reveals.

  • Hearing loss affects 47% of people aged 61 to 80.
  • Vision decline affects 16% of people aged 65 to 74.
  • Mild cognitive impairment affects 20% of people over 70.
  • Arthritis affects more than 50% of people over 65.

In short, developing accessible digital products helps you reach a much larger audience, which will include you, your co-workers and your family. Everyone is going to become situationally, temporarily or episodically impaired at some point in their lives. Everyone enters a noisy or dark environment that can make it harder to see or hear. An injury or an illness can cause someone to use the internet differently on a temporary basis. People with arthritis, migraines and vertigo experience episodes of pain and discomfort that affect their ability to interact with digital devices, apps and tools.

Additionally, no one has ever advocated against making products and websites accessible to more people. Despite this, the relative universal appeal of accessibility as a principle does not mean that it will be as easy as explaining the need and getting people on board to make major organizational changes. A lot of work remains in raising awareness and educating people about why we need to make these changes and how to go about it.

You have the why. Now here are five things to help you with how to make changes in your company to integrate accessibility as a core part of your business.

1. Tap the right people to create accessible experiences

According to the second annual State of Accessibility Report, only 40% of the Alexa Top 100 websites are fully accessible, proving the needs of people with disabilities are, more often than not, being overlooked when creating web experiences.

To design for people with disabilities, it’s important to have an understanding of how they use your products or web properties. You’ll also want to know what tools will help them achieve their desired results. This starts with having the right people on board.

Hiring accessibility experts to advise your development team will proactively identify potential issues and ensure you design accessibly from the start, as well as create better products. Better yet, hiring people with disabilities brings a deeper level of understanding to your work.

2. Hire designers passionate about accessibility

Having accessibility experts on your team to provide advice and guidance is a great start. However, if the rest of your team is not passionate about accessibility, that can turn into a potential roadblock. When interviewing new designers, ask about accessibility. It’ll gauge a candidate’s knowledge and passion in the area. At the same time, you set an expectation that accessibility is a priority at your organization.

Being proactive about your hires and making sure they will contribute to a culture of accessibility and inclusion will save you major headaches. Accessibility starts in the design and user experience (UX) phase. If your team doesn’t deliver there, then you will have to fix their mistakes later, essentially delaying the project and costing your organization. It costs more to fix things than to build them accessibly in the first place.

3. Remember that accessibility is for everyone

People deciding whether to invest in accessibility often ask themselves how many people are going to use the feature. The reasoning behind the question is understandable from a business perspective; accessibility can be an expense, and it’s reasonable to want to spend money responsibly.

However, the question is rooted in one of the biggest misconceptions in the field. The myth is that accessibility only benefits people who are blind or deaf. This belief is frustrating because it greatly underestimates the number of people with disabilities and minimizes their place in society. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that people who may not have a disability still benefit greatly from accessibility features.

Disability is a spectrum that all of us will find ourselves on sooner or later. Maybe an injury temporarily limits our mobility that requires us to perform basic tasks like banking and shopping exclusively online. Or maybe our vision and hearing change as we age, which affects our ability to interact online.

When we understand that accessibility is about designing in a way that includes as many people as possible, we can reframe the conversation around whether it’s worth investing in. This approach sends a clear message: No business can afford to ignore a fast-growing population.

Think about it this way: If you have a choice of taking an elevator or the stairs, which would you take? Most pick the elevator. Those ramps on street corners called curb cuts? They were initially designed for allowing wheelchairs to cross the street.

Yet, many use these ramps, including parents pushing strollers, travelers pulling luggage, skateboarders rolling and workers moving heavy loads on dollies. A feature initially designed for accessibility benefits far more people than the original target audience. That’s the magic of the curb-cut effect.

4. Hire agencies that build accessibly by default

Whether you have a small team or are expanding an in-house accessibility practice, working with an agency can be an effective way to embrace and adopt accessible practices. The secret to a successful partnership is choosing an agency that will help your team grow into its accessibility practice.

The key to finding the right agency is selecting one that builds accessibly by default. When you know you are working with an agency that shares your organization’s values, you have a trusted partner in your mission of improving accessibility. It also removes any guesswork or revisions down the line. This is a huge win, as many designers overlook details that can make or break an experience for a user with a disability.

Working with an agency focused on providing accessible experiences narrows the likelihood of errors going unnoticed and unremedied, giving you confidence that you are providing an excellent experience to your entire audience.

5. Integrate accessibility into your supply chain

On any given day, enterprises and large organizations often work with dozens of stakeholders. From vendors and agencies to freelancers and internal employees, the nature of business today is far-reaching and collaborative. While this is valuable for exchanging ideas, accessibility can get lost in the mix with so many different people involved.

To prevent this from happening, it’s important to align these moving pieces of a business into a supply chain that is focused on accessibility at every stage of the business. When everyone is completely bought in, it cuts the risk of a component being inaccessible and causing issues for you in the future.

The startup advantage

A major challenge that comes up repeatedly is the struggle to change the status quo. Once an organization implements and ingrains inaccessible processes and products into its culture, it is hard to make meaningful change. Even if everyone is willing to commit to the change, the fact is, rewriting the way you do business is never easy.

Startups have an advantage here: They do not bear years of inaccessible baggage. It’s not written into the code of their products. It’s not woven into the business culture. In many ways, a startup is a clean slate, and they need to learn from the trials of their more established peers.

Startup founders have the opportunity to build an accessible organization from the ground up. They can create an accessible-first culture that will not need rewriting 10, 20 or 30 years from now by hiring a diverse workforce with a passion for accessibility, writing accessible code for products and web properties, choosing to work with only third parties who embrace accessibility and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

Many of these considerations here have a common denominator: culture. While most people in the technology industry will agree that accessibility is an important and worthy cause to champion, it has a huge awareness problem.

Accessibility needs to be everywhere in software development, from requirements and beyond to include marketing, sales and other non-tech teams. It cannot be a niche concern left to a siloed team to handle. If we, as an industry and as a society, recognize that accessibility is everyone’s job, we will create a culture that prioritizes it without question.

By creating this culture, we will no longer be asking, “Do we have to make this accessible?” Instead, we’ll ask, “How do we make this accessible?” It’s a major mindset shift that will make a tangible difference in the lives of 1 billion people living with a disability and those who eventually will have a disability or temporary, situational or episodic impairments affecting their ability to use online and digital products.

Advocating for accessibility may feel like an uphill battle at times, but it isn’t rocket science. The biggest need is education and awareness.

When you understand the people you build accessible products for and the reasons they need those products, it becomes easier to secure buy-in from people in all parts of your organization. Creating this culture is the first step in a long quest toward accessibility. And the best part is, it gets easier from here.

The cocktail party problem: Why voice tech isn’t truly useful yet

By Ram Iyer
Ken Sutton Contributor
Ken Sutton is CEO and co-founder of Yobe, a software company that uses edge-based AI to unlock the potential of voice technologies for modern brands.

On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.

Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.

As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.

Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.

Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.

Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.

Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.

The steep climb to commercializing voice

By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.

In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.

Private equity giveth, and private equity taketh away

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

Natasha and Alex and Grace and Chris gathered to dig through the week’s biggest happenings, including some news of our own. As a note, Equity’s Monday episode will be landing next Tuesday, thanks to a national holiday here in the United States. And we have something special planned for Wednesday, so stay tuned.

Ok! Here’s the rundown from the show:

That’s a wrap from us for the week! Keep your head atop your shoulders and have a great weekend!

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

Australia’s TechnologyOne acquires UK-based higher-ed platform Scientia for $16.6M

By Mike Butcher

TechnologyOne, an Australian SaaS enterprise, has agreed to acquire UK-based higher education software provider Scientia for £12 million /$16.6 million in cash.
 
TechnologyOne claims to have 75% of Higher Education institutions in Australia using its software, while Scientia claims 50% market share in the UK.

The acquisition includes an initial payment of £6m and further payments.
 
Adrian Di Marco, TechnologyOne founder and Executive Chairman said: “This is our company’s first international acquisition and it demonstrates our deep commitment to serving the higher education sector and the UK market. The unique IP and market-leading functionality of Scientia’s product supports our vision of delivering enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use.”

Commenting, Michelle Gillespie, Registrar and Director of Student Administration and Library Services at Swinburne University of Technology said: “The one thing that students care most about is their timetable. Being able to fully integrate a schedule into the full student experience is very important, and an exciting step for those universities – like Swinburne – that use TechnologyOne’s student management system.”

Extra Crunch roundup: Cohort analysis, YC Demo Day recaps, building your supply chain

By Walter Thompson

The ongoing fintech revolution continues to level the playing field where legacy companies have historically dominated startups.

To compete with retail banks, many newcomers are offering customers credit and debit cards; developer-friendly APIs make issuance relatively easy, and tools for managing processes like KYC are available off the shelf.

To learn more about the low barriers to entry — and the inherent challenges of creating a unique card offering — reporter Ryan Lawler interviewed:

  • Michael Spelfogel, founder, Cardless
  • Anu Muralidharan, COO, Expensify
  • Peter Hazlehurst, founder and CEO, Synctera
  • Salman Syed, SVP and GM of North America, Marqeta

Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


We’re off on Monday, September 6 to celebrate America’s Labor Day holiday, but we’ll be back with new stories (and a very brief newsletter) on Tuesday morning.

Thanks very much for reading,

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

 

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

Image Credits: Suriyapong Thongsawang (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The barrier to entry for launching hardware startups has fallen; if you can pull off a successful crowdfunding campaign, you’re likely savvy enough to find a factory overseas that can build your widgets to spec.

But global supply chains are fragile: No one expected an off-course container ship to block the Suez Canal for six days. Due to the pandemic, importers are paying almost $18,000 for shipping containers from China today that cost $3,300 a year ago.

After spending a career spinning up supply chains on three continents, Liteboxer CEO Jeff Morin authored a guide for Extra Crunch for hardware founders.

“If you’re clear-eyed about the challenges and apply some rigor and forethought to the process, the end result can be hard to match,” Morin says.

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Y Combinator’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Twice each year, we turn our attention to Y Combinator’s latest class of aspiring startups as they hold their public debuts.

For YC Summer 2021 Demo Day, the accelerator’s fourth virtual gathering, Natasha Mascarenhas, Alex Wilhelm, Devin Coldewey, Lucas Matney and Greg Kumparak selected 14 favorites from the first day of one of the world’s top pitch competitions.

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

Image Credits: Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images

Few people thought about virtual events before the pandemic struck, but this format has fulfilled a unique and important need for organizations large and small since early 2020. But what will virtual events’ value be as more of the world attempts a return to “normal”?

To find out, we caught up with top executives and investors in the sector to learn about the big trends they’re seeing — as the sequel to a survey we did in March 2020.

We surveyed:

  • Xiaoyin Qu, founder and CEO, Run The World
  • Rosie Roca, chief customer officer, Hopin
  • Hemant Mohapatra, partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners India
  • Paul Murphy, former investor in Hopin with Northzone (currently co-founder of Katch)

Tracking startup focus in the latest Y Combinator cohort

Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim wrapped up TechCrunch’s coverage of the summer cohort from Y Combinator’s Demo Day with an evaluation of how the group fared in comparison to their expectations.

They were surprised by the number of startups focusing on no-and low-code software, and pleased by the unanticipated quantity of new companies focusing on space.

“It seems only fair to note that some categories of startup activity simply met our expectations in terms of popularity,” noting delivery-focused startups including dark stores and kitchens.

Popping up less than expected? Crypto and insurtech.

Read on for the whole list of startups that caught the eye of The Exchange.

Use cohort analysis to drive smarter startup growth

Image Credits: erhui1979 / Getty Images

Cohort analysis is what it sounds like: evaluating your startup’s customers by grouping them into “cohorts” and observing their behavior over time.

In a guest column, Jonathan Metrick, the chief growth officer at Sagard & Portage Ventures, offers a detailed example explaining the value of this type of analysis.

Questions? ​​Join us for a Twitter Spaces chat with Metrick on Tuesday, September 7, at 3 p.m. PDT/6 p.m. EDT. For details and a reminder, follow @TechCrunch on Twitter.

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.”

 

Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

By Christine Hall

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

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.

 

DoorDash workers protest outside CEO Tony Xu’s home demanding better pay, tip transparency and PPE

By Rebecca Bellan

California DoorDash workers protested outside of the home of DoorDash CEO Tony Xu on Thursday, prompted by a recent California Superior Court Judge ruling calling 2020’s Proposition 22 unconstitutional. Prop 22, which was passed last November in California, would allow app-based companies like DoorDash, Uber and Lyft to continue classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

A group of about 50 DoorDash workers who are affiliated with advocacy groups We Drive Progress and Gig Workers Rising traveled caravan style to the front of Xu’s house in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. They demanded that DoorDash provide transparency for tips and 120% of minimum wage or around $17 per hour, stop unfair deactivations and provide free personal protective equipment, as well as adequate pay for car and equipment sanitizing. 

“Dasher concerns and feedback are always important to us, and we will continue to hear their voices and engage our community directly,” a DoorDash spokesperson told TechCrunch. “However, we know that today’s participants do not speak for the 91% of California Dashers who want to remain independent contractors or the millions of California voters who overwhelmingly supported Proposition 22. The reality is, the passage of Prop 22 has addressed in law many of the concerns raised today through its historic benefits and protections: workers earn 120% of their local minimum wage per active hour in addition to 100% of their tips, receive free PPE and enjoy access to healthcare funds.”

DoorDash drivers say getting paid for the time they’re “active,” meaning actively driving to either pick up food and drop it off, rather than when they’re online and waiting for gigs to come through, leads to inadequate pay. They also say much of their living wage comes from tips, which should be an added bonus, but ends up helping make ends meet based on DoorDash’s pay structure. Prop 22 is also meant to guarantee a reimbursement of 30 cents per engaged mile, which drivers say “would be great if it were true.” DoorDash did not respond to follow ups regarding its pay structure or claims from dashers that they have not been given free PPE. 

Rondu Gantt, a gig worker who’s been working for DoorDash for two and a half years and also drives for Uber and Lyft to get by, says his base pay from DoorDash is often as low as $3 per hour, and that around 40% to 60% of his money comes from tips. Although this model sounds similar to the restaurant industry in the United States, which can be quite lucrative for servers and bartenders, for a delivery driver, it’s an unsustainable way to make a living because tipping culture isn’t nearly as strong. 

“DoorDash pays so low because they want to make it affordable for the customer, but I would say for the driver it becomes unaffordable,” Gantt told TechCrunch, citing the costs of owning, maintaining, parking and fueling a vehicle as potentially crippling. “Last week, I drove for 30 hours and I made $405. That’s $13.50 per hour, which is below minimum wage.”

Gantt said drivers also have had to deal with pressure to drive in unsafe conditions, and we can look to the images of delivery drivers in New York City during Hurricane Ida as an example of some conditions drivers feel compelled to accept. Over the past two years, DoorDash drivers have also been deemed essential workers, interacting with and providing services for many people during a pandemic at the risk of their health. 

Gig Workers Rising says DoorDash workers “have received little to no safety support” with some workers reporting “being reimbursed as little as 80 cents per day for cleaning/sanitizing equipment and PPE that they use to keep themselves and customers safe.”

“Right now gig work isn’t flexible,” a spokesperson for Gig Workers Rising told TechCrunch.  “Workers are at the mercy of when there’s demand. If they were employees the work would change as they’d work in the knowledge that they’ve healthcare and can take a sick day off.”

Because Prop 22 was ruled unconstitutional, the spokesperson said by rights it shouldn’t be in operation. 

“The gig corporations violate that law everyday by choosing not to comply with it,” he said. 

For Gantt’s part, he doesn’t necessarily want to be an employee, he just wants to make sure that he’s being paid what he deserves. 

“Which is not minimum wage,” he said. “Minimum wage would be unacceptable as well. The cost of doing this, the danger, makes minimum wage unacceptable pay. And realistically, they’re only sometimes paying you minimum wage before taxes. After taxes you’re definitely making less.”

TechCrunch was given access to DoorDash workers’ dashboards that break down their pay. For the week of July 12 to July 19, one dasher was paid a total of $574.21 for 53 deliveries, $274 of which came from customer tip. His “active time” was 14 hours and 21 minutes, and his “dash time,” or when he was logged onto the app waiting for gigs to come through and doing deliveries, was about 30 hours. 

The dasher’s “guaranteed earnings” from DoorDash for the week was $300.21. (DoorDash did not respond to clarification on how guaranteed weekly earnings are calculated or what they’re based on, but a post on the company’s site says that guaranteed earnings are incentives for dashers in specific areas.) His base pay ended up at about $257.62, but DoorDash added an additional $42.59 to adjust to guaranteed earnings. If we divide the amount DoorDash paid by the number of hours of “active time,” the worker was paid about $21 per hour. If we divide it by the “dash time,” it looks more like $10 per hour. 

Again, this is before tax. Independent contractors are usually advised to put aside around 30% of their paycheck because they have to pay self-employment tax, which is 15.3% of taxable income, federal income tax, which varies depending on tax bracket, and potentially state income tax. After taxes, this dasher’s total pay for 30 hours of work, including his $274 worth of tip, would be around $402, which comes out to $13.40 per hour. 

Tips were of concern at the protest on Thursday as drivers called for transparency. Gantt says dashers can see a cumulative amount of tip earnings per week, as well as how much tip they’re receiving from each order, but they don’t trust the amount they’re receiving is actually the amount customers are tipping them.

Gantt and other drivers aren’t just being paranoid. Last November, DoorDash agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the company stole drivers’ tips and allowed customers to think their tip money was actually going to the drivers. The suit, filed by Washington, D.C. attorney general Karl Racine, alleged DoorDash reduced drivers’ pay for each job by the amount of any tip. 

One of the rallying cries of the protest was for Xu to “share the wealth.” In 2020, the CEO was reportedly the highest paid CEO in the Bay Area, making a total salary of $413.67 million. During the second quarter, DoorDash saw a $113 million profit adjusted for EBITDA, but was overall unprofitable with a net loss of $102 million. 

“We all work for money and how that money gets distributed when they go through their earnings is telling you who matters and who doesn’t matter,” said Gantt. “It’s a clear sign of who’s important, who has value. If they don’t pay you, they don’t value you.”

Startups should look to state-of-the-art tech to tackle diseases affecting women

By Annie Siebert
Shahar Keinan Contributor
Shahar Keinan, co-founder and CEO of Polaris Quantum Biotech has over 20 years of extensive experience in computational and theoretical chemistry.
Pek Lum Contributor
Pek Lum, co-founder and CEO at Auransa, has more than 20 years of genomics and drug discovery experience and is the chief architect behind Auransa’s technology.

Startups devoted to reproductive and women’s health are on the rise. However, most of them deal with women’s fertility: birth control, ovulation and the inability to conceive. The broader field of women’s health remains neglected.

Historically, most of our understanding of ailments comes from the perspective of men and is overwhelmingly based on studies using male patients. Until the early 1990s, women of childbearing age were kept out of drug trial studies, and the resulting bias has been an ongoing issue in healthcare. Other issues include underrepresentation of women in health studies, trivialization of women’s physical complaints (which is relevant to the misdiagnosis of endometriosis, among other conditions), and gender bias in the funding of research, especially in research grants.

For example, several studies have shown that when we look at National Institutes of Health funding, a disproportionate share of its resources goes to diseases that primarily affect men — at the expense of those that primarily affect women. In 2019, studies of NIH funding based on disease burden (as estimated by the number of years lost due to an illness) showed that male-favored diseases were funded at twice the rate of female-favored diseases.

Let’s take endometriosis as an example. Endometriosis is a disease where endometrial-like tissue (‘‘lesions’’) can be found outside the uterus. Endometriosis is a condition that only occurs in individuals with uteruses and has been less funded and less studied than many other conditions. It can cause chronic pain, fatigue, painful intercourse and infertility. Although the disease may affect one out of 10 women, diagnosis is still very slow, and the disease is confirmed only by surgery.

There is no non-invasive test available. In many cases, a woman is diagnosed only due to her infertility, and the diagnosis can take up to 10 years. Even after diagnosis, the understanding of disease biology and progression is poor, as well as the understanding of the relationships to other lesion diseases, such as adenomyosis. Current treatments include surgical removal of lesions and drugs that suppress ovarian hormone (mainly estrogen) production.

However, there are changes in the works. The NIH created the women’s health research category in 1994 for annual budgeting purposes and, in 2019, it was updated to include research that is relevant to women only. In acknowledging the widespread male bias in both human and animal studies, the NIH mandated in 2016 that grant applicants would be required to recruit male and female participants in their protocols. These changes are slow, and if we look at endometriosis, it received just $7 million in NIH funding in the fiscal year 2018, putting it near the very bottom of NIH’s 285 disease/research areas.

It is interesting to note that critical changes are coming from other sources, and not so much from the funding agencies or the pharmaceutical industry. The push is coming from patients and physicians themselves that meet the diseases regularly. We see pharmaceutical companies (such as Eli Lilly and AbbVie) in the women’s healthcare space following the lead of their patients and slowly expanding their R&D base and doubling efforts to expand beyond reproductive health into other key women’s health areas.

New technological innovations targeting endometriosis are being funded via private sources. In 2020, women’s health finally emerged as one of the most promising areas of investment. These include (not an exhaustive list by any means) diagnostics companies such as NextGen Jane, which raised a $9 million Series A in April 2021 for its “smart tampon,” and DotLab, a non-invasive endometriosis testing startup, which raised $10 million from investors last July. Other notable advances include the research-study app Phendo that tracks endometriosis, and Gynica, a company focused on cannabis-based treatments for gynecological issues.

The complexity of endometriosis is such that any single biotech startup may find it challenging to go it alone. One approach to tackle this is through collaborations. Two companies, Polaris Quantum Biotech and Auransa, have teamed up to tackle the endometriosis challenge and other women’s specific diseases.

Using data, algorithms and quantum computing, this collaboration between two female-led AI companies integrates the understanding of disease biology with chemistry. Moreover, they are not stopping at in silico; rather, this collaboration aims to bring therapeutics to patients.

New partnerships can majorly impact how fast a field like women’s health can advance. Without such concerted efforts, women-centric diseases such as endometriosis, triple-negative breast cancer and ovarian cancer, to name a few, may remain neglected and result in much-needed therapeutics not moving into clinics promptly.

Using state-of-the-art technologies on complex women’s diseases will allow the field to advance much faster and can put drug candidates into clinics in a few short years, especially with the help of patient advocacy groups, research organizations, physicians and out-of-the-box funding approaches such as crowdfunding from the patients themselves.

We believe that going after the women’s health market is a win-win for the patients as well as from the business perspective, as the global market for endometriosis drugs alone is expected to reach $2.2 billion in the next six years.

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.”

Explosion snags $6M on $120M valuation to expand machine learning platform

By Ron Miller

Explosion, a company that has combined an open source machine learning library with a set of commercial developer tools, announced a $6 million Series A today on a $120 million valuation. The round was led by SignalFire, and the company reported that today’s investment represents 5% of its value.

Oana Olteanu from SignalFire will be joining the board under the terms of the deal, which includes warrants of $12 million in additional investment at the same price.

“Fundamentally, Explosion is a software company and we build developer tools for AI and machine learning and natural language processing. So our goal is to make developers more productive and more focused on their natural language processing, so basically understanding large volumes of text, and training machine learning models to help with that and automate some processes,” company co-founder and CEO Ines Montani told me.

The company started in 2016 when Montani met her co-founder, Matthew Honnibal in Berlin where he was working on the spaCy open source machine learning library. Since then, that open source project has been downloaded over 40 million times.

In 2017, they added Prodigy, a commercial product for generating data for the machine learning model. “Machine learning is code plus data, so to really get the most out of the technologies you almost always want to train your models and build custom systems because what’s really most valuable are problems that are super specific to you and your business and what you’re trying to find out, and so we saw that the area of creating training data, training these machine learning models, was something that people didn’t pay very much attention to at all,” she said.

The next step is a product called Prodigy Teams, which is a big reason the company is taking on this investment. “Prodigy Teams  is [a hosted service that] adds user management and collaboration features to Prodigy, and you can run it in the cloud without compromising on what people love most about Prodigy, which is the data privacy, so no data ever needs to get seen by our servers,” she said. They do this by letting the data sit on the customer’s private cluster in a private cloud, and then use Prodigy Team’s management features in the public cloud service.

Today, they have 500 customers using Prodigy including Microsoft and Bayer in addition to the huge community of millions of open source users. They’ve built all this with just 17 people, even as they continue to slowly add employees, expecting to reach 20 by the end of the year.

She believes if you’re thinking too much about diversity in your hiring process, you probably have a problem already. “If you go into hiring and you’re thinking like, oh, how can I make sure that the way I’m hiring is diverse, I think that already shows that there’s maybe a problem,” she said.

“If you have a company, and it’s 50 dudes in their 20s, it’s not surprising that you might have problems attracting people who are not white dudes in their 20s. But in our case, our strategy is to hire good people and good people are often very diverse people, and again if you play by the [startup] playbook, you could be limited in a lot of other ways.”

She said that they have never seen themselves as a traditional startup following some conventional playbook. “We didn’t raise any investment money [until now]. We grew the team organically, and we focused on being profitable and independent [before we got outside investment],” she said.

But more than the money, Montani says that they needed to find an investor that would understand and support the open source side of the business, even while they got capital to expand all parts of the company. “Open source is a community of users, customers and employees. They are real people, and [they are not] pawns in [some] startup game, and it’s not a game. It’s real, and these are real people,” she said.

“They deserve more than just my eyeballs and grand promises. […] And so it’s very important that even if we’re selling a small stake in our company for some capital [to build our next] product [that open source remains at] the core of our company and that’s something we don’t want to compromise on,” Montani said.

HomeLight closes on $100M Series D at a $1.6B valuation as revenue surges

By Mary Ann Azevedo

HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.

Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.

Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.

The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.

Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.

“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.

In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.

HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said. 

“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”

Image Credits: HomeLight

Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place. 

In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.

Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.

“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”

He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”

Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.

Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.

“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”

HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months. 

Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.

“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”

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.”

 

Pancake aims to make customers flip for its virtual home design platform

By Christine Hall

Pancake brought in a $350,000 seed round to develop its home design platform that leverages furniture you already have in your home with a designer’s fresh eye on your space.

Maria Jose Castro and Roberto Meza, both from Costa Rica, started the company in 2020, based on their own experience of transitioning to work-from-home and needing to outfit a space. However, design services can be expensive, and therefore not accessible to everyone.

Pancake is reinventing the way you can work with an interior designer and get a rendering of your space to work from. Customers can go on the website and book a session with a designer, providing them with measurements and photos of the room.

The designer then prepares a rendering of the space and a deck to explain the design and how the customer will do it — and if paint or furniture is needed that isn’t already available, Pancake will show the customer where to find it. Future features of the site will include connecting with furniture providers, Jose Castro told TechCrunch.

Meza called the company “furniture-as-a-service,” with the main focus to reuse what already exists in a space to create healthy, sustainable spaces that someone can work in, live in and enjoy all at the same time. While that may seem like a tall order, he said that with everyone suddenly together during the global pandemic, relationships are better when people are in a space they like.

“Wellness in construction is what I do, and we wanted to create that with Pancake,” he added. “Sometimes it is the little things that create a space and makes you feel good, or not feel good.”

Pancake plans to use its funding to further develop its platform and add new features like an ecological footprint calculator so customers can see how sustainable their designs are. The company also prides itself on transparent pricing. An average two-hour session with a designer is $199, and the designer will add to the budget if items like paint and new furniture are needed.

Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid, is the lead investor in the seed round. He said that he doesn’t typically invest at the seed stage, but was impressed with the progress Pancake has made in a short period of time. This includes marketing tests on social media platforms that yielded a respectable return on investment, he added.

Meanwhile, Pancake has facilitated over 100 designer sessions and has begun to see referrals and repeat customers who want to design additional rooms in their house. That has translated into 200% month over month revenue growth, on average, despite having to stop for four months during the pandemic, Meza said. Up next, the company will continue to build out its brand and revenue model as it advances to a Series A round next year.

 

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.”

 

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