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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

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.

A founder’s guide to effectively managing your options pool

By Ram Iyer
Allen Miller Contributor
Allen Miller is a principal at Oak HC/FT based in San Francisco. He invests in early- and growth-stage companies, with a particular focus on fintech.

There’s an old startup adage that goes: Cash is king. I’m not sure that is true anymore.

In today’s cash rich environment, options are more valuable than cash. Founders have many guides on how to raise money, but not enough has been written about how to protect your startup’s option pool. As a founder, recruiting talent is the most important factor for success. In turn, managing your option pool may be the most effective action you can take to ensure you can recruit and retain talent.

That said, managing your option pool is no easy task. However, with some foresight and planning, it’s possible to take advantage of certain tools at your disposal and avoid common pitfalls.

In this piece, I’ll cover:

  • The mechanics of the option pool over multiple funding rounds.
  • Common pitfalls that trip up founders along the way.
  • What you can do to protect your option pool or to correct course if you made mistakes early on.

A minicase study on option pool mechanics

Let’s run through a quick case study that sets the stage before we dive deeper. In this example, there are three equal co-founders who decide to quit their jobs to become startup founders.

Since they know they need to hire talent, the trio gets going with a 10% option pool at inception. They then cobble together enough money across angel, pre-seed and seed rounds (with 25% cumulative dilution across those rounds) to achieve product-market fit (PMF). With PMF in the bag, they raise a Series A, which results in a further 25% dilution.

The easiest way to ensure you don’t run out of options too quickly is simply to start with a bigger pool.

After hiring a few C-suite executives, they are now running low on options. So at the Series B, the company does a 5% option pool top-up pre-money — in addition to giving up 20% in equity related to the new cash injection. When the Series C and D rounds come by with dilutions of 15% and 10%, the company has hit its stride and has an imminent IPO in the works. Success!

For simplicity, I will assume a few things that don’t normally happen but will make illustrating the math here a bit easier:

  1. No investor participates in their pro-rata after their initial investment.
  2. Half the available pool is issued to new hires and/or used for refreshes every round.

Obviously, every situation is unique and your mileage may vary. But this is a close enough proxy to what happens to a lot of startups in practice. Here is what the available option pool will look like over time across rounds:

 

Option pool example

Image Credits: Allen Miller

Note how quickly the pool thins out — especially early on. In the beginning, 10% sounds like a lot, but it’s hard to make the first few hires when you have nothing to show the world and no cash to pay salaries. In addition, early rounds don’t just dilute your equity as a founder, they dilute everyone’s — including your option pool (both allocated and unallocated). By the time the company raises its Series B, the available pool is already less than 1.5%.

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.

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

By Sarah Perez

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

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

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

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

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

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

The app is a free download on the App Store.

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.

The Loot project flips the script on NFTs

By Kyle Russell

Editor’s note: Kyle Russell is the founder of Playbyte, a startup building an app that lets people make games on their phones.

Last Friday, Dom Hofmann tweeted the launch of Loot, one of his new projects looking at games and game creation through the lens of NFTs:

LOOT

– randomized adventurer gear
– no images or stats. intentionally omitted for others to interpret
– no fee, just gas
– 8000 bags total

opensea: https://t.co/qSnRJ1FD0n
etherscan: https://t.co/bF9p0RSHX2

available via contract only. not audited. mint at your own risk pic.twitter.com/uLukzFayUK

— dom (@dhof) August 27, 2021

If “NFTs,” “gas” and “minting” sound unintelligible, the short version is that this project lets you spend some money to create a unique list of items that you could keep in the same wallet (an app like Rainbow) where you’d keep cryptocurrencies or other digital collectibles, typically art (or, as skeptics gleefully note, JPEGs).

I repeat: a unique list of items. No artwork, stats to compare quality or even game rules that could inform such stats.

People spent money to get those unique lists. Thousands. And as happens in NFTs, a market quickly formed around these unique lists of items. The “floor,” or minimum price to buy into a Loot “bag,” shot to thousands of dollars worth of Ethereum. Certain kinds of items in these lists sounded cool and were found to be rare upon analysis of the entire set, and so bags containing them rose in value to extreme heights:

“why 300 ETH?” https://t.co/BgxETzOv9I

— Dame.eth 📎👘 (@jacksondame) August 31, 2021

And people began to fill in those missing elements like art — not fundamentally changing the underlying lists, but creating new works that explicitly reference the items in particular lists:

sorry can't stop thinking about Loot – this is a real quick take on @hype_eth 's #1 rarity bag in a Derbler style stash pic.twitter.com/G6IvnQYfU7

— gremplin (@supergremplin) August 30, 2021

And like the lists themselves, people began taking an algorithmic approach to generating that art:

Creating AI-generated pixel art for @lootproject. ✨

Made using @dribnet's Colab (CLIPIT/PixelDraw).

– Demon Crown
– Maelstrom Tear Amulet of Brilliance
– Holy Chestplate
– Ornate Belt pic.twitter.com/GGr0N7eMQg

— MOΞ (@moesalih_) September 1, 2021

By August 31st, there was a legible community of people…

  • investing in bags containing certain kinds of items;
  • creating tools for visualizing Loot items and monitoring price fluctuations in this niche market;
  • working on new derivative projects, like creating Realms for a theoretical adventurer with the gear in a Loot bag to explore:

Day 5 pic.twitter.com/dcu3fE90GS

— Loot (@lootproject) August 31, 2021

Except, there’s still no game rules for these items — including what it would even mean to have a character equipping them!

Hey, what’s that? 🔎 Oh right, people could make or generate stats too!

new header @lootproject pic.twitter.com/7QGEFhY4Y0

— Jordan 👻👘 (@JordanLzG) September 1, 2021

This tweet really nails the overall phenomenon:

Loot is NFT improv.

It is an invitation to respond with, "Yes, and…"

— Redefined Life Podcast (RedefinedLife.eth) (@redefined_life) September 1, 2021

In less than a week, a community has gone from lists of text to infinitely many illustrations of those items to worlds for those items to reside in and characters to wield them. All from taking simple primitives and generating context around them that gives them value.

It’s pretty magical stuff. But even if there’s some speculative angle to the creation happening, how many people get to participate if these bags cost tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum? On the one hand: If you just think the game of making up a game is fun, because all of these bags and items live on the Ethereum network, then you can still make things that incorporate them at no cost (short of the painful fees currently associated with using Ethereum).

And if it really matters to you to have those unique objects in a wallet of your own so you can really participate, people are thinking of interesting paths there, as well:

Synthetic Loot

– returns a "virtual nft" of loot based on a given wallet
– b/c the wallet is the seed, only one bag per wallet
– because it's not a "real" nft, no minting, transferring, selling, etc

anyone with an ethereum wallet has synthetic loothttps://t.co/K2fx9Zw7qQ

— dom (@dhof) September 1, 2021

We need an ordained “basic” loot bag with free minting and unlimited supply so anyone can participate. https://t.co/aok9EqhlZX

— John Palmer 🥳 (@john_c_palmer) September 1, 2021

If that’s all too jargon-y, I’ll again summarize: There are feasible paths to making it free to “have” these items for the purpose of playing with the growing set of inter-compatible apps or games that might incorporate Loot — you just won’t have a Legit Bag with rare items that could sell for lots of money.

Oh, and what if you like some of the items in a Loot bag, but wish your adventurer could mix-and-match with other items from the broader set that just dropped?

Introducing Lootmart™ a collab with @rvorias & @lootproject

1. Connect wallet
2. Unbundle your Loot Bag into individual ERC 1155 Loot items
3. Trade your Loot items to upgrade your adventurer
4. Dominate the metaverse pic.twitter.com/d4WiHEWtKo

— Jon Yan (@jonjyan) September 1, 2021

Less than a week and already getting disrupted by unbundling!

I’m sorry, why is this interesting?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe started with Marvel Comics taking out a billion-dollar loan to finance the first four movies based on its iconic superhero characters. The seeds of awareness of these characters had been planted in the minds of the masses through decades of appearances in comics and TV leading up to their first appearances in blockbuster films. Decades of perhaps hundreds of writers and artists were getting paid to create fantastical stories for those characters that people would want to read and that would get them hooked to come back for the next issue. People came to closely associate themselves with characters with kind of funny origins (bit by a radioactive spider!).

This all happened in a top-down, corporate, mass-production context. A few creatives at Marvel did high-leverage work on a freelance or in-house basis, printers made a ton of copies and a supply chain got those issues to comics shops and dime stores across the country. Like dominoes, Stan Lee thinks of some new superhero (pitch: this guy’s not a hippy, he’s a weapons manufacturer industrialist!) to five decades later, Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther warp the definition of blockbuster forever.

But what if someone wanted to create an MCU competitor as a community, instead of going head-to-head with Disney?

Extrapolating from the last week of Loot…

You’d release a contract to generate sets of superhero names and associated powers. People would mint those heroes and they would begin to trade on the open market. People would build tools that determine which powers are more rare, especially around ones that sound cool (“flight” is a gimme).

They’d imagine their hero, illustrate them themselves and commission artists who could make them look cool. Eventually more technical folks in the community would do the heavy lifting to piece together tools that could generate art for characters in a common style, or be customizable by some key parameters.

Eventually, people would commission crossover art, and then you’re only a step away from shared storylines (increase the value of multiple characters with a single commissioned piece!).

DAOs, or decentralized groups who come together to create new projects in the crypto space or even “just” invest together, might buy up more popular characters and commission more elaborate visual stories with the aim of boosting the value of that underlying item containing a hero name + powers and any popular artworks that they inspired.

And assuming the project’s originators went with the direction of the Loot zeitgeist, all of this would be IP that could be re-used and remixed by anyone. That might sound crazy — isn’t the point to own it, and the point of owning it is to control how it’s used?

That’s the Disney status quo. In a world of projects like Loot, you want to reinforce the value of the NFT you own — and that value reflects that NFT’s renown and reputation. Echoing the phrase “all press is good press”: Any remix is a good remix. To be referenced is to still be culturally relevant. So if you own an NFT describing Arachnid Person, you want to contribute to an environment where as many people want to include Arachnid Person in their works as possible so that Arachnid Man No. 1 becomes something worth owning.

I’m really just expanding on Dylan Field:

Feels like two paths are emerging in NFT space.

(1) Build a universe but hold onto IP. Ex: @larvalabs deal with UTA (https://t.co/OxOq106hiK)

(2) Form a community to build a universe. Give all the IP away. See what happens. Ex: @lootproject

Personally like approach #2 better!

— Dylan Field (@zoink) August 31, 2021

And John Palmer rightly emphasizes something special: The lack of anybody who can say “no,” as people try to figure out how to make Loot cool:

Crucial decision *not* to have a company, or a team leading the way. Impossible to gate-keep any creative decisions.

— John Palmer 🥳 (@john_c_palmer) August 31, 2021

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.

 

Zip acquisition of Payflex means Africa is ripe for BNPL disruption

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Australian buy now, pay later (BNPL) company Zip this week acquired South Africa-based BNPL player Payflex for an undisclosed amount.

It’s a piece of news that once again highlights the hype around BNPL services and the quest for global dominance among the leading players.

This year we have covered BNPL services from the likes of Afterpay, Klarna and Affirm. And tech and payments giants Apple, Square, PayPal and Visa have joined in the action, too, massively funneling cash to their respective BNPL initiatives (for one, Square acquired Afterpay).

Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. are key markets for BNPL services. The U.S. market is so big that the number of BNPL service users is expected to hit 45 million by year’s end, representing an 81% growth from last year. But despite its Western focus, BNPL is exploding in other markets driven by a collective effort from local and global players.

For instance, in the Middle East, companies like tabby and Tamara have raised millions in debt and equity financing to provide BNPL services. Also, Checkout is a significant shareholder in Tamara; Afterpay is one in PostPay, while Zip acquired Spotii for $26 million after initially investing in the company in December 2020.

Spotii isn’t the only acquisition Zip has made this past year. The Australian company also bought U.S.-based QuadPay and Twisto, a BNPL service in the Czech Republic, to expand footprints in both regions.

Payflex is the latest addition to that list. The company, founded in 2017, claims to be the first and largest BNPL player in South Africa with more than 1,000 merchants and 135,000 customers. Before fully acquiring Payflex, Zip had a 25% stake when it invested in the South African BNPL service six months ago.

Zip’s entry to Africa is important for several reasons. First, the continent is a largely untapped market that has enormous growth potential.

Credit appetite on the continent is very much in its infancy compared to Western markets, but it is growing rapidly. These days, people take loans to finance their needs at ridiculous interest rates while lending companies report low NPL ratios. Think of what happens when these consumers get a taste of low or no-interest alternative financing options that BNPL players like Zip provide: adoption rates will be off the charts.

Second, there’s a lack of infrastructure and BNPL innovation that only new entrants like Zip can execute because it has a large monetary chest.

And with the absence of credit cards and data on the continent, Zip can provide a competitive advantage with its technology, gather alternative data and build creditworthiness for customers in South Africa and other markets it plans to expand “with sizable underbanked, digitally savvy populations.”

Two of those markets are Egypt and Nigeria. If Zip expands to these regions, it will face competition from local players like Carbon, Shahry, M-Kopa, CredPal and CDCare, which are already pulling their weight. African e-commerce giant Jumia is also rumored to be revamping its BNPL service; it started one years ago but was discontinued after gaining little traction.

That said, Africa doesn’t have a concrete market leader yet since most of these products are yet to reach mass scale. On the other hand, Zip has been quite aggressive with its expansion into other markets — evident in some of its numbers.

The company currently serves 51,000 merchants and 7.3 million customers across 12 markets. This fiscal year, June 2021, a period when most of its acquisitions have occurred, Zip hit $5.8 billion in total transaction volume, up 176% year-over-year (YoY).

Zip numbers are impressive, but if there’s anything we’ve learnt from the BNPL business it’s that it isn’t a winner-takes-all market. If Zip makes significant headway and cracks the market, expect more global BNPL players to bring the heat. Also, local players will be encouraged to step up their game because global players have surplus cash to burn if they move into Africa, which is a win-win for the market.

For VCs, the game right now is musical chairs

By Connie Loizos

In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a venture capitalist. Nearly everyone in the industry is raking in money, either through long-awaited exits or because more capital flooding into the industry has meant more money in management fees  — and sometimes both.

Still, a growing number of early-stage investors with whom we talk to on a routine basis are wary about the pace of dealmaking. It’s not just that it’s a lot harder to write checks at what feels like a reasonable clip at the moment, or that most VCs feel they can no longer afford to be price sensitive. Many of the founders with whom they work are being handed follow-on checks before figuring out how best to deploy their last round of funding.

Consider that from 2016 through 2019, an average of 35 deals a month featured rounds of $100 million or more, according to the data company CB Insights. This year, 126 companies a month on average have been raising those kinds of megarounds. The froth is hardly contained to maturing companies. Even the median U.S. Series A valuation hit $42 million in the second quarter, driven in part crossover investors like Tiger Global, which closed 1.26 deals per business day in Q2. (Andreessen Horowitz wasn’t far behind.)

It makes for some bewildering times, including for longtime investor Jeff Clavier, the founder the early-stage venture firm Uncork Capital. Like many of his peers, Clavier is benefiting from the booming market. Among Uncork’s portfolio companies, for example is LaunchDarkly, a company that helps software developers avoid missteps. The seven-year-old company announced $200 million in Series D funding last month at a $3 billion valuation. That’s triple the valuation it was assigned early last year.

“It’s an awesome company, so I’m very excited for them,” says Clavier.

At the same time, he added, “You have to put this money to work in a very smart way.”

That’s not so easy in this market, where founders are inundated with interest and, in some cases, are talking term sheets after the first Zoom with an investor. (“The most absurd thing we’ve heard are funds that are making decisions after a 30-minute call with the founder,” says TX Zhou, the cofounder of L.A.-based seed-stage firm Fika Ventures, which itself just tripled the amount of assets it’s managing.)

More money can mean a much longer lifeline for a company. But as many investors have learned the hard way, it can also serve as a distraction, as well as hide fundamental issues with a business until it’s too late to address them.

Taking on more money also oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with a bigger valuation, and lofty valuations comes with their own positives and negatives. On the plus side, of course, big numbers can attract more attention to a company from the press, from customers, and from potential new hires.  At the same time, “The more money you raise, the higher the valuation it is, it catches up with you on the next round, because you got to clear that watermark,” says Renata Quintini of the venture firm Renegade Partners, which focuses largely on Series B-stage companies.

Again, in today’s market, trying to slow down isn’t always possible. Quintini says that some founders her firm has talked to have said, “‘I’m not going to raise any more because I cannot go faster; I cannot deploy more than my model is already supporting.'” For others, she continues, “You’ve got to look at what’s happening around you, and sometimes if your competitors are raising and they’re going to have a bigger war chest . . and [they’re] pushing the market forward . . . and maybe they can out-hire you or they can outspend you in certain areas where they can generate more traction than you . . .” that next check, often at the higher valuation, begins to look like the only option.

Many VCs have argued that today’s valuations make sense because companies are creating new markets, growing faster than before, and have more opportunities to expand globally, and certainly, in some cases, that it is true. Indeed, companies that were previously believed to be richly priced by their private investors, like Airbnb and Doordash, have seen their valuations soar as publicly traded companies.

Yet it’s also true that for many more companies, “valuation is completely disconnected from the [companies’] multiples,” says Clavier, echoing what other VCs acknowledge privately.

That might seem to be the kind of problem that investors love to face. But as been the case for years now, that depends on how long this go-go market lasts.

Clavier says that one of his own companies that “did a great Series A and did a great Series B ahead of its time is now being preempted for a Series C, and the valuation is just completely disconnected from their actual reality.”

He said he’s happy for the outfit “because I have no doubt they will catch up. But this is the point: they will have to catch up.”

For more from our conversation with Clavier, by the way, you can listen here.

Firefly launches its first rocket, but loses the launch craft in mid-flight explosion

By Darrell Etherington

Firefly launched its first rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, and on board it carried a number of payloads with an intended destination of low Earth orbit. The rocket took off as planned, and seemed to be doing fairly well during the initial portion of the launch, before experiencing “an anomaly” that clearly resulted in an explosion and the total loss of the vehicle prior to reaching space.

The rocket that flew today is Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle, its first, and this was its first launch attempt ever of the spacecraft. Actually getting off the pad on the first try is in itself an accomplishment, and the loss of the vehicle looks to have taken place some time after what’s known as ‘max q,’ or the time when the spacecraft is experiencing the most aerodynamic stress prior to leaving Earth’s atmosphere.

Firefly issued a statement via Twitter shortly after the explosion was broadcast on a live stream hosted by Everyday Astronaut, which included official audio and video provided by the company. It added that the ground staff had cleared the pad and surrounding areas in order to minimize risk and in adherence with safety protocols.

The company expects to provide more details about what happened with the Alpha rocket and why the craft was lost later, and we’ll update accordingly.

A private commercial launch firm based in Austin, Firefly was originally founded in 204 and survived a bankruptcy to emerge as Firefly Aerospace in 2017. The company’s Alpha rocket is a fully expendable small launch vehicle that can carry around 2,200 lbs to low-Earth orbit, and it’s also developing a Beta rocket that should be able to carry around 17,000 lbs of payload to LEO.

Developing…

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.”

BMW Group’s Neue Klasse lineup to focus on circular economy to achieve reduction in CO2 emissions

By Rebecca Bellan

The BMW Group announced Thursday its intentions to commit to a 50% reduction from 2019 levels in global carbon dioxide emissions during the use-phase of its vehicles by 2030, as well as a 40% reduction in emissions during the life cycle of the vehicle. These goals, including a plan to focus on the principles of a circular economy to achieve a more sustainable vehicle life cycle, will manifest in the company’s Neue Klasse platform, which should be available by 2025.

Announced in March, the BMW “New Class” is a reboot of a line of sedans and coupes the German automaker produced from 1962-1977, a line that established BMW’s identity as a sports car manufacturer. The new line will feature “a completely redefined IT and software architecture, a new generation of high-performance electric drivetrains and batteries and a radically new approach to sustainability across the entire vehicle life cycle,” according to the company.

“With the Neue Klasse we are significantly sharpening our commitment and also committing ourselves to a clear course for achieving the 1.5 degree target,” said Oliver Zipse, chairman of the board of management of BMW AG, in a statement. “How companies are dealing with CO2 emissions has become a major factor when it comes to judging corporate action. The decisive factor in the fight against global warming is how strongly we can improve the carbon footprint of vehicles over their entire life span. This is why we are setting ourselves transparent and ambitious goals for the substantial reduction of CO2 emissions; these are validated by the Science Based Targets Initiative and will deliver an effective and measurable contribution.”

BMW says the utilization phase of its vehicles accounts for 70% of the group’s total CO2 footprint, which makes sense given the fact that most of BMW’s car sales are still ICE vehicles. In the first half of 2021, about 11.44% of BMW’s total sales volume were either electric or plug-in hybrid, according to its 2021 half-year earnings report. The company has expressed a goal of selling 1 million plug-in units, including hybrids, by the end of 2021. As of Q2, it’s already at around 850,000, but in order to reach its goal of halving emissions during the utilization phase, BMW will need to seriously up its sales of low or zero-emissions vehicles. BMW already has its i3 compact EV out and plans to launch two long-range models, the i4 sedan and iX SUV, later this year, with plans for more in 2022. But unlike GM or Volvo, the automaker has not yet announced plans to kill its ICE vehicles, nor has it begun to sell a full line of vehicles designed from the ground up to run on batteries.

This announcement comes just a couple of months after BMW, along with other German automakers Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche, acknowledged its involvement in colluding on an emissions cartel since the 1990s. The automakers collectively hid technology that would have been able to reduce harmful emissions beyond what was legally required under EU emissions standards. The EU fined BMW $442 million, a slap on the wrist given BMW’s second-quarter profits of close to $6 billion.

In addition, the EU’s “Fit for 55” energy and climate package, which was released last month, upgraded the overall carbon emissions reductions goal from 40% to 55% by 2030, which means automakers need to pick up the pace of electrification, and BMW knows that. Other proposals reportedly under discussion in the European Commission involve a 60% emissions reduction by 2030, followed by 100% cut by 2035, which would make it near impossible to sell ICE vehicles by that time.

BMW says its Neue Klasse will further the momentum to get EVs to market. The automaker aims to have 10 million all-electric cars on the road over the next decade, with at least half of all BMW Group sales being all-electric and the Mini brand offering exclusively all-electric from 2030. As part of its circular economy focus, BMW also intends to incorporate an increase of use of secondary materials and promote a better framework for establishing a market for secondary materials with the Neue Klasse. The company says it aims to raise the percentage of secondary materials it uses from its current rate of 30% to 50%, but didn’t specify by when.

BMW says its use of secondary nickel in the iX battery, for example, is already 50%, with the battery housing containing up to 30% secondary aluminum, and the goal is to improve those numbers. BMW is also piloting a project with BASF and the ALBA Group to increase the recycling of plastics used in cars.

As part of what BMW is calling a comprehensive recycling system, “the ALBA Group analyses end-of-life BMW Group vehicles to establish whether a car-to-car reuse of the plastic is possible,” according to a statement by the company. “In a second step, BASF assesses whether chemical recycling of the pre-sorted waste can be used in order to obtain pyrolysis oil. This can then be used as a basis for new products made of plastic. In the future, a new door trim or other components could be manufactured from a used instrument panel, for example.”

To ensure an easier recycling process, BMW is also incorporating early-stage design of vehicles. Materials must be put together in a way that’s easy to disassemble at the end of life and then reuse. The automaker says it will increasingly build the interior of a car with monomaterials that can be transferred back into usable material.

“For example, the onboard wiring systems must be easy to remove, in order to avoid mixing steel with copper from the cable harnesses in the vehicles,” the company said in a statement. “If this mixing does take place, the secondary steel loses its essential material properties and therefore no longer meets the high safety requirements of the automotive industry.”

A circular economy also involves using higher-quality vehicles, which will reduce the overall number of materials used because those parts can be recycled or fixed more easily.

With this announcement, BMW promises transparency when it comes to the life cycle of its vehicles. The company does indeed publish life cycle assessments (LCAs), as does almost every other major car manufacturer, but there’s no standard in the industry yet, which means it’s sometimes difficult to compare different vehicles. Looking at the overall life cycle of a vehicle will be increasingly important if we actually want to cut emissions goals. The emissions that come from the supply chains and manufacturing processes to obtain all the materials needed to even build batteries and vehicles is a body of research that’s only just coming to light, and what that light reveals is the possibility that these moves could even increase emissions in the aggregate.

“Embodied emissions can be devilishly difficult to accurately quantify, and nowhere are there more complexities and uncertainties than with EVs,” writes Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, in a recent TechCrunch article about what it takes to calculate the real carbon cost of EVs. “While an EV self-evidently emits nothing while driving, about 80% of its total lifetime emissions arise from the combination of the embodied energy in fabricating the battery and then in ‘fabricating’ electricity to power the vehicle. The remaining comes from manufacturing the non-fuel parts of the car. That ratio is inverted for a conventional car where about 80% of lifecycle emissions come directly from fuel burned while driving, and the rest comes from the embodied energy to make the car and fabricate gasoline.”

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.

Online learning platform CLASS101 bags $26M Series B to support growth

By Kate Park

Everything is switching from offline to online mode, spurred by the pandemic, and that also has turned around things for the creative economy. Creative professionals continue to look for ways to monetize their talents and knowledge through online education platforms like CLASS101 that bring stable incomes and improve opportunities.

CLASS101, a Seoul-based online education platform, announced today it has closed $25.8 million (30 billion won) Series B funding to accelerate its growth in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

The Series B round was led by Goodwater Capital, with additional participation from previous backers Strong Ventures, KT Investment, Mirae Asset Capital and Klim Ventures.

In 2019, the company raised a $10.3 million (12 billion won) Series A round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia along with Mirae Asset Venture Investment, KT Investment, Strong Ventures and SpringCamp.

Co-founder and CEO of CLASS101 Monde Ko told TechCrunch that the company will use the proceeds to focus on hiring more talent, as well as expanding domestic business and overseas markets in the U.S. and Japan.

Ko and four other co-founders established CLASS101 in 2018, which was pivoted from a tutoring service platform that was founded in 2015, Ko said. It has 350 employees now.

“We will keep supporting creators to monetize their talents and we will also allow creators to expand their revenue streams by selling their goods, digital files and more products via our platform,” Ko said.

When asked about what differentiated it from other peers, CLASS101 provides and ships all the necessary tools and material “Class Kit”, Ko said.

The company offers more than 2,000 classes within a raft of categories, with drawing, crafts, photography, cooking, music and more. It also provides about 230 classes in the U.S. and 220 classes in Japan. There are approximately 100,000 registered creators and 3 million registered users as of August 2021.

CLASS101 launched its platform in the U.S. in 2019 and entered Japan last year. The company opened online classes for kids aged under 14 in 2020.

“CLASS101 is a company that combines the advantages of Patreon and YouTube, offering tailored support for creators while fulfilling users’ learning needs,” co-founder and managing partner at Goodwater Capital Eric Kim said, adding that it is the fastest growing company “in an economic phenomenon in which individuals follow their passions and do what they really enjoy while also making a living from it.”

Use cohort analysis to drive smarter startup growth

By Ram Iyer
Jonathan Metrick Contributor
Jonathan Metrick is the chief growth officer at Sagard & Portage Ventures, where he helps build some of the world's leading fintech companies.

Cohort analysis is a way of evaluating your business that involves grouping customers into “cohorts” and observing how they behave over time. A commonly used approach is monthly cohort analysis, where customers are grouped by the month they signed up, allowing you to observe how someone who joined in November compares to someone who signed up the month before.

Cohort analysis gives you a multivariable, forward-looking view of your business compared to more simple and static values like averages or totals.

Cohort analysis is flexible and can be used to analyze a variety of performance metrics including revenue, acquisition costs and churn.

Let’s imagine you’re the CMO of the “Bluetooth Coffee Company.” You sell a tech-enabled “coffee composer” that brews coffee, tracks consumption and orders replacement coffee when users are running low. The longer your customers are subscribers, the more money you make. You recently ran a Black Friday feature on a popular deals site and you’re interested to know if you should run it again.

The chart below is a simple analysis you might do to gauge your marketing performance. It shows the total customers added each month, and a clear spike in November following the Black Friday promotion. At first glance, things look good — you brought in more than double the monthly customers in November compared to October.

Marketing campaign results in significant uptick to users added

Image Credits: Sagard & Portage Ventures

But before you rebook the promotion, you should ask if these new Black Friday consumers are as valuable as they seem. Comparing monthly customer percentage is a good way to find out.

Below is a monthly cohort analysis of new customers between September 2020 and February 2021. Like our previous chart, we’ve listed the monthly cohort size, but we’ve also included the customer engagement rate (calculated by dividing daily active users by monthly active users or DAU/MAU for each month (M1 is month 1, M2 is month 2, and so on).

This analysis lets us see how the customer engagement of each monthly cohort compares to the next.

Customer engagement by cohort

Image Credits: Sagard & Portage Ventures

From the figures above, we see that most cohorts have a customer engagement rate in their first month (M1, 42%-46%), meaning 42%-46% of new customers use the coffee composer everyday. The November cohort however has materially lower engagement (M1, 30%), and remains lower in subsequent months (M2, 26%) and (M3, 27%). Interestingly, the customer engagement rate only drops with the November cohort, returning to normal with the December cohort (M1, 45%).

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