Apple didn’t announce that rumored combined Apple TV device that would combine the set-top box with a HomePod speaker during its WWDC keynote, but it did announce a few features that will improve the Apple TV experience — including one that involves a HomePod Mini. Starting this fall, Apple said you’ll be able to select the HomePod Mini as the speaker for your Apple TV 4K. It also introduced a handful of software updates for Apple TV users, including a new way to see shows everyone in the family will like, and support for co-watching shows through FaceTime.
The co-watching feature is actually a part of a larger FaceTime update, which will let users stream music, TV, and screen share through their FaceTime calls. The Apple TV app is one of those that’s supported through this new system, called SharePlay. It will now include a new “Shared with You” row that highlights the shows and movies your friends are sharing, as well.
Another feature called “For All of You” will display a collection of shows and movies based on everyone’s interests within Apple TV’s interface. This is ideal you’re planning to watch something as a family — like for movie night, for example. And you can fine tune the suggestions based on who’s watching.
A new Apple TV widget is also being made available, which now includes iPad support.
And the new support for HomePod Mini will help deliver “rich, balanced sound” and “crystal clear dialog,” when you’re watching Apple TV with the Mii set up as your speakers, Apple said.
Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.
A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.
“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.”
So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.
“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”
Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.
The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.
Image Credits: Gatheround
Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.
All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.
Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky.
Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle.
The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.
“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.
Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.
“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”
He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”
“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.”
James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.
“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”
The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.
“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”
Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”
In public schools across Africa, classrooms are often overcrowded and this affects how teachers and students interact. The large classroom creates too much work for teachers leaving students’ individual problems unattended.
Private schools are modeled to fix these issues, but they can be expensive for the average African middle-class professional with kids. Kidato, an online school for K-12 students in Africa, presents another alternative and is announcing today that it has closed its $1.4 million seed investment.
The investors who participated in the round are Learn Start Capital, Launch Africa Ventures Fund, Graph Ventures and Century Oak Capital, among other notable local and global angel investors.
Kidato was founded by Kenyan serial entrepreneur Sam Gichuru in 2020. As a father of three kids, he encountered similar problems facing the average Kenyan middle-class professional, one of which was struggling to keep up with private school exorbitant tuition fees as high as $8,000 yearly.
“I have three kids. I moved them from private schools to homeschooling because that was the next option to give them the same quality of education but at an affordable price,” Gichuru told TechCrunch. That was when I started noticing the other challenges private schools had.”
First is the overcrowded nature of these schools. Typically, public schools have a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:50 while private schools are at 1:20. “Depending on how much you pay for school fees. The more prestigious the school, the smaller the teacher-to-student ratio. That for me was a big indicator that you want to have a small number of students per teacher,” added Gichuru.
Then there’s the issue of long and tiring commutes for students. Gichuru tells me that kids going to private schools in Nairobi would have to wake up by 5 a.m., prepare to get on the bus at 6 a.m. to get to school at 7 a.m.
Like any homeschooling model, Gichuru had teachers come to his house to teach his kids what they’d ordinarily learn in school. But when the pandemic hit, he had to find another alternative by building a platform around Zoom for these teachers to continue delivering lessons for his kids. By September, the platform had opened up to accommodate 10 more children outside his home. In January, the number of students in its learning-from-home program increased to 30 students.
It is easy to see why the product is catching on with parents. Due to the pandemic, video services like Zoom have become the norm for the middle class in Africa with high internet accessibility. Also, cutting commute time helps to spend more time with family while reducing costs.
Image Credits: Kidato
Building an online school for kids while capitalizing on the advantages of parents’ new remote work culture also got the Kenyan startup accepted into Y Combinator in January. Since then, Kidato has onboarded more than 50 students and claims to be growing at a 100% quarter on quarter.
Gichuru says Kidata wants to ensure better learning outcomes in smaller personalized class sizes. It is also offering the same international curriculum but with an average of 1:5 teacher-student ratio.
The company has also implemented after-school programs like robotics and chess, art, coding, and debate classes. Typically, they are usually found among students from affluent schools; however, they are being democratized by Kidato to the more than 700 registered students using its platform. The students mainly from Canada, Kenya, Malawi, Switzerland, Tanzania, UK, United States, and UAE pay $5 per lesson, the company revealed.
Kidato wants to make learning fun and gratifying. According to Gichuru, the business trains its 740 teachers on how to make classes interactive by using the context of arcade games like Minecraft and Roblox to tailor lessons taught to students in different subjects.
“Drawing from our understanding about how these platforms work and how kids learn from them, we have built-in behavior reward mechanisms such as lesson merits into our teaching methods resulting in interesting and enjoyable virtual classes,” an excerpt from the statement read.
But what happens when Kidato meets a demand and supply problem. While its product seems appealing for students, will Kidato find enough qualified teachers to meet the growing demand? The CEO holds that his company has it figured out.
Most private schools shut down during the lockdowns. Though some are beginning to re-open gradually, they are embarking on a recovery process with increased school fees and reduced teachers’ salaries. This has presented a big opportunity for Kidato as it currently has a waitlist of 3,000 teachers who are being swayed by Kidato’s promise of better pay. In the long run, this number creates a pipeline for 15,000 students.
Besides, Kidato doesn’t incur infrastructural costs like real estate, a feature common with traditional schools. Therefore the revenue made from students doesn’t go into any extreme costs, which means more money for teachers.
“Our teachers are paid at least one and a half times more than the average teacher in a private school, and that has driven a great supply of teachers to us.”
Kidato’s revenue split with teachers is 70/30; teachers take the larger percentage. Gichuru adds that if teachers combine their efforts in both normal and afterschool classes, they can earn an average of $2,000 per month.
Image Credits: Sam Gichuru
One would’ve thought that a challenge Kidato would be facing despite its progress would be internet and power but that’s not the case. It is the skepticism of whether Kidato can offer socialization for the students. To solve that, Kidato is adopting an offline approach by leveraging the connections of corporates and align its after-school classes to include monthly educational field trips.
“We’re trying to show them how well kids socialize on our platform. We are partnering with companies that can make it possible to take these kids to plantations, factories, planetariums,” the CEO added.
Kidato is Gichuru’s second stint at Y Combinator. The entrepreneur who founded one of Kenya’s well-known incubator Nailab, also co-founded recruitment platform, Kuhustle. The company which seems to be in pilot mode at the moment, took part in Y Combinator’s batch in 2015.
Kidato has some high expectations given the CEO’s experience and as the only edtech startup in this current batch. The company will use the seed financing for growth and product development as it hopes to replace brick-and-mortar schools. In Gichuru’s words regarding the company’s future, he said, “in the next couple of years, we want to have the biggest online school for K-12 students.”
Buy now, pay later is a way of paying for purchases via installment loans that generally have no interest. The concept has grown in popularity in recent years, especially in markets such as the United States, Europe and Australia. Numerous players abound, all fighting for market share — from Affirm to Klarna to Afterpay, among others.
But notably, none of these bigger players have yet to penetrate another very large market — Latin America. Enter Nelo, a startup founded by former Uber international growth team leads, which is building buy now, pay later in Mexico. The company is already live with more than 45 merchants and over 150,000 users.
San Francisco-based fintech-focused VC firm Homebrew led its recent seed round of $3 million, which also included participation from Susa Ventures, Crossbeam, Rogue Capital, Unpopular Ventures and others. With the latest capital infusion, Nelo has raised a total of $5.6 million since its 2019 inception.
Nelo is not the only player in the Mexican market. A number of others, including Alchemy and Addi, have recently outlined plans for buy now, pay later offerings in the region. But where Nelo has an advantage, believes CEO Kyle Miller, is its established relationships with about 45 merchants.
“What I’m excited about is the relationship with the merchants,” Miller told TechCrunch. “If we find a large global one and increase conversion for them, that is our defensibility [against competitors]. What’s important here is signing on merchants, since they usually only have one offering in their checkout.”
He and co-founder Stephen Hebson used to work for Uber’s international growth team, growing financial services products in India, Mexico, China and Brazil.
“We got to see a cross market where countries were accelerating and where others weren’t,” Miller recalls. “For example, China was a leader in mobile payments and digital finance in India was completely transformed.”
Nelo co-founders Stephen Hebson and Kyle Miller; Image courtesy of Nelo
But in markets like Mexico, the percentage of cash payments for trips was very high. And to Miller and Hebson, this spelled opportunity.
Nelo launched its first product in Mexico in January 2020, similar to a debit card offering from a neobank. In the middle of the year, the company launched credit installment loans.
“It became immediately clear that it was going to be our most popular feature,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, it was the vast majority of our business and something that our users were telling their friends about. We were solving a real pain point.”
Indeed, cash remains the dominant method of payment in Mexico, with an estimated 86% of all payments being in the form of cash. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth.
“Access to credit is something we take for granted in the U.S.,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, we realized this was the future of business, and we decided to focus just on credit.”
In March, Nelo launched its first product via an Android app and will be launching a web app soon.
Customers can use its offering like a credit card, connecting directly with merchants such as Netflix and Spotify. Many users are paying for things like utility bills and cell phone bills, turning them from prepaid to postpay.
With its current product, the company has lent about $2 million, and is seeing growth of about 20% month over month.
“We’re seeing massive demand for this new product in the way of organic signups,” Miller said, “for all the reasons Buy Now, Pay Later has been successful in markets like the U.S., Europe and Australia.”
Paying for installments is already common in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, so the concept is not foreign to residents in the region.
“We expected this is soon going to be a competitive market, so we’re hiring data scientists and engineers to continue improving our product, and grow,” Miller said.
Nelo has about 14 employees with an engineering team in New York.
Homebrew Partner Satya Patel says he’s excited about Nelo because he believes the startup “solves a serious problem related to the lack of credit for Mexican consumers.”
“Credit card penetration is less than 10% in Mexico and other forms of credit are effectively non-existent,” he wrote via email. “Nelo makes it possible for Mexicans to easily and inexpensively increase their purchasing power at the point of sale. And importantly, Nelo is delivering this solution online, supporting growing interest in e-commerce, and also offline, where consumers regularly shop today.”
Patel adds that what Nelo is building is valuable because he is not aware of any reliable, comprehensive consumer credit rating data set in Mexico.
“They are building underwriting models based on proprietary data and growing the merchant network at an incredible rate,” he said. “This buy now, pay later opportunity is untapped in Mexico but requires a very different approach than what has been successful in other markets.”
The Nelo team, according to Patel, understands the nuances of the market and “is executing at an exceptional pace.”
The sheer volume of people migrating to Austin from all over the country, but particularly from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been making headlines for a while now.
One result of this continued migration is a steady surge in housing prices due to increased demand and low inventory that dropped to nearly zero earlier this year. Now, Homebound, a Santa Rosa, California-based tech-enabled homebuilding startup, is entering the Austin market with the goal of helping ease some of the pain felt in the city by offering an alternative to buying existing homes.
Homebound has raised about $73 million over the years from the likes of Google Ventures, Fifth Wall, Khosla, Sound Ventures, Atomic and Thrive Capital. It raised a $35 million Series B last April and then closed on a $20 million convertible note late last year. CEO Nikki Pechet and Atomic managing partner Jack Abraham founded the company in 2017 after Abraham lost his home to wildfires.
Essentially serving as a virtual general contractor, Homebound combines technology and a network for “vetted” and licensed building “experts” to manage the new home construction from the design phase to completion. The startup has developed tools to track and manage hundreds of unique tasks associated with building a home.
Up until this point, Homebound has been focused on helping homeowners navigate the challenges and complexities of rebuilding after wildfires in California. But this month, Homebound will be expanding to Austin, its first non-disaster market, with the goal of taking learnings from those rebuilds and applying the same “streamlined, tech-enabled building process” to make custom homebuilding an option for local homeowners.
I talked with Homebound’s CEO and co-founder, Nikki Pechet, to learn more.
With Homebound, she said, the company is out to serve as a “next gen” homebuilder to make it possible “for anyone, anywhere to build a home.”
Austin’s housing market is definitely overheated, with homes going 10-30% above asking in some cases (I should know, I live here).
“Homeowners have been reaching out to us from across the country asking us to come to their market,” Pechet said. “We’re already seeing Austin grow faster than any of our other markets did in their early days. It’s going to be a huge market for us.”
It’s a model Pechet envisions replicating in other cities with similar housing supply issues such as Miami, Tampa, Raleigh and Charlotte.
“This is just the start,” Pechet said. “We’re taking the platform to markets across the country to help exactly with this issue.”
The company starts by helping a potential homeowner identify land they want to build on, or help them find a lot among the inventory Homebound has already built up. From there, it can help with everything from architectural plans to design to actual construction via its platform. Homebound offers a set of plans for people to choose from, with varying levels of customization.
Building costs for a typical single-family home in the Austin area will start around $300,000 depending on the size, complexity of house, lot size and location. That does not include land cost. Some people are opting to build second units on existing properties.
“In most cases, people can build a new home for less than they can pay for an existing home just because of the dynamics,” Pechet said.
HomeX, a home services platform for homeowners and service providers, has raised $90 million in a funding round led by New Mountain Capital.
New Mountain Capital, a New York-based investment firm with more than $30 billion in assets under management, was the only institutional investor to put money in this round alongside company executives. The company was bootstrapped until a 2019 $50 million-plus debt financing.
Founded in 2017, Chicago-based HomeX aims to “radically improve” home services by pairing service workers with homeowners, both virtually and in person. It also has built software, and offers services for, contractors that are aimed at helping them drive and manage demand “more efficiently.”
Notably, one of the company’s co-founders, CTO Simon Weaver, and several team members were on the development team of Evi, a startup that had built an AI program that can be communicated with using natural language via an app, that was acquired by Amazon in 2012. That technology was essentially the brain behind Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa.
HomeX uses artificial intelligence to diagnose home issues virtually before a contractor even goes out to a home, with the goal of helping them resolve a problem faster (by having the necessary equipment ahead of time for example), which in turn makes customers happier.
“We’re using machine-generated content to create solutions that are specific to a homeowner’s issues,” said co-founder and president Victor Payen. “Using machines to understand symptoms, the questions to ask and to actually get to a diagnosis and a recommendation or resolution is where AI absolutely shines and allows us to do things that were not possible even three or five years ago.”
Co-founder and CEO Michael Werner worked in the $500 billion services industry for years (his family founded Werner Ladders) and recognized just how fragmented it was. He also acknowledges that, especially in certain markets, “there’s a terrible imbalance between very high demand and not enough contractors to do the work, or rather, a terrible labor shortage.”
HomeX Remote Assist in particular virtually connects homeowners (via phone, video or chat) with HomeX’s licensed technicians to diagnose and repair common home issues. That business unit has experienced more than 400% growth in less than a year, according to Werner. Last year, the company grew by “about 5x” the number of contractors on its platform. It declined to reveal revenue figures.
Image courtesy of HomeX
“For homeowners, we’re making home maintenance less complicated,” Werner said. “At the same time, we want to help the contractor succeed. Similar to how telemedicine has changed how medicine is delivered, HomeX Remote Assist is going to change the service experience for taking care of your home.”
Another area of HomeX’s business that is growing rapidly is its B2B offering. Home warranty and insurance companies see remote services “as very additive to make their business more efficient,” notes Payen.
“We are using some of our capital toward a pilot program and a number of business development opportunities there,” he said.
For now, while the company is not profitable overall, it is profitable in the services side of its business, according to Werner. It has 250 employees and is contracted with 750 service workers. Over the years, it has served “hundreds of thousands” of clients via its platform, defined by unique virtual and physical appointments.
New Mountain Capital Managing Director Harris Kealey said his firm viewed HomeX as a business that is primed to reshape the home and commercial services industry.
“The market is massive and the need for change and innovation is substantial,” he said in a written statement.
Another company in the space, Thumbtack, recently expanded into video home checkups. Thumbtack, a marketplace where you can hire local professionals for home improvement and other services such as repairs, in December acquired Setter, a startup which provided its customers with video home checkups conducted by experts, and then offered personalized plans for how to address any issues.
Thumbtack had laid off 250 employees at the end of March 2020, after the company saw big declines in its major markets. Since then, however, CEO Marco Zappacosta told TechCrunch there’s been “a renewed focus on the home and an acceleration of digital adoption.”
Are you 100% sure that your children are brushing their teeth properly? A New York-based startup called Willo has been working for several years on a device that should transform the tooth-brushing experience for children.
Willo isn’t a new toothbrush — electric or not. It’s an oral care device that doesn’t look like a toothbrush at all. The startup has worked with dental professionals to start from scratch with oral care in mind.
The device can be quite intimidating when you don’t see it in action as it takes quite a bit of shelf space and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. But when you see it in action, it looks easier than expected. Willo specifically targets children because they tend to struggle to reach every tooth and brush properly.
Kids are supposed to grab the handle and put the mouthpiece in their mouth. They can start brushing by pressing the button and that’s it. They don’t have to do anything else. The silicone-based mouthpiece also features soft bristles. It starts vibrating in your kid’s mouth when they press the button.
The handle is connected to a bigger home station that contains a water tank with a special rinse liquid. Kids don’t have to use toothpaste and don’t have to rinse their mouth. Everything is handled by the device.
Finally, Willo is a connected device, which means that parents can track oral care in a mobile app. You can also set up multiple users — your kids will have to swap the mouthpiece before using the device.
Image Credits: Willo
If you’re thinking about buying a device for your children, Willo costs $199. You then have to pay $13 per month to receive rinse pods as well as new mouthpieces that always fit.
While the product is going live today, the startup has already tested it with real families. These children rated the device 4.73/5 and parents gave an NPS of 70+. They’ve all kept using Willo after the testing phase.
Behind this product, there’s a team of 33 people in France and the U.S. They have filed over 50 patents over the past 7 years — 30 of them have been granted so far. The company has raised $17 million in total funding from Kleiner Perkins, Bpifrance and Matt Rogers’ fund Incite.
It’s true that the concept of a toothbrush hasn’t changed at all. Making a device that changes the way you brush your teeth is an ambitious bet. But it’s clear that the startup has made a lot of efforts to tackle this challenge. Now let’s see if they manage to convince parents.
Image Credits: Willo
Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, including a mash-up of the Apple TV with a HomePod speaker, and an integrated camera for video chat, according to Bloomberg. It’s also said to be working on a smart speaker that basically combines a HomePod with an iPad, providing something similar to Amazon’s Echo Show or Google’s Nest Hub in functionality.
The Apple TV/HomePod hybrid would still connect to a television for outputting video, and would offer similar access to all the video and gaming services that the current Apple TV does, while the speaker component would provide sound output, music playback and Siri integration. It would also include a built-in camera for using video conferencing apps on the TV itself, the report says.
That second device would be much more like existing smart assistant display devices on the market today, with an iPad-like screen providing integrated visuals. The project could involve attaching the iPad via a “robotic arm,” according to Bloomberg, that would allow it to move to accommodate a user moving around, with the ability to keep them in frame during video chat sessions.
Bloomberg doesn’t provide any specific timelines for release of any of these potential products, and it sounds like they’re still very much in the development phase, which means Apple could easily abandon these plans depending on its evaluation of their potential. Apple just recently discontinued its original HomePod, the $300 smart speaker it debuted in 2018.
Rumors abound about a refreshed Apple TV arriving sometime this year, which should boast a faster processor and also an updated remote control. It could bring other hardware improvements, like support for a faster 120Hz refresh rate available on more modern TVs.