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Today — January 19th 2021Your RSS feeds

Spain’s Glovo inks real-estate tie-up to add more dark stores for speedy urban delivery

By Natasha Lomas

Spain’s Glovo, an on-demand delivery app, has announced a strategic partnership with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg.

The deal will see the latter invest €100M in building and refurbishing “prime city real estate” in some of Glovo’s key markets as the delivery app works to build out its network of dark stores and sign up more retail partners for its urban delivery service, it said today.

The initial focus for the partnership will be on growing its dark stores network in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania, with additional countries slated as under review in Europe.

“These are the countries in which both Glovo and Stoneweg have a major presence, and therefore are able to move much quicker when it comes to setting up,” a Glovo spokeswoman told us. “However, the deal is not limited to these countries. Glovo’s aim is to grow and strengthen their Q-Commerce and dark kitchens infrastructure across Eastern Europe too.”

Glovo currently operates 18 dark stores globally — in cities including Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Milan — but said it’s now looking to open similar stores in Valencia, Rome, Porto and Bucharest, among others.

It wants to have 100 dark stores up and running by the end of 2021, it added.

Last September the startup announced the sale of its LatAm ops to food-delivery focused rival Delivery Hero for $272M — leaving it more fully focused on Southern and Eastern Europe.

Then in November it announced the launch of a dedicated business unit to support expansion of the sub-30 minute urban delivery service, which it calls ‘Q-Commerce’ (that’s ‘Q’ for quick) — saying it would accelerate development of a b2b offering to stock third parties’ products in its city center warehouses (and have them delivered to shoppers via the couriers doing gig work on its platform).

Glovo said today that the Stoneweg strategic partnership will help it step on the gas to grow the infrastructure and fulfilment centers it needs to underpin this b2b offering.

The ‘deliver anything’ app is spying an opportunity to capitalize on the coronavirus’ impact on traditional bricks-and-mortar retail — betting urban consumers will make a permanent shift to outsourcing grocery and other convenience/essential shops to an app which bundles high speed delivery, rather than making such quotidian trips in person.

Its dialled-up focus on Q-Commerce is a direct response to “changing consumer sentiment and demand for instant and same-day delivery”, it added.

To date, Glovo’s platform has delivered more than 12 million multi-category orders globally, while in 2020 it experienced a growth rate of more than 300% year-on-year.

As well as supermarkets such as Carrefour, Continente, and Kaufland, Glovo’s list of retail partners includes the likes of Unilever, Nestle and L’Oréal, and IKEA — so it’s by no means focused purely on groceries.

It has said it wants Q-Commerce to power delivery of a wide range of products — from toys, music, books, flowers and beauty products to pharmacy items and groceries. And even, in some markets, a curated selected of IKEA wares — i.e. stuff that’s small enough to fit in couriers’ backpacks.

Commenting on the Stoneweg strategic investment in a statement, Oscar Pierre, co-founder and CEO, said: “We believe that the third-generation of commerce is already upon us. Following the close of Stoneweg’s investment, we are consolidating our strategic commitment to Q-Commerce, which will allow us to better connect people with a wide variety of available products in their cities.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we believe that dark stores represent the future of post-pandemic retail, and I think we’ll see a permanent shift in consumer habits towards same-day and instant delivery. We’re excited to continue to expand our offering, so that all types of businesses, from local independent stores to multi-national chains, can reach more and more customers thanks to new technological solutions and highly efficient infrastructure.”

In another supporting statement, Stoneweg’s Joaquín Castellví, founding partner and head of acquisitions for Europe, added that the strategic investment represents “an opportunity to offer our clients to diversify into a new class of retail asset through consolidated cities where Glovo operates — in a segment with great growth potential, accelerated by the situation we are experiencing”.

Glovo’s push to take a margin on a broad range of urban retail comes at a time when consolidation is eating into the thin margin food delivery space.

It is also facing legal challenges to its business model in Europe over the classification of couriers as self-employed — losing a supreme court ruling in its home market last September.

Ministers in Spain are working on a new regulatory framework for delivery apps and Glovo has said it’s awaiting that reform before making any changes but a lot will be riding on the detail.

UK-based Deliveroo also recently lost a legal challenge in Spain over the classification of its couriers after a court in Barcelona found last week that the company had falsely defined 748 riders as self employed, following an 2018 workplace inspection.

The Glovo food delivery rival announced Sunday the closing of a Series H funding round — raising $180M+ from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners LP and Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, which it said valued the business at over $7BN.

The investment would enable it to continue investing in “developing the best proposition for consumers, riders and restaurants”, it said, noting too that it would be expanding in on-demand grocery following rapid growth over the last year.

Deliveroo added that the Series H investment comes ahead of a “potential” IPO — and “reflects strong demand from existing shareholders to invest in the company, given the significant growth potential in the online food delivery sector in which consumer adoption is accelerating”.

Google backs India’s Dunzo in $40 million funding round

By Manish Singh

Google is writing check to another startup in India. The Android-maker, which last year unveiled a $10 billion fund to invest in the world’s second largest internet market, said on Tuesday that it is participating in a $40 million investment round of hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo, a Bangalore-based firm that it has also previously backed.

Five-year-old Dunzo said Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada, and Alteria among others participated in its Series E financing round, which brings its to-date raise to $121 million.

Dunzo operates an eponymous hyper-local delivery service in nearly a dozen cities in India including Bangalore, Delhi, Noida, Pune, Gurgaon, Powai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Users get access to a wide-range of items across several categories, from grocery, perishables, pet supplies and medicines to dinner from their neighborhood stores and restaurants.

E-commerce accounts for less than 3% of all retail sales in India, according to industry estimates. Mom and pop stores and other neighborhood outlets that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns, villages and slums across the country drive most of the sales in the nation. The way Dunzo has grown, it poses a challenge to e-commerce firms, as well as local food and grocery delivery startups such as Swiggy, Zomato, BigBasket, and Grofers.

“As merchants go digital, Dunzo is helping small businesses in their digital transformation journey in support of business recovery,” said Caesar Sengupta, VP, Google, in a statement. “Through our India Digitization Fund, we’re committed to partnering with India’s innovative startups to build a truly inclusive digital economy that will benefit everyone.”

Kabeer Biswas, chief executive and co-founder of Dunzo the startup has grown its annual gross merchandise value business to about $100 million. (GMV used to a popular metric that several e-commerce firms relied on to demonstrate their growth, however, it’s one of the meaningless ways to gauge a startup’s growth. Most firms have stopped using GMV. Additionally, when a startup speaks GMV language, traditionally it has meant they are anything but close to profitability, which happens to be true in the case of Dunzo.)

“Dunzo’s mission resonated stronger than ever in 2020. We have been amazed by everything merchants and users have started to depend on the platform for. We truly believe we are writing a playbook for how hyperlocal businesses can be built with sustainable unit economics and capital responsibility. As a team, we are more focused than ever to enable local Merchants to get closer to their Users and build one of the most loved consumer brands in the country,” Biswas said in a statement.

Google, which invested $4.5 billion in Jio Platforms last year, recently backed social news app Dailyhunt and Glance, a part of ad giant InMobi Group that is aggressively expanding ways to populate content on Android users’ lockscreen. Google is also in talks with local social media ShareChat and may alone invest more than $100 million in the Indian startup, TechCrunch reported earlier this months. Talks about Google’s interest in ShareChat has previously also been reported by local media houses Economic Times and ET Now.

Yesterday — January 18th 2021Your RSS feeds

Calling Bucharest VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Bucharest and Romania will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Romania’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

The deadline is January 22, 2021.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Romania, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.

Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.

 

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

How to Preorder the Samsung Galaxy S21—and Which One to Get

By Julian Chokkattu
Should you go Ultra or snag the S21+? We break down the differences between the company’s new phones and round up the best deals.

Samsung Has New Galaxy Phones (and New Earbuds Too)

By Julian Chokkattu, Parker Hall
A trio of new Android phones—the S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra—are joined by new Bluetooth earbuds and a Tile-like tracker.

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

By Walter Thompson
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is founder of Versatile VC and writes periodically at teten.com and @dteten.
Jamie Finney Contributor
Jamie Finney is a founding partner at Greater Colorado Venture Fund, where he blogs about his work on VC and small communities.

Previously, we introduced the concept of flexible VC: structures that allow founders to access immediate risk capital while preserving exit and ownership optionality. We list here all the active flexible VCs we have identified, broken into these categories:

  • Revenue-based
  • Compensation-based
  • Blended-return streams

Revenue-based flexible VCs

These investors are paid back primarily based on a percentage of revenues.

Capacity Capital

Chattanooga, TN-based Capacity Capital was launched in 2020 with a primary focus on the southeastern U.S. Jonathan Bragdon, its CEO, describes Capacity as “a team of founders-turned-funders making non-dilutive, founder-aligned investments of $50,000-$300,000 in post-startup, post-revenue businesses planning to 2x revenues in 12-24 months. Investments are typically in exchange for a capped, single-digit revenue share and a right to equity under certain circumstances.

If the company sells or raises enough capital, the investment converts into an agreed-upon percentage of equity. If the company grows without raising additional equity funding, founders redeem most of the equity right, based on a pre-agreed return amount. With a portfolio that includes food, tech and services, the fund is industry-agnostic and focused on the overlooked and underrepresented with high-margin business models.”

Jonathan sometimes refers to their investments as “micro-mezzanine” because “mezz is typically structured as a contractual periodic payment, with some equity-like upside, but subordinate to other debt … so most lenders look at it like equity. But, it is typically shorter term with fewer control mechanisms than equity (i.e., not VC). I wanted [a term for] something similar (between debt and equity) but on an extremely small scale.”

In addition to a fund, the overall Capacity organization provides direct mentorship, consulting and connects founders to a broad network of talent, diverse forms of capital and existing resources focused on the post-startup stage of growth. The founders, LPs and venture partners have a long history in local startup ecosystems in the Southeast including LaunchTN, The Company Lab, CO.STARTERS and several other regional funds and resources.

Greater Colorado Venture Fund

Greater Colorado Venture Fund (GCVF) is a $17 million seed fund that invests in high-growth startups in rural Colorado using equity and flexible VC structuring.

A typical GCVF flexible VC investment is $100,000-$250,000 for up to 10% ownership, of which 9% is redeemable, with a sub-10% revenue share and 12-month-plus holiday period. GCVF specializes in providing critical support to founders based in small communities, while connecting them to an unfair network well-beyond their small-town headquarters.

GCVF is pioneering the future of venture capital and high-growth startups for all small communities. With Colorado as an ideal pilot community, the GCVF team (which includes Jamie Finney, a co-author of this article) has helped grow multiple staple initiatives in the rural Colorado startup ecosystem, including West Slope Startup Week, Telluride Venture Accelerator, Startup Colorado, Energize Colorado Gap Fund and the Greater Colorado Pitch Series.

Recognizing the need for creative investment structures in their Colorado market, they co-founded the Alternative Capital Summit, creating the first community of flexible VCs and alternative startup investors.

They share their learnings on flexible VC and pioneering rural startup ecosystems on the GCVF blog.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

By Matt Burns

Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder.

TechCrunch surveyed five key investors who touch different aspects of the consumer electronics industry, based on our TechCrunch List of top VCs recommended by founders, along with other sources.

We asked these investors the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches:

Despite the pandemic, each identified bright spots in the consumer electronic world. One thing is clear, investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups. Multiple respondents cited Peloton, Tonal and Mirror as recent highlights in consumer electronics.

Said Shasta Venture’s Rob Coneybeer, “With all due respect to my friends at Nest (where Shasta was a Series A investor), Tonal is the most exciting consumer connected hardware company I’ve ever been involved with.”

Besides asking about the trends and opportunities they’re pursuing in 2021, the investors we spoke to also identified other investors, founders and companies who are leaders in consumer hardware and shared how they’ve reshaped their investment strategies during the pandemic. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.


Hans Tung, GGV Capital

Which consumer hardware sector shows the most promise for explosive growth?

For consumer hardware, offering end users a differentiated experience is extremely important. Social interactions, gamification and high-quality PGC (professionally generated content) such as with Peloton, Xiaomi and Tonal is a must to drive growth. It’s also easy to see how the acceleration of the digital economy created by COVID-19 will also drive growth for hardware.

First, services improved by the speed and reliability of 5G such as live streaming, gaming, cloud computing, etc. will create opportunity for new mobile devices and global mass market consumers will continue to demand high-quality, low-cost hardware. For example, Arevo is experimenting with “hardware as a service” with a 3D printing facility in Vietnam.

For enterprise hardware, security, reliability and fast updates are key competitive advantages. Also as a result of 5G… manufacturing automation and industrial applications. Finally IoT for health and safety may find its sweet spot thanks to COVID-19 with new wearables that track sleep, fitness and overall wellness.

How did COVID-19 change consumer hardware and your investment strategy?

One opportunity for consumer hardware companies to consider as a result of COVID-19 is how they engage with their customers. They should think of themselves more like e-commerce companies, where user experience, ongoing engagement with the consumer and iteration based on market feedback rule the day. While Peloton had this approach well before COVID, it has built a $46 billion company thinking about their products in this way.

For example, some consumers felt the bike was too expensive so instead of responding with a low-end product, the company partnered with Affirm to make their hardware more affordable with pay-as-you-go plans. A Peloton bike is not a one-and-done purchase; there is constant interaction between users, and the company that drives more satisfaction in the hardware adds more value in the business.

Entering 2021, in what way is hardware still hard?

Hardware is still hard because it takes more to iterate fast. The outcome for competitors relative to speed-to-market can be dramatic. For example, every year I look at future generation of EVs with lots of innovations and cool features from existing OEMs but see very few of these making it to market compared to Tesla and other pure players that are cranking out vehicles. Their speed of execution is impressive.

Who are some leaders in consumer hardware — founders, companies, investors?

  • John Foley, founder and CEO of Peloton. John and the Peloton team have cracked the code on the integration of community experience and hardware.
  • Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit and founder/CEO of Arevo, maker of ultrastrong, lightweight continuous carbon fiber products on demand. Experienced founder and team with 3D printing manufacturing know-how at scale are now able to offer breakthrough consumer and industrial products at competitive prices.
  • Manu Jain, head of Xiaomi’s business in India where Xiaomi is the #1-selling smart phone. He built the Indian operation from the ground up; had zero dollar marketing budget for the first three years; and localized manufacturing for all Xiaomi phones sold in India.
  • Jim Xiao, founder and CEO of Mason, a rising star who is creating “mobile infrastructure as a service.”
  • Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. Irving and his team are on a mission to reimagine modern farming.

Is there anything else you would like to share with TechCrunch readers?

Worry less about trends and build products that resonate with customers.

 

Dayna Grayson, Construct Capital

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records

By Darrell Etherington

A new cross-industry initiative is seeking to establish a standard for digital vaccination records that can be used universally to identify COVID-19 vaccination status for individuals, in a way that can be both secure via encryption and traceable and verifiable for trustworthiness regarding their contents. The so-called ‘Vaccination Credential Initiative’ includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and the tech industry, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and Epic, as well as the Mayo Clinic, Safe Health, Change Healthcare and the CARIN Alliance to name a few.

The effort is beginning with existing, recognized standards already in use in digital healthcare programs, like the SMART Health Cards specification, which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) which is a standard created for use in digital health records to make them interoperable between providers. The final product that the initiative aims to establish is an “encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for individuals who don’t own or prefer not to use smartphones.

Vaccination credentials aren’t a new thing – they’ve existed in some form or another since the 1700s. But their use and history is also mired in controversy and accusations of inequity, since this is human beings we’re dealing with. And already with COVID-19, there efforts underway to make access to certain geographies dependent upon negative COVID-19 test results (though such results don’t actually guarantee that an individual doesn’t actually have COVID-19 or won’t transfer it to others).

A recent initiative by LA County specifically also is already providing digital immunization records to individuals via a partnership with Healthvana, facilitated by Apple’s Wallet technology. But Healthvana’s CEO and founder was explicit in telling me that that isn’t about providing a proof of immunity for use in deterring an individual’s social or geographic access. Instead, it’s about informing and supporting patients for optimal care outcomes.

It sounds like this initiative is much more about using a COVID-19 immunization record as a literal passport of sorts. It’s right in the name of the initiative, for once (‘Credential’ is pretty explicit). The companies involved also at least seem cognizant of the potential pitfalls of such a program, as MITRE’s chief digital health physician Dr. Brian Anderson said that “we are working to ensure that underserved populations have access to this verification,” and added that “just as COVID-19 does not discriminate based on socio-economic status, we must ensure that convenient access to records crosses the digital divide.”

Other quotes from Oracle and Salesforce, and additional member leaders confirm that the effort is focused on fostering a reopening of social and economic activity, including “resuming travel,” get[ting] back to public life,” and “get[ting] concerts and sporting events going again.” Safe Health also says that they’ll help facility a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Given the urgency of solutions that can lead to a safe re-opening, and a way to keep tabs on the massive, global vaccination program that’s already underway, it makes sense that a modern approach would include a digital version of historic vaccination record systems. But such an approach, while it leverages new conveniences and modes made possible by smartphones and the internet, also opens itself up to new potential pitfalls and risks that will no doubt be highly scrutinized, particularly by public interest groups focused on privacy and equitable treatment.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 line arrives with camera bumps, price drops and S Pen compatibility

By Brian Heater

Samsung wasted no time this year. With Mobile World Congress pushed back six or so months, the hardware maker hitched its wagon to the tail end of the CES whirlwind — though unlike its press conference earlier in the week, the company is very much on its own for the latest Unpacked.

And why not? In spite of broader issues with the mobile industry (certainly not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic), the Galaxy line is still very much a draw. People may not be as eager to buy a flagship as they were a couple of years ago, but when they do, it’s frequently a Samsung device.

I tend to save pricing for the end of these kinds of posts, but it really bears mention up front. Samsung’s launching three key iterations of the S21 line today: the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra. Those are priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, here in the States. That’s down from $999, $1,199 and $1,399 last year. While it’s true we’re still very much in the flagship price range here, a $200 drop is not insignificant.

Image Credits: Samsung

Rather, it points to a very conscious correction — one that goes beyond simply introducing a budget flagship or flagship lite to appease that segment of the market. Smartphone sales were already lagging before the pandemic, and the routine pricing of flagships above $1,000 was a considerable piece of that. Obviously the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for myriad reasons, and 5G, which was expected to lead to a sales rebound didn’t move the needle nearly as much as anticipated.

Of course, 5G was a headliner feature for Samsung all the way back in 2019. The company has been all-in with the Galaxy line for a while now, and frankly, the feature is just kind of expected now. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samsung is going back to imaging as a key differentiator.

Here’s what Mobile head TM Roh has to say about the new handsets:

We are living in a mobile-first world, and with so many of us working remotely and spending more time at home, we wanted to deliver a smartphone experience that meets the rigorous multimedia demands of our continuously changing routines. We also recognize the importance of choice, especially now, and that’s why the Galaxy S21 series gives you the freedom to choose the best device for your style and needs.

I absolutely understand why companies continue to go the “in these challenging times” route with these announcements, though I will say that, for the most part, the notion of device upgrades as a response to COVID-19 is really overstated here, beyond the aforementioned price drop. And I suspect that, with fewer people leaving the house these days, the dream of a smartphone as a primary productivity device has probably dampened of late.

Image Credits: Samsung

Still, the S21 Ultra, in particular, has one very important trick up its sleeve. Samsung is further blurring the line between the Galaxy S and Note by making the Ultra S Pen compatible. The experience will vary to some degree, but users will be able to use the stylus to write and draw on the handset. It’s sold separately and there’s no in-device housing for the pen, though Samsung will be offering a case that will hold it. It will be interesting to see if the company goes out of its way to distinguish the new Note, but it seems equally possible that the lines are simply converging. After all, the S Pen has long been the key distinguishing factor.

The devices also get Ultra-wideband capabilities, which will bring a number of capabilities, including the ability to unlock car doors and AR messages to find lost items. More detail on that soon, no doubt.

Visually, the biggest change here is the camera housing, which gets streamlined. I’m holding off judgement until I see it in person, but the new “Contour Cut” housing feels a bit more brutalist or perhaps industrial than the prior generation. The device also drops the expandable memory. A strong argument could be made that current on-board storage has made microSD redundant for many or most, but it was always a nice little differentiator.

The company has also removed the headphones charging adapter from the box, a move the world saw coming when the company deleted ads ribbing Apple from dropping accessories over what it said were environmental concerns. It’s the headphone jack all over again, because history rhymes.

Hardware-wise, the triple-camera situation is similar. On the S21 and 21+ you get a 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel wide and 64-megapixel telephoto with 30x space zoom. The Ultra bumps that up to a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, 108-megapixel wide and a dual-telephoto lens system with 3x and 10x optical zoom. That’s the first time Samsung has offered a dual-telephoto setup. The Ultra also sports improved low-light shooting, courtesy of the Bright Night sensor.

Image Credits: Samsung

Software imaging updates include the ability to pull stills from 8K shooting, improved image stabilization and new modes like “Vlogger view,” which shoots from the front and rear camera simultaneously. I see limited use for that last bit in my own life, but I’m sure folks will find a creative use for it.

The screens measure in at 6.1, 6.7 and 6.8 inches (that last one is a decrease from the S20 Ultra’s 6.9 inches). All sport a 120Hz refresh rate that adapts based on usage. The phones also get the new Eye Comfort Shield, which reduces blue light as the day goes on.

Here in the States, all three phones sport the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. The S21 and S21+ start at 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while the Ultra starts at 12GB and 256GB. The batteries are pretty healthy, clocking in at 4000, 4800 and 5000mAh. They’re all available for pre-order now and start shipping January 29.

Samsung unveils its newest Tile competitor, the Galaxy SmartTag

By Sarah Perez

Alongside its other CES announcements, at Samsung’s Unpacked event today the company introduced its new Galaxy SmartTag Bluetooth locator, a lost item beacon for Samsung owners and a competitor with Tile. Like Tile and Apple’s forthcoming AirTags, the beacon can be attached to keys, a bag, a pet’s collar or anything else you want to track. Initially, these SmartTags will use Bluetooth to communicate with a nearby Samsung device, however, the company confirmed an ultra-wideband (UWB) powered version called the SmartTag+ will arrive later this year.

The latter would allow the SmartTag to better compete with Apple’s AirTags, which are also expected to take advantage of newer iPhones’ UWB capabilities. Tile, in anticipation of this news, has already developed a UWB tracker arriving later this year, as well.

The SmartTag announced today, the Galaxy SmartTag, will use Bluetooth and there is only one main SKU — not a range of products in different sizes or configurations. However, the tracker will be sold in two color variations: Black and Oatmeal.

The tracker works with any Galaxy device, a Samsung rep told us, as long as the device runs Android 10 or later.

Device owners can then locate the missing item with the SmartTag attached using the SmartThings Find app.

This works similar to Tile and other BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) trackers. When the SmartTag is offline — meaning, disconnected from the Galaxy S21 or other device — it sends a BLE signal that can be detected by nearby Galaxy devices. When detected, the device will send the nearby location information to the SmartThings Fine app so you can locate the item. Samsung says the SmartThings Find user data is encrypted and securely protected, so your location and personal information is safe when you lose your device and use the app to search for it.

The app will also offer a variety of locating tools, including a “Notify me when it’s found” option, as well as “Search Nearby,” “Search” and “Ring” tools. Like Tile, you can also use a SmartTag to locate a missing phone. In this case, you push the Galaxy SmartTag button twice to receive an alert to help locate the missing phone.

The tag can also be customized to do other things when pushed once, so you could easily turn on your lights or TV when you return home, for example.

Ahead of the announcement, regulatory documents showed the tracker as a slightly chunkier version of Tile’s trackers, powered by a CR2032 cell battery, with Bluetooth connectivity. (We’ve confirmed the battery is, in fact, a user-replaceable CR2032.)

A Samsung rep could not provide us with the official and detailed tech specs for the device ahead of its announcement today, but we’ll update if the company figures it out. Unfortunately, without the confirmed details like whether the battery is user-replaceable, for example, or what the range is, it’s difficult to make a proper comparison to the existing trackers on the market. (You can’t always go off leaks alone here, either, as they aren’t always an indication of the final product. But the regulatory filings are likely a good starting point.)

To promote adoption, Samsung is giving away the new trackers via select pre-orders. From January 14-28, 2021, consumers who pre-order the Galaxy S21 Ultra will get a $200 Samsung Credit plus a free Galaxy SmartTag. That could help the devices gain a little more traction, as Samsung’s previous investments in tracking gadgets, including its 2018 LTE-based SmartThings tracking fobs, never really caught on.

Outside the pre-order promotion, the SmartTags will cost $29.99 individually and will be sold starting January 29th.

This is slightly steeper than Tile’s entry-level Bluetooth tracker, the Tile Mate, which retails for $24.99.

The Future of Phone Design: Flexible Screens That Roll Up

By Julian Chokkattu
At CES 2021, two companies showed off concepts for a rollable phone. This year, expect this new category of devices to greatly expand.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

6 Apps to Help You Trim Down Subscriptions—and Save Money

By David Nield
New year, new recurring subscriptions you've probably forgotten about. Here's how keep track of them.

‘Brand tech’ company You & Mr. Jones adds $60M to its Series B

By Anthony Ha

You & Mr. Jones announced today that it has added $60 million in new funding from Merian Chrysalis, bringing the Series B round announced in December to a total of $260 million.

The round values the company at $1.36 billion, post-money.

You & Mr. Jones takes its name from CEO David Jones, who founded the company in 2015. After having served as the CEO of ad giant Havas, Jones told me that his goal in starting what he called “a brand tech group” was to provide marketers with something that neither traditional agencies nor technology companies could give them.

“At that moment, the choices were to go work with an agency group, which is great at brand and marketing, but they don’t understand tech, or with a tech company, which will only ever recommend their platform and don’t have the same [brand and marketing] expertise,” he said.

So You & Mr. Jones has built its own technology platform to help marketers with their digital, mobile and e-commerce needs, while also investing in companies like Pinterest and Niantic. And it makes acquisitions — last year, for example, it bought influencer marketing company Collectively.

You & Mr. Jones has grown to 3,000 employees, and its clients include Unilever, Accenture, Google, Adidas, Marriott and Microsoft. In fact, Jones said that as of the third quarter of 2020, its net revenue had grown 27% year over year.

That’s particularly impressive given the impact of the pandemic on ad spending, but Jones said that’s one of the key distinctions between digital advertising and the broader brand tech category, which he said has grown steadily, even during the pandemic, and which also sets the company apart from agencies that are “digital and tech in press release only.”

“We’re not an ad agency, we’ll never acquire agencies,” he said. “We have the technology platform, process and people to deliver all of your end-to-end, always-on content — social, digital, e-commerce and community management.”

In addition to the funding, the company is announcing that it has hired Paulette Forte, who was previously senior director of human services at the NBA, as its first chief people officer.

“The brand tech category didn’t even exist before You & Mr Jones was established,” Forte said in a statement. “The company became a true industry disruptor in short order, and growth has been swift. In order to keep up with the momentum, it’s critical to have systems in place that help talent develop their skills, encourage diversity and creativity, and find pathways to improving workflow. I am excited to join the leadership team to drive this crucial work forward.”

Zipmex, which aspires to build the Asia Pacific region’s largest digital assets exchange, raises $6 million led by Jump Capital

By Catherine Shu

Zipmex, a digital assets exchange headquartered in Singapore, announced today it has raised $6 million in funding led by Jump Capital. The startup, which plans to become a digital assets bank, says the round exceeded its initial target of $4 million. Along with earlier funding, it brings the total Zipmex has raised so far to $10.9 million.

The exchange is regulated in Singapore, Australia and Indonesia, and licensed in Thailand. It focuses on investors new to cryptocurrency with educational features, as well as high net-worth individuals, and says it has transacted over $600 million in gross transaction volume since launching at the end of 2019.

The funding will be used on hiring and to add more product offerings. In addition to its cryptocurrency exchange, Zipmex’s services also include ZipUp, its interest-bearing accounts, and its own ERC-20 token ZMT.

Zipmex’s goal is to become the largest digital exchange in the Asia Pacific, where interest in cryptocurrency investing and blockchain technology is increasing quickly. For example, DBG Group Holdings, Southeast Asia’s largest lender, recently launched a crypto exchange, though it is currently open only to professional investors.

But Zipmex is also up against a roster of competitors, including regional exchanges like BitKub in Thailand and Swyftx in Australia, as well as players like Luno, Coinbase and Binance which are targeting growth in the Asia Pacific region.

Zipmex chief executive officer Marcus Lim said the company’s ambition to become a digital assets bank sets it apart from other exchanges. “We currently offer customers to invest and earn interest on their digital assets,” he told TechCrunch. “In the future, we are planning to roll out payments and lending and the investment into securitized tokens.”

Other cryptocurrency startups that Jump Capital, an American venture capital firm, has invested in include BitGo and TradingView. Its parent company, trading firm Jump Trading, powers Robinhood’s crypto trades.

BukuKas raises $10 million led by Sequoia Capital India to build a “end-to-end software stack” for Indonesian SMEs

By Catherine Shu

The backbone of Indonesia’s economy are small- to medium-sized businesses, which account for 60% of its gross domestic product. Many still rely on manual bookkeeping, but the impact of COVID-19 has driven small businesses to digitize more of their operations. BukuKas, one of several startups helping SMEs go online, announced today it has raised a $10 million Series A led by Sequoia Capital India.

BukuKas launched in December 2019 as a digital bookkeeping app, but is growing its range of services with the goal of creating an “end-to-end software stack” for small businesses. Eventually, it wants to launch a SME-focused digital bank.

The funding, which brings BukuKas’ total raised so far to $22 million, included participation from returning investors Saison Capital, January Capital, Founderbank Capital, Cambium Grove, Endeavor Catalyst and Amrish Rau.

As of November 2020, BukuKas had a registered user base of 3.5 million small merchants and retailers, and had crossed 1.8 million monthly active users. During that month, the platform also recorded $17.4 billion worth of transactions on an annualized basis, a figure corresponding to more than 1.5% of Indonesia’s $1.04 trillion GDP.

BukuKas was founded by chief executive officer Krishnan Menon and chief operating officer Lorenzo Peracchione, who met eight years ago while working at Lazada Indonesia.

Menon’s previous startup was Fabelio, an Indonesian online home furnishings store. Every two months, he would visit smaller small cities in Indonesia, like Jepara and Cirebon, to source furniture.

“One of the things that stood out was how different the Jakarta bubble is from the rest of Indonesia, all the way from the penetration of software to financial services,” he told TechCrunch. While talking to merchants and suppliers, Menon realized that “no one is building products with them as the center of the universe,” despite the fact that there are 56 million small businesses.

Peracchione said he and Mebon had been brainstorming startup ideas for a while. “When he told me about the idea of solving cash flow visibility to SMEs, it immediately struck me,” Peracchione said. “My dad used to be a SME owner himself and during my childhood I experience first hand the struggles and ups and downs connected to running a small business.”

The two decided to start with digital bookkeeping after speaking to 1,052 merchants because helping them keep track of their business performance would generate data that would in turn enable access to more financial services.

“Our vision expanded into providing an end-to-end software stack to digitize SMEs and help them across a wide range of activities as a prequel to building an SME-focused digital bank down the line,” Menon said.

In addition to digital ledger features, BukuKas also sends payment reminders to buyers through WhatsApp and automatically generates invoices, includes an an inventory management module and analyzes expenses to help businesses understand what is impacting their profit. The company plans to add digital payments this month. During the rest of 2021, it will also introduce more features to help businesses sell online, including tools for online store fronts, a promotions engine and social sharing.

“With COVID-19, SMEs are rushing to get digitized, but they lack the right mobile-first tools to sell online as well as to manage their business,” said Menon.

The app focuses on smaller Indonesian cities and towns, since about 73% of the merchants who use BukuKas are located outside of tier 1 cities like Jakarta. Its users represent wide range of sectors, including retailers, food vendors, grocery markets, mobile and phone credit providers, social commerce sellers, wholesalers and service providers. BukuKas acquired digital ledger app Catatan Keuangan Harian, which has 300,000 monthly active users, in September 2020 to expand its market share in Indonesia.

With its large number of SMEs, Indonesia is seen as a desirable market for companies helping the drive toward digitization. For example, India’s Khatabook, which was valued between $275 million to $300 million after its last round of funding in May 2020, recently launched BukuUang in Indonesia. Other startups in the same space include Y Combinator-backed BukuWarung, Moka and Jurnal, all of which offer tools to help SMEs bring more of their operations online.

Menon said BukuKas’ advantage is its team’s experience building businesses in Indonesia over the past seven years. For example, it launched a “Know Your Profits” module based on user feedback. It also offers a self-guided onboarding process, a simple user interface and an offline mode for users in areas with poor network connections.

“In general, individual features can be copied but we believe our ‘integrated end-to-end software stack approach,’ coupled with our obsessive focus on simplicity, deep understanding of our users and a superior level of service will be key in differentiating BukuKas from competing offerings,” he added.

BukuKas’ Series A will be used on user acquisition, its engineering and product teams in Jakarta and Bangalore and to introduce new services for merchants. The company may eventually expand into other Southeast Asia markets, but “in the short term consolidating and further expanding our leadership in the SME space in Indonesia is our top priority,” said Menon.

 

PopSockets announces its MagSafe-compatible iPhone 12 accessories

By Sarah Perez

In October, TechCrunch broke the news that PopSockets was developing its own line of MagSafe-compatible products that will support the new wireless charging capabilities of the iPhone 12 devices. Today, at the (virtual) 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, the company formally introduced its upcoming products for the first time. The new line will include three MagSafe-compatible PopGrips, a wallet with an integrated grip, and two mounts.

The first of these is the new PopGrip for MagSafe, which will magnetically attach to MagSafe-compatible cases for iPhone 12 devices.

The design of this PopGrip clears up some confusion over how a PopGrip (the round, poppable dongle that people normally think of when they think of “PopPockets”) will work with a MagSafe device. Instead of attaching just at the base of the grip itself, the grip is integrated into a larger base which attaches to the case.

Meanwhile, the grip has a swappable top so you can change the style of your PopGrip whenever you want without having to buy a whole new accessory.

This grip will also be compatible with PopSockets PopMount 2 phone mounts, including the new PopMount 2 for MagSafe, introduced today.

The PopMount 2 for MagSafe will launch as two solutions: PopMount for MagSafe Multi-Surface and PopMount for MagSafe Car Vent. As described by their name, both products will magnetically attach to iPhone 12 devices either at home or while on-the-go.

For those who use the new PopGrip for MagSafe grip, they’ll be able to leave the grip on then let the mount’s magnets attach to the base.

Image Credits: PopMount Multi Surface for MagSafe

Also new is an updated PopWallet+ for MagSafe, which is combination wallet and grip that lets users carry up to 3 cards that now attaches magnetically to MagSafe-compatible phone cases for iPhone 12 devices. The wallet has an elastic sock so you can extract your cards without having to remove the wallet from the back of the device, and it now includes a shield to protect credit cards from magnetic damage. The grip here is swappable, too.

Image Credits: PopWallet+ for MagSafe

There are also two versions of the PopGrip Slide becoming available. One, the PopGrip Slide Stretch will have expanding arms that attach mechanically to the sides of most phone cases, including iPhone 12 cases. You can slide this grip to the bottom of the phone to serve as a portrait stand or to attach MagSafe accessories, without having to remove the grip.

Image Credits: PopGrip Slide Stretch for MagSafe

The PopGrip Slide for iPhone 12 is basically the same thing, but designed to fit the Apple Silicone cases for iPhone 12 devices, more specifically.

Among the first of the new accessories to hit the market will be the PopGrip for MagSafe and PopWallet+ for MagSafe in spring 2021.

The PopGrip Slide Stretch will launch March 21st on PopSockets.com and in select Target locations ahead of a broader rollout. The PopGrip Slide will launch May 1st on PopSockets.com and in Apple Stores. And the PopMount for MagSafe line will launch in summer 2021.

The company also announced a few other non-MagSafe products, including the PopGrip Pocketable, which streamlines the grip when collapsed so the the surface is flat; the PopGrip Antimicrobial, which has an embedded silver-based treatment for protection; and the PopSockets x SOG PopGrip Multi-Tool, made in collaboration with SOG Speciality Knives, which includes a PopGrip with a detachable multi-tool.

The company didn’t share an exact timeframe for these products besides “early 2021.”

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