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Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

By Jake Bright

Visa has prioritized growth in Africa, and partnering with startups is central to its strategy.

This became obvious in 2019 after the global financial services giant entered a series of collaborations on the continent, but Visa confirmed it in their 2020 Investor Day presentation.

On the company’s annual call, participants mentioned Africa 28 times and featured regional startups prominently in the accompanying deck. Visa’s regional president for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), Andrew Torre, detailed the region’s payments potential and his company’s plans to tap it. “We’re partnering with non-conventional players to realize this potential — fintechs, neobanks and digital wallets — to reach the one billion consumer opportunity,” he said.

Africa strategy and team

TechCrunch has covered a number of Visa’s Africa collaborations and spoke to two execs driving the company’s engagement with startups from Nigeria to South Africa.

Visa’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa, Otto Williams, has been out front, traveling the continent and engaging fintech founders.

Located in Cape Town, Visa’s group general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Aida Diarra, oversees the company’s operations in 48 countries. Visa has a long track record working with the region’s large banking entities, but that’s shifted to smaller ventures.

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

Lending startups are angling for new business from the COVID-19 bailout

By Jonathan Shieber

As the largest federal stimulus package in the history of the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, injects a planned $2.2 trillion into the U.S. economy, fintech startups are angling to get a seat at the table when it comes to distributing the cash.

“In the last crisis, banks stepped away from the kinds of lending that our members do,” says Scott Stewart, the head of the Innovative Lending Platform Association. “The bank process [for lending] is quite lengthy. Our members are underwriting loans using algorithms at speed and scale.”

Under the CARES Act, roughly $450 billion in loans are set to be distributed through the Small Business Administration and other entities. While Congress is still working out the details, fintech companies are thinking that they should — and will — have a role to play getting stimulus money into the hands of entrepreneurs.

“The Treasury Department and the SBA have the authority and have been instructed in the legislation to allow us into the room,” says Stewart. “We will have to go through some sort of process to become qualified non-bank lenders.”

The argument for handing some of the responsibility for distributing the stimulus dollars to startups to disburse comes from the ability of these companies to approve loans faster than typical banks.

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

By Manish Singh

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.

YouTube sellers found touting bogus coronavirus vaccines and masks

By Natasha Lomas

YouTube has been criticized for continuing to host coronavirus disinformation on its video sharing platform during a global health emergency.

Two US advocacy groups which campaign for online safety undertook an 18-day investigation of the video sharing platform in March — finding what they say were “dozens” of examples of dubious videos, including videos touting bogus vaccines the sellers claimed would protect buyers from COVID-19.

They also found videos advertising medical masks of unknown quality for sale.

There have been concerns about shortages of masks for front-line medical staff, as well as the risk of online scammers hawking low grade kit that does not offered the claimed protection against the virus.

Google said last month that it would temporarily take down ads for masks from its ad network but sellers looking to exploit the coronavirus crisis appear to be circumventing the ban by using YouTube’s video sharing platform as an alternative digital shop window to lure buyers.

Researchers working for the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) and the Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW) initiated conversations with sellers they found touting dodgy coronavirus wares on YouTube — and were offered useless ‘vaccines’ for purchase and hundreds of masks of unknown quality.

“There was ample reason to believe the offers for masks were dubious as well [as the vaccines], as highlighted by interactions with representatives from some of the sellers,” they said.

Their report includes screengrabs of some of the interactions with the sellers. In one a seller tells the researchers they don’t accept credit cards — but they do accept CashApp, PayPal, Google or Amazon gift cards or Bitcoin.

The same seller offered the researchers vaccines priced at $135 each, and suggested they purchase MMR/Varicella when asked which one is “the best”. Such a vaccine, even if it functioned for MMR/Varicella, would obviously offer no protection against COVID-19.

Another seller was found to be hawking “COVID-19 drugs” using a YouTube account name “Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer”.

“How does a guy calling himself ‘Real ID Card Fake Passport Producer’ even get a page on YouTube?” said Eric Feinberg, lead researcher for CSW, in a statement accompanying the report. “It’s all too easy to get ahold of these guys. We called some of them. Once you contact them, they are relentless. They’ll call you back at all hours and hound you until you buy something. They’ll call you in the middle of the night. They are predators looking to capitalize on our fear.”

A spokesman for the DCA told us the researchers compiled the report based on content from around 60 videos they identified hawking coronavirus-related ‘cures’ or kit between March 6-24.

“There are too many to count. Everyday, I find more,” added Feinberg.

The groups are also critical of how YouTube’s platform risks lending credibility to coronavirus disinformation because the platform now displays official CDC-branded banners under any COVID-19 related material — including the dubious videos their report highlights.

“YouTube also mixes trusted resources with sites that shouldn’t be trusted and that could confuse consumers — especially when they are scared and desperate,” said DCA executive director, Tom Galvin, in a statement. “It’s hard enough to tell who’s legitimate and who’s not on YouTube.”

The DCA and CSW have written letters to the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission laying out their findings and calling for “swift action” to hold bad actors accountable.

YouTube, and its parent company Google, are shirking their formal policy that prohibits content that capitalizes off sensitive events,” they write in a letter to attorney general Barr.

“Digital Citizens is sharing this information in the hopes your Justice Department will act swiftly to hold bad actors, who take advantage of the coronavirus, accountable. In this crisis, strong action will deter others from engaging in criminal or illicit acts that harm consumers or add to confusion and anxiety,” they add.

Responding to the groups’ findings a YouTube spokesperson said some of the videos the researchers had identified had not received many views.

After we contacted it about the content YouTube also said it had removed three channels that had been identified by the researchers in the report for violating Community Guidelines.

In a statement YouTube added:

Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the coronavirus around the world. We’re committed to providing helpful information at this critical time, including raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels, using WHO / CDC data, to help combat misinformation. To date, there have been over 5B impressions on our information panels for coronavirus related videos and searches. We also have clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us.

The DCA and CSW also recently undertook a similar review of Facebook’s platform — finding sellers touting masks for sale despite the tech giant’s claimed ban on such content. “Facebook promised CNN when they did a story on our report about them that the masks would be gone a week ago, but the researchers from CSW are still finding the masks now,” their spokesman told us.

Earlier this week the Tech Transparency Project also reported still being able to find masks for sale on Facebook’s platform. It found examples of masks showing up in Google’s targeted ads too.

Uber Eats beefs up its grocery delivery offer as COVID-19 lockdowns continue

By Natasha Lomas

Uber Eats has beefed up grocery delivery options in three markets hard hit by the coronavirus.

Uber’s food delivery division said today it’s inked a partnership with supermarket giant Carrefour in France to provide Parisians with 30 minute home delivery on a range of grocery products, including everyday foods, toiletries and cleaning products.

The service is starting with 15 stores in the city, with Uber Eats saying it plans to scale it out rapidly nationwide “in the coming weeks”.

In Spain it’s partnered with the Galp service station brand to offer a grocery delivery service that consists of basic foods, over the counter medicines, beverages and cleaning products in 15 cities across the following 8 provinces: Badajoz, Barcelona, Cádiz, Córdoba, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia.

Uber Eats said there will be an initial 25 Galp convenience stores participating. The service will not only be offered via the Uber Eats app but also by phone for those without access to a smartphone or Internet.

The third market it’s inked deals in is Brazil, where Uber said it’s partnering with a range of pharmacies, convenience stores and pet shops in Sao Paulo to offer home delivery on basic supplies.

“Over the counter medicines will be available from the Pague Menos chain of pharmacies, grocery products from Shell Select convenience stores and pet supplies from Cobasi — one of the largest pet shop chains in the country,” it said. “The new services will be available on the Uber Eats app, with plans to launch in other Brazil states and cities in the coming weeks.”

The grocery tie-ups are not Uber Eats’ first such deals. The company had already inked partnerships with a supermarket in Australia (Coles) and the Costcutter brand in the UK, where around 600 independent convenience stores are offered via its app.

Uber Eats also lets independent convenience stores in countries around the world self listed on its app. However the latest tie-ups put more branded meat on the bone of its grocery offer in Europe and LatAm — with the Carrefour tie-up in France marking its first partnership with a major supermarket in Europe.

It’s worth noting Spain’s food delivery rival, Glovo, has an existing grocery-delivery partnership with the French supermarket giant in markets including its home country — which likely explains why Uber Eats has opted for a different partner in Spain.

Asked whether it’s looking to further expand grocery deliveries in other markets hit by the public health emergency Uber Eats told us it’s exploring opportunities to partner with more supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers around the world.

As part of its response to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has switched all deliveries to contactless by default — with orders left at the door or as instructed by a user.

It also told us it’s providing drivers and delivery people with access to hand sanitiser, gloves and disinfectant wipes, as soon as they become available. And said it’s dispensing guidance to users of its apps on hygiene best practice and limiting the spread of the virus.

Uber Eats has previously said it will provide 14 days of financial support for drivers and delivery people who get diagnosed with COVID-19 or are personally placed in quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading the virus, with the amount based on their average earnings over the last six months or less.

The policy is due for review on April 6.

Grab hires Peter Oey as its chief financial officer

By Catherine Shu

Grab announced today that it has hired Peter Oey as its new chief financial officer. Prior to joining Grab, Oey was the chief financial officer at LegalZoom, an online legal services company based near Los Angeles.

Before that, he served the same role at Mylife.com, an online platform that aggregates information about people based on public records. Oey also held financial leadership positions at Activision for twelve years, including corporate controller.

In a statement, Grab said Oey will be based in Singapore and report to co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan. He will also work with Grab president Ming Maa, who took over many responsibilities from Grab’s last CFO, Linda Hoglund, when she left in 2016. Grab said Maa will continue to lead its strategic business planning.

Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in March 2018, has reportedly been in discussions to merge with merge with rival GoJek.

Grab, whose services include ride-sharing, food delivery and online financial services provider GrabPay, also announced in February that it had raised a total of $856 million from Japanese investors Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and TIS INTEC, to grow its financial services and digital payments infrastructure.

In a press statement, the company said that in 2019, GrabFood’s gross merchandise volume grew by over 400%, while GrabPay increased payment volume by 170%, thanks to strong performance in Indonesia.

Tan said “Last year, we made tremendous progress in growing our food delivery, payments and financial services business. The growth of these businesses give us a good foundation for achieving long-term sustainable growth for our company. I’m excited to welcome Peter to the Grab family where his extensive experience scaling rapidly growing technology companies makes him a valuable addition to our business.”

Grab has raised a total of about $9.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund, which invested $1.46 billion into the company last year. Tan told CNBC last November that the company will not go public until its entire business is profitable.

What does a pandemic say about the tech we’ve built?

By Natasha Lomas

There’s a joke* being reshared on chat apps that takes the form of a multiple-choice question — asking who’s the leading force in workplace digital transformation? The red-lined punchline is not the CEO or CTO, but: C) COVID-19.

There’s likely more than a grain of truth underpinning the quip. The novel coronavirus is pushing a lot of metaphorical buttons right now. “Pause” buttons for people and industries, as large swathes of the world’s population face quarantine conditions that can resemble house arrest. The majority of offline social and economic activities are suddenly off limits.

Such major pauses in our modern lifestyle may even turn into a full reset, over time. The world as it was, where mobility of people has been all but taken for granted — regardless of the environmental costs of so much commuting and indulged wanderlust — may never return to “business as usual.”

If global leadership rises to the occasion, then the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to rethink how we structure our societies and economies — to make a shift toward lower carbon alternatives. After all, how many physical meetings do you really need when digital connectivity is accessible and reliable? As millions more office workers log onto the day job from home, that number suddenly seems vanishingly small.

COVID-19 is clearly strengthening the case for broadband to be a utility — as so much more activity is pushed online. Even social media seems to have a genuine community purpose during a moment of national crisis, when many people can only connect remotely, even with their nearest neighbours.

Hence the reports of people stuck at home flocking back to Facebook to sound off in the digital town square. Now that the actual high street is off limits, the vintage social network is experiencing a late second wind.

Facebook understands this sort of higher societal purpose already, of course. Which is why it’s been so proactive about building features that nudge users to “mark yourself safe” during extraordinary events like natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. (Or indeed, why it encouraged politicians to get into bed with its data platform in the first place — no matter the cost to democracy.)

In less fraught times, Facebook’s “purpose” can be loosely summed to “killing time.” But with ever more sinkholes being drilled by the attention economy, that’s a function under ferocious and sustained attack.

Over the years the tech giant has responded by engineering ways to rise back to the top of the social heap — including spying on and buying up competition, or directly cloning rival products. It’s been pulling off this trick, by hook or by crook, for over a decade. Albeit, this time Facebook can’t take any credit for the traffic uptick; a pandemic is nature’s dark pattern design.

What’s most interesting about this virally disrupted moment is how much of the digital technology that’s been built out online over the past two decades could very well have been designed for living through just such a dystopia.

Seen through this lens, VR should be having a major moment. A face computer that swaps out the stuff your eyes can actually see with a choose-your-own-digital-adventure of virtual worlds to explore, all from the comfort of your living room? What problem are you fixing, VR? Well, the conceptual limits of human lockdown in the face of a pandemic quarantine right now, actually…

Virtual reality has never been a compelling proposition versus the rich and textured opportunity of real life, except within very narrow and niche bounds. Yet all of a sudden, here we all are — with our horizons drastically narrowed and real-life news that’s ceaselessly harrowing. So it might yet end up a wry punchline to another multiple choice joke: “My next vacation will be: A) Staycation, B) The spare room, C) VR escapism.”

It’s videoconferencing that’s actually having the big moment, though. Turns out even a pandemic can’t make VR go viral. Instead, long-lapsed friendships are being rekindled over Zoom group chats or Google Hangouts. And Houseparty — a video chat app — has seen surging downloads as barflies seek out alternative night life with their usual watering-holes shuttered.

Bored celebs are TikToking. Impromptu concerts are being live-streamed from living rooms via Instagram and Facebook Live. All sorts of folks are managing social distancing, and the stress of being stuck at home alone (or with family), by distant socializing: signing up to remote book clubs and discos; joining virtual dance parties and exercise sessions from bedrooms; taking a few classes together; the quiet pub night with friends has morphed seamlessly into a bring-your-own-bottle group video chat.

This is not normal — but nor is it surprising. We’re living in the most extraordinary time. And it seems a very human response to mass disruption and physical separation (not to mention the trauma of an ongoing public health emergency that’s killing thousands of people a day) to reach for even a moving pixel of human comfort. Contactless human contact is better than none at all.

Yet the fact all these tools are already out there, ready and waiting for us to log on and start streaming, should send a dehumanizing chill down society’s backbone.

It underlines quite how much consumer technology is being designed to reprogram how we connect with each other, individually and in groups, in order that uninvited third parties can cut a profit.

Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, a key concern being attached to social media was its ability to hook users and encourage passive feed consumption — replacing genuine human contact with voyeuristic screening of friends’ lives. Studies have linked the tech to loneliness and depression. Now that we’re literally unable to go out and meet friends, the loss of human contact is real and stark. So being popular online in a pandemic really isn’t any kind of success metric.

Houseparty, for example, self-describes as a “face to face social network” — yet it’s quite the literal opposite; you’re foregoing face-to-face contact if you’re getting virtually together in app-wrapped form.

The implication of Facebook’s COVID-19 traffic bump is that the company’s business model thrives on societal disruption and mainstream misery. Which, frankly, we knew already. Data-driven adtech is another way of saying it’s been engineered to spray you with ad-flavored dissatisfaction by spying on what you get up to. The coronavirus just hammers the point home.

The fact we have so many high-tech tools on tap for forging digital connections might feel like amazing serendipity in this crisis — a freemium bonanza for coping with terrible global trauma. But such bounty points to a horrible flip side: It’s the attention economy that’s infectious and insidious. Before “normal life” plunged off a cliff, all this sticky tech was labelled “everyday use;” not “break out in a global emergency.”

It’s never been clearer how these attention-hogging apps and services are designed to disrupt and monetize us; to embed themselves in our friendships and relationships in a way that’s subtly dehumanizing; re-routing emotion and connections; nudging us to swap in-person socializing for virtualized fuzz designed to be data-mined and monetized by the same middlemen who’ve inserted themselves unasked into our private and social lives.

Captured and recompiled in this way, human connection is reduced to a series of dilute and/or meaningless transactions; the platforms deploying armies of engineers to knob-twiddle and pull strings to maximize ad opportunities, no matter the personal cost.

It’s also no accident we’re seeing more of the vast and intrusive underpinnings of surveillance capitalism emerge, as the COVID-19 emergency rolls back some of the obfuscation that’s used to shield these business models from mainstream view in more normal times. The trackers are rushing to seize and colonize an opportunistic purpose.

Tech and ad giants are falling over themselves to get involved with offering data or apps for COVID-19 tracking. They’re already in the mass surveillance business, so there’s likely never felt like a better moment than the present pandemic for the big data lobby to press the lie that individuals don’t care about privacy, as governments cry out for tools and resources to help save lives.

First the people-tracking platforms dressed up attacks on human agency as “relevant ads.” Now the data industrial complex is spinning police-state levels of mass surveillance as pandemic-busting corporate social responsibility. How quick the wheel turns.

But platforms should be careful what they wish for. Populations that find themselves under house arrest with their phones playing snitch might be just as quick to round on high-tech gaolers as they’ve been to sign up for a friendly video chat in these strange and unprecedented times.

Oh, and Zoom (and others) — more people might actually read your “privacy policy” now they’ve got so much time to mess about online. And that really is a risk.

Every day there's a fresh Zoom privacy/security horror story. Why now, all at once?

It's simple: the problems aren't new but suddenly everyone is forced to use Zoom. That means more people discovering problems and also more frustration because opting out isn't an option. https://t.co/O9h8SHerok

— Arvind Narayanan (@random_walker) March 31, 2020

*Source is a private Twitter account called @MBA_ish

Notarize to add 1,000 online notaries to address demand for remote transactions

By Catherine Shu

Notarize, the platform that enables digital notarizations, announced that it is adding 1,000 notaries to address demand as more Americans are ordered to shelter in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still need to sign important documents.

The startup is partnering with the National Notary Association to verify notaries have been screened and have the necessary insurance or bonding. The service is available to Americans in all 50 states or abroad, but notaries must be physically located in Florida, Nevada, Texas or Virginia to join the platform (with plans to add more states later) and have a digital certificate before applying for Notarize .

Founder and CEO Pat Kinsel said Notarize is “experiencing unprecedented demand due to coronavirus. Consumers and businesses are turning to us en masse because they can’t complete critical transactions.”

He added that to scale quickly, Notarize is able to “leverage existing credentials from the National Notary Association that ensure people have commissions, insurance and background screenings. Notaries are stuck at home right now, looking for safe work. They can get onboarded in one to two days.”

Right before the spread of COVID-19 prompted shelter in place orders and social distancing mandates, there was an increased demand for mortgages because of low rates, with refinance applications growing 400% annually, according to CNBC. Now many of those loans can no longer be closed in-person. Kinsel says more than 2,000 lenders and title companies have contacted Notarize in the past week, and it is also opening the platform so they can add their own employees to serve transactions.

Notarize users also want to make sure critical documents are updated as they cope with the pandemic. “Beyond real estate, we’re seeing spikes in medical authorizations, people updating financial accounts and beneficiaries,” Kinsel said.

Inside Udaan’s push to digitize India’s B2B retail market

By Manish Singh

During a recent visit, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella reiterated his company’s commitment to India and revealed a new fund to help SaaS startups in the country.

And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.

Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.

More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.

Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.

At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.

Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.

But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.

It’s still easy to find coronavirus mask ads on Facebook

By Natasha Lomas

Ads for face masks are still appearing on Facebook, Instagram and Google, according to a review of the platforms carried out by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP). This despite pledges by the platforms that they would stamp out ads which seek to profit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook said on March 6 that it would temporarily ban commerce listings and advertisements for medical face masks, in an effort to combat price-gouging and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Google followed suit a few days later, saying it would temporarily ban all medical face mask ads “out of an abundance of caution”.

The risk of online misinformation exacerbating a global public health crisis has been front of mind for policymakers in many Western markets. Meanwhile front line medical staff continue to face shortages of vital personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, as they battle rising rates of infection.

There has also been concern that online sellers are attempting to cash in on a public health crisis by price gouging and/or targeting Internet users with ads for substandard masks.

Early last week two democrat senators urged the US’ FTC to act, blasting Google for continuing to allow ads for face masks to be shown to Internet users.

A week later and ads are still circulating.

The TTP — a research project by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, a group which focuses on exposing misconduct and malfeasance in public life — reported finding web users still being targeted with face mask ads on Google this week.

It also conducted a review of Facebook and Instagram, and was able to find more than 130 pages on Facebook listing masks for sale, including some using the platform’s ecommerce tools. 

“One Facebook Page called ‘CoronaVirus Mask’ offers a ‘respiratory mask collection,’ with prices ranging from $32 to $37, and uses Facebook’s ‘Shop’ feature to display its merchandise and allow people to add purchases to their cart,” it writes in a blog post. “Facebook’s ‘check out on website’ button then directs users to complete the purchase on the seller’s website.”

“Facebook pages that use WhatsApp to establish contact with buyers are employing a tactic commonly used by wildlife and other traffickers, who often display goods on Facebook and then arrange the actual purchase through WhatsApp encrypted messages. The Facebook Page ‘Surgical Face Mask For Sale,’ for example, has a video showing boxes of medical masks and the seller’s WhatsApp number scrawled on a piece of paper,” it added.

“A visit to one of these Facebook pages often triggers recommendations for other pages selling face masks, a sign that the platform’s algorithms are actually amplifying the reach of these sketchy sellers. TTP, without logging into Facebook, went to the page for ‘Corona Mask Shop’ and was served up ‘Related Pages’ for ‘Corona Mask 247’ and ‘Corona MASK on sale.'”

TechCrunch conducted our own searches on Facebook today and while some obvious search terms returned no results a little tweaking of keywords choice and we were quickly able to find additional pages hawking face masks — such as the below example grabbed from a Facebook page calling itself ‘Face Mask Manufacturer’.

From this page Facebook’s algorithm then recommended more pages — with names like ‘Medical Masks’ and ‘Dispo mask for sale’ — which also appeared to be selling masks.

The TTP’s review also found mask ads circulating on Facebook-owned Instagram.

“One Instagram account for @coronavsmask reads, ‘Act now before it’s too late! GET your N95 Respiratory Face Mask NOW!’ It only has a single post but already counts over 6,300 followers,” it wrote. “An account created on March 14 called @handsanitizers_and_coronamask includes over a dozen posts offering such products.”

It also found “several” Instagram accounts that sell drugs had begun to incorporate medical face masks into their offerings.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to our request for comment on the findings.

In further searches the group was reproduced examples of Google’s third party advertising display network serving ads for face masks alongside news stories related to the coronavirus — an issue highlighted by Sen. Mark Warner in a tweet last week when he blasted the company for “still running ads for facemasks and other coronavirus scams”.

Why is @Google still running ads for facemasks and other coronavirus scams?

Despite promises from the company, all it takes is one Google search for "coronavirus" and "mask" and this is what you get. pic.twitter.com/2UsqviuQzt

— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) March 18, 2020

“The Facebook mask pages were searched and collected on March 17-18 using the terms “corona mask,” “N95,” and “surgical mask” in Facebook’s search function,” a TTP spokesman told us when asked for more info about its review. “Of the more than 130 pages identified, 43 were created in the month of March, more than a dozen of those just days before TTP ran the searches.”

“We don’t have the same level of data from Instagram/Google. Instagram’s search function does not lend itself to the same search ability; it doesn’t bring up a list of accounts based on a single term like Facebook’s search function does. With Google, our goal was to show examples of Google-served ads; those were identified in news stories on March 18,” he added.

We reached out to Google for comment on the findings and a spokesman told us the company has a dedicated task force that has removed “millions” of ads in the past week alone — which he said jad already led to a sharp decrease in face mask ads. But Google said “opportunistic advertisers” had been trying to run “an unprecedented number” of these ads on its platforms.

Here’s Google’s statement:

Since January, we’ve blocked ads for products that aim to capitalise on coronavirus, including a temporary ban on face mask ads. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen opportunistic advertisers try to run an unprecedented number of these ads on our platforms. We have a dedicated task force working to combat this issue and have removed millions of ads in the past week alone. We’re monitoring the situation closely and continue to make real-time adjustments to protect our users.

Google declined to specify how many people it has working to identify and remove mask ads, saying only that the taskforce is made up of members from its product, engineering, enforcement and policy teams — and that it’s been set up with coverage across time zones.

It also said the examples highlighted by TTP are already over a week old and do not reflect the impact of its newest enforcement measures.

The company told us it’s analysing both ad content and how they’re served to enhance its takedown capacity.

Target pauses plans for grocery pickup amid COVID-19 outbreak

By Sarah Perez

Target is pausing its plans to offer curbside pick-up of groceries and alcoholic beverages, citing the COVID-19 outbreak as the key factor in its decision to delay the launch. Although groceries via Order Pickup and Drive Up would be valuable services at a time when people are being asked to distance themselves from others to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Target says it won’t have time to train employees on these new processes right now.

Like many retailers and grocers, Target is impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, which is significantly changing the way people shop. People are more likely to buy in bulk to minimize trips to the store. And many are panic-buying critical supplies, like toilet paper. Target says it’s seen a sustained surge in both traffic and sales, particularly in food and beverage and other household essentials, like cleaning supplies and baby products. Other categories, including apparel and accessories, have slowed.

The launch of any new system or process takes time to adjust to, even when there’s ample time to train. But Target staff today is working at increased levels — its March sales are 20% higher than March of last year, as a  point of comparison.

Like everywhere, Target also faces staffing concerns as people scramble to figure out childcare when schools are closed. It will have to reassess employee schedules on the fly, as staff leaves unexpectedly when they or a family member gets sick. There have also been a small number of cases where Target employees themselves have tested positive for the virus. And as the outbreak spreads, more will likely be exposed, given their continual contact with the public.

To address these concerns, Target is cleaning its stores regularly, promoting social distancing, wiping down carts, adding signage to guide guests, cleaning checklanes after each transaction, and more. It’s also stopping in-store returns for three weeks, but will honor later returns when the ban is lifted, as a result. And it’s pausing its small-format store openings and remodels planned for this year — shifting those to 2021, given the chaos around its business today.

To assist employees, Target announced that it’s investing more than $300 million in added wages, a new paid leave program, bonus payouts and relief fund contributions.

Though Target won’t roll out curbside fresh grocery pickup now, it continues to operate the grocery delivery business Shipt. This and other grocery delivery services are booming due to the outbreak. Instacart this week said it was hiring 300,000 more full-service shoppers due to coronavirus. Walmart, CVS, Amazon, and other U.S. employers are hiring more than 800,000 new workers due to the COVID-19 impacts.

Delivery Hero urges users to go cashless, no contact for food deliveries

By Natasha Lomas

Delivery Hero has switched to cash-less, non-contact for deliveries in areas it defines as “high risk” for the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to reduce personal contact between couriers and customers during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s encouraging all customers to make the switch.

“By introducing contactless delivery, we can ensure that our service is safe and convenient for customers, riders and restaurants,” said CEO, Niklas Östberg, in a press release. “We now encourage customers to pay without cash everywhere, and decide when and how they want their order to be delivered. These are options designed to reduce interpersonal contact and make our customer journey even more secure.”

It has also implemented no-contact drop-offs in high risk areas and is asking restaurants to sanitize packages to further shrink the risk of spreading the virus.

While there is no evidence that people have become infected by eating food contaminated with the microscopic agent — SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus; the primary transition route for infection appears to be via close contact with an infected person, when you might be more likely to breathe in tiny droplets that contain the virus, such as those expelled when someone coughs or sneezes — there could be a small risk posed by contaminated food packaging.

If, for example, an infected person, who had coughed into their hand, then touched a package which they gave to an uninfected person — who then touched their face without first washing their hands. Studies suggest the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain infectious for between several hours or days on certain surfaces.

To shrink the risk of such a scenario, Delivery Hero said it’s working closely with restaurant partners to ensure “the highest hygiene standards”.

The risk of infection via contaminated surfaces is reduced by everyone observing good hand hygiene — i.e. washing hands regularly and directly after touching things others may have touched — and by not touching their own face with unclean hands.

“Official health authorities around the world agree that there is a very limited chance of contracting COVID-19 through food,” said Delivery Hero today. “Neither the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have any reports of Coronavirus COVID-19 transmitted via food or food packaging. However, we are working closely with our restaurant partners to ensure that they continue to operate in a secure kitchen environment and carry out food preparation and packaging according to the highest hygiene standards.”

The company is also providing riders in “high risk” zones with hand sanitisers, masks and other safety materials — “where and when it is locally and culturally accepted”.

The Berlin -based takeaway platform operates across 44 markets in Europe, Asia, LatAm and the Middle East, operating under a variety of brand names.

We’ve asked which areas it’s defining as “high risk”.

In recent weeks a number of US and European food delivery startups have turned on a contactless delivery option to shrink the risks around COVID-19 during the epidemic. Delivery Hero said it started taking precautionary measures “as soon as the situation started to evolve in January”.

The company is using its rider app to communicate updates and “instruct on hygiene requirements, especially for pick-up and drop-off”. “By having direct access to new information, our riders can make informed decisions when on the road,” it added.

While many startups face a demand crunch during the epidemic as people dial back some of their regular activities, the opposite looks to be true for food delivery — as large-scale quarantine measures mean many people are eating more meals at home. Food delivery is also being actively being encouraged by some governments, such as the UK, as a convenient lever to keep more citizens locked down at home where they can’t spread the virus or increase their chance of exposure.

Delivery Hero said it’s responded to growing demand by implementing free delivery options in the majority of its markets — “to make online ordering accessible to as many people as possible”, as it puts it.

It said “several” of these options are “focused on when ordering from restaurants nearby” — in what looks like an attempt to streamline demand for restaurants and delivery workers by incentivizing local food orders.

In another support step for restaurants it’s offering more frequent payment cycles for some partners — “according to local need”. “For new restaurants joining our platform, we aim to onboard as fast as possible, in order to support them in maintaining order levels as well as provide more choice for our customers,” it added.

Zooming out, Delivery Hero said it’s closely liaising with local governments — and continuing to follow official health and safety guidelines provided in its different markets. And it gave examples of how some of its different brands are working on relief efforts related to COVID-19 around the world.

“Our brand HungerStation in Saudi Arabia is partnering with the Saudi Ministry of Health and Saudi Food & Drug Authority to provide hand sanitizers for people in need,” it said. “In the Czech Republic, our brand Damejidlo has also been selected as one of the Red Cross’ official partners, bringing food to senior citizens. As a part of a broader initiative to support their communities, our Latin American brand PedidosYa is giving up to 1,000 free lunches per day to people who are at the forefront of fighting the virus, such as employees in the health sector.”

Another area the company is ramping up to meet demand for food delivery in the time of the coronavirus is grocery store onboarding. Currently, customers across 21 markets in the MENA region, Asia-Pacific and Latin America can order groceries from supermarkets via the company’s local delivery apps, in addition to takeout meals.

“We have seen an increase in demand from our global customer community and to meet the growing need, we have accelerated the onboarding of grocery stores,” Delivery Hero said. “We have also increased delivery through our cloud stores, another way to secure that our customers have access to everyday necessities.”

It’s not clear what — if any — financial provision the company is making to support delivery riders who do not have a contract that includes sick pay.

We’ve asked and will update this report with any response.

“During these turbulent times, our immediate efforts go into securing the wellbeing of all Delivery Hero customers, riders and employees,” the company said. “We are monitoring the development of COVID-19 minute by minute and will implement further measures as necessary. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by the spread of the virus and to all who go the extra mile to keep our communities safe, healthy and fed.”

Online marketplace OfferUp raises $120M, acquires top competitor letgo

By Sarah Perez

OfferUp, a top online and mobile marketplace app, announced this morning it’s raising $120 million in a new round of funding led by competiting marketplace letgo’s majority investor, OLX Group, and others. As a part of the deal, OfferUp will also be acquiring letgo’s classified business, with OLX Group gaining a 40% stake in the newly combined entity.

Other investors in the new round include existing OfferUp backers Andreessen Horowitz and Warburg Pincus. The funds will be put towards continued growth, product innovation, and monetization efforts, OfferUp says.

The round will close with the closing of the acquisition, which is expected to take place sometime in May. To date, OfferUp has raised $380 million.

The acquisition will see two of the largest third-party buying and selling marketplaces — outside of Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace, of course — become a more significant threat to the incumbents. Together, the new entity will have more than 20 million monthly active users across the U.S. For consumers, the deal means they’ll no longer have to list in as many apps when looking to unload some household items, electronics, furniture, or whatever else they want to sell.

“My vision for OfferUp has always been to build a company that helps people connect and prosper,” said Nick Huzar, OfferUp CEO, in a statement about the acquisition. “We’re combining the complementary strengths of OfferUp and letgo in order to deliver an even better buying and selling experience for our communities. OLX Group has unparalleled expertise and clear success with growing online marketplace businesses, so they’ll be a great partner as we continue to build the widest, simplest, and most trustworthy experience for our customers.”

OfferUp also acknowledged that mid-pandemic is an odd time to announce such a deal — especially at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting its own employees, its partners, and the buying and selling community itself. And this will continue for some time.

However, Huzar positions the deal as one that will allow the business to grow, despite the current state of affairs.

“This news helps us to continue to innovate and grow, in spite of these challenging times, and continue to deliver on that promise,” Huzar noted, in a company blog post.

For now, the OfferUp and letgo apps will remain separate experiences and no disruptions to any sales will be made. Consumers will also be able to download both apps to iOS and Android devices for the time being, too.

But soon, both sets of users will gain access to a larger network of buyers and sellers, along with nationwide shipping options, and trust and safety problems. We understand this will involve allowing users of both sets of apps to see more posts and to interact with more buyers and sellers — so some sort of merging of the two networks is at play here. There will be additional changes to improve the user experience for all users in the future, as well, but the company isn’t sharing details on that today.

Letgo is bringing to the table an app with over 100 million worldwide downloads, so there is a potential to reactivate some of the lapsed users who aren’t currently shopping or selling on its marketplace today. The two apps were often neck-and-neck in terms of their app store category rankings, though on iPhone OfferUp has maintained a slight lead. (See App Store and Google Play charts below.)

However, letgo’s business outside of North America will be separately owned and operated as part of the OLX Group, the companies said.

“Letgo and OfferUp have always shared the same core vision for how large America’s secondhand economy can become – harnessing tech innovation to bring about an extraordinarily positive impact on consumers’ wallets and also on the environment,” said letgo co-founder Alec Oxenford. “Bringing our apps together moves us much closer to that vision,” he added.

The deal is still subject to regulatory approval. If given, the combined businesses will be operated by OfferUp,  headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Huzar will continue to be CEO of OfferUp and Chairman of the Board. Oxenford, meanwhile, will join the Board and serve as a senior advisor to OLX Group and Prosus.

Because the deal is still in the process of closing, the companies can’t speak to any team changes, including potential layoffs as a result of overlapping positions or other redundancies, we’re told.

 

Facebook and Disney to downgrade streaming quality in Europe due to COVID-19

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook is temporarily downgrading the quality of video streaming in Europe on its social platforms Facebook and Instagram in response to a call for action from the European Commission, per Reuters.

Disney has also said it will work to shrink bandwidth used by its streaming service, Disney+, which is due to begin launching in Europe from tomorrow.

Last week Netflix, YouTube and Amazon said they would switch to SD streaming by default in the region.

The EU’s executive has expressed concerned about the load on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis as scores of citizens log on from home to work or try to keep themselves entertained during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Telcos in the region have reported significant increases in traffic as EU Member States have called for or instructed citizens to stay at home during the public health emergency.

Collectively, streaming platforms account for a major chunk of global Internet traffic. Online video accounted for more than 60% of the total downstream volume of traffic per a 2019 Sandvine report — while in another report last month it said YouTube alone accounted for a quarter of all mobile traffic.

“To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe,” a Facebook spokesman also told Reuters yesterday.

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions.

Per Reuters the measure will remain in place for as long as there are concerns about the region’s Internet infrastructure.

In related news Disney is pressing ahead with a planned launch of its new video streaming service, Disney+, in Europe starting from tomorrow but Bloomberg reports it will also take measures to reduce bandwidth utilization by at least 25% in European markets.

“We will be monitoring Internet congestion and working closely with Internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, in a statement.

Last week the company said it would postpone the launch of Disney+ in India after the biggest local attraction — the Indian Premier League cricket tournament — was rescheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Break-even ads can generate free brand awareness

By Walter Thompson
Julian Shapiro Contributor
Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing team that trains startups in advanced growth, helps you hire senior growth marketers and finds you vetted growth agencies. He also writes at Julian.com.

We’ve aggregated many of the world’s best growth marketers into one community. Twice a month we ask them to share their most effective growth tactics, and we compile them into this growth report.

This is how you stay up-to-date on growth marketing tactics — with advice that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Our community consists of 1,000 startup founders and VPs of growth from later-stage companies. We have 400 YC founders, plus senior marketers from companies including Medium, Docker, Invision, Intuit, Pinterest, Discord, Webflow, Lambda School, Perfect Keto, Typeform, Modern Fertility, Segment, Udemy, Puma, Cameo and Ritual.

You can participate in our community by joining Demand Curve’s marketing webinars, Slack group or marketing training program.

Without further ado, on to our community’s advice.


How Gmail decides which emails go to spam

Etsy’s 2-year migration to the cloud brought flexibility to the online marketplace

By Ron Miller

Founded in 2005, Etsy was born before cloud infrastructure was even a thing.

As the company expanded, it managed all of its operations in the same way startups did in those days — using private data centers. But a couple of years ago, the online marketplace for crafts and vintage items decided to modernize and began its journey to the cloud.

That decision coincided with the arrival of CTO Mike Fisher in July 2017. He was originally brought in as a consultant to look at the impact of running data centers on Etsy’s ability to innovate. As you might expect, he concluded that it was having an adverse impact and began a process that would lead to him being hired to lead a long-term migration to the cloud.

That process concluded last month. This is the story of how a company born in data centers made the switch to the cloud, and the lessons it offers.

Stuck in a hardware refresh loop

When Fisher walked through the door, Etsy operated out of private data centers. It was not even taking advantage of a virtualization layer to maximize the capacity of each machine. The approach meant IT spent an inordinate amount of time on resource planning.

Walmart Grocery is merging with Walmart’s main app and website

By Sarah Perez

Walmart is looking to hook more consumers on its online grocery shopping experience by adding Walmart Grocery to its main Walmart mobile application. For years, the retailer has operated two separate apps: its flagship Walmart app (the blue one) and its separate Walmart Grocery app (the orange one). This meant shoppers had to download and switch between two separate apps depending on what they were buying. This setup may have also limited Walmart Grocery’s reach, as some users of the larger and more popular Walmart app may not have even realized online grocery was available.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Walmart’s main app has been downloaded 103+ million times since January 2014 across both iOS and Android. Today, it’s the No. 2 app in the iOS App Store’s Shopping section. Walmart Grocery, meanwhile, has seen more than 16 million downloads across iOS and Android during that same time period. It’s also ranked further down (No. 30) in the Shopping section on the App Store.

For Walmart customers, the change means a more seamless shopping experience, where they won’t have to think so much about which app to use, but can instead just shop from a single place for anything Walmart offers, including its 120,000+ grocery items, local store inventory for pickup and its online assortment of both first-party and third-party marketplace goods.

Over the course of the year, Walmart will transition its Grocery app user base to the main app and then sunset the standalone app when that’s been accomplished.

The company says these changes make sense because they better represent the way people shop, which isn’t a binary experience.

“It really depends on what you’ve got going on in your life at any point in time and what you’ve got going on during the day,” explained Walmart Chief Customer Officer Janey Whiteside. “Do you want to go into a store and browse? Or do you want to order from the palm of your hand and pick it up on the way home? Do you want to order and have it delivered to your door? Do you want it delivered to the fridge? Do you want to have it next-day or have it today?,” she continued. “Bringing all of our assets and all of our capabilities together in one place is really the natural next step,” Whiteside said.

In addition, she says running two separate apps meant it was under-leveraging the relationship Walmart had with its regular Grocery app shoppers by limiting them to a standalone app where they couldn’t explore more of Walmart’s assortment.

The changes will also in time help simplify Walmart’s marketing budget, which currently has to send customers to two different places.

“As a marketer, that enables me to be more efficient with the dollars I spend and allows me to create much more compelling stories,” Whiteside noted.

The change may also give Walmart a competitive advantage versus Amazon, which today still offers grocery shopping (via two services, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods) from both its main app and its separate Prime Now app, for faster delivery. This approach leads to customer confusion, as there’s not just one simple way to order groceries from Amazon.

Walmart wouldn’t be the first to merge its separate apps. Target also recently integrated its Shipt grocery app with both its main Target app and website. However, Target is not sunsetting Shipt’s app, as the business still serves other retailers.

Walmart says it will add Walmart Grocery to its desktop and mobile web experiences on Walmart.com, as well, instead of sending users to a separate domain. The Grocery section will also get a new look across platforms to better blend in with the Walmart.com design.

The updated Walmart app including Grocery is rolling out in phases, so you may not see it immediately.

Indonesian startup Newman’s uses online medicine to tackle sensitive health issues

By Catherine Shu

An Indonesian startup called Newman’s is using telemedicine to help Indonesian patients get care for stigmatized health issues. Part of Y Combinator’s winter 2020 batch, the startup launched last month with prescription hair loss treatments and plans to expand into other verticals, including erectile dysfunction and smoking cessation.

Newman’s was founded by Elsen Wiraatmadja, Alfred Ali and Anthony Suryaputra and motivated partly by their own experiences with hair loss in their twenties.

Newman's Y Combinator Team Photo

Newman’s Y Combinator team photo

“It was a rather depressing period. It affected our confidence, our jobs and we didn’t know who to talk to and what to do,” says Suryaputra. “Even going to the doctor for treatment was an awkward process and it was expensive to pay for medications. We talked to other men and they faced the same issues.”

Hair loss treatments with minoxidil and finasteride, the two most common clinically-proven ingredients, require a prescription in Indonesia and it can be difficult to book consultations since the country has a relatively low number of physicians. The price of a doctor’s visit, which the founding team says is usually about US $30, and treatments, is also prohibitive for many people.

Newman’s works directly with manufacturers for its hair loss products, which contain minoxidil and finasteride. By cutting out distribution and retail middlemen, their margins are higher, and they use some of that revenue to pay doctors on the platform. This enables them to make consultations free and also offer a 100% money-back guarantee to encourage patients to use products for at least three months, since it usually takes that amount of time to see results.

For doctors, online consultations through Newman’s platform saves time and allows them to see more patients. Before booking an appointment for hair loss, Newman’s users complete a questionnaire and upload photos, which help their doctors determine treatments and shorten consultation times for hair loss to as little as five minutes. There are currently about 15 doctors on Newman’s (with plans to add more from a waiting list) who see about 10 to 15 patients through the platform per day.

The startup will launch in other men’s health verticals before expanding into women’s health, with an emphasis on issues that patients are often reluctant to seek help for because of stigma or cost.

“Right now we’re focused on hair loss because it personally affects us and a lot of other men,” says Suryaputra. “With other verticals, like erectile dysfunction, there are the same dynamics. It’s embarrassing and in Southeast Asia, the taboo around erectile dysfunction is a lot stronger than in the United States.”

Newman’s will continue to focus on Indonesia, where data from the World Bank shows there are much less physicians per 1,000 patients than in the United States or nearby countries like Thailand and Singapore.

“We cannot create more doctors, so we have to make seeing patients more efficient for them,” says Suryaputra.

Alipay owner Ant Financial takes minority stake in Klarna

By Natasha Lomas

Some big moves in the payments platform space: Ant Financial Group, the owner of China’s Alipay payment platform has announced it’s taking a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna — which has a strong European presence and a flagship product that lets shoppers buy now and pay later in interest-free instalments (typically 14 or 30 days after the purchase).

The pair have not disclosed terms of the deal but Reuters reported the stake amounts to less than 1% and was made up of existing and new shares. It also cites its source telling it the stake was done at a “slight uptick” to Klarna’s $460 million funding round last August — which valued the company at $5.5BN.

A spokeswomen for Klarna told us it’s not disclosing the value of the investment but she confirmed Reuters reporting, saying the stake is less than 1%.

Ant Financial is part of Chinese ecommerce and retail services multinational giant, Alibaba Group, which took a 33% stake in the fintech affiliate back in 2018 that gave it direct ownership of its suite of products and services — including an investment fund, micro-loans, insurance services, a digital bank and the Alipay mobile payments platform. 

Klarna and Alipay had already been collaborating via Alibaba’s global ecommerce marketplace, AliExpress — which offers Klarna’s ‘Pay later’ option in multiple markets.

Now the pair touted their deepening partnership as set to bring more “innovative and convenient” financial services to consumers worldwide.

They are also clearly hoping to further grease the wheels of East to West ecommerce by expanding opportunities for China’s growing middle class to tap into Klarna’s network of European and global merchants via their preferred local online payment method.

Commenting in a statement, Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiątkowski said: “For too long consumers have had to endure non-intuitive, boring and overly complex services when shopping both online and offline. At the heart of this cooperation between Klarna and Alipay is a shared ambition of innovating truly superior shopping experiences and creating destinations of inspiration for consumers across the world.”

“Alipay, and the wider Alibaba Group, have truly set the global pace on retail innovation and the app economy. We are delighted in this confidence shown in Klarna in defining the future of payments and shopping and are very much looking forward to working together further in the future,” he added.

Klarna said its technology is being used by more than 200,000 retailers and e-commerce platforms globally at this point, including AliExpress, H&M, ASOS, Expedia Group, IKEA, Farfetch, Adidas, Spotify, Samsung and Nike .

Last year it said it added over 75,000 new merchants — describing itself as a “strategic growth partner” for these retailers and claiming it’s driving “millions of referrals and traffic each month” from owned channels to partner merchants from consumers who it says are actively seeking where they can shop with Klarna. (It claims a base of 85 million shoppers.)

Ant Financial, meanwhile, has been working on expanding Alipay’s global footprint by cutting local deals in markets outside China where it cannot build up its transaction volume organically. Notably, back in 2015, it  took a stake in India’s One97 — which operates a major local mobile payment platform, Paytm.

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report

Leap Finance raises $5.5M to democratize financing for foreign-bound Indian students

By Manish Singh

Tens of thousands of Indians move to the United States to pursue higher education each year. But like many others who have arrived from a foreign land, they can’t secure education loans or personal loans from the banks at interest rates on par with those levied on local students.

The reason why these students — or anyone else moving to a different country — have to abide by a higher interest rate is because they don’t have a credit score with any local credit bureau. So for banks and other financial institutions, there is more risk when they engage with foreigners. So they charge more.

An Indian student studying in the U.S., for instance, borrows money at an interest rate over 13%, compared to their local peers who can secure the same amount of credit, if not more, at less than half of that interest rate.

Bangalore and San Francisco-based startup Leap Finance, which was founded last year, announced on Tuesday that it is tackling this very challenge, and has started to serve Indian students in the U.S.

Indian students in the U.S. can secure financing from Leap Finance at an interest rate of between 8% to 10%, said Arnav Kumar, co-founder of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The startup said it is underwriting the loans based on several alternative and derived data points to assess a student’s future income.

Kumar and Vaibhav Singh, the other co-founder who previously worked at financial services groups InCred and Capital Float, arrived at the idea of creating Leap Finance partly because they too faced similar challenges in foreign markets.

Leap Finance founders pose for a picture

“It affects all sorts of things. You often end up with a credit limit on your credit card, for instance, that is only a fraction of your earnings,” he said.

Serving Indian students is a big addressable market in itself. “Indian students make up 25% of a class in many top graduate programs in the U.S. These are smart, hard-working students who got in the best programs and have a great future ahead. Yet, the education loans they avail of are at interest rates twice as high as their American peers,” said Singh.

“This disparity stems from systemic inefficiencies and lack of innovation. We have innovated on multiple dimensions — technology, financial structuring and risk — to bring down the interest rate and improve customer experience,” he added.

The startup, which currently employs more than two dozen people and is hiring for a number of technology roles, began to disburse loans in recent weeks and said more than 100 students are already benefiting from the service.

The startup said it is currently serving Indian students in the U.S., but plans to serve such Indian students in Canada, the U.K. and Indonesia, where the interest rate could go as high as 20%, said Kumar, who previously served as an Associate VP at VC fund SAIF Partners .

As part of the announcement, the duo said they have raised $5.5 million led by Sequoia Capital India. Bhupinder Singh, chief executive of financial services group InCred and Kunal Shah, founder and chief executive of financial services firm Cred also participated in the round.

In a statement, Ashish Agrawal, principal at Sequoia Capital India, said, “Indian students studying abroad today spend $15B annually and we estimate an annual credit need for >$5B against this. This attractiveness of the market, strong founder-market fit and Leap’s mission-driven team is what led to our belief in an early partnership with them.”

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