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Google cracks down on personal loan apps in India following abuse and outcry

By Manish Singh

Google said on Thursday it has pulled some personal loan apps from Play Store in India and was implementing stronger measures to prevent abuse following reports that said several firms were targeting vulnerable borrowers in the country and then going to extreme lengths to recover their money.

The Android-maker said users and government agencies in India recently flagged several personal loan apps and the company reviewed hundreds of them. The review found an identified number of apps violated Play Store’s safety policies and they were immediately removed from the Store.

Google, whose Android operating system powers 98% smartphones in India, said it has asked the developers of the remaining identified apps to demonstrate that their apps are in compliance with applicable local laws and regulations. (In an email reviewed by TechCrunch, Google had asked a developer to provide documentation within five days.)

“Apps that fail to do so will be removed without further notice. In addition, we will continue to assist the law enforcement agencies in their investigation of this issue,” the company said.

Users have identified several lending apps including 10MinuteLoan and Ex-Money in India in recent months that granted small ticket loans (typically in the range of $50 to $200) to people for short tenures without much verification to determine their eligibility and then charged steep processing fees.

To avoid such abuse, Google said Play Store will only allow personal apps that require customers to make their repayment in 60 days or longer.

When borrowers struggled to repay their debt in the short period, collection agents on behalf of some lending apps threatened to embarrass them in front of their friends, colleagues, and family, among other ill tactics. In November, local newspaper Indian Express reported that a 23-year-old man committed suicide after being bullied by a money lending app.

Online loan horror :

Representative of a loan app called " Udhaar Loan " Asking a girl from Tamilnadu to video call her naked , if she fails to pay loan on time .

She attempted suicide today.

Please share max until it reaches @PMOIndia . pic.twitter.com/nD9evsGrhl

— Prashanth Rangaswamy (@itisprashanth) November 8, 2020

“To protect user privacy, developers must only request permissions that are necessary to implement current features or services. They should not use permissions that give access to user or device data for undisclosed, unimplemented, or disallowed features or purposes,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“Developers must also only use data for purposes that the user has consented to, and if they later want to use the data for other purposes, they must obtain user permission for the additional uses,” she added.

Thursday’s move comes months after Google stepped up its efforts to crack down on fantasy sports apps in India.

Madrona promotes Anu Sharma and Daniel Li as Partners

By Lucas Matney

Fresh off the announcement of more than $500 million in new capital across two new funds, Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group has announced that they’re adding Anu Sharma and Daniel Li to the team’s list of Partners.

The firm, which in recent years has paid particularly close attention to enterprise software bets, invests heavily in the early-stage Pacific Northwest startup scene.

Both Li and Sharma are stepping into the Partner role after some time at the firm. Li has been with Madrona for five years while Sharma joined the team in 2020. Prior to joining Madrona, Sharma led product management teams at Amazon Web Services, worked as a software developer at Oracle and had a stint in VC as an associate at SoftBank China & India. Li previously worked at the Boston Consulting Group.

I got the chance to catch up with Li who notes that the promotion won’t necessarily mean a big shift in his day-to-day responsibilities — “At Madrona, you’re not promoted until you’re working in the next role anyway,” he says — but that he appreciates “how much trust the firm places in junior investors.”

Asked about leveling up his venture career during a time when public and private markets seem particularly flush with cash, Li acknowledges some looming challenges.

“On one hand, it’s just been an amazing five years to join venture capital because things have just been up and to the right with lots of things that work; it’s just a super exciting time,” Li says. “On the other hand, from a macro perspective, you know that there’s more capital flowing into VC as an asset class than ever before. And just from that pure macro perspective, you know that that means returns are going to be lower in the next 10 years as valuations are higher.”

Nevertheless, Li is plenty bullish on internet companies claiming larger swaths of the global GDP and hopes to invest specifically in “low code platforms, next-gen productivity, and online communities,” Madrona notes in their announcement, while Sharma plans to continue looking at to “distributed systems, data infrastructure, machine learning, and security.”

TechCrunch recently talked to Li and his Madrona colleague Hope Cochran about some of the top trends in social gaming and how investors were approaching new opportunities across the gaming industry.

E-commerce infrastructure startup Nacelle closes $18M Series A

By Lucas Matney

Consumer online shopping habits have led to a windfall of revenues for these web storefronts, but COVID-era trends have also breathed new life into the market for developer tools that help e-commerce sites operate more smoothly for shoppers.

LA-based Nacelle is one of many e-commerce infrastructure startups to earn attention from investors amid COVID.

The web services company helps streamline the backends of e-commerce websites with a so-called “headless” platform that shifts how the front-end of websites interact with content in the backend. The startup claims its tech can boost performance, promote better scalability, cut down on hosting costs and offer developers a more streamlined experience.

Nacelle has closed an $18 million Series A led by Inovia with participation from Accomplice, Index Ventures, High Alpha, Silas Capital and Lerer Hippeau. The company just closed a $4.8 million seed round in mid-2020, the speedy pace of their Series A’s close seems to speak to the investor enthusiasm that has deepened around companies operating in the e-commerce world.

“It’s not secret that commerce has done well during COVID,” CEO Brian Anderson tells TechCrunch. “Not only did we get this subtle structural change with COVID that I believe is long-lasting, but merchants have been focusing more on performance.”

One of the startup’s central points of focus has been ensuring that they can bring customers onboard its platform without causing undue headaches. It can be “very painful to migrate data” with other services, Anderson says. The company’s service is “anti rip-and-replace,” meaning potential customer can integrate “without having to be rebuild their stores.”

The firm’s customer base is largely made up of small to medium-sized e-commerce sites. Nacelle works closely with agencies for customer referrals, also tapping on Anderson’s past contacts from his days running a Shopify Plus agency.

This past August, data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index suggested that pandemic trends had accelerated the consumer shift from primarily visiting to physical stores to shopping on e-commerce storefronts by roughly five years.

Europe seizes on social media’s purging of Trump to bang the drum for regulation

By Natasha Lomas

Big tech’s decision to pull the plug on president Donald Trump’s presence on their platforms, following his supporters’ attack on the US capital last week, has been seized on in Europe as proof — if proof were needed — that laws have not kept pace with tech market power and platform giants must face consequences over the content they amplify and monetize.

Writing in Politico, the European Commission’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, dubs the 6/1 strike at the heart of the US political establishment as social media’s ‘9/11’ moment — aka, the day the whole world woke up to the real-world impact of unchecked online hate and lies.

Since then Trump has been booted from a number of digital services, and the conservative social media app Parler has also been ejected from the App Store and Google Play over a failure to moderate violent threats, after Trump supporters flocked to the app in the wake of Facebook’s and Twitter’s crackdown.

At the time of writing, Parler is also poised to be booted by its hosting provider AWS, while Stripe has reportedly pulled the plug on Trump’s ability to use its payment tools to fleece supporters. (Although when this reporter asked in November whether Trump was breaching its TOC by using its payment tools for his ‘election defense fund’ Stripe ignored TechCrunch’s emails…)

“If there was anyone out there who still doubted that online platforms have become systemic actors in our societies and democracies, last week’s events on Capitol Hill is their answer. What happens online doesn’t just stay online: It has — and even exacerbates — consequences ‘in real life’ too,” Breton writes.

“Last week’s insurrection marked the culminating point of years of hate speech, incitement to violence, disinformation and destabilization strategies that were allowed to spread without restraint over well-known social networks. The unrest in Washington is proof that a powerful yet unregulated digital space — reminiscent of the Wild West — has a profound impact on the very foundations of our modern democracies.”

The Europe Commission proposed a major update to the rules for digital services and platform giants in December, when it laid out the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act — saying it’s time to level the regulatory playing field by ensuing content and activity that’s illegal offline is similarly sanctioned online.

The Commission’s proposal also seeks to address the market power of tech giants with proposals for additional oversight and extra rules for the largest platforms that have the potential to cause the greatest societal harm.

Unsurprisingly, then, Breton has seized on the chaotic scenes in Washington to push this already-formed tech policy plan — with his eye on a domestic audience of European governments and elected members of the European Parliament whose support is needed to pass the legislation and reboot the region’s digital rules.

“The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space,” he warns.

“These last few days have made it more obvious than ever that we cannot just stand by idly and rely on these platforms’ good will or artful interpretation of the law. We need to set the rules of the game and organize the digital space with clear rights, obligations and safeguards. We need to restore trust in the digital space. It is a matter of survival for our democracies in the 21st century.”

The DSA will force social media to clean up its act on content and avoid the risk of arbitrary decision-making by giving platforms “clear obligations and responsibilities to comply with these laws, granting public authorities more enforcement powers and ensuring that all users’ fundamental rights are safeguarded”, Breton goes on to argue.

The commissioner also addresses US lawmakers directly — calling for Europe and the US to join forces on Internet regulation and engage in talks aimed at establishing what he describes as “globally coherent principles”, suggesting the DSA as a starting point for discussions. So he’s not wasting the opportunity of #MAGA-induced chaos to push a geopolitical agenda for EU tech policy too.

Last month the Commission signalled a desire to work with the incoming Biden administration on a common approach to tech governance, saying it hoped US counterparts would work with to shape global standards for technologies like AI and to force big tech to be more responsible, among other areas. And recent events in Washington do seem to be playing into that hand — although it remains to be seen how the incoming Biden administration will approach regulating big tech.

“The DSA, which has been carefully designed to answer all of the above considerations at the level of our Continent, can help pave the way for a new global approach to online platforms — one that serves the general interest of our societies. By setting a standard and clarifying the rules, it has the potential to become a paramount democratic reform serving generations to come,” Breton concludes.

Twitter’s decision to (finally) pull the plug on Trump also caught the eye of UK minister Matt Hancock, the former  secretary of state for the digital brief (now the health secretary). Speaking to the BBC this weekend, he suggested the unilateral decision “raises questions” about how big tech is regulated that would result in “consequences”.

“The scenes, clearly encouraged by President Trump — the scenes at the Capitol — were terrible — and I was very sad to see that because American democracy is such a proud thing. But there’s something else that has changed, which is that social media platforms are making editorial decisions now. That’s clear because they’re choosing who should and shouldn’t have a voice on their platform,” he told the Andrew Marr program.

The BBC reports that Hancock also told Sky News Twitter’s ban on Trump means social media platforms are taking editorial decisions — which he said “raises questions about their editorial judgements and the way that they’re regulated”.

Hancock’s remarks are noteworthy because back in 2018, during his time as digital minister, he said the government would legislate to introduce a statutory code of conduct on social media platforms forcing them to act against online abuse.

More than two years’ later, the UK’s safety-focused plan to regulate the Internet is still yet to be put before parliament — but late last year ministers committed to introducing an Online Safety Bill this year. 

Under the plan, the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, will gain new powers to oversee tech platforms — including the ability to levy fines for non-compliance with a safety-focused duty of care of up to 10% of a company’s annual turnover.

The proposal covers a wide range of digital services, not just social media. Larger platforms are also slated to have the greatest responsibility for moderating content and activity. And — at least in its current form — the proposed law is intended to apply not just to content that’s illegal under UK law but also the fuzzier category of ‘harmful’ content.

That’s something the European Commission proposal has steered clear of — with more subjective issues like disinformation set to be tackled via a beefed-up (but still voluntary) code of practice, instead of being baked into digital services legislation. So online speech looks set to be one area of looming regulatory divergence in Europe, with the UK now outside the bloc.

Last year, the government said larger social media platforms — such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Twitter — are likely to “need to assess the risk of legal content or activity on their services with ‘a reasonably foreseeable risk of causing significant physical or psychological harm to adults’” under the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

“They will then need to make clear what type of ‘legal but harmful’ content is acceptable on their platforms in their terms and conditions and enforce this transparently and consistently,” it added, suggesting the UK will in fact legislate to force platforms to make ‘editorial’ decisions.

The consequences Hancock thus suggests are coming for tech platforms look rather akin to the ‘editorial’ decisions they have been making in recent days.

Albeit, the uncomfortable difference he seems to have been articulating is between tech platforms that have massive unilateral power to silence the US president at a stroke and at a point of their own choosing vs tech platforms being made to comply with a pre-defined rules-based order set by legislators and regulators.

These 6 browser extensions will protect your privacy online

By Zack Whittaker

The internet is not a private place. Ads try to learn as much about you to sell your information to the highest bidder. Emails know when you open them and which links you click. And some of the biggest internet snoops, like Facebook and Amazon, follow you from site to site as you browse the web.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. We’ve tried and tested six browser extensions that will immediately improve your privacy online by blocking most of the invisible ads and trackers.

These extensions won’t block every kind of snooping, but they will vastly reduce your exposure to most of the efforts to track your internet activity. You might not care that advertisers collect your data to learn your tastes and interests to serve you targeted ads. But you might care that these ad giants can see which medical conditions you’re looking up and what private purchases you’re making.

By blocking these hidden trackers from loading, websites can’t collect as much information about you. Plus by dropping the unnecessary bulk, some websites will load faster. The tradeoff is that some websites might not load properly or refuse to let you in if you don’t let them track you. You can toggle the extensions on and off as needed, or you could ask yourself if the website was that good to begin with and could you not just find what you were looking for somewhere else?

HTTPS Everywhere

We’re pretty much hardwired to look for that little green lock in our browser to tell us a website was loaded over an HTTPS-encrypted connection. That means the websites you open haven’t been hijacked or modified by an attacker before it loaded and that anything you submit to that website can’t be seen by anyone other than the website. HTTPS Everywhere is a browser extension made by the non-profit internet group the Electronic Frontier Foundation that automatically loads websites over HTTPS where it’s offered, and allows you to block the minority of websites that don’t support HTTPS. The extension is supported by most browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera.

Privacy Badger

Another extension developed by the EFF, Privacy Badger is one of the best all-in-one extensions for blocking invisible third-party trackers on websites. This extension looks at all the components of a web page and learns which ones track you from website to website, and then blocks them from loading in the browser. Privacy Badger also learns as you travel the web, so it gets better over time. And it requires no effort or configuration to work, just install it and leave it to it. The extension is available on most major browsers.

uBlock Origin

Ads are what keeps the internet free, but often at the expense of your personal information. Ads try to learn as much about you — usually by watching your browsing activity and following you across the web — so that they can target you with ads you’re more likely to click on. Ad blockers stop them in their tracks by blocking ads from loading, but also the tracking code that comes with it.

uBlock Origin is a lightweight, simple but effective, and widely trusted ad blocker used by millions of people, but it also has a ton of granularity and customizability for the more advanced user. (Be careful with impersonators: there are plenty of ad blockers that aren’t as trusted that use a similar name.) And if you feel bad about the sites that rely on ads for revenue (including us!), consider a subscription to the site instead. After all, a free web that relies on ad tracking to make money is what got us into this privacy nightmare to begin with.

uBlock Origin works in Chrome, Firefox, and Edge and the extension is open source so anyone can look at how it works.

PixelBlock & ClearURLs

If you thought hidden trackers in websites were bad, wait until you learn about what’s lurking in your emails. Most emails from brand names come with tiny, often invisible pixels that alerts the sender when you’ve opened them. PixelBlock is a simple extension for Chrome browsers that simply blocks these hidden email open trackers from loading and working. Every time it detects a tracker, it displays a small red eye in your inbox so you know.

Most of these same emails also come with tracking links that alerts the sender which links you click. ClearURLs, available for Chrome, Firefox and Edge, sits in your browser and silently removes the tracking junk from every link in your browser and your inbox. That means ClearURLs needs more access to your browser’s data than most of these extensions, but its makers explain why in the documentation.

Firefox Multi-Account Containers

And an honorary mention for Firefox users, who can take advantage of Multi-Account Containers, built by the browser maker itself to help you isolate your browsing activity. That means you can have one container full of your work tabs in your browser, and another container with all of your personal tabs, saving you from having to use multiple browsers. Containers also keep your private personal browsing separate from your work browsing activity. It also means you can put sites like Facebook or Google in a container, making it far more difficult for them to see which websites you visit and understand your tastes and interests. Containers are easy to use and customizable.

The Rise of Sierra Online Wasn’t Exactly a Fairytale

By Jerry Bonner
Founder Ken Williams opens up about his new book, video game design in the late 80s—and his regrets about selling the company.

Extra Crunch roundup: 2 VC surveys, Tesla’s melt up, The Roblox Gambit, more

By Walter Thompson

This has been quite a week.

Instead of walking backward through the last few days of chaos and uncertainty, here are three good things that happened:

  • Google employee Sara Robinson combined her interest in machine learning and baking to create AI-generated hybrid treats.
  • A breakthrough could make water desalination 30%-40% more effective.
  • Bianca Smith will become the first Black woman to coach a professional baseball team.

Despite many distractions in our first full week of the new year, we published a full slate of stories exploring different aspects of entrepreneurship, fundraising and investing.

We’ve already gotten feedback on this overview of subscription pricing models, and a look back at 2020 funding rounds and exits among Israel’s security startups was aimed at our new members who live and work there, along with international investors who are seeking new opportunities.

Plus, don’t miss our first investor surveys of 2021: one by Lucas Matney on social gaming, and another by Mike Butcher that gathered responses from Portugal-based investors on a wide variety of topics.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week. I hope we can all look forward to a nice, boring weekend with no breaking news alerts.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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


The Roblox Gambit

In February 2020, gaming platform Roblox was valued at $4 billion, but after announcing a $520 million Series H this week, it’s now worth $29.5 billion.

“Sure, you could argue that Roblox enjoyed an epic 2020, thanks in part to COVID-19,” writes Alex Wilhelm this morning. “That helped its valuation. But there’s a lot of space between $4 billion and $29.5 billion.”

Alex suggests that Roblox’s decision to delay its IPO and raise an enormous Series H was a grandmaster move that could influence how other unicorns will take themselves to market. “A big thanks to the gaming company for running this experiment for us.”

I asked him what inspired the headline; like most good ideas, it came to him while he was trying to get to sleep.

“I think that I had ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ somewhere in my head, so that formed the root of a little joke with myself. Roblox is making a strategic wager on method of going public. So, ‘gambit’ seems to fit!”

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

girl playing games on desktop computer

Image Credits: Erik Von Weber (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

For our first investor survey of the year, Lucas Matney interviewed eight VCs who invest in massively multiplayer online games to discuss 2021 trends and opportunities:

  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
  • Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Sakib Dadi, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Jacob Mullins, Shasta Ventures
  • Alice Lloyd George, Rogue
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX

Having moved far beyond shooters and sims, platforms like Twitch, Discord and Fortnite are “where culture is created,” said Daniel Li of Madrona.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Twitch to explain policy positions, major musicians regularly perform in-game concerts on Fortnite and in-game purchases generated tens of billions last year.

“Gaming is a unique combination of science and art, left and right brain,” said Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX. “It’s never just science (i.e., software and data), which is why many investors find it hard.”

How to convert customers with subscription pricing

Giant hand and magnet picking up office and workers

Image Credits: C.J. Burton (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Startups that lack insight into their sales funnel have high churn, low conversion rates and an inability to adapt or leverage changes in customer behavior.

If you’re hoping to convert and retain customers, “reinforcing your value proposition should play a big part in every level of your customer funnel,” says Joe Procopio, founder of Teaching Startup.

What is up with Tesla’s value?

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

Alex Wilhelm followed up his regular Friday column with another story that tries to find a well-grounded rationale for Tesla’s sky-high valuation of approximately $822 billion.

Meanwhile, GM just unveiled a new logo and tagline.

As ever, I learned something new while editing: A “melt up” occurs when investors start clamoring for a particular company because of acute FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Delivering 500,000 cars in 2020 was “impressive,” says Alex, who also acknowledged the company’s ability to turn GAAP profits, but “pride cometh before the fall, as does a melt up, I think.”

Note: This story has Alex’s original headline, but I told him I would replace the featured image with a photo of someone who had very “richest man in the world” face.

How Segment redesigned its core systems to solve an existential scaling crisis

Abstract glowing grid and particles

Image Credits: piranka / Getty Images

On Tuesday, enterprise reporter Ron Miller covered a major engineering project at customer data platform Segment called “Centrifuge.”

“Its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost,” but as Ron reports, it was also meant to solve “an existential crisis for the young business,” which needed a more resilient platform.

Dear Sophie: Banging my head against the wall understanding the US immigration system

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

Now that the U.S. has a new president coming in whose policies are more welcoming to immigrants, I am considering coming to the U.S. to expand my company after COVID-19. However, I’m struggling with the morass of information online that has bits and pieces of visa types and processes.

Can you please share an overview of the U.S. immigration system and how it works so I can get the big picture and understand what I’m navigating?

— Resilient in Romania

The first “Dear Sophie” column of each month is available on TechCrunch without a paywall.

Revenue-based financing: The next step for private equity and early-stage investment

Shot of a group of people holding plants growing out of soil

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

For founders who aren’t interested in angel investment or seeking validation from a VC, revenue-based investing is growing in popularity.

To gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. RBI landscape, we published an industry report on Wednesday that studied data from 134 companies, 57 funds and 32 investment firms before breaking out “specific verticals and business models … and the typical profile of companies that access this form of capital.”

Lisbon’s startup scene rises as Portugal gears up to be a European tech tiger

Man using laptop at 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal

Image Credits: Westend61 (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Mike Butcher continues his series of European investor surveys with his latest dispatch from Lisbon, where a nascent startup ecosystem may get a Brexit boost.

Here are the Portugal-based VCs he interviewed:

  • Cristina Fonseca, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Pedro Ribeiro Santos, partner, Armilar Venture Partners
  • Tocha, partner, Olisipo Way
  • Adão Oliveira, investment manager, Portugal Ventures
  • Alexandre Barbosa, partner, Faber
  • António Miguel, partner, Mustard Seed MAZE
  • Jaime Parodi Bardón, partner, impACT NOW Capital
  • Stephan Morais, partner, Indico Capital Partners
  • Gavin Goldblatt, managing partner, Portugal Gateway

How late-stage edtech companies are thinking about tutoring marketplaces

Life Rings flying out beneath storm clouds are a metaphor for rescue, help and aid.

Image Credits: John Lund (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

How do you scale online tutoring, particularly when demand exceeds the supply of human instructors?

This month, Chegg is replacing its seven-year-old marketplace that paired students with tutors with a live chatbot.

A spokesperson said the move will “dramatically differentiate our offerings from our competitors and better service students,” but Natasha Mascarenhas identified two challenges to edtech automation.

“A chatbot won’t work for a student with special needs or someone who needs to be handheld a bit more,” she says. “Second, speed tutoring can only work for a specific set of subjects.”

Decrypted: How bad was the US Capitol breach for cybersecurity?

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

While I watched insurrectionists invade and vandalize the U.S. Capitol on live TV, I noticed that staffers evacuated so quickly, some hadn’t had time to shut down their computers.

Looters even made off with a laptop from Senator Jeff Merkley’s office, but according to security reporter Zack Whittaker, the damages to infosec wasn’t as bad as it looked.

Even so, “the breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments, which will have to figure out what’s been stolen and what security risks could still pose a threat to the Capitol’s network.”

Extra Crunch’s top 10 stories of 2020

On New Year’s Eve, I made a list of the 10 “best” Extra Crunch stories from the previous 12 months.

My methodology was personal: From hundreds of posts, these were the 10 I found most useful, which is my key metric for business journalism.

Some readers are skeptical about paywalls, but without being boastful, Extra Crunch is a premium product, just like Netflix or Disney+. I know, we’re not as entertaining as a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II or a space western about a bounty hunter. But, speaking as someone who’s worked at several startups, Extra Crunch stories contain actionable information you can use to build a company and/or look smart in meetings — and that’s worth something.

5 reforms necessary to create a truly cashless society

By Walter Thompson
Wisam Dakka Contributor
Wisam Dakka is the co-founder of Meemo, a social financial application that offers users automatic AI-powered search, personalized insights, modern peer-to-peer sharing and rewards based on their transaction and purchasing history.

The coronavirus pandemic challenged the status quo and completely changed normal life as we knew it. However, with these challenges have come new opportunities to adapt and participate differently in the world. One of the first trends was that cash is no longer accepted.

The transition to cashless transactions, which at first seemed minor, made my customer experience seamless. Going wallet-free made me wonder why I ever carried cash at all!

Cashless life has been widely adopted in Asian countries for quite some time, but it wasn’t universally adopted across the United States until the coronavirus pandemic. The convenience of cashless transactions just makes sense, but my hope is that this convenience doesn’t come at the cost of other aspects of commerce.

The transition to cashless transactions made my customer experience seamless.

Inaccessibility, fees and thoughtless spending are some of the potential problems that come to mind with cashless spending. For a truly cashless society, here are five key points for consideration:

1. Payment processors currently have the upper hand, forcing fees onto customers

For the sake of a cashless transaction, we have given up our last direct authentic connection with our favorite baristas, small businesses and independent brands. When I take out my credit card or phone to pay, I am not thinking about the fees that both myself and the merchant are paying to facilitate what was once a fee-less transaction. Losing this direct connection with my merchant has given payment processors the upper hand, allowing them to demand an unjustifiable fee of up to 3%.

With virtual payments, my cash is essentially in my phone and the barista is directly in front of me, but the transaction does not work like cash. The merchant will need to pay the fee on my transaction. If the cash revenue for that coffee shop used to be 20% of their revenue pre-COVID, they will now need to pay the fees on 20% of their revenue. Sadly, the merchant response over time is to raise prices. Historically, the adoption of a cashless exchange results in fees being passed through to the customer.

Through price increases across the board, the customer is always bailing the merchant out for the cost of the electronic, seamless, safer-than-ever money exchange. Furthermore, the customers are even “forced” to tip digitally from predefined settings, removing all meaning of tips as an emotional social contract. This new normal means that customers will end up paying $4 in a digital transaction for a coffee that used to cost $3 in cash.

2. Platforms must adapt new models to forgo transaction fees

Given that software and intelligent platforms have always lowered the cost of services when they are used at scale, why has this reduction of cost not yet applied to digital financial transactions? Customers need to demand that cashless transactions operate in the same way as cash transactions.

Even if we continue with a fee model, why would regular, loyal and verified customers always pay (directly or indirectly) the hefty cost of the exchange on top of the cost of credit? There should be a differentiation between these different types of transactions, regular or new, and appropriate fees that make sense.

3. Product experiences must promote conscious spending

Paying with digital or credit cards almost feels like paying with someone else’s money, which can be a dangerous feeling when considering that the user does not see this money spent instantly. Say your regular coffee costs $3. Paying for that coffee with cash is a very different experience than paying with a card or a digital wallet.

When you have a finite amount of cash in your pocket, the physical act (and sometimes mental pain) of spending makes the money feel different and more valuable than the invisible money that you spend via your credit or debit card. In many ways, the silent pain we endure while paying in cash has been subconsciously raising our awareness about our spending.

4. Accessibility and use must extend to all

The idea of a cashless society has thus far not been very inclusive to the unbanked and underbanked population. To support a new model, this underserviced sector needs to be able to utilize this software. A user needs to be able to walk into a grocery store and give the cashier $100 for them to upload the money to their virtual wallet.

Alternatively, a friend needs to be able to send $100 to their virtual wallet. For a cashless society to work, virtual payments need to work with ease and certainty that they will be accepted at any and all locations, just like cash.

5. The path to an open wallet

Have you ever ordered a $15 meal on a food delivery app, only for the total to end up over $25? Beyond the delivery fee, tips and taxes, delivery apps are pricing in extra fees to offset the fees charged by credit card and payment companies. In an effort to avoid these extra fees, apps like Lyft and Uber have begun deploying their own digital wallets supported by ACH transfers.

Sadly, consumers are unlikely to see the benefit until these wallets reach wide adoption, which is clearly not happening because no one wants yet another app-specific wallet.

The way forward

To truly empower the consumer, both Google and Apple should keep developing their digital wallets with an open API payment system to allow all apps to securely interact with it for free. This will transform the Google and Apple wallet and will better service the unbanked and underbanked populations instead of just being a gateway for credit cards.

This would further support the unbanked or underbanked population as they too would be able to utilize an open wallet that can be refilled with cash in person. I should be able to use the cash I have in my virtual wallet with any app, website or physical merchant without paying a fee. I should also be able refill the wallet from my bank account or directly deposit some of my paycheck into my phone wallet. Merchants would also benefit from wallet-to-pay by paying no fees to Google and Apple.

Instead, the mobile wallet creator could introduce a new business model focused on discovery and connecting users and merchants, charging merchants for the connections that they facilitate.

In a not-so-distant future, when I get my new Apple or Google phone, it will have a wallet that can be used without fees for payment across all apps, in physical retail locations, and for peer-to-peer money transfers. The credit cards, or rather lines of credit, on my digital wallet will use an Affirm-like loan service that allows me to buy anything from a pack of gum to a luxury watch or even a car, just using my phone’s wallet.

Goldman Sachs and Mastercard should not be the only players in the credit space. Innovation is necessary in the digital wallet space to pioneer the movement to change the outdated fee models for the simple act of money exchange.

MadeiraMadeira, Brazil’s answer to Wayfair and Ikea, is now worth over $1 billion

By Jonathan Shieber

MadeiraMadeira, the Brazilian answer to Wayfair or Ikea, is now worth $1 billion after raising $190 million in late stage financing from investors led by SoftBank’s Latin American investment fund and the Brazilian public and private investment firm, Dynamo.

An online marketplace specializing in home products, MadeiraMadeira offers roughly 300,000 products so customers can build furnish, renovate and decorate their homes.

Founded in 2009 by Daniel Scandian, Marcelo Scandian and Robson Privado, the company has seen huge tailwinds come from the shift to online shopping in Brazil as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With stores closed, online shopping in Brazil surged. As Daniel Scandian noted, before the pandemic ecommerce penetration in Brazil was at roughly 7%, that number ballooned to 17% at the height of the pandemic in Brazil and has now stabilized at around 10%.

Combining third party sales with private labeled goods and its own shipping and logistics facilities has meant that MadeiraMadeira can take the best practices from several online retailers and home furnishing stores, Scandian said.

There are more than 10,000 sellers on the MadeiraMadeira platform and roughly 2.5 million stock keeping units. In recent years the company has added showrooms to its mix of retail facilities, where customers can check out merchandise, but complete their orders online.

“That’s the way we can tackle the offline market with a digital mindset,” Scandian said. 

Money from the most recent financing will be used to invest in expanding its logistics capabilities with the addition of new warehouse facilities to expand on its existing ten locations. The company also intends to add same day delivery and the expansion of its private label services.

The new capital, likely the last round before a potential public offering, included previous investors like Flybridge and Monashees along with public-focused investment firms Velt, Brasil Capital and Lakewood.

Early investors like Monashees, Kaszek, Fundo Avila, Endeavour Catalyst and angel backers like Niraj Shah, the founder of Wayfair, and Build.com founder Christian Friedland were instrumental to MadeiraMadeira’s early success, Scandian said.

Based in Curitiba, MadeiraMadeira has over 1300 employees, with the majority of them focused on technology, logistics and product development.

“With this new investment, we are raising our commitment to MadeiraMadeira’s long-term value creation vision as the company consolidates its position as the leader in Latin America’s home goods market. Since our initial investment, MadeiraMadeira’s management team has delivered everything they’ve promised, and our faith in them continues to grow,” said Paulo Passoni, Managing Investment Partner to SoftBank Latin America fund.

Roblox raises at $29.5 billion valuation, readies for direct listing

By Lucas Matney

Roblox is now one of the world’s most valuable private companies in the world after a monster Series H raise brings the social gaming platform a stratospheric $29.5 billion valuation. The company won’t be private for long, though.

The $520 million raise led by Altimeter Capital and Dragoneer Investment Group is a significant cash influx for Roblox, which had previously raised just over $335 million from investors according to Crunchbase. The Investment Group of Santa Barbara, Warner Music Group, and a number of current investors, also participated in this round.

In February of 2020, the company closed a $150 million Series G led by Andreessen Horowitz which valued the company at $4 billion.

The gaming startup has initially planned an IPO in 2020, but after the major first day pops of DoorDash and Airbnb, the company leadership reconsidered their timeline, according to a report in Axios. Those major say-one share price pops left significant money on the table for the companies selling those shares, an outcome Roblox is likely looking to avoid. Today, the company also announced that it plans to enter the public markets via a direct listing.

Roblox’s 7x valuation multiple signals just how feverish public and private markets are for tech stocks. The valuation also highlights how investors foresee the company benefiting from pandemic trends which pushed more users online and towards social gaming platforms. In a 2019 prospectus, the company shared that it had 17.6 million users, now Roblox claims to have 31 million daily active users on its platform.

Pro-Trump mob storms the US Capitol, touting ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy

By Taylor Hatmaker

A chaotic scene unfolded in Washington D.C. on Wednesday as a large crowd of pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol Building.

The Trump supporters flooded into the nation’s capital to attend a rally held earlier by President Trump outside the White House. The rally was timed to protest lawmakers gathering Wednesday to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win.

At his own event, Trump encouraged his supporters to continue demonstrating against Congress, claiming incorrectly that Vice President Mike Pence holds the power to overturn the election results. While the situation is still unfolding, protesters penetrated the Capitol building and injuries have been confirmed, including at least one gunshot victim.

Video from the chamber. pic.twitter.com/UKF7MScHKN

— Matt Fuller (@MEPFuller) January 6, 2021

There’s pounding on the chamber door. Guns are drawn by police officers. Those of us left are laying low on the floor of the gallery.

— Emily Cochrane (@ESCochrane) January 6, 2021

As Trump supporters flooded up the Capitol steps with “Make America Great Again” hats and “Stop the Steal” banners, the president did little to quell the violence. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “USA demands the truth!”

Twitter appended a warning label calling Trump’s election fraud claims “disputed” to the tweet. After his supporters already made their way into the Capitol building, the president seemed to walk back his calls to action, calling for supporters to remain peaceful.

I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2021

The Stop the Steal movement grew out of online conspiracies boosting Trump’s unfounded claims that Democrats had in some way rigged the presidential election. In reality, U.S. electoral results were decisively in favor of Biden, though votes trickled in over an extended period of time, as expected, due to a massive expansion of pandemic-related mail-in voting.

Facebook made efforts to rein in the Stop the Spread movement soon after the election, blocking the hashtag for violating its rules around election misinformation. “The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said at the time.

Stop the Steal supporters also found a foothold on many other platforms, including Reddit, Twitter and alternative social networks like Gab and Parler, which have attracted far-right users with policies much friendlier to extremist content. The crowd at the capitol also shares considerable overlap with QAnon, a constellation of conspiracy theories that exploded on Facebook, YouTube and other online platforms over the last few years.

This story is developing.

Color raises $167 million funding at $1.5 billion valuation to expand ‘last mile’ of US health infrastructure

By Darrell Etherington

Healthcare startup Color has raised a sizable $167 million in Series D funding round, at a valuation of $1.5 billion post-money, the company announced today. This brings the total raised by Color to $278 million, with its latest large round intended to help it build on a record year of growth in 2020 with even more expansion to help put in place key health infrastructure systems across the U.S. — including those related to the “last mile” delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

This latest investment into Color was led by General Catalyst, and by funds invested by T. Rowe Price, along with participation from Viking Global investors as well as others. Alongside the funding, the company is also bringing on a number of key senior executives, including Claire Vo (formerly of Optimizely) as chief product officer, Emily Reuter (formerly of Uber, where she played a key role in its IPO process) as VP of Strategy and Operations, and Ashley Chandler (formerly of Stripe) as VP of Marketing.

“I think with the [COVID-19] crisis, it’s really shone the light on that lack of infrastructure. We saw it multiple times, with lab testing, with antigen testing and now with vaccines,” Color CEO and co-founder Othman Laraki told me in an interview. “The model that we’ve been developing, that’s been working really well and we feel like this is the opportunity to really scale it in a very major way. I think literally what’s happening is the building of the public health infrastructure for the country that’s starting off from a technology-first model, as opposed to, what ends up happening in a lot of industries, which is you start off taking your existing logistics and assets, and add technology to them.”

Color’s 2020 was a record year for the company, thanks in part to partnerships like the one it formed with San Francisco to establish testing for healthcare workers and residents. Laraki told me they did about five-fold their prior year’s business, and while the company is already set up to grow on its own sustainably based on the revenue it pulls in from customers, its ambitions and plans for 2021 and beyond made this the right time to help it accelerate further with the addition of more capital.

Laraki described Color’s approach as one that is both cost-efficient for the company, and also significant cost-saving for the healthcare providers it works with. He likens their approach to the shift that happened in retail with the move to online sales — and the contribution of one industry heavyweight in particular.

“At some point, you build Amazon — a technology-first stack that’s optimized around access and scale,” Laraki said. “I think that’s literally what we’re seeing now with healthcare. What’s kind of getting catalyzed right now is we’ve been realizing it applies to the COVID crisis, but also, we started actually working on that for prevention and I think actually it’s going to be applying to a huge surface area in healthcare; basically all the aspects of health that are not acute care where you don’t need to show up in hospital.”

Ultimately, Color’s approach is to rethink healthcare delivery in order to “make it accessible at the edge directly in people’s lives,” with “low transaction costs,” in a way that’s “scalable, [and] doesn’t use a lot of clinical resourcing,” Laraki says. He notes that this is actually very possible once you reasses the problem without relying on a lot of accepted knowledge about the way things are done today, which result in a “heavy stack” versus what you actually need to deliver the desired outcomes.

Laraki doesn’t think the problem is easy to solve — on the contrary, he acknowledges that 2021 is likely to be even more difficult and challenging than 2020 in many ways for the healthcare industry, and we’ve already begun to see evidence of that in the many challenges already faced by vaccine distribution and delivery in its initial rollout. But he’s optimistic about Color’s ability to help address those challenges, and to build out a “last mile” delivery system for crucial care that expands accessibility, while also making sure things are done right.

“When you take a step back, doing COVID testing or COVID vaccinations … those are not complex procedures at all — they’re extremely simple procedures,” he said. “What’s hard is doing them massive scale and with a very low transaction cost to the individual and to the system. And that’s a very different tooling.”

Venmo adds a check-cashing feature, waives fees for stimulus checks

By Sarah Perez

Venmo this morning announced it will begin to offer a new check-cashing service, “Cash a Check,” in the Venmo mobile app. The feature, which is being rolled out to select users starting today, can be used to cash printed, payroll and U.S. government checks, including the new stimulus checks, the company says. Though typically there will be fees associated with the Cash a Check feature, Venmo says these are being waived on stimulus funds for a limited time.

To be eligible to use Cash a Check, Venmo customers will need to have either Direct Deposit or a Venmo Debit Card enabled on their account, location services turned on, and a verified email address.

Customers who gain access to the feature will then be able take a picture of their endorsed check and send it to the Venmo app to review, much like they would if cashing a check in a mobile banking app. The check will be reviewed in a few seconds, though in special circumstances, the review may take several minutes or even up to an hour before the approval decision is made.

If approved, the money will be immediately transferred to the customer’s Venmo account.

Venmo will temporarily waive fees on stimulus checks rolling out now and over the next couple of weeks, but eventually 1% fees will apply to any government or payroll check cashed in the app with a pre-printed signature, with a minimum fee of $5.00. Other checks, including hand-signed payroll and government checks, will have a 5% check-cashing fee, or $5.00 minimum, according to PayPal’s terms.

At launch, the Cash a Check service is provided by partners First Century Bank, N.A. and Ingo Money, Inc. Ingo Money already offers a similar feature to Venmo parent company, PayPal, to allow users to cash checks in the PayPal app. 

“We’re always looking for new ways to make it easier for our community to access and manage their money, especially as people continue to experience financial hardships amidst the global pandemic,” said Darrell Esch, Venmo SVP and GM, in a statement about the new service.

“We know that with health and safety top of mind for many, having a safe way to access stimulus payments is essential for many of our customers, especially those who are receiving paper checks and traditionally would have to visit a physical check-cashing location,” he said. “By introducing the Venmo Cash a Check feature, we are not only enabling our customers to access their money quickly and safely from the comfort of their own homes but are also waiving all fees for cashing government-issued checks to ensure customers can use their stimulus funds to pay for the things they need most,” he added.

The company’s move into check cashing doesn’t make the peer-to-peer payment app an alternative to online banking, however. Instead, it serves largely as a way for Venmo to benefit from the influx of stimulus payments that are rolling out now to its U.S. users.

Fintech companies have been scrambling to prove their worth to customers by offering faster and easier access to stimulus payments. Banking startups like Current and Chime, for example, began sending out payments to customers ahead of other traditional banking institutions.

In addition, the stimulus funds can help boost Venmo’s bottom line beyond just the fees it charges. As Venmo users gain access to their stimulus payments or payroll in the app, they may then use that money to make transactions with online merchants or with their Venmo debit card. This transactions allow Venmo to make money through transaction fees, as well.

Venmo said the feature is rolling out now to mobile app users on iOS and Android. The company recommends users download the latest version of the app and update to the latest operating system on their mobile device for the best performance.

Yayzy app automatically calculates the environmental impact of your spending

By Mike Butcher

Ahead of the turning of the New Year, many people are wishing they could do something about the environment. Now, a U.K. startup hopes to make our environmental impact more personal.

Yayzy has now launched an iOS app (Android is coming) which literally links to your bank account to work out the environmental impact of what you buy. It uses payment data via Open Banking standards to automatically calculate the carbon footprint of each purchase a user makes, giving them a picture of their total monthly carbon emissions. This makes the carbon footprint calculated more accurate and bespoke to the individual, allowing them to immediately connect their spending to its impact on the planet.

Yayzy has secured £900,000 in backing from Antler Venture Capital, Seedrs (a crowdfunding round) and the CoreAngels Impact Fund. As the user sees what the carbon footprint is of their purchase, they can choose to offset it right then and there on the app via the carbon offsetter Ecosphere Plus. In the app, users can also find tips to reduce their carbon footprint, eco-friendly retailers near them or insights into lifestyle choices that have the highest environmental impact.

Their competitors are people like CoGo, a real-time Carbon Footprint tracker, and and Doconomy and the soon to launch Tred.

But Yayzy is taking a different approach. It brings together all of a user’s spending and shows them item by item as they spend, what the carbon footprint of that spend is. So far – it claims – its competitors don’t do that.

Yayzy app. Image Credits: Yayzy

This can be done ad hoc, item by item, or by signing up to a monthly subscription to either carbon offsetting projects or the user’s own unique climate portfolio. This portfolio would bundle multiple projects together for a more ‘holistic’ impact. Yayzy says all of these projects have been carefully selected based on strict criteria, and also advance the UN Sustainable development goals.

For its underlying carbon data, Yayzy is using Vital Metrics https://www.vitalmetricsgroup.com/
as used by Google, Microsoft and both the UK and US governments, among others.

Mankaran Ahluwalia, cofounder and CEO of Yayzy said in a statement: “While emissions have gradually risen as lockdown eases, YAYZY wants to put us all in the driver’s seat to control our own environmental impact… It is clear from a plethora of surveys that the majority of people want to address climate change before it is too late, but that a huge intention/action gap blocks much of it. Our solution with Yayzy is to make environmental impact ‘up close and personal’ and the action to tackle it super easy, all via your phone.”

Ahluwalia, was as a technology analyst with Infosys and built a lending platform for alternate credit. Cofounder Cristian Dan, CTO, previously built a discounts platform and cofounder Pedro Cabrero, CFO was in equity sales and trading for UBS and Citigroup, and co-founded the a leading online pharmacy in Mexico.

TaskRabbit is resetting customer passwords after finding ‘suspicious activity’ on its network

By Sarah Perez

TaskRabbit has reset an unknown number of customer passwords after confirming it detected “suspicious activity” on its network.

The IKEA -owned online marketplace for on-demand labor said it reset user passwords out of an abundance of caution and that it “took steps to prevent access to any user accounts,” a TaskRabbit spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The company later confirmed it was a credential stuffing attack, where existing sets of exposed or breached usernames and passwords are matched against different websites to access accounts.

“We acted in an abundance of caution and reset passwords for many TaskRabbit accounts, including all users who had not logged in since May 1, 2020, as well as all users who logged in during the time period of the attack, even though most of the latter activity was attributable to users’ regular use of our services,” the spokesperson said.

“As always, the safety and security of the TaskRabbit community is our priority, and we will continue to be vigilant about protecting our users’ personal information,” said the spokesperson.

TaskRabbit customers were alerted to the incident in a vague email that only noted their password had been recently changed “as a security precaution,” without saying what specifically prompted the account change. TechCrunch confirmed that the email was legitimate.

The password reset email sent to TaskRabbit customers. (Image: Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)

It’s not uncommon for companies to reset passwords after a security incident where customer or account information is accessed or stolen in a breach.

Last year, online apparel marketplace StockX reset customer passwords after initially citing “system updates,” but later admitted it took action after it found suspicious activity on its network. Days later, a hacker provided TechCrunch with 6.8 million StockX account records stolen from the company’s servers.

TaskRabbit’s freelance labor marketplace was founded in 2008, and grew over time from an auction-style platform for negotiating tasks and errands to a more mature and tailored marketplace to match customers with contractors. That eventually attracted the attention of furniture retailer IKEA, which bought the startup in September 2017 after TaskRabbit put itself on the market for a strategic buyer.

The year after the acquisition, however, TaskRabbit had to take its website and app down due to a “cybersecurity incident.” The company later revealed an attacker had gained unauthorized access to its systems. Then-TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot said the company had contracted with an outside forensics team to identify what customer information had been compromised by the attack, and urged both users and providers to stay vigilant in monitoring their own accounts for suspicious activity.

Following the attack, the company said it was implementing several new security measures and would work on making the log-in process more secure. It also said it would reduce the amount of data retained about taskers and customers as well as “enhance overall network cyber threat detection technology.”

Brown-Philpot left TaskRabbit earlier this year, and the CEO role has since been filled by former Airbnb and Uber Eats leader, Ania Smith.

Updated with additional comment from TaskRabbit.

Chicago’s ShoppingGives gets served a seed round from Serena Williams’ VC firm, Serena Ventures

By Jonathan Shieber

ShoppingGives, a Chicago-based startup pitching retailers a service that can integrate non-profit donations into their sales and shopping platforms, has raised an undisclosed amount from Serena Williams’ venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, the company said. 

ShoppingGives allows retailers to offer a donation on behalf of a shopper to any of over 1.5 million nonprofits that are on its list — all without leaving the retailer’s website.

The company said that retailers can use the donation data to create a more authentic and personalized engagement with customers based on the causes they support.

“ShoppingGives aligned with my values of investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are making a difference. By creating opportunities to grow social impact with a seamless approach for retailers and brands, ShoppingGives is charting the course for all businesses to stand forth as agents of change in our society,”said Williams in a statement. 

The company’s technology helps retailers manage and report donations and is already recommended by Shopify as one of a collection of apps for merchants setting up their online stores. Its service integrates with ecommerce content management systems and is already a partner for the PayPal giving fund.

ShoppingGives has already donated to over 6,000 non-profit organizations selected by customers, according to the company. Brands like Kenneth Cole, Natori, White + Warren, Margaux, Solstice Sunglasses, Tomboyx, Fresh Clean Tees, Blind Barber, Huron, and Neighborhood Goods use the service already. 

Image Credit: ShoppingGives

How Alibaba and JD.com compare in their healthcare endeavors

By Rita Liao

China’s tech circle is shifting its attention to online healthcare this week as JD Health is set to go public in one of Hong Kong’s largest IPOs this year.

Like Amazon, China’s e-commerce firms Alibaba and JD.com have been working to conquer the massive healthcare industry. The offerings are wide-ranging, reaching everything from around-the-clock delivery of medicines, sale of consumer health services like plastic surgery, online diagnosis for patients, to digital solutions for hospitals (like appointment-booking) and advertising services for drugmakers.

Alibaba Health began as an investment portfolio of the e-commerce firm and grew into a subsidiary through episodes of consolidations over the years. JD Health, on the other hand, was spun out from JD.com in 2019 and quickly began to attract flows of large investments.

The move into healthcare is part of the behemoths’ goal to be a one-stop-shop for everything. Here are some numbers for gauging how the digital health giants compare with each other:

Revenue

In terms of revenue sources, both companies rely mostly on the sales of medicines (both over-the-counter and prescription) and other healthcare products like vitamin supplements. Both have a direct-to-consumer drug business, whereby they are more involved in the supply chains, but they also serve as a marketplace for third-party suppliers, in which case they monetize by charging commission fees. They each have a smaller but growing services segment targeting consumers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

Alibaba Health – 7 billion yuan or $1.07 billion (six months ended September)

JD Health – 8.8 billion yuan or $1.35 billion (six months ended June)

Profitability

Alibaba Health posted its first profitable earnings this year, pocketing 278.6 million yuan in the six months ended September, up from a loss of 7.6 million yuan from the same period last year.

In the six months ended June, JD Health incurred a loss of 5.4 billion yuan, compared to a profit of 236.3 million yuan in the same period of 2019. The loss was mainly due to fair value changes after issuing additional convertible preferred shares.

Active users

Though Alibaba Health generated less revenue, the platform enjoys a larger user base, thanks to Alibaba’s sprawling ecosystem. In the year ended June, a total of 250 million users made purchases through the online pharmacy of Tmall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer marketplace. Meanwhile, Alibaba Health’s direct-to-consumer drugstore saw 65 million annual active users.

In comparison, 72.5 million people had at least made one purchase through JD Health’s platform in the past year.

Doctor resources

Both companies provide online health consultation services, which saw a surge in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak. Alibaba Health had a network of over 39,000 doctors by September, compared to JD Health’s pool of over 65,000 doctors, both in-house and third-party.

DoorDash amps its IPO range ahead of blockbuster IPO

By Alex Wilhelm

DoorDash filed a fresh S-1/A, providing the market with a new price range for its impending IPO.

The American food delivery unicorn now expects to debut at $90 to $95 per share, up from a previous range of $75 to $85. That’s a bump of 20% on the low end and 12% on the upper end of its IPO range.


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DoorDash still anticipates 317,656,521 shares outstanding after its IPO, giving the company a new, non-diluted valuation range between $28.6 billion and $30.2 billion. On a fully-diluted basis, the company’s valuation rises to more than $35 billion.

For the on-demand giant, the upgrade is enormously positive news. Not only will its valuation stretch even further above its most recent private price — around $16 billion, set this summer — but DoorDash will also raise even more money than it previously anticipated. That war chest will be welcome when a vaccine becomes widely available and food consumption habits could shift.

DoorDash will raise as much as $3.135 billion in its IPO, according to the filing.

After mulling over the company’s updated valuation from its new SEC filing, I’ve decided that there are three things worth calling out and discussing. Let’s get into them.

It’s Friday, so to make our analysis as easy as possible I’ve broken it into discreet sections for your perusal. Let’s go!

A path to profitability is important

DoorDash’s most profitable quarters that we are aware of were its two most recent. During the June 30 quarter, the company saw positive net income of $23 million off revenues of $675 million. In the September 30 quarter, on the back of even more revenue growth, DoorDash lost a modest $42 million against $879 million in top line.

Those two quarters contrast with the first quarter of 2020 when DoorDash lost a far-greater $129 million against a far-smaller revenue result of $362 million, and Q4 2019 when the figures were a $134 million loss and revenues of just $298 million.

Boost ROI with intent data and personalized multichannel marketing campaigns

By Walter Thompson

Coronavirus is causing large and small businesses to drastically cut marketing budgets. In Forrester’s self-described “most optimistic scenario,” the analysts project a 28% drop in U.S. marketing spend by the end of 2021. Even Google is cutting its marketing budget in half. As marketers move forward, Forrester predicts marketing automation platforms will grow despite an overall decline in marketing technology investment.

Automation platforms help marketers scale their communications. However, scaling communications is not a substitute for intimacy, which all humans crave. Because of the pandemic, it is harder than ever to get attention, let alone make a connection. More mass email blasts from your marketing automation platform are not going to get you the connections with prospects you crave. So how should marketers proceed? Direct mail captures 100% of your audience’s attention. It provides a sensory experience for your prospects and customers, and that helps establish an emotional connection.

Winning marketers are strategically merging automation and digital data with the more intimate channel of direct mail. We call this tactile marketing automation (TMA).

TMA is the integration of direct mail or personalized swag with a marketing automation platform. With TMA, a marketer doesn’t have to think about creating direct mail campaigns outside of digital campaigns. Rather, direct mail experiences are already fully integrated into the pre-built customer journey.

TMA uses intent data to inform content, messaging and the timing of direct mail touchpoints that maximize relevancy and scalability. Multichannel campaigns including direct mail report an ROI 18 percentage points higher than those without direct mail. Plus, 84% of marketers state direct mail improves multichannel campaign performance.

Read on to see how you can merge digital communications and direct mail to deliver remarkable experiences that spark a connection.

Incorporate intent data

Personalization is a key ingredient of a remarkable experience. Many marketers automate processes by introducing marketing software and then call it personalization. But, oftentimes it’s just quicker batching and blasting. Brands can’t just change the first name on a piece of content and call it “personalized.” Real personalization is necessary and vital for real results. Our consumers expect more. The best way to introduce real personalization within a marketing mix is to use intent data and trigger-driven campaigns.

Europe will push to work with the US on tech governance, post-Trump

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union said today that it wants to work with US counterparts on a common approach to tech governance — including pushing to standardize rules for applications of technologies like AI and pushing big tech to be more responsible for what their platforms amplify.

EU lawmakers are anticipating rebooted transatlantic relations under the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden .

The Commission has published a new EU-US agenda with the aim of encouraging what it bills as “global cooperation — based on our common values, interests and global influence” in a number of areas, from tackling the coronavirus pandemic to addressing climate change and furthering a Western geopolitical agenda.

Trade and tech policy is another major priority for the hoped for reboot of transatlantic relations, starting with an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021.

Relations have of course been strained during the Trump era as the sitting US president has threatened the bloc with trade tariffs, berated European nations for not spending enough on defence to fulfil their Nato commitments and heavily implied he’d be a lot happier if the EU didn’t exist at all (including loudly supporting brexit).

The Commission agenda conveys a clear message that the bloc’s lawmakers are hopeful of a lot more joint working — toward common goals and interests — once the Biden administration takes office early next year.

Global AI standards?

On the tech front the Commission’s push is for alignment on governance.

“The EU and the US need to join forces as tech-allies to shape technologies, their use and their regulatory environment,” the Commission writes in the agenda. “Using our combined influence, a transatlantic technology space should form the backbone of a wider coalition of like-minded democracies with a shared vision on tech governance and a shared commitment to defend it.”

Among the proposals it’s floating is a “Transatlantic AI Agreement” — which it envisages as setting “a blueprint for regional and global standards aligned with our values”.

While the EU is working on a pan-EU framework to set rules for the use of “high risk” AIs, some US cities and states have already moved to ban the use of specific applications of artificial intelligence — such as facial recognition. So there’s potential to align on some high level principles or standards.

(Or, as the EU puts it: “We need to start acting together on AI — based on our shared belief in a human-centric approach and dealing with issues such as facial recognition.”)

 

“Our shared values of human dignity, individual rights and democratic principles make us natural partners to harness rapid technological change and face the challenges of rival systems of digital governance. This gives us an unprecedented window of opportunity to set a joint EU-US tech agenda,” the Commission also writes, suggesting there’s a growing convergence of views on tech governance.

Talks on tackling big tech

Here it also sees opportunity for the EU and the US to align on tackling big tech — saying it wants to open discussions on setting rules to tackle the societal and market impacts of platform giants.

“There is a growing consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that online platforms and Big Tech raise issues which threaten our societies and democracies, notably through harmful market behaviours, illegal content or algorithm-fuelled propagation of hate speech and disinformation,” it writes.

“The need for global cooperation on technology goes beyond the hardware or software. It is also about our values, our societies and our democracies,” the Commission adds. “In this spirit, the EU will propose a new transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms, which would set the blueprint for other democracies facing the same challenges. We should also work closer together to further strengthen cooperation between competent authorities for antitrust enforcement in digital markets.”

The Commission is on the cusp of unveiling its own blueprint for regulating big tech — with a Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act due to be presented later this month.

Commissioners have said the legislative packages will set clear conditions on digital players, such as for the handling and reporting of illegal content, as well as setting binding transparency and fairness requirements.

They will also introduce a new regime of ex ante rules for so-called gatekeeper platforms that wield significant market power (aka big tech) — with such players set to be subject to a list of dos and don’ts, which could include bans on certain types of self-preferencing and limits on their use of third party data, with the aim of ensuring a level playing field in the future.

The bloc has also been considering beefing up antitrust powers for intervening in digital markets.

Given how advanced EU lawmakers are on proposals to regulate big tech vs US counterparts there’s arguably only a small window of opportunity for the latter to influence the shape of EU rules on (mostly US) big tech.

But the Commission evidently takes the view that rebooted relations, post-Trump, present an opportunity for it to influence US policy — by encouraging European-style platform rules to cross the pond.

It’s fond of claiming the EU’s data protection framework (GDPR) has set a global example that’s influenced lawmakers around the world. So its intent now looks to be to double down — and push to export a European approach to regulating big tech back where most of these giants are based (even as the bloc’s other institutions are still debating and amending the EU proposals).

Next-gen mobile security

Another common challenge the document points to is next-gen mobile connectivity. This has been a particular soapbox of Trump’s in recent years, with the ALL-CAPS loving president frequently taking to Twitter to threaten and bully allies into taking a tough line on allowing Chinese vendors as suppliers for next-gen mobile infrastructure, arguing they pose too great a national security risk.

“We are facing common challenges in managing the digital transition of our economies and societies. These include critical infrastructure, such as 5G, 6G or cybersecurity assets, which are essential for our security, sovereignty and prosperity — but also data, technologies and the role of online platforms,” the Commission writes, easing into the issue.

EU lawmakers go on to say they will put forward proposals “for secure 5G infrastructure across the globe and open a dialogue on 6G” — as part of what they hope will be “wider cooperation on digital supply chain security done through objective risk-based assessments”.

Instead of a blanket ban on Huawei as a 5G supplier the Commission opted to endorse a package of “mitigating measures” — via a 5G toolbox — at the start of this year, which includes requirements for carriers to beef up network security and risk profile assessments of suppliers.

So it looks to be hoping the US can be convinced in the value of a joint approach to standardizing these sorts of security assessments — aka, ‘no more nasty surprises’ — as a strategy to reduce the shocks and uncertainty that have hit digital supply chains during Trump’s presidency.

Increased cooperation around cybersecurity is another area where the EU says it will be pressing US counterparts — floating the idea of joint EU-US restrictions against attributed attackers from third countries in the future. (A proposal which, should it be taken up, could see coordinated sanctions against Russia, which has previously been identified by US and European intelligence agencies running malware attacks targeted at COVID-19 vaccine R&D, for example.)

Easing EU-US data flows

A trickier area for the tech side of the Commission’s plan to reboot transatlantic relations is EU-US data flows.

That’s because Europe’s top court torpedoed the Commission’s US adequacy finding this summer — stripping the country of a privileged status of ‘essential equivalence’ in data protection standards.

Without that there’s huge legal uncertainty and risk for US businesses that want to take EU citizens’ data out of the region for processing. And recent guidance from EU regulators on how to lawfully secure data transfers makes it clear that in some instances there simply won’t be any extra measures or contractual caveats which will fix the risk entirely.

The solution may in fact be data localization in the EU. (Something the Commission’s Data Governance Act proposal, unveiled last week, appeared to confirm by allowing for Member States to set conditions for reuse of the most sensitive types of data — such as prohibiting transfers to third countries.)

“We must also openly discuss diverging views on data governance and see how these can be overcome constructively,” the Commission writes on this thorny issue, adding: “The EU and the US should intensify their cooperation at bilateral and multilateral level to promote regulatory convergence and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high standards and safeguards.”

Commissioners have warned before that there’s no quick fix for the EU-US data transfer issue — but a longer term solution would be a convergence of standards in the areas of privacy and data protection.

And, again, that’s an area where US states have been taking action. But the Commission’s agenda pushing for “regulatory convergence” to ease data flows sums to trying to convince US counterparts of the economic case for reforming Section 702 of FISA…

Digital tax and tech-trade cooperation

Digital tax reform is also inexorably on the EU agenda since no agreement has been possibly under Trump on this stickiest of tech policy issues.

It writes that both the EU and the US should “strongly commit to the timely conclusion of discussions on a global solution within the context of OECD and G20” — saying this is vital to create “a fair and modern economy, which provides market-based rewards for the best innovative ideas”.

“Fair taxation in the digital economy requires innovative solutions on both sides of the Atlantic,” it adds. 

Another proposal the EU is floating is to establish a EU-US Trade and Technology Council — to “jointly maximise opportunities for market-driven transatlantic collaboration, strengthen our technological and industrial leadership and expand bilateral trade and investment”.

It envisages the body focusing on reducing trade barriers; developing compatible standards and regulatory approaches for new technologies; ensuring critical supply chain security; deepening research collaboration and promoting innovation and fair competition — saying there should also be “a new common focus on protecting critical technologies”.

“We need closer cooperation on issues such as investment screening, Intellectual Property rights, forced transfers of technology, and export controls,” it adds.

The Commission announced its own Intellectual Property Action Plan last week, alongside the Data Governance Act proposal — which included support for SMEs to file patents. It also said it will consider whether reform the framework for filing standards essential patents, encouraging industry to engage in forums aimed at reducing litigation in the meanwhile.

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