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Walmart’s AI is getting smarter about grocery delivery

By Amanda Silberling

It’s no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we shop, especially when it comes to groceries. Grocery delivery apps experienced a record number of downloads in March 2020, and by the following month, Walmart Grocery (which is now integrated into the Walmart app) surpassed Amazon as the No. 1 shopping app on both Google Play and the App Store. But even as pandemic restrictions have eased, consumers are still using ordering groceries for delivery or pickup more frequently than they were pre-pandemic.

As Walmart’s grocery delivery services have continued to boom, posing competition to companies like Amazon and Instacart, the tech that Walmart uses has expanded too. Today, Walmart shared information about how it’s training its AI to make smarter substitutions in online grocery orders.

Bringing this technology to grocery delivery isn’t novel by any means. Last May, Walmart reported how it used to AI to determine eligibility for its Express delivery service, which was brand new at the time. A year into the United States’ coronavirus outbreak, Instacart engineers reported that they crunched “petabytes daily to predict what will be on grocery shelves and even how long it will take to find parking.”

So what makes Walmart’s AI for grocery substitutions unique? According to Srini Venkatesan, an Executive Vice President at Walmart Global Tech, it’s the sheer quantity of data that Walmart can use to teach its AI. Over 200 million people shop at Walmart in-store and online each week for more than 150,000 different grocery products. The AI uses that data to predict consumer behavior, preferences, and needs.

“The tech we built uses deep learning AI to consider hundreds of variables — size, type, brand, price, aggregate shopper data, individual customer preference, current inventory and more — in real time to determine the best next available item,” explained Venkatesan. “It then preemptively asks the customer to approve the substituted item or let us know they don’t want it, an important signal that’s fed back into our learning algorithms to improve the accuracy of future recommendations.”

Image Credits: Walmart

Rather than asking a Personal Shopper to make a quick decision about how to substitute for cherry yogurt (do you get a different flavor from the same brand, the same flavor from a more expensive brand, and so on), the AI makes that choice for them. Walmart started developing this algorithm last year, and in the time since, customer acceptance of substitutions has improved.

“We were at about 90% before this algorithm rolled out,” said Venkatesan. “We are now around 97% to 98%.”

In the last year, Walmart doubled its number of Personal Shoppers to over 170,000 workers. About 3,750 stores are enabled for order pickup, and 3,000 stores are enabled for delivery, which covers 68% of the population. Earlier this year, Walmart dropped the $35 order minimum on its Express delivery service, a competitor to Amazon’s Prime Now.

How much to pay yourself as a SaaS founder

By Anna Heim

“If you’re the founder of a seed-stage [company and] you’re worried about your electricity staying on this month, then your salary is too low. If you’re saving $10,000/mo, then your salary is probably higher than necessary,” investor Leo Polovets wrote in a Twitter thread.

Ultimately, a good test is to ask how you’ll feel if your startup fails: Will you wonder if your salary contributed to its fall? Or will you regret sacrificing more than you can recover?

This tweet is just one of many in a now burgeoning conversation about how founder pay needs to change. The startup and investor communities are beginning to realize that many founders can’t go without pay for months.

Founders of SaaS startups are at an advantage in this scenario as the sector now has many companies generating revenue almost from day one, sometimes without needing to raise any funding at all.

However, the success still doesn’t tell founders how much to pay themselves, or what others are doing. To help with this, we’ve gathered insights from founders and VCs and narrowed down the most important factors and benchmarks to guide your decision.

A framework for compensation

Founder compensation is often referred to as a “founder salary,” but anchoring the conversation around the salary framework can create the wrong expectation. For example, you could try to establish a correlation between what you plan to pay yourself and your past or current value on the job market. Instead, the data we gathered indicates that founders typically take a pay cut from their previous salaries.

Chris Sosnowski is an interesting example: Before he “took the plunge” at the beginning of 2020 to work full time on his water data management startup Waterly, he used to earn “well over” $100,000. But he says his previous salary wasn’t a key factor when he set his compensation. “I decided to pay myself based on what I thought it would take to keep the company running,” he wrote to TechCrunch.

That brings to mind deferred compensation, which will be familiar to anyone who owns equity. Having put his own money into the company and owning the majority of it, Sosnowski is set to be compensated for his efforts if all goes well. “For the record, I do hope to pay myself back [a] salary for the year or so [it is] reduced like this,” he said.

Spotify launches its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom

By Sarah Perez

In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. Today, the company is making good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts. It’s also announcing a Creator Fund which will help to fuel the new app with more content in the future.

The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code. In fact, Spotify tells us, current Locker Room users will see their app update to become the rebranded and redesigned Greenroom experience, starting today.

Where Locker Room had used a white-and-reddish orange color scheme, the new Greenroom app looks very much like an offshoot from Spotify, having adopted the same color palette, font and iconography.

To join the new app, Spotify users will sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’ll then be walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests.

Image Credits: Spotify

For the time being, the process of finding audio programs to listen to relies primarily on users joining groups inside the app. That’s much like how Locker Room had operated, where its users would find and follow favorite sports teams. However, Greenroom’s groups are more general interest now, as it’s no longer only tied to sports.

In time, Spotify tells us the plan is for Greenroom to leverage Spotify’s personalization technology to better connect users to content they would want to hear. For example, it could send out notifications to users if a podcaster you already followed on Spotify went live on Spotify Greenroom. Or it could leverage its understanding of what sort of podcasts and music you listen to in order to make targeted recommendations. These are longer-term plans, however.

As for Spotify Greenroom’s feature set, it’s largely on par with other live audio offerings — including those from Clubhouse, Twitter (Spaces) and Facebook (Live Audio Rooms). Speakers in the room appear at the top of the screen as rounded profile icons, while listeners appear below as smaller icons. There are mute options, moderation controls, and the ability to bring listeners on stage during the live audio session. Rooms can host up to 1,000 people, and Spotify expects to scale that number up later on.

Image Credits: Spotify

Listeners can also virtually applaud speakers by giving them “gems” in the app — a feature that came over from Locker Room, too. The number of gems a speaker earned displays next to their profile image during a session. For now, there’s no monetary value associated with the gems, but that seems an obvious next step as Greenroom today offers no form of monetization.

It’s worth noting there are a few key differentiators between Spotify Greenroom and similar live audio apps. For starters, it offers a live text chat feature that the host can turn on or off whenever they choose. Hosts can also request the audio file of their live audio session after it wraps, which they can then edit to turn into a podcast episode.

Perhaps most importantly is that the live audio sessions are being recorded by Spotify itself. The company says this is for moderation purposes. If a user reports something in a Greenroom audio room, Spotify can go back to look into the matter, to determine what sort of actions may need to be taken. This is an area Clubhouse has struggled with, as its users have sometimes encountered toxicity and abuse in the app in real-time, including in troubling areas like racism and misogyny. Recently, Clubhouse said it had to shut down a number of rooms for antisemitism and hate speech, as well.

Spotify says the moderation of Spotify Greenroom will be handled by its existing content moderation team. Of course, how quickly Spotify will be able react to boot users or shut down live audio rooms that are in violation of its Code of Conduct remains to be seen.

While the app launching today is focused on user-generated live audio content, Spotify has larger plans for Greenroom. Later this summer, the company plans to make announcements around programmed content — something it says is a huge priority — alongside the launch of other new features. This will include programming related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition the to sports content Locker Room was known for.

Image Credits: Spotify

The company also says it will be marketing Spotify Greenroom to artists through its Spotify for Artists channels, in hopes of seeding the app with more music-focused content. And it confirmed that monetization options for creators will come further down the road, too, but isn’t talking about what those may look like in specific detail for the moment.

In addition, Spotify is today announcing the Spotify Creator Fund, which will help audio creators in the U.S. generate revenue for their work. The company, however, declined to share any details on this front, either– like the size of fund, how much creators would receive, time frame for distributions, selection criteria or other factors. Instead, it’s only offering a sign-up form for those who may be interested in hearing more about this opportunity in the future. That may make it difficult for creators to weigh their options, when there are now so many.

Spotify Greenroom is live today on both iOS and Android across 135 markets around the world. That’s not quite the global footprint of Spotify itself, though, which is available in 178 markets. It’s also only available in the English language for the time being, but plans on expanding as it grows.

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Penfold closes $8.5M to provide a full-stack pension in an app aimed at freelancers

By Mike Butcher

Penfold, a startup that offers a full-stack pension in a smartphone app, has closed an $8.5 million (£6 million) funding round, $4 million of which was from a crowdfunding campaign. The company is now approved by the FCA to operate a pension itself rather than relying on third parties and is aimed at freelancers who rarely save. The round was led by Bridford Group.

Penfold says it built the back-end infrastructure “from scratch,” CEO Pete Hykin told me. He said legacy providers are built up from “100s of consolidated schemes” and are often still paper-based and require an army of people to administer. Thus a tech-driven approach means fewer overheads and the ability to make an attractive offer to freelancers.

Hykin continued: “I was self-employed for two years so had no pension. I tried five times to set one up with Scottish Widows, Standard Life, AJ Bell, etc. I gave up, as all of them forced you to print something, call them or speak to an IFA. At a previous company, I set up a workplace pension for 70 staff and none of them engaged. Many left money on the table as a result.

“We rebuilt the entire back end of pensions so all processes can happen instantly, quick, flexibly and at a low cost. Then we put an amazing UX on it via a great app and amazing human customer service.” Features include search, track and consolidate old pensions, among others.

Hykin said users download the app, enter bare minimum legal details for KYC, choose one of five investment plans based on age/risk appetite, choose how to fund (recurring direct debit, open banking top up or transfer another pension). Then they receive HMRC 25% top ups until retirement.

A “Find my pension” tool is possibly the most powerful feature of this startup, where you put in the name of your old employer and it tracks down your old pension pot.

Its competitors include traditional providers such as Standard Life, Scottish Widows, Aviva and AJ Bell.

Pensions are definitely heading to apps. PensionBee recently arrived on the London Stock Exchange, for instance. PensionBee also recently announced self-employed offering.

Users will be charged an annual percentage fee on their pension balance (0.75%), but with no other fees. The other founders are Chris Eastwood (co-founder and co-CEO) and Stuart Robinson (co-Founder and CTO).

Breinify announces $11M seed to bring data science to the marketing team

By Ron Miller

Breinify is a startup working to apply data science to personalization, and do it in a way that makes it accessible to non-technical marketing employees to build more meaningful customer experiences. Today the company announced a funding round totalling $11 million.

The investment was led by Gutbrain Ventures and PBJ Capital with participation from Streamlined Ventures, CXO Fund, Amino Capital, Startup Capital Ventures and Sterling Road.

Breinify co-founder and CEO Diane Keng says that she and co-founder and CTO Philipp Meisen started the company to bring predictive personalization based on data science to marketers with the goal of helping them improve a customer’s experience by personalizing messages tailored to individual tastes.

“We’re big believers that the world, especially consumer brands, really need strong predictive personalization. But when you think about consumer big brands or the retailers that you buy from, most of them aren’t data scientists, nor do they really know how to activate [machine learning] at scale,” Keng told TechCrunch.

She says that she wanted to make this type of technology more accessible by hiding the complexity behind the algorithms powering the platform. “Instead of telling you how powerful the algorithms are, we show you [what that means for the] consumer experience, and in the end what that means for both the consumer and you as a marketer individually,” she said.

That involves the kind of customizations you might expect around website messaging, emails, texts or whatever channel a marketer might be using to communicate with the buyer. “So the AI decides you should be shown these products, this offer, this specific promotion at this time, [whether it’s] the web, email or SMS. So you’re not getting the same content across different channels, and we do all that automatically for you, and that’s [driven by the algorithms],” she said.

Breinify launched in 2016 and participated in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield competition in San Francisco that year. She said it was early days for the company, but it helped them focus their approach. “I think it gave us a huge stage presence. It gave us a chance to test out the idea just to see where the market was in regards to needing a solution like this. We definitely learned a lot. I think it showed us that people were interested in personalization,” she said. And although the company didn’t win the competition, it ended up walking away with a funding deal.

Today the startup is growing fast and has 24 employees, up from 10 last year. Keng, who is an Asian woman, places a high premium on diversity.

“We partner with about four different kinds of diversity groups right now to source candidates, but at the end of the day, I think if you are someone that’s eager to learn, and you might not have all the skills yet, and you’re [part of an under-represented] group we encourage everyone to apply as much as possible. We put a lot of work into trying to create a really well rounded group,” she said.

How to Customize Your PS5's Home Screen

By Whitson Gordon
There aren't a ton of options yet (they're probably on the way). But even though the features are limited, they can definitely save you time.
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