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Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Croatia’s Gideon Brothers raises $31M for its 3D vision-enabled autonomous warehouse robots

By Mike Butcher

Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.

The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.

The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.

The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

Gideon Brothers founders

Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers

Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.

Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”

He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”

Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”

Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”

GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.

The hidden benefits of adding a CTO to your board

By Ram Iyer
Abby Kearns Contributor
Abby Kearns, chief technology officer at Puppet, has more than 20 years of experience scaling growth for numerous Fortune 500 and startup companies.

The pandemic forced companies around the world to adjust to a “new normal,” which caused many leaders to pivot their business strategies and adopt new technologies to continue operations. In a time of chaos and change, there is no senior leader that can navigate this sort of change better than a CTO.

Not only do CTOs understand the ever-changing tech landscape, they also provide invaluable insights to help organizations go beyond traditional IT conversations and leverage technology to successfully scale businesses.

Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

There are now more reasons than ever to consider adding a CTO to your board. As a CTO myself, I know how important and impactful it can be to have technical-minded leaders on a company’s board of directors. At a time when companies are accelerating their digital transformation, it’s critical to have diverse technical perspectives and people from varying backgrounds, as transformations are a mix of people, process and technology.

Drawing on my experience on Lightbend’s board of directors, here are five hidden benefits of making space at the table for a CTO.

A unique mind (and skill) set

Currently, most boards of directors are composed of former CEOs, CFOs and investors. While such executives bring vast experience, they have very specific expertise, and that frequently does not include technical proficiency. In order for a company to be successful, your board needs to have people with different backgrounds and expertise.

Inviting different perspectives forces companies out of the groupthink mentality and find new, creative solutions to their problems. Diverse perspectives aren’t just about the title –– racial ethnicity and gender diversity are clearly a play here as well.

Deep understanding of tech

For a product-led company, having a CTO who has been close to product development and innovation can bring deep insights and understanding to the boardroom. Boards are facing pressure to be strategic and thoughtful on how to evolve in the rapidly iterating world of technology, and a CTO is uniquely positioned to address specific challenges.

Apple to introduce A/B testing and in-app events to the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Apple today announced a number of coming changes and improvements to the App Store that will help developers better target their apps to users, get their apps discovered by more people and even highlight what sort of events are taking place inside their apps to entice new users to download the app and encourage existing users to return.

The company said its App Store today sees 600 million weekly users across 175 countries, and has paid out more than $230 billion to developers since the App Store launched, highlighting the business opportunity for app developers.

However, as the App Store has grown, it’s become harder for app developers to market their apps to new users or get their apps found. The new features aim to address that.

Image Credits: Apple

One change involves the app’s product page. Starting this year, app developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages to showcase different features of their app for different users. For instance, they’ll be able to try out things like different screenshots, videos, and even different app icons to A/B test what users like the most.

They’ll also be able to advertise the dynamic things that are taking place inside their apps on an ongoing basis. Apple explained that apps and games are constantly rolling out new content and limited time events like film premieres on streaming services, events like Pokémon GO fests, or Nike fitness challenges. But these events were often only discoverable by those who already had the app installed and then opted in to push notifications.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple will now allow developers to better advertise these events, with the launch of in-app events “front and center on the App Store.” The events can be showcased on the app’s product page. Users can learn more about the events, sign up to be notified or quickly join the event, if it’s happening now. They can also discover events with personalized recommendations and through App Store search.

App Store editors will curate the best events and the new App Store widget will feature upcoming events right on users’ home screens, too.

Apple says the feature will be open to all developers, including those who already run events and those who are just getting started.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Tiger Global leads $30M investment into Briq, a fintech for the construction industry

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Briq, which has developed a fintech platform used by the construction industry, has raised $30 million in a Series B funding round led by Tiger Global Management.

The financing is among the largest Series B fundraises by a construction software startup, according to the company, and brings Briq’s total raised to $43 million since its January 2018 inception. Existing backers Eniac Ventures and Blackhorn Ventures also participated in the round.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy is a former executive at construction tech giant Procore (which recently went public and has a market cap of $10.4 billion) and Canadian software giant CMiC. Wall Street veteran Ron Goldshmidt is co-founder and COO.

Briq describes its offering as a financial planning and workflow automation platform that “drastically reduces” the time to run critical financial processes, while increasing the accuracy of forecasts and financial plans.

Briq has developed a toolbox of proprietary technology that it says allows it to extract and manipulate financial data without the use of APIs. It also has developed construction-specific data models that allows it to build out projections and create models of how much a project might cost, and how much could conceivably be made. Currently, Briq manages or forecasts about $30 billion in construction volume.

Specifically, Briq has two main offerings: Briq’s Corporate Performance Management (CPM) platform, which models financial outcomes at the project and corporate level and BriqCash, a construction-specific banking platform for managing invoices and payments. 

Put simply, Briq aims to allow contractors “to go from plan to pay” in one platform with the goal of solving the age-old problem of construction projects (very often) going over budget. Its longer-term, ambitious mission is to “manage 80% of the money workflows in construction within 10 years.”

The company’s strategy, so far, seems to be working.

From January 2020 to today, ARR has climbed by 200%, according to Hamdy. Briq currently has about 100 employees, compared to 35 a year ago.

Briq has 150 customers, and serves general and specialty contractors from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue.  They include Cafco Construction Management, WestCor Companies and Choate Construction and Harper Construction. The company is currently focused on contractors in North America but does have long-term plans to address larger international markets, Hamdy told TechCrunch.  

Some context

Hamdy came up with the idea for Santa Barbara, California-based Briq after realizing the vast amount of inefficiencies on the financial side of the construction industry. His goal was to do for construction financials what Procore did to document management, and PlanGrid to construction drawing. He started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to become a construction industry unicorn.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy. Image Credits: Briq

“I wanted to figure out how to bring the best of fintech into a construction industry that really guesses every month what the financial outcomes are for projects,” Hamdy told me at the time of the company’s last raise – a $10 million Series A led by Blackhorn Ventures announced in May of 2020. “Getting a handle on financial outcomes is really hard. The vast majority of the time, the forecasted cost to completion is plain wrong. By a lot.”

In fact, according to McKinsey, an astounding 80 percent of projects run over budget, resulting in significant waste and profit loss.

So at the end of a project, contractors often find themselves having doled out more money and resources than originally planned. This can lead to negative cash flow and profit loss. Briq’s platform aims to help contractors identify outliers, and which projects are more at risk.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Briq has proven to be “extremely valuable” to contractors, Hamdy said.

“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” he added.

Apple Maps upgrade brings more detailed maps, transit features, AR view and more

By Sarah Perez

Among many updates coming to iOS 15, Apple Maps will receive a number of upgrades that will bring more detailed maps, improvements for transit riders, AR experiences and other changes to the platform. The improvements build on the new map Apple began rolling out two years ago, which had focused on offering richer details, and — in response to user feedback and complaints — more accurate navigation.

Since then, Apple Maps has steadily improved.

The new map experience has since launched in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada and will now make its way to Spain and Portugal, starting today. It will then arrive in Italy and Australia later this year, Apple announced during its keynote address during its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday.

maps driving

Image Credits: Apple

In addition, Apple said iOS 15 Maps will include new details for commercial districts, marinas, buildings and more. Plus, Apple has added things like elevation, new road colors and labels, as well as hundreds of custom designed landmarks — for example, for places like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Apple also built a new nighttime mode for Maps with a “moonlit glow,” it said.

For drivers, Apple added new road details to the map, so it can help drivers as they move throughout a city to better see and understand important things like turn lanes, medians, bus and taxi lanes and other things. The changes are competitive with some of the updates Google has been making to its own Google Maps platform, which brought street-level details in select cities. These allowed people — including those navigating on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike or on a scooter, for example — to better see things like sidewalks and intersections.

Apple is now catching up, saying it, too, will show features like crosswalks and bike lanes.

It will also render things like overlapping complex interchanges in 3D space, making it easier to see upcoming traffic conditions or what lane to take. These features will come to CarPlay later in the year.

Image Credits: Apple

For transit riders, meanwhile, Maps has made improvements to help users find nearby stations.

Users can now pin their favorite lines to the top, and even keep track on their Apple Watch so they don’t have to pull out their phone. The updated Maps app will automatically follow your transit route and notify you when it’s time to disembark, making the app more competitive to third-party apps often favored by transit takers, like Citymapper, for instance.

maps train stop

Image Credits: Apple

When you exit your station, you can also now hold up your iPhone to scan the buildings in the area and Maps will generate an accurate position, offering direction in augmented reality. This is similar to the Live View AR directions Google announced last year.

This feature is launching in select cities in 2021 with more to come in the year ahead, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple introduces SharePlay for co-watching, streaming and screen sharing over FaceTime

By Sarah Perez

As part of its FaceTime update in iOS 15, Apple introduced a new set of features designed for shared experiences — like co-watching TV shows or TikTok videos, listening to music together, screen sharing and more — while on a FaceTime call. The feature, called SharePlay, enables real-time connections with family and friends while you’re hanging out on FaceTime, Apple explained, by integrating access to apps from within the call itself.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple demonstrated the new feature during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, showing how friends could press play in Apple Music to listen together, as the music streams to everyone on the call. Shared playback controls also let anyone on the call play, pause or jump to the next track.

The company also showed off watching video from its Apple TV+ streaming service, where the video was synced in real time between call participants. This was a popular trend during the pandemic, as people looked to virtually watch movies and TV with family and friends, prompting services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to add native co-watching features.

But Apple’s SharePlay goes much further than streaming music and video from just Apple’s own services.

The company announced a set of launch partners for SharePlay, including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+ and Pluto TV. It’s also making an API available to developers so they can integrate their own apps with SharePlay.

Image Credits: Apple

Users can screen share via SharePlay, too, so you can do things like browse Zillow listings together or show off a mobile gameplay, Apple suggested.

“Screen sharing is also a simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment, and it works across Apple devices,” noted Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.

The feature will roll out with iOS 15.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

4 women in engineering discuss harassment, isolation and perseverence

By Ron Miller

Women engineers often face workplace and career challenges that their male colleagues don’t because they remain a minority in the profession: Depending on how you count, women make up just 13% to 25% of engineering jobs. That inequity leads to a power imbalance, which can lead to toxic working environments.

One of the more infamous and egregious examples is Susan Fowler’s experience at Uber. In a blog post in February 2017, she described her boss coming on to her in a company chat channel on her first day on the job. She later wrote a book, “Whistleblower,” that described her time at the company in detail.

Fowler’s ordeal cast a spotlight on the harassment women engineers have to deal with in the workplace. In a profession that tends to be male-dominated, behavior ranges from blatant examples, like what happened to Fowler, to ongoing daily microaggressions.

Four female engineers spoke with me about their challenges:

  • Tammy Butow, principal software reliability engineer (SRE) at Gremlin
  • Rona Chong, software engineer at Grove Collaborative
  • Ana Medina, senior chaos engineer at Gremlin
  • Yury Roa, SRE technical program manager at ADL Digital Labs in Bogota, Colombia

It’s worth noting that Fowler was also an SRE who worked on the same team as Medina (who was later part of a $10 million discrimination lawsuit against Uber). It shows just how small of a world we are talking about. While not everyone faced that level of harassment, they each described daily challenges, some of which wore them down. But they also showed a strong determination to overcome whatever obstacles came their way.

Feeling isolated

One of the primary issues these women faced throughout their careers is a feeling of isolation due to their underrepresentation. They say that can sometimes lead to self-doubt and an inkling that you don’t belong that can be difficult to overcome. Medina says that there have been times when, intentionally or not, male engineers made her feel unwelcome.

“One part that was really hard for me was those microaggressions on a daily basis, and that affects your work ethic, wanting to show up, wanting to try your best. And not only does that damage your own self-esteem, but your esteem [in terms of] growing as an engineer,” Medina explained.

Roa says that isolation can lead to impostor syndrome. That’s why it’s so important to have more women in these roles: to serve as mentors, role models and peers.

“One barrier for us related to being the only woman in the room is that [it can lead to] impostor syndrome because it is common when you are the only woman or one of few, it can be really challenging for us. So we need to gain confidence, and in these cases, it is very important to have role models and leadership that includes women,” Roa said.

Chong agrees it is essential to know that others have been in the same position — and found a way through.

“The fact that people talk authentically about their own jobs and challenges and how they’ve overcome that, that’s been really helpful for me to continue seeing myself in the tech industry,” she said. “There have been points where I’ve questioned whether I should Ieave, but then having that support around you to have people to talk to you personally and see as examples, I think it has really helped me.”

Butow described being interviewed for an article early in her career after she won an award for a mobile application she wrote.  When the article was published, she was aghast to discover it had been headlined, “Not just another pretty face…”

“I was like, that’s the title?! I was so excited to share the article with my mom, and then I wasn’t. I spent so much time writing the code and obviously my face had nothing to do with it. … So there’s just little things like that where people call it a paper cut or something like that, but it’s just lots of little microaggressions.”

Pushing through

In spite of all that, a common thread among these women was a strong desire to show that they have the technical skill to get past these moments of doubt to thrive in their professions.

Butow said she has been battling these kinds of misperceptions since she was a teenager but never let it stop her. “I just tried to not let it bother me, but mostly because I also have a background in skateboarding. It’s the same thing, right? You go to a skate park and people would say, ‘Oh, can you even do a trick?’ and I was like, ‘Watch me.’ You know, I [would] just do it. … So a lot of that happens in lots of different types of places in the world and you just have to, I don’t know, I just always push through, like I’m just going to do it anyway.”

Chong says she doesn’t give in to discouraging feelings, adding that having other women to talk to helped push her through those times.

“As much as I like to persevere and I don’t like giving up, actually there have been points where I considered quitting, but having visibility into other people’s experiences, knowing that you’re not the only one who’s experienced that, and seeing that they’ve found better environments for themselves and that they eventually worked through it, and having those people tell you that they believe in you, that probably stopped me from leaving when I [might] have otherwise,” she said.

Women helping women

Chong’s experience is not unique, but the more diverse your teams are, the more people who come from underrepresented groups can support one another. Butow recruited her at one point, and she says that was a huge moment for her.

“I think that there is a network effect where we know other women and we try to bring them in and we expand on that. So we can kind of create the change or we feel the change we want to see, and we get to make our situation more comfortable,” Chong said.

Medina says that she is motivated to help bring Latinx and Black people into tech, with a focus on attracting girls and young women. She has worked with a group called Technolachicas, which produced a series of commercials with the Televisa Foundation. They filmed six videos, three in English and three in Spanish, with the goal of showing young girls how to pursue a STEM career.

“Each commercial talks about how we got our career started with an audience persona of a girl younger than 18, an adult influencer and a parent — people that are really crucial to the development of anyone under 18,” she said. “How is it that these people can actually empower someone to look at STEM and to pursue a career in STEM?”

Butow says it’s about lifting people up. “What we’re trying to do is sharing our story and hoping to inspire other women. It’s super important to have those role models. There’s a lot of research that shows that that’s actually the most important thing is just visibility of role models that you can relate to,” she said.

The ultimate goal? Having enough support in the workplace that they’re able to concentrate on being the best engineers they can be — without all of the obstruction.

China's Quiet Ecommerce Giant Thrives on Fresh Produce

By Kyle Mullin
Pinduoduo, which recently passed Alibaba as the shopping site with the most customers, connects 12 million farmers to more than 800 million users.

Apple's WWDC 2021 Starts Monday. Here's What to Expect

By Lauren Goode
The annual developer conference is where the next versions of iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and other software enhancements are unveiled.

Tinder finally adds a Block Contacts feature

By Amanda Silberling

Despite the complications of meeting new people in the midst of a global pandemic, dating apps have shown a recent spike in both downloads and usage. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, it’s likely that this trend will continue.

In other words, Tinder is anticipating a “post-pandemic uncuffing season,” and they’re rolling out a new feature to prepare. Now, users can upload their phone contacts to select certain people that they’d rather not see on the app, whether that’s an ex, a coworker, or a family member. According to a survey commissioned by Tinder, 40% of people have found an ex-partner on the app, 24% have encountered a family member, and one in ten have even encountered their professor.

Sure, it would be pretty awkward to see your ex out on the dating market again. But the new feature is more interesting for the user safety aspect. For example, if someone has previously encountered a stalker or otherwise abusive figure – whether on the app or off – they now have a tool to directly block them on Tinder.

However, instead of creating a simple form where you could enter in the phone number or email address of the abuser, Tinder is asking for permission to access the user’s entire contacts list. Ostensibly, this is for ease of use – Tinder even claims it only keeps the contact information for those you’ve blocked on hand, and not your entire address book – but users may still be wary. For years, social apps have used address book uploads as a big data grab from users, with little benefit beyond friend-finding functionality. More recently, this trend has reemerged with new apps like Poparazzi and Clubhouse. The latter thankfully stopped the practice in March after user outcry.

“We’re rolling out Block Contacts as an additional resource empowering members with peace of mind by helping create a worry-free space for them to spark new connections,” said Bernadette Morgan, Group Product Manager, Trust & Safety at Tinder, in a statement.

Tinder tested the Block Contacts feature in India, Korea, and Japan, reporting that members who used the feature blocked about a dozen people on average.

To use the feature, you’ll go to Settings under your profile icon, select “Block Contacts” then grant the app permission. To block individuals, you can’t rely on whether or not they were blocked on your phone. You’ll need to select each person you want to block under the “Contacts” tab then tap “Block Contacts.”

This user interface makes it easier to block abusers and exes, but it’s also designed for people who want to block a large number of people – like everyone in their family or close friend group. That makes the feature a big perk for those using Tinder’s app to cheat, too.

Tinder is strict about requiring a valid phone number to register, though it’s not impossible for people to circumvent the system by registering with a Google Voice number, for example. So, regardless of what safety features Tinder rolls out, proceed wisely.

The rise of cybersecurity debt

By Ram Iyer
Howard Boville Contributor
Howard Boville is head of IBM Hybrid Cloud. He leads the global cloud business at IBM and helps develop market-leading capabilities to drive digital transformation for enterprises.

Ransomware attacks on the JBS beef plant, and the Colonial Pipeline before it, have sparked a now familiar set of reactions. There are promises of retaliation against the groups responsible, the prospect of company executives being brought in front of Congress in the coming months, and even a proposed executive order on cybersecurity that could take months to fully implement.

But once again, amid this flurry of activity, we must ask or answer a fundamental question about the state of our cybersecurity defense: Why does this keep happening?

I have a theory on why. In software development, there is a concept called “technical debt.” It describes the costs companies pay when they choose to build software the easy (or fast) way instead of the right way, cobbling together temporary solutions to satisfy a short-term need. Over time, as teams struggle to maintain a patchwork of poorly architectured applications, tech debt accrues in the form of lost productivity or poor customer experience.

Complexity is the enemy of security. Some companies are forced to put together as many as 50 different security solutions from up to 10 different vendors to protect their sprawling technology estates.

Our nation’s cybersecurity defenses are laboring under the burden of a similar debt. Only the scale is far greater, the stakes are higher and the interest is compounding. The true cost of this “cybersecurity debt” is difficult to quantify. Though we still do not know the exact cause of either attack, we do know beef prices will be significantly impacted and gas prices jumped 8 cents on news of the Colonial Pipeline attack, costing consumers and businesses billions. The damage done to public trust is incalculable.

How did we get here? The public and private sectors are spending more than $4 trillion a year in the digital arms race that is our modern economy. The goal of these investments is speed and innovation. But in pursuit of these ambitions, organizations of all sizes have assembled complex, uncoordinated systems — running thousands of applications across multiple private and public clouds, drawing on data from hundreds of locations and devices.

Complexity is the enemy of security. Some companies are forced to put together as many as 50 different security solutions from up to 10 different vendors to protect their sprawling technology estates — acting as a systems integrator of sorts. Every node in these fantastically complicated networks is like a door or window that might be inadvertently left open. Each represents a potential point of failure and an exponential increase in cybersecurity debt.

We have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to update the architectural foundations of our digital infrastructure and pay off our cybersecurity debt. To accomplish this, two critical steps must be taken.

First, we must embrace open standards across all critical digital infrastructure, especially the infrastructure used by private contractors to service the government. Until recently, it was thought that the only way to standardize security protocols across a complex digital estate was to rebuild it from the ground up in the cloud. But this is akin to replacing the foundations of a home while still living in it. You simply cannot lift-and-shift massive, mission-critical workloads from private data centers to the cloud.

There is another way: Open, hybrid cloud architectures can connect and standardize security across any kind of infrastructure, from private data centers to public clouds, to the edges of the network. This unifies the security workflow and increases the visibility of threats across the entire network (including the third- and fourth-party networks where data flows) and orchestrates the response. It essentially eliminates weak links without having to move data or applications — a design point that should be embraced across the public and private sectors.

The second step is to close the remaining loopholes in the data security supply chain. President Biden’s executive order requires federal agencies to encrypt data that is being stored or transmitted. We have an opportunity to take that a step further and also address data that is in use. As more organizations outsource the storage and processing of their data to cloud providers, expecting real-time data analytics in return, this represents an area of vulnerability.

Many believe this vulnerability is simply the price we pay for outsourcing digital infrastructure to another company. But this is not true. Cloud providers can, and do, protect their customers’ data with the same ferocity as they protect their own. They do not need access to the data they store on their servers. Ever.

To ensure this requires confidential computing, which encrypts data at rest, in transit and in process. Confidential computing makes it technically impossible for anyone without the encryption key to access the data, not even your cloud provider. At IBM, for example, our customers run workloads in the IBM Cloud with full privacy and control. They are the only ones that hold the key. We could not access their data even if compelled by a court order or ransom request. It is simply not an option.

Paying down the principal on any kind of debt can be daunting, as anyone with a mortgage or student loan can attest. But this is not a low-interest loan. As the JBS and Colonial Pipeline attacks clearly demonstrate, the cost of not addressing our cybersecurity debt spans far beyond monetary damages. Our food and fuel supplies are at risk, and entire economies can be disrupted.

I believe that with the right measures — strong public and private collaboration — we have an opportunity to construct a future that brings forward the combined power of security and technological advancement built on trust.

Facebook buys studio behind Roblox-like Crayta gaming platform

By Lucas Matney

Facebook has been making plenty of one-off virtual reality studio acquisitions lately, but today the company announced that they’re buying something with wider ambitions — a Roblox-like game creation platform.

Facebook shared that they’re buying Unit 2 Games, which builds a platform called Crayta. Like some other platforms out there it builds on top of the Unreal Engine and gives users a more simple creation interface teamed with discovery and community features. Crayta has cornered its own niche pushing monetization paths like Battle Pass seasons giving the platform a more Fortnite-like vibe as well.

Unit 2 has been around for just over 3 years and Crayta launched just last July. Its audience has likely been limited by the studio’s deal to exclusively launch on Google’s cloud-streaming platform Stadia though it’s also available on the Epic Games Store as of March.

The title feels designed for the lightweight nature of cloud-gaming platforms with users able to share access to games just by linking other users and Facebook seems keen to use Crayta to push forward their own efforts in the gaming sphere.

“Crayta has maximized current cloud-streaming technology to make game creation more accessible and easy to use. We plan to integrate Crayta’s creation toolset into Facebook Gaming’s cloud platform to instantly deliver new experiences on Facebook,” Facebook Gaming VP Vivek Sharma wrote in an announcement post.

The entire team will be coming on as part of the acquisition, though financial terms of the deal weren’t shared.

This one email explains Apple

By Matthew Panzarino

An email has been going around the internet as a part of a release of documents related to Apple’s App Store based suit brought by Epic Games. I love this email for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that you can extrapolate from it the very reasons Apple has remained such a vital force in the industry for the past decade. 

The gist of it is that SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet, sent an email in October of 2007, just three months after the iPhone was launched. In the email, Serlet outlines essentially every core feature of Apple’s App Store — a business that now brings in an estimated $64B per year. And that, more importantly, allowed the launch of countless titanic internet startups and businesses built on and taking advantage of native apps on iPhone.

Forty five minutes after the email, Steve Jobs replies to Serlet and iPhone lead Scott Forstall, from his iPhone, “Sure, as long as we can roll it all out at Macworld on Jan 15, 2008.”

Apple University should have a course dedicated to this email. 

Here it is, shared by an account I enjoy, Internal Tech Emails, on Twitter. If you run the account let me know, happy to credit you further here if you wish:

Bertrand Serlet to Steve Jobs: "Fine, let's enable Cocoa Touch apps"

October 2, 2007 pic.twitter.com/9aTxmjgkRS

— Internal Tech Emails (@TechEmails) June 3, 2021

First, we have Serlet’s outline. It’s seven sentences that outline the key tenets of the App Store. User protection, network protection, an owned developer platform and a sustainable API approach. There is a direct ask for resources — whoever we need in software engineering — to get it shipped ASAP. 

It also has a clear ask at the bottom, ‘do you agree with these goals?’

Enough detail is included in the parentheticals to allow an informed reader to infer scope and work hours. And at no point during this email does Serlet include an ounce of justification for these choices. These are the obvious and necessary framework, in his mind, for accomplishing the rollout of an SDK for iPhone developers. 

There is no extensive rationale provided for each item, something that is often unnecessary in an informed context and can often act as psychic baggage that telegraphs one of two things:

  1. You don’t believe the leader you’re outlining the project to knows what the hell they’re talking about.
  2. You don’t believe it yourself and you’re still trying to convince yourself. 

Neither one of those is the wisest way to provide an initial scope of work. There is plenty of time down the line to flesh out rationale to those who have less command of the larger context. 

If you’re a historian of iPhone software development, you’ll know that developer Nullriver had released Installer, a third-party installer that allowed apps to be natively loaded onto iPhone, in the summer of 2007, early September, I believe. It was followed in 2008 by the eventually far more popular Cydia. And there were developers that August and September already experimenting with this completely unofficial way of getting apps on the store, like the venerable Twitterific by Craig Hockenberry and Lights Off by Lucas Newman and Adam Betts.

Though there has been plenty of established documentation of Steve being reluctant about allowing third-party apps on iPhone, this email establishes an official timeline for when the decision was not only made but essentially fully formed. And it’s much earlier than the apocryphal discussion about when the call was made. This is just weeks after the first hacky third-party attempts had made their way to iPhone and just under two months since the first iPhone jailbreak toolchain appeared. 

There is no need or desire shown here for Steve to ‘make sure’ that his touch is felt on this framework. All too often I see leaders that are obsessed with making sure that they give feedback and input at every turn. Why did you hire those people in the first place? Was it for their skill and acumen? Their attention to detail? Their obsessive desire to get things right?

Then let them do their job. 

Serlet’s email is well written and has the exact right scope, yes. But the response is just as important. A demand of what is likely too short a timeline (the App Store was eventually announced in March of 2008 and shipped in July of that year.) sets the bar high — matching the urgency of the request for all teams to work together on this project. This is not a side alley, it’s the foundation of a main thoroughfare. It must get built before anything goes on top. 

This efficacy is at the core of what makes Apple good when it is good. It’s not always good, but nothing ever is 100% of the time and the hit record is incredibly strong across a decade’s worth of shipped software and hardware. Crisp, lean communication that does not coddle or equivocate, coupled with a leader that is confident in their own ability and the ability of those that they hired means that there is no need to bog down the process in order to establish a record of involvement. 

One cannot exist without the other. A clear, well argued RFP or project outline that is sent up to insecure or ineffective management just becomes fodder for territorial games or endless rounds of requests for clarification. And no matter how effective leadership is and how talented their employees, if they do not establish an environment in which clarity of thought is welcomed and rewarded then they will never get the kind of bold, declarative product development that they wish. 

All in all, this exchange is a wildly important bit of ephemera that underpins the entire app ecosystem era and an explosive growth phase for Internet technology. And it’s also an encapsulation of the kind of environment that has made Apple an effective and brutally efficient company for so many years. 

Can it be learned from and emulated? Probably, but only if all involved are willing to create the environment necessary to foster the necessary elements above. Nine times out of ten you get moribund management, an environment that discourages blunt position taking and a muddy route to the exit. The tenth time, though, you get magic.

And, hey, maybe we can take this opportunity to make that next meeting an email?

If Bertrand Serlet and Steve Jobs could change the world over an email perhaps we don’t need to have that meeting. https://t.co/NZ1HmVAnwb

— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) June 3, 2021

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

By Ram Iyer
Jason VandeBoom Contributor
Jason VandeBoom is founder and CEO of ActiveCampaign, a customer experience automation (CXA) company.

Software as a service has been thriving as a sector for years, but it has gone into overdrive in the past year as businesses responded to the pandemic by speeding up the migration of important functions to the cloud. We’ve all seen the news of SaaS startups raising large funding rounds, with deal sizes and valuations steadily climbing. But as tech industry watchers know only too well, large funding rounds and valuations are not foolproof indicators of sustainable growth and longevity.

To scale sustainably, grow its customer base and mature to the point of an exit, a SaaS startup needs to stand apart from the herd at every phase of development. Failure to do so means a poor outcome for founders and investors.

As a founder who pivoted from on-premise to SaaS back in 2016, I have focused on scaling my company (most recently crossing 145,000 customers) and in the process, learned quite a bit about making a mark. Here is some advice on differentiation at the various stages in the life of a SaaS startup.

Launch and early years

Differentiation is crucial early on, because it’s one of the only ways to attract customers. Customers can help lay the groundwork for everything from your product roadmap to pricing.

The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution.

The key to success in the SaaS space is solving real problems. Take DocuSign, for example — the company found a way to simply and elegantly solve a niche problem for users with its software. This is something that sounds easy, but in reality, it means spending hours listening to the customer and tailoring your product accordingly.

SaaS needs to take a page out of the crypto playbook

By John Chen
John Chen Contributor
John is a principal at Fika Ventures in Los Angeles.

By the time I joined Box in late 2012, the “consumerization of the enterprise” movement was well underway. The playbook was clear: The lessons and tactics from the rise of consumer apps — viral loops, social referrals, frictionless onboarding — could be distilled, packaged and ported over to enterprise.

And the promise was subversive — great products could galvanize a loyal user base and wrest free the fates of multimillion-dollar contracts from suited salespeople peddling unusable software behind closed doors.

While the consumerization of SaaS has taught us how to more effectively get in front of users, this next decade will be about how to properly incentivize them to do the necessary work to have the right product experience.

A decade later, this promise has largely proven true. The consumer playbook contributed to the meteoric rise of Slack, Zoom, Airtable and others, specifically around user acquisition and onboarding. They are beautiful products that are discovered from the bottom up, self-serve, free to start and pay as you grow.

But while this might seem like one of the best times to build a SaaS company, one look at Product Hunt might paint a different story. For every success story like Airtable, there are a dozen lookalikes employing the same consumer-inspired playbook that are getting drowned out.

And for any first-mover startup in a new category thinking they’re reaching escape velocity, there are a dozen copycats in YC waiting around the corner, complete with their beautifully designed apps, and the promise of being “blazingly fast and delightfully simple.”

Image Credits: Fika Ventures

Conventional wisdom suggests that many of these newcomer apps will fall short because they don’t clearly communicate their differentiation, or their signup process isn’t streamlined enough, or they have poor documentation and tutorial videos, or they haven’t courted the right influencers on Twitter, or just plain poor execution.

While some (or all) of these might be true on the individual app level, there is something bigger happening on the aggregate level, and it comes back to one insidious assumption carried over from the consumer playbook: the myth of frictionless onboarding.

The reality is that onboarding is never frictionless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — it demands that the user uproot their old habits and switch to this new way of being or doing. Just like with a new fitness program, participants feel good after completing the workout, but it takes a lot of activation energy to start and hard work to get there. Similarly, it takes work on the user’s part to get results, and most apps expect users to do this work for free.

But in a crowded marketplace with infinite alternatives, the only way to capture and hold a user’s attention is to directly incentivize them to experience the product, not just be exposed to it. Today’s growth playbook overindexes on spending ad dollars (with diminishing returns) to get premium placement and eyeballs on Google, Facebook or Product Hunt, but very few have tried putting those dollars to work toward ensuring users are actually having the experience they are supposed to.

2019 subscription customer acquisition cost study. Image Credits: Profitwell

To do this, SaaS needs to take a page out of the crypto playbook. So while the past decade of the consumerization of SaaS has taught us how to more effectively get in front of users, this next decade will be about the cryptofication of SaaS and how to properly incentivize users to do the necessary work to have the right experience with your product.

The open-source Contributor Covenant is now managed by the Organization for Ethical Source

By Frederic Lardinois

Managing the technical side of open-source projects is often hard enough, but throw in the inevitable conflicts between contributors, who are often very passionate about their contributions, and things get even harder. One way to establish ground rules for open-source communities is the Contributor Covenant, created by Coraline Ada Ehmke back in 2014. Like so many projects in the open-source world, the Contributor Covenant was also a passion project for Ehmke and over the years, its first two iterations have been adopted by organizations like the CNCF, Creative Commons, Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Linux project, in addition to hundreds of other projects.

Now, as work is starting on version 3.0, the Organization for Ethical Source (OES), of which Ehmke is a co-founder and executive director, will take over the stewardship of the project.

“Contributor Covenant was the first document of its kind as code of conduct for open-source projects — and it was incredibly controversial and actually remains pretty controversial to this day,” Ehmke told me. “But I come from the Ruby community, and the Ruby community really embraced the concept and also really embraced the document itself. And then it spread from there to lots of other open-source projects and other open-source communities.”

The core of the document is a pledge to “make participation in our community a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of age, body size, visible or invisible disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socio-economic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, caste, color, religion, or sexual identity and orientation” and for contributors to act in ways that contribute to a diverse, open and welcoming community.

As Ehmke told me, one part that evolved over the course of the last few years is the addition of enforcement guidelines that are meant to help community leaders determine the consequences when members violate the code of conduct.

“One of the things that I try to do in this work is when people criticize the work, even if they’re not arguing in good faith, I try to see if there’s something in there that could be used as constructive feedback, something actionable,” Ehmke said. “A lot of the criticism for years for Contributor Covenant was people saying, ‘Oh, I’ll say one wrong thing and be permanently banned from our project, which is really grim and really unreasonable.’ What I took from that is that people are afraid of what consequences project leaders might impose on them for an infraction. Put that way, that’s kind of a reasonable concern.”

Ehmke described bringing the Covenant to the OES as an ‘exit to community,’ similar to how companies will often bring their mature open-source projects under the umbrella of a foundation. She noted that the OES includes a lot of members with expertise in community management and project governance, which they will be able to bring to the project in a more formal way. “I’m still going to be involved with the evolution of Contributor Covenant, but it’s going to be developed under the working group model that the organization for ethical source has established,” she explained.

For version 3.0, Ehmke hopes to turn the Covenant into what she described as more of a ‘toolkit’ that will allow different communities to tailor it a bit more to their own goals and values (though still within the core ethical principles outlined by the OES).

“Microsoft’s adoption of Contributor Covenant represents our commitment to building healthy, diverse and inclusive communities, as well as our intention to contribute and build together with others in the ecosystem,” said Emma Irwin, a program manager in Microsoft’s Open Source Program Office. “I am honored to bring this intention and my expertise to the OES’s Contributor Covenant 3.0 working group.”

RevenueCat raises $40M Series B for its in-app subscription platform

By Sarah Perez

RevenueCat, a startup offering a series of tools for developers of subscription-based apps, has raised $40 million in Series B funding, valuing its business at $300 million, post-money. Founded by developers who understood the difficulties in scaling a subscription app firsthand, RevenueCat’s software development kit (SDK) solution gives companies the tools they need to build a subscription business, including not just adding subscriptions themselves, but maintaining them over time even as the app stores implement changes. It also aids by sharing subscription data with other tools the business uses, like those for advertising, analytics or attribution.

The funding round was led by Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund and included participation from Index Ventures, SaaStr, Oakhouse, Adjacent and FundersClub, as well as Blinklist CTO Tobias Balling and Algolia CEO Nicolas Dessaigne. With the round, YC Continuity Partner Anu Hariharan is joining RevenueCat’s board, which today includes Index’s Mark Fiorentino in addition to the founders.

Explains RevenueCat CEO Jacob Eiting, the idea for the company came about after he and co-founder Miguel Carranza Guisado (CTO) struggled to figure out subscription infrastructure while working together at Elevate. After years of untangling a “subscription mess” in order to figure out answers to basic questions like subscriber retention and lifetime value, they realized there was potential in helping solve this problem for other developers.

Apple and Google, Eiting explains, aren’t always up to date with what companies actually need to build subscription businesses. “They’re kind of learning as they go. They just weren’t able to provide us the data we needed, and then also the infrastructure to do that is non-trivial.”

Image Credits: RevenueCat

When Eiting and Guisado sat down to work on RevenueCat in 2017, no one else was even building anything like this. But the demand for the startup’s tools and integrations soon resonated with developers who had faced similar challenges in the growing subsection app market.

Using the service, developers can access a real-time dashboard that display key metrics, like subscription revenue, churn, LTV (lifetime value), subscriber numbers, conversions and more. The data can then be shared through integrations with other tools and services, like Adjust, Amplitude, Apple Search Ads, AppsFlyer, Branch, Facebook Ads, Google Cloud Intercom, Mixpanel, Segment and several others. 

After launching out of Y Combinator’s accelerator the following year, RevenueCat was soon live with 100 apps and had crossed $1 million in tracked revenue by the time it raised its $1.5 million seed round.

Today, RevenueCat has more than 6,000 apps live on its platform, with over $1 billion in tracked subscription revenue being managed by its tools. That’s double the number of apps that were using its service as of its $15 million Series A last August.

With the additional funding, the company will lower its pricing to put its tools in reach of more developers. Previously, it charged $120 per month for its charts and some of its integrations, or $499 per month for access to all integrations. This was affordable for larger companies, but could still be a difficult sell to the long tail of app developers where revenues ranged from $10K to $50K per month.

Now, RevenueCat will charge a small percentage of an app’s sales instead of a flat fee. Developers with up to $10,000 in monthly tracked revenue (MTR) can get started with the service for free and as their demands grow — like needing access to charts, support for web hooks, integrations and others — they can move up to either the Starter or Pro plans as $8/mo or $12/mo per $1,000 in MTR, respectively.

“I’m excited to give those tools to developers, especially on the small end, because it might be what they need to get out of that ‘less than $10K range,’ ” Eiting says. “Also, the beauty of freemium, or having a really generous free tier, is that it makes your tool the de facto — you remove as much friction as possible for providing software services and then, if you get your pricing right — which I think we have — it all kind of pays for itself,” he adds.

The company also plans to use the new funds to further invest in its business, expanding from App Store and Google Play support to include Amazon’s Appstore. It will also grow its team.

As part of its expected growth, RevenueCat recently hired a head of Product, Jens-Fabian Goetzmann, previously a PM at Microsoft and then product head at fitness app 8fit. Currently 30 people, in the year ahead, RevenueCat will grow to 60 people, hiring across design, product, engineering, sales and other roles.

“The world is moving toward subscriptions — and for companies, building out this model translates to weeks of developers’ time,” says YC Continuity’s Hariharan. “RevenueCat helps developers roll out subscriptions in minutes and creates a source of truth for customer data. With developers creating solutions to problems in the world, it’s important that they can find ways to monetize, grow, and support their most committed customers. RevenueCat is doing so by building subscriptions 2.0.”

Australian startup Pyn raises $8M seed to bring targeted communication in-house

By Ron Miller

Most marketers today know how to send targeted communications to customers, and there are many tools to help, but when it comes to sending personalized in-house messages, there aren’t nearly as many options. Pyn, an early-stage startup based in Australia, wants to change that, and today it announced an $8 million seed round.

Andreessen Horowitz led the investment with help from Accel and Ryan Sanders (the co-founder of BambooHR) and Scott Farquhar (co-founder and co-CEO at Atlassian).

That last one isn’t a coincidence as Pyn co-founder and CEO Joris Luijke used to run HR at the company and later at Squarespace and other companies, and he saw a common problem trying to provide more targeted messages when communicating internally.

“I’ve been trying to do this my entire professional life, trying to personalize the communication that we’re sending to our people. So that’s what Pyn does. In a nutshell, we radically personalize employee communications,” Luijke explained. His co-founder Jon Williams was previously a co-founder at Culture Amp, an employee experience management platform he helped launch in 2011 (and which raised over $150 million), so the two of them have been immersed in this idea.

They bring personalization to Pyn by tracking information in existing systems that companies already use such as Workday, BambooHR, Salesforce or Zendesk, and they can use this data much in the same way a marketer uses various types of information to send more personalized messages to customers.

That means you can cut down on the company-wide emails that might not be relevant to everyone and send messages that should matter more to the people receiving them. And as with a marketing communications tool, you can track how many people have opened the emails and how successful you were in hitting the mark.

David Ulevitch, general partner at a16z, and lead investor in this deal points out that Pyn also provides a library of customizable communications materials to help build culture and set policy across an organization.”It also treats employee communication channels as the rails upon which to orchestrate management practices across an organization [by delivering] a library of management playbooks,” Ulevitch wrote in a blog post announcing the investment.

The startup, which launched in 2019, currently has 10 employees with teams working in Australia and the Bay Area in California. Williams says that already half the team is female and the plan is to continue putting diversity front and center as they build the company.

“Joris has mentioned ‘radical personalization’ as this specific mantra that we have, and I think if you translate that into an organization, that is all about inclusion in reality, and if we want to be able to cater for all the specific needs of people, we need to understand them. So [diversity is essential] to us,” Williams said.

While the company isn’t ready to discuss specifics in terms of customer numbers, it cites Shopify, Rubrik and Carta as early customers, and the founders say that there was a lot of interest when the pandemic hit last year and the need for more frequent and meaningful types of communication became even more paramount.

 

SpotOn raises $125M in a16z-led Series D, triples valuation to $1.875B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Certain industries were hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others, especially in its early days.

Small businesses, including retailers and restaurants, were negatively impacted by lockdowns and the resulting closures. They had to adapt quickly to survive. If they didn’t use much technology before, they were suddenly being forced to, as so many things shifted to digital last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For companies like SpotOn, it was a pivotal moment. 

The startup, which provides software and payments for restaurants and SMBs, had to step up to help the businesses it serves. Not only for their sake, but its own.

“We really took a hard look at what was happening to our clients. And we realized we needed to pivot, just to be able to support them,” co-CEO and co-founder Matt Hyman recalls. “We had to make a decision because our revenues also were taking a big hit, just like our clients were. Rather than lay off staff or require salary deductions, we stayed true to our core values and just kept plugging away.”

All that “plugging away” has paid off. Today, SpotOn announced it has achieved unicorn status with a $125 million Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

Existing backers DST Global, 01 Advisors, Dragoneer Investment Group and Franklin Templeton also participated in the financing, in addition to new investor Mubadala Investment Company. 

Notably, the round triples the company’s valuation to $1.875 billion compared to its $625 million valuation at the time of its Series C raise last September. It also marks San Francisco-based SpotOn’s third funding event since March 2020, and brings the startup’s total funding to $328 million since its 2017 inception.

Its efforts have also led to impressive growth for the company, which has seen its revenue triple since February 2020, according to Hyman.

Put simply, SpotOn is taking on the likes of Square in the payments space. But the company says its offering extends beyond traditional payment processing and point-of-sale (POS) software. Its platform aims to give SMBs the ability to run their businesses “from building a brand to taking payments and everything in-between.” SpotOn’s goal is to be a “one-stop shop” by incorporating tools that include things such as custom website development, scheduling software, marketing, appointment scheduling, review management, analytics and digital loyalty.

When the pandemic hit, SpotOn ramped up and rolled out 400 “new product innovations,” Hyman said. It also did things like waive $1.5 million in fees (it’s a SaaS business, so for several months it waived its monthly fee, for example, for its integrated restaurant management system). It also acquired a company, SeatNinja, so that it could expand its offering.

“Because a lot of these businesses had to go digital literally overnight, we built a free website for them all,” Hyman said. SpotOn also did things like offer commission-free online ordering for restaurants and helped retail merchants update their websites for e-commerce. “Obviously these businesses were resilient,” Hyman said. “But such efforts also created a lot of loyalty.” 

Today, more than 30,000 businesses use SpotOn’s platform, according to Hyman, with nearly 8,000 of those signing on this year. The company expects that number to triple by year’s end.

Currently, its customers are split about 60% retail and 40% restaurants, but the restaurant side of its business is growing rapidly, according to Hyman.

The reason for that, the company believes, is while restaurants initially rushed to add online ordering for delivery or curbside pickup, they soon realized they “wanted a more affordable and more integrated solution.”

Image Credits: SpotOn co-founders Zach Hyman, Doron Friedman and Matt Hyman / SpotOn

What makes SpotOn so appealing to its customers, Hyman said, is the fact that it offers an integrated platform so that businesses that use it can save “thousands of dollars” in payments and software fees to multiple, “à la carte” vendors. But it also can integrate with other platforms if needed.

In addition to growing its customer base and revenue, SpotOn has also boosted its headcount to about 1,250 employees (from 850 in March of 2020). Those employees are spread across its offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Mexico City, Mexico and Krakow, Poland.

SpotOn is not currently profitable, which Hyman says is “by choice.”

“We could be cash flow positive technically whenever we choose to be. Right now we’re just so focused on product innovation and talent to exceed the needs of our clients,” he said. “We chose the capital plan so that we could really just double down on what’s working so well.”

The new capital will go toward further accelerating product development and expanding its market presence.

“We’re doubling down on our single integrated restaurant management system,” Hyman said. 

The raise marks the first time that a16z has put money in the startup, although General Partner David George told TechCrunch he was familiar with co-founders Matt Hyman and Zach Hyman through mutual friends.

George estimates that about 80% of restaurants and SMBs use legacy solutions “that are clunky and outdated, and not very customer friendly.” The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more of these businesses seeking digital options.

“We think we’re in the very early days in the transition [to digital], and the opportunity is massive,” he told TechCrunch. “We believe we’re at the tipping point of a big tech replacement cycle for restaurant and small business software, and at the very early stages of this transition to modern cloud-native solutions.”

George was also effusive in his praise for how SpotOn has executed over the past 14 months.

“There are companies that build great products, and companies that can build great sales teams. And there are companies that offer really great customer service,” he said. “It’s rare that you find two of those and extremely rare to find all three of those as we have in SpotOn.”

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