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The time Animoto almost brought AWS to its knees

By Ron Miller

Today, Amazon Web Services is a mainstay in the cloud infrastructure services market, a $60 billion juggernaut of a business. But in 2008, it was still new, working to keep its head above water and handle growing demand for its cloud servers. In fact, 15 years ago last week, the company launched Amazon EC2 in beta. From that point forward, AWS offered startups unlimited compute power, a primary selling point at the time.

EC2 was one of the first real attempts to sell elastic computing at scale — that is, server resources that would scale up as you needed them and go away when you didn’t. As Jeff Bezos said in an early sales presentation to startups back in 2008, “you want to be prepared for lightning to strike, […] because if you’re not that will really generate a big regret. If lightning strikes, and you weren’t ready for it, that’s kind of hard to live with. At the same time you don’t want to prepare your physical infrastructure, to kind of hubris levels either in case that lightning doesn’t strike. So, [AWS] kind of helps with that tough situation.”

An early test of that value proposition occurred when one of their startup customers, Animoto, scaled from 25,000 to 250,000 users in a 4-day period in 2008 shortly after launching the company’s Facebook app at South by Southwest.

At the time, Animoto was an app aimed at consumers that allowed users to upload photos and turn them into a video with a backing music track. While that product may sound tame today, it was state of the art back in those days, and it used up a fair amount of computing resources to build each video. It was an early representation of not only Web 2.0 user-generated content, but also the marriage of mobile computing with the cloud, something we take for granted today.

For Animoto, launched in 2006, choosing AWS was a risky proposition, but the company found trying to run its own infrastructure was even more of a gamble because of the dynamic nature of the demand for its service. To spin up its own servers would have involved huge capital expenditures. Animoto initially went that route before turning its attention to AWS because it was building prior to attracting initial funding, Brad Jefferson, co-founder and CEO at the company explained.

“We started building our own servers, thinking that we had to prove out the concept with something. And as we started to do that and got more traction from a proof-of-concept perspective and started to let certain people use the product, we took a step back, and were like, well it’s easy to prepare for failure, but what we need to prepare for success,” Jefferson told me.

Going with AWS may seem like an easy decision knowing what we know today, but in 2007 the company was really putting its fate in the hands of a mostly unproven concept.

“It’s pretty interesting just to see how far AWS has gone and EC2 has come, but back then it really was a gamble. I mean we were talking to an e-commerce company [about running our infrastructure]. And they’re trying to convince us that they’re going to have these servers and it’s going to be fully dynamic and so it was pretty [risky]. Now in hindsight, it seems obvious but it was a risk for a company like us to bet on them back then,” Jefferson told me.

Animoto had to not only trust that AWS could do what it claimed, but also had to spend six months rearchitecting its software to run on Amazon’s cloud. But as Jefferson crunched the numbers, the choice made sense. At the time, Animoto’s business model was for free for a 30 second video, $5 for a longer clip, or $30 for a year. As he tried to model the level of resources his company would need to make its model work, it got really difficult, so he and his co-founders decided to bet on AWS and hope it worked when and if a surge of usage arrived.

That test came the following year at South by Southwest when the company launched a Facebook app, which led to a surge in demand, in turn pushing the limits of AWS’s capabilities at the time. A couple of weeks after the startup launched its new app, interest exploded and Amazon was left scrambling to find the appropriate resources to keep Animoto up and running.

Dave Brown, who today is Amazon’s VP of EC2 and was an engineer on the team back in 2008, said that “every [Animoto] video would initiate, utilize and terminate a separate EC2 instance. For the prior month they had been using between 50 and 100 instances [per day]. On Tuesday their usage peaked at around 400, Wednesday it was 900, and then 3,400 instances as of Friday morning.” Animoto was able to keep up with the surge of demand, and AWS was able to provide the necessary resources to do so. Its usage eventually peaked at 5000 instances before it settled back down, proving in the process that elastic computing could actually work.

At that point though, Jefferson said his company wasn’t merely trusting EC2’s marketing. It was on the phone regularly with AWS executives making sure their service wouldn’t collapse under this increasing demand. “And the biggest thing was, can you get us more servers, we need more servers. To their credit, I don’t know how they did it — if they took away processing power from their own website or others — but they were able to get us where we needed to be. And then we were able to get through that spike and then sort of things naturally calmed down,” he said.

The story of keeping Animoto online became a main selling point for the company, and Amazon was actually the first company to invest in the startup besides friends and family. It raised a total of $30 million along the way, with its last funding coming in 2011. Today, the company is more of a B2B operation, helping marketing departments easily create videos.

While Jefferson didn’t discuss specifics concerning costs, he pointed out that the price of trying to maintain servers that would sit dormant much of the time was not a tenable approach for his company. Cloud computing turned out to be the perfect model and Jefferson says that his company is still an AWS customer to this day.

While the goal of cloud computing has always been to provide as much computing as you need on demand whenever you need it, this particular set of circumstances put that notion to the test in a big way.

Today the idea of having trouble generating 3,400 instances seems quaint, especially when you consider that Amazon processes 60 million instances every day now, but back then it was a huge challenge and helped show startups that the idea of elastic computing was more than theory.

Make accessibility part of your startup’s products and culture from day one

By Annie Siebert
Joe Devon Contributor
Joe Devon is the co-founder of Diamond, a digital agency that builds accessible experiences. He is also a co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day and chair of the GAAD Foundation.

The world of accessibility has experienced a tipping point thanks to the pandemic, which drove people of all abilities to do more tasks and shopping online.

For the last year, the digital world was the only place brands could connect with their customers. A Forrester survey found that 8 in 10 companies have taken their first steps toward working on digital accessibility.

What’s driving this change besides the increased digital interactions? Fortune 500 companies are finally starting to realize that people with disabilities make up 1 billion of the world’s market. That population and their families control more than $13 trillion in disposable income, according to Return on Disability’s “The Global Economics of Disability.”

However, only 36% of companies in Forrester’s survey are completely committed to creating accessible digital experiences.

Although digital accessibility has been around for decades, companies have not caught on to its benefits until recently. In its latest survey, the WebAIM Million analysis of 1 million home pages found accessibility errors on 97.4% of the websites evaluated.

What does this mean for you? Why should you care about this? Because this is an opportunity for your company to get ahead of the competition and reap the rewards of being an early adopter.

The benefits of digital accessibility

Companies are now realizing the advantages of creating accessible products and properties that go beyond doing the right thing. For one, people are living longer. The World Health Organization says people aged 60 and older outnumber children under 5. Moreover, the world’s population of those who are 60 and older is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, up from 900 million in 2015.

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides an overview on Web Accessibility for Older Users. Here’s what it reveals.

  • Hearing loss affects 47% of people aged 61 to 80.
  • Vision decline affects 16% of people aged 65 to 74.
  • Mild cognitive impairment affects 20% of people over 70.
  • Arthritis affects more than 50% of people over 65.

In short, developing accessible digital products helps you reach a much larger audience, which will include you, your co-workers and your family. Everyone is going to become situationally, temporarily or episodically impaired at some point in their lives. Everyone enters a noisy or dark environment that can make it harder to see or hear. An injury or an illness can cause someone to use the internet differently on a temporary basis. People with arthritis, migraines and vertigo experience episodes of pain and discomfort that affect their ability to interact with digital devices, apps and tools.

Additionally, no one has ever advocated against making products and websites accessible to more people. Despite this, the relative universal appeal of accessibility as a principle does not mean that it will be as easy as explaining the need and getting people on board to make major organizational changes. A lot of work remains in raising awareness and educating people about why we need to make these changes and how to go about it.

You have the why. Now here are five things to help you with how to make changes in your company to integrate accessibility as a core part of your business.

1. Tap the right people to create accessible experiences

According to the second annual State of Accessibility Report, only 40% of the Alexa Top 100 websites are fully accessible, proving the needs of people with disabilities are, more often than not, being overlooked when creating web experiences.

To design for people with disabilities, it’s important to have an understanding of how they use your products or web properties. You’ll also want to know what tools will help them achieve their desired results. This starts with having the right people on board.

Hiring accessibility experts to advise your development team will proactively identify potential issues and ensure you design accessibly from the start, as well as create better products. Better yet, hiring people with disabilities brings a deeper level of understanding to your work.

2. Hire designers passionate about accessibility

Having accessibility experts on your team to provide advice and guidance is a great start. However, if the rest of your team is not passionate about accessibility, that can turn into a potential roadblock. When interviewing new designers, ask about accessibility. It’ll gauge a candidate’s knowledge and passion in the area. At the same time, you set an expectation that accessibility is a priority at your organization.

Being proactive about your hires and making sure they will contribute to a culture of accessibility and inclusion will save you major headaches. Accessibility starts in the design and user experience (UX) phase. If your team doesn’t deliver there, then you will have to fix their mistakes later, essentially delaying the project and costing your organization. It costs more to fix things than to build them accessibly in the first place.

3. Remember that accessibility is for everyone

People deciding whether to invest in accessibility often ask themselves how many people are going to use the feature. The reasoning behind the question is understandable from a business perspective; accessibility can be an expense, and it’s reasonable to want to spend money responsibly.

However, the question is rooted in one of the biggest misconceptions in the field. The myth is that accessibility only benefits people who are blind or deaf. This belief is frustrating because it greatly underestimates the number of people with disabilities and minimizes their place in society. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that people who may not have a disability still benefit greatly from accessibility features.

Disability is a spectrum that all of us will find ourselves on sooner or later. Maybe an injury temporarily limits our mobility that requires us to perform basic tasks like banking and shopping exclusively online. Or maybe our vision and hearing change as we age, which affects our ability to interact online.

When we understand that accessibility is about designing in a way that includes as many people as possible, we can reframe the conversation around whether it’s worth investing in. This approach sends a clear message: No business can afford to ignore a fast-growing population.

Think about it this way: If you have a choice of taking an elevator or the stairs, which would you take? Most pick the elevator. Those ramps on street corners called curb cuts? They were initially designed for allowing wheelchairs to cross the street.

Yet, many use these ramps, including parents pushing strollers, travelers pulling luggage, skateboarders rolling and workers moving heavy loads on dollies. A feature initially designed for accessibility benefits far more people than the original target audience. That’s the magic of the curb-cut effect.

4. Hire agencies that build accessibly by default

Whether you have a small team or are expanding an in-house accessibility practice, working with an agency can be an effective way to embrace and adopt accessible practices. The secret to a successful partnership is choosing an agency that will help your team grow into its accessibility practice.

The key to finding the right agency is selecting one that builds accessibly by default. When you know you are working with an agency that shares your organization’s values, you have a trusted partner in your mission of improving accessibility. It also removes any guesswork or revisions down the line. This is a huge win, as many designers overlook details that can make or break an experience for a user with a disability.

Working with an agency focused on providing accessible experiences narrows the likelihood of errors going unnoticed and unremedied, giving you confidence that you are providing an excellent experience to your entire audience.

5. Integrate accessibility into your supply chain

On any given day, enterprises and large organizations often work with dozens of stakeholders. From vendors and agencies to freelancers and internal employees, the nature of business today is far-reaching and collaborative. While this is valuable for exchanging ideas, accessibility can get lost in the mix with so many different people involved.

To prevent this from happening, it’s important to align these moving pieces of a business into a supply chain that is focused on accessibility at every stage of the business. When everyone is completely bought in, it cuts the risk of a component being inaccessible and causing issues for you in the future.

The startup advantage

A major challenge that comes up repeatedly is the struggle to change the status quo. Once an organization implements and ingrains inaccessible processes and products into its culture, it is hard to make meaningful change. Even if everyone is willing to commit to the change, the fact is, rewriting the way you do business is never easy.

Startups have an advantage here: They do not bear years of inaccessible baggage. It’s not written into the code of their products. It’s not woven into the business culture. In many ways, a startup is a clean slate, and they need to learn from the trials of their more established peers.

Startup founders have the opportunity to build an accessible organization from the ground up. They can create an accessible-first culture that will not need rewriting 10, 20 or 30 years from now by hiring a diverse workforce with a passion for accessibility, writing accessible code for products and web properties, choosing to work with only third parties who embrace accessibility and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

Many of these considerations here have a common denominator: culture. While most people in the technology industry will agree that accessibility is an important and worthy cause to champion, it has a huge awareness problem.

Accessibility needs to be everywhere in software development, from requirements and beyond to include marketing, sales and other non-tech teams. It cannot be a niche concern left to a siloed team to handle. If we, as an industry and as a society, recognize that accessibility is everyone’s job, we will create a culture that prioritizes it without question.

By creating this culture, we will no longer be asking, “Do we have to make this accessible?” Instead, we’ll ask, “How do we make this accessible?” It’s a major mindset shift that will make a tangible difference in the lives of 1 billion people living with a disability and those who eventually will have a disability or temporary, situational or episodic impairments affecting their ability to use online and digital products.

Advocating for accessibility may feel like an uphill battle at times, but it isn’t rocket science. The biggest need is education and awareness.

When you understand the people you build accessible products for and the reasons they need those products, it becomes easier to secure buy-in from people in all parts of your organization. Creating this culture is the first step in a long quest toward accessibility. And the best part is, it gets easier from here.

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

RISE will return to Hong Kong in 2022

By Catherine Shu

RISE, one of Asia’s largest tech conferences, is returning to Hong Kong in March 2022 as an in-person event, and will be held there for at least five years, announced organizer Web Summit today. Last year, Web Summit said RISE would move to Kuala Lumpur, but its return to Hong Kong means the conference will no longer be held in Malaysia’s capital, though a spokesperson told TechCrunch that it is plans to host other events there in the future.

RISE will take place at the AsiaWorld-Expo from March 14 to 17, 2022.

In November 2019, while large pro-democracy demonstrations were taking place, Web Summit announced it was postponing RISE to 2021. Then in December 2020, it said that the 2021 event would not be held, and RISE would instead resume in Kuala Lumpur in 2022.

In an emailed statement, a RISE spokesperson told TechCrunch, “The political situation in Hong Kong did not impact our decision to consider Kuala Lumpur as a host city. Rise 2022 was originally meant to take place in Kuala Lumpur. However, this is no longer feasible. We would like to thank the MDEC, who invited us to host RISE in their wonderful city,” adding “RISE has already had five successful years in Hong Kong since its launch in 2015. Our long-standing relationship with the city made it a natural decision to stay.”

In Web Summit’s announcement, co-founder and chief executive officer Paddy Cosgrove said, “We are extremely grateful for the support the city of Hong Kong has given RISE over the last five years, and we couldn’t be more excited to return in-person in 2022.”

The announcement included a statement from Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Edward Yau, who said, “I’m very excited that RISE, the world-renowned tech event, has chosen to return to Hong Kong and stay here in the coming five years.”

Chrome Beta to experiment with a more powerful New Tab page, web highlights and search changes

By Sarah Perez

Google is launching a new version of its Chrome Beta browser today that’s introducing some fairly notable changes to its user interface and design. The browser will introduce an updated New Tab page, which will now include cards directing you back to past web search activities, instead of only a list of shortcuts to favorite websites. Other changes aim to make it easier to navigate search results and to highlight and share quotes from the web.

The New Tab page’s update will be one of the first changes Chrome beta users may notice.

The idea behind this design change is about getting you back quickly to past web activities without a need to dive into your browsing history to remember which sites you had been using for things like recipes or shopping. It can also help you to return quickly to your recent documents list in Google Drive, in a handy bit of cross-promotion for Google services.

Image Credits: Google

The page will now feature what Google is calling “cards,” not just links, which could direct you to things like a recently visited recipe site where you had been browsing for ideas, a Google doc you need to finish editing, or a retailer’s website where you had left your shopping cart filled with things you may like to purchase at a later date. The latter ties into Google’s larger investment in online shopping, which has already seen the search giant trying to grab more market share in the space by making product listings free and partnering with e-commerce platforms like Shopify.

Google is rightly concerned about Amazon’s surging advertising business, which is a large part of the retailer’s “Other” category that grew 87% year-over-year to generate $7.9 billion in the second quarter. Now, it’s capitalizing on Chrome’s New Tab real estate to elevate shopping activity in the hopes of pushing users to complete their transactions.

Another change aims to make it easier to do web research. Google says that often, users searching for something on its platform will navigate to multiple web pages to find their answer. The new version of Chrome will experiment with a different way of connecting users to their search results by adding a row beneath the address bar on Chrome for Android that will show the rest of the results so you can navigate to other web pages without needing to hit the back button.

Image Credits: Google

A new “quote cards” experiment, also coming to Chrome Beta on Android, will allow users to create a stylized image for social sharing that features text found on websites. Taking a screengrab of a website’s text is something that’s already a common activity, and particularly for people who want to share a key point from a news article they’re reading with followers on platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. With this new feature, you’ll be able to long-press text to highlight it, then tap Share and select a template by tapping on the “Create Card” option from the menu.

All features are a part of the Chrome Beta browser. To enable experiments, you can type chrome://flags into the browser’s address bar or click on the Experiments beaker icon, and then enable the flags. The associated flags for these experiments are #ntp-modules flag (New Tab page), #continuous-search (search results changes) and #webnotes-stylize flag (quote cards).

Experiments don’t necessarily become Chrome features that roll out more broadly. Instead, they offer Google a way to capture large-scale user feedback about its new design ideas, so the features can be tweaked and fine-tuned before a public release.

Facebook enters the fantasy gaming market

By Sarah Perez

Facebook is getting into fantasy sports and other types of fantasy games. The company this morning announced the launch of Facebook Fantasy Games in the U.S. and Canada on the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Some games are described as “simpler” versions of the traditional fantasy sports games already on the market, while others allow users to make predictions associated with popular TV series, like “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette.”

The first game to launch is Pick & Play Sports, in partnership with Whistle Sports, where fans get points for correctly predicting the winner of a big game, the points scored by a top player, or other events that unfold during the match. Players can also earn bonus points for building a streak of correct predictions over several days. This game is arriving today.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the months ahead, it will be followed by other games in sports, TV, and pop culture, including Fantasy Survivor, where players choose a set of Castaways from the popular CBS TV show to join their fantasy team and Fantasy “The Bachelorette,” where fans will pick a group of men from the suitors vying for the Bachelorette’s heart and get points based on their actions and events that take place during the show. Other upcoming sports-focused games include MLB Home Run Picks, where players pick the team that they think will hit the most home runs, and LaLiga Winning Streak, where fans predict the team that will win that day.

In addition to top players being featured on leaderboards, games have a social component for those who want to play with friends.

Image Credits: Facebook

Players can create their own fantasy league with friends to compete with one another or against other fans, either publicly or privately. League members can compare scores with each other and will have a place where they can share picks, reactions and comments. This league area resembles a private group on Facebook, as it offers its own compose box for posting only to members and its own dedicated feed. However, the page is designed to support groups with specific buttons to “play” or view the “leaderboard,” among others.

The addition of fantasy games could help Facebook increase the time users spent on its app at a time when the company is facing significant competition in social, namely from TikTok. According to App Annie, the average monthly time spent per user in TikTok grew faster than other top social apps in 2020, including by 70% in the U.S., surpassing Facebook.

Facebook had dabbled in the idea of becoming a second screen companion for live events in the past, but in a different way than fantasy sports and games. Instead, its R&D division tested Venue, which worked as a way for fans to comment on live events which were hosted in the app by well-known personalities.

The new league games will be available from the bookmark menu on the mobile app and in News Feed through notifications.

Extra Crunch roundup: Toast and Freshworks S-1s, pre-pitch tips, flexible funding lessons

By Walter Thompson

The digital transformation currently sweeping society has likely reached your favorite local restaurant.

Since 2013, Boston-based Toast has offered bars and eateries a software platform that lets them manage orders, payments and deliveries.

Over the last year, its customers have processed more than $38 billion in gross payment volume, so Alex Wilhelm analyzed the company’s S-1 for The Exchange with great interest.

“Toast was last valued at just under $5 billion when it last raised, per Crunchbase data,” he writes. “And folks are saying that it could be worth $20 billion in its debut. Does that square with the numbers?”


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


Airbnb, DoorDash and Coinbase each debuted at past Y Combinator Demo Days; as of this writing, they employ a combined 10,000 people.

Today and tomorrow, TechCrunch reporters will cover the proceedings at YC’s Summer 20201 Demo Day. In addition to writing up founder pitches, they’ll also rank their favorites.

Even remotely, I can feel a palpable sense of excitement radiating from our team — anything can happen at YC Demo Day, so sign up for Extra Crunch to follow the action.

Thanks very much for reading; I hope you have an excellent week.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

Image Credits: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

In August 2006, AWS activated its EC2 cloud-based virtual computer, a milestone in the cloud infrastructure giant’s development.

“You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish,” writes enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

In the 15 years since, EC2 has enabled clients of any size to test and run their own applications on AWS’ virtual machines.

To learn more about a fundamental technological shift that “would help fuel a whole generation of startups,” Ron interviewed EC2 VP Dave Brown, who built and led the Amazon EC2 Frontend team.

3 ways to become a better manager in the work-from-home era

Image of a manager talking to his team via a video conference.

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

Most managers agree that OKRs foster transparency and accountability, but running a team effectively has different challenges when workers are attending all-hands meetings from their kitchen tables.

Instead of just discussing key metrics before board meetings or performance reviews, make them part of the day-to-day culture, recommends Jeremy Epstein, Gtmhub’s CMO.

“Strengthen your team by creating authentic workplace transparency using numbers as a universal language and providing meaning behind your team’s work.”

The pre-pitch: 7 ways to build relationships with VCs

A person attracts people to his side with a magnet.

Image Credits: Getty Images under an Andrii Yalanskyi (opens in a new window) license

Many founders must overcome a few emotional hurdles before they’re comfortable pitching a potential investor face-to-face.

To alleviate that pressure, Unicorn Capital founder Evan Fisher recommends that entrepreneurs use pre-pitch meetings to build and strengthen relationships before asking for a check:

“This is the ‘we actually aren’t looking for money; we just want to be friends for now’ pitch that gets you on an investor’s radar so that when it’s time to raise your next round, they’ll be far more likely to answer the phone because they actually know who you are.”

Pre-pitches are good for more than curing the jitters: These conversations help founders get a better sense of how VCs think and sometimes lead to serendipitous outcomes.

“Investors are opportunists by necessity,” says Fisher, “so if they like the cut of your business’s jib, you never know — the FOMO might start kicking hard.”

Lessons from COVID: Flexible funding is a must for alternative lenders

Flexible Multi Colored Coil Crossing Hexagon Frame on White Background.

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

FischerJordan’s Deeba Goyal and Archita Bhandari break down the pandemic’s impact on alternative lenders, specifically what they had to do to survive the crisis, taking a look at smaller lenders including Credibly, Kabbage, Kapitus and BlueVine.

“Only those who were able to find a way through the complexities of their existing capital sources were able to maintain their performance, and the rest were left to perish or find new funding avenues,” they write.

Inside Freshworks’ IPO filing

Customer engagement software company Freshworks’ S-1 filing depicts a company that’s experiencing accelerating revenue growth, “a great sign for the health of its business,” reports Alex Wilhelm in this morning’s The Exchange.

“Most companies see their growth rates decline as they scale, as larger denominators make growth in percentage terms more difficult.”

Studying the company’s SEC filing, he found that “Freshworks isn’t a company where we need to cut it lots of slack, as we might with an adjusted EBITDA number. It is going public ready for Big Kid metrics.”

How Amazon EC2 grew from a notion into a foundational element of cloud computing

By Ron Miller

Fifteen years ago this week on August 25, 2006, AWS turned on the very first beta instance of EC2, its cloud-based virtual computers. Today cloud computing, and more specifically infrastructure as a service, is a staple of how businesses use computing, but at that moment it wasn’t a well known or widely understood concept.

The EC in EC2 stands for Elastic Compute, and that name was chosen deliberately. The idea was to provide as much compute power as you needed to do a job, then shut it down when you no longer needed it — making it flexible like an elastic band. The launch of EC2 in beta was preceded by the beta release of S3 storage six months earlier, and both services marked the starting point in AWS’ cloud infrastructure journey.

You really can’t overstate what Amazon was able to accomplish with these moves. It was able to anticipate an entirely different way of computing and create a market and a substantial side business in the process. It took vision to recognize what was coming and the courage to forge ahead and invest the resources necessary to make it happen, something that every business could learn from.

The AWS origin story is complex, but it was about bringing the IT power of the Amazon business to others. Amazon at the time was not the business it is today, but it was still rather substantial and still had to deal with massive fluctuations in traffic such as Black Friday when its website would be flooded with traffic for a short but sustained period of time. While the goal of an e-commerce site, and indeed every business, is attracting as many customers as possible, keeping the site up under such stress takes some doing and Amazon was learning how to do that well.

Those lessons and a desire to bring the company’s internal development processes under control would eventually lead to what we know today as Amazon Web Services, and that side business would help fuel a whole generation of startups. We spoke to Dave Brown, who is VP of EC2 today, and who helped build the first versions of the tech, to find out how this technological shift went down.

Sometimes you get a great notion

The genesis of the idea behind AWS started in the 2000 timeframe when the company began looking at creating a set of services to simplify how they produced software internally. Eventually, they developed a set of foundational services — compute, storage and database — that every developer could tap into.

But the idea of selling that set of services really began to take shape at an executive offsite at Jeff Bezos’ house in 2003. A 2016 TechCrunch article on the origins AWS described how that started to come together:

As the team worked, Jassy recalled, they realized they had also become quite good at running infrastructure services like compute, storage and database (due to those previously articulated internal requirements). What’s more, they had become highly skilled at running reliable, scalable, cost-effective data centers out of need. As a low-margin business like Amazon, they had to be as lean and efficient as possible.

They realized that those skills and abilities could translate into a side business that would eventually become AWS. It would take a while to put these initial ideas into action, but by December 2004, they had opened an engineering office in South Africa to begin building what would become EC2. As Brown explains it, the company was looking to expand outside of Seattle at the time, and Chris Pinkham, who was director in those days, hailed from South Africa and wanted to return home.

How Cisco keeps its startup acquisition engine humming

By Ron Miller

Enterprise startups have several viable exit strategies: Some will go public, but most successful outcomes will be via acquisition, often by one of the highly acquisitive large competitors like Salesforce, Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, SAP, Adobe or Cisco.

From rivals to “spin-ins,” Cisco has a particularly rich history of buying its way to global success. It has remained quite active, acquiring more than 30 startups over the last four years for a total of 229 over the life of the company. The most recent was Epsagon earlier this month, with five more in its most recent quarter (Q4 FY2021): Slido, Sedona Systems, Kenna Security, Involvio and Socio. It even announced three of them in the same week.

It begins by identifying targets; Cisco does that by being intimately involved with a list of up to 1,000 startups that could be a fit for acquisition.

What’s the secret sauce? How it is going faster than ever? For startups that encounter a company like Cisco, what do you need to know if you have talks that go places with it? We spoke to the company CFO, senior vice president of corporate development, and the general manager and executive vice president of security and collaboration to help us understand how all of the pieces fit together, why they acquire so many companies and what startups can learn from their process.

Cisco, as you would expect, has developed a rigorous methodology over the years to identify startups that could fit its vision. That involves product, of course, but also team and price, all coming together to make a successful deal. From targeting to negotiating to closing to incorporating the company into the corporate fold, a startup can expect a well-tested process.

Even with all this experience, chances are it won’t work perfectly every time. But since Cisco started doing M&A nine years into its history with the purchase of LAN switcher Crescendo Communications in 1993 — leading to its massive switching business today — the approach clearly works well enough that they keep doing it.

It starts with cash

If you want to be an acquisitive company, chances are you have a fair amount of cash on hand. That is certainly the case with Cisco, which currently has more than $24.5 billion in cash and equivalents, albeit down from $46 billion in 2017.

CFO Scott Herren says that the company’s cash position gives it the flexibility to make strategic acquisitions when it sees opportunities.

“We generate free cash flow net of our capex in round numbers in the $14 billion a year range, so it’s a fair amount of free cash flow. The dividend consumes about $6 billion a year,” Herren said. “We do share buybacks to offset our equity grant programs, but that still leaves us with a fair amount of cash that we generate year on year.”

He sees acquisitions as a way to drive top-line company growth while helping to push the company’s overall strategic goals. “As I think about where our acquisition strategy fits into the overall company strategy, it’s really finding the innovation we need and finding the companies that fit nicely and that marry to our strategy,” he said.

“And then let’s talk about the deal … and does it make sense or is there a … seller price point that we can meet and is it clearly something that I think will continue to be a core part of our strategy as a company in terms of finding innovation and driving top-line growth there,” he said.

The company says examples of acquisitions that both drove innovation and top-line growth include Duo Security in 2018, ThousandEyes in 2020 and Acacia Communications this year. Each offers some component that helps drive Cisco’s strategy — security, observability and next-generation internet infrastructure — while contributing to growth. Indeed, one of the big reasons for all these acquisitions could be about maintaining growth.

Playing the match game

Cisco is at its core still a networking equipment company, but it has been looking to expand its markets and diversify outside its core networking roots for years by moving into areas like communications and security. Consider that along the way it has spent billions on companies like WebEx, which it bought in 2007 for $3.2 billion, or AppDynamics, which it bought in 2017 for $3.7 billion just before it was going to IPO. It has also made more modest purchases (by comparison at least), such as MindMeld for $125 million and countless deals that were too small to require them to report the purchase price.

Derek Idemoto, SVP for corporate development and Cisco investments, has been with the company for 100 of those acquisitions and has been involved in helping scout companies of interest. His team begins the process of identifying possible targets and where they fall within a number of categories, such as whether it allows them to enter new markets (as WebEx did), extend their markets (as with Duo Security), or acqui-hire top technical talent and get some cool tech, as they did when they purchased BabbleLabs last year.

OnlyFans’ explicit content ban should spark a conversation about a creators’ bill of rights

By Ram Iyer
Bremner Morris Contributor
Bremner Morris is CMO/CRO of Rally, a crypto platform that allows creators and artists to launch their own digital currency and build sustainable, independent economies with their fan communities. Previously, he was head of global go-to-market and revenue at Patreon.

OnlyFans’ decision to ban sexually explicit content is reigniting an important and overlooked conversation around tech companies, content guidelines and sex work. However, the implications of this discussion go beyond just one platform and one marginalized group.

It’s indicative of a broken ecosystem for content creators where platforms have outsized control over the ways in which creators are allowed to share content and engage with their followers and fans. In response, creators are decentralizing, broadening their reach to multiple platforms and taking their audiences with them.

In doing so, creators also have the opportunity to define what rights they want to be built into these platforms.

History repeats itself

Creators being shut out of the individual platforms is nothing new. Many are comparing OnlyFans’ policy change to Tumblr’s move to ban adult content in 2018. This has been an ongoing issue for YouTube as well — several communities, including a group of LGBTQ YouTubers, have accused the platform of targeting them with their demonetization algorithm.

Many of these platforms, including OnlyFans, point to their payment partners’ policies as a barrier to allowing certain forms of content. One of the earliest major controversies we saw in this arena was when PayPal banned WikiLeaks in 2010.

While each of these events have drawn the ire of creators and their followers, it’s indicative of an ecosystemwide problem, not necessarily an indictment of the platforms themselves.

After all, these platforms have provided the opportunity for creators to build an audience and engage with their fans. But these platforms have also had to put policies in place to shield themselves from regulatory and reputational risk.

The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

That doesn’t mean that that all guidelines and policies are bad — they play a role to foster and govern a positive and safe community with thoughtful guidelines — but it should not come at the cost of harming and de-platforming the creators who fuel these platforms with content and engagement. The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

And, at the end of the day, it takes away from their ability to create meaningful content, engage with their communities and earn a reliable living.

As creators have lost more and more control to platforms over time, some have begun exploring alternative options that allow independent and direct monetization from their audience in a distributed way.

Decentralizing, monetizing

The direct-to-fan monetization model is already displacing the traditional ad-based, platform-dictated model that creators relied on for years. During my time at Patreon, I saw how putting control and ownership in the hands of creators builds a more sustainable, fair and vibrant creator economy. Substack has given writers a similarly powerful financial tool, and over the past few years, there has been an ever-growing number of companies that serve creators.

The challenge is that many of these companies rely on the existing systems that hamstrung the platforms of the past, and have business models that require take rates and revenue shares. In many ways, the creator economy needs new infrastructure and business models to build the next phase of creator and fan interaction.

With the right application, crypto can help rewrite the playbook of how creators monetize, engage with their fans and partner with platforms. Its peer-to-peer structure reflects the direct-to-fan relationship and allows creators to own the financial relationship with their audience instead of relying on tech giants or payment partners as middlemen. Beyond that, crypto allows creators to maintain ownership and control over their brands and intellectual property.

Additionally, many crypto projects allow participants to have a voice in the value proposition, strategic direction, operational functions and economic structures of the project via DAOs or governance tokens. In this way, creators can join projects and set the direction in a way that aligns with how they want to engage with their communities.

Creators are especially positioned to benefit from community-governed projects given their ability to motivate and engage their own communities. We are in the early phases of crypto adoption, and creators have a huge opportunity to shape the future of this paradigm shift. With social tokens, creators can mint their own cryptocurrencies that allow for a shared economy that creators and fans can grow together and use to transact directly across different platforms.

NFTs are another category that have exploded in popularity this year, but the industry is just scratching the surface of the utility that they will have. Creators and crypto projects are figuring out ways to make NFTs go beyond collectibles; NFTs provide an engaging and functional digital tool for creators to give their fans their time (through video calls or AMAs) or access to other exclusive benefits.

Creators are just beginning to discover the power that crypto provides. As the user experience of crypto-based platforms continues to become more intuitive, crypto will become ubiquitous. Before that point, creators should think about what rights they need (and can demand) from the decentralized services they use.

A creators’ bill of rights

Be it within crypto or not, creators finally have the leverage to determine their rights. While I believe that creators should be the ones leading this conversation, here are a few jumping off points:

  • Ability to move freely across platforms: Reliance on individual platforms is at the heart of many of the issues that creators face. By allowing creators to take their fans with them wherever they go, many of the problems we’ve seen even with direct-to-fan monetization can be solved.
  • Direct financial relationships between creators and fans: At the heart of the OnlyFans matter is creators’ inability to own their financial relationships with fans. Even if direct financial relationships aren’t feasible on every platform, creators should have options to own those relationships and dictate their own terms.
  • Creator-led decision-making: Historically, platforms have given creators minimal control over platformwide decisions and policies. Creators should have direct input and even be able to vote on various platformwide measures.
  • Quality over quantity: Platforms and their algorithms are structured to reward quantity and force creators down a path of burnout and hyperspeed content creation. Both creators and fans are looking for a more deep and engaging interaction and incentivizing this behavior will ensure a more vibrant and sustainable creator ecosystem.
  • Low (or zero) take rates: Big tech platforms take nearly 100% of revenue from creators. Creators (and their fans) should be earning the majority of platform revenue.
  • Equity access or revenue sharing: Big tech platforms have built empires on the labor of creators. Instead of dictating ad revenue payout to creators, decentralized platforms should allow creators to have true “skin in the game” by being able to own a piece of the pie outright or benefit from the overall growth of the ecosystem. This alignment of interests will be a major shift from the capital-labor split we see today.
  • Transparency and consultation: Creators should have full view into what they can or can’t do and a seat at the table as policies are being created and adapted. Platforms’ content moderation decisions and the algorithms behind demonetization are often opaque, broadly applied and decided without consulting the creators they will impact. They should also have visibility into the size of the overall revenue pie and their share.
  • Ability for reform and rehabilitation: We are all human, and there might be moments that a creator knowingly or unknowingly goes outside of the guidelines set by a platform. Creating a space for creators to rehabilitate their content will create a more trusting and collaborative relationship between creators and platforms.

We’ll leave it to creators to dictate their terms — they’ve been cut out of this conversation for far too long. That said, I’m confident that Rally and many other key participants in the Web 3.0 ecosystem would be open to supporting this effort to create an environment that works for creators and their fans.

Twitter adds support for Twitter Spaces to its rebuilt API

By Sarah Perez

Twitter is rolling out changes to its newly rebuilt API that will allow third-party developers to build tools and other solutions specifically for its audio chatroom product, Twitter Spaces. The company today announced it’s shipping new endpoints to support Spaces on the Twitter API v2, with the initial focus on enabling discovery of live or scheduled Spaces. This may later be followed by an API update that will make it possible for developers to build out more tools for Spaces’ hosts.

The company first introduced its fully rebuilt API last year, with the goal of modernizing its developer platform while also making it easier to add support for Twitter’s newer features at a faster pace. The new support for Twitter Spaces in the API is one example of that plan now being put into action.

With the current API update, Twitter hopes developers will build new products that enable users — both on and off Twitter — to find Twitter Spaces more easily, the company says. This could potentially broaden the reach of Spaces and introduce its audio chats to more people, which could give Twitter a leg up in the increasingly competitive landscape for audio-based social networking. Today, Twitter Spaces isn’t only taking on Clubhouse, but also the audio chat experiences being offered by Facebook, Discord, Reddit, Public.com, Spotify and smaller social apps.

According to Twitter, developers will gain access to two new endpoints, Spaces lookup and Spaces search, which allow them to lookup live and scheduled Spaces using specific criteria — like the Spaces ID, user ID or keywords. The Spaces lookup endpoint also offers a way to begin to understand the public metadata and metrics associated with a Space, like the participant count, speaker count, host profile information, detected language being used, start time, scheduled start time, creation time, status and whether the Space is ticketed or not, Twitter tells us.

To chose which Spaces functionality to build into its API first, Twitter says it spoke to developers who told the company they wanted functionality that could help people discover Spaces they may find interesting and set reminders for attending. Developers said they also want to build tools that would allow Spaces hosts to better understand how well their audio chats are performing. But most of these options aren’t yet available with today’s API update. Twitter only said it’s “exploring” other functionality — like tools that would allow developers to integrate reminders into their products, as well as those that would be able to surface certain metrics fields available in the API or allow developers to build analytics dashboards.

These ideas for other endpoints haven’t yet gained a spot on Twitter’s Developer Platform Roadmap, either.

Twitter also told us it’s not working on any API endpoints that would allow developers to build standalone client apps for Twitter Spaces, as that’s not something in which its developer community expressed interest.

Several developers have been participating in a weekly Spaces hosted by Daniele Bernardi from Twitter’s Spaces team, and were already clued in to coming updates. Developers with access to the v2 API will be able to begin building with the new endpoints starting today, but none have new experiences ready to launch at this time. Twitter notes Bernardi will also host another Spaces event today at 12 PM PT to talk in more detail about the API update and what’s still to come.

Twitter’s web redesign isn’t as accessible as it should be, experts say

By Amanda Silberling

After teasing its new font in January, Twitter made some major changes to its website and app design this week. But while Twitter framed these updates as making the platform “more accessible,” some accessibility experts say that these changes missed the mark.

Most noticeably, tweets now appear in “Chirp,” Twitter’s proprietary typeface, and the display has even more visual contrast between the background and text. Other updates made the interface less cluttered, removing unnecessary divider lines. For people with low vision, high-contrast design can make websites more legible, but the current contrast level is so high that it’s causing strain for some users. Twitter far exceeds the minimum contrast standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides recommendations for making websites accessible to disabled people. But web accessibility isn’t one-size fits all — while some users may need a high-contrast display, others who suffer from chronic migraines might require a more muted experience. Research has also shown that dyslexic people tend to read faster when presented with lower-contrast text.

“When the update hit, I could immediately feel pain in my eyes, and within about half an hour, I was having a tension headache,” said Alex Haagaard, a design researcher and founding member at The Disabled List. “I have a lot of chronic pain, and I cannot deliberately expose myself to something that is going to be exacerbating my levels of pain, because then that has cascade effects.”

Up until last year, Twitter’s accessibility team was volunteer-based — paid employees at Twitter would take on accessibility projects on top of their existing jobs, TechCrunch reported. In September, a few months after Twitter had released an audio tweet feature without accessibility considerations, Twitter introduced two dedicated accessibility teams within its company. But experts emphasize that including disabled people in design decisions from the get-go is necessary when implementing new features.

“They talked a good talk about how they were going to change this, that they were going to integrate accessibility and disabled perspectives more into their design processes, and from this, it seems they have not done an adequate job with that,” said Haagaard. “Engaging people from disabled communities as consultants at the high-level stages, within the research and conceptualization phase, would prevent designers from getting to a point where you’re testing something and you realize it’s fundamentally problematic and it’s too late.”

Twitter told TechCrunch that “feedback was sought from people with disabilities throughout the process, from the beginning. However, people have different preferences and needs and we will continue to track feedback and refine the experience. We realize we could get more feedback in the future and we’ll work to do that.”

We are seeing some display bugs, so if you encounter those please send us a screenshot. This will help us troubleshoot the issues.

Also, if you continue to experience painful eye strain or headaches/migraines because of the font, please check-in with us again.

— Twitter Accessibility (@TwitterA11y) August 12, 2021

On its accessibility account Twitter, acknowledged the problems that users were reporting with eye-strain and migraines after the update. This afternoon, the platform added that due to user feedback, it is making contrast changes on all buttons to make them “easier on the eyes.”

“When a design organization makes an announcement, and the accessibility organization alongside it actually has things to say about it, that means they work together, and that’s always a good thing,” said Matt May, head of Inclusive Design at Adobe. “The key thing is to continue to listen and find the people who aren’t being represented, and try to synthesize them within the rest of the system.”

May points out that an update this ostentatious will inevitably yield more pushback, but behind the scenes, the app is, he said, “doing important accessibility work that usually slides under the radar.” For example, Twitter recently enabled users to upload SRT files to videos, which adds captions. Plus, Twitter Spaces has support for live captioning, while competitors like Clubhouse still don’t offer this basic accessibility feature.

It’s odd that Twitter neglected to add customization capabilities when it rolled out its higher-contrast display and new default typeface, since the company has a history of offering customization elsewhere in its user experience. Currently, users can toggle among dark, light and dim modes, make their default font size bigger or smaller, and even change the look of buttons and hyperlinks to colors like purple, orange and pink. Even before this week’s update, Twitter’s accessibility panel allowed users to enable a higher contrast mode. But still, there is no way for users to reduce the contrast or change what font the site uses, which experts cite as a design flaw. With its first proprietary typeface Chirp, Twitter sought to “improve how we convey emotion,” but users reported the font to be more difficult to read than Helvetica, which Twitter used before Chirp.

According to Shawn Lawton Henry — a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, editor of the WCAG recommendations, and leader of the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility education and outreach — websites should include customization options for users to toggle among fonts, contrast levels and more. WCAG doesn’t require this currently, but Henry says that future updates of the guidelines will recommend that websites give users the option to change contrast.

“The main issue is that the default contrast should [meet the WCAG standards] and users should be able to change it. It’s not hard, right?” Henry said. “It’s fine to have a default font, but you have to make it customizable. Even if it was the most readable font known, it would still be important to allow people to change it because of individual differences.”

When asked about adding ways for users to change typefaces and contrast levels, a Twitter spokesperson said that the company had “no concrete plans to share right now, but we’re always looking at ways to improve the experience and listening to feedback.”

“I think part of the disappointment here is that they’re framing this as an accessibility thing, but it’s also really clear that it was equally about building brand identity,” Haagaard said.

While some users will override website settings with USS (User Style Sheets), Henry’s research for the World Wide Web Consortium showed that user agents like web browsers and e-book readers should provide users the ability to customize these settings more easily. Not all users are tech-savvy enough to write USS, and it’s easier for users to toggle among the accessibility settings specific to an app. This level of customization isn’t unprecedented — in June, Discord added a saturation slider in its accessibility settings, for example.

“The beauty of the web is that it’s not paper, and we can change it,” Henry said.

Medium revamps its Partner Program, launching new eligibility requirements and referral bonuses

By Amanda Silberling

Amid a year of editorial pivots and employee exits, Medium announced today that it will make significant changes to its Medium Partner Program, which allows writers on the platform to monetize their content.

Founded in 2011, Medium launched its Partner Program in 2017. Since then, the platform has paid out $28 million to over 200,000 contributors. Initially, it offered payouts based on how much time Medium members spent reading a writer’s content. For $5 per month or $50 per year, Medium members could read all posts on the platform without hitting a paywall. Plus, part of each member’s subscription was split among the writers they read; so, if a Medium member spent 10% of their time reading one writer’s work, for example, that writer would get 10% of the subscriber’s revenue share.

Medium said that earnings based on read time will remain the same. But now, Medium will offer a new way to make money with the launch of a referral program.

Previously, if a reader converted to a paying member within 30 days of reading a writer’s story, that writer would get credit for the amount of time the reader spent reading their work. Under the new model, Partner Program writers will now have a personalized referral landing page — for any reader who purchases a Medium subscription via their page, the writer will get half of that member’s subscription fee for as long as they remain a paying member, minus the standard 2.9% + $0.30 in payment processing fees. So, if a writer got 100 readers to sign up for a monthly Medium membership through their referral, that would net the writer $227 per month.

However, now it’s more difficult for a writer to join the Partner Program — writers must have 100 subscribers, at least one published Medium story, and they must live within specific geographic regions. Even if a Partner meets the new eligibility requirements, they might lose their status if they don’t publish anything new in a six month period. Still, under the previous structure, just becoming a Partner didn’t guarantee financial rewards — some Partners with smaller followings would make pennies each month. Existing Partners will retain their status through the end of 2021, and if they haven’t reached 100 subscribers by then, they will be removed.

Also, Medium will soon institute a minimum payout threshold of $10, meaning that if a writer makes less than $10 in a month, that pay will roll over to the next month until they amass at least $10.

Medium has been reticent about its subscriber numbers in the past, but CEO Ev Williams told TechCrunch in November that its subscriber numbers were in the “high hundreds of thousands.” In March 2021, Medium had 725,000 subscribers per Axios, but Digiday previously reported that Medium had hoped to reach 1 million subscribers by 2020. As of September, its competitor Substack, founded in 2017, had 250,000 paid subscribers and raised a $65 million series B round two months later. Medium last raised venture funding in 2016 with a $50M series C round.

Platforms like Substack and the newer Ghost pay writers based on how many paying subscribers they have. Medium’s new revenue sharing model similarly incentivizes writers to corral readers to the platform, but Medium takes about 50%. For direct subscriptions to a writer’s individual newsletter, Substack takes 10%, and Ghost takes $9 per month. While Substack or Ghost readers might subscribe to multiple individual newsletters, Medium subscribers pay just one $5 monthly or $50 yearly fee to access all of the website’s content.

The newsletter business is competitive — in June, Facebook launched a newsletter platform called Bulletin with hand-picked contributors, and Twitter acquired Revue earlier this year. Then, last week, Quora unveiled a monetization platform called Quora+, which costs the same as a Medium membership. Similar to Medium, Quora+ subscribers get access to all content any writer chooses to put behind a paywall, and writers are paid based on engagement with their content. But writers can also write paywalled posts on Spaces, which are like user-created publications on Quora — Quora takes a 5% cut of those payments.

Link-in-bio monetization platform Snipfeed raises a $5.5M seed round

By Amanda Silberling

The link-in-bio business is heating up as more mobile website builders compete for a coveted slice of real estate on a creator’s TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter. Linktree leads the space, securing a recent $45 million Series B raise to build out e-commerce features, but Beacons boasts competitive creator monetization tools with just a $6 million seed round in May. Now, Snipfeed enters the ring with its own $5.5 million seed round, including investments from CRV, Abstract Ventures, Crossbeam (Ali Hamed), id8, Michael Ovitz (founder of CAA), Michael Bosstick, Diaspora Ventures, and others.

Linktree has been around since 2016 and has more funding than its up-and-coming competitors. But for creators seeking to monetize their following, these newer platforms may be more attractive to some creators, since they already have built-in tools to help them monetize their followings. Linktree currently supports tipping on the platform for users subscribed to its $6 Linktree Pro platform, but Snipfeed offers a wider range of monetization options; some creators are making over $20,000 per month on the platform, according to CEO and co-founder Rédouane Ramdani.

Snipfeed started as a content discovery platform with 44,000 weekly active users — but when Snipfeed added a creator monetization tool to its platform, it became its most popular feature. So, in February 2020, with little to no funding left, the company completely pivoted to its current link-in-bio business. Since then, Snipfeed has amassed 50,000 registered users, with the user base growing 500% in the last six months (Linktree, for comparison, has over 12 million users).

Based in Paris and Los Angeles, Snipfeed’s 15-person staff is particularly interested in the “long tail” of creators, which it says encompasses over 46 million people.

“Content creator doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the next Addison Rae or a TikTok star,” explained Ramdani. “It means that you might be a doctor or lawyer, and on top of that, you’re going to have a TikTok where you explain how to file your taxes and that kind of stuff. They have this expertise, and they’re wondering, ‘How can I turn that into a side-hustle?'”

Image Credits: Snipfeed

In addition to a standard tipping tool, Snipfeed allows users to sell digital goods, like on-demand video, ebooks, access to livestreams, and one-on-one consultations. But Snipfeed’s biggest differentiator is its Cameo-like system for selling personalized content. For example, TikToker maylikethemonthh uses Snipfeed to sell asynchronous, video-recorded tarot readings. While asking a single, personalized astrology question costs $5, a more in-depth reading can cost up to $20 or $40.

Snipfeed is free to set up, but if you make sales, the company takes 15% — this percentage is inclusive of any transaction fees. Through Snipfeed’s referral program, creators can make 5% of sales from anyone they onboard to the platform (this comes out of Snipfeed’s commission).

“We decided to go with this model because we really want to have a relationship where we help the creators really make money. We only make money if they make money,” Ramdani said.

If a creator or celebrity were to sell personalized videos on Cameo, they’d lose 25% to the platform. Meanwhile, Beacons takes 9% of sales from its free version, and 5% from its $10 per month version, which offers more customization, integrations, analytics.

Image Credits: Snipfeed

Still, depending on the type of creator, the features that each link-in-bio startup offers might matter more than the cost. Beacons allows users to share a shopping-enabled TikTok feed, which could be huge a money-maker for creators that often share product recommendations with affiliate links, which give them a commission from sales. Ramdani said that astrologers have been particularly successful on Snipfeed, since fans can book a variety of asynchronous services at a wide range of prices. But these features could benefit any creator who can profit from answering followers’ specific questions — a chef could offer recipe ideas based on what’s in a fan’s fridge, or a life coach could make a personalized video if a follower requests advice.

With its $5.5 million in seed funding, Snipfeed plans to build out its e-commerce tools so that creators can sell physical products on their link-in-bio (Beacons and Linktree are also working on this with their recent funding rounds — but Beacons’ and Snipfeed’s seed rounds are small compared to Linktree’s Series B). The company also wants to develop educational content to show its users how to best monetize their platform — if Snipfeed can help its creators make money, then it’ll make more money too.

VCs are betting big on Kubernetes: Here are 5 reasons why

By Ram Iyer
Ben Ofiri Contributor
Ben Ofiri is the co-founder and CEO of the Kubernetes troubleshooting platform Komodor. He previously worked at Google, where he served as product lead for the company’s flagship conversational AI project, Google Duplex.

I worked at Google for six years. Internally, you have no choice — you must use Kubernetes if you are deploying microservices and containers (it’s actually not called Kubernetes inside of Google; it’s called Borg). But what was once solely an internal project at Google has since been open-sourced and has become one of the most talked about technologies in software development and operations.

For good reason. One person with a laptop can now accomplish what used to take a large team of engineers. At times, Kubernetes can feel like a superpower, but with all of the benefits of scalability and agility comes immense complexity. The truth is, very few software developers truly understand how Kubernetes works under the hood.

I like to use the analogy of a watch. From the user’s perspective, it’s very straightforward until it breaks. To actually fix a broken watch requires expertise most people simply do not have — and I promise you, Kubernetes is much more complex than your watch.

How are most teams solving this problem? The truth is, many of them aren’t. They often adopt Kubernetes as part of their digital transformation only to find out it’s much more complex than they expected. Then they have to hire more engineers and experts to manage it, which in a way defeats its purpose.

Where you see containers, you see Kubernetes to help with orchestration. According to Datadog’s most recent report about container adoption, nearly 90% of all containers are orchestrated.

All of this means there is a great opportunity for DevOps startups to come in and address the different pain points within the Kubernetes ecosystem. This technology isn’t going anywhere, so any platform or tooling that helps make it more secure, simple to use and easy to troubleshoot will be well appreciated by the software development community.

In that sense, there’s never been a better time for VCs to invest in this ecosystem. It’s my belief that Kubernetes is becoming the new Linux: 96.4% of the top million web servers’ operating systems are Linux. Similarly, Kubernetes is trending to become the de facto operating system for modern, cloud-native applications. It is already the most popular open-source project within the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), with 91% of respondents using it — a steady increase from 78% in 2019 and 58% in 2018.

While the technology is proven and adoption is skyrocketing, there are still some fundamental challenges that will undoubtedly be solved by third-party solutions. Let’s go deeper and look at five reasons why we’ll see a surge of startups in this space.

 

Containers are the go-to method for building modern apps

Docker revolutionized how developers build and ship applications. Container technology has made it easier to move applications and workloads between clouds. It also provides as much resource isolation as a traditional hypervisor, but with considerable opportunities to improve agility, efficiency and speed.

Zoom reaches $85M settlement in ‘Zoombombing’ lawsuit

By Carly Page

Zoom has agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the video conferencing giant of violating users’ privacy by sharing their data with third parties without permission and enabling “Zoombombing” incidents.

Zoombombing, a term coined by TechCrunch last year as its usage exploded because of the pandemic, describes unapproved attendees entering and disrupting Zoom calls by sharing offensive imagery, using backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or spouting slurs and profanities.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2020 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, also accused the firm of sharing personal user data with third parties, including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn.

In addition to agreeing to an $85 million settlement, which could see customers receive a refund of either 15% of their subscription of $25 if the lawsuit achieves class-action status, Zoom has said it will take additional steps to prevent intruders from gatecrashing meetings. This will include alerting users when meeting hosts or other participants use third-party apps in meetings and offering specialized training to employees on privacy and data handling.

“The privacy and security of our users are top priorities for Zoom, and we take seriously the trust our users place in us,” Zoom said in a statement. “We are proud of the advancements we have made to our platform, and look forward to continuing to innovate with privacy and security at the forefront.”

The settlement requires approval from US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, to be finalized.

4 key areas SaaS startups must address to scale infrastructure for the enterprise

By Ram Iyer
Prashant Pandey Contributor
Prashant Pandey is the head of engineering at Asana, a leading work management platform for teams. Prior to Asana, Prashant started and led the Bay Area team building Amazon DynamoDB, a fully managed NoSQL database service.

Startups and SMBs are usually the first to adopt many SaaS products. But as these customers grow in size and complexity — and as you rope in larger organizations — scaling your infrastructure for the enterprise becomes critical for success.

Below are four tips on how to advance your company’s infrastructure to support and grow with your largest customers.

Address your customers’ security and reliability needs

If you’re building SaaS, odds are you’re holding very important customer data. Regardless of what you build, that makes you a threat vector for attacks on your customers. While security is important for all customers, the stakes certainly get higher the larger they grow.

Given the stakes, it’s paramount to build infrastructure, products and processes that address your customers’ growing security and reliability needs. That includes the ethical and moral obligation you have to make sure your systems and practices meet and exceed any claim you make about security and reliability to your customers.

Here are security and reliability requirements large customers typically ask for:

Formal SLAs around uptime: If you’re building SaaS, customers expect it to be available all the time. Large customers using your software for mission-critical applications will expect to see formal SLAs in contracts committing to 99.9% uptime or higher. As you build infrastructure and product layers, you need to be confident in your uptime and be able to measure uptime on a per customer basis so you know if you’re meeting your contractual obligations.

While it’s hard to prioritize asks from your largest customers, you’ll find that their collective feedback will pull your product roadmap in a specific direction.

Real-time status of your platform: Most larger customers will expect to see your platform’s historical uptime and have real-time visibility into events and incidents as they happen. As you mature and specialize, creating this visibility for customers also drives more collaboration between your customer operations and infrastructure teams. This collaboration is valuable to invest in, as it provides insights into how customers are experiencing a particular degradation in your service and allows for you to communicate back what you found so far and what your ETA is.

Backups: As your customers grow, be prepared for expectations around backups — not just in terms of how long it takes to recover the whole application, but also around backup periodicity, location of your backups and data retention (e.g., are you holding on to the data too long?). If you’re building your backup strategy, thinking about future flexibility around backup management will help you stay ahead of these asks.

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube now supports Zoom calls on your TV

By Sarah Perez

Late last year, Amazon launched support for two-way calling that worked with its Fire TV Cube devices. The feature allowed consumers to make and receive calls from their connected TV to any other Alexa device with a screen. Today, the company is expanding this system to enable support for two-way calling with Zoom.

Starting today, Fire TV Cube owners (2nd gen.) will be able to join Zoom work meetings or virtual hangouts via their Fire TV Cube.

To take advantage of the new feature, you’ll need Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, its hands-free streaming device and smart speaker that has Alexa built in, as well as a webcam that supports USB Video Class (UVC) with at least 720p resolution and 30fps. But for a better experience, Amazon recommends a webcam with 1080p resolution and a 60-90 degree field of view from 6 to 10 feet away from the TV. It doesn’t recommend 4K webcams, however.

Amazon suggests webcams like the Logitech C920, C922x, C310, or the Wansview 101JD, for example.

You’ll then connect your webcam to your Fire TV Cube using a Micro USB to USB adapter.

For best results, you’ll want to attach the webcam above the TV screen, Amazon notes.

Once everything is set up and connected, you’ll need to download and install the Zoom app from the Fire TV Appstore. When joining meetings, you can either sign in as a guest or use an existing Zoom account, per the on-screen instructions.

Thanks to the Alexa integration, you can join your meetings hands-free, if you prefer, by way of a voice command like “Alexa, join my Zoom meeting.” Alexa will respond by prompting you for the meeting ID and passcode. Alternately, you can choose to use the remote control to enter in this information.

An optional feature also lets you sync your calendar to Alexa to allow the smart assistant to remind you about the upcoming meetings it finds on your calendar. If you go this route, Alexa will suggest the meeting to join and you’ll just have to say “yes” to be automatically dialed in.

Amazon first announced it was bringing video calling support to its Fire TV platform last fall — a significant update in the new era of remote work and schooling, driven by the pandemic. However, it’s not the only option on the market. Google also last year brought group video calls to its Hub Max devices, and later added support for Zoom calls. Meanwhile Facebook Portal devices have offered video calling of a more personal nature, and last year updated to support Zoom, too.

In other words, Amazon is playing a bit of catch-up here. And its solution is a little more unwieldy as it requires consumers to buy their own webcam, while something like Portal TV offers a TV with a smart camera included.

To use the new feature, you’ll need the latest Fire TV Cube software update to get started, Amazon notes.

Shopify’s Q2 results beat estimates as e-commerce shines

By Alex Wilhelm

Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.

In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.

Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.

Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.

After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.

In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.

The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.

Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.

Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.

It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?

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