Business News

Future launches $150/mo exercise app where real coaches nag you

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 7:34pm

The only way to beat laziness is with guilt, so that’s what Future sells. It assigns you an actual human trainer who builds personalized workout plans and messages you throughout the day to make sure you’re doing them. It even gives you an Apple Watch to track your activity and ensure you’re not lying. Future actually got me to the gym where my coach kicked my ass remotely with a 30-minute lifting routine I’d never have stuck to by myself.

The catch? It’s probably the most expensive app you’ve ever seen, charging $150 per month.

Future officially launches today. Luckily it comes with a 1-month money-back guarantee that CEO Rishi Mandal says has only been redeemed once. It’s produced some stunning stats from its beta tests. 95% of users stuck with it for 3 months, and 85% kept training for 6 months. That’s unheard of it fitness tech.

Future’s welcome kit includes a water bottle and Apple Watch

The remarkable retention and Future’s potential to become a gateway for your exercise and nutrition spending have roped in some big name investors. Today it’s announcing an $8.5 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins, building on its $3 million seed. Other backers include Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, and Caffeinated Capital. Athletes are betting on Future’s promise of democratizing the personal training they get, including Golden State Warrior Sean Livingston, and NFL stars Ndamukong Suh and Kelvin Beachum.

“Future manages to be both deeply personalized (and personable!) while being super convenient” says Krieger of one of his first investments since leaving Instagram. Future’s Mandal built his old startup Sosh while sitting next to Krieger at incubator Dogpatch Labs where Instagram was getting its start. “The always available nature of it means travel or a shifting schedule is no longer an excuse to not work out.”

How Future Works (Out)

Throughout the onboarding, Future flexes the money you spend to offer what feels like a luxury app experience.

Upon signup, you’ll answer some questions about your goals like slimming down or beefing up, and pick from a few expert trainers matched to your needs. You’ll do a 15-minute video chat with your trainer to get friendly, describe your schedule, and hammer out details of your workout plan. After you get your welcome kit with some swag and an Apple Watch, your trainer delivers your week’s worth of personalized daily routines that come with video instructions for each exercise. The Future app provides audio cues (and optional music) to guide you through the workouts while your trainer chimes in with personalized pointers and motivation via pre-recorded voice clips.

Future’s app guides you through workouts with instructional video clips and audio cues

But what’s unique about Future is that your trainer proactively checks in with you throughout your day to make sure you’re actually going to the gym or doing those pushups. Since you don’t switch between trainers with each workout like some apps, and since they have your activity and heart rate data from the Apple Watch, they can spot patterns of procrastination or flaking out. You’re prompted to give feedback after each sweat session that the trainer uses to tweak your plan. That personalization and prodding go a long way to making sure Future always fits your day and actually stays part of it.

For example, I wanted to burn a few pounds without burning too much time by adding a gym day or two plus some warmup strength training before my home Peloton rides. My trainer Renee Zernicke, a former University Of Wisconsin Director of Sports Performance for basketball, designed a 30-minute weight lifting circuit and some 10-minute bodyweight exercise plans for me. When I messaged her that I was doing a more intense spin class today, she remixed my warmup exercises to avoid legs so I wouldn’t be tired during my ride. So far she’s always responded within a few minutes, and been cheerful yet forceful. “I know your days are slammed, just wanted to check in and see if you were able to get to that spin class?” she messaged me at 6:30pm. That’s something even most in-person trainers don’t do.

Future matches you with several trainer options

I found most of the workout instructions to be easy to understand, and the audio cues make it easy to do routines without constantly staring at your phone. But the one thing you really lose with a text message trainer instead of an in-person coach is warnings when you’re doing something wrong. Bad posture or jerky motions could get you injured. It’s all a lot smoother if you know your way around a gym. Future could do more to gauge your familiarity with proper form for riskier exercises, and then either teach you or steer you away from them. I hope I’m so sore today because I’m getting built, not getting hurt.

Your Pocket Motivational Speaker

My trainer Renee encouraging me to get to the gym

Future was inspired by some scary facts. “70% of Americans are obsess and overweigh” Mandal tells me. “We spend $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, yet we have pretty mediocre outcomes.” Mandal had gone through Stanford, worked at NASA, and been at Slide when it was acquired by Google. After selling his local experience app Sosh to Postmates, he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Khosla Ventures which does many medtech investments. There Mandal realized health is largely determined by how you eat, sleep, deal with stress, take your medicine, and exercise.

Thanks to smart watches, that last one had become the easiest to measure while remaining the toughest to do right on your own. Mandal set out to learn what the fittest people, professional athletes, do for exercise. They all told them they relied on personal trainers to make all the workout plans and force them to do them. Home gyms or apps full of pre-made exercises weren’t enough. They needed someone to keep them accountable.

The trouble is that’s pretty expensive one-on-one. So Mandal teamed up with Justin Santamaria, a 10-year Apple veteran from the first iOS team who’d been working on iMessage and FaceTime. Together they designed Future in 2017 to make personal trainers cheap enough to be more accessible while retaining the personal connection that keeps trainees on track.

If you won’t shell out $150 per month to be nagged, there are plenty of apps like Sweat that let you choose between guided workouts. Hell, if you’ve got that much will power you could get any gym membership or just go running. But the closest thing to Future called Fit.net folded. AI trainers like Freeletics can’t make you feel guilty or inspired the same way. Lose It and MyFitnessPal can get fellow trainees to badger you, but Mandal found people don’t obey peers like a respected trainer.

The constant communication and sense of trust users develop with their coaches could give Future potential beyond subscription fitness. The app becomes a hub for your healthy behavior. Future already offers an in-app Shop where it recommends workout clothes, headphones, and water bottles. It’s easy to imagine it partnering with fitness equipment makers, health food lines, or other brands to score a cut of referred sales. “We become your most important relationship regarding your health. You only talk to your doctor two times to three times per year” says Mandal. But you might tell your trainer you’re looking for ways to eat healthier or sleep better. “Over time, that’s the opportunity.”

Still, the biggest hurdle is convincing people to pay over 10X their Netflix fee for a personal trainer they don’t see in person. Compared to the $1 apps we’re used to, Future can induce sticker shock. But compared to unused gym memberships, pricey private coaching, and potential health problems, Future could look affordable if well-to-do professionals squint right. Humans are sluggish. Most heathy habits lapse. But Future is building the closest thing to “press button, pay money, get fitter” — which in the end looks like getting someone to enthusiastically shame/support us from afar.

Categories: Business News

Beautystack raises £4M seed to help beauty professionals become financially independent

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 5:00pm

Beautystack, the London startup that’s creating a beauty professional booking app with heavy focus on social, has quietly picked up £4 million in seed funding led by Index Ventures.

The company had previously raised pre-seed funding from LocalGlobe (led by Suzanne Ashman) and counts David Rowan (ex-Wired), Julien Codorniou (Facebook Workplace) and Audrey Gelman (The Wing) as angel investors.

Founded by former salon owner and brand consultant Sharmadean Reid in April 2017 before being joined by co-founders Dan Woodbury and Ken Lalobo, Beautystack is part booking platform for independent beauty professionals and part social app. The idea, Reid tells me, is to “close the loop” on seeing the results of a beauty treatment that you like and being able to book it.

“Girls see millions of images of beauty treatments on social media and have no idea about who did it, how much it cost or what it even is,” she says. “We want to close the loop on the journey of seeing what you want, liking it and booking it. With Beautystack we use visual menus so you can search and book what you like.”

Reid says Beautystack’s “see it, like it, book it” approach is also designed to solve a bigger problem that means many beauty services providers are at the bottom of the $450 billion beauty industry and “don’t get the earnings, tech solutions or income or respect they deserve.”

“In my opinion they are the foundation of the industry and with Beautystack our mission is towards gender quality by increasing the earnings of these ‘Beauty Pros.’ I want to turn the beauty professionals into the next beauty influencers and have them earning salaries comparable to beauty bloggers. They always have been influential, but now we want to push them to the forefront.”

She says doing that requires a cultural change as well as a technological one, and that Beautystack, which launched a beta in January, is taking the time to cultivate its supply and promote the beauticians on its app through articles and content, “and nurture their confidence and their careers.” It also provides the tools needed for beauty professionals to work independently and reduce the time spent managing social media, customer support and bookings.

“Our typical supply customer is a millennial or Gen-Z independent beauty professional,” adds Reid, “mainly women, who tend to create a lot of content around their work (images and video), which they then post on social media. After working all day, they then have to respond to Instagram DMs, comments, texts and WhatsApps for their appointment requests, and typically there will be at least 10 exchanges, including screenshots of imagery to close a booking [without payment].”

Beautystack founders

These beauty professionals are typically leaving a salon and either setting up private studios, operating mobile, working from home or renting chairs in a salon as opposed to a commission model. With Beautystack, Reid says the beauty pro’s time is better protected against cancellations, too, with a 50% upfront booking and 50% upon completion. An image of the beauty treatment sought is attached to each booking and the beauty pro can view the client’s profile to gauge their taste before they even walk through the door.

It’s this “networked environment” that in part makes Beautystack stand out from competitors, with the app employing social media mechanics to allow users to see what their friends have booked and to follow and like their posts. “We have a two-sided networked marketplace that has equal functionality. Other beauty scheduling systems operate like a classified directory,” says Reid.

With that said, Beautystack isn’t a walled garden. Initially built as a web app using React, each beauty pro gets their own website accessible through any modern web browser and linked to their profile within the Beautystack mobile app.

“Later down the line I think we will do more with their web profiles and enable partner integrations in finance and accounting to support more experiences for beauty pros,” adds the Beautystack founder.

Categories: Business News

Revolut launches Group Vaults as an alternative to joint accounts

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 3:01pm

Fintech startup Revolut is making vaults collaborative. You can now create a vault with someone else and use it like a normal vault.

Originally, vaults were an alternative to savings accounts without any interest rate. You could create vault in any currency (including supported cryptocurrencies) and set some money aside. You can round up your expenses and add change to a vault, program regular transfers to your vault or add money whenever you feel like it.

If vaults are like a Word document, group vaults are like a collaborative document in Google Docs. Multiple persons can now interact with a group vault just like a normal vault.

This will be useful for couples who want a sort of joint account without opening a bank account, parents giving some money to their children, roommates creating a common pot to pay for group expenses, friends going on vacation, etc.

Revolut users have created 1 million normal vaults so far. They currently hold the equivalent of $95 million (£75 million).

In other news, Revolut mentioned a new app for younger customers —Revolut Youth. It's not available yet but the company is working on it.

There are now 4.9 million registered users on Revolut. Every day, 12,000 people sign up. Every month, Revolut processes $5.5 billion in transaction volume.

Categories: Business News

Documentary series Foundation is back with a season 2

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 6:04am

Paris startup campus Station F and Le Studio Next have teamed up once again for a second season of Foundation, a documentary series about building a startup. If you liked the first season, you’ll feel right at home.

A video team followed the entrepreneurs working for three startups through their work issues, their personal life and their emotional reactions. You’ll feel like you know them after watching the series.

This year, Foundation focuses on three different startups that try to have a social impact. You’ll meet Jean Guo and Binta Jammeh, co-founders of Konexio, Ruben Hallali, founder of HD Rain and Olivier Jeannel, founder of RogerVoice.

So without further ado, here’s Foundation season 2:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Categories: Business News

Modsy scores $37M to virtually redesign your home

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 5:29am

Modsy has raised some new cash as the computer vision startup looks to get physical and build more of the furniture it recommends. The startup announced that they have closed $37 million in Series C funding led by TCV. They’ve now raised north of $70 million to date.

The service combines computer vision tech with human designer know how to let users design the trendy home of their dreams. The process begins with a user snapping pics of their room (or multiple rooms) which Modsy then stitches into a complete 3D model of the room.

Prices range from $69 to $349 depending on what level of finesse you’re looking for.

From there Modsy designers drop in furniture from their partners like Crate&Barrel, Pottery Barn, West Elm and others, if you pay for their $149 single room premium package, you can chat with the designers and swap out pieces or try completely different styles. All-in-all the app gives you a lot of options for the price, although the startup’s main method of monetization isn’t these one-time packages, it’s earning cash when you buy the furniture that they suggest.

Earlier this year the company branched out into creating their own furniture line of sofas and chairs which they are injecting into their room designs and recommendations. This could allow the company to transform into more of a smart furniture company as opposed to an AR/ computer vision startup.

“I founded Modsy on the premise that in the future we would all be shopping from a personalized catalog-like experience within a virtual version of our real homes,” CEO Shanna Tellerman said in a statement. “This new round of funding will bring us even closer to this reality.”

Categories: Business News

Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 3:07am

Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

Categories: Business News

These startups are locating in SF and Africa to win in global fintech

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 2:12am

To become a global fintech player, locate your company in San Francisco and Africa.

That’s the approach of payments company Flutterwave, digital lending startup Mines, and mobile-money venture Chipper Cash—Africa-founded ventures that maintain headquarters in San Francisco and operations in Africa to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, clients, and the frontier of digital finance.

This arrangement wasn’t exactly coordinated across the ventures, but TechCrunch coverage picked up the trend and some common motives among these rising fintech firms.

Founded in 2016 by Nigerians Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Clients can tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber,  Booking.com and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

The Y-Combinator backed company is headquartered in San Francisco, runs its operations center in Nigeria, and plans to add offices in South Africa and Cameroon.

Flutterwave opened an office in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October. The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Categories: Business News

DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg is coming to Disrupt

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 1:31am

2019 is the year Facebook announced a “pivot to privacy.” At the same time, Google is trying to claim that privacy means letting it exclusively store and data-mine everything you do online. So what better time to sit down with DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg for a chat about what privacy really means.

We’re delighted to announce that Weinberg is joining us at Disrupt SF (October 2-4).

The pro-privacy search engine he founded has been on a mission to shrink the shoulder-surfing creepiness of internet searching for more than a decade, serving contextual keyword-based ads, rather than pervasively tracking users to maintain privacy-hostile profiles. (If you can’t quite believe the decade bit; here’s DDG’s startup elevator pitch — which we featured on TC all the way back in 2008.)

It’s a position that looks increasingly smart as big tech comes under sharper political and regulatory scrutiny on account of the volume of information it’s amassing. (Not to mention what it’s doing with people’s data.)

Despite competing as a self-funded underdog against the biggest tech giants around, DuckDuckGo has been profitable and gaining users at a steady clip for years. It also recently took in a chunk of VC to capitalize on what its investors see as a growing international opportunity to help internet users go about their business without being intrusively snooped on. Which makes a compelling counter narrative to the tech giants.

In more recent developments it has added a tracker blocker to its product mix — and been dabbling in policy advocacy — calling for a revival of a Do Not Track browser standard, after earlier attempts floundered with the industry, failing to reach accord.

The political climate around privacy and data protection does look to be pivoting in such a way that Do Not Track could possibly swing back into play. But if — and, yes it’s a big one — privacy ends up being a baked-in internet norm, how might a pioneer like DuckDuckGo maintain its differentiating edge?

While, on the flip side, what if tech giants end up moving in on its territory by redefining privacy in their own self-serving image? We have questions and will be searching Weinberg for answers.

There’s also the fact that many a founder would have cut and run just half a decade into pushing against the prevailing industry grain. So we’re also keen to mine his views on entrepreneurial patience, and get a better handle on what makes him tick as a person — to learn how he’s turned a passion for building people-centric, principled products into a profitable business.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 – October 4 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Tickets are available here.

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Categories: Business News

N26 faces banking regulator order about fraudulent transactions

Startup News - 2019, May 23 - 12:39am

Fintech startup N26 received an order from BaFin, the German banking regulator. According to the regulator, N26 hasn’t been doing enough when it comes to money laundering and terrorist financing. The company has a specific period of time to implement changes and rectify its internal processes.

“Today, BaFin published an order for N26 Bank GmbH. An order is an instruction from them to improve processes within a certain time frame. The order requires us to optimize existing processes to prevent money laundering and increase N26 staffing levels,” the company says in a blog post.

A few articles have highlighted a handful of cases of fraud in recent weeks. Customers tried to use N26 for money-laundering purposes. It took some time before N26 reacted and closed those accounts.

It’s not that surprising given that literally every bank suffers from this issue. For instance, all the big French banks (BNP Paribas, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole and Crédit Mutuel) have been fined in the past for the same reason.

Banking regulators don’t review suspicious transactions directly. They make sure that banks have the right processes and teams to catch the vast majority of suspicious transactions.

As N26 has more than 2.5 million users, it’s been hard to scale its workforce appropriately. In other words, it has been short-staffed. In recent months, the company has been hiring customer support and anti-money laundering teams like crazy, by hiring more people directly and signing deals with subcontractors.

BaFin asks N26 to catch up with its backlog of flagged transactions. The company plans to be done by the end of next week. BaFin also wants to see written descriptions of processes and workflows. Finally, the regulator says that N26 should recheck the identity of some customers and redo the KYC process (“know your customer”). N26 says that it plans to implement BaFin’s requirements before the deadline.

Creating a startup is hard, but creating a bank with startup-like growth is even harder. Banking regulation is tough, and it’s a good thing for N26 customers that BaFin is keeping an eye out. Let’s hope that today’s order is just a bump in the road.

Categories: Business News

Meet Projector, collaborative design software for the Instagram age

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 11:00pm

Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures bonded with Trevor O’Brien in prison. The pair, Suster was quick to clarify, were on site at a correctional facility in 2017 to teach inmates about entrepreneurship as part of a workshop hosted by Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the issue of mass incarceration.

They hit it off, sharing perspectives on life and work, Suster recounted to TechCrunch. So when O’Brien, a former director of product management at Twitter, mentioned he was in the early days of building a startup, Suster listened.

Less than two years later, O’Brien is ready to talk about the idea that captured the attention of the Bird, FabFitFun and Ring investor. It’s called Projector.

It’s the brainchild of a product veteran (O’Brien) and a gaming industry engineer turned Twitter’s vice president of engineering (Projector co-founder Jeremy Gordon), a combination that has given way to an experiential and well-designed platform. Projector is browser-based, real-time collaborative design software tailored for creative teams that feels and looks like a mix of PowerPoint, Google Docs and Instagram . Though it’s still months away from a full-scale public launch, the team recently began inviting potential users to test the product for bugs.

“We want to reimagine visual communication in the workplace by building these easier to use tools and giving creative powers to the non-designers who have great stories to tell and who want to make a difference,” O’Brien told TechCrunch. “They want change to happen and they need to be empowered with the right kinds of tools.”

Today, Projector is a lean team of 13 employees based in downtown San Francisco. They’ve kept quiet since late 2016 despite closing two rounds of venture capital funding. The first, a $4 million seed round, was led by Upfront’s Suster, as you may have guessed. The second, a $9 million Series A, was led by Mayfield in 2018. Hunter Walk of Homebrew, Jess Verrilli of #Angels and Nancy Duarte of Duarte, Inc. are also investors in the business, among others.

O’Brien leads Projector as chief executive officer alongside co-founder and chief technology officer Gordon. Years ago, O’Brien was pursuing a PhD in computer graphics and information visualization at Brown University when he was recruited to Google’s competitive associate product manager program. He dropped out of Brown and began a career in tech that would include stints at YouTube, Twitter, Coda and, finally, his very own business.

O’Brien and Gordon crossed paths at Twitter in 2013 and quickly realized a shared history in the gaming industry. O’Brien had spent one year as an engineer at a games startup called Mad Doc Software, while Gordon had served as the chief technology officer at Sega Studios. Gordon left Twitter in 2014 and joined Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence before O’Brien pitched him on an idea that would become Projector.

Projector co-founders Jeremy Gordon (left), Twitter’s former vice president of engineering, and Trevor O’Brien, Twitter’s former director of product management

“We knew we wanted to create a creative platform but we didn’t want to create another creative platform for purely self-expression, we wanted to do something that was a bit more purposeful,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to see good ideas succeed. And with all of those good ideas, succeeding typically starts with them being presented well to their audience.”

Initially, Projector is targeting employees within creative organizations and marketing firms, who are frequently tasked with creating visually compelling presentations. The tool suite is free for now and will be until it’s been sufficiently tested for bugs and has fully found its footing. O’Brien says he’s not sure just yet how the team will monetize Projector, but predicts they’ll adopt Slack’s per user monthly subscription pricing model.

As original and user-friendly as it may be, Projector is up against great competition right out of the gate. In the startup landscape, it’s got Canva, a graphic design platform valued at $2.5 billion earlier this week with a $70 million financing. On the old-guard, it’s got Adobe, which sells a widely used suite of visual communication and graphic design tools. Not to mention Prezi, Figma and, of course, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, which is total crap but still used by millions of people.

“There are many tools scratching at the surface, but there’s not one visual communications tool that wins them all,” Suster said of his investment in Projector.

Projector is still in its very early days. The company currently has just two integrations: Unsplash for free stock images and Giphy for GIFs. O’Brien would eventually like to incorporate iconography, typography and sound to liven up Projector’s visual presentation capabilities.

The ultimate goal, aside from generally improving workplace storytelling, is to make crafting presentations fun, because shouldn’t a corporate slideshow or even a startup’s pitch be as entertaining as scrolling through your Instagram feed?

“We wanted to try to create something that doesn’t feel like work,” O’Brien said.

Graphic design platform Canva valued at $2.5B with new funds

Categories: Business News

Throw out your diary, Jour is a new app for guided journaling

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 10:00pm

Since Jour, a new app for private and portable journaling, dropped on the App Store two months ago, it’s racked up 80,000 users. No paid marketing or public announcements. Just organic interest in discovering a better way of journaling than pen to paper.

“We can reinvent and redesign what we call journaling and the journal,” Jour co-founder and chief executive officer Maxime Germain told TechCrunch. “If we do it right, it will go mainstream.”

New York-based Jour has raised a $1.8 million seed round from True Ventures’ Kevin Rose. Similar to the meditation apps that have skyrocketed in popularity recently, Jour’s audio-guided sequences are meant to facilitate the journaling process and encourage writers to mindfully reflect and record their lives. With its seed funding, Jour will expand its library of audio sessions and written questions meant to spark inspiration.

“Meditation apps have shown there are some self-care habits we can use in our life to feel better, to feel less anxious,” Germain, a French native who relocated to New York seven years ago, said. “But the journal is a way to capture moments and people’s authentic selves. It’s all the stuff you might not be sharing on social media.”

Jour, at its core, is an app battling mental illness. The business joins a number of other well-being apps and venture-backed startups targeting the mental health crisis. From brick-and-mortar therapy clinics to chat apps to emotional wellness assistants, venture capitalists are waking up to the emotional struggles rampant across the globe.

“Ten years ago when I first started using meditation apps I think there was a certain type of stigma; like you need help so you’re meditating,” True Venture’s Rose, a founder of Digg, Oak, a guided meditation app, and Zero, an app for tracking intermittent fasting, told TechCrunch. “Now, it’s just crossed over to the mainstream.”

“I’m hopeful we are finally getting to a point where we can have open conversations about mental health,” Rose added.

Jour co-founders (from left to right) Maxime Germain, Justin Bureau and Bobby Giangeruso

As Jour deals with an influx of new users, it’s keeping the entire app and all of its features free, though eventually, the team plans to add a paywall to some of the guided content. As for anyone concerned about the safety of your anxieties, hopes and dreams, Jour’s founding team, which includes Germain, Bobby Giangeruso and Justin Bureau, built the app with zero-knowledge encryption.

“I would feel very uncomfortable if the rest of the people on my team could read my most intimate thoughts,” Germain explained. “We built [Jour] with an encryption key that stays on the phone, all the data is encrypted with that key and if you lose that key we can’t recover the entries that we save on the servers. Only you have access to that key, it’s stored on the phone, it encrypts the data and even if the data is compromised we can’t get it.”

Phew. The last thing we need today is our diaries getting hacked.

Mental wellness startup Wisdo launches with $11 million in funding

Categories: Business News

Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 9:30pm

One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration), and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSageNexmoInfobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others are already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class="il">Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave in inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are asking for, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the US, which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the US than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75 percent of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

 

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400 percent rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was inititated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring in more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.

Categories: Business News

Loot, the UK digital current account for students and millennials, enters administration after a potential sale falls through

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 9:01pm

Loot, the digital current account aimed at students and millennials, has called in administrators after appearing to have run out of cash. According to sources, the U.K. fintech was unable to raise additional funding in time after a potential sale to banking giant RBS fell through.

Intriguingly, Royal Bank of Scotland Group indirectly owned a 25 percent stake in Loot via an investment by Bó, the digital-only retail bank being developed by RBS subsidiary NatWest. RBS announced that Bó had invested £2 million in Loot in January this year, following an initial investment of £3 million in July 2018.

It was also presumed by many fintech insiders that Loot had been white labelled and was powering the Bó product. Clearly that was never the case, and it now raises questions around why RBS/Natwest would invest in a competitor, only to sees its demise six months later.

Loot’s other investors included Portag3 Ventures (Power Corporation’s corporate VC arm), Austrian VC firm Speedinvest, Rocket Internet’s GFC, and a number of unnamed angel investors and smaller funds.

Founded in 2014 by now 25 year old Ollie Purdue as he was finishing up university, Loot offers a digital-only current account aimed at students and millennials, and has around 250,000 registered accounts. It comes with a Mastercard and mobile app, with a particular focus on spending insights and real-time budgeting. Like a number of competitors in the “neobank” soace, Loot doesn’t have a full banking license and instead operates under an electronic money licence through a partnership with FCA regulated Wirecard.

Meanwhile, sources tell me that Loot’s 60 or so employees were informed this lunchtime. I also understand that efforts by Loot founder Ollie Purdue and others within London’s close-nit fintech community are already underway to safe land as many of those employees as possible, and that around 30 job offers are already in motion.

Loot declined to comment. I’ve reached out to RBS and will update this post if and when I hear back.

Categories: Business News

TransferWise now valued at $3.5B following a new $292M secondary round

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 1:00pm

TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service, is disclosing a new $292 million secondary round that sees investors value the company at $3.5 billion. That’s more than double the valuation TransferWise achieved in late 2017 at the time of its $280 million Series E round.

The new secondly funding — with no new cash entering TransferWise’s balance sheet as a number of existing shareholders sell all or a portion of their holding — was led by growth capital investors Lead Edge Capital, Lone Pine Capital and Vitruvian Partners.

Existing investors Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford expanded their holdings in TransferWise, whilst investment was also provided from funds managed by BlackRock.

In a call, TransferWise co-founder and Chairman Taavet Hinrikus told me the round was oversubscribed, too. The arbitrary figure of $292 million was simply the result of how much liquidity existing shareholders were willing to make available, and nowhere near the upper level of interest.

He is also pointed out that existing institutional investors aren’t exiting during this round, with Andreessen Horowitz and Baillie Gifford actually doubling down somewhat. Instead, this liquidity event was mainly a way for TransferWise employees — existing and presumably former — to cash in on some or all of their stake. And for new later stage investors to jump on-board.

All of which — and at the risk of repeating myself — would suggest that a potential TransferWise public offering is still a long way off yet, something that Hinrikus doesn’t refute. “Why would we go public?” he says rhetorically, noting that the company is still growing fast and capital isn’t an issue.

So why then in contrast are other fast-growing companies going public much earlier these days? “You’d have to ask them,” Hinrikus says, batting away my question in his usual laid back and matter-of-fact manner. Pressed a little harder, he says that one difference might be that TransferWise’s institutional investors aren’t (yet) pushing for a liquidity event on the scale of an IPO. As already noted, in some instances they are actually purchasing more shares in the company.

Hinrikus also says the regulatory climate is now changing in TransferWise’s favour. In 2018, the EU voted to mandate the outlawing of exchange rate mark-ups on international payments through its Cross-Border Payments Regulations, something that the London fintech company has long been lobbying for. Australia is thought to be considering similar regulatory measures following an inquiry into the issue by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

To that end, TransferWise says it now serves 5 million customers worldwide, processing £4 billion every month. Every year it estimates it saves customers £1 billion in bank fees. The service currently supports 1,600 currency routes, and is available for 49 currencies.

The company employs over 1,600 people across twelve global offices and says it will hire 750 more people in the next 12 months. Audited financials for fiscal year ending March 2018 revealed 77 percent revenue growth to £117 million and a net profit of £6.2 million after tax.

Categories: Business News

A young entrepreneur is building the Amazon of Bangladesh

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 12:00pm

At just 26, Waiz Rahim is supposed to be involved in the family business, having returned home in 2016 with an engineering degree from the University of Southern California. Instead, the young entrepreneur is plotting to build the Amazon of Bangladesh.

Deligram, Rahim’s vision of what e-commerce looks like in Bangladesh, a country of nearly 180 million, is making progress, having taken inspiration from a range of established tech giants worldwide, including Amazon, Alibaba and Go-Jek in Indonesia.

It’s a far cry from the family business. That’s Rahimafrooz, a 55-year-old conglomerate that is one of the largest companies in Bangladesh. It started out focused on garment retail, but over the years its businesses have branched out to span power and energy and automotive products while it operates a retail superstore called Agora.

During his time at school in the U.S., Rahim worked for the company as a tech consultant whilst figuring out what he wanted to do after graduation. Little could he have imagined that, fast-forward to 2019, he’d be in charge of his own startup that has scaled to two cities and raised $3 million from investors, one of which is Rahimafrooz.

Deligram CEO Waiz Rahim [Image via Deligram]

“My options after college were to stay in U.S. and do product management or analyst roles,” Rahim told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “But I visited rural areas while back in Bangladesh and realized that when you live in a city, it’s easy to exist in a bubble.”

So rather than stay in America or go to the family business, Rahim decided to pursue his vision to build “a technology company on the wave of rising economic growth, digitization and a vibrant young population.”

The youngster’s ambition was shaped by a stint working for Amazon at its Carlsbad warehouse in California as part of the final year of his degree. That proved to be eye-opening, but it was actually a Kickstarter project with a friend that truly opened his mind to the potential of building a new venture.

Rahim assisted fellow USC classmate Sam Mazumdar with Y Athletics, which raised more than $600,000 from the crowdsourcing site to develop “odor-resistant” sports attire that used silver within the fabric to repel the smell of sweat. The business has since expanded to cover underwear and socks, and it put Rahim’s mind to work on what he could do by himself.

“It blew my mind that you can build a brand from scratch,” he said. “If you are good at product design and branding, you could connect to a manufacturer, raise money from backers and get it to market.”

On his return to Bangladesh, he got Deligram off the ground in January 2017, although it didn’t open its doors to retailers and consumers until March 2018.

E-commerce through local stores

Deligram is an effort to emulate the achievements of Amazon in the U.S. and Alibaba in China. Both companies pioneered online commerce and turned the internet into a major channel for sales, but the young Bangladeshi startup’s early approach is very different from the way those now hundred-billion-dollar companies got started.

Offline retail is the norm in Bangladesh and, with that, it’s the long chain of mom and pop stores that account for the majority of spending.

That’s particularly true outside of urban areas, where such local stores almost become community gathering points, where neighbors, friends and families run into each other and socialize.

Instead of disruption, working with what is part of the social fabric is more logical. Thus, Deligram has taken a hybrid approach that marries its regular e-commerce website and app with offline retail through mom and pop stores, which are known as “mudir dokan” in Bangladesh’s Bengali language.

A customer can order their product through the Deligram app on their phone and have it delivered to their home or office, but a more popular — and oftentimes logical — option is to have it sent to the local mudir dokan store, where it can be collected at any time. But beyond simply taking deliveries, mudir dokans can also operate as Deligram retailers by selling through an agent model.

That’s to say that they enable their customers to order products through Deligram even if they don’t have the app, or even a smartphone — although the latter is increasingly unlikely with smartphone ownership booming. Deligram is proactively recruiting mudir dokan partners to act as agents. It provides them with a tablet and a physical catalog that their customers can use to order via the e-commerce service. Delivery is then taken at the store, making it easy to pick up, and maintaining the local network.

“We’ll tell them: ‘Right now, you offer a few hundred products, now you have access to 15,000,’ ” the Deligram CEO said.

Indeed, Rahim sees this new digital storefront as a key driver of revenue for mudir dokan owners. For Deligram, it is potentially also a major customer acquisition channel, particularly among those who are new to the internet and the world of smartphone apps.

This offline-online model — known by the often-buzzy industry term “omnichannel” — isn’t new, but in a world where apps and messaging is prevalent, reaching and retaining users is challenging, particularly in emerging markets.

“It’s not easy to direct people to a website today, and the app-first approach has made it hard,” Rahim said. “We looked at how companies in Indonesia and India overcame these challenges.”

In particular, he studied the work of Go-Jek in Indonesia, which uses an agent model to push its services to nascent internet users, and Amazon India, which leans heavily on India’s local “kirana” stores for orders and deliveries.

In Deligram’s case, the mudir dokan picks up sales commission as well as money for every delivery that is sent to their store. Home deliveries are possible, but the lack of local infrastructure — “turn right at the blue house, left at the white one, and my place is third from the left,” is a common type of direction — makes finding exact locations difficult and inefficient, so an additional cost is charged for such requests.

E-commerce startups often struggle with last-mile because they rely on a clutch of logistics companies to fulfill orders. In a rare move for an early-stage company, Deligram has opted to run its entire logistics process in-house. That obviously necessitates cost and likely provides significant growing pains and stress, but, in the long term, Rahim is betting that a focus on quality control will pay out through higher customer service and repeat buyers.

A prospective Deligram customer flips through a hard copy of the company’s product brochure in a local store [Image via Deligram]

Startups on the rise in Bangladesh

Rahim’s timing is impeccable. He returned to Bangladesh just as technology was beginning to show the potential to impact daily life. Bangladesh has posted a 7% rise in GDP annually every year since 2016, and with an estimated 80 million internet users, it has the fifth-largest online population on the planet.

“We are riding on a lot of macro trends; we’re among the top five based on GDP growth and have the world’s eighth-largest population,” Rahim told TechCrunch. “There are 11 million people in middle income — that’s growing — and our country has 90 million people aged under 30.”

“An index to track the growth of young people would be [capital city] Dhaka… you can just see the vibrancy with young people using smartphones,” he added.

That’s an ideal storm for startups, and the country has seen a mix of overseas entrants and local ventures pick up speed. Alibaba last year acquired Daraz, the Rocket Internet-founded e-commerce service that covers Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal, while the Chinese giant also snapped up 20% of bKash, a fintech venture started from Brac Bank as part of the regional expansion of its Ant Financial affiliate.

Uber, too, is present, but it is up against tough local opposition, as is the norm in Asian markets.

That’s because Bangladesh’s most prominent local startups are in ride-hailing. Pathao raised more than $10 million in a funding round that closed last year and was led by Go-Jek, the Indonesia-based ride-hailing firm valued at more than $9 billion that’s backed by the likes of Tencent and Google. Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia.

Pathao is one of two local companies that competes alongside Uber in Bangladesh [Image via Pathao]

Its chief rival is Shohoz, a startup that began in ticketing but expanded to rides and services on-demand. Shohoz raised $15 million in a round led by Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures, which was announced last year.

Deligram has also pulled in impressive funding numbers, too.

The startup announced a $2.5 million Series A raise at the end of March, which Rahim wrote came from “a network of institutional and angel investors;” such is the challenge of finding a large check for a tech play in Bangladesh. The investors involved included Skycatcher, Everblue Management and Microsoft executive Sonia Bashir Kabir. A delighted Rahim also won a check from Rahimafrooz, the family business.

That’s not a given, he said, admitting that his family did initially want him to go to work with their business rather than pursuing his own startup. In that context, contributing to the round is a major endorsement, he said.

Rahimafrooz could be a crucial ally in future fundraising, too. Despite an improving climate for tech companies, Bangladesh’s top startups are still finding it tough to raise money, especially with overseas investors that can write the larger checks that are required to scale.

“I think the biggest challenge is branding. Every time I speak with new investors, I have to start by explaining where Bangladesh is, or the national metrics, not even our business,” Pathao CEO Hussain Elius told TechCrunch.

“There’s a legacy issue. Bangladesh seems like a country which floods all the time and the garment sector going down — that’s a part of the story but not the full story. It’s also an incredible country that’s growing despite those challenges,” he added.

Pathao is reportedly on track to raise a $50 million Series B this year, according to Deal Street Asia. Elius didn’t address that directly, but he did admit that raising growth funding is a bigger challenge than seed-based financing, where the Bangladesh government helps with its own fund and entrepreneurial programs.

“It’s hard for us as we’re the first ones out there, but it’ll be easier for the ones who’ll follow on,” he explained.

Still, there are some optimistic overseas watchers.

“We remain enthusiastic about the rapidly expanding set of opportunities in Bangladesh,” said Hian Goh, founding partner of Singapore-based VC firm Openspace — which invested in Pathao.

“The country continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, underpinned by additional growth in its garments manufacturing sector. This has blossomed into an expanding middle class with very active consumption behavior,” Goh added.

Growth plans

With the pain of fundraising put to the side for now, the new money is being put to work growing the Deligram business and its network into more parts of Bangladesh, and the more challenging urban areas.

Geographically, the service is expanding its agent reach into five more cities to give it a total of seven locations nationwide. That necessitates an increase in logistics and operations to keep up with, and prepare for, that new demand.

Deligram workers in one of the company’s warehouses [Image via Deligram]

Rahim said the company had handled 12,000 orders to date as of the end of March, but that has now grown past 20,000 indicating that order volumes are rising. He declined to provide financial figures, but said that the company is on track to increase its monthly GMV volume by six-fold by the end of this year. Electronics, phones and accessories are among its most popular items, but Deligram also sells apparel, daily items and more.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter to assumptions, Deligram started in rural areas, where Rahim saw there was less competition but also potentially more to learn through a more early-adopter customer base. That’s obviously one major challenge when it comes to growth, and now the company is looking at urban expansion points.

On the product side, Deligram is in the early stages of piloting consumer financing using its local store agents as the interface, while Rahim teased “exciting IOT R&D projects” that he said are in the planning stage.

Ultimately, however, he concedes that the road is likely to be a long one.

“Over the last 18-20 years, modern retail hasn’t made much progress here,” Rahim said. “It accounts for around 2.5% of total retail, e-commerce is below 1% and the long tail local stores are the rest.”

“People will eventually shift, but I think it’ll take five to eight years, which is why we provide the convenience via mom and pop shops,” he added.

Categories: Business News

SoFar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 6:17am

Tired of noisy music venues where you can hardly see the stage? SoFar Sounds puts on concerts in people’s living rooms where fans pay $15 to $30 to sit silently on the floor and truly listen. Nearly 1 million guests have attended SoFar’s more than 20,000 gigs. Having attended a half dozen of the shows, I can say they’re blissful…unless you’re a musician to pay a living. In some cases, SoFar pays just $100 per band for a 25 minute set, which can work out to just $8 per musician per hour or less. Hosts get nothing, and SoFar keeps the rest, which can range from $1100 to $1600 or more per gig — many times what each performer takes home. The argument was that bands got exposure, and it was a tiny startup far from profitability.

Today, SoFar Sounds announced it’s raised a $25 million round led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, building on the previous $6 million it’d scored from Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group. The goal is expansion — to become the de facto way emerging artists play outside of traditional venues. It’s already throwing 600 shows per month across 430 cities around the world, and over 40 of the 25,000 bands who’ve played its gigs have gone on to be nominated for or win Grammys. The startup has enriched culture by offering an alternative to late night, dark and dirty club shows that don’t appeal to hard-working professionals or older listeners.

But it’s also entrenching a long-standing problem: the underpayment of musicians. With streaming replacing higher priced CDs, musicians depend on live performances to earn a living. SoFar is now institutionalizing that they should be paid less than what gas and dinner costs a band. And if SoFar suck in attendees that might otherwise attend normal venues or independently organized house shows, it could make it tougher for artists to get paid enough there too. That doesn’t seem fair given how small SoFar’s overhead is.

By comparison, SoFar makes Uber look downright generous. A source who’s worked with SoFar tells me the company keeps a lean team of full-time employees who focus on reserving venues, booking artists, and promotion. All the volunteers who actually put on the shows aren’t paid, and neither are the venue hosts, though at least SoFar pays for insurance. The startup has previously declined to pay first-time SoFar performers, instead providing them a “high-quality” video recording of their gig. When it does pay $100 per act, that often amounts to a tiny shred of the total ticket sales.

“SoFar, however, seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians” writes musician Joshua McClain. “This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.” He’s urged people to #BoycottSoFarSounds

A deeply reported KQED expose by Emma Silvers found many bands were disappointed with the payouts, and didn’t even know SoFar was a for-profit company. “I think they talk a lot about supporting local artists, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay for musicians to get paid shit,” Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney told KQED.

SoFar CEO Jim Lucchese, who previously ran Spotify’s Creator division after selling it his music data startup The Echo Nest and has played SoFar shows himself, declares that “$100 buck for a showcase slot is definitely fair” but admits that “I don’t think playing a SoFar right now is the right move for every type of artist.” He stresses that some SoFar shows, especially in international markets, are pay-what-you-want and artists keep “the majority of the money”. The rare sponsored shows with outside corporate funding like one for the Bohemian Rhapsody film premier can see artists earn up to $1500, but these are a tiny fraction of SoFar’s concerts.

Otherwise, Lucchese says “the ability to convert fans is one of the most magical things about SoFar” referencing how artists rely on asking attendees to buy their merchandise or tickets for their full-shows and follow them on social media to earn money. He claims that if you pull out what SoFar pays for venue insurance, performing rights organizations, and its full-time labor, “a little over half the take goes to the artists.” Unfortunately that makes it sound like SoFar’s few costs of operation are the musicians’ concern. As McClain wrote, “First off, your profitability isn’t my problem.”

Now that it has ample funding, I hope to see SoFar double down on paying artists a fair rate for their time and expenses. Luckily, Lucchese says that’s part of the plan for the funding. Beyond building tools to help local teams organize more shows to meet rampant demand, he says “Am I satisfied that this is the only revenue we make artists right now? Abslutely not. We want to invest more on the artist side.” That includes better ways for bands to connect with attendees and turn them into monetizable fans. Even just a better followup email with Instagram handles and upcoming tour dates could help.

We don’t expect most craftspeople to work for “exposure”. Interjecting a middleman like SoFar shouldn’t change that. The company has a chance to increase live music listening worldwide. But it must treat artists as partners, not just some raw material they can burn through even if there’s always another act desperate for attention. Otherwise musicians and the empathetic fans who follow them might leave SoFar’s living rooms empty.

Categories: Business News

10 immigration tips for love-struck tech workers

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 6:02am
Xiao Wang & Anjana Prasad Contributor Anjana Prasad is senior advisor of immigration law and Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.

Even techies might agree that server rooms aren’t the most romantic places to fall in love — but it happens. And with foreign-born workers making up nearly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s labor force alone, many tech-sector romances now come with a romcom-ready complication: What happens when one or both partners are immigrants?

The good news is there’s no reason to put your life on hold just because you’re on an employment-based visa. It’s perfectly possible to fall in love, get married, and — assuming you’ve picked Mr. or Mrs. Right — live happily ever after in America.

The bad news is the immigration system is growing more complicated, with longer delays and policies favoring perceived talent over family unification. If you’re planning to put a ring on it, move quickly because it’s only getting harder to secure a green card and citizenship for you and your partner.

Here are 10 less-than-romantic — but seriously important — immigration tips to consider when Cupid comes calling:

1. If you’re on OPT, get an upgrade

Many tech workers’ first U.S. job opportunity is the up-to-three-year professional training period, or Optional Practical Training (OPT), that comes with student visas.

Categories: Business News

DefinedCrowd offers mobile apps to empower its AI-annotating masses

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 4:08am

DefinedCrowd, the Startup Battlefield alumnus that produces and refines data for AI-training purposes, has just debuted iOS and Android apps for its army of human annotators. It should help speed up a process that the company already touts as one of the fastest in the industry.

It’s no secret that AI relies almost totally on data that has been hand-annotated by humans, pointing out objects in photos, analyzing the meaning of sentences or expressions and so on. Doing this work has become a sort of cottage industry, with many annotators doing it part time or between other jobs.

There’s a limit, however, to what you can do if the interface you must use to do it is only available on certain platforms. Just as others occasionally answer an email or look over a presentation while riding the bus or getting lunch, it’s nice to be able to do work on mobile — essential, really, at this point.

To that end, DefinedCrowd has made its own app, which shares the Neevo branding of the company’s annotation community, that lets its annotators work whenever they want, tackling image or speech annotation tasks on the go. It’s available on iOS and Android starting today.

It’s a natural evolution of the market, CEO Daniela Braga told me. There’s a huge demand for this kind of annotation work, and it makes no sense to restrict the schedules or platforms of the people doing it. She suggested everyone in the annotation space would have apps soon, just as every productivity or messaging service does. And why not?

DefinedCrowd’s next-gen platform solves the AI data acquisition problem

The company is growing quickly, going from a handful of employees to over a hundred, spread over its offices in Lisbon, Porto, Seattle and Tokyo. The market, likewise, is exploding as more and more companies find that AI is not just applicable to what they do, but is not out of their reach.

Categories: Business News

The Exit: Getaround’s $300M roadtrip

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 3:00am

In August of last year, Getaround scored $300 million from Softbank. Eight months later they handed that same amount to Drivy, a Parisian peer-to-peer car rental service that was Getaround’s ticket to tapping into European markets.

Both companies shared similar visions for the future of car ownership, they were about the same size, both were flirting with expanding beyond their home market, but only one had the power of the Vision Fund behind it.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. [Have feedback? Shoot me an email at lucas@techcrunch.com] 

Alven Capital’s Jeremy Uzan

Alven Capital partner Jeremy Uzan first invested in Drivy’s seed round in 2013. Uzan joined Index Ventures co-leading a $2 million round that valued the company at less than $10 million. The firms would later join forces again for the company’s $8.3 million Series A.

I chatted at length with Uzan about what lies ahead for the Drive team, what Paris’s startup scene is still in desperate need of, and how Softbank’s power is becoming even more impossible to ignore.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Getting the checkbook

Lucas Matney: So before we dive into this acquisition, tell me a little bit about how you got to the point where you were writing these checks in the first place.

Jeremy Uzan: So, I studied computer science and business and then spent three years as a tech banker. I was actually in a very small investment banking boutique in Paris helping young startups to raise their Series A rounds. They were all French companies, my first deal was with the YouTube competitor DailyMotion.

Categories: Business News

Bringing tech efficiencies to the agribusiness market, Silo harvests $3 million

Startup News - 2019, May 22 - 2:45am

Roughly $165 billion worth of wholesale produce is bought and sold every year in the U.S. And while that number is expected to go up to $1 trillion by 2025, the business of agribusiness remains unaffected by technology advancements that have reshaped almost every other industry.

Now Silo, a company that recently raised $3 million from investors led by Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital and including Semil Shah from Haystack Ventures, angel investors Kevin Mahaffey and Matt Brezina and The Penny Newman Grain Company, an international grain and feed marketplace, is looking to change that. 

Silo’s chief executive, Ashton Braun, spent years working in commodities marketplaces as a coffee trader in Singapore and moved to California after business school. As part of the founding team at Kite with Adam Smith, Braun worked on getting off the ground Kite’s software to automate computer programming, but he’d never let go of creating a tool that could help farmers and buyers better communicate and respond to demand signals, Braun says.

“I was a super young, green, bright-eyed potential entrepreneur,” says Braun. Eventually, Braun took the opportunity to develop the software that had been on his mind for four-and-a-half years.*

He’d seen the technology work in another industry closer to home. Growing up in Boston, Braun had seen how technology was used to update the fishing industry, giving ships a knowledge of potential buyers of their catch while they were still out in ocean waters.

“When you’re moving a product that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars and has a shelf life of a few days there’s literally no room for error and there’s a lot you need to do,” says Braun. It’s a principle that applies not only to seafood but to the hundreds of millions of dollars of produce and meat that comes from farms in places like California. “What we want to do is we want communication and data to live in the right places at the right time.”

Braun says there’s limited data coming in to farmers to let them know what demand for certain produce looks like, so they’re making guesses that have real financial outcomes with very little data.

Silo’s software vets and supports buyers and suppliers to give farmers a window into demand and potential buyers a view into available supply and quality.

“What Silo is building has the potential to make marketing and distribution of agriculture incredibly more efficient, which is a win both for the suppliers and buyers. We’re excited to support and assist this team as they work to move agriculture forward,” said Eric Woersching, general partner at Initialized Capital, in a statement.

Silo is using the new financing to make a hiring push and develop new products and services to support liquidity in its perishable goods marketplace.

While an earlier generation of agribusiness software focused on increasing productivity on farms, a new crop of companies is targeting the business of farming itself. Companies like AgriChain and GrainChain also offer supply chain management software for farming, and WorldCover is creating insurance products for small farmowners in emerging markets.

The penetration of technology through near ubiquitous mobile devices, coupled with sensing technologies and machine learning-enhanced predictive software, is transforming one of the world’s oldest industries.

“I’ve come across quite a few marketplace platforms attempting to serve different segments of the agriculture supply chain, and none of which have come close to impressing me to the degree Silo has in their tech-forward approach to reducing the friction that comes with managing all aspects of the supply chain on their platform. Silo’s deployment of machine learning streamlines the process, requiring little to no change in their users’ workflow, and removes many barriers of their platform reaching critical mass,” said Matthew Nicoletti, commodity trader at The Penny Newman Grain Company.  

*An earlier version of this story referenced Kite’s sale to Microsoft . The company remains independent.

Categories: Business News

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