funding

OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apple, Apps, bain capital ventures, Banking, Barclays, bloomberg terminal, Cloud, Developer, Enterprise, Finance, financial services, funding, Fundings & Exits, J.P. Morgan, nyca partners, OpenFin, operating systems, Private Equity, Recent Funding, Startups, truphone, Uber, Wells Fargo | No Comments

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

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Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

Posted by | Apple, BetaWorks, charles hudson, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, epic games, Eric Hippeau, esports, Facebook, fortnite, founders fund, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Google, GV, HQ Trivia, instagram, interactive media, lerer hippeau ventures, lightspeed venture partners, Luminary Media, matt hartman, Media, mg siegler, Netflix, new media, precursor ventures, Roblox, scooter braun, sequoia capital, Sports, Spotify, starbucks, Startups, sweet capital, TC, Twitch, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Most of the strategy discussions and news coverage in the media and entertainment industry is concerned with the unfolding corporate mega-mergers and the political implications of social media platforms.

These are important conversations, but they’re largely a story of twentieth-century media (and broader society) finally responding to the dominance Web 2.0 companies have achieved.

To entrepreneurs and VCs, the more pressing focus is on what the next generation of companies to transform entertainment will look like. Like other sectors, the underlying force is advances in artificial intelligence and computing power.

In this context, that results in a merging of gaming and linear storytelling into new interactive media. To highlight the opportunities here, I asked nine top VCs to share where they are putting their money.

Here are the media investment theses of: Cyan Banister (Founders Fund), Alex Taussig (Lightspeed), Matt Hartman (betaworks), Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia), Jordan Fudge (Sinai), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor), MG Siegler (GV), and Eric Hippeau (Lerer Hippeau).

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

In 2018 I was obsessed with the idea of how you can bring AI and entertainment together. Having made early investments in Brud, A.I. Foundation, Artie and Fable, it became clear that the missing piece behind most AR experiences was a lack of memory.

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HipChat founders launch Swoot, a social podcast app

Posted by | funding, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, Startups, Swoot, True Ventures | No Comments

Pete Curley and Garret Heaton, who previously co-founded team chat app HipChat and sold it to Atlassian, are officially launching their new product, Swoot, today. The app makes it easy for users to recommend podcasts and see what their friends are listening to.

This might seem like a big leap from selling enterprise software — and indeed, Curley said the company was initially focused on creating another set of team collaboration tools.

What they realized, however, was that HipChat is “actually a consumer product that the company just happens to pay for, because the employees demand it” — and he said they weren’t terribly interested in trying to build a business around a more traditional “top-down sales process.”

Meanwhile, Curley said he’d injured his back while lowering one of his children into a crib, which meant that for months, his only form of exercise was walking. He recalled walking around for hours each day and, for the first time, keeping himself entertained by listening to podcasts.

“I was actually way behind the times,” he said. “I didn’t know this, that everyone else was listening to them … This is like the dark web of content.”

Swoot Screenshot 1

The startup has already raised a $3 million seed funding round led by True Ventures .

“Pete and Garret both have incredible product and entrepreneurial experience, plus they have built successful businesses together in the past,” said True Ventures co-founder Jon Callaghan in a statement. “Their focus of solving the disjointed podcast listening experience through Swoot’s elegant design fills a clear gap in media discovery.”

Discovery — namely, finding new podcasts beyond the handful that you already subscribe to — is one of the biggest issues in podcasting right now. It’s something a number of companies are trying to solve, but in Curley’s view, the key is to make the listening experience more social.

He noted that social sharing features are getting added to “literally everything,” including your bathroom scale, except “the one thing that I actually wanted it for.”

Curley also contrasted the podcast listening experience with YouTube: “We don’t realize how big [podcasting] is because there is no social thing where you see that Gangnam Style has 8 billion views, and you realize that the entire world is watching. There’s no view count, no anything that tells you what’s popular.”

So he’s trying to provide that view with Swoot. Instead of focusing on overall listen counts (which might not be that impressive in a new app), Swoot gives you two main ways to track what’s popular among your friends.

Swoot Screenshot 2

There’s a feed that shows you everything that your friends are listening to or recommending, plus a list of episodes that are currently trending, with little icons showing you the friends who have listened to at least 20 percent of an episode.

Curley said the team has been beta testing the app by simply releasing it on the App Store and telling friends about it, then letting it spread by word of mouth until it was in the hands of around 1,000 users. During that test, it found that 25 percent of the podcasts that users listened to were coming from friends.

Curley also noted that this approach is “episode-centric” rather than “show-centric.” In other words, it’s not just helping you find the next podcast that you want to subscribe to and listen to for years — it also helps surface the specific episode that everyone’s listening to right now.

“In the 700,000 shows that exist, if you’re the 690,000 worst-ranked show, but you have one great episode that should be able to go viral, that’s basically impossible to do right now, because audio is crazy hard to share,” Curley said.

In the course of our conversation, I brought up my experience with Spotify — I like knowing what’s popular, but when a friend recently mentioned specific songs that they could see I’d been listening to on the service, I was a bit creeped out.

“It’s funny, I actually thought, how ironic that Spotify is getting into podcasting now [through the acquisitions of Gimlet and Anchor],” Curley replied. “They actually had this correct mechanism applied to the wrong thing. Music is a deeply personal thing.”

Which isn’t to say that podcast listening isn’t personal, but there’s more of an opportunity to discover overlapping interests, say the fact that you and your friends all listen to true crime podcasts.

Curley also said that the app is deliberately designed to ensure that “the service does not get worse because a ton of people follow you” — so they see what you are listening to, but they can’t comment on it or tell you that you’re an idiot for listening.

At the same time, he also said the team will be adding a mode to only share podcasts you actively recommend, rather than posting everything you listen to.

As for making money, Curley suggested that he’s interested in exploring a variety of possibilities, whether that’s integrating with other subscription or tipping services, or in creating ad opportunities around promoting podcasts.

“My actual answer is, there are a bunch of people trying to monetize right now, but I don’t think there’s a platform even close to mature enough to even try to monetize podcasting yet, other than podcasters doing their own advertising,” he said. “I think the endgame, where the real money is made in podcasting, actually hasn’t been come up with yet.”

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How-to video maker Jumprope launches to leapfrog YouTube

Posted by | Apps, DIY, eCommerce, Education, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, How To, instagram, Instructables, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, Thumbtack, Video, YouTube | No Comments

Sick of pausing and rewinding YouTube tutorials to replay that tricky part? Jumprope is a new instructional social network offering a powerful how-to video slideshow creation tool. Jumprope helps people make step-by-step guides to cooking, beauty, crafts, parenting and more using voice-overed looping GIFs for each phase. And creators can export their whole lesson for sharing on Instagram, YouTube or wherever.

Jumprope officially launches its iOS app today with plenty of how-tos for making chocolate chip bars, Easter eggs, flower boxes or fierce eyebrows. “By switching from free-form linear video to something much more structured, we can make it much easier for people to share their knowledge and hacks,” says Jumprope co-founder and CEO Jake Poses.

The rise of Snapchat Stories and Pinterest have made people comfortable jumping on camera and showing off their niche interests. By building a new medium, Jumprope could become the home for rapid-fire learning. And because viewers will have tons of purchase intent for the makeup, art supplies or equipment they’ll need to follow along, Jumprope could make serious cash off ads or affiliate commerce.

The opportunity to bring instruction manuals into the mobile video era has attracted a $4.5 million seed round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and joined by strategic angels like Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky and Thumbtack co-founders Marco Zappacosta and Jonathan Swanson. People are already devouring casual education content on HGTV and the Food Network, but Jumprope democratizes its creation.

Jumprope co-founders (from left): CTO Travis Johnson and CEO Jake Poses

The idea came from a deeply personal place for Poses. “My brother has pretty severe learning differences, and so growing up with him gave me this appreciation for figuring out how to break things down and explain them to people,” Poses reveals. “I think that attached me to this problem of ‘how do you organize information so it’s simple and easy to understand?’ Lots and lots of people have this information trapped in their heads because there isn’t a way to easily share that.”

Poses was formerly the VP of Product at Thumbtack where he helped grow the company from 8 to 500 people and a $1.25 billion valuation. He teamed up with AppNexus’ VP of engineering Travis Johnson, who’d been leading a 50-person team of coders. “The product takes people who have knowledge and passion but not the skill to make video [and gives them] guard rails that make it easy to communicate,” Poses explains.

Disrupting incumbents like YouTube’s grip on viewers might take years, but Jumprope sees its guide creation and export tool as a way to infiltrate and steal their users. That strategy mirrors how TikTok’s watermarked exports colonized the web.

How to make a Jumprope

Jumprope lays out everything you’ll need to upload, including a cover image, introduction video, supplies list and all your steps. For each, you’ll record a video that you can then enhance with voice-over, increased speed, music and filters.

Creators are free to suggest their own products or enter affiliate links to monetize their videos. Once it has enough viewers, Jumprope plans to introduce advertising, but it could also add tipping, subscriptions, paid how-tos or brand sponsorship options down the line. Creators can export their lessons with five different border themes and seven different aspect ratios for posting to Instagram’s feed, IGTV, Snapchat Stories, YouTube or embedding on their blog.

“Like with Stories, you basically tap through at your own pace,” Poses says of the viewing experience. Jumprope offers some rudimentary discovery through categories, themed collections or what’s new and popular. The startup has done extensive legwork to sign up featured creators in all its top categories. That means Jumprope’s catalog is already extensive, with food guides ranging from cinnabuns to pot roasts to how to perfectly chop an onion. 

“You’re not constantly dealing with the frustration of cooking something and trying to start and stop the video with greasy hands. And if you don’t want all the details, you can tap through it much faster” than trying to skim a YouTube video or blog post, Poses tells me. Next the company wants to build a commenting feature where you can leave notes, substitution suggestions and more on each step of a guide.

Poses claims there’s no one building a direct competitor to its mobile video how-to editor. But he admits it will be an uphill climb to displace viewership on Instagram and YouTube. One challenge facing Jumprope is that most people aren’t hunting down how-to videos every day. The app will have to work to remind users it exists and that they shouldn’t just go with the lazy default of letting Google recommend the videos it hosts.

The internet has gathered communities around every conceivable interest. But greater access to creation and consumption necessitates better tools for production and curation. As we move from a material to an experiential culture, people crave skills that will help them forge memories and contribute to the world around them. Jumprope makes it a lot less work to leap into the life of a guru.

You can watch my first Jumprope here or below to learn how to tie up headphones without knots:

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Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO

Posted by | Apps, Colin Kroll, founders fund, funding, HQ Trivia, Jeremy Liew, lightspeed venture partners, Mobile, Rus Yusupov, Scott Rogowsky, Social, Startups, TC, trivia, Video | No Comments

This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the ongoing struggle to decide who will lead HQ Trivia. According to multiple sources, over half of the startup’s staff signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. But Yusupov then fired some core supporters of the mutiny, leading to a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Store rank.

TechCrunch spoke to multiple sources familiar with HQ Trivia’s internal troubles to piece together how the live video mobile game went from blockbuster to nearly bust. Two sources said HQ recently only had around $6 million in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month, meaning its runway could be dwindling. But its early investors are reluctant to hand Yusupov any more cash. “

Employees petitioned to remove HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov

HQ reimagined gaming and mobile entertainment with the launch of its 12-question trivia game in August 2017 where players all competed live in twice-daily shows with anyone who got all the answers right split a cash jackpot. The games felt urgent since you could only participate at designated times, fun to play against friends or strangers, and winning carried a significance no single-player or non-stop online game could match.

When TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had just 3500 concurrent players. But by January it had climbed to the #3 game and #6 overall app in the App Store, and grown to 2.38 million players by March. Quickly, copycats from China and Facebook entered the market. But they all lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comedian Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Trap Trebek from the “HQties” who played daily, he was the de facto face of the startup.

Yet HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d also started Vine with Yusupov and sold it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a bad manager, Recode reported. He’d also picked up a reputation of being creepy around female employees, as well as Vine stars, TechCrunch has learned. Rapid growth and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that found no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way for a $15 million investment. The round was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.

Yusupov failed to translate that cash into sustained growth and product innovation. His public behavior had already raised flags. He yelled at a Daily Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky without Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fire the host. “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want? . . .  Please read me your story word for word,” Yusupov said. When he learned Rogowsky had expressed his preference for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He cannot say that! We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.” The next day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d never threatened Rogowsky’s job.

With HQ’s bank account full, sources say Yusupov was extremely slow to make decisions, allowing HQ to stagnate. The novelty of playing trivia for money via phone has begun to wear off, and people increasingly ignored HQ’s push notifications to join its next game. But beyond bringing in some guest hosts and the option to buy a second chance after a wrong answer, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 game on iOS and the #585 overall app as concurrent players waned.

That’s when things started to get a bit Game Of Thrones.

Pawns In A CEO War

Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 while moving Yusupov to Chief Creative Officer, which was confirmed despite an HR complaint against Kroll for aggressive management. However, three sources tell TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll. As the WSJ reported after Kroll’s death, that employee later left the startup because they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was definitely what felt like manipulation there, and that’s also why that employee resigned from the company.” one source said. Another source said that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to use them as a pawn in his CEO war and not because Rus actually cared about resolving things.”

Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the decision to swap out Yusupov due to her firm’s reputation of keeping founders in control, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that despite Kroll’s reputation, the staff believed in him. “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content” a source tells me. 

Three sources say that in a desperate ploy to retain power and prevent Kroll’s rise, Yusupov suggested Rogowsky, a comedian with no tech or management experience, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even suggested the company film a reality show about Rogowsky taking over. That idea was quickly shot down as preposterous.

“It was a very personal desperation tactic not to have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out idea” a source tells me, though another said it was always hard to tell if Yusupov’s crazy ideas were jokes. Both Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.

HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll passed away in December

Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. Employees were distraught over what would happen next. “Colin’s plan was to ship fast, and get new things out there” a source says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the release of HQ’s first new game type HQ Words modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t perfect but in the time he was in charge, the ship started to turn, but when Rus took over again it was like the 9 months where we did nothing.”

Coup d’éHQ

By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.

At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.

Mostly everyone was on Jeremy’s side as no one wanted to work under Rus. Jeremy wasn’t trying to screw him over the way Rus would screw other people over. He just wanted to do what was right, getting behind what everyone wanted” a source said of Liew. 

Instead, HQ’s board moved forward with instituting a new executive decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of production Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would remain interim CEO, and he continued to cling to power and there’s been little transparency about the CEO replacement process. Until a new CEO is found, HQ must subsist on its existing funds. The staff is “always worried about running out of runway” and are given vague answers when they ask leadership about how much money is left.

On March 1st, the committee emerged from a meeting and fired three employees — two who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.

One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, despite sources saying at one point he’d tried to organize the staff to go on strike. Other employees had been cautious about standing up to Yusupov. “Everyone was terrified of retaliation. Their fears have totally been validated” a source explains. Engineers and other staffers with strong employment prospects began to drain out of the company. Those left were just trying to hold onto their jobs. Without inspiring leadership or a strategy to reverse user shrinkage, recruiting replacements would prove difficult.

Yusupov remains on the board, along with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his additional common seat. Liew retains his seat until the new CEO is found and given that seat. And Kroll’s seat appears to have gone to Lightspeed partner Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to respond to requests for comment.

[Update: Seidman tells TechCrunch that the he sees the internal struggle for the CEO role as over now that Yusupov has accepted that a new CEO will be installed. That search is moving along, and the CEO chosen will report to the board but otherwise be given full autonomy to run the company as they choose. That includes having hiring and firing power over Yusupov. He did not dispute any other claims from this article. Seidman rightly believes HQ has contributed important ideas to the mobile gaming ecosystem, and now it’s the startup’s responsibility to turn those ideas into a steady business.]

Losing Face

Tensions at HQ and a desire to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to pick up a side gig hosting baseball talk show ChangeUp on the DAZN network, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to continue hosting HQ during its big weekend contests. But tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s desire for the host to remain exclusively at HQ led negotiations to sour causing Rogowsky to leave the startup entirely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been replaced by former HQ guest host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly told me Friday had polled higher than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s top players.

In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it won’t be possible for me to continue hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell show.” Finding a way to preserve Rogowsky’s ties to HQ likely would have been best for the startup.  TechCrunch had raised the concern a year ago that unless Rogowsky was properly locked in with an adequate equity vesting schedule at HQ, he could leave. Or worse, he could be poached by Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.

“Rus is a visionary but not a good leader. He is extremely manipulative in an unproductive way. He’s a dude who just cares a lot about his reputation” a source noted. “A lot of the negative sentiment amongst staff is the belief that he cares more about his reputation than the company itself.”

HQ’s next attempt to revive growth appears to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a new live show on your phone where our host shows funny viral videos and you decide on who gets paid.” Finally it seems willing to embrace the potential of interactive live video entertainment outside of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ saw just 8 percent as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.

After the loss of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the employees’ chosen leader Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, tough questions are what remain for HQ Trivia. The company’s struggles have paralyzed its progress towards finding a new viral mechanic or game format that attracts users. While HQ Words is fun, it’s too similar to its trivia competition to change the startup’s trajectory. And all of the in-fighting could scare off any talent hoping to turn HQ around. Unfortunately, securing an extra life for the game will take a more than a $3.99 in-app purchase.

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The definitive Niantic reading guide

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Book Review, Cloud, Collaborative Consumption, Developer, EC-1, funding, Gaming, Google, google cloud, harry potter, ingress, john hanke, mobile gaming, niantic, Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go, reading guide, Social, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

In just a few years, Niantic has evolved from internal side project into an independent industry trailblazer. Having reached tremendous scale in such a short period of time, Niantic acts as a poignant crash course for founders and company builders. As our EC-1 deep-dive into the company shows, lessons from the team’s experience building the Niantic’s product offering remain just as fresh as painful flashbacks to the problems encountered along the way.

As we did for our Patreon EC-1, we’ve poured through every analysis we could find on Niantic and have compiled a supplemental list of resources and readings that are particularly useful for getting up to speed on the company.

Reading time for this article is about 9.5 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Niantic. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

I. Background: The Story of Niantic

Google-Incubated Niantic, Maker of Ingress, Stepping Out on Its Own | August 2015 | In August of 2015, Niantic announced that it would spin out from Google and become an independent company. As discussed in WSJ’s coverage of the news, Niantic looked at the spin out as a way to accelerate growth and collaborate with the broader entertainment ecosystem.

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Esports org OverActive Media gets investment from The Weeknd

Posted by | esports, funding, Gaming, overactive media, overwatch league, Startups, TC, the weeknd | No Comments

OverActive Media, the company that owns the Splyce esports org and the Overwatch League’s Toronto Defiant team, have announced that The Weeknd (real name: Abel Tesfaye) has invested in the company.

In the world of esports, OAM is a big organization — the Toronto-based company, which launched in 2017, has teams in the League of Legends European Championship, Overwatch League, Call of Duty World League, Rocket League, Starcraft and Smite. OAM is one of only five esports orgs in the world with permanent slots both in League of Legends and the Overwatch League.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a look at one of the Toronto Defiant’s recent Overwatch League games.

The terms of the investment were not disclosed, but it would appear that The Weeknd will be contributing to some marketing efforts and building brand awareness around Splyce and the Toronto Defiant.

“Abel’s standing in the music industry will provide our Toronto Defiant and Splyce brands the opportunity to reach more fans and engage new audiences,” said OAM CEO and president Chris Overholt.

The release also mentions that Toronto Defiant fans will see “unique joint efforts” with The Weeknd throughout the 2019 Overwatch League seasons.

Here’s what The Weeknd had to say, via the release:

As a big esports fan, I am really excited to be involved in this project. I am looking forward to collaborating with OverActive Media in unique and innovative ways.

The Weeknd is not the first musical artist to invest in an esports org. Drake and Scooter Braun invested in esports company 100 Thieves in October of 2018.

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CleverTap lands $26M for its mobile-focused customer marketing service

Posted by | Accel, Asia, clevertap, Facebook, Fandango, funding, Fundings & Exits, go-jek, india, Media, Mobile, rakuten, Sequoia, Sequoia India, Singapore, Southeast Asia, tiger global, United States, Viber, WhatsApp | No Comments

CleverTap, an India-based startup that lets companies track and improve engagement with users across the web, has pulled in $26 million in new funding thanks to a round led by Sequoia India.

Existing investor Accel and new backer Tiger Global also took part in the deal, which values CleverTap at $150-$160 million, the startup disclosed. The deal takes CleverTap to around $40 million from investors to date.

Founded in 2015 and based in Mumbai, CleverTap competes with a range of customer experience services, including Oracle Cloud. Its service covers a range of touchpoints with consumers, including email, in-app activity, push notifications, Facebook, WhatsApp (for business) and Viber. Its service helps companies map out how their users are engaging across those vectors, and develop “re-engagement” programs to help reactive dormant users or increase engagement among others.

The company says its SDK is installed in more than 8,000 apps and its customers include Southeast Asia-based startups Go-Jek and Zilingo, Hotstar in India and U.S.-based Fandango . With a considerable customer base in Asia, CleverTap puts a particular focus on mobile because many of these markets are all about personal devices.

“Asia is mobile-first and massively growing,” CleverTap CEO and co-founder Sunil Thomas told TechCrunch in an interview. “A lot of engagement in this [part of the] world is timely… we were sort of born physically on the east side of the world, so we got to scale with all these diverse set of devices.”

That stands to benefit CleverTap as it seeks to grow market share outside of Asia, and in markets like the U.S. and Europe where mobile is — right now — just one part of the marketing and customer engagement process. The company believes that engagement by mobile has a long way to develop there.

“Engagement [in the West] is still email-heavy and not really timely,” Thomas said. “Whereas the East thinks of it as ‘Hey, let’s be proactive… instead of a user coming in to hunt for information, can I provide it when I think he or she will need it?’ ”

Of course, mobile push and in-app notifications can be easily abused.

Most people will know of an app on their phone that falls into that category. So, how does a company know what is too much or what isn’t enough?

“As long as you use push or in-app as an extension of your brand, then I think it’s extremely useful,” explained Thomas. “After all, this is a really competitive world; it isn’t just your app out there — if you can make your brand count when this person isn’t in your app, that’ll help you.”

More broadly, Thomas argued that CleverTap brings data to the table which, ultimately, “changes the whole context in real time.” So a customer can really look holistically at their online presence and figure out what is working, and with which users. In real terms, when used to acquire new users online, he said he believes that CleverTap typically doubles registration conversions and triples the buying rate.

“The cost of acquisition to first purchase is what we really effect,” said Thomas. “It’s that moment you get a new person into your house.”

CleverTap has an office in Sunnyvale and it has just landed in Singapore. Now it plans to add a location in Indonesia before the end of the year. Those expansions are centered around business development, with some customer support, since tech and other teams are in India. Already, according to Thomas, the company is looking to grow in Europe while it is weighing the potential to enter Latin America in a move that could include a local partnership.

The CleverTap CEO is also considering raising more money toward the end of the year, when he believes that the company can push its valuation as high as $400 million.

“That’s very doable based on revenue growth,” he said. “We think that the revenue will demand that valuation.”

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New privacy assistant Jumbo fixes your Facebook & Twitter settings

Posted by | amazon alexa, Apps, Facebook, facebook privacy, funding, Fundings & Exits, google search, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, Twitter, Twitter Privacy | No Comments

Jumbo could be a nightmare for the tech giants, but a savior for the victims of their shady privacy practices.

Jumbo saves you hours as well as embarrassment by automatically adjusting 30 Facebook privacy settings to give you more protection, and by deleting your old tweets after saving them to your phone. It can even erase your Google Search and Amazon Alexa history, with clean-up features for Instagram and Tinder in the works.

The startup emerges from stealth today to launch its Jumbo privacy assistant app on iPhone (Android coming soon). What could take a ton of time and research to do manually can be properly handled by Jumbo with a few taps.

The question is whether tech’s biggest companies will allow Jumbo to operate, or squash its access. Facebook, Twitter and the rest really should have built features like Jumbo’s themselves or made them easier to use, since they could boost people’s confidence and perception that might increase usage of their apps. But since their business models often rely on gathering and exploiting as much of your data as possible, and squeezing engagement from more widely visible content, the giants are incentivized to find excuses to block Jumbo.

“Privacy is something that people want, but at the same time it just takes too much time for you and me to act on it,” explains Jumbo founder Pierre Valade, who formerly built beloved high-design calendar app Sunrise that he sold to Microsoft in 2015. “So you’re left with two options: you can leave Facebook, or do nothing.”

Jumbo makes it easy enough for even the lazy to protect themselves. “I’ve used Jumbo to clean my full Twitter, and my personal feeling is: I feel lighter. On Facebook, Jumbo changed my privacy settings, and I feel safer.” Inspired by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he believes the platforms have lost the right to steward so much of our data.

Valade’s Sunrise pedigree and plan to follow Dropbox’s bottom-up freemium strategy by launching premium subscription and enterprise features has already attracted investors to Jumbo. It’s raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Thrive Capital’s Josh Miller and Nextview Ventures’ Rob Go, who “both believe that privacy is a fundamental human right,” Valade notes. Miller sold his link-sharing app Branch to Facebook in 2014, so his investment shows those with inside knowledge see a need for Jumbo. Valade’s six-person team in New York will use the money to develop new features and try to start a privacy moment.

How Jumbo works

First let’s look at Jumbo’s Facebook settings fixes. The app asks that you punch in your username and password through a mini-browser open to Facebook instead of using the traditional Facebook Connect feature. That immediately might get Jumbo blocked, and we’ve asked Facebook if it will be allowed. Then Jumbo can adjust your privacy settings to Weak, Medium, or Strong controls, though it never makes any privacy settings looser if you’ve already tightened them.

Valade details that since there are no APIs for changing Facebook settings, Jumbo will “act as ‘you’ on Facebook’s website and tap on the buttons, as a script, to make the changes you asked Jumbo to do for you.” He says he hopes Facebook makes an API for this, though it’s more likely to see his script as against policies.

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For example, Jumbo can change who can look you up using your phone number to Strong – Friends only, Medium – Friends of friends, or Weak – Jumbo doesn’t change the setting. Sometimes it takes a stronger stance. For the ability to show you ads based on contact info that advertisers have uploaded, both the Strong and Medium settings hide all ads of this type, while Weak keeps the setting as is.

The full list of what Jumbo can adjust includes Who can see your future posts?, Who can see the people?, Pages and lists you follow, Who can see your friends list?, Who can see your sexual preference?, Do you want Facebook to be able to recognize you in photos and videos?, Who can post on your timeline?, and Review tags people add to your posts the tags appear on Facebook? The full list can be found here.

For Twitter, you can choose if you want to remove all tweets ever, or that are older than a day, week, month (recommended), or three months. Jumbo never sees the data, as everything is processed locally on your phone. Before deleting the tweets, it archives them to a Memories tab of its app. Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to export the tweets from there, but Jumbo is building Dropbox and iCloud connectivity soon, which will work retroactively to download your tweets. Twitter’s API limits mean it can only erase 3,200 tweets of yours every few days, so prolific tweeters may require several rounds.

Its other integrations are more straightforward. On Google, it deletes your search history. For Alexa, it deletes the voice recordings stored by Amazon. Next it wants to build a way to clean out your old Instagram photos and videos, and your old Tinder matches and chat threads.

Across the board, Jumbo is designed to never see any of your data. “There isn’t a server-side component that we own that processes your data in the cloud,” Valade says. Instead, everything is processed locally on your phone. That means, in theory, you don’t have to trust Jumbo with your data, just to properly alter what’s out there. The startup plans to open source some of its stack to prove it isn’t spying on you.

While there are other apps that can clean your tweets, nothing else is designed to be a full-fledged privacy assistant. Perhaps it’s a bit of idealism to think these tech giants will permit Jumbo to run as intended. Valade says he hopes if there’s enough user support, the privacy backlash would be too big if the tech giants blocked Jumbo. “If the social network blocks us, we will disable the integration in Jumbo until we can find a solution to make them work again.”

But even if it does get nixed by the platforms, Jumbo will have started a crucial conversation about how privacy should be handled offline. We’ve left control over privacy defaults to companies that earn money when we’re less protected. Now it’s time for that control to shift to the hands of the user.

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Dote raises $12M and introduces live-streamed Shopping Parties

Posted by | Dote, eCommerce, funding, goodwater capital, Influencer Marketing, Mobile, shopping, Social, Startups | No Comments

Mobile shopping startup Dote is announcing $12 million in new funding, as well as a new feature called Shopping Party.

Founder and CEO Lauren Farleigh said her initial goal was to create “a truly native mobile experience” that made it “easy to check out across a lot of different stores.”

Over time, recommendations from social media influencers have become a big part of the app. With Shopping Party, they’re taking center stage — the feature allows them to share live video while browsing different products on Dote and chatting with fans.

Farleigh said the idea came from a trip she took with Dote influencers to Fiji last fall. She described watching them shop and talk together at the airport, and in what she said was an “ah-ha moment,” she realized that there’s an experience that was “lost when we stopped going to the mall with our friends.”

She added that influencers embraced the idea, with some telling her, “We love going live on Instagram [but] it’s challenging because there’s no shared experience for us to have that meaningful interaction over. It usually turns into the same Q&A over and over again.”

Lauren Farleigh

Dote CEO Lauren Farleigh

Shopping Party offers one solution to that issue, because you’re actually browsing and talking about specific products in the Dote app. Apparently this was a real technical challenge — Shopping Party is leveraging Apple’s ReplayKit 2 framework to deliver two live streams (one from the phone camera, one from the Dote app) while also incorporating live chats.

Farleigh, who previously worked as a product manager at mobile gaming company Pocket Gems, also compared this to game streaming on Twitch, except for shopping.

To kick things off, Dote plans to host two Shopping Parties every hour from 6am to 10am Pacific time for the next two weeks. (The company says the average Shopping Party lasts about 15 minutes.) There also will be Shopping Parties sponsored by specific brands.

As for the funding, it was led by Goodwater Capital, with participation from Lightspeed Venture Partners and Harrison Metal. Dote has now raised a total of $23 million.

“[Dote’s] customer-centric shopping platform uniquely blends innovative technologies such as live-streaming with relevant and fun social features, setting the standard for how all major brands and retailers will connect with Gen Z,” said Goodwater Managing Partner Eric Kim in a statement. “We’re thrilled to partner with them to accelerate this transformation.”

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