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Digging into the Roblox growth strategy

Posted by | Apps, EC-1, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Media, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Could Roblox create a new entertainment and communication category, something it calls “human co-experience”?

When it was a small startup, few observers would have believed in that future. But after 15 years — as told in the origin story of our Roblox EC-1 — the company has accumulated 90 million users and a new $150 million venture funding war chest. It has captured the imagination of America’s youth, and become a startup darling in the entertainment space.

But what, exactly, is human co-experience? Well, it can’t be described precisely — because it’s still an emerging category. “It’s almost like that fable where the nine blind men are touching and describing an elephant.

Everyone has a slightly different view,” says co-founder and CEO Dave Baszucki. In Roblox’s view, co-experience means immersive environments where users play, explore, talk, hang out, and create an identity that’s as thoroughly fleshed out (if not as fleshy) as their offline, real life.

But the next decade at Roblox will also be its most challenging time yet, as it seeks to expand from 90 million users to, potentially, a billion or more. To do so, it needs to pull off two coups.

First, it needs to expand the age range of its players beyond its current tween and teen audience. Second, it must win the international market. Accomplishing both of these will be a puzzle with many moving parts.

What Roblox is today

Lineup All 1

One thing Roblox has done very well is appeal to kids within a certain age range. The company says that a majority of all 9-to-12-year-old children in the United States are on its platform.

Within that youthful segment, Roblox has arguably already created the human co-experience category. Many games are more cooperative than competitive, or have goals that are unclear or don’t seem to matter much. One of Roblox’s most popular games, for instance, is MeepCity, where players can run around and chat in virtual environments like a high school without necessarily interacting with the game mechanics at all.

What else separates these environments from what you can see today on, say, the App Store or Steam? A few characteristics seem common.

For one, the environments look rough. One Robloxian put the company’s relaxed attitude toward looks as “not over-indexing on visual fidelity.”

Roblox games also ignore the design principles now espoused by nearly every game company. Tutorials are infrequent, user interfaces are unpolished, and one gets the sense that KPIs like retention and engagement are not being carefully measured.

That’s similar to how games on platforms like Facebook and the App Store started out, so it seems reasonable to say Roblox is just in a similarly early stage. It is — but it’s also competing directly with mobile games that are more rigorously designed. Over half of its players are on smartphones, where they could have chosen a free game that looks more polished, like Fortnite or Clash of Clans.

The more accurate explanation of why Roblox draws big player numbers is that there’s a gap in the kids entertainment market. So far, only Roblox fills that gap, despite its various shortcomings.

“The amount of unstructured, undirected play has been declining for decades. [Kids] have much more homework, and structured activities like theater after school.

One of the big unmet needs we solve is to give kids a place to have imagination,” explains Craig Donato, Roblox’s chief business officer. “If you play the experiences on our platform, you’re not playing to win. You go into these worlds with people you know and share an experience.”

Games like The Sims tried to do the same, but eventually faded in the children’s demo. Roblox’s trick has been continued growth: it provides kids with an endless array of games that unlock their imagination. But just like we don’t expect adults to have fun with Barbie dolls, it’s unlikely most adults would enjoy Roblox games.

Of course, it would be easy to point at Roblox and laugh off its ambitions to win over people of all ages. That laughter would also be short-sighted.

As David Sze, the Greylock Partners investor who led Roblox’s most recent round, pointed out: “When we invested in Facebook there was a huge amount of pushback that nobody would use it outside college.” Companies that have won over one demographic have a good chance of winning others.

Roblox has also proven its ability to evolve. At one time, the platform’s players were 90 percent male. Now, that’s down to about 60 percent. Roblox now has far more girls playing than the typical game platform.

Evolving to new demographics

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How Roblox avoided the gaming graveyard and grew into a $2.5B company

Posted by | Activision, Apple, Apps, Atlassian, Club-Penguin, Computer games, dave baszucki, David Sze, EC-1, engineering, Facebook, Friendster, funding, Fundings & Exits, fundraising tactics, Gaming, Google, Greylock Partners, Growth, growth tactics, Habbo-Hotel, IMVU, king.com, Kongregate, Mark Zuckerberg, Media, Metaplace, Mojang, MySpace, Roblox, Second-Life, Startups, TC, video games, Virtual reality, Windows | No Comments

There are successful companies that grow fast and garner tons of press. Then there’s Roblox, a company which took at least a decade to hit its stride and has, relative to its current level of success, barely gotten any recognition or attention.

Why has Roblox’s story gone mostly untold? One reason is that it emerged from a whole generation of gaming portals and platforms. Some, like King.com, got lucky or pivoted their business. Others by and large failed.

Once companies like Facebook, Apple and Google got to the gaming scene, it just looked like a bad idea to try to build your own platform — and thus not worth talking about. Added to that, founder and CEO Dave Baszucki seems uninterested in press.

But overall, the problem has been that Roblox just seemed like an insignificant story for many, many years. The company had millions of users, sure. So did any number of popular games. In its early days, Roblox even looked like Minecraft, a game that was released long after Roblox went live, but that grew much, much faster.

Yet here we are today: Roblox now claims that half of all American children aged 9-12 are on its platform. It has jumped to 90 million monthly unique users and is poised to go international, potentially multiplying that number. And it’s unique. Essentially all other distribution services offering games through a portal have eventually fizzled, aside from some distant cousins like Steam.

This is the story of how Roblox not only survived, but built a thriving platform.

Seeds of an idea

GettyImages 1027412388

(Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Before Roblox, there was Knowledge Revolution, a company that made teaching software. While designed to allow students to simulate physics experiments, perhaps predictably, they also treated it like a game.

“The fun seemed to be in building your own experiment,” says Baszucki. “When people were playing it and we went into schools and labs, they were all making car crashes and buildings fall down, making really funny stuff.” Provided with a sandbox, kids didn’t just make dry experiments about mass or velocity — they made games, or experiences they could show off to friends for a laugh.

Knowledge Revolution was founded in 1989, by Dave Baszucki and his brother Greg (who didn’t later co-found Roblox, but is now on its board). Nearly a decade later, it was acquired for $20 million by MSC Software, which made professional simulation tools. Dave continued there for another four years before leaving to become an angel investor.

Baszucki put money into Friendster, a company that pre-dated Facebook and MySpace in the social networking category. That investment seeded another piece of the idea for Roblox. Taken together, the legacy of Knowledge Revolution and Friendster were the two key components undergirding Roblox: a physics sandbox with strong creation tools, and a social graph.

Baszucki himself is a third piece of the puzzle. Part of an older set of entrepreneurs, which might be called the Steve Jobs generation, Baszucki’s archetype seems closer to Mr. Rogers than Jobs himself: unfailingly polite and enthusiastic, never claiming superior insight, and preferring to pass credit for his accomplishments on to others. In conversation, he shows interests both central and tangential to Roblox, like virtual environments, games, education, digital identity and the future of tech. Somewhere in this heady mix, the idea of Roblox came about.

The first release

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Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Posted by | artificial intelligence, automotive, autonomous vehicles, funding, Gadgets, hardware, Lidar, Luminar, robotics, self-driving cars, Transportation | No Comments

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $100 million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $250 million — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, as few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Luminar IRIS AND TEST FLEET LiDARS

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true series production vehicles,” he said (among many other things). The company that gets there first will lead the industry, and naturally he plans to make Luminar that company.

Part of that is of course the production process, which has been vastly improved over the last couple of years. These units can be made quickly enough that they can be supplied by the thousands rather than dozens, and the cost has dropped precipitously — by design.

Iris will cost less than $1,000 per unit for production vehicles seeking serious autonomy, and for $500 you can get a more limited version for more limited purposes like driver assistance, or ADAS. Luminar says Iris is “slated to launch commercially on production vehicles beginning in 2022,” but that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re shipping to customers right now. The company is negotiating more than a billion dollars in contracts at present, a representative told me, and 2022 would be the earliest that vehicles with Iris could be made available.

LUMINAR IRIS TRAFFIC JAM PILOT

The Iris units are about a foot below the center of the headlight units here. Note that this is not a production vehicle, just a test one.

Another part of integration is software. The signal from the sensor has to go somewhere, and while some lidar companies have indicated they plan to let the carmaker or whoever deal with it their own way, others have opted to build up the tech stack and create “perception” software on top of the lidar. Perception software can be a range of things: something as simple as drawing boxes around objects identified as people would count, as would a much richer process that flags intentions, gaze directions, characterizes motions and suspected next actions and so on.

Luminar has opted to build into perception, or rather has revealed that it has been working on it for some time. It now has 60 people on the task split between Palo Alto and Orlando, and hired a new VP of Software, former robo-taxi head at Daimler, Christoph Schroder.

What exactly will be the nature and limitations of Luminar’s perception stack? There are dangers waiting if you decide to take it too far, because at some point you begin to compete with your customers, carmakers that have their own perception and control stacks that may or may not overlap with yours. The company gave very few details as to what specifically would be covered by its platform, but no doubt that will become clearer as the product itself matures.

Last and certainly not least is the matter of the $100 million in additional funding. This brings Luminar to a total of over a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years, matching its competitor Innoviz, which has made similar decisions regarding commercialization and development.

The list of investors has gotten quite long, so I’ll just quote Luminar here:

G2VP, Moore Strategic Ventures, LLC, Nick Woodman, The Westly Group, 1517 Fund / Peter Thiel, Canvas Ventures, along with strategic investors Corning Inc, Cornes, and Volvo Cars Tech Fund.

The board has also grown, with former Broadcom exec Scott McGregor and G2VP’s Ben Kortlang joining the table.

We may have already passed “peak lidar” as far as sheer number of deals and startups in the space, but that doesn’t mean things are going to cool down. If anything, the opposite, as established companies battle over lucrative partnerships and begin eating one another to stay competitive. Seems like Luminar has no plans on becoming a meal.

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Samsung backs Indus OS, three other startups in first investments for its VC arm in India

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Facebook, funding, india, indus os, kaios, M12, reliance jio, Samsung Ventures, Venture Capital | No Comments

Samsung Venture, the investment arm of the South Korean technology giant, has invested $8.5 million in Indus OS and three other Indian startups as the company’s VC fund begins its journey in the country.

Indus OS is a popular Android fork that has built a suite of localized applications focused on serving the masses in India. Samsung and Venturest funded the four-year-old startup’s $5.75 million Series B round.

Several smartphone vendors, including homegrown firms such as Micromax, Gioness, Intex and Karbonn, are customers of Indus OS, integrating many of its features into their handsets. Earlier this year, Samsung partnered with Indus OS to revamp its Galaxy App Store.

Rakesh Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of Indus OS, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup will use the fresh capital to develop more local solutions and build a software development kit for developers that will enable them to make tweaks to their existing apps and add India-specific features.

Deshmukh said Indus OS, which makes money from monetizing ads, would soon partner with more smartphone vendors to expand its reach in the country. This is crucial to the startup as Indian smartphone vendors, which once controlled the local smartphone market, have lost the smartphone war to Chinese vendors that now control two-thirds of the space, and Samsung.

The other challenge is of course the rise of KaiOS, which has gained popularity in recent years after striking a deal with Indian telecom operator Reliance Jio. Tens of millions of JioPhone feature handsets today run KaiOS, giving many people fewer reasons to upgrade to a smartphone.

Deshmukh said he does not see KaiOS as a competitor. “It serves as a bridge. It is convincing many people to get online and try a multimedia phone for the first time. They will eventually upgrade to a better experience,” he said.

Indian newspaper Economic Times reported earlier today that Samsung now owns about 20% stakes of Indus OS. Representatives of the startup, which raised $10 million in three tranches of Series A three years ago, refuted the claim. Deshmukh said the company plans to raise more money in the coming future.

Other than Indus OS, Samsung Venture has invested in Gnani.ai, a startup that focuses on speech technology, and IoT solutions provider Silvan Innovation Labs. The venture arm said it also has invested in an early-stage startup that focuses on computer vision, but declined to name it.

Samsung Venture, which has more than $2.2 billion in assets under management, said it continues to track and actively invest in future-oriented businesses that are built on new technologies. Notably, Xiaomi, which surpassed Samsung to become India’s top smartphone vendor two years ago, also has invested in about half a dozen startups in India.

India’s tech startups have raised more than $20 billion in the last two years. The country’s burgeoning ecosystem is increasingly attracting major VC firms in the nation. SoftBank and Tiger Global, two large global VC funds, count India as one of their biggest markets.

In recent years, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook have also begun to infuse money in India’s startup space. Google has invested in delivery startup Dunzo, while Amazon has taken stake in more than half a dozen local companies, including Shuttl. Facebook invested in social commerce app Meesho last month.

Earlier this year, Microsoft expanded its M12 corporate venture fund (formerly known as Microsoft Ventures) to India with an investment in Innovaccer, a six-year-old SaaS startup.

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Atlan raises $2.5M to stop enterprises from being so bad at managing data

Posted by | Asia, funding, india, InMobi, Mobile, ratan tata, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, unilever, wpp, zoom | No Comments

Even as much of the world is digitizing its governance, in small towns and villages of India, data about its citizens is still being largely logged on long and thick notebooks. Have they received the subsidized cooking gas cylinders? How frequent are the power cuts in the village? If these data points exist at all, they are probably stored in big paperbacks stacked in a corner of some agency’s office.

Five years ago, two young entrepreneurs — Prukalpa Sankar and Varun Banka — set out to modernize this system. They founded SocialCops, a startup that builds tools that make it easier for government officials — and anyone else — to quickly conduct surveys and maintain digital records that could be accessed from anywhere.

The Indian government was so impressed with SocialCops’ offering that it partnered with the startup on National Data Platform, a project to connect and bring more transparency within many of the state-run initiatives; and Ujjwala Yojana, a project to deliver subsidized cooking gas cylinders to poor women across the nation.

“This is a crucial step towards good governance through which we will be able to monitor everything centrally,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said of National Data Platform. “It will enable us to effectively monitor every village of the country.”

Two years ago, the duo wondered if the internal tools that they built for their own teams to manage their projects could help data teams around the world? The early results are in: Atlan, a startup they founded using learnings from SocialCops, has secured more than 200 customers from over 50 nations and has raised $2.5 million in pre-Series A funding led by Waterbridge Ventures, an early stage venture fund.

The startup, which employs about 80 people, has also received backing from Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of conglomerate Tata Sons, Rajan Anandan, the former head of Google Southeast Asia, and 500 Startups. On Tuesday, Singapore-headquartered Atlan moved out of stealth mode.

The premise of Atlan’s products is simple. It’s built on the assumption that the way most people in enterprises deal with data is inefficient and broken, Sankar and Banka told TechCrunch in an interview. Typically, there is no central system to keep track of all these data points that often live in their own silos. This often results in people spending days to figure out what their compliance policy is, for instance.

“Atlan wants to democratize data inside organizations,” said Sankar.

Atlan Discovery 2

Teams within a typical company currently use a number of different tools to gather and manage data. Atlan has built products — dubbed Discovery, Grid, and Workflows — to create a collaboration layer, bringing together diverse data (from internal and external sources), tools and people to one interface.

“We are reimagining every human interaction with data. For instance, code has a profile on GitHub—what would a “profile” of data look like? What if you could share data as easily as a Google Sheets link, without worrying about the size or format? Or what would a data versioning and approval workflow look like? What if data scientists could acquire external data within minutes, instead of the months it takes right now?” said Banka.

The startup has also built a product called Collect that allows an organization to quickly deploy apps to collect granular data. These apps can collect data even when there is no internet connection. All of these data points, too, then find their way to the interface.

Atlan intends to use the capital it has raised on product development and sign more customers. It has already won some big names including Unilever, Milkbasket, Barbeque Nation, WPP and GroupM, Mahindra Group and InMobi in India, Chuan Lim Construction in Singapore, ServeHaiti in Haiti, Swansea University in the UK, the Ministry of Environment in Costa Rica, and Varun Beverages in Zambia.

In a prepared statement, Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner at WaterBridge Ventures, said, “companies are struggling to overcome the friction that arises when diverse individuals need to collaborate, leading to project failure. The IPOs of companies like Slack and Zoom are proof that we live in the era of consumerization of the enterprise. With its sharp focus on data democratization, Atlan is well-positioned to reimagine the future of how data teams work.”

As for SocialCops, Sankar said it will live on as a data science community and pursue its signature “social good” mission.

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Calm raises $27M to McConaughey you to sleep

Posted by | Apps, calm, Education, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, lightspeed venture partners, meditation, Mobile, Recent Funding, sleep, sleep aid, Startups, TC | No Comments

Meditation app unicorn Calm wants you to doze off to the dulcet tones of actor Matthew McConaughey’s southern drawl or writer Stephen Fry’s English accent. Calm’s Sleep Stories feature that launched last year is a hit, with more than 150 million listens from its 2 million paid subscribers and 50 million downloads. While lots of people want to meditate, they need to sleep. The seven-year-old app has finally found its must-have feature that makes it a habit rather than an aspiration.

Keen to capitalize on solving the insomnia problems plaguing people around the world, Lightspeed tells TechCrunch it has just invested $27 million into a Series B extension round in Calm alongside some celebrity angels at a $1 billion valuation. The cash will help the $70 per year subscription app further expand from guided meditations into more self-help masterclasses, stretching routines, relaxing music, breathing exercises, stories for children and celebrity readings that lull you to sleep.

Calm App

The funding adds to Calm’s $88 million Series B led by TPG that was announced in February that was also at a $1 billion valuation, bringing the full B round to $115 million and Calm’s total funding to about $141 million. Lightspeed partner Nicole Quinn confirms the fund started talks with Calm around the same time as TPG, but took longer to finish due diligence, which is why the valuation didn’t grow despite Calm’s progress since February.

“Nicole and Lightspeed are valuable partners as we continue to double down on entertainment through our content,” Calm’s head of communications Alexia Marchetti tells me. The startup plans to announce more celebrity content tie-ins later this summer.

Broadening its appeal is critical for Calm amidst a crowded meditation app market that includes Headspace, Simple Habit and Insight Timer, plus newer entrants like Peloton’s mindfulness sessions and Journey’s live group classes. It’s become easy to find guided meditations online for free, so Calm needs to become a holistic mental wellness hub.

While it risks diluting its message by doing so much, Calm’s plethora of services could make it a gateway to more of your personal health spend, including therapy, meditation retreats and health merchandise from airy clothing to yoga mats. But subscription fees alone are powering a big business. Calm quadrupled revenue in 2018 to reach $150 million in ARR and hit profitability.

Calm is poised to keep up its rapid revenue growth. After the launch of Sleep Stories, “it was incredible to see the engagement spike up and also the retention,” says Quinn. Users can choose from having McConaughey describe the wonders of the cosmos, John McEnroe walk them through the rules of tennis, fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and more.

Quinn tells me “Sleep Stories is now a huge percentage of the business, and also the length of time people spend on the app has gone up dramatically.” She tells me that so many startups are “trying to invent a problem where there isn’t one.” But difficulty snoozing is so widespread and detrimental that users are eager to pay for an app instead of a sleeping pill. Having the Interstellar actor talk about the universe until I pass out sounds alright, alright, alright.

Alright Alright Alright

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300M-user meme site Imgur raises $20M from Coil to pay creators

Posted by | alan schaaf, Apps, coil, Creators, Crowdfunding, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Imgur, Media, Memes, micropayments, Mobile, Patreon, payments, Recent Funding, Ripple, ripple labs, Social, Startups, TC, xrp | No Comments

Meme creators have never gotten their fair share. Remixed and reshared across the web, their jokes prop up social networks like Instagram and Twitter that pay back none of their ad revenue to artists and comedians. But 300 million monthly user meme and storytelling app Imgur wants to pioneer a way to pay creators per second that people view their content.

Today Imgur announces that it’s raised a $20 million venture equity round from Coil, a micropayment tool for creators that Imgur has agreed to build into its service. Imgur will eventually launch a premium membership with exclusive features and content reserved for Coil subscribers.

Users pay Coil a fixed monthly fee, install its browser extension, the Interledger protocol is used to route assets around, and then Coil pays creators dollars or XRP tokens per second that the subscriber spends consuming their content at a rate of 36 cents per hour. Imgur and Coil will earn a cut too, diversifying the meme network’s revenue beyond ads.

Imgur

“Imgur began in 2009 as a gift to the internet. Over the last 10 years we’ve built one of the largest, most positive online communities, based on our core value to ‘give more than we take’” says Alan Schaaf, founder and CEO of Imgur. The startup bootstrapped for its first five years before raising a $40 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit. It’s grown into the premier place to browse ‘meme dumps’ of 50+ funny images and GIFs, as well as art, science, and inspirational tales. With the same unpersonalized homepage for everyone, it’s fostered a positive community unified by esoteric inside jokes.

While the new round brings in fewer dollars, Schaaf explains that Imgur raised at a valuation that’s “higher than last time. Our investors are happy with the valuation. This is a really exciting strategic partnership.” Coil founder and CEO Stefan Thomas who was formerly the CTO of cryptocurrency company Ripple Labs will join Imgur’s board. Coil received the money it’s investing in Imgur from Ripple Labs’ Xpring Initiative, which aims to fund proliferation of the Ripple XRP ecosystem, though Imgur received US dollars in the funding deal.

Thomas tells me that “There’s no built in business model” as part of the web. Publishers and platforms “either make money with ads or with subscriptions. The problem is that only works when you have huge scale” that can bring along societal problems as we’ve seen with Facebook. Coil will “hopefully offer a third potential business model for the internet and offer a way for creators to get paid.”

Coil Micropayments

Founded last year, Coil’s $5 per month subscription is now in open beta, and it provides extensions for Chrome and Firefox as it tries to get baked into browsers natively. Unlike Patreon where you pick a few creators and choose how much to pay each every month, Coil lets you browse content from as many creators as you want and it pays them appropriately. Sites like Imgur can code in tags to their pages that tell Coil’s Web Monetization API who to send money to.

The challenge for Imgur will be avoiding the cannibalization of its existing content to the detriment of its non-paying users who’ve always known it to be free. “We’re in the business of making the internet better. We do not plan on taking anything away for the community” Schaaf insists. That means it will have to recruit new creators and add bonus features that are reserved for Coil subscribers without making the rest of its 300 million users feel deprived.

It’s surprising thT meme culture hasn’t spawned more dedicated apps. Decade-old Imgur precedes the explosion in popularity of bite-sized internet content. But rather than just host memes like Instagram, Imgur has built its own meme creation tools. If Imgur and Coil can prove users are willing to pay for quick hits of entertainment and creators can be fairly compensated, they could inspire more apps to help content makers turn their passion into a profession…or at least a nice side hustle.

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India’s Unacademy raises $50 million to grow its online learning platform

Posted by | Apps, blume ventures, byju's, edtech startup, Education, funding, india, Media, Mobile, Nexus Venture Partners, Startups, Steadview Capital, Unacademy | No Comments

Big money continues to flow in India’s growing education market. Bangalore-based Unacademy, which operates an online learning platform to help millions prepare for competitive exams in India, has raised $50 million to further scale its reach.

The Series D financing round was led by Steadview Capital, Sequoia India, Nexus Venture Partners and Blume Ventures, with Unacademy’s own co-founders Gaurav Munjal and Roman Saini also participating in it. The new round means the startup has raised close to $90 million to date.

The four-year-old startup is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. Unacademy allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. It has 10,000 registered educators and 13 million learners — up from 3 million a year ago.

The startup said it will use the new fund to expand the number of educators it has on the platform, and also add more exam courses, Unacademy CEO Munjal told TechCrunch. It will also improve its product and expand the team.

Unacademy began its journey as a YouTube channel, but has since expanded to its own app where it offers some courses for free and others through a recently launched subscription business. The subscription service — called Unacademy Plus Subscription — has 50,000 users.

Unacademy also maintains an archive of all the classes, giving students the option to reference older lectures at any time through the app. The startup says YouTube is still its largest distribution channel. Overall, the platform sees more than 100 million monthly views across the platforms.

“We are seeing unprecedented growth and engagement from learners in smaller towns and cities, and are also very humbled to see that top-quality educators are choosing Unacademy as their primary platform to reach out to students. In the last few months, we have taken bigger strides toward achieving this mission. We have more than 400 top educators from across the country taking live classes every day on Unacademy Plus. This is available to every student, irrespective of their location,” said Munjal.

Unacademy competes with unicorn Byju’s, which is widely believed to be the largest edtech startup in the world with its valuation nearing $4 billion. Byju’s, which has more than 2.4 million paid subscribers (and over 30 million users), offers courses for students in kindergarten to year 12, in addition to those preparing for competitive under graduation level courses.

India has the largest population in the world in the age bracket of 5 to 24 years. The education space in the nation is estimated to grow to $35 billion in the next six years.

In recent months, Unacademy has grown more aggressive with marketing. Last year it tied up with web-production house The Viral Fever to fund a show called “Kota Factory,” which revolves around the lives of students who are preparing to go to an engineering college. In the midst of it, Unacademy also offered low-cost, discounted subscription plans to attract users to its subscription platform.

Unacademy has presence in Indonesia as well, where as of last year, it had about 30 educators. The startup did not offer an update on how its international ambitions are holding up. A representative of Unacademy told TechCrunch recently that the platform does not rely on ads for monetization.

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Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, coinbase, cryptocurrency, Developer, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Farfetch, Finance, funding, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Lyft, Mobile, Move coding language, payments, PayPal, Policy, privacy, Ribbit Capital, Social, Spotify, stablecoin, stripe, TC, Thrive Capital, Uber, Union Square Ventures, visa | No Comments

Facebook has finally revealed the details of its cryptocurrency, Libra, which will let you buy things or send money to people with nearly zero fees. You’ll pseudonymously buy or cash out your Libra online or at local exchange points like grocery stores, and spend it using interoperable third-party wallet apps or Facebook’s own Calibra wallet that will be built into WhatsApp, Messenger and its own app. Today Facebook released its white paper explaining Libra and its testnet for working out the kinks of its blockchain system before a public launch in the first half of 2020.

Facebook won’t fully control Libra, but instead get just a single vote in its governance like other founding members of the Libra Association, including Visa, Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, which have invested at least $10 million each into the project’s operations. The association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, plus sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook is launching a subsidiary company also called Calibra that handles its crypto dealings and protects users’ privacy by never mingling your Libra payments with your Facebook data so it can’t be used for ad targeting. Your real identity won’t be tied to your publicly visible transactions. But Facebook/Calibra and other founding members of the Libra Association will earn interest on the money users cash in that is held in reserve to keep the value of Libra stable.

Facebook’s audacious bid to create a global digital currency that promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked actually has more privacy and decentralization built in than many expected. Instead of trying to dominate Libra’s future or squeeze tons of cash out of it immediately, Facebook is instead playing the long-game by pulling payments into its online domain. Facebook’s VP of blockchain, David Marcus, explained the company’s motive and the tie-in with its core revenue source during a briefing at San Francisco’s historic Mint building. “If more commerce happens, then more small businesses will sell more on and off platform, and they’ll want to buy more ads on the platform so it will be good for our ads business.”

The risk and reward of building the new PayPal

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

Yet existing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars, and the experience of buying and spending them is easy enough for a mainstream audience. But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

Now Facebook wants to make Libra the evolution of PayPal . It’s hoping Libra will become simpler to set up, more ubiquitous as a payment method, more efficient with fewer fees, more accessible to the unbanked, more flexible thanks to developers and more long-lasting through decentralization.

“Success will mean that a person working abroad has a fast and simple way to send money to family back home, and a college student can pay their rent as easily as they can buy a coffee,” Facebook writes in its Libra documentation. That would be a big improvement on today, when you’re stuck paying rent in insecure checks while exploitative remittance services charge an average of 7% to send money abroad, taking $50 billion from users annually. Libra could also power tiny microtransactions worth just a few cents that are infeasible with credit card fees attached, or replace your pre-paid transit pass.

…Or it could be globally ignored by consumers who see it as too much hassle for too little reward, or too unfamiliar and limited in use to pull them into the modern financial landscape. Facebook has built a reputation for over-engineered, underused products. It will need all the help it can get if wants to replace what’s already in our pockets.

How does Libra work?

By now you know the basics of Libra. Cash in a local currency, get Libra, spend them like dollars without big transaction fees or your real name attached, cash them out whenever you want. Feel free to stop reading and share this article if that’s all you care about. But the underlying technology, the association that governs it, the wallets you’ll use and the way payments work all have a huge amount of fascinating detail to them. Facebook has released more than 100 pages of documentation on Libra and Calibra, and we’ve pulled out the most important facts. Let’s dive in.

The Libra Association — crypto’s new oligarchy

Facebook knew people wouldn’t trust it to wholly steer the cryptocurrency they use, and it also wanted help to spur adoption. So the social network recruited the founding members of the Libra Association, a not-for-profit which oversees the development of the token, the reserve of real-world assets that gives it value and the governance rules of the blockchain. “If we were controlling it, very few people would want to jump on and make it theirs,” says Marcus.

Each founding member paid a minimum of $10 million to join and optionally become a validator node operator (more on that later), gain one vote in the Libra Association council and be entitled to a share (proportionate to their investment) of the dividends from interest earned on the Libra reserve into which users pay fiat currency to receive Libra.

The 28 soon-to-be founding members of the association and their industries, previously reported by The Block’s Frank Chaparro, include:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
  • Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

Facebook says it hopes to reach 100 founding members before the official Libra launch and it’s open to anyone that meets the requirements, including direct competitors like Google or Twitter. The Libra Association is based in Geneva, Switzerland and will meet biannually. The country was chosen for its neutral status and strong support for financial innovation including blockchain technology.

Libra governance — who gets a vote

To join the association, members must have a half rack of server space, a 100Mbps or above dedicated internet connection, a full-time site reliability engineer and enterprise-grade security. Businesses must hit two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reach 20 million people a year and/or be recognized as a top 100 industry leader by a group like Interbrand Global or the S&P.

Crypto-focused investors must have more than $1 billion in assets under management, while Blockchain businesses must have been in business for a year, have enterprise-grade security and privacy and custody or staking greater than $100 million in assets. And only up to one-third of founding members can by crypto-related businesses or individually invited exceptions. Facebook also accepts research organizations like universities, and nonprofits fulfilling three of four qualities, including working on financial inclusion for more than five years, multi-national reach to lots of users, a top 100 designation by Charity Navigator or something like it and/or $50 million in budget.

The Libra Association will be responsible for recruiting more founding members to act as validator nodes for the blockchain, fundraising to jump-start the ecosystem, designing incentive programs to reward early adopters and doling out social impact grants. A council with a representative from each member will help choose the association’s managing director, who will appoint an executive team and elect a board of five to 19 top representatives.

Each member, including Facebook/Calibra, will only get up to one vote or 1% of the total vote (whichever is larger) in the Libra Association council. This provides a level of decentralization that protects against Facebook or any other player hijacking Libra for its own gain. By avoiding sole ownership and dominion over Libra, Facebook could avoid extra scrutiny from regulators who are already investigating it for a sea of privacy abuses as well as potentially anti-competitive behavior. In an attempt to preempt criticism from lawmakers, the Libra Association writes, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

The Libra currency — a stablecoin

A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.

The name Libra comes from the word for a Roman unit of weight measure. It’s trying to invoke a sense of financial freedom by playing on the French stem “Lib,” meaning free.

The Libra Association is still hammering out the exact start value for the Libra, but it’s meant to be somewhere close to the value of a dollar, euro or pound so it’s easy to conceptualize. That way, a gallon of milk in the U.S. might cost 3 to 4 Libra, similar but not exactly the same as with dollars.

The idea is that you’ll cash in some money and keep a balance of Libra that you can spend at accepting merchants and online services. You’ll be able to trade in your local currency for Libra and vice versa through certain wallet apps, including Facebook’s Calibra, third-party wallet apps and local resellers like convenience or grocery stores where people already go to top-up their mobile data plan.

The Libra Reserve — one for one

Each time someone cashes in a dollar or their respective local currency, that money goes into the Libra Reserve and an equivalent value of Libra is minted and doled out to that person. If someone cashes out from the Libra Association, the Libra they give back are destroyed/burned and they receive the equivalent value in their local currency back. That means there’s always 100% of the value of the Libra in circulation, collateralized with real-world assets in the Libra Reserve. It never runs fractional. And unliked “pegged” stable coins that are tied to a single currency like the USD, Libra maintains its own value — though that should cash out to roughly the same amount of a given currency over time.

When Libra Association members join and pay their $10 million minimum, they receive Libra Investment Tokens. Their share of the total tokens translates into the proportion of the dividend they earn off of interest on assets in the reserve. Those dividends are only paid out after Libra Association uses interest to pay for operating expenses, investments in the ecosystem, engineering research and grants to nonprofits and other organizations. This interest is part of what attracted the Libra Association’s members. If Libra becomes popular and many people carry a large balance of the currency, the reserve will grow huge and earn significant interest.

The Libra Blockchain — built for speed

Every Libra payment is permanently written into the Libra Blockchain — a cryptographically authenticated database that acts as a public online ledger designed to handle 1,000 transactions per second. That would be much faster than Bitcoin’s 7 transactions per second or Ethereum’s 15. The blockchain is operated and constantly verified by founding members of the Libra Association, which each invested $10 million or more for a say in the cryptocurrency’s governance and the ability to operate a validator node.

When a transaction is submitted, each of the nodes runs a calculation based on the existing ledger of all transactions. Thanks to a Byzantine Fault Tolerance system, just two-thirds of the nodes must come to consensus that the transaction is legitimate for it to be executed and written to the blockchain. A structure of Merkle Trees in the code makes it simple to recognize changes made to the Libra Blockchain. With 5KB transactions, 1,000 verifications per second on commodity CPUs and up to 4 billion accounts, the Libra Blockchain should be able to operate at 1,000 transactions per second if nodes use at least 40Mbps connections and 16TB SSD hard drives.

Transactions on Libra cannot be reversed. If an attack compromises over one-third of the validator nodes causing a fork in the blockchain, the Libra Association says it will temporarily halt transactions, figure out the extent of the damage and recommend software updates to resolve the fork.

Transactions aren’t entirely free. They incur a tiny fraction of a cent fee to pay for “gas” that covers the cost of processing the transfer of funds similar to with Ethereum. This fee will be negligible to most consumers, but when they add up, the gas charges will deter bad actors from creating millions of transactions to power spam and denial-of-service attacks. “We’ve purposely tried not to innovate massively on the blockchain itself because we want it to be scalable and secure,” says Marcus of piggybacking on the best elements of existing cryptocurrencies.

Currently, the Libra Blockchain is what’s known as “permissioned,” where only entities that fulfill certain requirements are admitted to a special in-group that defines consensus and controls governance of the blockchain. The problem is this structure is more vulnerable to attacks and censorship because it’s not truly decentralized. But during Facebook’s research, it couldn’t find a reliable permissionless structure that could securely scale to the number of transactions Libra will need to handle. Adding more nodes slows things down, and no one has proven a way to avoid that without compromising security.

That’s why the Libra Association’s goal is to move to a permissionless system based on proof-of-stake that will protect against attacks by distributing control, encourage competition and lower the barrier to entry. It wants to have at least 20% of votes in the Libra Association council coming from node operators based on their total Libra holdings instead of their status as a founding member. That plan should help appease blockchain purists who won’t be satisfied until Libra is completely decentralized.

Move coding language — for moving Libra

The Libra Blockchain is open source with an Apache 2.0 license, and any developer can build apps that work with it using the Move coding language. The blockchain’s prototype launches its testnet today, so it’s effectively in developer beta mode until it officially launches in the first half of 2020. The Libra Association is working with HackerOne to launch a bug bounty system later this year that will pay security researchers for safely identifying flaws and glitches. In the meantime, the Libra Association is implementing the Libra Core using the Rust programming language because it’s designed to prevent security vulnerabilities, and the Move language isn’t fully ready yet.

Move was created to make it easier to write blockchain code that follows an author’s intent without introducing bugs. It’s called Move because its primary function is to move Libra coins from one account to another, and never let those assets be accidentally duplicated. The core transaction code looks like: LibraAccount.pay_from_sender(recipient_address, amount) procedure.

Eventually, Move developers will be able to create smart contracts for programmatic interactions with the Libra Blockchain. Until Move is ready, developers can create modules and transaction scripts for Libra using Move IR, which is high-level enough to be human-readable but low-level enough to be translatable into real Move bytecode that’s written to the blockchain.

The Libra ecosystem and the Move language will be completely open to use and build, which presents a sizable risk. Crooked developers could prey on crypto novices, claiming their app works just the same as legitimate ones, and that it’s safe because it uses Libra. But if consumers get ripped off by these scammers, the anger will surely bubble up to Facebook. Yet still, Calibra’s head of product tells me, “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me.

Even though it’s tried to distance itself sufficiently via its subsidiary Libra and the association, many people will probably always think of Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency and blame it for their woes.

Read our full story on the dangers of Libra’s unvetted developer platform

Libra incentives — rewarding early businesses

The Libra Association wants to encourage more developers and merchants to work with its cryptocurrency. That’s why it plans to issue incentives, possibly Libra coins, to validator node operators who can get people signed up for and using Libra. Wallets that pull users through the Know Your Customer anti-fraud and money laundering process or that keep users sufficiently active for over a year will be rewarded. For each transaction they process, merchants will also receive a percentage of the transaction back.

Businesses that earn these incentives can keep them, or pass some or all of them along to users in the form of free Libra tokens or discounts on their purchases. This could create competition between wallets to see which can pass on the most rewards to their customers, and thereby attract the most users. You could imagine eBay or Spotify giving you a discount for paying in Libra, while wallet developers might offer you free tokens if you complete 100 transactions within a year.

“One challenge for Spotify and its users around the world has been the lack of easily accessible payment systems – especially for those in financially underserved markets,” Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström writes. “In joining the Libra Association, there is an opportunity to better reach Spotify’s total addressable market, eliminate friction and enable payments in mass scale.”

This savvy incentive system should massively help ratchet up Libra’s user count without dictating how businesses balance their margins versus growth. Facebook also has another plan to grow its developer ecosystem. By offering venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures a portion of the reserve interest, they’re motivating to fund startups building Libra infrastructure.

Using Libra

So how do you actually own and spend Libra? Through Libra wallets like Facebook’s own Calibra and others that will be built by third-parties, potentially including Libra Association members like PayPal. The idea is to make sending money to a friend or paying for something as easy as sending a Facebook Message. You won’t be able to make or receive any real payments until the official launch next year, though, but you can sign up for early access when it’s ready here.

None of the Libra Association members agreed to provide details on what exactly they’ll build on the blockchain, but we can take Facebook’s Calibra wallet as an example of the basic experience. Calibra will launch alongside the Libra currency on iOS and Android within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone app. When users first sign up, they’ll be taken through a Know Your Customer anti-fraud process where they’ll have to provide a government-issued photo ID and other verification info. They’ll need to conduct due diligence on customers and report suspicious activity to the authorities.

From there you’ll be able to cash in to Libra, pick a friend or merchant, set an amount to send them and add a description and send them Libra. You’ll also be able to request Libra, and Calibra will offer an expedited way of paying merchants by scanning your or their QR code. Eventually it wants to offer in-store payments and integrations with point-of-sale systems like Square.

The Libra Association’s e-commerce members seem particularly excited about how the token could eliminate transaction fees and speed up checkout. “We believe blockchain will benefit the luxury industry by improving IP protection, transparency in the product life cycle and — as in the case of Libra — enable global frictionless e-commerce,” says FarFetch CEO Jose Neves.

Privacy — at least from Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained some of the philosophy behind Libra and Calibra in a post today. “It’s decentralized — meaning it’s run by many different organizations instead of just one, making the system fairer overall. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection and has low fees and costs. And it’s secured by cryptography which helps keep your money safe. This is an important part of our vision for a privacy-focused social platform — where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately, from messaging to secure payments.”

By default, Facebook won’t import your contacts or any of your profile information, but may ask if you wish to do so. It also won’t share any of your transaction data back to Facebook, so it won’t be used to target you with ads, rank your News Feed, or otherwise earn Facebook money directly. Data will only be shared in specific instances in anonymized ways for research or adoption measurement, for hunting down fraudsters or due to a request from law enforcement. And you don’t even need a Facebook or WhatsApp account to sign up for Calibra or to use Libra.

“We realize people don’t want their social data and financial data commingled,” says Marcus, who’s now head of Calibra. “The reality is we’ll have plenty of wallets that will compete with us and many of them will not be in social, and if we want to successfully win people’s trust, we have to make sure the data will be separated.”

In case you are hacked, scammed or lose access to your account, Calibra will refund you for lost coins when possible through 24/7 chat support because it’s a custodial wallet. You also won’t have to remember any long, complex crypto passwords you could forget and get locked out from your money, as Calibra manages all your keys for you. Given Calibra will likely become the default wallet for many Libra users, this extra protection and smoother user experience is essential.

For now, Calibra won’t make money. But Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me that if it reaches scale, Facebook could launch other financial tools through Calibra that it could monetize, such as investing or lending. “In time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, such as paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass,” the Calibra team writes. That makes it start to sound a lot like China’s everything app WeChat.

A global coin

Facebook got one thing right for sure: Today’s money doesn’t work for everyone. Those of us living comfortably in developed nations likely don’t see the hardships that befall migrant workers or the unbanked abroad. Preyed on by greedy payday lenders and high-fee remittance services, targeted by muggers and left out of traditional financial services, the poor get poorer. Libra has the potential to get more money from working parents back to their families and help people retain credit even if they’re robbed of their physical possessions. That would do more to accomplish Facebook’s mission of making the world feel smaller than all the News Feed Likes combined.

If Facebook succeeds and legions of people cash in money for Libra, it and the other founding members of the Libra Association could earn big dividends on the interest. And if suddenly it becomes super quick to buy things through Facebook using Libra, businesses will boost their ad spend there. But if Libra gets hacked or proves unreliable, it could cost lots of people around the world money while souring them on cryptocurrencies. And by offering an open Libra platform, shady developers could build apps that snatch not just people’s personal info like Cambridge Analytica, but their hard-earned digital cash.

Facebook just tried to reinvent money. Next year, we’ll see if the Libra Association can pull it off. It took me 4,000 words to explain Libra, but at least now you can make up your own mind about whether to be scared of Facebook crypto.

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Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Posted by | abe shafi, Apps, calendar, event discovery, evite, Facebook, funding, Fundings & Exits, gettalent, irl, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates,’ there’s SoundCloud for ‘follow my music,’ but there’s no ‘follow my events’ ” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing, but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors, including Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate Films president Joe Drake and ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling your social calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consummate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice, where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekindled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempt Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL, with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states, with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “Fifty percent of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley,” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook, where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now, IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately, without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far,” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s a problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

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