Fundings & Exits

JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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Meet ‘Bitski’, the single sign-on wallet crypto desperately needs

Posted by | Apps, Bitski, blockchain, crypto wallet, cryptocurrency, Developer, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, OAuth, payments, Recent Funding, single sign-on, Startups, TC | No Comments

The mainstream will never adopt blockchain-powered decentralized apps (dApps) if it’s a struggle to log in. They’re either forced to manage complex security keys themselves, or rely on a clunky wallet-equipped browser like MetaMask. What users need is for signing in to blockchain apps to be as easy as Login with Facebook. So that’s what Bitski built. The startup emerges from stealth today with an exclusive on TechCrunch about the release of the developer beta of its single sign-on cryptocurrency wallet platform.

Ten projects, including 7 game developers, are lined up to pay a fee to integrate Bitski’s SDK. Then, whenever they need a user’s identity or to transact a payment, their app pops open a Bitski authorization screen, where users can grant permissions to access their ID, send money or receive items. Users sign up just once with Bitski, and then there’s no more punching in long private keys or other friction. Using blockchain apps becomes simple enough for novices. Given the recent price plunge, the mainstream has been spooked about speculating on cryptocurrencies. But Bitski could unlock the utility of dApps that blockchain developers have been promising but haven’t delivered.

“One of the great challenges for protocol teams and product companies in crypto today is the poor UX in dApps, specifically onboarding, transactions, and sign-in/password recovery,” says co-founder and CEO Donnie Dinch. “We interviewed a ton of dApp developers. The minute they used a wallet, there was a huge drop-off of folks. Bitski’s vision is to solve user onboarding and wallet usability for developers, so that they can in-turn focus on creating unique and useful dapps.”

The scrappy Bitski team raised $1.5 million in pre-seed capital from Steve Jang’s Kindred Ventures, Signia, Founders Fund, Village Global and Social Capital. They were betting on Dinch, a designer-as-CEO who’d built concert discovery app WillCall that he sold to Ticketfly, which was eventually bought by Pandora. After 18 months of rebranding Ticketfly and overhauling its consumer experience, Dinch left and eventually recruited engineer Julian Tescher to come with him to found Bitski.

Bitski co-founder and CEO Donnie Dinch

After Riff failed to hit scale, the team hung up its social ambitions in late 2017 and “started kicking around ideas for dApps. We mocked up a Venmo one, a remittance app…but found the hurdle to get someone to use one of these products is enormous,” Dinch recalls. “Onboarding was a dealbreaker for anyone building dApps. Even if we made the best crypto Venmo, to get normal people on it would be extremely difficult. It’s already hard enough to get people to install apps from the App Store.” They came up with Bitski to let any developer ski jump over that hurdle.

Looking across the crypto industry, the companies like Coinbase and Binance with their own hosted wallets that permitted smooth UX were the ones winning. Bitski would bring that same experience to any app. “Our hosted wallet SDK lets developers drop the Bitski wallet into their apps and onboard users with standards web 2.0 users have grown to know and love,” Dinch explains.

Imagine an iOS game wants to reward users with a digital sword or token. Users would have to set up a whole new wallet, struggle with their credentials or use another clumsy solution. They’d have to own Ethereum already to pay the Ethereum “gas” price to power the transaction, and the developer would have to manually approve sending the gift. With Bitski, users can approve receiving tokens from a developer from then on, and developers can pay the gas on users’ behalf while triggering transactions programmatically.

Magik is an AR content platform that’s one of Bitski’s first developers. Magik’s founders tell me, “We’re building towards reaching millions of mainstream consumers, and Bitski is the only wallet solution that understands what we need to reach users at that scale. They provide a dead-simple, secure and familiar interface that addresses every pain point along the user-onboarding journey.”

Bitski will offer a free tier, priced tiers based on transaction volume or a monthly fee and an enterprise version. In the future, the company is considering doubling-down on premium developer services to help them build more on top of the blockchain. “We will never, ever monetize user data. We’ve never had any intent at looking at it,” Dinch vows. The startup hopes developers will seize on the network effects of a cross-app wallet, as once someone sets up Bitski to use one product, all future sign-ins just require a few clicks.

In August, Coinbase acquired a startup called Distributed Systems that was building a similar crypto identity platform called the Clear Protocol. A “login with Coinbase” feature could be popular if launched, but the company’s focus is to spread a ton of blockchain projects. “If [login with Coinbase] launched tomorrow, they wouldn’t be able to support games or anything with a unique token. We’re a lockbox, they’re a bank,” Dinch claims.

The spectre of single sign-on’s biggest player, Facebook, looms, as well. In May it announced the formation of a blockchain team we suspect might be working on a crypto login platform or other ways to make the decentralized world more accessible for mom and pop. Dinch suspects that fears about how Facebook uses data would dissuade developers and users from adopting such a product. Still, Bitski’s haste in getting its developer platform into beta just a year after forming shows it’s eager to beat them to market.

Building a centralized wallet in a decentralized ecosystem comes with its own security risks. But Dinch assures me Bitski is using all its own hardware with air-gapped computers that have been stripped of their Wi-Fi cards, and it’s taking other secret precautions to prevent anyone from snatching its wallets. He believes cross-app wallets will also deliver a future where users actually own their virtual goods instead of just relying on the good will of developers not to pull them away or shut them down.” The idea of we’ve never been able to provably own unique digital assets is crazy to me,” Dinch notes. “Whether it’s a skin in Fortnite or a movie on iTunes that you purchase, you don’t have liquidity to resell those things. We think we’ll look back in 5 to 10 years and think it’s nuts that no one owned their digital items.”

While the crypto prices might be cratering and dApps like Cryptokitties have cooled off, Dinch is convinced the blockchain startups won’t fade away. “There is a thriving developer ecosystem hellbent on bringing the decentralized web to reality; regardless of token price. It’s a safe assumption that prices will dip a bit more, but will eventually rise whenever we see real use cases for a lot of these tokens. Most will die. The ones that succeed will be outcome-oriented, building useful products that people want.” Bitski’s a big step in that direction.

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Plastiq raises $27M at 2X+ value to let you pay for anything on credit

Posted by | Apps, credit card payment, credit cards, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, payments, plastiq, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

“I wasn’t asking to pay in Bitcoin!” Plastiq CEO and co-founder Eliot Buchanan recalls with a laugh. “I went to pay part of my tuition at Harvard and I was told that they didn’t (and never would) accept credit cards. It was inconvenient and seemed odd. Credit cards had been around for 50 years.” That set off the a light bulb in his head. “Why couldn’t I use a credit card to pay for this important bill? So, I set out to solve my own problem.”

Whether you’re trying to pay your rent or tuition on credit, or you have a business and want to invest in a new opportunity or get a better rate by paying vendors up front, Plastiq can help. For a flat 2.5 percent fee, you pay Plastiq through your credit card, and it issues the proper wire transfer, check or deposit for up to $500,000, or even more, on your behalf to whomever you owe.

Now with more than 1 million clients, growth-stage VCs are taking notice. Kleiner Perkins has just led a $27 million Series C for Plastiq with partner Ilya Fushman joining the board. A source says the raise that also comes from DST Global between doubles and triples Plastiq’s valuation over its 2017 Series B-1 rounds of $11 million and $16 million. Now with $73 million in total funding, it plans to add 100 people to its current team of 60, while building out its small business product and bank partnerships.

“As tens of thousands of business owners started using Plastiq actively for billions of dollars in payments, we realized we had this incredible opportunity to serve as the hub/platform on which they (SMBs) could run all their payments. The very fabric of America’s economy — and certainly much of the world — is run by rising or aspiring small business owners,” Buchanan tells me. He says that’s “the main reason that seeded this Kleiner financing and our renewed vision to ‘accelerate how small businesses grow.’ [Helping people pay with credit cards] is merely the entry point to a much broader play where we are central to how a small business runs.”

For example, if a small business wants to ramp up production of something it’s selling, it’d typically have to pay up front for manufacturing, but wait months until the stuff is shipped and sold to recoup its investment. That can put a major squeeze on the company’s operating capital. With Plastiq, the business can pay with credit up front so they don’t have to worry about being in danger of running out of money in the meantime. Plastiq also lets businesses accept credit card payments, which can win them favor with partners.

Plastiq co-founders (from left): Eliot Buchanan and Dan Choi

Specialty medical clinic chain Metro Vein pays vendors who don’t take credit with Plastiq instead. “I was able to invest in a new line of business that has enabled me to more than double our revenues in the last 10 months,” said CEO Dmitri Ivanov. And thanks to tax write-offs, business users of Plastiq can push its realized fee down to 2 percent.

Buchanan claims Plastiq doesn’t have any direct competitors that allow SMBs to pay for all their bills via credit. It does carry platform risk, though. “Like any payments business, we rely heavily on Visa, MasterCard and American Express. A challenge or risk factor is that you’re relying on very large companies that are very successful. You have to learn to work hand in hand with those partners instead of ‘disrupt them.’” He says Plastiq’s relationships with them are positive right now since it’s driving new revenue for them and helping their customers spend in new areas.

There’s also the risk that people misuse Plastiq to procrastinate on actually paying their personal bills or get in over their head investing in their business. But Plastiq’s new board member Fushman calls the service “this elegant way for businesses to tap into credit they’ve been issued but they haven’t been able to utilize before.” For many who are happy to pay though just need some time and flexibility, Plastiq can pitch in.

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Bunch scores $3.8M to turn mobile games into video chat LAN parties

Posted by | Apps, Bunch, discord, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, HouseParty, openfeint, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, Video, video chat | No Comments

The best parts of gaming are the jokes and trash talk with friends. Whether it was four-player Goldeneye or linking up PCs for Quake battles in the basement, the social element keeps video games exciting. Yet on mobile we’ve lost a lot of that, playing silently by ourselves even if we’re in a squad with friends somewhere else. Bunch wants to bring the laughter back to mobile gaming by letting you sync up with friends and video chat while you play. It already works with hits like Fortnite and Roblox, and developers of titles like Spaceteam are integrating Bunch’s SDK to inspire longer game sessions.

Bunch is like Discord for mobile, and the chance to challenge that gaming social network unicorn has attracted a $3.8 million seed round led by London Venture Partners and joined by Founders Fund, Betaworks, Shrug Capital, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, 500 Startups and more. With Bunch already cracking the top 100 social iOS app chart, it’s planning a launch on Android. The cash will go to adding features like meeting new people to game with or sharing replays, plus ramping up user acquisition and developer partnerships.

“I and my co-founders grew up with LAN parties, playing games like Starcraft and Counter Strike — where a lot of the fun is the live banter you have with friends,” Bunch co-founder and CEO Selcuk Atli tells me. “We wanted to bring this kind of experience to mobile; where players could play with friends anytime, anywhere.” 

Bunch team

Atli was a venture partner at 500 Startups after co-founding and selling two adtech companies: Manifest Commerce to Rakuten, and Boostable to Metric Collective. But before he got into startups, he co-founded a gaming magazine called Aftercala in Turkey at age 12, editing writers twice his age because “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” he tells me. Atli teamed up with Google senior mobile developer Jason Liang and a senior developer from startups like MUSE and Mox named Jordan Howlett to create Bunch.

Over a year ago, we built our first prototype. The moment we tried it ourselves, we saw it was nothing like what we’ve experienced on our phones before,” Atli tells me. The team raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and launched its app in March. “Popular mobile games are becoming live, and live games are coming to mobile devices,” says David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners. “With this massive shift happening, players need better experiences to connect with friends and play together.”

When you log on to Bunch’s iOS app you’ll see which friends are online and what they’re playing, plus a selection of games you can fire up. Bunch overlays group voice or video chat on the screen so you can strategize or satirize with up to eight pals. And if developers build in Bunch’s SDK, they can do more advanced things with video chat, like pinning friends’ faces to their in-game characters. It’s a bit like OpenFeint or iOS Game Center mixed with Houseparty.

For now, Bunch isn’t monetizing, as it hopes to reach massive scale first, but Atli thinks they could sell expression tools like emotes, voice and video filters, and more. Growing large will require beating Discord at its own game. The social giant now has over 130 million users across PCs, consoles and mobile. But it’s also a bit too hardcore for some of today’s casual mobile gamers, requiring you to configure your own servers. “I find that execution speed will be most critical for our success or failure,” Atli says. Bunch’s sole focus on making mobile game chat as easy as possible could win it a mainstream audience seduced by Fortnite, HQ Trivia and other phenomena.

Research increasingly shows that online experiences can be isolating, and gaming is a big culprit. Hours spent playing alone can leave you feeling more exhausted than fulfilled. But through video chat, gaming can transcend the digital and become a new way to make memories with friends — no matter where they are.

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Photomath raises $6 million for its math-solving app

Posted by | Apps, Battlefield, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, PhotoMath, Startups, TC | No Comments

Photomath just raised a $6 million funding round from Goodwater Capital, with Learn Capital also participating. Photomath has created a hugely successful mobile app for iOS and Android with 100 million downloads so far.

Photomath first launched at TechCrunch Disrupt London back in 2014. The company was working on text recognition technology. Photomath was just a demo app to promote that technology.

But the startup accidentally created a consumer success. The app instantly attracted millions of downloads from many desperate students willing to learn math with their phones.

Years later it is still one of the most downloaded apps in the App Store and Play Store. And the reason it’s been so successful is that it’s a simple concept.

After downloading the app, you just have to point your phone at a math problem. It can be in a book, or it can recognize your own handwriting. The app then gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem.

Combining these two things is what makes Photomath useful. WolframAlpha can solve equations, and Evernote can recognize your handwriting. But nobody thought about combining these things.

Typing an equation can be hard, so it makes a ton of sense to bridge the gap between the physical world and smartphones. Before everybody started talking about augmented reality, Photomath was already taking advantage of the system-on-a-chip in your phone.

Photomath is also capable of generating graphs and supports advanced problems, such as limits, integrations, complex numbers, etc. The app solves around 1.2 billion math problems per month.

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Subterranean drone mapping startup Emesent raises $2.5M to autonomously delve the deep

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Australia, Automation, csiro, drones, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, Startups, TC | No Comments

Seemingly every industry is finding ways to use drones in some way or another, but deep underground it’s a different story. In the confines of a mine or pipeline, with no GPS and little or no light, off-the-shelf drones are helpless — but an Australian startup called Emesent is giving them the spatial awareness and intelligence to navigate and map those spaces autonomously.

Drones that work underground or in areas otherwise inaccessible by GPS and other common navigation techniques are being made possible by a confluence of technology and computing power, explained Emesent CEO and co-founder Stefan Hrabar. The work they would take over from people is the epitome of “dull, dirty, and dangerous” — the trifecta for automation.

The mining industry is undoubtedly the most interested in this sort of thing; mining is necessarily a very systematic process and one that involves repeated measurements of areas being blasted, cleared, and so on. Frequently these measurements must be made manually and painstakingly in dangerous circumstances.

One mining technique has ore being blasted from the vertical space between two tunnels; the resulting cavities, called “stopes,” have to be inspected regularly to watch for problems and note progress.

“The way they scan these stopes is pretty archaic,” said Hrabar. “These voids can be huge, like 40-50 meters horizontally. They have to go to the edge of this dangerous underground cliff and sort of poke this stick out into it and try to get a scan. It’s very sparse information and from only one point of view, there’s a lot of missing data.”

Emesent’s solution, Hovermap, involves equipping a standard DJI drone with a powerful lidar sensor and a powerful onboard computing rig that performs simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) work fast enough that the craft can fly using it. You put it down near the stope and it takes off and does its thing.

“The surveyors aren’t at risk and the data is orders of magnitude better. Everything is running onboard the drone in real time for path planning — that’s our core IP,” Hrabar said. “The dev team’s background is in drone autonomy, collision avoidance, terrain following — basically the drone sensing its environment and doing the right thing.”

As you can see in the video below, the drone can pilot itself through horizontal tunnels (imagine cave systems or transportation infrastructure) or vertical ones (stopes and sinkholes), slowly working its way along and returning minutes later with the data necessary to build a highly detailed map. I don’t know about you, but if I could send a drone ahead into the inky darkness to check for pits and other scary features, I wouldn’t think twice.

The idea is to sell the whole stack to mining companies as a plug-and-play solution, but work on commercializing the SLAM software separately for those who want to license and customize it. A data play is also in the works, naturally:

“At the end of the day, mining companies don’t want a point cloud, they want a report. So it’s not just collecting the data but doing the analytics as well,” said Hrabar.

Emesent emerged from Data61, the tech arm of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, an Australian agency not unlike our national lab system. Hrabar worked there for over a decade on various autonomy projects, and three years ago started on what would become this company, eventually passing through the agency’s “ON” internal business accelerator.

Data collected from a pass through a cave system.

“Just last week, actually, is when we left the building,” Hrabar noted. “We’ve raised the funding we need for 18 months of runway with no revenue. We really are already generating revenue, though.”

The $3.5 million (Australian) round comes largely from a new $200M CSIRO Innovation fund managed by Main Sequence Ventures. Hrabar suggested that another round might be warranted in a year or two when the company decides to scale and expand into other verticals.

DARPA will be making its own contribution after a fashion through its Subterranean Challenge, should (as seemly likely) Emesent achieve success in it (they’re already an approved participant). Hrabar was confident. “It’s pretty fortuitous,” he said. “We’ve been doing underground autonomy for years, and then DARPA announces this challenge on exactly what we’re doing.”

We’ll be covering the challenge and its participants separately. You can read more about Emesent at its website.

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Sequoia leads $10M round for home improvement negotiator Setter

Posted by | Apps, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, funding, Fundings & Exits, home improvement, Mobile, sequoia capital, Startups, TC, Thumbtack, Yelp | No Comments

You probably don’t know how much it should cost to get your home’s windows washed, yard landscaped or countertops replaced. But Setter does. The startup pairs you with a home improvement concierge familiar with all the vendors, prices and common screwups that plague these jobs. Setter finds the best contractors across handiwork, plumbing, electrical, carpentry and more. It researches options, negotiates a bulk rate and, with its added markup, you pay a competitive price with none of the hassle.

One of the most reliable startup investing strategies is looking at where people spend a ton of money but hate the experience. That makes home improvement a prime target for disruption, and attracted a $10 million Series A round for Setter co-led by Sequoia Capital and NFX. “The main issue is that contractors and homeowners speak different languages,” Setter co-founder and CEO Guillaume Laliberté tells me, “which results in unclear scopes of work, frustrated homeowners who don’t know enough to set up the contractors for success, and frustrated contractors who have to come back multiple times.”

Setter is now available in Toronto and San Francisco, with seven-plus jobs booked per customer per year costing an average of over $500 each, with 70 percent repeat customers. With the fresh cash, it can grow into a household name in those cities, expand to new markets and hire up to build new products for clients and contractors.

I asked Laliberté why he cared to start Setter, and he told me “because human lives are made better when you can make essential human activities invisible.” Growing up, his mom wouldn’t let him buy video games or watch TV so he taught himself to code his own games and build his own toys. “I’d saved money to fix consoles and resell them, make beautiful foam swords for real live-action games, buy and resell headphones — anything that people around me wanted really!” he recalls, teaching him the value of taking the work out of other people’s lives.

Meanwhile, his co-founder David Steckel was building high-end homes for the wealthy when he discovered they often had ‘home managers’ that everyone would want but couldn’t afford. What if a startup let multiple homeowners share a manager? Laliberté says Steckel describes it as “I kid you not, the clouds parted, rays of sunlight began to shine through and angels started to sing.” Four days after getting the pitch from Steckel, Laliberté was moving to Toronto to co-found Setter.

Users fire up the app, browse a list of common services, get connected to a concierge over chat and tell them about their home maintenance needs while sending photos if necessary. The concierge then scours the best vendors and communicates the job in detail so things get done right the first time, on time. They come back in a few minutes with either a full price quote, or a diagnostic quote that gets refined after an in-home visit. Customers can schedule visits through the app, and stay in touch with their concierge to make sure everything is completed to their specifications.

The follow-through is what sets Setter apart from directory-style services like Yelp or Thumbtack . “Other companies either take your request and assign it to the next available contractor or simply share a list of available contractors and you need to complete everything yourself,” a Setter spokesperson tells me. They might start the job quicker, but you don’t always get exactly what you want. Everyone in the space will have to compete to source the best pros.

Though potentially less scalable than Thumbtack’s leaner approach, Setter is hoping for better retention as customers shift off of the Yellow Pages and random web searches. Thumbtack rocketed to a $1.2 billion valuation and had raised $273 million by 2015, some from Sequoia (presenting a curious potential conflict of interest). That same ascent may have lined up the investors behind Setter’s $2 million seed round from Sequoia, Hustle Fund and Avichal Garg last year. Today’s $10 million Series A also included Hustle Fund and Maple VC. 

The toughest challenge for Setter will be changing the status quo for how people shop for home improvement away from ruthless bargain hunting. It will have to educate users about the pitfalls and potential long-term costs of getting slapdash service. If Laliberté wants to fulfill his childhood mission, he’ll have to figure out how to make homeowners value satisfaction over the lowest sticker price.

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Scared to trade stocks? Titan algorithmically invests for you

Posted by | Apps, betterment, eCommerce, Education, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, hedge fund, Mobile, Recent Funding, robo investment, Startups, stock trading, TC, titan, Wealthfront | No Comments

Titan could put an end to stock market FOMO. The app chooses the best 20 stocks by scraping top hedge fund data, adds some shorts based on your personal risk profile and puts your money to work. No worrying about market fluctuations or constantly rebalancing your portfolio. You don’t have to do anything, but can get smarter about stocks thanks to its in-app explanations and research reports. Titan wants to be the easiest way to invest in stocks for a mobile generation that wants an affordable coach to guide them through the market themselves.

“Our goal is to take things that aren’t accessible [in wealth management] and make them accessible, starting with hedge funds,” says Titan co-founder Joe Percoco. That potential to democratize one of the keys to financial mobility has won Titan a $2.5 million seed round from Y Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham, president Sam Altman and partners including Gmail creator Paul Bucheit. The rest of the capital comes from Maverick Ventures, BoxGroup and Liquid2 Ventures.

Titan is where investing meets virality,” says Graham. “Those are two very powerful forces.” Since TechCrunch broke the news of Titan’s launch in August, it’s doubled its assets under management to $20 million and hired its first non-founder engineer.

Now it’s launching in-app educational videos so stock market dummies can get up to speed if they want to understand where their money’s going amidst a swirling see of financial news. “There are so many different headlines telling so many different narratives,” Percoco tells me. “Everyone is searching for explanations in a voice they trust. An ‘ETF’ can’t talk back. Sometimes a human face is better than writing. A video can really help people make choices.” Here’s its two-minute video about Facebook’s Q2 earnings a few months ago, explaining why the share price crashed 25 percent:

Percoco and Clayton Gardner met on their first day of Wharton business school, while their third co-founder was earning a hedge fund patent and studying computer science at Stanford. They went on to work at hedge funds and private equity firms like Goldman Sachs, but got fed up just growing the fortunes of the already rich.

So they started Titan to invent a modern, mobile version of BlackRock, the investment giant founded in the 1980s. Titan uses the public disclosures of hedge funds to find consensus around the 20 best performing stocks. With as little as $1,000, users can let Titan robo-manage their investments for a 1 percent fee on assets. Users provide some info on how big they want to gamble, and Titan personalizes their portfolio with more or less conservative shorts to hedge their bets.

Titan’s simplicity combined with the sense of participation could help it grow quickly. It sits between do-it-yourself options like Robinhood or E*Trade, where you’re basically left to fend for yourself, and totally passive options like Wealthfront and Betterment, where you’re so divorced from your portfolio that you’re not learning. Managed hedge funds and fellow active investment vehicles like BlackRock with a human advisor can require a $100,000 minimum investment that’s too steep for millennials.

“Even the best hedge fund in the world is only going to send you a PDF every 90 days,” Percoco explains. But Titan doesn’t want you nervously checking your portfolio non-stop. “Our median user checks the app once per day.” That seems like a healthy balance between awareness and sanity. It thinks its education and informative push notifications make it worth a higher required investment and fees than Wealthfront charges.

Essentially, Titan is a stock trading auto-pilot merged with a flight simulator so you improve your finance skills without having to fear a crash. Percoco tells me the sense of accomplishment that engenders is why clients say they’re telling friends about Titan. “When I invest, I look for companies that are growing quickly and making a huge positive impact on the world. Titan is one of those companies,” investor Altman says. “I think they could improve the financial well-being of an entire generation.”

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Chat app Line’s games business raises $110M for growth opportunities

Posted by | anchor equity partners, Apps, Asia, Fundings & Exits, game publisher, Gaming, Indonesia, Japan, Kakao, korea, line, line corp, messaging apps, Nintendo, north america, Software, taiwan, TC, Thailand, Ticket Monster | No Comments

Messaging app firm Line has given up majority control of its Line Games business after it raised outside financing to expand its collection of titles and go after global opportunities.

The Line Games business was formed earlier this year when Line merged its existing gaming division from NextFloor, the Korea-based game publisher that it acquired in 2017. Now the business has taken on capital from Anchor Equity Partners, which has provided 125 billion KRW ($110 million) in financing via its Lungo Entertainment entity, according to a disclosure from Line.

A Line spokesperson clarified that the deal will see Anchor acquire 144,743 newly created shares to take a 27.55 percent stake in Line Games. That increase means Line Corp’s own shareholding is diluted from 57.6 percent to a minority 41.73 percent stake.

Korea-based Anchor is best known for a number of deals in its homeland, including investments in e-commerce giant Ticket Monster, Korean chat giant Kakao’s Podotree content business and fashion retail group E-Land.

Line operates its eponymous chat app, which is the most popular messaging platform in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, and also significantly used in Indonesia, but gaming is a major source of income. This year to date, Line has made 28.5 billion JPY ($250 million) from its content division, which is primarily virtual goods and in-app purchases from its social games. That division accounts for 19 percent of Line’s total revenue, and it is a figure that is only better by its advertising unit, which has grossed 79.3 billion JPY, or $700 million, in 2018 to date.

The games business is currently focused on Japan, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, but it said that the new capital will go toward finding new IP for future titles and identifying games with global potential. It is also open to more strategic deals to broaden its focus.

While Line has always been big on games, Line Games isn’t just building for its own service. The company said earlier this year that it plans to focus on non-mobile platforms, which will include the Nintendo Switch among others consoles.

That comes from the addition of NextFloor, which is best known for titles like Dragon Flight and Destiny Child. Dragon Flight has racked up 14 million users since its 2012 launch; at its peak it saw $1 million in daily revenue. Destiny Child, a newer release in 2016, topped the charts in Korea and has been popular in Japan, North America and beyond.

Line went public in 2016 via a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised more than $1 billion.

Note: The original version of this article was updated to clarify that Lungo Entertainment is buying newly issued shares.

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Fleksy’s keyboard grabs $800k+ via equity crowdfunding

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, barcelona, Europe, european union, fleksy, Fundings & Exits, gboard, Microsoft, Mobile, mobile device, palm, smartphone, smartphones, Thingthing, web search | No Comments

The dev team that’s now engineering the Fleksy keyboard app has raised more than $800,000 via an equity crowdfunding route.

As we reported a year ago, the development of Fleksy’s keyboard has been taken over by the Barcelona-based startup behind an earlier keyboard app called ThingThing.

The team says their new funding raise — described as a pre-Series A round — will be put towards continued product development of the Fleksy keyboard, including the core AI engine used for next word and content prediction, plus additional features being requested by users — such as swipe to type. 

Support for more languages is also planned. (Fleksy’s Android and iOS apps are currently available in 45+ languages.)

Their other big push will be for growth: Scaling the user-base via a licensing route to market in which the team pitches Android OEMs on the benefits of baking Fleksy in as the default keyboard — offering a high degree of customization, alongside a feature-set that boasts not just speedy typing but apps within apps and extensions. 

The Fleksy keyboard can offer direct access to web search within the keyboard, for example, as well as access to third party apps (in an apps within apps play) — to reduce the need for full app switching.

This was the original concept behind ThingThing’s eponymous keyboard app, though the team has refocused efforts on Fleksy. And bagged their first OEMs as licensing partners.

They’ve just revealed Palm as an early partner. The veteran brand unveiled a dinky palm-sized ‘ultra-mobile’ last week. The tiny extra detail is that the device runs a custom version of the Fleksy keyboard out of the box.

With just 3.3 inches of screen to play with, the keyboard on the Palm risks being a source of stressful friction. Ergo enter Fleksy, with gesture based tricks to speed up cramped typing, plus tried and tested next-word prediction.

ThingThing CEO Olivier Plante says Palm was looking for an “out of the box optimized input method” — and more than that “high customization”.

“We’re excited to team up with ThingThing to design a custom keyboard that delivers a full keyboard typing experience for Palm’s ultra mobile form factor,” adds Dennis Miloseski, co-founder of Palm, in a statement. “Fleksy enables gestures and voice-to-text which makes typing simple and convenient for our users on the go.”

Plante says Fleksy has more OEM partnerships up its sleeve too. “We’re pending to announce new partnerships very soon and grow our user base to more than 25 million users while bringing more revenue to the medium and small OEMs desperately looking to increase their profit margins — software is the cure,” he tells TechCrunch.

ThingThing is pitching itself as a neutral player in the keyboard space, offering OEMs a highly tweakable layer where the Qwerty sits as its strategy to compete with Android’s keyboard giants: Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-owned SwiftKey. 

“We changed a lot of things in Fleksy so it feels native,” says Plante, discussing the Palm integration. “We love when the keyboard feels like the brand and with Palm it’s completely a Palm keyboard to the end-user — and with stellar performance on a small screen.”

“We’ve beaten our competitor to the punch,” he adds. 

That said, the tiny Palm (pictured in the feature image at the top of this post) is unlikely to pack much of a punch in marketshare terms. While Palm is a veteran — and, to nerds, almost cult — brand it’s not even a mobile tiddler in smartphone marketshare terms.

Palm’s cute micro phone is also an experimental attempt to create a new mobile device category — a sort of netbook-esque concept of an extra mobile that’s extra portable — which looks unlikely to be anything other than extremely niche. (Added to its petite size, the Palm is a Verizon exclusive.)

Even so ThingThing is talking bullishly of targeting 550M devices using its keyboard by 2020.

At this stage its user-base from pure downloads is also niche: Just over 1M active users. But Plante says it has already closed “several phone brands partnerships” — saying three are signed, with three more in the works — claiming this will make Fleksy the default input method in more than 20-30 million active users in the coming months. 

He doesn’t name any names but describes these other partners as “other major phone brands”.

The plan to grow Fleksy’s user-base via licensing has attracted wider investor backing now, via the equity crowdfunding route. The team had initially been targeting ($300k). In all they’ve secured $815,119 from 446 investors.

Plante says they went down the equity crowdfunding route to spread their pitch more widely, and get more ambassadors on board — as well as to demonstrate “that we’re a user-centric/people/independent company aiming big”.

“We are keen to work and fully customize the keyboard to the OEM tastes. We know this is key for them so they can better compete against the others on more than simply the hardware,” he says, making the ‘Fleksy for OEMs’ pitch. “Today, the market is saturated with yet another box, better camera and better screen…. the missing piece in Android ecosystem is software differences.”

Given how tight margins remain for Android makers it remains to be seen how many will bite. Though there’s a revenue share arrangement that sweetens the deal.

It is also certainly true that differentiation in the Android space is a big problem. That’s why Palm is trying its hand at a smaller form factor — in a leftfield attempt to stand out by going small.

The European Union’s recent antitrust ruling against Google’s Android OS has also opened up an opportunity for additional software customization, via unbundled Google apps. So there’s at least a chance for some new thinking and ideas to emerge in the regional Android smartphone space. And that could be good for Spain-based ThingThing.

Aside from the licensing fee, the team’s business model relies on generating revenue via affiliate links and its fleksyapps platform. ThingThing then shares revenue with OEM partners, so that’s another carrot for them — offering a services topper on their hardware margin.

Though that piece will need scale to really spin up. Hence ThingThing’s user target for Fleksy being so big and bold.

“We’re working with brands in order to bring them into any apps where you type, which unlocks brand new use cases and enables the user to share conveniently and the brand to drive mobile traffic to their service,” says Plante. “On this note, we monetize via affiliate/deep linking and operating a fleksyapps Store.”

ThingThing has also made privacy by design a major focus — which is a key way it’s hoping to make the keyboard app stand out against data-mining big tech rivals.

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