sequoia capital

Paytm targets merchants to fight back Google and Walmart in India’s crowded payments field

Posted by | Amazon, Android, ggv capital, Google, india, jack ma, lightspeed, payments, Paytm, sequoia capital, Softbank, TC, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Walmart | No Comments

Paytm today announced two new features for businesses as the financial services firm looks to expand its reach in the nation that has quickly become one of the world’s most crowded and competitive payments markets.

The Noida-headquartered firm, which raised $1 billion in late November, said its app for businesses now features an “all-in-one” QR code system to accept payments from multiple platforms, including mobile wallets (that act as an intermediary between a user and their bank but provide convenience) and those that are powered by UPI, a payments infrastructure built by a coalition of banks that has been widely adopted by the industry players.

Merchants had expressed an interest in having one QR code that could understand any payments app, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder and chief executive of Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications. In addition to supporting mobile wallet apps, and UPI-powered payment apps, Paytm’s new QR codes also support payments through popular Rupay cards. “I am sure this QR will accelerate the Digital India mission and make more financial services available to the underserved,” he said.

Merchants can also stick these QR codes on devices such as battery packs and chargers to enable quick transaction from users, Sharma explained at a press conference today.

Bookkeeping for merchants and small businesses

The nation’s highest-valued startup (at around $16 billion) also announced a bookkeeping feature for businesses to help them maintain their daily records. The feature is already rolling out to merchants, Sharma told TechCrunch.

Dubbed Paytm Business Khata, the feature will help merchants manage payments, record transactions and secure loans and insurance. The service will also enable them to set a reminder for credit transactions, receive an audio alert for new transactions, and send links to their customers to easily pay their dues, said Sharma.

Hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and villages, came online for the first time in the last decade thanks to the proliferation of cheap Android smartphones and the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans.

In recent years, millions of merchants and small businesses have also started to accept digital payments and listed them on the web for the first time. But most of them are still offline. Scores of startups and heavily backed firms such as Google, Walmart and Amazon are chasing this untapped market.

Google, which has amassed more than 67 million users on its payments app in India, last year announced a range of offerings to allow businesses to easily start accepting payments online. In the past, the company also launched tools to help mom and pop stores build presence on the web.

A number of startups today, including Bangalore-based Instamojo, Khatabook (which raised $25 million in October last year and counts GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital India and Tencent among its investors) and Lightspeed-backed OkCredit, which raised $67 million in August last year, offer bookkeeping features and allow their consumers to enable easier payment options.

Google Pay or GPay sticker pasted on the glass of a car in New Delhi India on 18 September 2019 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Paytm’s Sharma claimed that his business app has already amassed more than 10 million merchant users, a number he expects to more than double by next year.

The announcements today illustrate how aggressively Paytm, which once led the mobile payments market in India, is expanding its service.

Some critics have cautioned that the firm, which counts SoftBank, Alibaba and T. Rowe Price among its key investors and has raised over $3.3 billion to date, is quickly losing its market share and chasing opportunities that could significantly increase its expenses and losses. According to several industry estimates, Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe now lead the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm lost more than half a billion dollars in the financial year that ended in March 2019. The trouble for the company is that there is currently little money to be made in the payments market because of some of the local guidelines set by the government.

“The current Paytm’s potential is a pale shadow of its former self. And to stay relevant, the company is entering new businesses (and failing spectacularly in some) at a pace that shows both a lack of clarity and urgency. Paytm is stuck between a glorious past that was built on the back of digital payments and a future that doesn’t look anything like Jack Ma’s Alibaba, one of Paytm’s largest investors and Sharma’s inspiration,” wrote Ashish Mishra, a long-time journalist, in a scathing post (paywalled).

Sharma said today that the company plans to offer services such as stock brokerage and insurance brokerage in the coming months.

At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next four years, up from about $200 billion currently, according to Credit Suisse. And that market is only going to get more crowded when WhatsApp, which has amassed over 400 million users in India, rolls out its payments service to all its users in the country in the coming months.

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Google hires former Disney and Star executive to head its India business

Posted by | Android, Asia, bharti airtel, Disney, Google, Hotstar, india, Personnel, sequoia capital, TC | No Comments

Google said on Friday it has appointed Sanjay Gupta, a former top executive with Disney India and Star, as the manager and vice president of sales and operations for its India business.

Gupta will be replacing Rajan Anandan, who left the company in April this year to serve VC fund Sequoia Capital India as a managing director.

Gupta served as a managing director at Disney India and Star (which Disney now owns) before joining the Android -maker. (Not to be confused with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who hosts a popular medical show on CNN.) He helped Star make a major push in the digital consumers business through video streaming service Hotstar, where he aggressively worked on partnerships and licensing for cricket rights and other content.

Hotstar has cashed in on the popularity of cricket — during a major cricket season earlier this year, Hotstar claimed that more than 100 million users were enjoying its service each day and more than 300 million were doing so each month. (Facebook roped in Ajit Mohan, the former chief executive of Hotstar, to head its India operations late last year.) Gupta also held top executive roles at other companies, including Bharti Airtel telecom network.

Sanjay Gupta, a former top executive at Disney and Star, is now the head of Google’s India business

In a statement, Gupta said, “it’s an exciting opportunity to leverage the power of technology to solve some of India’s unique challenges and make Internet an engine of economic growth for people and communities. I am happy to join the passionate teams across Google and look forward to contributing to India’s digital journey as it becomes an innovation hub for the world.”

When Anandan, a long-time influential and widely respected Google executive, left the company earlier this year, Google said Vikas Agnihotri, who is the director of sales for the firm’s India operations, would be temporarily taking over the role. For Google, this was the latest in a series of high-profile departures in Asia. Karim Temsamani, head of Asia Pacific (APAC) at Google, also left the company earlier this year.

Even as India contributes little to Google’s bottom line, the company has grown increasingly focused on India and other Asian markets to develop products and services that solve local problems and address barriers that are hindering growth in these markets.

In a statement, Scott Beaumont, president of Google APAC, said the company’s operation in India “is important and strategic for its own sake but also for the innovation which then feeds breakthroughs elsewhere in Google.”

Gupta will also have to oversee some major challenges, including the fast growth of Facebook’s advertisement business in India and an antitrust issue with the local regulator.

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Not all is predictable on Facebook’s social Horizon

Posted by | Against Gravity, Andreessen Horowitz, augmented reality, bigscreen, Facebook, Facebook Horizon, facebook spaces, Gaming, Google, HTC, Index Ventures, Media, Oculus, Oculus Connect, Oculus Rooms, Oculus Venues, Rec Room, sequoia capital, Social, Startups, TC, True Ventures, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Most of the people I spoke with at Facebook’s Oculus Connect see the proliferation of virtual reality as a foregone conclusion, one that’s just a matter of timing at this point. For Facebook, the conference’s “The Time is Now” catchphrase showcased that they feel their hardware is ready for everyone.

But despite the success they feel like they’ve tapped into when it comes to hardware iterations, the company’s bread and butter social networking prowess feels like it’s barely improved in-headset in the past several years of VR experimentations.

“On the social side, looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing all of the stages we’ve gone through at Oculus,” Oculus CTO and veteran programmer John Carmack conceded onstage during his signature rambling annual keynote, noting that his own social APK was followed by Oculus Rooms, Oculus Venues, Facebook Spaces and now the company’s latest shiny pearl Facebook Horizon.

Horizon’s debut this year included a flashy trailer for what quickly seemed to be the company’s biggest gamble and first potential social hit, a massive multi-player online world. In introducing the software, Zuckerberg talked about people-centric software as Facebook’s “bread-and-butter,” noting, “We build a lot of the best social experiences for phones and computers, and we want to do this for virtual reality as well.”

But Facebook does not actually appear to hold that much of an advantage over much smaller game studios in terms of understanding how to make social virtual reality experience take off.

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Sequoia leads $40M investment in mobile messaging startup Attentive

Posted by | Attentive, Brian Long, funding, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, Recent Funding, sequoia capital, Startups | No Comments

Attentive, a startup helping retailers personalize their mobile messages, is announcing that it has raised $40 million in Series B funding.

The startup was founded by Brian Long and Andrew Jones, who sold their previous startup TapCommerce to Twitter. When they announced Attentive’s $13 million Series A last year, Long told me the startup is all about helping retailers find better ways to communicate with customers, particularly as it’s harder for their individual apps to stand out.

Attentive’s first product allowed for what it calls “two-tap” sign-up, where users can tap on a promotion link from a brand’s website, creating a pre-populated text that opts them in to for SMS messages from that retailer.

Since then, it’s built a broader suite of messaging tools, with support for cart abandonment reminders, A/B testing, subscriber segmentation and other features that allow retailers to get smarter and more targeted in their messaging strategy.

The startup says mobile messages sent through its platform are seeing click-through rates of more than 30%, and that it now works with more than 400 customers, including Sephora, Urban Outfitters, Coach, CB2 and Jack in the Box.

The Series B was led by Sequoia, with participation from new investors IVP and High Alpha, as well as previous backers Bain Capital Ventures, Eniac Ventures and NextView Ventures. The plan for the new funding is to grow the entire team, especially sales and engineering.

“CRM is changing,” Long said in a statement. “Businesses can’t build a relationship with the modern consumer through email alone. Email performance, as measured by how many subscribers click-through on a message, is down 45% over the last five years. Rather than continuing to shout one-way messages at consumers, smart brands will stay relevant by embracing personalized, real-time, two-way communication channels.”

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Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

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

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MLG co-founder Mike Sepso joins 100 Thieves board of directors

Posted by | 100 thieves, dan gilbert, Drew Houston, Gaming, Marc Benioff, Mike Sepso, MLG, sequoia capital, Startups, TC | No Comments

Mike Sepso has joined the board of directors for 100 Thieves, an esports and content creation brand.

Sepso co-founded Major League Gaming in 2002, bringing the first true semblance of infrastructure to competitive gaming. MLG became the biggest independent esports league in the world, and played a big part in the evolution of esports as we know it today. In fact, MLG secured the first televised esports series ever with NBC sports, and eventually launched its own esports streaming platform.

MLG was acquired for $46 million by Activision Blizzard in 2016, but still lives as an esports content hub for Activision Blizzard titles like Call of Duty and Overwatch.

Sepso joins the 100 Thieves board alongside 100 Thieves founder and CEO Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, president and COO John Robinson, Jake Cohen from Detroit Venture Partners and Scooter Braun (entertainment industry mogul who represents Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande).

“Mike is the godfather of esports,” said Haag. “The most influential thing that happened in my career was seeing Halo 2 competitions on Major League Gaming on TBS on the weekends. It was just mind-blowing that kids like me could play games competitively.”

Currently, Sepso serves as chairman and co-founder of the Electronic Sports Group, which is an advisory firm for executives across the finance, media, advertising and sports industries as they navigate esports deals.

“[Haag] been able to move quickly and build something that transcends esports and esports teams and has become an increasingly significant mainstream brand, and that opens up a lot of business opportunities,” said Sepso. “The strategy that 100 Thieves has put in place, using esports and gaming personalities as a way to bring this brand to market, I think it could eventually be much more than that.”

Before founding 100 Thieves, Haag was a decorated pro player in his own right and continues to be a popular Twitch streamer and YouTuber. Many esports orgs are founded by former pros, but Haag has taken a Silicon Valley approach to building out 100 Thieves, at least with regards to pace.

100 Thieves built out professional teams for a variety of titles very quickly. The company also secured capital from the likes of Sequoia, Marc Benioff, Drew Houston, Dan Gilbert, Tao Capital and Advancit Capital. Alongside traditional VCs and tech angels, 100 Thieves has also gotten investment from Scooter Braun and Drake.

Total funding for the org is $25 million.

Beyond titles and professional teams, 100 Thieves is diversifying its product early as well, with a content creator house and a line of apparel coming this spring.

The company recently signed a deal with Totino’s (yes, the pizza rolls) that includes an upcoming docuseries that offers a look behind the scenes at the 100 Thieves Call of Duty team.

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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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Bird has officially raised a whopping $300M as the scooter wars heat up

Posted by | bird, electric scooters, Gadgets, lime, Mobile, Recent Funding, sequoia capital, skip, Startups, TC, Transportation | No Comments

And there we have it: Bird, one of the emerging massively hyped Scooter startups, has roped in its next pile of funding by picking up another $300 million in a round led by Sequoia Capital.

The company announced the long-anticipated round this morning, with Sequoia’s Roelof Botha joining the company’s board of directors. This is the second round of funding that Bird has raised over the span of a few months, sending it from a reported $1 billion valuation in May to a $2 billion valuation by the end of June. In March, the company had a $300 million valuation, but the Scooter hype train has officially hit a pretty impressive inflection point as investors pile on to get money into what many consider to be the next iteration of resolving transportation at an even more granular level than cars or bikes. New investors in the round include Accel, B Capital, CRV, Sound Ventures, Greycroft and e.ventures; previous investors Craft Ventures, Index Ventures, Valor, Goldcrest, Tusk Ventures and Upfront Ventures are also in the round. (So, basically everyone else who isn’t in competitor Lime.)

Scooter mania has captured the hearts of Silicon Valley and investors in general — including Paige Craig, who actually jumped from VC to join Bird as its VP of business — with a large amount of capital flowing into the area about as quickly as it possibly can. These sort of revolving-door fundraising processes are not entirely uncommon, especially for very hot areas of investment, though the scooter scene has exploded considerably faster than most. Bird’s round comes amid reports of a mega-round for Lime, one of its competitors, with the company reportedly raising another $250 million led by GV, and Skip also raising $25 million.

“We have met with over 20 companies focused on the last-mile problem over the years and feel this is a multi-billion dollar opportunity that can have a big impact in the world,” CRV’s Saar Gur, who did the deal for the firm, said. “We have a ton of conviction that this team has original product thought (they created the space) and the execution chops to build something extremely valuable here. And we have been long-term focused, not short-term focused, in making the investment. The ‘hype’ in our decision (the non-zero answer) is that Bird has built the best product in the market and while we kept meeting with more startups wanting to invest in the space — we kept coming back to Bird as the best company. So in that sense, the hype from consumers is real and was a part of the decision. On unit economics: We view the first product as an MVP (as the company is less than a year old) — and while the unit economics are encouraging, they played a part of the investment decision but we know it is not even the first inning in this market.”

There’s certainly an argument to be made for Bird, whose scooters you’ll see pretty much all over the place in cities like Los Angeles. For trips that are just a few miles down wide roads or sidewalks, where you aren’t likely to run into anyone, a quick scan of a code and a hop on a Bird may be worth the few bucks in order to save a few minutes crossing those considerably long blocks. Users can grab a bird that they see and start going right away if they are running late, and it does potentially alleviate the pressure of calling a car for short distances in traffic, where a scooter may actually make more sense physically to get from point A to point B than a car.

There are some considerable hurdles going forward, both theoretical and in effect. In San Francisco, though just a small slice of the United States metropolitan area population, the company is facing significant pushback from the local government, and scooters for the time being have been kicked off the sidewalks. There’s also the looming shadow of what may happen regarding changes in tariffs, though Gur said that it likely wouldn’t be an issue and “the unit economics appear to be viable even if tariffs were to be added to the cost of the scooters.” (Xiaomi is one of the suppliers for Bird, for example.)

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Free stock trading app Robinhood rockets to a $5.6B valuation with new funding round

Posted by | Apps, dst, etrade, Fundings & Exits, Kleiner Perkins, Mobile, Robinhood, sequoia capital, Startups | No Comments

Robinhood started off as a dead-simple stock trading application that had no transaction fees — but since it’s continued to grow, and especially as it starts to dive into cryptocurrency, investors are getting pretty excited about its prospects and are pouring a ton of new funding into it.

And it’s that tantalizing prospect of creating a next generation way of trading assets and cryptocurrency that is now sending Robinhood to a $5.6 billion valuation in a new financing round that the company is announcing today. Robinhood says it’s closed a $363 million Series D financing round; DST Global led this new round and Iconiq, Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia and Capital G participated. Robinhood had a $1.3 billion valuation last year when it had around 2 million users, and the company says it now has 4 million users and has passed $150 billion in transaction volume.

“It’s the only place right now where you can trade crypto, stocks, and options all in one place,” CEO Vlad Tenev said. “For us to construct an experience that feels seamless and natural for customers, that for example want to sell an equity and use the proceeds to buy crypto, seamlessly, that’s been challenging not just from a product and design standpoint, but also infrastructure standpoint. There’s complexity under the hood, and our goal is to make it as seamless as possible in the process and make that complexity go away.”

Those 4 million users — and that valuation — indicates that Robinhood has clearly exposed a lot of demand for an easier way for users to dip their toes into financial services without having to work with firms that have trading fees like Scottrade or E*Trade. And while there are a lot of services that offer robo-advisory services like Betterment and Wealthront, which make it easier to start investing small amounts of money, Robinhood offers users the opportunity to do these things at a more granular level.

And, of course, there’s the cryptocurrency aspect that is clearly spurring a lot of interest in the company. At the time, 1 million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced. Robinhood has premium services like Robinhood Gold, where the company can find additional ways to generate revenue that offset the requirements of running a system that allows users to trade stocks for free. Robinhood has raised $539 million to date, as diving into financial services can be an expensive prospect, as well as getting enough users on board to the point that it can scale to a level that the business starts to increasingly make sense.

Robinhood’s crypto trading service came out in February and by today, the company says it’s available in 10 states. The company also rolled out a web version and stock option trading, trying to become a more robust financial services company that’s still tuned to a younger generation that wants an easier way to get into investing without needing a big balance to invest. Most of Robinhood’s users, too, aren’t so-called “day traders” and are instead holding stocks for a while after they buy them.

“If you look at the data and the statistics, people that are active day traders are actually a very small percentage of our space,” Tenev said. “People that are actually transacting on that cadence are the minority of our customers. Most of our customers engage in more of these buy and hold accumulation strategies. We really see a lot of unique things because we don’t charge trading commissions. There are customers that deposit money regularly twice or once a month and then buy stocks as soon as those deposits come in. We don’t see a lot of customers that are doing rapid buying and selling.”

Still, as it tries to further expand — especially into products like crypto and new regions — it’s going to increasingly find itself trying to jump hurdles that financial services companies find when going abroad. And there’s always a chance that the trading platforms will try to become a little more competitive (and companies like Square are even getting into Bitcoin trading). That’s going to require a robust amount of funding to try to outmaneuver well-capitalized companies that might already have those relationships in place to more easily expand.

“The political climate is uncertain, it sort of affects everyone, it doesn’t affect us uniquely,” Tenev said. “We’re a crypto business now. Not a lot of people have a ton of clarity on what that’s gonna look like in the future, it’s a new space that’s evolving really rapidly. I think that we’re confident we can adapt and evolve, and we’re operating the business in a responsible way. There’s only so much you can do, but I feel like we’ve done a lot to address any concerns.”

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Tribe combines arcade games with group video chat

Posted by | Apps, funding, Gaming, Kleiner Perkins, Mobile, sequoia capital, Social, Startups, TC, Tribe | No Comments

Sick of chatting but want to stay connected? Tribe‘s app lets you play clones of Space Invaders, Flappy Bird, Fruit Ninja, Name That Tune and more while video chatting with up to seven friends or strangers. Originally a video messaging app, Tribe failed to gain traction in the face of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger. But thanks to a $3 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins in June, Tribe had the runway to pivot into video chat gaming that could prove popular, even if not in its app.

“As we all know, Messaging is a super-crowded area,” says Tribe co-founder Cyril Paglino. “If you look closely, very few communication products have been blowing up in the past three years.” Now, he says “we’re building a ‘Social Game Boy.’”

A former breakdancer, Paglino formed his team in France before renting a “hacker house” and moving to San Francisco. They saw traction in late 2016, hitting 500,000 downloads. Tribe’s most innovative feature was speech recognition that could turn a mention of “coffee” into a pre-made calendar request, a celebrity’s name into a link to their social media accounts, locations into maps and even offer Spotify links to songs playing in the background.

The promise of being the next hit teen app secured Tribe a $500,000 pre-seed from Kima and Ludlow Ventures in 2015, a $2.5 million seed in 2016 led by prestigious fund Sequoia Capital and then the June 2017 $3 million bridge from KPCB and others. But that $6 million couldn’t change the fact that people didn’t want to sign up for a new chat app when their friends were already established on others.

Luckily, Tribe saw a new trend emerging. Between HQ Trivia’s rise, the Apple App Store adding a Gaming tab, celebrities like Drake streaming their gameplay and Snapchat acquiring 3D gaming engine PlayCanvas, the Tribe team believed there was demand for a new way to play.

Tribe’s rebuilt iOS and Android apps let you rally a crew of friends or join in with strangers to play one of its old-school games. You’ll hear their voices and see their faces in the corner of the screen as everyone in your squad vies for first place. It’s like Houseparty’s group video chat, but with something to do. Facebook Messenger has its own gaming platform, but the games are largely asynchronous. That means you play separately and merely compare scores. That’s a lot less fun than laughing it up together as one of your buddies runs their race car off the road or gets attacked by an alien.

The only problem is that since your friends probably aren’t on Tribe already, the app is vulnerable to cloning by its bigger competitors. Paglino cited technical challenges his team has overcome, its young demographic and lessons learned from 18 months of iterations as what could keep Tribe from being easily co-opted. But as even public companies like Snapchat have learned, it can be tough to stay ahead of tech giants like Facebook with huge development teams, plenty of cash and apps that are already popular.
Tribe’s games are legitimately fun, and the video chat makes them feel a lot more like hanging out with friends and less like a waste of time. Even if Tribe isn’t the one to make mobile group video chat gaming ubiquitous, it could see its idea entertain millions… just in someone else’s app.

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