Startups

LivingPackets hopes to nurture a circular economy with its smart parcels

Posted by | E Ink, e paper, Europe, Gadgets, hardware, livingpackets, Logistics, Startups, TC | No Comments

More than ever before, people are getting life’s essentials delivered — good news for Amazon, but bad news for the environment, which must bear the consequences of the resulting waste. LivingPackets is a Berlin-based startup that aims to replace the familiar cardboard box with an alternative that’s smarter, more secure and possibly the building block of a new circular economy.

The primary product created by LivingPackets is called The Box, and it’s just that: a box. But not just any box. This one is reusable, durable, digitally locked and monitored, with a smartphone’s worth of sensors and gadgets that make it trackable and versatile, and an E-Ink screen so its destination or contents can be updated at will. A prototype shown at CES and a few other locations attracted some interest, but the company is now well into producing V2 of The Box, improved in many ways and ready to be deployed at the scale of hundreds of thousands.

Sure, it costs a lot more than a cardboard box. But once a LivingPackets Box has been used a couple hundred times for returns and local distribution purposes, it breaks even with its paper-based predecessor. Cardboard is cheap to make new, but it doesn’t last long — and that’s not its only problem.

The Box, pictured here with standard cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, is meant to be compatible with lots of existing intrastructure. Image Credits: LivingPackets 

“If you think about it, online transactions are still risky,” said co-founder Sebastian Rumberg. “The physical transaction and financial transaction don’t happen in parallel: You pay up front, and the seller sends something into the void. You may not receive it, or maybe you do and you say you didn’t, so the company has to claim it with insurers.”

“The logistics system is over-capacity; there’s frustration with DHL and other carriers,” he said. “People in e-commerce and logistics know what they’re missing, what their problems are. Demand has grown, but there’s no innovation.”

And indeed, it does seem strange that although delivery has become much more important to practically everyone over the last decade and especially in recent months, it’s pretty much done the same way it’s been done for a century — except you might get an email when the package arrives. LivingPackets aims to upend this by completely reinventing the package, leaving things like theft, damage and missed connections in the past.

Apps let users track the location and status of their box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

“You’re in full control of everything involved,” he explained. “You know where the parcel is, what’s happening to it. You can look inside. You can say, I’m not at the location for delivery right now, I’m at my office, and just update the address. You don’t need filling material, you don’t need a paper label. You can tell when the seal is broken, when the item is removed.”

It all sounds great, but cardboard is simple and, while limited, proven. Why should anyone switch over to such a fancy device? The business model has to account for this, so it does — and then some.

To begin with, LivingPackets doesn’t actually sell The Box. It provides it to customers and charges per use — “packaging as a service,” as they call it. This prevents the possibility of a business balking at the upfront cost of a few thousand of these.

As a service, it simplifies a lot of existing pain points for merchants, consumers and logistics companies.

For merchants, among other things, tracking and insurance are much simpler. As co-founder Alexander Cotte explained, and as surely many reading this have experienced, it’s practically impossible to know what happened to a missing package, even if it’s something large or expensive. With better tracking, lossage can be mitigated to start, and the question of who’s responsible, where it was taken, and so on can be determined in a straightforward way.

For packaging and delivery companies, the standard form factor with adjustable interior makes these boxes easy to pack and difficult to meddle with or damage — tests with European online retail showed that handling time and costs can be reduced by more than half. LivingPackets also pays for pickup, so delivery companies can recoup costs without changing routes. And generally speaking, more data, more traceability, is a good thing.

For consumers, the most obvious improvement is returns; no need to print a label or for the company to pre-package one, just notify them and the return address appears on the box automatically. In addition there are opportunities once an essentially pre-paid box is in a consumer’s house: for instance, selling or donating an old phone or laptop. LivingPackets will be operating partnerships whereby you can just toss your old gear in the box and it will make its way to the right locations. Or a consumer can hang onto the box until the item they’re selling on eBay is bought and send it that way. Or a neighbor can — and yes, they’re working on the public health side of that, with antibiotic coatings and other protections against spreading COVID-19.

The Box locks securely but also folds down for storage when empty. Image Credits: LivingPackets

The idea underpinning all this, and which was wrapped up in this company from the start, is that of creating a real circular economy, building decentralized value and reducing waste. Even The Box itself is made of materials that can be reused, should it be damaged, in the creation of its replacement. In addition to the market efficiencies added by turning parcels into traveling IoT devices, reusing the boxes could reduce waste and carbon emissions — once you get past the first hundred uses or so, The Box pays for itself in more ways than one. Early pilots with carriers and retailers in France and Germany have borne this out.

That philosophy is embodied in LivingPackets’ unusual form of funding itself: a combination of bootstrapping and crowdsourced equity.

Cotte and his father founded investment firm the Cotte Group, which provided a good starting point for said bootstrapping, but he noted that every employee is taking a less than competitive wage with the hope that the company’s profit-sharing plan will pan out. Even so, with 95 employees, that amounts to several million a year even by the most conservative estimate — this is no small operation.

CEO Alex Cotte sits with V2 of The Box. Image Credits: LivingPackets

Part of keeping the lights on, then, is the ongoing crowdfunding campaign, which has pulled in somewhere north of €6 million, from individuals contributing as little as €50 or as much as €20,000. This, Cotte said, is largely to finance the cost of production, while he and the founding team essentially funded the R&D period. Half of future profits are earmarked for paying back these contributors multiple times their investment — not exactly the sort of business model you see in Silicon Valley. But that’s kind of the point, they explained.

“Obviously all the people working for us believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Cotte said. “They’re willing to take a step back now to create value together and not just take value out of an existing system. And you need to share the value you create with the people who helped you create it.”

It’s hard to imagine a future where these newfangled boxes replace even a noticeable proportion of the truly astronomical number of cardboard boxes being used every day. But even so, getting them into a few key distribution channels could prove they work as intended — and improvements to the well-oiled machines (and deeply rutted paths) of logistics can spread like wildfire once the innumerable companies the industry touches see there’s a better way.

The aims and means of LivingPackets may be rather utopian, but that could be the moonshot thinking that’s necessary to dislodge the logistics business from its current, decidedly last-century methods.

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Special raises $2.26M to build a subscription platform for online creators

Posted by | Apps, funding, Fundings & Exits, Media, Mobile, next frontier capital, Recent Funding, special, Startups | No Comments

Special is a new startup offering online video creators a way to move beyond advertising for their income.

The service was created by the team behind tech consulting and development firm Triple Tree Software. Special’s co-founder and CEO Sam Lucas told me that the team had already “scrapped our way from nothing to a seven-figure annual revenue,” but when the founders met with Next Frontier Capital (Next Frontier, like Special, is based in Bozeman, Montana) they pitched a bigger idea — an app where creators charge a subscription fee for access to premium content.

While Triple Tree started in the service business, Lucas explained the goal was always to create “a product company that we could sell for $100 million.” Now Special is announcing it has raised $2.26 million in seed funding from Next Frontier and other investors.

It’s also built an initial version of the product that’s being tested by friends, family and a handful of creators, with plans for a broader beta release in October.

With online advertising slowing dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, YouTube recently highlighted the fact that 80,000 of its channels are earning money from non-ad sources, and that the number of creators who receive the majority of their income from those sources grew 40% between January and May.

One of the main ways that creators can ask their viewers for money is through Patreon. Lucas acknowledged Patreon as a “very big inspiration” for Special, but he said that conversations with creators pointed to a few key ways that the service falls short.

Special

Image Credits: Special

For one thing, he argued while contributions on Patreon are framed as “donations” or “support,” Special allows creators to emphasize the value of their premium content by putting it behind a subscription paywall. Patreon supports paywalls as well, but that leads to Lucas’ next point — it was built for creators of all kinds, while Special is focused specifically on video, and it has built a high-quality video player into the experience.

In fact, Lucas described Special’s spin on the idea of a white-labeled product as “silver label.” The goal is to create “the perfect balance between a platform and a custom app” — creators get their own customizable channels that emphasize their brand identity (rather than Special’s), while still getting the distribution and exposure benefits of being part of a larger platform, with their content searchable and viewable on web, mobile and smart TVs.

Creators also retain ownership of their content, and they get to decide how much they want to charge subscribers — Lucas said it can be anywhere between “$1 or $999” per month, with Special taking a 10% fee. He added that the team has plans to build a bundling option that would allow creators to team up and offer a joint subscription.

Lucas’ pitch reminded me of startups like Vessel (acquired and shut down by TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon in 2016), which previously hoped to bring online creators together for a subscription offering. In Lucas’ view, Vessel was similar to newer apps like Quibi, in that they directly funded creators to produce exclusive content.

“It’s a billion-dollar arms race, with what used to be a technology play but is now a production studio play,” he said. Special doesn’t have the funding to compete at that level, but Lucas suggested that a studio model also provides the wrong incentives to creators, who say “Hell yeah, keep those checks coming in,” but disappear “the moment the checks stop.”

“I almost think it’s an egotistical play,” Lucas added. “The company thinks they know best what a creator should produce for an audience that doesn’t exist yet. We say: Let them do it on Special. Do whatever you want, as long as you follow our terms of service, and own your creative vision.”

It might also seem like a big challenge to recruit creators while based in Montana, but Lucas replied that Special has more access than you might think, especially since the town has become “such a hotspot for extremely wealthy people to buy their third home.”

More broadly, he suggested that the distance from Hollywood and Silicon Valley “allows us to not follow the trends of every new streaming platform and [instead] truly find those independent creators underneath the woodworks.”

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Serialized fiction startup Radish raises $63.2M from SoftBank and Kakao

Posted by | Apps, funding, Fundings & Exits, Media, Mobile, Radish, SoftBank Ventures Asia, Startups | No Comments

Radish is announcing that it has raised $63.2 million in new funding.

Breaking up book-length stories into smaller chapters that are released over days or weeks is an idea that was popularized in the 19th century, and startups have been trying to revive it for at least the past decade. Still, this round represents a major step up in funding, not just for Radish (which only raised around $5 million previously), but also compared to other startups in a relatively nascent market. (Digital fiction startup Wattpad is the notable exception.)

When I first wrote about Radish at the beginning of 2017, the startup was focused on user-generated content. Last year, however, the company launched the Radish Originals program, where Radish is able to produce more content using teams of writers lead by a “showrunner,” and where the startup owns the resulting intellectual property.

“Instead of becoming YouTube or Wattpad for serial fiction, we want to be more like Netflix and create our own originals,” founder and CEO Seungyoon Lee told me. “I got a lot of inspiration from platforms in Korea, China and Japan, where serial fiction is huge and established on mobile.”

One of the ideas Radish took from the Asian markets is rapidly updating its stories. For example, its most popular title, “Torn Between Alphas” (a romance story with werewolves) has released 10 seasons in less than a year, with each season consisting of more than 50 chapters — later seasons have more than 100 chapters — that are released multiple times a day.

“On Netflix, you can binge-watch three seasons of a show at once,” Lee said. “On Radish, you can binge-read a thousand episodes.”

While Radish borrowed the writing room model from TV — and hired Emmy-winning TV writers, particularly those with a background in soap operas — Lee said it’s also taken inspiration from gaming. For one thing, it relies on micro-payments to make money, with users buying coins that allow them to unlock later chapters of a story (chapters usually cost 20 or 30 cents, and more chapters get moved out from behind the paywall over time). In addition, the company can allow reader taste to determine the direction of stories by A/B testing different versions of the same chapter.

Lee pointed to the fall of 2019 as Radish’s “inflection point,” where the model really started to work. Now, the company says its most popular story has made more than $4 million and has received more than 50 million “reads.” Radish stories are mostly in the genres of romance, paranormal/sci-fi, LGBTQ, young adult, horror, mystery and thriller, and Lee said the audience is largely female and based in the United States.

By raising a big round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early-stage investment arm of troubled SoftBank Group) and Kakao Pages (which publishes webtoons, web novels and more, and is part of Korean internet giant Kakao), Lee said he can take advantage of their expertise in the Asian market to grow Radish’s audience in the U.S. That will mean accelerating content production in the hopes of creating more hit titles, and also spending more on performance marketing.

“With its own fast-paced original content production, Radish is best positioned to become a leading player in the global online fiction market,” said SoftBank Ventures Asia CEO JP Lee in a statement. “Radish has proven that its serialized novel platform can change the way people consume online content, and we are excited to support the company’s continued disruption in the mobile fiction space. Leveraging our global SoftBank ecosystem, we hope to support and accelerate Radish’s expansion across different regions worldwide.”

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Point wants to provide credit card rewards with debit cards

Posted by | Apps, challenger bank, Finance, fintech, Mobile, neobank, point, Startups | No Comments

Point, a new challenger bank in the U.S., is launching publicly today with an invite system. While Point is technically providing a bank account, the company focuses on rewards associated with a debit card.

“I started Point as a solution about everything that is frustrating and complicated about credit cards. The incentives between credit card companies and cardholders are misaligned,” Point co-founder and CEO Patrick Mrozowski told me.

When Mrozowski first got a credit card, he was spending a ton of money to reach a certain level of spending and unlock the sign-up bonus. At the end of the month, he ended up with credit card debt for no valid reason.

“What would American Express look like today?” he says to sum up Point’s vision. It comes down to two important principles — being in charge of your budget so that you don’t end up with debt and unlocking rewards from brands that you actually interact with.

Many challenger banks want to provide a simple banking experience for the underbanked. Point doesn’t have the same positioning. Creating a Point account is more like joining a membership program.

When you sign up, you get a debit card with some level of insurance as it’s a Mastercard World Debit card. You can expect some trip cancellation insurance, rental car insurance, purchase insurance, etc.

As the name of the startup suggests, you earn points with each purchase. You get 5x points on subscriptions, such as Spotify and Netflix, 3x points on food, grocery deliveries and ride sharing, and 1x points on everything else. Points can be redeemed for dollars — each point is worth $0.01. In addition to that, Point is going to create a feed of offers with discounts, content, events and more.

Due to its premium positioning, Point isn’t free. You have to pay $6.99 per month or $60 per year to join Point. Point doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees.

You can connect your Point account with another bank account using Plaid. It lets you top up your account using ACH transfers. Behind the scenes, Point works with Radius Bank for the banking infrastructure, an FDIC-insured bank.

The company announced earlier this month that it has raised a $10.5 million Series A led by Valar Ventures with Y Combinator, Kindred Ventures, Finventure Studio and business angels also participating.

Image Credits: Point

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The road to recurring revenue for hardware startups

Posted by | B2C, Column, D2C, eCommerce, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, HaaS, hardware, hardware-as-a-service, Health, Market Analysis, Startups, TC | No Comments
Nils Mattisson
Contributor

Formerly at Apple, Nils Mattisson is now CEO and co-founder of smart home tech company Minut.

If you look at the most successful startups today, you’ll find plenty of proof that the hardware-enabled service (Haas) model works: Peloton, Particle, Latch and Igloohome all rely on subscriptions along with product sales. Even tech giants like Apple are rapidly reinventing themselves as service companies.

Yet, if you currently rely on device sales, the prospect of changing your entire business model might seem daunting.

At Minut, we are building smart home monitors (privacy-safe noise, motion and temperature monitoring) and recently made the transition despite the lack of resources on the process. Here are the seven lessons we learned:

  1. It is a question of when  —  not if.
  2. The transition will have company-wide impact.
  3. Your current and future target audience may differ.
  4. Price should reflect the value for the customer. Your revenue should grow with theirs.
  5. Avoid your free offer competing with your premium ones.
  6. Be transparent (internally and externally) about the changes. Over-communicate.
  7. Start the process early, check regularly with your team and set measurable targets.

Why subscriptions are the future of industry (and your startup)

Hardware has one advantage over software: customers understand there is a cost to your product. Now, this allows hardware startups to generate revenue with their first iteration, but it’s unsustainable as the company grows and needs to innovate: the software and user experience need continuous improvement and excellent support, just like in a software-only startup.

That’s why we see most hardware startups eventually launching a subscription model and limit what’s available for free. Even established companies  —  think Strava or Wink  —  often end up having to radically limit free features after years of operations.

Experienced founders and financial markets favor subscription models and recurring revenue. Market valuation multiples are typically much higher for companies that benefit from service revenue in addition to sales.

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Where is voice tech going?

Posted by | Alexa, artificial intelligence, Baidu, Column, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, hardware, Headspace, Market Analysis, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, siri, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, virtual assistant, voice, voice assistant, voice search, voice technology, Wearables | No Comments
Mark Persaud
Contributor

Mark Persaud is digital product manager and practice lead at Moonshot by Pactera, a digital innovation company that leads global clients through the next era of digital products with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, data and continuous software delivery.

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

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As remote work booms, Everphone grabs ~$40M for its ‘device as a service’ offer

Posted by | Android, babbel, berlin, coronavirus, COVID-19, deutsche telekom, ernst & young, Europe, european union, Everphone, Fundings & Exits, home work, Mobile, mobile device management, mobile devices, Recent Funding, remote work, Signals Venture Capital, smartphones, Startups, Swappie, tablet computer, TC | No Comments

The latest startup to see an uplift in inbound interest flowing from the remote work boom triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is Berlin-based Everphone, which sells a “mobile as a service” device rental package that caters to businesses needing to kit staff out with mobile hardware plus associated support.

Everphone is announcing a €34 million Series B funding round today, led by new investor signals Venture Capital. Other new investors joining the round include German carrier Deutsche Telekom — investing via its strategic investment fund, Telekom Innovation Pool — U.S.-based early-stage VC AlleyCorp and Dutch bank NIBC.

The Series B financing will go on expanding to meet rising demand, with the startup telling TechCrunch it’s expecting to see a 70-100% increase in sales volume versus the pre-crisis period, thanks to a doubling of inbound leads during the pandemic.

“The global pandemic has been a catalyst for growth in the field of digitization,” said CEO and co-founder, Jan Dzulko, in a statement. “We are currently experiencing a significant increase in demand at home and abroad, which is why we are aiming for European expansion with the funding.”

Everphone describes its offer as a one-stop shop, with the service covering not just the rental of (new or refurbished) smartphones and tablets but an administration and management wrapper that covers support needs, including handling repairs/replacements — with the promise of replacements within 24 hours if needed and less client risk from not having to wrangle traditional rental insurance fine print.

Other touted pluses of its “device as a service” approach include flexibility (users get to choose from a range of iOS and Android devices); lower cost (pricing depends on customer size, device choice and rental term but starts at €7,99 a month for a refurbished budget device, rising up to €49,99 a month for high-end kit with a 12-month upgrade); and rental bundles, which can include standard mobile device management software (such as Cortado and AirWatch) so customers can plug the rental hardware into their existing IT policies and processes.

Everphone reckons this service wrapper — which can also extend to include paid apps (such as Babbel for language learning) as an employee on-device perk/benefit in the bundle — differentiates its offer versus incumbent leasing providers, such as CHG-Meridian or De Lage Landen, and from wholesale distributors.

It also touts its global rollout capability as a customer draw, checking the scalability box.

Its investors (including German carrier, DT) are being fired up by the conviction that the COVID-19-induced shift away from the office to home working will create a boom in demand for well-managed and secured work phones to mitigate the risk of personal devices and personal data mingling improperly with work stuff. (On that front, Everphone’s website is replete with references to Europe’s data protection framework, GDPR, repurposed as scare marketing.)

“Everphone envisions that every employee will one day work via their smartphone,” added Marcus Polke, partner at signals Venture Capital, in a supporting statement. “With this employee-centric approach and integrated platform, everphone goes far beyond the mere outsourcing of a smartphone IT infrastructure.”

The 2016-founded startup has more than 400 customers signed up at this point, both SMEs and multinationals such as Ernst & Young. It caters to both ends of the market with an off-the-shelf package and self-service device management portal that’s intended for SMEs of between 100 and 1,500 employees — plus custom integrations for larger entities of up to 30,000 employees.

It says it’s able to offer “highly competitive” prices for renting new devices because it gives returned kit a second life, refurbishing and reselling devices on the consumer market. “Thanks to this profitable secondary lifespan, we are able to offer highly competitive prices and extensive service levels on our rental devices,” Everphone writes on its website.

The second-hand smartphone market has also been seeing regional growth. Swappie, a European e-commerce startup that sells refurbished iPhones, aligning with EU lawmakers’ push for a “‘right to repair” for electronics, raised its own ~$40 million Series B only last month, for example. Its second-hand marketplace is one potential outlet for Everphone’s rented and returned iPhones.

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Mobalytics raises $11M and adds eye tracking metrics to its automated gaming coach

Posted by | Almaz Capital, Battlefield, Cabra VC, eye tracking, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Gaming, league of legends, Mobalytics, Recent Funding, Startups, TC, tobii | No Comments

Back in 2016, Mobalytics wowed the judges at Disrupt SF with its data-based coach for the exploding competitive gaming world, winning the Startup Battlefield. The company is building on the success of the past few years with a new funding round and a compelling new collaboration with Tobii that uses eye-tracking to provide powerful insights into gamers’ skills.

Mobalytics began with the idea that, by leveraging the in-game data of a competitive esport like League of Legends (LoL), they could provide objective feedback to players along the lines of how fast or effective they are in different situations. Quantifying things like survivability or teamplay provides an analogue to similar measures in physical sports.

“On an athlete you have all these measurements, like pulse oximeters, ECGs, the 40-yard dash,” said Amine Issa, co-founder and “Warchief of Science.” Not so much with PC games. Their challenge at that time was to take the LoL API provided by Riot and transform it into actionable feedback, which the company’s success in the years since suggests they managed to do.

But Issa had always wanted to use another, more direct and objective measurement of a gamer’s mental processes: eye tracking. And last year they began an internal project to evaluate doing just that, in partnership with eye-tracking hardware maker Tobii.

“If you know where someone is looking, it’s the closest thing to knowing what they’re thinking,” Issa said. “When you combine that with the larger picture you can put together something to help them along. So we spent six months conducting research, taking players of different levels and roles and studying their eye tracking data to find some metrics we could organize the platform around.”

Not surprisingly, there are characteristics of the highly skilled (and practiced) that set them apart, and the team was able to collect them into a set of characteristics that any player can relate to.

Well, the gif compression isn’t so hot, but you get the idea — the purple square indicates attention. Image Credits: Mobalytics

“We had to think about how to build a product that people want to use. One thing we learned after TechCrunch is that even a simple score from 0-100 doesn’t work for everyone. You need to provide the context for that. So with something like eye tracking, you’re getting 30 data points per second — how do you break that down in a way that players understand it?”

Talking to professional gamers and coaches during the study helped them form the main categories that Mobalytics now tracks with the aid of a Tobii device, like information processing, map awareness and tunnel vision.

“It’s important to be able to tell a narrative to people. Say you get ganked a lot,” said Issa, referring to the unfortunate occurrence of being picked off by enemy players while alone. “Why are you getting ganked? If your vision score is high but map awareness is low, that’s one thing. Did you know all the information and go in arrogantly, or were you not aware? League is a very complicated game, so players want to know, in this specific fight, what did I do wrong, and what should I have done instead?”

That second question is a tougher one (though perhaps AI MOBA players may have something to say about it), but the metrics are powerful in and of themselves. “Pros are fascinated by this technology,” Issa said. “There’s a lot of ‘I had no idea’ moments. Coaches have said, these are my fastest players but it’s cool to see that as a quantifiable variable.”

A post-game dashboard lets you know your strengths and weaknesses. Image Credits: Mobalytics

Tobii’s head of gaming, Martin Lindgren, echoed this feeling: “Pro teams aren’t interested in being told what to do. They want the data so they can draw their own conclusions.”

Tobii now has a gaming-focused eye-tracker and integrates with a number of AAA games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, where it can be used in place of fiddly aiming using the analog sticks. As someone who’s bad at specifically that part of games, this is attractive to me, and Lindgren said opportunities like that are only increasing as gaming companies embrace both accessibility and try to stand out in a crowded market.

The companies have worked together to improve the eye-tracking coaching, for instance lowering the number of games a user must play before the system can accurately track their in-game actions; Lindgren said the collaboration with Mobalytics is ongoing — “definitely a long-term partnership” — in fact Tobii’s relationship with the founders predates their startup.

Image Credits: Tobii

The ultimate goal of Mobalytics is to have a gaming assistant that adapts itself to your playing and preferences, making intelligent suggestions to improve your skills. That’s a ways off, but the company is getting the hang of it. Its first product, the LoL assistant, took a year to build, Issa said. A more recent one, for Legends of Runeterra, took three months. Teamfight Tactics took three weeks.

Admittedly it was more difficult to design one for Valorant, which, being a first-person shooter, is wildly different from the other games — but now that it’s done, a lot of that work could be applied to an assistant for Counter-Strike or Overwatch.

Expansion to other games and genres is the reason for raising an $11 million Series A, led by Almaz Capital and Cabra VC, with HP Tech Ventures, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, RRE Ventures, Axiomatic and T1 Esports participating.

“It was a very different experience from the post-TechCrunch one, where you’re in the spotlight and everyone’s throwing money your way,” said Issa. “But we’ve built a successful product on LoL, expanded to four games, today we have more than seven million monthly active users… Our plan is to double down on what’s worked for us and create the ultimate gaming companion.”

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After numerous rejections, Struck’s dating app for the Co-Star crowd hits the App Store

Posted by | antitrust, app-store, Apple, Apps, Astrology, dating apps, iOS apps, Mobile, Startups, struck | No Comments

Founded by former Apple engineers, a new app called Struck wants to be the Tinder for the Co-Star crowd. In other words, it’s an astrology-based matchmaker. But it took close to 10 attempts over several months for the startup to get its app approved by Apple for inclusion in the App Store. In nearly every rejection, app reviewers flagged the app as “spam” either due to its use of astrology or, once, simply because it was designed for online dating.

Apple continually cited section 4.3 of its App Store Review Guidelines in the majority of Struck’s rejections, with the exception of two that were unrelated to the app’s purpose. (Once, it was rejected for use of a broken API. Another rejection was over text that needed correction. It had still called itself a “beta.”)

The 4.3 guideline is something Apple wields to keep the App Store free from what it considers to be clutter and spam. In spirit, the guideline makes sense, as it gives Apple permission to make more subjective calls over low-quality apps.

Today, the guideline states that developers should “avoid piling on to a category that is already saturated,” and reminds developers that the App Store has “enough fart, burp, flashlight, fortune telling, dating, and Kama Sutra apps, etc. already.”

In the document, Apple promises to reject anything that “doesn’t offer a high-quality experience.”

Image Credits: Struck

This guideline was also updated in March to further raise the bar on dating apps and create stricter rules around “fortune-telling” apps, among other things.

Struck, unfortunately, found itself in the crosshairs of this new enforcement. But while its app may use astrology in a matchmaking process, its overall design and business model is nowhere close to resembling that of a shady “fortune-telling” app.

In fact, Struck hasn’t even implemented its monetization model, which may involve subscriptions and à la carte features at a later date.

Rather, Struck has been carefully and thoughtfully designed to provide an alternative to market leaders like Tinder. Built by a team of mostly women, including two people of color and one LGBTQ+ team member, the app is everything mainstream dating apps are not.

Image Credits: Struck

Struck doesn’t, for example, turn online dating into a Hot-or-Not style game. It works by first recommending matches by way of its understanding of users’ detailed birth charts and aspects. But you don’t have to be a true believer in astrology to enjoy the experience. You can use the app just for fun if you’re open-minded, the company website says. “Skeptics welcome,” it advertises.

And while Tinder and others tend to leverage psychological tricks to make their apps more addictive, Struck aims to slow things down in order to allow users to once again focus on romance and conversations. There are no endless catalogs of head shots to swipe upon in Struck. Instead, it sends you no more than four matches per day and you can message only one of the four.

Image Credits: Struck

The app’s overall goal is to give users time to analyze their matches’ priorities and values, not just how they appear in photos.

If anything, this is precisely the kind of unique, thoughtfully crafted app the App Store should cater to, not the kind it should ban.

“We come from an Apple background. We come from a tech background. We were very insistent on having a good, quality user interface and user experience,” explains Struck co-founder and CEO Rachel Lo. “That was a big focus for us in our beta testing. We honestly didn’t expect any pushback when we submitted to the App Store,” she says.

Image Credits: Struck

But Apple did push back. After first submitting the app in May, Struck went through around nine rounds of rejections where reviewers continued to claim it was spam simply for being an astrology-based dating application. The team would then pull out astrology features hoping to get the app approved… with no luck. Finally, one reviewer told them Struck was being rejected for being a dating app.

“I remember thinking, we’re going to have to shut down this project. There’s not really a way through,” recounts Lo. The Struck team, in a last resort, posted to their Instagram page about their struggles and how they felt Apple’s rejections were unfair given the app’s quality. Plus, as Lo points out, the rejection had a tinge of sexism associated with it.

“Obviously, astrology is a heavily female-dominated category,” she says. “I took issue with the guideline that says ‘burps, farts and fortune-telling apps.’ I made a fuss about that verbiage and how offensive it is for people in most of the world who actually observe astrology.”

Image Credits: Struck

Despite the founders’ connections within the technology industry, thanks to their ex-Apple status and relationships with journalists who would go on to plead their case, Struck was not getting approved.

Finally, after several supporters left comments on Apple VP Lisa Jackson’s Instagram where she had posted about WWDC, the app was — for unknown reasons — suddenly given the green light. It’s unclear if the Instagram posts made a difference. Even the app reviewer couldn’t explain why the app was now approved, when asked.

The whole debacle has soured the founders on the way Apple today runs its App Store, and sees them supportive of the government’s antitrust investigations into Apple’s business, which could result in new regulations.

“We had no course of action. And it felt really, really wrong for this giant company to basically be squashing small developers, says Lo. “I don’t know what’s going to become of our app — we hope it’s successful and we hope we can build a good, diverse business from it,” she continues. “But the point was that we weren’t even being given the opportunity to distribute our app that we had spent nine months building.”

Image Credits: Struck

Though Apple is turning its nose up at astrology apps, apparently, you don’t have to take astrology to heart to have fun with apps like Struck or those that inspired it, such as Co-Star. These newer Zodiac apps aren’t as obsessed with predicting your future as they are with offering a framework to examine your emotions, your place in the world and your interpersonal relationships. That led Co-Star to snag a $5 million seed round in 2019, one of many astrology apps investors were chasing last year as consumer spend among the top 10 in this space jumped 65% over 2018.

Struck, ultimately, wants to give the market something different from Tinder, and that has value.

“We want to challenge straight men since it is — quote unquote — a traditionally feminine-looking app,” says Lo. “For us, it’s 2020. It’s shocking to us that every dating app looks like a slot machine. We want to make something that has a voice and makes women feel comfortable. And I think our usership split between the genders kind of proved that.”

Struck is live today on the App Store — well, for who knows how long.

It initially caters to users in the Bay Area and LA and will arrive in New York on Friday. Based on user feedback, it will slowly roll out to more markets where it sees demand.

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‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ and the limits of today’s game economies

Posted by | alipay, Animal Crossing, Column, Entertainment, Extra Crunch, Finance, game developers, Gaming, Market Analysis, new horizons, Nintendo, payments, Roblox, social networks, Startups, TC, virtual world | No Comments
Kaiser Hwang
Contributor

Kaiser Hwang is a longtime member of the games community and a vice president at Forte, an organization building an open economic platform for games.

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a bonafide wonder. The game has been setting new records for Nintendo, is adored by players and critics alike and provides millions of players a peaceful escape during these unprecedented times.

But there’s been something even more extraordinary happening on the fringe: Players are finding ways to augment the game experience through community-organized activities and tools. These include free weed-pulling services (tips welcome!) from virtual Samaritans, and custom-designed items for sale — for real-world money, via WeChat Pay and AliPay.

Well-known personalities and companies are also contributing, with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Gary Whitta hosting an A-list celebrity talk show using the game, and luxury fashion brand Marc Jacobs providing some of its popular clothing designs to players. 100 Thieves, the white-hot esports and apparel company, even created and gave away digital versions of its entire collection of impossible-to-find clothes.

This community-based phenomenon gives us a pithy glimpse into not only where games are inevitably going, but what their true potential is as a form of creative, technical and economic expression. It also exemplifies what we at Forte call “community economics,” a system that lies at the heart of our aim in bringing new creative and economic opportunities to billions of people around the world.

What is community economics?

Formally, community economics is the synthesis of economic activity that takes place inside, and emerges outside, virtual game worlds. It is rooted in a cooperative economic relationship between all participants in a game’s network, and characterized by an economic pluralism that is unified by open technology owned by no single party. And notably, it results in increased autonomy for players, better business models for game creators, and new economic and creative opportunities for both.

The fundamental shift that underlies community economics is the evolution of games from centralized entertainment experiences to open economic platforms. We believe this is where things are heading.

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