Google has made another tweak to the fee structure for apps hosted on the Google Play app store, again granting certain developers a larger slice of the pie. The change specifically affects apps that rely on recurring subscription revenue.
Previously, Google took a cut of 30 percent in the first year that a recurring subscription was active, then 15 percent in the years after that. Now, Google will take a cut of only 15 percent from the very start.
Some apps that fit the Play Media Experience Program, such as apps for distributing books or streaming video or audio, will see even smaller cuts—as low as 10 percent. To join that program, developers have to opt in.
Just Insure, a pay-per-mile insurance technology company, has raised $8 million in a funding round.
CrossCut Ventures, ManchesterStory and Western Technology Investments co-led the investment, which brings its total raised to $15.3 million since its January 2019 inception.
Los Angeles-based Just says it uses telematics “to reward safe drivers and reduce insurer bias” by looking at factors such as how, when and where customers drive, rather than factors such as ZIP code or marital status as most traditional insurers do. Or put more simply, it charges customers only for miles driven and its rates vary based on driving behavior. This way, Just says it’s able to offer lower rates for “safer drivers,” and it claims to save its customers around 40% from their “previous auto insurance company.” For now, it’s only available in Arizona, although the company plans to expand to other markets such as Texas, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia.
Image Credits: Just Insure
Of course, Just is not the first company to offer personalized auto insurance. There’s Metromile, which launched its personalized pay-per-mile auto insurance in 2012. And there’s also Root Insurance, an Ohio-based car insurance startup that uses smartphone technology to understand individual driver behavior. Although there are similarities between Root and Just, there are also distinct differences, according to founder and CEO Robert Smithson.
Root charges customers a monthly fee, and when policies are renewed, the rate is subject to change based on driving behavior. Just has a similar model. If its drivers exhibits safe driving behavior, their rates can fall. On the other hand, if they exhibit dangerous behavior, their rates can rise. But unlike Root, Smithson said, Just only charges its “liability only” customers for miles driven. There is no monthly fee. For “full cover” customers, Just also includes a “small daily charge” to reflect the risk that someone could steal their car. For its part, MetroMile charges customers a base rate plus a per mile rate. Neither rate are affected by how a person drives, notes Smithson.
“The [Just] per mile price that a customer gets can change every month. This means we’re able to rapidly reward safe drivers with lower rates, and to increase them for those who drive less well,” Smithson said. “This rapid feedback loop encourages people to make smarter driving decisions. And it means that our customers have fewer accidents, and we do better. ”
In 2020, Root had a direct loss ratio of 82%. Just’s direct loss ratio is 65.8% year to date so far. But of course, it has far fewer customers and is only serving one market. Still, the company says that it has already achieved underwriting profitability in terms of what portion of premium to it pays out in claims.
Also, with so many people shifting to working from home over the last year, Just says it has seen increased demand this year. It issued over 1,000 new policies in the second quarter, up “tenfold” compared to the same period in 2020. The startup said during that same time, its revenue climbed 1,400% compared to the second quarter of 2020.
“People are simply driving less as a result of increased work-from-home rates, and this isn’t changing anytime soon,” Smithson said. “Our approach enables us to offer customers rates that are truly reflective of their driving.”
The company likens its user experience to that of a prepaid phone card. Just customers can “load up” their account for $30 for minimum liability-only coverage and $75 for full coverage to start driving. The company’s insurance policy is for 30 days. So as customers drive, their balance declines. Every 30 days, the company changes each customer’s price as it gathers more data about their driving habits.
It’s an approach that Matt Kinley, co-founder and managing partner at ManchesterStory, had never before seen.
“It is more fair, affordable and customized across the board, and unique because the company offers customers rates that are actually reflective of their driving, which rewards safe drivers with lower insurance premiums,” he said.
The company plans to use its new capital in part to do some hiring — it currently has a staff of 35 — and scale its product offering. It is also planning to launch beyond Arizona into neighboring states. In particular, Smithson said the startup is “keen” to launch in Texas.
Tumblr is entering open beta for its subscription product Post+, meaning that all U.S. users can now try out the monetization feature. The product launched in closed beta in July, allowing users hand-picked by Tumblr to place some of their content behind a monthly paywall. This marked the first time that Tumblr allowed bloggers to monetize their content directly on the platform, but the feature was met with backlash from users who worried about how the feature would change the site’s culture.
Now, Tumblr has responded to user feedback by removing the blue Post+ badge that appeared next to the names of users who enabled the feature. Tumblr differentiates itself from other sites by not revealing users’ follower and following counts, so users were concerned that this distinction, which looked like a Twitter verification badge, contradicted that key aspect of Tumblr culture. Tumblr is also adding a $1.99/month price point in open beta — before, subscriber-only content could be priced at $3.99, $5.99, and $9.99. Tumblr will only take 5% of creator profits — comparatively, Patreon takes between 5% and 12% depending on the tier. Payments will be processed through Stripe.
Still, Tumblr users were dismayed by the way Post+ was rolled out. Many bloggers were concerned that in the closed beta, Post+ users didn’t have the ability to block paying subscribers without first contacting support — this could potentially expose users to harassment without the tools to manage it. Tumblr corrected that mistake in the open beta, so now, users can block subscribers themselves. Creators can also put existing content behind the Post+ paywall.
Some users upset with the Post+ rollout staged a protest, which — with over 98,000 notes — is the first thing that shows up when you search “post plus” on Tumblr. Many people on Tumblr have amassed followings by posting iterative fan content, like fanfiction. Tumblr cited fanfiction as an example of the kind of content that creators can put behind a paywall, but users remain concerned that they will be subject to legal action if they were to do so. Archive of Our Own, a major fanfiction site, prohibits its users from linking to sites like Patreon or Ko-Fi, since some intellectual property rights holders can be litigious about the monetization of fanfiction. While it’s considered fair use to make fan content, profiting from it can be considered a violation of copyright.
When Tumblr banned pornographic content in 2018, monthly page views decreased by 29% — to date, the blogging platform hasn’t regained that traffic. After being sold to Automattic in 2019, Tumblr has committed to capturing the attention of Gen Z audiences, who the platform says make up about 48% of its users. Tumblr says it’s catering Post+ to serve Gen Z audiences, but the results of the open beta will begin to reveal whether or not this is what users on the platform want.
Yesterday, the Gig Workers Collective — representing a body of about 13,000 Instacart shoppers — launched a #DeleteInstacart campaign, urging customers to delete the Instacart app as a show of solidarity with workers advocating for better treatment. The collective of shoppers asked that customers refrain from reinstalling the app until five demands are met. They are asking to be paid by individual order, not by a batch of orders; to re-introduce item-based commissions; to ensure the rating system doesn’t punish shoppers for issues beyond their control; to provide occupational death benefits; and to make the default tip at least 10%, up from the current 5% default.
“We’re deeply committed to creating the best possible experience for our shopper community. Over the past several years, this unwavering commitment has led us to introduce new features, policies, offerings, and support for shoppers — significantly improving the shopper experience and resulting in the highest shopper sentiment in company history. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve invested in countless new measures to support the health and safety of the shopper community. We take shopper feedback very seriously and remain committed to listening to and using that feedback to improve their experience,” Instacart said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.
Instacart employs 500,000 shoppers, the company said, up from 200,000 before a pandemic-driven hiring spree. The company told TechCrunch that its payment structure has not changed since February 2019. That month, the company faced a class-action lawsuit over its practice of subsidizing wages with tips — Instacart had previously instituted a $10 earning minimum per order, but on small orders that totaled less than $10, customer tips would subsidize the rest of the cost (so, if a customer bought $8 of food and tipped $3, the customer would receive $10 plus $1 in tips, rather than the $10 minimum plus a $3 tip). Former CEO Apoorva Mehta wrote an apology to shoppers and affirmed that tips should always be separate from employee compensation, and Instacart retroactively compensated shoppers whose tips were included in minimums.
A Gig Workers Collective lead organizer and Instacart shopper, Willy Solis said that he was hopeful workers’ concerns would be met when Fidji Simo took over as Instacart CEO in August. Since then, the company set up an inbox for shoppers to send messages to a VP or CEO. Instacart said that Simo has been regularly conversing with shoppers about their experiences on the job, but Solis said that shoppers don’t feel like their concerns are being heard.
“While we had hope, there seems to be a disconnect from what she’s saying publicly and what she’s actually doing,” Solis told TechCrunch.
On her first day as CEO, Simo wrote an open letter to Instacart shoppers asking for feedback. In response, the Gig Workers Collective outlined the same five demands that they shared again yesterday, posing them as dire issues that needed to be addressed. But the collective said their letter was ignored, and shoppers’ emails to Simo were met with canned responses.
“Each time the company gives us one thing, they take something else away,” the Gig Workers Collective wrote. When former CEO Mehta apologized for subsidizing wages with tip money, Instacart changed the minimum order payment from $10 to a range between $7 and $10 per batch, which can contain up to three orders. The issue of batch order payment has become a key part of the Gig Workers Collective’s demands.
“If we shopped a single order, the base pay would be $7, but if we shopped three orders at once, the base pay would be $7 for the lot. Instead of a shopper fulfilling three orders for a total of $30 base, we now do it for $7 base,” the collective wrote in their post today. “This is effectively a 76% cut to base pay, and is unacceptable.”
Shoppers can see what payment is offered before they accept a batch. But Solis told TechCrunch that there is “no rhyme or reason” to the way orders are batched.
“You would think that they would be in the same geographic location that you’re delivering to, but they’re not,” he said. “It can be totally different parts of the city, so you have to drive east for one and west for the other.”
Instacart said that batching orders makes it possible for shoppers to earn three separate tips, and that the $7 base is a minimum that is adjusted based on time, effort, items, mileage, and other factors. But tipping is another hot issue for organizers.
“We rely on tips heavily,” Solis said. “Without tips, a large majority of orders that we take are not beneficial or profitable for us.”
The default tip on Instacart is set at 5%, which means customers must manually select a higher tip. Organizers want Instacart to make the default tip 10%. Instacart told TechCrunch that tipping is encouraged, but not required. Though the default tip is 5%, the company said, if a user chooses a different tip percentage, then that percentage will become the default for their following order. So, if a customer tips 15% on their first order, for example, then their second order will default to a 15% tip instead of a 5% tip.
The collective is also demanding occupational death benefits due to the risk of shoppers’ work during the coronavirus pandemic; even beyond that, one Instacart shopper Lynn Murray was killed in a mass shooting while on the job. But Instacart does offer coronavirus protections to its shoppers, as well as shopper injury protection, which is inclusive of accidental death benefits. For example, if a part-time employee or full-service shopper is diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in mandatory isolation, they can receive up to 14 days’ pay. Accrued sick pay is also available to in-store shoppers; pay is determined by the shopper’s average daily earnings. Instacart also provides a vaccine support stipend, enabling workers to take time off to get vaccinated, and offers access to free telemedicine and safety supplies. But in May 2020, the Gig Workers Collective alleged that a shopper who was on a ventilator was denied payment and healthcare under Instacart’s COVID-19 policy. Instacart reaffirmed to TechCrunch that since March 2020, shoppers have been able to receive up to 14 days’ pay if they have COVID-19 or are in mandatory isolation.
But some of shoppers’ health benefits were only extended after the Gig Workers Collective staged an emergency walkout on March 30, 2020. At the time, the collective said Instacart didn’t provide PPE or sick pay to people who had a doctor’s note urging them not to be on the job (for example, people who were quarantined due to an exposure).
Instacart didn’t indicate to TechCrunch that it has any plans to address the Gig Workers Collective’s demands. As Instacart considers going public, Solis thinks now is a good time to take shoppers’ demands to the next level by asking customers to boycott the service.
“People that speak out against us taking action will say things like, ‘You know, if you don’t want to do this, get another job,’” Solis said. “But the problem is that this work is so exploitative that if somebody doesn’t take a stand, then the next person in line is going to be exploited. Together, we gain so much power and traction by collectively speaking out.”
PayPal has been talking about its “super app” plans for some time, having recently told investors its upcoming digital wallet and payments app had been given a go for launch. Today, the first version of that app is officially being introduced, offering a combination of financial tools including direct deposit, bill pay, a digital wallet, peer-to-peer payments, shopping tools, crypto capabilities and more. The company is also announcing its partnership with Synchrony Bank for its new high-yield savings account, PayPal Savings.
These changes shift PayPal from being largely a payments utility that’s tacked on other offerings here and there, to being a more fully fleshed out finance app. Though PayPal itself doesn’t aim to be a “bank,” the new app offers a range of competitive features for those considering shifting their finances to neobanks, like Chime or Varo, as it will now also include support for paycheck Direct Deposits through PayPal’s bank partners, bill pay and more.
By enabling direct deposit, PayPal users can get paid up to two days earlier, which is one of the bigger draws among those considering digital banking apps over traditional banks.
In addition to shifting their paychecks to Payal, customers’ PayPal funds can then be used for things that are a part of daily life, like paying their bills, saving or shopping, for example.
The enhanced bill pay feature lets customers track, view and pay bills from thousands of companies, including utilities, TV and internet, insurance, credit cards, phone and more, PayPal says. When bill pay first arrived earlier this year, it offered access to (single-digit) thousands of billers. Now, it will support around 17,000 billers. Customers can also discover billers through an improved, intelligent search feature, set reminders to be notified of upcoming bills and schedule automatic payments for bills they have to pay on a regular basis. The bills don’t have to only be paid from funds currently in the PayPal account, but can be paid through any eligible funding source that’s already linked to their PayPal account.
Via a Synchrony Bank partnership, PayPal Savings will offer a high-yield savings account with a 0.40% Annual Percentage Yield (APY), which is more than six times the national average of 0.06%, the company says. However, that’s lower than top rivals in the digital banking market offer, like Chime (0.50%), Varo (starts at 0.20%, but users can qualify to get 3.00% APY), Marcus (0.50%), Ally (0.50%), ONE (1.00% or 3.00% on Auto-Save transactions), and others. However, the rate may appeal to those who are switching from a traditional bank, where rates tend to be lower.
PayPal believes its high-yield offering will be able to compete not based on the APY alone, but on the strength of its combined offerings.
Image Credits: PayPal
“We know that about half of customers in the United States don’t even have a savings account, much less one with a very competitive rate,” notes PayPal SVP of Consumer, Julian King. “So all in all, we think that by bringing together the full set of solutions on the platform, it’s a really competitive offering for an individual.”
The app has also been reorganized to accommodate the new features and those yet to come.
It now features a personalized dashboard offering an overview of the customer’s account. The wallet tab lets users manage Direct Deposits and connect funding sources like bank accounts and debit and credit cards alongside the ability to enroll in PayPal’s own debit, credit and cash cards. And a finance tab provides access to the high-yield savings and the previously available crypto capabilities, which allows users to buy, hold and sell Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin.
The payments tab, meanwhile, will hold much of PayPal’s traditional feature set, including peer-to-peer payments, international remittances, charitable and nonprofit giving, plus now bill pay and a two-way messaging feature that allows users to request payments or say thank you after receiving a payment — whether that’s between friends and family or between merchants and customers. This addition could bring PayPal more in line with PayPal-owned Venmo, which already offers the ability to add notes to payments and make comments.
Messaging also ties into PayPal’s new Shopping hub, which is where the company is finally putting to good use its 2019 $4 billion Honey acquisition. Honey’s core features are now becoming a part of the PayPal mobile experience, including personalized deals and exclusive rewards.
Image Credits: PayPal
PayPal users will be able to browse the discounts and offers inside the app, then shop and transact through the in-app browser. The deals can be saved to the wallet for future use, so they can be applied if shopping later in the app or online. Customers will also be able to join a loyalty program, where they can earn cashback and PayPal shopping credit on their purchases. The company says these personalized deals will improve over time.
“We’ll use AI and [machine learning] capabilities to understand what kind of shopping deals are most interesting to customers and continue to develop that over time. They’ll just get smarter and smarter as the product gets more usage,” notes King. This will include using the data about the deals a customer likes, then bringing similar deals to them in the future.
Also new in the updated mobile app is the addition of PayPal’s crowdsourced fundraising platform, the Generosity Network, first launched late last year. The network is PayPal’s answer to GoFundMe or Facebook Fundraisers, by offering tools that allow individuals to raise money for themselves, others in need, or organizations like small businesses or charities. The network is also now expanding to international markets with Germany and the U.K. to start, with more countries to come.
As PayPal has said, the new app is laying the groundwork for other new products in the quarters to come. The biggest initiative on its roadmap is a plan to enter the investment space, to rival other mobile investing apps, like Robinhood. When this arrives, it will support the ability to buy stocks, fractional stocks and ETFs, PayPal says.
It will also later add support for paying with QR codes, like Venmo, and tools for using PayPal to save while in stores.
The updated app is rolling out starting today in the U.S. as a staggered release that will complete in the weeks ahead. However, PayPal Savings won’t be available immediately — it will arrive in the U.S. in the “coming months,” as will some of the shopping and rewards tools.
French startup Alan is better known for its health insurance products — they now insure 200,000 people. But it has been slowly building a superapp for your health and expanding with new services. Today, the company announced its first acquisition ever with the acquisition of Jour for $20 million. This is going to be the foundation for a new service called Alan Mind.
“More than 13 million people in France are facing a mental health issue. If you look at people under 35, it’s 3 out of 4 people — so it’s basically everybody,” co-founder an CEO Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve said in a press conference earlier today.
And if you look at the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on mental health. Depressive moods and anxiety issues have basically doubled. 66% of people are dealing with sleep disorders.
“The question we asked ourselves is: How did we get there?” Samuelian-Werve said. “We see two important topics. First, there has been a chronic lack of prevention that is quite obvious. Mental health has been neglected by public health policies.”
“The second pillar that led us where we are is poor care. There are disparities between regions that are very high. In Paris, it can take up to 8 months in some hospitals if you want to see a therapist. In the Rhône-Alpes area, it takes 67 days on average to book an appointment,” he added.
And even if you can find the right person, you’ll often end up spending a lot of money. France’s national healthcare system doesn’t cover mental health that well.
With Alan Mind, the startup wants to work on these two areas of improvement. It’s a B2B service, so the company is selling access to Alan Mind to its B2B clients, who can then recommend Alan Mind to their employees.
“Do companies have a role to play in mental health? We believe that they do. Companies are responsible for protecting their employees’ health,” Samuelian-Werve said. In particular, they reached that conclusion when they realized that lockdowns have affected work-life balance. It’s hard to say when your work day ends and your personal time starts.
Image Credits: Alan
By acquiring Jour, Alan is betting on cognitive behavioral therapy. Employees can install an app and start answering questions to evaluate their current state of mind. They can find content in the app, put words on their feelings and work on themselves. There are videos, a dashboard feature, breathing exercises, etc.
If employees feel like that’s not enough, they can start an individual therapy with a health professional. Alan Mind lets you book a telehealth appointment. The company has hired a handful of psychologists so that you can get an appointment in just a few days.
Of course, companies never know that someone in the team has used Alan Mind. But HR teams receive an anonymized report every month. It’s not about spying on employees, but more about identifying common issues and providing ideas for prevention workshops.
Alan Mind is just getting started as the company only has five clients for this service — BioSerenity, Brut, Joone, Opal and Talk. Companies pay €5 per month per employee if they’re already Alan customers, or a bit more if they just want Alan Mind.
As for Jour, the B2C app will remain available in the App Store. The startup has attracted 2 million downloads before its acquisition. It has a slightly different positioning and it’s going to be useful to identify areas of improvement for Alan Mind.
Netflix said on Monday it is launching a free mobile plan in Kenya as the global streaming giant looks to tap the East African nation that is home to over 20 million internet users.
The free plan, which will be rolled out to all users in Kenya in the coming weeks, won’t require them to provide any payment information during the sign-up, the company said. The new plan is available to any user aged 18 or above with an Android phone, the company said. It will also not include ads.
This is also not the first time Netflix is offering its service for free — or at little to no price. The company has previously supported free trials in many markets, offered a tiny portion of its original movies and shows to non-subscribers, and has run at least one campaign in India when the service was available at no charge over the course of a weekend.
But its latest offering in Kenya is still remarkable. The company told Reuters that it is making about one quarter of its movies and television shows catalog available to users in the free plan in the East African nation.
“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post.
“And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”
The company didn’t disclose how long it plans to offer this free tier in Kenya — and whether it is considering expanding this offering to other markets.
On its past earnings calls, Netflix executives have insisted that they study each market and explore ways to make their service more compelling to all. The ability to sign up without a payment information lends credibility to such claims. Many individuals in developed countries don’t have a credit or debit card, which renders services requiring such payment instruments at the sign-up inaccessible to them.
The new push to win customers comes as the company, which is also planning to add mobile games to its offering, added only 1.5 million net paying subscribers in the quarter that ended in June this year, lower than what it had forecast. Netflix, which has amassed over 209 million subscribers, as well as Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services are increasingly trying to win customers outside of the U.S. to maintain faster growth rates.
The release of iOS 15 should be a major event for mobile operating systems. And yet, this year, there’s no breakthrough feature or overarching theme that makes this release stand out. Apple has focused on quality-of-life updates as well as new features for its own apps.
The result is a solid update that is not going to be controversial. Some people are going to take advantage of the new Focus feature. They’ll spend a lot of time customizing their phone to make it as personal as possible. Other people are just going to miss or dismiss the new features.
This year’s update is also a bit different because you don’t have to update to iOS 15. If you’re fine with iOS 14, Apple won’t force you to make the jump to iOS 15. You’ll still receive security patches. Some people will simply dismiss iOS 15 altogether.
It seems like a small change but it actually says a lot about the current state of iOS. Apple considers iOS as a mature platform. Just like you don’t have to update your Mac to the latest version of macOS if you don’t want to, you can now update at your own pace.
iOS should also be considered as a mature platform for app developers. iOS 15 adoption will be slower than usual as people won’t necessarily update to iOS 15 right away. Apps should potentially work on older iOS versions for longer.
Of course, users will ‘update’ to a new version of iOS when they buy a new iPhone and replace their old iPhone. But Apple has And people who pre-ordered the iPhone 13 will get iOS 15.
Image Credits: Apple
Focusing on you instead of your phone
One of the biggest change in iOS 15 is the ability to change your Focus from Control Center. It’s a surprisingly powerful feature with a lot of options and tweaks. I would say it doesn’t feel like an Apple feature.
But it’s definitely one of the most interesting features of iOS 15. Chances are you spend a lot of time with your phone and your device requires a lot of attention from you. With this new feature, it reverses the balance and puts you back in charge.
‘Do Not Disturb’ users are already quite familiar with the idea that you can silence notifications when you don’t want them. If you want to keep using ‘moon mode’ with iOS 15, you don’t have to change anything.
But you can now create additional Focuses. By default, Apple suggests a few Focuses — Work, Sleep, Driving, Fitness, Gaming, Mindfulness, Personal and Reading. Each Focus is customizable to your needs and you can create new Focuses from scratch.
When you turn on a specific Focus, it basically blocks notifications by default. You can then add people and apps so that notifications from those people and apps still go through. App developers can also mark a notification as time sensitive so that it always goes through. I hope they won’t abuse that feature.
There are three more settings that you can activate. First, you can optionally share that your notifications are currently silenced in Messages and compatible third-party apps. Second, you can hide home screen pages altogether. Third, you can hide notifications from the lock screen and hide badges from the home screen.
Focus gets particularly interesting when you realize that you can couple specific Focuses with automation features. For instance, you can automatically turn on ‘Sleep’ at night or you can automatically turn on ‘Work’ when you arrive at work.
Power users will also have a lot of fun setting up a Focus and pairing it with a Shortcut. For instance, you could use Shortcuts to open the Clock app when you turn on Sleep mode. You get it, this new feature has a lot of depth and beta users have just started scratching the surface.
Image Credits: Apple
Update all apps
With iOS 15, Apple has improved nearly all the default apps. Some additions are definitely nice improvements. Others have been a bit more controversial.
Let’s start with the controversial one, Safari’s design has been updated. But what you saw at WWDC in June doesn’t look at all like what’s shipping today. Essentially, Apple has listened to feedback and changed the user interface of its web browser during the summer.
By default, the address bar is now at the bottom of the screen, right above the row of buttons that let you open bookmarks, share the current page or go to the previous page. I think it works better. But if you really don’t want the address bar at the bottom, you can move it back to the top of the screen.
Other than that, Safari changes are all good improvements. For instance, the browser now supports traditional web extensions. It’s going to be interesting to see if popular Google Chrome extensions eventually come to Safari. Another nice new feature is the ability to create tab groups and find your tab groups from your other devices.
FaceTime has become a versatile video-conferencing service. You can now create links, share them with friends and add them to calendar invites. For the first time, people who don’t own an Apple device will be able to join FaceTime calls from a web browser. There’s also a new Zoom view… I mean, grid view.
Unfortunately, the big new FaceTime feature is not ready for prime time just yet. SharePlay, the feature that lets you sync audio and video playback with your friends, is going to be released later this Fall.
The Weather app has also been redesigned. It is now packed with a lot more information, such as precipitation maps, next-hour precipitation notifications and a new UV index. It has become a solid alternative to third-party weather apps. I still use Snowflake but differences are smaller and smaller.
Messages is now better integrated with other Apple apps. Whenever someone sends you an article, a photo album, a podcast or a song, you’ll see those recommendations in Apple’s other apps — Apple News, Photos, Apple Podcasts, Apple Music, etc. Once again, this is a nice addition in my testings but it’s not going to change the way you use your phone.
Apple Maps is getting better and better, especially if you live in San Francisco. If you haven’t used it in a few years, I encourage you to try it again. It’s now a solid alternative to Google Maps.
Some cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London, are receiving new detailed maps with 3D buildings, bus lanes, sidewalks and more. It feels like navigating a video game given how detailed it is. The app has also been redesigned with new place cards, a new driving user interface and settings in the app.
Photos is also receiving a bunch of improvements. Every year, the company is refining Memories. I’m not sure a ton of people are using this feature, but it’s better than before. There are now more information if you swipe on a photo as well, such as the shutter speed and lens that were used.
But the biggest change to your photo library is that you can now search for text in your photo. iOS is scanning your photos to find text and save it for Spotlight searches.
Similarly, you can now point your camera at text and select text from there. It is incredibly convenient if you’re looking for the restaurant address on the menu and want to share it with a friend or if you’re traveling and you want to translate some text.
Image Credits: Apple
Tips and tricks
There are a ton of small changes that make iOS 15 better than iOS 14. Let me list some of them:
If you have a compatible home key, hotel key, office key or ID card, you can now add all of those to the Wallet app.
You can share some health data with someone else. It can be useful if you’re living far away from your loved ones or if you want to update your healthcare team.
If you pay for iCloud, you’re now an iCloud+ users. In addition to storage, you get additional features. iCloud Private Relay, which is available as a beta feature, lets you browse the web with increased privacy. Hide My Email lets you create randomly generated email addresses to create new accounts around the web.
Similarly, if your family is using iCloud for their email addresses, you can now set up a personal domain name and set it up in iCloud.
iOS uses on-device speech recognition, which means that you can dictate text much faster.
But that’s not all, iOS processes some Siri requests on your device directly, which means that you can start a timer, set an alarm or change the music instantly. It has changed the way I use Siri.
You can add an account recovery contact in case you get locked out of your iCloud account. This is important to convince more people to use two-factor authentication.
Talking about two-factor authentication, Apple’s built-in password manager called ‘Passwords’ can now save 2FA details and auto-fill 2FA fields. It works pretty much like 2FA in 1Password.
You can set up a legacy person for your Apple ID. I encourage you to look at that feature carefully. I’ve talked with several persons who couldn’t get their loved one’s photos after they passed away because Apple couldn’t just hand out the photos.
Apple has added tags to Reminders and Notes. You can also @-mention people in Notes.
As you can see, the list of changes in iOS 15 is quite long. But it’s up to you to decide whether you want to update to iOS 15. When Apple added cut, copy and paste with iPhone OS 3, it was an obvious decision. I personally like the new features and it was worth updating. And I hope this review can help you decide whether to update or not.
Apple has just released the final version of iOS 15, the next major version of the operating system for the iPhone. It is a free download and it works with the iPhone 6s or later, both generations of iPhone SE and the most recent iPod touch model. iPad users will also be able to update to iPadOS 15 and watchOS 8 today.
The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to “Do not disturb,” you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.
There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime, and more. Safari also has a brand-new look.
The new version of iOS also scans your photos for text. Called Live Text, this feature lets you highlight, copy and paste text in photos. It could be a nice accessibility feature as well; iOS is going to leverage that info for Spotlight. You can search for text in your photos directly in Spotlight and it’ll pull out relevant photos. These features are handled on-device directly.
Paid iCloud users have been upgraded to iCloud+. In addition to more storage, iCloud+ subscribers get a handful of new features. iCloud Private Relay, which is available as a beta feature, lets you browse the web with increased privacy. Hide My Email lets you create randomly generated email addresses to create new accounts around the web. iCloud email users can also switch to a personal domain name.
The update is currently rolling out and is available both over-the-air in the Settings app, and by plugging your device to your computer for a wired update. But first, back up your device. Make sure your iCloud backup is up to date by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad and tapping on your account information at the top and then on your device name. Additionally, you can also plug your iOS device to your computer to do a manual backup in Finder or iTunes for Windows (or do both, really).
Don’t forget to encrypt your backup in iTunes. It is much safer if somebody hacks your computer. And encrypted backups include saved passwords and health data. This way, you don’t have to reconnect to all your online accounts.
Once this is done, you should go to the Settings app, then ‘General’ and then ‘Software Update.’ You should see ‘Update Requested…’ It will then automatically start downloading once the download is available.
Facetune developer Lightricks, which operates over a dozen subscription-based photo and video editing apps across iOS and Android, now has $130 million in new funding to further grow its business. The company’s newly announced Series D round includes $100 million in primary and $30 million in secondary funding, and now values the company at $1.8 billion. To date, Lightricks has raised $335 million.
The new round was co-led by New York-based VC firm Insight Partners and Hanaco Venture Capital and includes new investors Migdal Insurance, Altshuler Shaham, and Shavit Capital. Existing investors Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Clal Tech, Harel Insurance and Finance, and Greycroft, also participated.
The company’s last round of funding was its pre-pandemic raise of $135 million, which minted the company as a unicorn.
Based in Jerusalem, Lightricks has been best known for its photo-editing app Facetune, which puts Photoshop-like retouching tools into the hands of consumers. The app quickly gained traction as online influencers tweaked their Instagram photos to look more polished, perfected, and blemish-free. This growth wasn’t without controversy, however, as some argued how image editing apps like Facetune took airbrushing too far, contributing to body image issues that now, Facebook’s internal research indicates, could have a negative effect on teenagers’ mental health.
But Facetune was only the beginning for what’s since become a mobile editing empire for Lightricks, at a time when everyone is trying to look their best online and create compelling content. Over the years, the company has rolled out the more powerful Facetune 2, along with other creativity and mobile photo apps that weren’t focused on selfies. It also expanded its product lineup beyond the creator crowd to bring a suite of tools to online marketers and small businesses. And last year, Lightricks more directly responded to the growth in online video as a form of self-expression with a new selfie retouching tool called Facetune Video — essentially the Facetune for the TikTok era.
Image Credits: Lightricks
The company benefitted from Covid-19 lockdowns, as well, as more people participated online and creators, as a group, became more well-established as a way for brands to reach consumers. During peak lockdowns, the company saw a 90% increase in usage across its apps in the U.S. Meanwhile, downloads for its popular Videoleap video editing apps jumped 70% since the start of the pandemic, as TikTok adoption also grew.
Across its suite of apps, the company now touts 29 million monthly active users, where over 5 million are paid subscribers. Its users average around 78 million monthly exports, indicating Lightricks’ sizable impact on the creator economy. In 2021, Lightricks is on track for over $200 million in revenue and plans to grow that figure by 40% in the year ahead.
To do so, the company’s strategy will change. Instead of just developing its own apps, it’s now on the hunt for potential acquisitions.
“Our plan is to grow into a one-stop-shop creator platform, supporting creators throughout their journey, from content creation to monetization,” says Zeev Farbman, CEO and Co-Founder of Lightricks. “To do so, we are broadening our acquisition activity, while developing other services in-house—our overall M&A objective is advancing our shift into the creator’s platform. To begin, we are planning between three to five acquisitions, each with a budget of tens of millions of dollars. However, we are also on the lookout for larger ticket size deals if there is enough conviction on both sides,” he notes.
Image Credits: Lightricks
The company will also enhance its own technology to develop tools and services that will help all creators with content production and monetization, and it will grow its team.
Currently, Lightricks has 460 employees and plans to add 60 more by the end of 2021. The longer-term goal is to grow the team to 1,000 employees by the end of 2023, across roles that include developers, designers, and marketing. While most of this growth to date has taken place in Jerusalem, over the next two years, the company plans to grow its teams locally in Haifa, as well as internationally in London and Shenzhen. It may add on other locations through M&As, as well.
The U.K. office is now the largest outside of Lightricks’ headquarters, with 23 people. This number is expected to climb to 35 by year-end and be closer to 50 or 60 by the end of 2022, with growth focused on the production of the company’s new photography app plus Customer Experience and Marketing teams, which were previously only in Israel.
In the U.S., Lightricks is focused on content.
“Our U.S.-based activity will focus mostly on our content efforts that will provide a vast array of original, acquired, and co-produced content to inspire, educate and entertain creators across the entirety of their careers,” notes Farbman. “This includes written, video, audio, short and long-form, fun and informative content,” he says.
Investors say they see the potential for Lightricks to continue to grow as the creator economy booms.
“The creator economy has changed the way we, as a society, experience social networks,” said Pasha Romanovski, Co-Founding Partner of Hanaco Ventures, in a statement. “Audiences constantly consume information through the different content channels daily. Lightricks’ platform enables creators to have a broader, more professional, and higher-quality set of tools to optimize content. At a time when we are seeing content creators monetize content on social media at new levels, it is clear that Lightricks’ platform has the ability to create a one-stop shop that will be meaningful to its users,” he added.
Founders like to create companies around what they know, and Frank Westermann and Anton Kittelberger know diabetes.
They met and bonded over both having type 1 diabetes — Westermann was diagnosed over 25 years ago — and started the MySugr app for diabetes self-management in 2012 (they won a TC pitch-off back in 2011). Four years later, Westermann moved to the U.S. from Austria to introduce MySugr stateside before the company was acquired by Roche for $100 million in 2017.
The pair moved on to their next journey, also in diabetes, starting 9am.health in April, a virtual diabetes clinic designed to provide people living with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes access to personalized care and affordable medications from their homes. 9am.health’s clinic was launched in August.
“We understand the day-to-day challenges that people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes have,” he added. “Access to care is the real issue, and rather than have patients wait weeks to get an appointment, we send a kit with tests to your home, and you send it back to us.”
9am.health kicked off in Texas and California, and is now available in 33 states. It is finding patients through digital outreach, community work and hospitals.
Even with insurance, the average person living with diabetes spends about $16,750 per year on medical expenses and has approximately 2.3 times higher the costs than if they didn’t have the disease. Instead, patients can subscribe to 9am.health for $40 per month; that includes online prescription shipping, unlimited personal medical care, medications to manage diabetes, hypertension or hyperlipidemia and at-home lab tests.
Westermann sees other companies working in the diabetes space, but says 9am.health is unique in providing “a digital front door for entire diabetes care,” while others focus on specific pain points. By taking that whole approach, he sees opportunity in going beyond diabetes to the general chronic disease realm as many living with diabetes — 98% of Americans in fact — also have other comorbidities like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and mental health issues, he added.
The new funding will enable the company to grow its team and carve out some of the digital diabetes market share that was valued at $13 billion in 2020 and is forecasted to grow annually by 18.8% through 2027. 9am.health will also invest in advancing its virtual screening ability and expand the types of medication it can offer.
9am.health diabetes kit
“We want to tear down the barriers and make care as easy as possible and managing diabetes part of life,” Westermann said. “When you live with chronic illness, it is an everyday thing, and sometimes you feel good, and others days you don’t. That’s why we named the company 9am.health because you can wake up at 9 a.m. and start your diabetes journey all over again.”
Lynne Chou O’Keefe, founder and managing partner at Define Ventures, says the future of healthcare is going to be more consumer-focused and will be wrapped around the patient’s care journey. She considers 9am.health to be leading this type of care with a platform that bundles education, community, coaching and care that is direct-to-consumer.
Chou O’Keefe has been investing in healthcare her entire VC career, and sat on the board of Livongo for four years. Through that experience she learned how patients struggle with their care decisions, and finds 9am.health’s founders to have a similar deep expertise and understanding in diabetes, especially with the success they had with MySugr.
“The last place you should receive healthcare is in the doctor’s office, while the first place should be wherever you are,” she added. “This is a very different way than what the healthcare system is today. We feel that people want to manage their diabetes, but then go on and live their lives.”
Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.
The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’
Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.
Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.
“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.
The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.
“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.
Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place, with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
It’s official, new iPhones are here. But everyone is talking about the iPad mini instead.
(Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)
Apple this week introduced its updated iPhone 13 lineup, which includes iPhone 13 in pretty new shades, an iPhone mini, and the more powerful iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. Consumers may care most about the battery life improvements — 1.5 hours longer on iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 13 Pro; 2.5 hours more on iPhone 13 and Pro Max, compared with their respective iPhone 12 models. Cameras got a decent upgrade, powered by the A15 Bionic, which enables additions like “Cinematic Mode” (a mode that allows you to change focus between subjects). Plus, Pro models can do macro photography and now include support for ProRes video recording at 1080p 30 fps with the 128GB storage option and up to 4K 30 fps with 256GB, 512GB and 1TB storage options. (Yes, there’s a 1TB iPhone now, and no more 64GB models. Hooray!)
Image Credits: Apple
The bigger news in terms of hardware, however, was the iPad mini ($499+), aka the BIG iPhone, which got a significant update. The new device has an 8.3-inch display, front and rear-facing 12-megapixel cameras, 80% faster performance with the A15 Bionic, 40% faster CPU, support for 5G, and it adds a USB-C port and a relocated Touch ID that’s now on the top button. It also now supports Center Stage and Apple Pencil (2nd generation.) It’s also available in new finishes: space gray, pink, purple and starlight.
Apple noted there are more than 1 million apps designed specifically for iPad devices. The full App Store has 2.22 million or more, according to various estimates. A popular and affordable iPad mini could encourage more development beyond the iPhone.
Other announcements included a new standard iPad with spec bumps, a new Apple Watch Series 7 with a slightly bigger screen and fall detection for cyclists, an updated Fitness+ with Pilates and meditation, and a nifty MagSafe Wallet that will track the location where it was separated from your iPhone.
Apple sherlocks Watch keyboard apps
Image Credits: FlickType
Frustrated iOS developer Kosta Eleftheriou, who is already engaging in a legal battle with Apple over money lost to App Store scams and other matters, couldn’t hold back his frustration when he saw Apple announce its new Apple Watch Series 7 would now sport a familiar-looking keyboard. Eleftheriou’s own FlickType keyboard app for Apple Watch was repeatedly rejected from the App Store for months on end, causing a lengthy delay in getting his app to market. The developer also claims to have had conversations with Apple execs about his keyboard app, which he says was once even considered an acquisition target.
Apple’s position on the matter is that it had to remove Eleftheriou’s app due to guidelines it had at the time prohibiting keyboard extensions, which the company had on the books due to what it believed would offer a poor consumer experience on earlier versions of Apple Watch, which had a smaller screen. These guidelines were later dropped once Apple learned of the app’s accessibility functions, which allowed the app to be published.
One question — which would have to either be worked out through the discovery process in court or through some sort of congressional investigation — is how long Apple had a Watch keyboard design on its product roadmap? Was Apple rejecting a third-party Watch keyboard app (and others like it, to be clear) over this purported “poor experience” at a time when Apple was actively designing its own keyboard UI? And how could there be a corporate firewall in place between App Store review activity and the company’s own plans, if Apple was considering an acquisition of FlickType at the time, as the lawsuit alleges?
Eleftheriou has a difficult path ahead of him going up against Apple’s legal team, but he’s more motivated than ever now. “See you in court, @Apple” he tweeted after the Watch reveal.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged App Annie, as well as its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Bertrand Schmitt, with securities fraud. App Annie and Schmitt have agreed to pay over $10 million to settle the fraud charges which are related to “deceptive practices and making material misrepresentations about how App Annie’s alternative data was derived,” the SEC said. The charges have to do with how App Annie used non-aggregated and non-anonymized data to alter its model-generated estimates to be more accurate, while telling trading firms that protections were in place against the misuse of confidential data. (More details and the full complaint can be read here on TechCrunch.)
In response to the bombshell news, one competitor has spoken up. Apptopia co-founder and CEO Jonathan Kay wrote about how his firm took the time to build the company and data estimates “the right way,” which is why some of its estimates in the past hadn’t been accurate. (It wasn’t cheating the system.) This proved to be the better strategy. “We did not take shortcuts to spur breakneck scale; oftentimes founders feel the pressure to do so to meet unrealistic Board, VC or Market expectations. We haven’t and we don’t,” he said.
Meanwhile, Appfigures shared a similar sentiment, adding they were disappointed to hear the news and hoped the actions didn’t erode trust in the industry. “Strict privacy has been one of our founding principles and has served our users and us well for 12 years. We believe the trust of our users is our most valuable asset,” their statement read.
The Epic Games/Apple lawsuit will drag on. After last week’s ruling, which will now allow developers to add to iOS apps links to their website and other ways to pay, Epic said it would appeal. The Fortnite maker wanted Apple to be dubbed a monopolist, which would force iOS to be opened up to alternative app stores, like its own, or at least allow side-loading. But the judge said Apple’s success was “not illegal.”
Apple introduced new marketing tools for app developers. Developers can now create custom marketing assets, including banners and images, to promote apps across social media and elsewhere. To get started, you select an app and a template, then customize the design and add present messages. The assets will be immediately available in the right sizes and can be shared with short links or codes that direct users to the App Store product page.
Image Credits: Apple
A leaked document points toward an Android 12 release date of October 4th. The document informs OEM partners when to stop approving builds for prior versions of Android.
Meanwhile, Samsung released an Android 12 beta to Galaxy S21 owners. The beta is for Samsung’s One UI 4, its version of Android, and arrives on September 14 — the same day Apple announced the iPhone 13.
Google announced it would port a privacy-focused feature from Android 11 to older phones running Android 6 and higher. The feature automatically restricts apps’ permissions to sensitive phone features, like the storage or camera, if the app hasn’t been used for several months.
Google delivered the first five stable Jetpack Wear OS libraries (wear, wear-input, wear-ongoing, wear-phone-interactions and wear-remote-interaction), to help developers build high-quality Wear OS apps. The company recently updated the Android Jetpack Wear OS libraries as well.
Google invited users to join its Pixel Superfans group, which was previously kept under wraps. The pilot program provides insider access and a VIP experience, including access to a private Facebook Group, and perks like private Q&As and events, opportunities to share ideas with the Google team, limited-edition swag and more to come.
Image Credits: Snap
Snapchat launched a new global portal Lens in partnership with Sotheby’s and the Estate of Christo. The Lens, “The Last Christo: Original Works for The Arc de Triomphe,” overlays Snap’s AR onto Christo’s work to give viewers an entirely new experience of the installation. The experience will also come to Snap’s main Camera and the Snap Map early next week.
MassMutual will have to pay a $4 million fine as part of a settlement with Massachusetts regulators involving the conduct of former employee Keith Gill, also an online trader who goes by “Roaring Kitty.”Gill was heavily involved with the GameStop meme-stock drama from earlier this year. The stock was a favorite with day traders on Reddit’s WallStreetBets message board. Trading app Robinhood had restricted the trading of this and other meme stocks, leading to a congressional investigation.
Image Credits: Twitter
Twitter Super Follows have only generated around $6,000 in the U.S. in the first two weeks the feature has been live across the U.S. and Canada. Canadian in-app revenue was around $600. Some small portion may be attributed to Ticketed Space, so true adoption figures may be even lower. Fewer than 100 creators in the U.S. have been offered access to Super Follows, which is impacting these figures. But all iOS users in these markets are able to subscribe to the participating creators.
A Dept. of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement agencies that domestic extremists had used TikTok to recruit people to their causes and share tactical guidance in the lead up the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
TikTok blocked content related to the “devious licks” viral challenge which was encouraging students to create havoc at schools by stealing things, including soap dispensers, hand sanitizer, COVID test kits, bathroom sinks and doors, classroom tech and more. As a result, schools across the U.S. have locked down access to bathroom facilities.
A Facebook whistleblower has shared a damning set of internal docs with The Wall Street Journal, including how Instagram’s own internal research indicated how the app impacted teenage girls’ mental health over body image, leading them to have, in some cases higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Following the news, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around its internal research.
As news of Instagram’s impact on teens leaked, TikTok added more mental health resources of its own, including a “well-being guide” in its Safety Center, a primer on eating disorders, expanded search interventions and opt-in viewing screens on potentially triggering searches.
LinkedIn announced a $25 million creator fund ahead of its plans to test a Clubhouse-style audio feature.
Snap hired Jacqueline Beauchere, the chief online safety officer at Microsoft, to be its first-ever global head of platform safety. In her role, Beauchere will advise the company’s decisions on policies, guidelines, features and tools focused on safety and well-being.
The beta version of the Signal for Android app expanded its privacy-focused crypto payments feature first introduced in April. The feature, MobileCoin, was previously only available in the U.K. It’s now offered in Switzerland, France and Germany. The app saw a few other design tweaks as well.
WhatsApp launched the first test of a public directory for businesses within its app, starting in São Paulo, Brazil. The feature allows users to find shops and services through a directory in the app, which could then kick off their mobile commerce transactions.
A report from The Financial Times (non-paywalled summary here) details how the Telegram app has exploded as a hub for cybercriminals who buy and sell stolen data and hacking tools. One channel featuring data dumps had more than 47,000 subscribers before being shut down.
Emarketer reports the number of monthly messaging app users worldwide will rise 6.1%, to 3.09 billion, in 2021. This is a deceleration of growth from 2020, when the number grew nearly 14%, but an increase from a pre-pandemic estimate of 5.5% growth. By 2024, the firm predicts more than three-fourths of internet users will use a mobile messaging app.
Image Credits: eMarketer
Tinder announced it’s rolling out video profiles to more markets across Europe, Asia and Latin America. The feature was first introduced to a handful of countries earlier this year, allowing users to express themselves using video instead of just photos.
Image Credits: Tinder
Streaming & Entertainment
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s failed streaming app Quibi settled its lawsuit with interactive video firm Eko, which alleged Quibi had infringed on its patents. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their legal claims, and QBI Holdings LLC, which holds the remaining Quibi assets, will transfer the intellectual property and technology for its “Turnstyle” mobile-video viewing feature to Eko.
Clubhouse hired a head of News from NPR, Nina Gregory, to help it build out publisher relationships. Gregory led NPR’s Arts Desk for the last seven years.
Apple announced new streaming partners for its upcoming iOS 15 SharePlay feature that allows for co-watching content through FaceTime. At WWDC, Apple said the feature would work with video apps Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max+, ESPN+ Paramount+, Pluto TV, NBA App, Twitch and TikTok. This week Apple said it was adding STARZ, BET+, TV Everywhere Apps from ViacomCBS (MTV, Paramount Network, & Comedy Comedy Central), and Chinese streaming service Youku. On the music side, it’s adding Spotify, TuneIn and SoundCloud, which join Apple Music.
Apple’s Shazam app announced it has been used in the iOS Control Center over 1 billion times. The company previously noted it had passed one billion songs being recognized every month in June 2021. Both metrics paint a picture of the massive traction Apple’s first-party apps can gain based on their platform advantage.
Celeb-to-fan connections app Cameo adds a new feature, Cameo Calls, that aims to digitize the fan “meet-and-greet” experience. At launch, fans can now connect with over 500 celebs for one-on-one, face-to-face calls by buying a ticket from their phone. The talent sets the pricing, which averages up to $31 minutes per call.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
U.S. mobile casino game spending grew by 16.4% to $4.8 billion during the last 12 months, according to a new Sensor Tower report. The No. 1 title from September 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021 was Coin Master from Moon Active, which generated $650.5 million. This was followed by Bingo Blitz from Playtika, then Slotomania from Playtika.
Zynga announced ReVamp, the first “social deception” gaming title on Snapchat. The vampire-themed, multiplayer game is a spin on “Among Us,” as players work to unveil the imposter. The game takes place inside an old mansion where players have to complete renovation tasks, while the vampire players must avoid suspicion.
The FTC warned health apps, like those tracking fitness or menstrual cycles, to notify consumers impacted by data breaches. The Commission voted 3-2 to clarify that health apps were included in the agency’s 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule, which required vendors to notify customers of data breaches.
Downloads of top Travel apps in the U.S. reached 61.4 million on Apple’s App Store and 23.8 million on Google Play in Q2 2021, according to a new report by Sensor Tower. This represented the highest number of quarterly downloads since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) said it has opened two investigations into the video-sharing platform TikTok. The first covers how TikTok handles children’s data and whether it complies with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. The DPC will also examine TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China.
South Korea fined Google $177 million for blocking Android customization by device makers, saying this was an abuse of its dominant position in the market.
Chinese police are using a new fraud prevention app installed on more than 200 million mobile phones to identify and question people who have browsed foreign financial news sites, The FT reported. The police claimed they were working to combat the surge in fraud often carried out by foreign businesses controlled by Chinese and Taiwanese.
Tencent and Alibaba said they will open up their apps to competitors, following a meeting with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last week. For eight years, the two companies have split China’s internet in two, The FT reported, replicating each other’s services and even blocking the posting of links in each other’s apps. That will now change in the weeks ahead.
Security & Privacy
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch
Apple patched a zero-day flaw that was impacting its top devices, including iPhone, iPad, Mac and Watches. Citizen Lab discovered the vulnerability and was credited with the find. The iMessage flaw was actively exploited by Pegasus, a spyware app developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, which gives government customers complete access to a target device, including data, photos, messages and location. The vulnerability was used to hack the iPhones belonging to at least one Bahraini activist.
A new Android app, Nahoft, allows Iranians to speak freely by turning up to 1,000 characters of Farsi text into a jumble of random words. The text can then be sent to anyone over other messaging apps, but the recipient has to use Nahoft on their own device to read it.
An untethered iOS 14.5.1 jailbreak was demoed working on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, in the days ahead of the iOS 15 release.
Funding and M&A
Image Credits: SmartNews
Tokyo-based news aggregator SmartNews raised $230 million in Series F funding, valuing its business at $2 billion. The funding included U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan.
Venice, California-based Elodie Games raised $32.5 million for its cross-play, co-op games that run on PCs, consoles and mobile devices. The round was led by Galaxy Interactive and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). The company, founded by mobile gaming vets Christina Norman and David Banks, two veterans of Riot Games, had previously raised $5 million in 2020.
Livestream shopping platform Whatnot, which focuses on collectibles like Pokémon cards and Funko Pops, confirmed the close of its $150 million Series C, valuing its business at $1.5 billion. Returning investors a16z and Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund joined new investor CapitalG (Google Capital) in the round. The Information previously reported the fundraise.
Bangalore-based Byju’s acquired California-headquartered coding platform Tynker for $200 million. The platform, which is available across platforms, including mobile, counts BBC Learning, Google, Microsoft, Mattel and NASA among its partners.
San Francisco-based fantasy sports startup Sleeper is now valued at $400 million after raising $40 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The company has over 3 million users, most of whom are aged between 18 and 35. It has expanded into esports during the pandemic, after initially focusing on the NFL and the NBA.
India-based networking app Apna, which helps blue-collar workers upskill and find jobs, raised a $100 millionSeries C led by Tiger Global. The round values the business at $1.1 billion and makes the company India’s youngest unicorn.
Chat app Discord raised $500 million in a new round of funding led by Dragoneer Investment Group, valuing the business at $15 billion — more than double the valuation it was given at its last round of funding in 2020. The platform, which is particularly popular with gamers, has over 150 million monthly active users.
India’s Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $150 million in a round of funding led by Legatum Capital, valuing its business at $2.3 billion. The three-year-old company connects game publishers with players on its app platform, allowing users to access a range of free gaming titles.
Streetwear resale platform Grailed raised $60 million in Series B funding in a round led by competitor Goat Group, which also included Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri, Groupe Artémis, Thrive Capital and Index Ventures. The company had 7 million users and 3 million listings at the time of the deal, but only 20% of users are female.
Indonesian investment app for retailer investors Pluang announced $55 million in new funding led by Square Peg, with participation from SIG, UOB Venture Management, Go-Ventures and Openspace Ventures. The app has 3 million users.
Indian investment app Groww is in advanced talks to raise $250 million in new funding in a round that would value the business at $3 billion. Deal terms may still change. Tiger Global, Coatue and TCV have held conversations to lead or co-lead the round. The app is on track for around $35 million in ARR.
OpenSea: NFT Marketplace
Image Credits: OpeaSea on App Store
Amid an insider trading controversy, in which OpenSea’s Chief Product Officer Nate Chastain was caught buying NFT artwork shortly before they hit the site’s front page, then fired, the NFT marketplace company launched its first mobile app. The app, which is available as of Thursday on both the iOS App Store and Google Play, certainly arrives at a questionable time — why not wait for the dust to settle on the scandal, before moving forward with a mobile experience, sans CPO?
In any event, the new app allows users to connect their current profile, then search, filter, discover and save favorite NFTs, as well as view collections and item stats. The app will also link to blog posts about OpenSea developments and the NFT ecosystem as a whole. And it will link to exclusive releases. What you can’t do with OpenSea’s app, at least not yet, is actually purchase NFTs.
Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls
Image Credits: Konami
The latest reboot of the classic title is an Apple Arcade exclusive. Launched on Friday, September 17, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls offers a new take on the popular side-scrolling action game — but one that’s free from in-app purchases or ads. The game features character designs and music from series creators Ayami Kojima and Michiru Yamane, and will see players embark on a new adventure where they “hack, slash, whip and blast their way through Dracula’s army using a variety of attacks, weapons, and unique character moves.” Characters available to play include Alucard, Simon Belmont, Charlotte, Shanoa and Maria, with more to come. An Apple Arcade subscription is $4.99 per month or can be purchased with an Apple One subscription plan.
If you really want to video chat tonight with William Hung of retro American Idol fame… got twenty bucks to spare? Yesterday, Cameo launched its Cameo Calls products, which lets fans video chat for up to 15 minutes one-on-one with their favorite influencers and celebrities. The talent sets the duration, time, and price of their call, which Cameo says averages around $31.
To book a call, users can go to Cameo’s website or app to see a schedule of upcoming Cameo Calls that they can buy. These also appear on individual talent’s Cameo pages. When you purchase a Cameo Call, you get a unique ticket code that you enter on the app to join your call.
In June 2020, Cameo enabled users to book Zoom calls with celebrities as lockdown became a global norm, but Cameo phased out that feature in April. Instead, Cameo Calls now offers a native experience in the app, rather than relying on third-party software. The downside for consumers, though, is that this makes it more difficult to invite your favorite reality star to your office’s Zoom happy hour. But on the bright side, the Cameo Calls includes a dedicated photo opp at the end of the call, so you can get your celebrity selfie without dealing with the awkwardness of asking to take a photo.
Experiences like Cameo Calls make sense in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when celebrity meet-and-greets might not be safe in many places. But Cameo also thinks this product can stand in for a typical meet and greet even in “normal” times. Often, celebrity meet-and-greets require waiting in a long line to only have 5 or 10 seconds of time with the talent. Even though many Cameo Calls sessions are only a few minutes long, you might be able to get a more personal experience than if you were the 100th fan in a long line in person.
“We foresee Cameo Calls replacing meet and greets at music festivals and world tours, fan conventions, sporting events, and more,” said Cameo Co-founder & CEO Steven Galanis.
Cameo says it tested this product with over 3,000 calls — during testing, talent-hosted themed meet-and-greets, coffee chats, private concerts, and tarot card readings. Some performers who tested the feature include James and Oliver Phelps, who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies, and David Henrie, a former Disney Channel star.
It’s a big day for the Amazon of the decentralized internet — OpenSea now has an app for iOS and Android. For most companies, having a mobile app is a milestone you’d reach before hitting a $1.5 billion valuation. But like any store — whether you’re selling NFT art or not — there’s a hefty price to pay for app store transactions, whether you’re on Android or iOS. That’s possibly why OpenSea’s shiny, new app is only for browsing NFTs, not for buying or selling them. For context, OpenSea saw $3.4 billion in trading volume across two million transactions in August. With Apple and Google taking 30% of in-app transactions, if that volume had been traded on the new app… What’s 30% of $3.4 billion?
Perhaps more of a roadblock, there’s still no way to make in-app payments with crypto. If OpenSea wanted to support buying and selling, it would have to build out its infrastructure for USD payments and push more users towards it. But part of the appeal of OpenSea is that it’s a crypto native platform, largely reliant on the Ethereum blockchain which gives people easier access to information about when an NFT was minted, who minted it, how it’s been traded, etc. It could upset the existing ecosystem of users if the startup pushed the platform towards being more dollar-friendly.
On the OpenSea app, users can connect their profile, browse NFTs, favorite NFTs, search and filter NFTs, and view collection and item stats. When you view an NFT in the app, a button appears that lets you share the NFT outside of the app. Rarible, another NFT marketplace, released a mobile app about a month ago. Like OpenSea’s app, on the Rarible app, you can only browse NFTs, not buy, sell, or trade them.
Image Credits: OpenSea
OpenSea hasn’t yet responded to questions from TechCrunch about the company’s plans for the app, including whether or not users might one day be able to buy and sell NFTs in the app. It wouldn’t be the first time that crypto was exchanged on an app, as even PayPal now lets you pay with crypto. Instead, perhaps the app can offer a way to help new users onboard into the NFT space, giving them an easy, user-friendly way to browse NFT art without knowing anything about wallets or blockchains or apes.
Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app created by the organization of jailed Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, from their respective mobile app stores in Russia.
Earlier this week Reuters reported that the Russian state had been amping up the pressure on foreign tech giants ahead of federal elections — appropriating the language of “election interference” to push US companies to censor the high profile political opponent to president Putin.
On Twitter today, a key Navalny ally, Ivan Zhdanov, tweeted that his organization is considering suing Apple and Google over removal of the apps — dubbing the act of censorship a “huge mistake”.
Zhdanov has also published what he says is Apple’s response to Team Navalny — in which the tech giant cites the Kremlin’s classification of a number of pro-Navalny organizations as “extremist” groups to justify its removal of the software.
(Image credit: Screengrab of detail from Apple’s notification to the developer, via Zhdanov’s tweet)
Apple and Google routinely say they comply with ‘all local laws’ in the countries where they operate.
However in Russia that stance means they have become complicit in acts of political censorship.
“We note that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Prosecutor’s Office of the City of Moscow have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections,” Apple writes in the notification of takedown it sent to the developer of the tactical voting app.
“While your app has been removed from the Russia App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in App Store Connect,” Apple adds.
Apple and Google have been contacted for comment on the removal of Navalny’s app.
Формальное основание удаления приложений: признание ФБК экстремистской организацией. То, как ФБК признавали экстремистской организацией – было не судом, а издевательством над здравым смыслом. @google@Apple совершают огромную ошибку. pic.twitter.com/3AG4tHXdZp
Also via Twitter, Zhdanov urged supporters to focus on the tactical voting mission — tweeting a link to a video hosted on Google-owned YouTube which contains recommendations to Russians on how to cast an anti-Putin vote in the parliamentary elections taking place today until Sunday.
Navalny’s supporters are hoping to mobilize voters across Russia to cast tactical ballots in a bid to unseat Putin by voting for whatever candidate has the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party.
Their tactical voting strategy has faced some criticism — given that many of the suggested alternatives are, at best, only very weakly opposed to Putin’s regime.
However Navalny’s supporters would surely point out they are having to operate within a flawed system.
After Apple and Google initially refused to remove Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ app, last month, the Russian state has been attempting to block access to his organization’s website.
Screengrab of the Smart Voting app on the UK iOS app store (Image credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)
Earlier this month Reuters reported that Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, had threatened Apple and Google with fines if they did not remove the Smart Voting app — warning that failure to comply could be interpreted as election meddling.
Russian press has also reported that Apple and Google were summoned to a meeting at the Federation Council on the eve of the election — as Putin’s regime sought to force them to do his anti-democratic bidding.
According to a report by Kommersant, the tech giants were warned the Russian Federation was preparing to tighten regulations on their businesses — and told to “come to their senses”, facing another warning that they were at a “red line”.
The last ditch effort to force the platforms to remove Navalny’s app did then pay off.
In recent weeks, Roskomnadzor has also been targeting VPN apps in the country for removal — making it hard for Russians to circumvent the local ban on Navalny’s app by accessing the software through the stores of other countries.
Earlier this year, Putin’s regime also targeted Twitter — throttling the service for failing to remove content it wanted banned, although Roskomnadzor claimed the action was related to non-political content such as minors committing suicide, child sexual exploitation and drug use.
Self Financial, a fintech company that aims to help consumers build credit and savings at the same time, announced today it has raised $50 million in Series E funding.
Altos Ventures led the financing, which also included participation from Meritech Capitaland Conductive Ventures and brings the Austin-based startup’s total raised to $127 million since its 2015 inception.
The company, as many fintechs these days, aims to make building credit and savings more accessible, regardless of a person’s financial history. It requires no hard credit check to get started.
“We’ve been focused on delivering high-quality, low-cost products that help with mainstream credit access,” said Self founder and CEO James Garvey.
Today, Self Financial has 200 employees, up from about 80 at the beginning of this year. The startup, which was initially founded in California but relocated to Austin after participating in the Techstars program in the city, plans to do more hiring with its new capital.
Garvey declined to reveal hard revenue figures, saying only that Self is going to do “nine figures” of revenue this year, about 2x compared to 2020. Self’s active customer base has more than doubled in the past 12 months to about 1 million today. Over time, it has served more than 2 million customers.
The fintech’s flagship product, he said, is basically secured installment loans, or small-dollar loans with a deposit account that has a CD (certificate of deposit) connected to it.
After using that product successfully customers can then get access to Self’s Visa credit card.
Image Credits: Self Financial
Self’s Credit Builder products are issued via its three bank partners. But the company has built its own proprietary core technology platform that Garvey says “powers everything behind the scenes.” The company’s products are available via iOS and Android, as well as through a desktop application.
Beginning this month, Self will allow people who hold an H-1B or L 1 work visa or student visa to open Credit Builder accounts, a move Garvey said “opens the door for more people to participate who are new to the U.S. credit system.”
“We believe everyone should have the opportunity to improve their financial future,” he added.
Part of Self’s longer-term goals include entering the insurance market, as well as the planned launch of another product designed to help give its customers access to credit.
“Credit score is used for a lot of things, and in many states it’s an important factor in determining the cost of auto insurance,” he said. “We’re going to be helping our customers to get access to auto insurance as one of the benefits of a higher credit score.”
The company plans to use its new capital to hire about 50 to 100 people over the next 12 months, Garvey said. Recently it named Kathleen Leonik to serve as its chief compliance officer. She has previously held leadership positions at Juniper Bank, Barclaycard and, most recently, Mercury Financial. She also worked in compliance at First USA, Bank One and Chase.
Altos Ventures Managing Director Anthony Lee described Self as a pioneer in the increasingly crowded space. This week, TomoCredit, which has the similar goal of helping underrepresented consumers build a credit history, announced it has raised $10 million. And last week, Varo Bank — the first U.S. neobank to be granted a national bank charter — raised a massive $510 million in a Series E funding round at a $2.5 billion valuation.
“James and his team at Self have had a clear mission from day one: to build credit and savings for millions of Americans who are marginalized by the mainstream financial system,” said Lee. “It’s a mission that is going to take decades to realize and we are happy to be there for the journey.”
For Silverton Partners’ Managing Director Morgan Flager, who participated in Self’s Series A-D rounds, Garvey’s passion has been key to its repeated investments in the company.
“When you have a founder with a clear and noble vision for solving a critical problem this massive, it is hard to say no as an investor,” he told TechCrunch.
The firm was also drawn to Self’s mission to “lift up” subprime consumers.
“Many of the offers that target subprime consumers are expensive and restrictive,” he said. “Self Financial is unique in that it intends to break this cycle, rather than just profit from it in a different way.”
Performance reviews eat up a lot of a manager’s time and are often the most dreaded part of work. OnLoop aims to bring some joy into the process by enabling information-gathering to happen behind the scenes and be easier for hybrid workforces.
The Singapore-based company designed a mobile-first product that consistently gathers employee feedback and goals so that the company has better insights into how both individuals and teams are doing. The feedback is also captured and converted into auto-generated reviews that lay out all of the content collected for managers to then quickly put together a finished product.
The platform was in private beta since January 2021, and after a successful run with 25 companies, OnLoop raised $2 million from Square Peg Capital and Hustle Fund and a group of angel investors including XA Network, BCG’s Aliza Knox, Uber’s Andrew Macdonald, Ready’s Allen Penn, Google’s Bambos Kaisharis, Ripple’s Brooks Entwistle, Robert Hoyt, Nordstar’s Eddie Lee, Nas Academy’s Alex Dwek and hedge fund managers John Candeto and Keshav Lall.
OnLoop co-founder and CEO Projjal Ghatak spent over three years at Uber and said he saw his fair share of productivity tools, but still struggled to develop his own team as tasks and communication were done differently by each employee.
“This is the one problem that companies consistently complain about — not having the right tool to develop teams,” he added.
As someone who began spending more and more time on his phone, Ghatak wanted his product to be mobile-native and eliminate the need for managers to start from scratch on performance reviews each time. Rather than spend days gathering the information, as the name suggests, OnLoop continuously and automatically captures the data and converts it into a well-written summary.
“A lot of company culture is set by the leaders, so as they want to drive this culture in their organizations, we are the tool that drives this,” Ghatak said. “Our job is to help educate the teams on how to do that well. We hear time and time again to make it fun and convenient. Teams don’t realize that if you are helping colleagues understand, showing them a light they didn’t have before, it will drive impact.”
The new funding will be mainly invested into product development and R&D, including expanding product, data and engineering teams. The company will also look at its sales and marketing framework. The company currently has 22 employees.
OnLoop was able to convert some of its early adopters into paying customers and is now focusing on figuring out a scalable way to get the product into the hands of more teams.
Piruze Sabuncu, partner at Square Peg Capital, experienced the pain of performance reviews when she was working in Stripe’s Southeast Asia and Hong Kong region. One of the challenges she faced working with regional teams was that an employee’s direct manager could be located elsewhere, yet work closely with a manager in their respective office.
Square Peg itself uses OnLoop, and Sabuncu said she liked that it is mobile-first and was designed in a way that people didn’t open it up and dread using it.
“Who your manager is, is a big question, but it shouldn’t matter,” she added. “It would still be my duty to be capturing and developing the person even if they were not my direct person. Everyone is talking about remote and hybrid work, and it is not going anywhere — it is here to stay. We believe this is a huge opportunity, a $400 billion market to disrupt, and OnLoop is providing better ways to communicate and give feedback.”
Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.
The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.
Image Credits: Tile
Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.
To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.
While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.
The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.
When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)
Image Credits: Tile internal concept art
Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressionalhearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.
But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)
Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.
However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.
“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”
“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.
Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.
Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.
“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”
The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.
“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.
Concreit, a company that wants to open real estate investing to a broader group of people, announced today that it has closed $6 million in a seed funding round led by Matrix Partners.
Hyphen Capital also participated in the round, in addition to individual investors such as Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein; Andy Liu, partner at Unlock Venture Partners; and investor and advisor Ben Elowitz. Concreit raised the capital at a $22.5 million post-money valuation.
The Seattle-based startup also today launched its app, which it claims allows “anyone” to invest in the global private real estate market for as little as $1.
It’s a lofty claim. But first let’s start with some background.
Concreit is not the first time that co-founders Sean Hsieh and Jordan Levy have worked together. The pair previously founded and bootstrapped VoIP communications platform Flowroute before selling it to West Corp. in 2018. Upon the sale of that company, Hsieh and Levy set out to build a company that, in their words, “could help everyday people become more financially secure.”
Hsieh, a second-generation immigrant, worked in his family’s restaurant where they shared the dream of achieving financial freedom through real estate. Similarly, Levy says he grew up watching his parents build a small construction business from scratch. He was intrigued by the idea of passive income through single-family rental homes but became disillusioned with the overhead, risk and hassle of managing one’s own single-family rental investments.
So the duo worked together to design a mobile-first offering that could enable small investors to benefit from real estate “without the burden of making repairs at 2 a.m. on a Saturday.” Enter Concreit.
Today, most investors can open a Concreit account and make their first investment in just minutes on their mobile device, the company claims. The company’s free mobile app allows consumers to invest as little as $1 into a fund managed by a team of investment professionals. Withdrawals can be requested at any time through the app and sent upon approval.
The platform facilitates weekly earned payouts, automated investments and on-demand withdrawals while compounding earned payouts weekly.
After selling Flowroute, Hsieh says he “saw the opportunity to earn a great APR through private real estate investing while gaining less correlation with traditional public stocks or bonds markets,” Hsieh said. “But they were only for the already wealthy or required multiyear commitments of capital. Concreit gives everyone access to a real estate portfolio and the ability to have access to withdrawals when they need them.”
Put simply, the startup wants to make it easy for anyone — not just the wealthy — to invest in real estate.
Concreit, Hsieh said, offers “regular people” the ability to access real estate strategies typically used by large hedge funds and private equity.
“We’re seeing a surge of retail demand for alternatives and other ways to invest outside of the public markets and the crypto space for those that value diversification,” Hsieh told TechCrunch.“Most other competitors are focused on marketing and selling securities, but we knew in order to be an innovator in this space we had to produce a truly unique experience for our investors.”
Concreit’s platform is designed to be a more connected investment experience.
“We knew early on that digital natives deserved a whole new real estate investing experience and that it had to be 100x better than just taking traditional real estate investment opportunities and offering them digitally,” Hsieh said.
So on the platform side, Concreit has built a cloud-based proprietary securities accounting engine that allows the company to process fractional calculations and pull in a lot of mutual fund practices, applying them toward the “more labor-intensive” private equity markets, with a focus on real estate.
“We’ve taken a lot of the cloud-architectural work that we’ve pioneered in the telecommunications space and applied it towards a back-office accounting solution that gives us a competitive edge around what we offer to our investors,” Hsieh said. “This affords the ability to run accounting at a higher frequency, which is how we are able to run weekly dividends, process fractional redemptions and ultimately a more real-time experience for our users.”
Concreit’s first private REIT fund, focused on passive income, consists of lower-risk fixed-income private market residential and commercial real estate first-lien mortgages. The fund, which the company says has an annualized return of 5.47%, is managed by a team of industry professionals. The startup has added over 18,000 customers to its platform since it was qualified by the SEC (slightly over a year ago), and doubled its user base in the month of August.
“Our current users can invest with any dollar amount, no lock-ups, weekly payouts, and an experience that’s as easy & familiar as a savings account,” Hsieh said.
Matrix’s Dana Stalder, who joined Concreit’s board as part of the financing, believes Concreit has leveled the playing field for real estate investing by making it more accessible.
“What Concreit has built is incredibly hard to do from both a technology and regulatory standpoint,” he told TechCrunch. “Alternative asset classes, in particular, have been notoriously closed off to the average consumer, leaving high yield returns exclusively to wealthy investors. “
A16z is inching closer to making its first investment in a startup in India, the world’s second largest internet market that has produced over two dozen unicorns this year.
The Menlo Park-headquartered firm is in final stages of conversations to invest in Indian crypto trading startup CoinSwitch Kuber, three sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The proposed deal values the Bangalore-based firm at $1.9 billion, two sources said. Coinbase is also investing in the new round, one of the sources said.
CoinSwitch Kuber was valued at over $500 million in a round in April this year when it raised $25 million from Tiger Global. If the deal with A16z materializes, it will be CoinSwitch Kuber’s third financing round this year.
TechCrunch reported last week that CoinSwitch Kuber was in talks to raise its Series C funding at up to $2 billion valuation. The report, which didn’t identify a lead investor, noted that the Indian startup had engaged with Andreessen Horowitz and Coinbase in recent weeks.
Usual caveats apply: terms of the proposed deal may change or the talks may not result in a deal. The author reported some details about the deal on Wednesday.
The startup declined to comment. Coinbase and A16z as well as existing investors Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital India did not respond to requests for comment.
The investment talks come at a time when CoinSwitch Kuber has more than doubled its user base in recent months — even as local authorities push back against crypto assets. Its eponymous app had over 10 million users in India last month, up from about 4 million in April this year, the startup said in a newspaper advertisement over the weekend.
A handful of crypto startups in India have demonstrated fast-pace growth in recent years — while impressively keeping their CAC very low — as millions of millennials in the South Asian nation kickstart their investment journeys. Several funds including those with big presence in India such as Accel, Lightspeed, WEH and Kalaari recently began working on their thesis to back crypto startups, TechCrunch reported earlier.
B Capital backed CoinDCX, a rival of CoinSwitch Kuber that has amassed 3.5 million users, last month in a $90 million round that valued CoinDCX at about $1.1 billion.
Policymakers in India have been debating on the status of digital currencies in the South Asian market for several years. India’s central bank, Reserve Bank of India, has expressed concerns about private virtual currencies though it is planning to run trial programs of its first digital currency as soon as December.
About 27 Indian startups have become a unicorn this year, up from 11 last year, as several high-profile investors — and global peers of Andreessen Horowitz — such as Tiger Global and Coatue have increased the pace of their investments in the South Asian market. Apna announced earlier on Thursday that it had raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global at $1.1 billion valuation, becoming the youngest Indian firm to attain the unicorn status.
Groww, an investment app for millennials, is in talks to raise a new financing round that would value it at $3 billion, TechCrunch reported on Wednesday. The startup has engaged with Coatue in recent days, the report said.
Apna announced on Thursday that it has raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global. The new round — a Series C — valued Apna at a valuation of $1.1 billion. TechCrunch reported last month that Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, was in talks to lead a $100 million financing round in the startup at the unicorn valuation.
Owl Ventures, Insight Partners, Sequoia Capital India, Maverick Ventures and GSV Ventures also participated in the new round, which is the third investment secured by Apna this year. Apna was valued at $570 million in its Series B round in June this year.
The investors’ excitement comes as Apna has demonstrated an impressive growth in recent months. The startup has amassed over 16 million users on its eponymous Android app, up from 10 million in June this year.
Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the South Asian market.
Apna has built a platform that provides a community to these workers. In the community, they engage with each other, exchange notes to perform better at interviews, and share tips to negotiate better compensation.
On top of this, Apna connects these workers to potential employers. In an interview with TechCrunch, Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh said more than 150,000 employers — including Zomato, Bharti AXA, Urban Company, BYJU’S, PhonePe, Burger King, Delhivery, Teamlease and G4S Global — are on the platform and over 5 million jobs are active.
The startup, whose name is inspired from a cheerful 2019 Bollywood song, has facilitated over 18 million job interviews in the past 30 days, he said. Apna is currently operational in 28 Indian cities.
The idea for Apna came, Parikh has said, after he was puzzled to find that even as there are hundreds of millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India, locating them when you need assistance with a task often proves very difficult.
Prior to starting Apna, Parikh, who previously worked at Apple, met these workers and went undercover as electrician and floor manager to understand the problems they were facing. The problem, he found, was the disconnect. Workers had no means to find who needed them for jobs, and they were also not connected with one another. The community aspect of Apna, which now has over 70 such groups, is aimed at addressing this challenge.
The Apna app allows these workers to learn new skills to become eligible for more work opportunities. Apna has emerged as one of the fastest growing upskilling platforms — and that would explain why GSV Ventures and Owl Ventures, two high-profile firms known to back edtech startups, are investing in the Bangalore-based firm.
“Apna’s viral adoption is driven by a novel social and interactive approach to connecting employers with job seekers. We expect job seekers in search of meaningful connections and vetted opportunities to drive Apna’s continued explosive growth across India — and the world,” said Griffin Schroeder, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.
Now the startup, which has started to monetize the platform, is ready to aggressively expand. Parikh said Apna will continue to expand to more cities in India and by early next year, Apna will begin its global expansion. Parikh said the startup is eyeing expansion in the USA, South East Asia, and Middle East and Africa.
“We have already created a dent. Now we want to impact the lives of 2.3 billion,” he said. “We will require crazy amounts of resources to world class team to deliver. It’s a herculean task, and is going to take a village. But somebody has to solve it.”
SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)
The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.
Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.
It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan — that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.
The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.
In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.
To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.
SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.
Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews
The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.
According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.
“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.
The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.
The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.
The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.