Spain’s Factorial raises $80M at a $530M valuation on the back of strong traction for its ‘Workday for SMBs’

Factorial, a startup out of Barcelona that has built a platform that lets SMBs run human resources functions with the same kind of tools that typically are used by much bigger companies, is today announcing some funding to bulk up its own position: the company has raised $80 million, funding that it will be using to expand its operations geographically — specifically deeper into Latin American markets — and to continue to augment its product with more features.

CEO Jordi Romero, who co-founded the startup with Pau Ramon and Bernat Farrero — said in an interview that Factorial has seen a huge boom of growth in the last 18 months and counts more than anything 75,000 customers across 65 countries, with the average size of each customer in the range of 100 employees, although they can be significantly (single-digit) smaller or potentially up to 1,000 (the “M” of SMB, or SME as it’s often called in Europe).

“We have a generous definition of SME,” Romero said of how the company first started with a target of 10-15 employees but is now working in the size bracket that it is. “But that is the limit. This is the segment that needs the most help. We see other competitors of ours are trying to move into SME and they are screwing up their product by making it too complex. SMEs want solutions that have as much data as possible in one single place. That is unique to the SME.” Customers can include smaller franchises of much larger organizations, too: KFC, Booking.com, and Whisbi are among those that fall into this category for Factorial.

Factorial offers a one-stop shop to manage hiring, onboarding, payroll management, time off, performance management, internal communications and more. Other services such as the actual process of payroll or sourcing candidates, it partners and integrates closely with more localized third parties.

The Series B is being led by Tiger Global, and past investors CRV, Creandum, Point Nine and K Fund also participating, at a valuation we understand from sources close to the deal to be around $530 million post-money. Factorial has raised $100 million to date, including a $16 million Series A round in early 2020, just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic really taking hold of the world.

That timing turned out to be significant: Factorial, as you might expect of an HR startup, was shaped by Covid-19 in a pretty powerful way.

The pandemic, as we have seen, massively changed how — and where — many of us work. In the world of desk jobs, offices largely disappeared overnight, with people shifting to working at home in compliance with shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of the virus, and then in many cases staying there even after those were lifted as companies grappled both with balancing the best (and least infectious) way forward and their own employees’ demands for safety and productivity. Front-line workers, meanwhile, faced a completely new set of challenges in doing their jobs, whether it was to minimize exposure to the coronavirus, or dealing with giant volumes of demand for their services. Across both, organizations were facing economics-based contractions, furloughs, and in other cases, hiring pushes, despite being office-less to carry all that out.

All of this had an impact on HR. People who needed to manage others, and those working for organizations, suddenly needed — and were willing to pay for — new kinds of tools to carry out their roles.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the early days, Romero said the company had to quickly adjust to what the market was doing.

“We target HR leaders and they are currently very distracted with furloughs and layoffs right now, so we turned around and focused on how we could provide the best value to them,” Romero said to me during the Series A back in early 2020. Then, Factorial made its product free to use and found new interest from businesses that had never used cloud-based services before but needed to get something quickly up and running to use while working from home (and that cloud migration turned out to be a much bigger trend played out across a number of sectors). Those turning to Factorial had previously kept all their records in local files or at best a “Dropbox folder, but nothing else,” Romero said.

It also provided tools specifically to address the most pressing needs HR people had at the time, such as guidance on how to implement furloughs and layoffs, best practices for communication policies and more. “We had to get creative,” Romero said.

But it wasn’t all simple. “We did suffer at the beginning,” Romero now says. “People were doing furloughs and [frankly] less attention was being paid to software purchasing. People were just surviving. Then gradually, people realized they needed to improve their systems in the cloud, to manage remote people better, and so on.” So after a couple of very slow months, things started to take off, he said.

Factorial’s rise is part of a much, longer-term bigger trend in which the enterprise technology world has at long last started to turn its attention to how to take the tools that originally were built for larger organizations, and right size them for smaller customers.

The metrics are completely different: large enterprises are harder to win as customers, but represent a giant payoff when they do sign up; smaller enterprises represent genuine scale since there are so many of them globally — 400 million, accounting for 95% of all firms worldwide. But so are the product demands, as Romero pointed out previously: SMBs also want powerful tools, but they need to work in a more efficient, and out-of-the-box way.

Factorial is not the only HR startup that has been honing in on this, of course. Among the wider field are PeopleHR, Workday, Infor, ADP, Zenefits, Gusto, IBM, Oracle, SAP and Rippling; and a very close competitor out of Europe, Germany’s Personio, raised $125 million on a $1.7 billion valuation earlier this year, speaking not just to the opportunity but the success it is seeing in it.

But the major fragmentation in the market, the fact that there are so many potential customers, and Factorial’s own rapid traction are three reasons why investors approached the startup, which was not proactively seeking funding when it decided to go ahead with this Series B.

“The HR software market opportunity is very large in Europe, and Factorial is incredibly well positioned to capitalize on it,” said John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement. “Our diligence found a product that delighted customers and a world-class team well-positioned to achieve Factorial’s potential.”

“It is now clear that labor markets around the world have shifted over the past 18 months,” added Reid Christian, general partner at CRV, which led its previous round, which had been CRV’s first investment in Spain. “This has strained employers who need to manage their HR processes and properly serve their employees. Factorial was always architected to support employers across geographies with their HR and payroll needs, and this has only accelerated the demand for their platform. We are excited to continue to support the company through this funding round and the next phase of growth for the business.”

Notably, Romero told me that the fundraising process really evolved between the two rounds, with the first needing him flying around the world to meet people, and the second happening over video links, while he was recovering himself from Covid-19. Given that it was not too long ago that the most ambitious startups in Europe were encouraged to relocate to the U.S. if they wanted to succeed, it seems that it’s not just the world of HR that is rapidly shifting in line with new global conditions.

#barcelona, #booking-com, #brazil, #ceo, #crv, #enterprise, #europe, #factorial, #general-partner, #germany, #hiring, #human-resource-management, #human-resources, #ibm, #k, #k-fund, #labor, #mathematics, #onboarding, #oracle, #payroll, #people-management, #performance-management, #personnel, #sap, #software, #spain, #tiger-global-management, #united-states, #zenefits

Employee mental health platform Oliva raises $2.2M pre-seed round led by Moonfire Ventures

Just as many other employee services have gone digital, so too is mental health. In the consumer space there are growing startups like Equoo, but the race is now on for the employee.

And since telemedicine has gone digital and video-based, so too is mental health provision. A number of companies are already playing in this space, including Spill Chat, On Mind, Lyra Health, Modern Health, Ginger and TalkSpace For Business.

Oliva’s take on this is not to create a marketplace or pre-recorded videos, but to put trained professionals in front of employees to talk directly to them. And there is even science to back it up. Indeed, some research suggests Psychotherapy via the internet is as good if not better than face-to-face consultations.

Oliva’s on-demand, professional-led mental healthcare for employees and managers has now attracted investment to the tune of a $2.2m pre-seed investment round, led by Moonfire Ventures, the new seed-stage VC firm from Atomico co-founder Mattias Ljungman.

The UK and Spain-based startup has also attracted angel investment from tech executives from Amazon, Booking.com, DogBuddy, Typeform, Hotjar, TravelPerk, and more.

Oliva is founded by Javier Suarez, who previously co-founded TravelPerk, and Sançar Sahin, who previously led marketing teams at Hotjar and Typeform, so both are well blooded in startups.

Suarez says he was inspired to create a mental health startup after the rigors of TravelPerk: “Employees are a company’s greatest asset – the better they feel, the better your company performs. But organizations are not set up to support their employees’ mental health in and outside of the workplace, which creates a massive problem for teammates, managers, and the organization as a whole. We’ve launched Oliva to give employees access to comprehensive online mental healthcare and to help organizations overcome the related challenges—from attracting & retaining talent and training managers to supporting remote workers.”

Privacy is addressed via the use of a secure and encrypted personal portal, where employees can chat with a care provider who matches them with a professional. They get 1-to-1 video therapy sessions from a range of mental health professionals, and can also track their progress. 

The team has also attracted Dr. Sarah Bateup, who has spent over two decades teaching and training mental healthcare professionals, who is now Chief Clinical Officer.

She said: “Oliva improves the way mental healthcare is accessed, supported, and paid for, while also adding more ongoing oversight and accountability to the process. Our ambition is for Oliva to be viewed as a badge of quality and set a new standard for workplace mental healthcare.”

Mattias Ljungman, Founder at Moonfire Ventures, added: “Mental health has been an overlooked area of care and wellbeing, especially in the workplace. Oliva’s founders are the only team we’ve seen taking a holistic, impact-driven approach to supporting mental health. While employer-funded mental health is becoming a well-established model in the US, Oliva is the first to bring a truly comprehensive approach to UK and European businesses.”

Oliva platform is integrated with Slack, providing employees with mental health drop-in sessions, therapy courses, and dedicated training and support for managers.

#amazon, #atomico, #booking-com, #co-founder, #disability, #europe, #founder, #health, #mattias-ljungman, #mental-health, #moonfire-ventures, #talkspace, #tc, #telemedicine, #travelperk, #united-kingdom, #united-states

Holidu books $45M after growing its vacation rentals business ~50% YoY during COVID-19

Vacation rental startup Holidu has tucked $45 million in Series D funding into its suitcase — bringing its total raised since being founded back in 2014 to more than $120M.

The latest funding round is led by 83North with participation from existing investors Prime Ventures, EQT ventures, Coparion, Senovo, Kees Koolen, Lios Ventures and Chris Hitchen. Also participating, with both equity and debt, is Claret Capital (formerly Harbert European Growth Capital).

The financing will be ploughed into product development; doubling the size of the tech team; and on building out partnerships to keep expanding supply, Holidu said.

While the global pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to much of the travel industry, the Munich-headquartered startup has been able to benefit from coronavirus-induced shifts in traveller behavior.

People who may have booked city breaks or hotels pre-COVID-19 are turning to private holiday accommodation in greater numbers than before — so they can feel safer about going on holiday and perhaps enjoy more space and fresh air than they’ve had at home during coronavirus lockdowns.

Having flexible cancelation options is also now clearly front of mind for travellers — and Holidu credits moving quickly to build in flexible cancellation and payment solutions with helping fuel its growth during the pandemic.

Holidu’s meta search engine compares listings on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com, HomeAway and Vrbo and provides holidaymakers with tools to zoom in on relevant rentals — offering granular filters for property amenities; property type; and distances to the beach/lake etc.

It can also be used to search only for listings with a free cancelation policy.

“We see that many travellers have chosen vacation rentals in rural destinations over hotels or cities,” confirms CEO and co-founder Johannes Siebers. “In spite of this shift in preference, the overall European vacation rental market declined in 2020 due to the strong travel restrictions in many months. Holidu managed to grow against this trend by responding very quickly to the increased demand for domestic lodging and for flexible cancellation options.”

The startup saw year-over-year growth of circa 50% in 2020 — and greater than 2x growth in its contribution margin, per Siebers.

“[That] enabled us to become profitable with our search business,” he adds. “Revenues for 2021 are still difficult to forecast due to the uncertain pandemic and political outlook but we expect a significantly higher growth rate compared to 2020.”

Holidu is active in 21 countries with its search engine — which now combines more than 15M vacation rental offers from over a thousand travel sites and property managers. In July 2020 alone, it said that more than 27M travellers used the product.

Its search engine business has a mixed business model, with Holidu taking a commission per click with a minority of its partners and earning a commission for each booking generated with the majority.

In another strand of its business, under the Bookiply brand, it works directly with property owners to help them maximize bookings via a software-and-service solution — offering to take the digital management strain in exchange for a cut of (successful) bookings.

Back in 2019 it was managing 5,000 properties via Bookiply. Now Siebers says it’s “on track” to grow to more than 10,000 properties by the end of this year.

Bookiply has become the largest supplier of vacation rentals in what it described as “important leisure destinations” such as the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Sardinia (which are all very popular holiday destinations with German travellers).

Part of the Series D funding will go on opening more Bookiply offices across Europe so it can grow its service offering for regional vacation rental owners.

The division aims to reach property owners whose properties are not yet online, as well as optimizing digital listings that aren’t doing as well as they might, so having physical service locations is a strategy to help with onboarding owners who may be newbies to digital listing.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Laurel Bowden, partner at 83North said: “Vacation rentals are a very competitive market and Holidu’s growth throughout the pandemic has been highly impressive. We are attracted by their strong operating efficiency and proven ability to grow market by market.”

Last year Holidu was among scores of startups in the travel, accommodation and jobs sectors that signed a letter to the European Commission urging antitrust action against Google.

The coalition accused the tech giant of unfairly leveraging its dominant position in search in order to elbow into other markets via tactics like self-preferencing, warning EU lawmakers that homegrown businesses were at risk without swift enforcement to rein in abusive behaviors.

Although in Holidu’s case it’s managed to grow despite the pandemic — and despite Google.

Asked how much of an ongoing concern Google’s behavior is for the growth of its business, Siebers told TechCrunch: “Given its size and market position, we believe Google carries a special responsibility in the search market. Furthermore, we believe in merit based competition to drive innovation and provide users with the best products. We have joined the letter to the EC as in our view, Google does not fully live up to its responsibilities in all areas of its product.

“The way Google displays specialized search products in many travel verticals does, in our view, not comply with the principle of fair, merit based competition. It gives Google’s own product eyeballs which no other player could attract in the same way.”

“We have not yet seen noticeable changes in Google’s search box integration but we are confident that Google will eventually provide a level playing field. Even if this would take some time and is important, we are not overly worried as we have a very diversified business. Among others, with Bookiply we have a strongly growing offering towards homeowners which is independent of Google’s activities in the market,” he added.

Since the coalition wrote the letter the Commission has unveiled a legislative proposal to apply ex ante regulations to so called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — a designation that looks highly likely to apply to Google, although the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is still a long way off becoming pan-EU law.

Siebers said Holidu supports this plan for a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ that the most powerful platforms must abide by.

“We are supportive of the commission’s proposal and believe not only the act itself but also enforcement will drive innovation and better products for customers,” he added. “Enabling free and fair competition is a core deliverable for a regulator in a market place and we have high expectations towards the EU in this regard. If we achieve this, I am certain we will  see an  increase in innovation, investments and activities in areas which are currently impacted by gatekeeper’s activities.”

#83north, #airbnb, #booking-holdings, #booking-com, #covid-19, #europe, #european-commission, #european-union, #fundings-exits, #holidu, #homeaway, #kees-koolen, #laurel-bowden, #munich, #payment-solutions, #prime-ventures, #search, #search-engine, #sharing-economy, #tc, #tourism, #travel, #travel-industry, #travel-sites, #vacation-rental, #vrbo

TravelPerk raises $160M in equity and debt after a year of derailed business trips

The pandemic has hammered the travel sector over the past 12 months so you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit of pre-COVID-19 déjà vu at this news: Business trip booking platform TravelPerk is announcing a $160M Series D.

The round, which is a mix of equity and debt funding, is led by London-based growth equity firm Greyhound Capital. Existing investors also participated (specifically: DST, Kinnevik, Target Global, Felix Capital, Spark Capital, Heartcore, LocalGlobe and Amplo).

No valuation is being disclosed, nor is the split between equity and debt. So it’s a bit more of a convoluted ‘vote of confidence’ vs TravelPerk’s pre-pandemic raises — as you’d expect given the locked down year we’ve all had.

The Series D means the 2015-founded Barcelona-based startup has pulled in a total of $294M to-date for its user-friendly retooling of business trip booking geared toward ‘global SMEs’, following a top-up of $60M (in 2019) to its 2018 $44M Series C — which itself fast-followed a $21M Series B that same year.

TravelPerk’s approach is akin to a consumerization play for the (non-enterprise end of) business trip booking, combining what it bills as “the world’s largest bookable travel inventory” — letting users compare, book and invoice trains, cars, flights, hotels and apartments from a range of providers including Kayak, Skyscanner, Expedia, Booking.com, and Airbnb — with tools for businesses to manage and report trips.

There’s the obligatory freemium tier for the smallest teams. It also offers 24/7 traveler support, a flexible booking option and an open API for custom integrations.

There was no funding announcement for TravelPerk in 2020, as investors took a break from the pandemic-struck sector. But earlier this year it told TechCrunch it had been starting to see interest picking up again, as of fall 2020. The closing of a Series D now — albeit debt and equity — suggests VCs are getting over the worst of their travel wobbles.

(Another sign on that front is the $155M Series E raise for U.S.-based TripActions, which closed in January on a $5BN valuation, as U.S. corporate travel lifted off from 2020’s lows.)

TravelPerk’s PR talks bullishly about momentum and using the funds to accelerate ‘global growth’, even as the coronavirus continues to hit parts of Europe and the U.S. — its two main markets — despite what are relatively advanced vaccination rollouts (especially the US) vs other parts of the world.

At the time of writing, COVID-19 is taking a particularly heavy toll on India, where the health system looks to be careening out of control in the face of a massive wave of infections. Parts of Latin America are also struggling. A third of the way through 2021 the pandemic looks far from done. And that makes for a still uncertain outlook for business travel over the coming months.

The typical pre-pandemic business trip is now a Zoom call, while former conference calls may have morphed into emails or group chatter in Slack. And there’s no immediate reason for that to change, given remote-working professionals have had a year to adjust to a richer mix of digital comms tools.

In 2021 it’s hard to imagine an overwhelming return for business travel — not least as plenty of offices remain shuttered. The contagion risk vs hard-to-quantify in-person networking rewards associated with non-essential business trips will surely see work trips remaining a hard sell for a lot of companies.

Still, TravelPerk and its investors are willing to bet that work trips will rebound — in time.

The plan is to be ready to meet what it expects will be a far more ‘moveable feast’ of business travel demand in the future.

“Travel is definitely coming back,” says CEO and co-founder, Avi Meir. “We can see that already with the numbers. In the US for instance, we can see a 70-75% recovery in domestic flights compared to the baseline before COVID-19.

“In Europe it’s a little less certain right now, as vaccine rollout isn’t as fast, but you can look to other parts of the world and with some degree of certainty predict what the European recovery will eventually look like by looking at those examples.”

“We expect the overall global recovery in travel to be uneven over the next year, with different countries reopening at different times, meaning constantly changing guidelines and restrictions,” he goes on. “We’ll continue living in a stage of uncertainty probably for the next 12 months or longer.

“We’ve realised from speaking to our customers that the demand for travel is there, people are eager to do these trips, but this period of uncertainty makes it difficult for them so we’re focused on finding solutions that can address that.”

TravelPerk didn’t sit on its hands last year as global business travel cratered. Instead, it focused on investing in product development, making bets on how it needs to tool up for the new climate of increased uncertainty — including by taking a number of steps toward making its business more resilient to the ravages of COVID-19.

Last October it launched an API — saying it wanted to help the wider travel industry access up to date info on coronavirus restrictions. It also picked up a risk management startup, called Albatross, back in July, to feed its own resilience efforts.

Another more recent acquisition was geared toward scaling its business in the U.S. — where domestic travel looks to be recovering faster than Europe. In January it announced it was buying YC-backed rival NexTravel — gaining a base in Chicago.

At the same time, it inked a partnership with Southwest Airlines to plug a key gap in its U.S. offering.

Meir avoids breaking out any revenue growth projections for the U.S. or Europe for this year or next, when we ask, which suggests he’s preparing for lean growth in the short term.

What he does say is that investors were impressed TravelPerk managed to grow its customer base 2x in 2020 (it now has 3,000+ businesses using its platform, including a bunch of familiar startup names) — and that it avoided making layoffs (when other travel businesses swung the axe).

“Last year we doubled the size of our customer-base and we now have over 3,000 businesses using the platform, including the likes of Wise, Farfetch, GetYourGuide and Monzo. The travel budget under management also increased by almost 100% over the last 12 months,” he tells TechCrunch.

“The reason we had such interest from investors with this round is because we had, given the context, a really good 2020. We doubled our customer base, avoided making layoffs, and most importantly we were there for our customers when they needed us, constantly investing in the product to enable safe travel during Covid.”

The thesis TravelPerk is now working to is that “flexibility, safety and sustainability” will be more important than ever for business travellers, per Meir.

“Flexibility, because travel still has a lot of friction due to the different restrictions and travel lockdowns mean that a trip could be cancelled at really short notice,” says Meir. “Safety, so that every traveler knows not only what specific health requirements are in place at their destination, but also that they will get updates in real time if anything changes. Sustainability, because in this period businesses have been taking stock and realising that we all have to do more in terms of our environmental impact — and of course travel is a big part of this.”

“We have worked hard to respond quickly to these requirements,” he continues. “We updated our product and product roadmap to better match these new needs. Our flexible booking tool FlexiPerk [which TravelPerk happened to launch pre-pandemic, in summer 2019] guarantees refunds on cancelled trips at short notice; our risk-management API TravelSafe keeps travellers updated in real time on local health guidelines and restrictions; and GreenPerk, our sustainability tool, directly reduces carbon emissions through initiatives run by our partner Atmosfair.”

Sustainability and business travel aren’t a natural pairing, however. Certainly not for air travel — where environmental groups accuse carbon offsetting schemes of boiling down to ‘greenwashing’ when what’s really needed to achieve a reduction in CO2e emissions is for people to take fewer flights.

TravelPerk launched its GreenPerk offsetting scheme in February 2020, letting customers pay a fee per carbon tonne to cover its guesstimate of the total emissions toll their trip will generate. But it’s only been applied to 10% of its business volume so far.

With 90% not even being offset, you hardly need to be Greta Thunberg to call that the opposite of ‘sustainable’.

Still, Meir says he expects the offset percentage to “grow rapidly”. “We intend to use this funding to develop GreenPerk even further,” he says, adding: “We want to be the standard bearer for the industry in terms of sustainable business travel.”

However when asked whether TravelPerk might seek to advance sustainability by supporting digital replacement itself (such as by being able to offer its users videoconferencing as an alternative to flying) he declines to comment, saying: “We don’t have anything to share yet on how we’ll advance that goal [sustainability] right now, but we’re working on some exciting ideas!”

Coming up with creative ways to reduce the need for business travel certainly doesn’t feature in TravelPerk’s near term vision.

Meir predicts a “full comeback” for business travel — arguing that “the meetings that matter happen in person” — while conceding that the travel industry will nonetheless be very different. (Hence its goal of “building the products for that [more flexible] future”.)

“We expect to double down on growth in the U.S. and Europe and that includes making key hires across all roles, especially in our hubs in Chicago, London, and Barcelona,” he says, adding that it expects the team to grow “rapidly” in the next 12-24 months (without putting any numbers on the planned hires).

TravelPerk will also continue to eye acquisition targets, per Meir. “Following our first two acquisitions, of Albatross and NexTravel, this funding round will also help us to continue being aggressive in our growth strategy. We aim to complete more acquisitions this year,” he says on that. 

“Whilst many other providers have been in hibernation over the past year, we’ve been aggressive, continuing to update our product and growing our customer base, and we think that gives us a great foundation for growth in 2021 and beyond,” he adds.

Commenting on the Series D in a statement, Pogos Saiadian, investor at Greyhound Capital, said: “There is no doubt that from 2021 onwards the average business trip will look very different to how it did in 2019. We are confident that business travel will recover and thrive in the years ahead. We also believe that people will, more than ever before, need a platform like TravelPerk that has deep inventory, excellent ‘seven-star’ customer service, provides a great traveler experience and integrates with the broader tech-stack.

“We believe that this is a huge long-term opportunity, and as customers ourselves, we see first-hand the tremendous value that TravelPerk provides across organizations, from finance to admin and the travellers themselves. The fact the company is beating growth expectations already for this year further supports our belief that TravelPerk is a true market leader, and we are delighted to be supporting the next stage of the company’s growth with this investment.”

 

#air-travel, #airbnb, #api, #avi-meir, #barcelona, #booking-com, #business-travel, #chicago, #europe, #expedia, #farfetch, #fundings-exits, #getyourguide, #greyhound-capital, #kayak, #nextravel, #saas, #skyscanner, #tc, #travel-industry, #travelperk, #united-states, #video-conferencing

Travel startups cry foul over what Google’s doing with their data

As the antitrust drumbeat continues to pound on tech giants, with Reuters reporting comments today from the US Justice Department that it’s moving “full-tilt” on an investigation of platform giants including Google parent Alphabet, startups in Europe’s travel sector are dialling up their allegations of anti-competitive behavior against the search giant.

Google has near complete grip on the search market in Europe, with a regional marketshare in excess of 90% according to Statcounter. Unsurprisingly industry sources say a majority of travel bookings start as a Google search — giving the tech giant huge leverage over the coronavirus-hit sector.

More than half a dozen travel startups in Germany are united in a shared complaint that Google is abusing its search dominance in a number of ways they argue are negatively impacting their businesses.

Complaints we’ve heard from multiple sources in online travel range from Google forcing its own data standards on ad partners to Google unfairly extracting partner data to power its own competing products on the cheap.

Startups are limited in how much detail they can provide about Google’s processes on the record because the company requires advertising partners to sign NDAs to access its ad products. But this week German newspaper Handelsblatt reported on antitrust complaints from a number of local startups — including experience booking platform GetYourGuide and vacation rental search engine HomeToGo — who are accusing the tech giant of stealing content and data.

The group is considering filing a cartel complaint against Google, per its report.

We’ve also heard from multiple sources in the European travel sector that Google has exhibited a pattern of trying to secure the rights to travel partners’ content and data through contracts and service agreements.

One source, who did not wish to be identified for fear of retaliation against their business, told us: “Each travel partner has certain specialities in their business model but overall the strategy of Google has been the same: Grab as much data from your partners and build competing products with that data.”

Not ok, Google

This is now a very familiar complaint against Google. Crowdsourced reviews platform Yelp has been accusing the tech giant of stealing content for years. More recently, Genius got creative with a digital watermark that caught Google redhanded scraping lyrics content from its site which it pays to license (but Google does not). As Lily Allen might put it, it’s really not okay.

Last month’s Congressional antitrust subcommittee hearing kicked off with exactly this accusation too — as chair, David Cicilline, barked at Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai: “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Pichai dodged the question by claiming he doesn’t agree with the characterization. But for Google and parent Alphabet there’s no dodging the antitrust drumbeat pounding violently in the company’s backyard.

In Europe, Google’s business already has a clutch of antitrust enforcements against it — starting three years ago, in a case which dated back six years at that point, with a record breaking penalty for anti-competitive behavior in how it operated a product search service called Google Shopping. EU enforcements against Android and AdSense swiftly followed. Google is appealing all three decisions, even as it continues to expand its operations in lucrative verticals like travel.

The Commission’s 2017 finding that Google is dominant in the regional search market carried what lawmakers couch as a “special responsibility” to avoid breaching the bloc’s antitrust rules in any market Google plays in. That finding puts the travel sector squarely in the frame, although not yet under formal probe by EU regulators (although they have opened an active probe of Google’s data collection practices, announced last year).

EU regulators are also examining a range of competition concerns over its proposed acquisition of Fitbit, delaying the merger while they consider whether the deal would further entrench Google’s position in the ad market by giving it access to a trove of Fitbit users’ health data that could be used for increased ad personalization.

But so far, on travel, the Commission has been keeping its powder dry.

Yet for around a decade the tech giant has been building out products that directly compete for travel bookings in growth areas like flight search. More recently it’s added hotels, vacation rentals and experiences — bringing its search tool into direct competition with an increasing range of third party booking platforms which, at least in Europe, have no choice but to advertise on Google’s platform to drive customer acquisition.

One key acquisition underpinning Google’s travel ambitions dates back to 2010 — when it shelled out $700M for ITA, a provider of flight information to airlines, travel agencies and online reservation systems. The same year it also picked up travel guide community, Ruba.

Google beat out a consortium of rivals for ITA, including Microsoft, Kayak, Expedia, and Travelport, who relied upon its data to power their own travel products — and had wanted to prevent Google getting its hands on the data.

Back then travel was already a huge segment of search and online commerce. And it’s continued to grow — worth close to $700BN globally in 2018, per eMarkter (although the coronavirus crisis is likely to impact some recent growth projections, even as the public health crisis accelerates the industry’s transition to digital bookings) — all of which gives Google huge incentive to carve itself a bigger and bigger share of the pie. 

This is what Google is aiming to do by building out ad units that cater to travellers’ searches by offering flights, vacation rentals and trip experiences, searchable without needing to leave Google’s platform. 

Google defends this type of expansion by saying it’s just making life easier for the user by putting sought for information even closer to their search query. But competitors contend the choices it’s making are far more insidious. Simply put, they’re better for Google’s bottom line — and will ultimately result in less choice and innovation for consumers — is the core argument. The key contention is Google is only able to do this because it wields vast monopoly power in search which gives it unfair access to travel rivals’ content and data.

It’s certainly notable that Alphabet hasn’t felt the need to shell out to acquire any of the major travel booking platforms since its ITA acquisition. Instead its market might allows it to repackage and monetize rival travel platforms’ data via an expanding array of its own vertical travel search products. 

One of the German consortia of travel startups with a major beef against Google is Berlin-based HomeToGo. The vacation rentals platform confirmed to TechCrunch it has filed an antitrust complaint against the company with the European Commission.

It told us it’s watched with alarm as Google introduced a new ad unit in search results which promotes a vacation rental search and booking experience — displaying property thumbnails, alongside locations and prices plotted on a map — right from insight Google’s platform.

Screengrab showing Google vacation rental ad unit, populated with content from a range of partners

Discussing the complaint, HomeToGo CEO and co-founder, Dr Patrick Andrae, told us: “Due to the monopoly Google has in horizontal search, just by having this kind of access [to the vast majority of European Internet searchers], they’re so top of the funnel that they theoretically can go into any vertical. And with the power of their monopoly they can turn on products there without doing any prior investment in it.

“Anyone else has to work a lot on SEO strategies and these kind of things to slowly go up in the ranking but Google can just snap its fingers and say, basically, tomorrow I want to have a product.”

The complaint is not just that Google has built a competing ad product in vacation rentals but — following what has become a standard colonizing playbook for seemingly any vertical area Google sees is grabbing traffic — its packaging of the competing product is so fully featured and eye-catching that it results in greater prominence for Google’s ad vs organic search results (or indeed paid ad links) where rivals may appear as plain old blue links.

“They create this giant, colorful super CTA [call-to-action], as we call it — this one-box thing — where everything is clickable and leads you into the Google product,” said Andrae. “They explain that it’s better for the user experience but no one ever said that the user wants to have a one-box there from Google. Or why shouldn’t it be a one-box from HomeToGo? Or why shouldn’t it be a one-box in the flight word from Kayak? Or in the hotel world from Trivago? So why is it just the Google product that’s colorful, nice, and showing up?”

Andrae argues that the design of the unit is intended to give the user the impression that “Google has everything there”, on its platform. So, y’know, why go looking elsewhere for a vertical search engine?

He also points out that the special unit is not available to competitors. “You cannot buy it,” he said. “So even if you would like to have this prominent kind of placement you cannot buy that as a third party company. Even if you would like to pay money for it — I’m not talking about being in the product itself, that’s another topic — but just having the same kind of advertisement, because it is what they do — they advertise their own product there for free — and this is our complaint.”

Pay with your data

In 2017, when the Commission slapped Google with the first record-breaking penalty over its search comparison service — finding it had systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service over and above rival services in organic search results — competition chief Margrethe Vestager disclosed it had also received complaints about Google’s behavior in the travel sector.

Asked about the sector’s concerns now, some three years later, a Commission spokeswoman told us it’s “monitoring the markets concerned” — but declined to comment on any specific gripes.

Here’s another complaint: GetYourGuide, a Berlin based travel startup that’s created a discovery and booking platform for travel tours and experiences, has similar concerns about Google’s designs on travel experience booking — another travel segment the tech giant is moving into via its own eye-catching ad units flogging experiences.

“They want to create experience products now directly on Google search itself, with the aim that ultimately people can book these type of things on Google,” said GetYourGuide CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck. “What Google tries to do now is they try to get [travel startups’] content and our data in order to create new competitive products on Google.”

The startup is unhappy, for example, that a ‘Things to do’ ad product Google shows in its search results doesn’t link to GetYourGuide’s own search page — which would be the equivalent and competing third party product.

“Google will not allow us to link them into our search but only into the details page so the customer sees even less of our brand,” he said. “Or in Maps, for instance, if you go to Eiffel Tower and press to book tickets you don’t see any of GetYourGuide despite us fulfilling that order.”

He also rejects Google’s claim against this sort of complaint that it’s simply ‘doing the right thing for the user’ by not linking them out to the rival platform. “We do know from our data that users convert better and spend more time on our site and have higher engagement rates when we link them into our search and then deeper down into the funnel,” he told TechCrunch. “What Google is saying is not that it serves the user — it serves Google and it serves their profits. Because the deeper down the funnel that you link, the user will either buy or they will bounce back to Google and search for the next product. If you link into searches — if you don’t verticalize as much — then the user will end up in a different ecosystem and might not bounce back to Google.”

“As a partner [of Google] you have limited choice to participate [in its ad products]. You do need to give Google that content and then Google will try to move as many of the customers to them,” Reck added. “I don’t think there ever will be a world where booking.com or Expedia or GetYourGuide will disappear — rather our brands will start to disappear.

“That is something that I think ultimately is bad for the customer and only serves Google, again, because the customer will, in the long run, have no other choice and no other visibility on how he can get to choice than to go through Google because our brands will basically be hidden behind a Google wall. That will turn Google firmly away from what their original mission was… to steer people to the most relevant content on the web… Now they are trying to be completely the opposite; they’re trying to be the Amazon or Alibaba of travel and try to keep and contain people in their ecosystem.”

During the congressional antitrust subcommittee hearing last month Pichai claimed Google faces fierce competition in travel. Again, Reck contends that’s simply not true. “In Europe more than 75% of travellers go to Google to search for travel and all those users are free,” he said. “Everyone else in the travel industry pays Google top dollar… for these queries. Which competition exactly is he referring to?”

“[Pichai] then claimed that they’re not leveraging partners’ content — that’s not accurate. If you look at Google if you want to be in the top results these days you either pay or you give them data so that they can build their own products into search.”

“This dates back ten years now when they acquired ITA software, which is the leading data provider for flights,” Reck added. “They’ve just paved their way into travel. I think their intent is very clear at this point that they have no interest in their partners — or their customers for that matter, who like the choice that’s being offered on Google.”

“What they want to morph into, basically, is to turn Google into the Amazon of travel where everyone else maybe a content provider or a fulfilment agent but the consumer has no choice but to go through Google. I think that is the key intent here. They want to limit consumer choice. And they want to monopolise the space. We don’t want that and we will fight that. And if that means we need to go to the EU Commission to protect our and the customers’ interests then we’ll do that and we’re currently reviewing that option.”

The looming harm for consumers around reduced choice could manifest in poorer customer service, which is an area vertical players tend to focus on — whereas Google, as a platform funnel, does not.

Another German travel startup — Munich-based FlixBus — was also willing to go on the record with concerns about the impact of Google’s market power on the sector, despite not being in the same position as its business is not an aggregator.

Nonetheless, FlixBus Jochen Engert, founder and CEO, called on regional lawmakers to act against what he described as Google’s “systematic abuses” of market dominance.

“We call on the politicians in Germany and the EU to now work for fair competition on the Internet. It must be forbidden that monopolistic companies like Google abuse their market power, especially in times of crisis, and prevent competition for the benefit of the customer due to their dominance,” he told us. “Google systematically abuses its dominant market position to seal off access to customers from competitors and gets away with it time and again. It is only a matter of time before other industries and business models, in addition to travel, hotel and flight bookings, are permanently threatened.

“For FlixMobility [FlixBus’ parent company] as an internationally positioned market leader with its own platform, technology and our unique content, the situation is more relaxed than for smaller start-ups or those which also aggregate content such as Google. Nevertheless, in our opinion Google should be obliged to list and market its own products in search results on an equal footing with comparable offers. Here regulation must not stand by and watch for too long, but must react before Google irretrievably controls customer access and excludes competition.”

GetYourGuide’s Reck expressed hope that German lawmakers might be able to offer more expeditious relief to the sector than the European Commission — whose competition investigations typically grind through the details for years.

“The German government is actually very alert at this point in time,” he said. “They’re currently working on a new competition legislation that they will put in place probably within the next six months. It’s already in the making — and that will also be addressed to exactly that type of behavior of global, quasi-monopolistic platforms crossing the demarcation line, moving into other fields and trying to leverage their monopoly in order to create synergies in adjacent fields and crowd out competition.”

Asked what kind of intervention he would like to see regulators make against Google, Reck suggests its business should be regulated akin to a utility — advocating for controls on data, including around the openness of data, to level the playing field.

Though he also told us he would be supportive of more radical measures, such as breaking Google up. (But, again, he says speed of intervention is of the essence.)

“If you look at all of the data that Google collects, whether that’s consumer reviews, availability from its partners, all of the content from its partners, all of the information that they have through Android, whether that’s geo-specific data, whether that is interests, whether that is contextual information, Google is training their algorithms day and night on this data, no one else can. But we all have to provide data to Google,” he said.

“That’s not a level playing field. We need to think about how we can have a more open data architecture, that obviously is compliant with our data privacy laws but where developers from anywhere can build products based on the Google platform… As a developer in travel it’s currently very hard for me to access any data from Google so I can build better products for consumers. And I think that really needs to change — Google needs to open us for us to create a more vibrant and competitive ecosystem.”

“At a national or EU level we need to have an updated legal code that allows for quick interventions,” Reck added, saying competition enforcement simply can’t carry on at the same pace as for the markets of the past. “Things are moving way too quickly for that. You need to take a completely new approach.

“As Google correctly pointed out consumer prices have fallen but falling consumer prices is the weapon in tech; offering products for free allows you to gain marketshare in order to crowd out competition, which again leaves less choice for the customer so I think we need to think about how we think about tech and platforms in new ways.”

The Commission is currently consulting on whether competition regulators need a new tool to be able to intervene more quickly in digital markets. But there’s more than a trace of irony that its adherence to process means further delay as regulators question whether they need more power to intervene in digital markets to prevent tipping, instead of acting on long-standing complaints of market abuse attached to the 800lb gorilla of Internet search — with its “special responsibility” not to trample on other markets.

Reached for comment on the travel startups’ complaints, a Google spokeswoman sent us this statement:

There are now more ways than ever to find information online, and for travel searches, people can easily choose from an array of specialized sites, like TripAdvisor, Kayak, Expedia and many more. With Google Search, we aim to provide the most helpful and relevant results possible to create the best experience for users around the world and deliver valuable traffic to travel companies.

During the pandemic, we’ve been working hard with our partners in the travel industry to help them protect their businesses and look toward recovery. We launched new tools for airlines so they can better predict consumer demand and plan their routes. For hotels, we expanded our ‘pay per stay’ program globally to shift the risk of cancellation from our partners to us. And we’ve updated our search products so consumers can make informed decisions when planning future travel, further reducing the risk of cancellation.

The company did not respond to our request for a response to claims we heard that it seeks to secure rights to partners’ content and data via contracts and service agreements.

No relief

In another sign of the growing rift between Google and its travel partners in Europe, German startups in the sector banded together to press it for better terms during the coronavirus crisis earlier this year — accusing the tech giant of being inflexible over payments for ads they’d runs before the crisis hit. This meant they were left with a huge hole in their balance sheets after making mass refunds for travellers who could no longer take their planned trip. But the gorilla wasn’t sympathetic, demanding full payment immediately.

Asked what happened after TechCrunch reported on their concerns at the end of April, Reck said Google went silent for a few weeks. But as soon as the travel market started picking up in Germany — and GetYourGuide decided it needed to start advertising on Google again — it reissued the demand for full payment.

GetYourGuide says it was left with no choice but pay, given it needed to be able to run Google ads.

Reck describes the recovery package Google offered after it made the payment as “a Google recovery package” — as it was tied to GetYourGuide spending a large amount on YouTube ads in order to get a small discount.

The offer would recoup only “fraction” of GetYourGuide’s original losses on Google ads during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, per Reck. “YouTube obviously is not where we lost the money. We lost the money in search where we had high intent customers, Google customers that wanted to come and shop. So that to us was [another] slap in the face,” he added.

#advertising-tech, #alphabet, #antitrust, #booking-com, #competition-law, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #ecommerce, #europe, #expedia, #flixbus, #getyourguide, #google, #hometogo, #margrethe-vestager, #online-travel, #sundar-pichai, #trivago

Oracle and Salesforce hit with GDPR class action lawsuits over cookie tracking consent

The use of third party cookies for ad tracking and targeting by data broker giants Oracle and Salesforce is the focus of class action style litigation announced today in the UK and the Netherlands.

The suits will argue that mass surveillance of Internet users to carry out real-time bidding ad auctions cannot possibly be compatible with strict EU laws around consent to process personal data.

The litigants believe the collective claims could exceed €10BN, should they eventually prevail in their arguments — though such legal actions can take several years to work their way through the courts.

In the UK, the case may also face some legal hurdles given the lack of an established model for pursuing collective damages in cases relating to data rights. Though there are signs that’s changing.

Non-profit foundation, The Privacy Collective, has filed one case today with the District Court of Amsterdam, accusing the two data broker giants of breaching the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in their processing and sharing of people’s information via third party tracking cookies and other adtech methods.

The Dutch case, which is being led by law-firm bureau Brandeis, is the biggest-ever class action in The Netherlands related to violation of the GDPR — with the claimant foundation representing the interests of all Dutch citizens whose personal data has been used without their consent and knowledge by Oracle and Salesforce. 

A similar case is due to be filed later this month at the High Court in London England, which will make reference to the GDPR and the UK’s PECR (Privacy of Electronic Communications Regulation) — the latter governing the use of personal data for marketing communications. The case there is being led by law firm Cadwalader

Under GDPR, consent for processing EU citizens’ personal data must be informed, specific and freely given. The regulation also confers rights on individuals around their data — such as the ability to receive a copy of their personal information.

It’s those requirements the litigation is focused on, with the cases set to argue that the tech giants’ third party tracking cookies, BlueKai and Krux — trackers that are hosted on scores of popular websites, such as Amazon, Booking.com, Dropbox, Reddit and Spotify to name a few — along with a number of other tracking techniques are being used to misuse Europeans’ data on a massive scale.

Per Oracle marketing materials, its Data Cloud and BlueKai Marketplace provider partners with access to some 2BN global consumer profiles. (Meanwhile, as we reported in June, BlueKai suffered a data breach that exposed billions of those records to the open web.)

While Salesforce claims its marketing cloud ‘interacts’ with more than 3BN browsers and devices monthly.

Both companies have grown their tracking and targeting capabilities via acquisition for years; Oracle bagging BlueKai in 2014 — and Salesforce snaffling Krux in 2016.

 

Discussing the lawsuit in a telephone call with TechCrunch, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, class representative and claimant in England & Wales, said: “There is, I think, no way that any normal person can really give informed consent to the way in which their data is going to be processed by the cookies that have been placed by Oracle and Salesforce.

“When you start digging into it there are numerous, fairly pernicious ways in which these cookies can and probably do operate — such as cookie syncing, and the aggregation of personal data — so there’s really, really serious privacy concerns there.”

The real-time-bidding (RTB) process that the pair’s tracking cookies and techniques feed, enabling the background, high velocity trading of profiles of individual web users as they browse in order to run dynamic ad auctions and serve behavioral ads targeting their interests, has, in recent years, been subject to a number of GDPR complaints, including in the UK.

These complaints argue that RTB’s handling of people’s information is a breach of the regulation because it’s inherently insecure to broadcast data to so many other entities — while, conversely, GDPR bakes in a requirement for privacy by design and default.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has, meanwhile, accepted for well over a year that adtech has a lawfulness problem. But the regulator has so far sat on its hands, instead of enforcing the law — leaving the complainants dangling. (Last year, Ireland’s DPC opened a formal investigation of Google’s adtech, following a similar complaint, but has yet to issue a single GDPR decision in a cross-border complaint — leading to concerns of an enforcement bottleneck.)

The two lawsuits targeting RTB aren’t focused on the security allegation, per Rumbul, but are mostly concerned with consent and data access rights.

She confirms they opted to litigate rather than trying to try a regulatory complaint route as a way of exercising their rights given the “David vs Goliath” nature of bringing claims against the tech giants in question.

“If I was just one tiny person trying to complaint to Oracle and trying to use the UK Information Commissioner to achieve that… they simply do not have the resources to direct at one complaint from one person against a company like Oracle — in terms of this kind of scale,” Rumbul told TechCrunch.

“In terms of being able to demonstrate harm, that’s quite a lot of work and what you get back in recompense would probably be quite small. It certainly wouldn’t compensate me for the time I would spend on it… Whereas doing it as a representative class action I can represent everyone in the UK that has been affected by this.

“The sums of money then work — in terms of the depths of Oracle’s pockets, the costs of litigation, which are enormous, and the fact that, hopefully, doing it this way, in a very large-scale, very public forum it’s not just about getting money back at the end of it; it’s about trying to achieve more standardized change in the industry.”

“If Salesforce and Oracle are not successful in fighting this then hopefully that send out ripples across the adtech industry as a whole — encouraging those that are using these quite pernicious cookies to change their behaviours,” she added.

The litigation is being funded by Innsworth, a litigation funder which is also funding Walter Merricks’ class action for 46 million consumers against Mastercard in London courts. And the GDPR appears to be helping to change the class action landscape in the UK — as it allows individuals to take private legal action. The framework can also support third parties to bring claims for redress on behalf of individuals. While changes to domestic consumer rights law also appear to be driving class actions.

Commenting in a statement, Ian Garrard, managing director of Innsworth Advisors, said: “The development of class action regimes in the UK and the availability of collective redress in the EU/EEA mean Innsworth can put money to work enabling access to justice for millions of individuals whose personal data has been misused.”

A separate and still ongoing lawsuit in the UK, which is seeking damages from Google on behalf of Safari users whose privacy settings it historically ignored, also looks to have bolstered the prospects of class action style legal actions related to data issues.

While the courts initially tossed the suit last year, the appeals court overturned that ruling — rejecting Google’s argument that UK and EU law requires “proof of causation and consequential damage” in order to bring a claim related to loss of control of data.

The judge said the claimant did not need to prove “pecuniary loss or distress” to recover damages, and also allowed the class to proceed without all the members having the same interest.

Discussing that case, Rumbul suggests a pending final judgement there (likely next year) may have a bearing on whether the lawsuit she’s involved with can be taken forward in the UK.

“I’m very much hoping that the UK judiciary are open to seeing these kind of cases come forward because without these kinds of things as very large class actions it’s almost like closing the door on this whole sphere of litigation. If there’s a legal ruling that says that case can’t go forward and therefore this case can’t go forward I’d be fascinated to understand how the judiciary think we’d have any recourse to these private companies for these kind of actions,” she said.

Asked why the litigation has focused on Oracle and Saleforce, given there are so many firms involved in the adtech pipeline, she said: “I am not saying that they are necessarily the worst or the only companies that are doing this. They are however huge, huge international multimillion-billion dollar companies. And they specifically went out and purchased different bits of adtech software, like BlueKai, in order to bolster their presence in this area — to bolster their own profits.

“This was a strategic business decision that they made to move into this space and become massive players. So in terms of the adtech marketplace they are very, very big players. If they are able to be held to account for this then it will hopefully change the industry as a whole. It will hopefully reduce the places to hide for the other more pernicious cookie manufacturers out there. And obviously they have huge, huge revenues so in terms of targeting people who are doing a lot of harm and that can afford to compensate people these are the right companies to be targeting.”

Rumbul also told us The Privacy Collective is looking to collect stories from web users who feel they have experienced harm related to online tracking.

“There’s plenty of evidence out there to show that how these cookies work means you can have very, very egregious outcomes for people at an individual level,” she added. “Whether that can be related to personal finance, to manipulation of addictive behaviors, whatever, these are all very, very possible — and they cover every aspect of our lives.”

Consumers in England and Wales and the Netherlands are being encouraged to register their support of the actions via The Privacy Collective’s website.

In a statement, Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm, lead lawyer at Brandeis, said: “Your data is being sold off in real-time to the highest bidder, in a flagrant violation of EU data protection regulations. This ad-targeting technology is insidious in that most people are unaware of its impact or the violations of privacy and data rights it entails. Within this adtech environment, Oracle and Salesforce perform activities which violate European privacy rules on a daily basis, but this is the first time they are being held to account. These cases will draw attention to astronomical profits being made from people’s personal information, and the risks to individuals and society of this lack of accountability.”

“Thousands of organisations are processing billions of bid requests each week with at best inconsistent application of adequate technical and organisational measures to secure the data, and with little or no consideration as to the requirements of data protection law about international transfers of personal data. The GDPR gives us the tool to assert individuals’ rights. The class action means we can aggregate the harm done,” added partner Melis Acuner from Cadwalader in another supporting statement.

We reached out to Oracle and Salesforce for comment on the litigation.

Oracle EVP and general counsel, Dorian Daley, said:

The Privacy Collective knowingly filed a meritless action based on deliberate misrepresentations of the facts.  As Oracle previously informed the Privacy Collective, Oracle has no direct role in the real-time bidding process (RTB), has a minimal data footprint in the EU, and has a comprehensive GDPR compliance program. Despite Oracle’s fulsome explanation, the Privacy Collective has decided to pursue its shake-down through litigation filed in bad faith.  Oracle will vigorously defend against these baseless claims.

A spokeswoman for Salesforce sent us this statement:

At Salesforce, Trust is our #1 value and nothing is more important to us than the privacy and security of our corporate customers’ data. We design and build our services with privacy at the forefront, providing our corporate customers with tools to help them comply with their own obligations under applicable privacy laws — including the EU GDPR — to preserve the privacy rights of their own customers.

Salesforce and another Data Management Platform provider, have received a privacy related complaint from a Dutch group called The Privacy Collective. The claim applies to the Salesforce Audience Studio service and does not relate to any other Salesforce service.

Salesforce disagrees with the allegations and intends to demonstrate they are without merit.

Our comprehensive privacy program provides tools to help our customers preserve the privacy rights of their own customers. To read more about the tools we provide our corporate customers and our commitment to privacy, visit salesforce.com/privacy/products/

#advertising-tech, #amazon, #bluekai, #booking-com, #consumer-rights-law, #data-protection, #data-protection-law, #data-security, #digital-rights, #dropbox, #europe, #european-union, #gdpr, #general-data-protection-regulation, #google, #information-commissioners-office, #ireland, #krux, #law, #lawsuit, #london, #marketing, #mastercard, #netherlands, #online-tracking, #oracle, #privacy, #salesforce, #spotify, #tc, #united-kingdom

Supreme Court says generic domains like booking.com can be trademarked

A multistory red-brick building with a clocktower.

Enlarge / The headquarters of Booking Holdings in Amsterdam. (credit: poludziber / Getty)

The US Patent and Trademark Office erred by finding the term booking.com was too generic for trademark protection, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

Trademark law prohibits anyone from registering generic terms that describe a class of products or services. Anyone can start a store company called “The Wine Company,” but they can’t use trademark law to stop others from using the same name. When the online travel giant Bookings Holdings sought to trademark its booking.com domain name almost a decade ago, the US Patent and Trademark Office concluded that the same rule applied.

Booking Holdings challenged this decision in court. The company pointed to survey data showing that consumers associated the phrase “booking.com” with a specific website as opposed to a generic term for travel websites. Both the trial and appeals courts sided with booking.com, finding that booking.com was sufficiently distinctive to merit its own trademark—even if the generic word “booking” couldn’t be trademarked on its own.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#booking-com, #generic-marks, #policy, #supreme-court

When the C.E.O., Already Facing a Crisis, Gets the Coronavirus

Business cratered at Booking Holdings, the online travel giant. Then its chief executive found out he was sick, too.

#appointments-and-executive-changes, #booking-holdings, #booking-com, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #customer-relations, #fogel-glenn-d-1962, #kayak-com, #layoffs-and-job-reductions, #opentable-inc, #priceline-com-inc, #quarantines, #reservations-airlines-hotels-etc, #travel-and-vacations

Live From D.C., It’s the Supreme Court!

The court heard oral arguments remotely, and broadcast the audio live, for the first time Monday. It was a spectacle made for the radio age.

#booking-com, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #patent-and-trademark-office-us, #roberts-john-g-jr, #supreme-court-us, #telephones-and-telecommunications, #united-states-politics-and-government

Supreme Court Hears First Arguments via Phone

The conference call started with the usual Oyez! chant, but that was almost the only traditional thing about the arguments in a trademark case.

#booking-com, #roberts-john-g-jr, #sotomayor-sonia, #supreme-court-us, #trademarks-and-trade-names

African fintech firm Flutterwave launches SME e-commerce portal

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has launched Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the fintech company, which is an alum of Silicon Valley accelerator Y-Combinator.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” GB told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Flutterwave

He was referring to Africa’s largest e-commerce company, which operates in 11 countries and listed in an NYSE IPO last year.

Flutterwave has a very different business than the continent’s big e-commerce players and plans to stick with it, according to GB.

When it comes to reach, VC and partnerships, the startup is one of the more connected and visible operating in Africa’s tech ecosystem. The Nigerian-founded venture’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber and Booking.com.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data. Over the last 12 months the startup has been on a tear of investment, product and partnership activity.

In July 2019, Flutterwave joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Then in January of this year, the startup raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

On the potential for Flutterwave Store, there’s certainly a large pool of traders and small businesses across Africa that could appreciate the opportunity to take their businesses online. The IFC has estimated that SMEs make up 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s business serving the region’s one-billion people.

Flutterwave confirmed Flutterwave Store’s initial 15 countries will include Africa’s top economies and population countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.

Those markets already have a number of players driving digital commerce, including options for small businesses to post their wares online. Jumia’s Jumia Marketplace allows vendors register on its platform and use the company’s resources to do online retail.

Facebook has made a push into Africa that includes its overall push to get more users to sell on Facebook Marketplace. The social media giant now offers the service in Nigeria — with 200 million people and the continent’s largest economy.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Flutterwave CEO GB, Image Credits: TechCrunch

eBay has not yet gone live in Africa with its business to consumer website, that allows any cottage industry to create a storefront. The American company does have an arrangement with e-commerce startup MallforAfrica.com for limited sales of African goods on eBay’s U.S. shopping site.

On where Flutterwave’s new product fits into Africa’s online sales space, CEO GB says Flutterwave Store will maintain a niche focus on mom and pop type businesses.

“The goal is not be become like eBay, that’s advocating for everybody. We’re just giving small merchants the infrastructure to create an online store at zero cost right from scratch,” he said.

That’s something Flutterwave expects to be useful to Africa’s SMEs through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

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Online tutoring marketplace Preply banks $10M to fuel growth in North America, Europe

Online learning looks likely to be a key beneficiary of the social distancing and quarantine measures that are being applied around the world as countries grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In turn, this looks set to buoy some relative veterans of the space. To wit: Preply, a 2013-founded tutoring marketplace, is today announcing a $10 million Series A. It said the funding will be used to scale the business and beef up its focus on the US market, where it plans to open an office by the end of the year.

The Series A is led by London-based Hoxton Ventures, with European VC funds Point Nine Capital, All Iron Ventures, The Family, EduCapital, and Diligent Capital also participating.

Preply’s press release also notes a number of individual angel investors jumped aboard this round: Arthur Kosten of Booking.com; Gary Swart, former CEO of Upwork; David Helgason, founder of Unity Technologies; and Daniel Hoffer, founder of Couchsurfing.

The startup said it has seen a record number of daily hours booked on its platform this week. It also reports a spike in the number of tutors registering in markets including the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain — which are among the regions where schools have been closed as a coronavirus response measure.

Also this week Preply said some countries have seen the number of tutor registrations triple vs the same period in February, while it also reports a doubling of the number of hours students are booking on the platform in some markets.

The former TechStars Berlin alum closed a $1.3M seed back in 2016 to expand its marketplace in Europe, when it said it had 25,000 “registered” tutors — and was generating revenue from more than 130 countries.

The new funding will be used to help scale mainly in North America, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK, it said today.

Another core intent for the funding is to grow Preply’s current network of 10,000 “verified” tutors, who it says are teaching 50 languages to students in 190 countries around the world. So tackling the level of tutor churn it has evidently experienced over the years — by getting more of those who sign up to stick around teaching for a longer haul — looks to be one of the priorities now it’s flush with Series A cash.

It also plans to spend on building additional data-driven tools — including for assessments and homework.

The aim is to increase the platform’s utility by adding more features for tutors to track students’ progress and better support them to hit learning goals. “Preply wants to engage and enable tutors to develop alongside the platform, giving them the opportunity to explore training and lessons plans so they can streamline their income and maximize their classes,” it said in a press release.

Another area of focus on the product dev front is mobile. Here, Preply said it will be spending to boost the efficiency and improve the UX of its Android and iOS apps.

​“The new funding allows us to bring a more in-depth, immersive and convenient experience to both tutors and learners all over the world. Today, we are laser focused on language learning, but ultimately, I envision a future where anyone can learn anything using Preply,” said Kirill Bigai, CEO of Preply, in a statement.

“Getting to know Kirill and the team at Preply we were most impressed with their tremendous growth already in the US market as well as the size of the global market in online language tutoring. We believe the team has vast opportunity ahead of it, especially in the English-learning segment of the market where Preply already demonstrates market leadership,” added Hoxton Ventures’ Rob Kniaz in another supporting statement.

To date, Preply says some two million classes have been taken with teachers of 160 nationalities, via its marketplace. The platform maintains a strong focused on language learning, although topic-based lessons are also offered — such as maths and physics.

The business model entails taking a lead generation fee — in the form of the entire fee for the first lesson — after which it takes a revenue share of any lessons booked thereafter. The average price of a lesson on the platform is $15 to $20 per hour, per Preply, with tutors having leeway to set prices (within some fixed bounds, such as a minimum per lesson price).

The company currently employs 125 staff, based out of Kyiv (Ukraine) and Barcelona (Spain) and says its revenues have grown tenfold in the last three years.

A core tech component of the marketplace is a machine-learning matching system which it uses to increase the efficiency of pairing tutors with learners — touting this as a way to make “smarter connections” that “crack the code of effective language learning”.

In plainer language, it’s using automated decision-making to help users find a relevant teacher without having to do lots of search legwork themselves, while the platform can use AI-matching to drive bookings by managing the experience of tutor discovery in a way that also avoids students being overwhelmed by too much choice.

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