INKR draws in $3.1M to make more comics accessible to worldwide audiences

A photo of digital comics platform INKR's team

Digital comics platform INKR’s team

INKR is a digital comics platform that crosses cultural and language divides, enabling creators to reach global audiences with its proprietary localization technology. Previously bootstrapped, the company announced today that it has raised $3.1 million in pre-Series A funding led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from manga distributor TokyoPop founder and chief executive Stu Levy and VI Management managing director David Do.

Headquartered in Singapore with an office in Ho Chi Minh City, INKR was founded in 2019 by Ken Luong, Khoa Nguyen and Hieu Tran. The company says that since it launched in October 2020, its monthly average users have grown 200%. It currently partners with more than 70 content creators and publishers, including FanFan, Image Comics, Kodansha USA, Kuaikan, Mr. Blue, SB Creative, TokyoPop and Toons Family, and has more than 800 titles so far, including manga, webtoons and graphic novels.

Luong, INKR’s CEO, told TechCrunch that the platform will focus first on translated comics from top global publishers, but plans to open to small and indie creators in 2022.

At the heart of INKR’s platform is its localization technology, which the company says reduces the time spent on preparing comics for different markets from days to just hours.

“Comics localization is more than just translation. It is a time-consuming process with many steps involving many people—file handling, transcription, translation, typesetting, sound effects, quality control, etc,” Luong said.

A screenshot with some of the titles on digital comics platform INKR

Some of the titles on INKR

In addition to language, publishers also have to take into account the differences between comic styles around the world, including Japanese manga, Chinese manhua, Korean manhwa, American comics. For example, comics can be laid out page-by-page or use vertical scrolling. Some languages read from left to right, while others go from right to left.

Luong says INKR’s proprietary AI engine, called INKR Comics Vision, is able to recognize different formats and elements on a comic page, including text, dialogue, characters, facial expressions, backgrounds and panels. INKR Localize, its tool for human translators, helps them deliver accurate translations more quickly by automating tasks like text transcription, vocabulary suggestions and typesetting.

Since localization is performed by teams, including people in different locations, INKR provides them with browser-based collaboration software. The platform supports Japanese-English, Korean-English and Chinese-English translations, with plans to add more languages. Some publishers, like Kuaikan Manhua and Mr. Blue, have used INKR to translate thousands of comic chapters from Chinese and Korean into English.

INKR provides content creators with a choice of monetization models, including ad-supported, subscription fees or pay-per-chapter. Luong says the platform analyzes content to tell publishers which model will maximize their earnings, and shares a percentage of the revenue generated.

INKR is vying for attention with other digital comics platforms like Amazon-owned Comixology and Webtoon, the publishing portal operated by Naver Corporation.

Luong said INKR’s competitive advantages include the the diversity of comics is offers and the affordability of its pricing. Before launching, it also invested in data and AI-based technology for both readers and publishers. For example, users get personalized recommendation based on their reading activity, while publishers can access analytics to track title performance based on consumption trends.

In a statement, Monk’s Hill Ventures general partner Justin Nguyen said INKR’s “proprietary AI-driven platform is addressing pain points for creators and publishers who need to go digital and global—localizing for many languages quickly and cost-effectively while also helping them improve reach and readership through analytics and intelligent personalized feeds. We look forward to partnering with them to quench the huge demand for translated comics globally.”

#apps, #asia, #comics, #digital-comics-platform, #entertainment, #fundings-exits, #inkr, #inkr-comics, #publishing, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #vietnam

Shopify’s Q2 results beat estimates as e-commerce shines

Canadian e-commerce juggernaut Shopify this morning reported its second-quarter financial performance. Like Microsoft and Apple in the wake of their after-hours earnings reports, its shares are having a muted reaction to the better-than-expected results.

In the second quarter of 2021, Shopify reported revenues of $1.12 billion, up 57% on a year-over-year basis. The company’s subscription products grew 70% to $334.2 million, while its volume-driven merchant services drove their own top line up 52% to $785.2 million.

Investors had expected Shopify to report revenue of $1.05 billion.

Shopify also posted an enormous second-quarter profit. Indeed, from its $1.12 billion in total revenues, Shopify managed to generate $879.1 million in GAAP net income. How? The outsized profit came in part thanks to $778 million in unrealized gains related to equity investments. But even with those gains filtered out, Shopify’s adjusted net income of $284.6 million more than doubled its year-ago Q2 result of $129.4 million. Shopify’s earnings per share sans unrealized gains came to $2.24, far ahead of an expected 97 cents.

After reporting those results, Shopify shares are up less than a point.

In light of somewhat muted reactions to Big Tech earnings surpassing expectations, it’s increasingly clear that investors were anticipating that leading tech companies would trounce expectations in the second quarter; their earnings beats were largely priced-in ahead of the individual reports.

The rest of Shopify’s quarter is a series of huge figures. In the second three-month period of 2021, the company posted gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $42.2 billion, up 40% compared to the year-ago period. That was more than a billion dollars ahead of expectations. And the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR) grew 67% to $95.1 million in the quarter. That’s quick.

Shopify is priced like the growth will continue. Using its Q2 revenue result to generate an annual run rate for the firm, Shopify is currently valued at around 43x its present top line. That’s aggressive for a company that generates the minority of its revenues from recurring software fees, an investor favorite. Instead, investors seem content to pay what is effectively top dollar for the company’s blend of GMV-based service revenues and more traditional software incomes.

Consider the public markets bullish on the continued pace of e-commerce growth.

It will be interesting to see how BigCommerce, a Shopify competitor and fellow public company, performs when it reports earnings in early August. Shares of BigCommerce are up more than 3% today in wake of Shopify’s results. Ironic given Shopify’s relaxed market reaction to its own results? Sure, but who said the public markets are fair?

#apple, #bigcommerce, #companies, #e-commerce, #earnings, #ecommerce, #microsoft, #publishing, #shopify, #tc, #web-applications

Okendo raises $5.3M to help D2C brands ween themselves off of Big Tech customer data

While direct-to-consumer growth has exploded in the past year, some brands are finding there’s still plenty of room to forge ahead in building a more direct relationships with their customers.

Sydney-based Okendo has made a splash in this world by building out a popular customer reviews systems for Shopify sellers, but it’s aiming to expand its ambitions and tackle a much bigger problem with its first outside funding — helping brands scale the quality of their first-party data and loosen their reliance on tech advertising kingpins for customer acquisition and engagement.

“Most D2C brands are still very dependent on big tech,” CEO Matthew Goodman tells TechCrunch.

Gathering more customer reviews data directly from consumers has been the first part of the puzzle with its product that helps brands manage and showcase customer ratings, reviews, user-generated media and product questions. Moving forward Okendo is looking to help firms manage more of the web of cross-channel customer data they have, standardizing it and allowing them to give customers a more personalized experience when they shop with them.

via Okendo

“Merchants have goals and want to better understand their customers,” Goodman says. “As soon as a brand reaches a certain level of scale they’re dealing with unwieldy data.”

Goodman says that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature and Google’s pledge to end third-party cookie tracking has pushed some brands to get more serious about scaling their own data sets to insulate themselves from any sudden movements.

The company needs more coin in its coffers to take on the challenge, raising their first bout of funding since launching back in 2018. They’ve raised $5.3 million in seed funding led by Index Ventures. 2020 was a big growth year for the startup as e-commerce spending surged and sellers looked more thoughtfully at how they were scaling. The company tripled its ARR during the year and doubled its headcount. The bootstrapped company was profitable at the time of the raise, Goodman says.

Today, the company boasts more than 3,500 D2C brands in the Shopify network as customers, including heavyweights like Netflix, Lego, Skims, Fanjoy and Crunchyroll. The startup is tight-lipped on what their next product launches will look like, but plans to jump into two new areas in the next 12 months, Goodman says.

#brand, #ceo, #netflix, #publishing, #recent-funding, #shopify, #startups, #sydney, #tc, #venture-capital, #web-applications

Sneaker marketplace GOAT hits $3.7 billion valuation in Series F raise

Sneaker and streetwear empire GOAT just doubled its valuation in a massive new raise.

The GOAT Group parent company shared today that it has raised $195 million in a Series F raise valuing the fashion giant at some $3.7 billion. The raise was led by a handful of hedge funds and P/E firms including Park West Asset Management, Franklin Templeton, Adage Capital Management, Ulysses Management and funds & accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates.

GOAT has surgically defined a corner of fashion commerce outside of Amazon’s purview while growing the appeal of street wear and sneakers to a broader audience of consumers. GOAT Group has now raised just shy of $500 million in total.

This round more than doubles the $1.8 billion valuation GOAT Group reached in its Series E fundraise last year. Like other online marketplaces, GOAT saw major growth last year, expanding its audience of buyers and sellers while seeing 100% year-over-year growth in its sneaker business and 500% year-over-year growth for its newer apparel business.

GOAT details some 30 million “members” and 600,000 sellers across its platform. In a press release, the company detailed its peer-to-peer marketplace has reached some $2 billion in gross merchandise volume.

#amazon, #economy, #franklin-templeton, #goat, #livestock, #online-marketplaces, #park-west-asset-management, #publishing, #retailers, #series-e, #sneakers, #tc, #valuation

Piano raises $88M for analytics, subscription and personalization tools for publishers, adds LinkedIn as investor

As publishers face up to whatever might be their next existential crisis — there are so many options from which to choose, including Substack stealing all their writers; or Clubhouse pulling in people through audio-based conversations where news and analysis intermingle seamlessly with networking — a startup that’s helping them build more tools to keep their businesses and audiences intact, and hopefully grow, is announcing a growth round of its own.

Piano, which provides analytics and subscription services to publishers, has closed a round of $88 million, funding that it will be using to continue building out the technology that it provides to its customers, as well as forge into newer areas where it can better connect audiences online.

The funding comes on the heels of a strong period for Piano. The company works with around 1,000 customers — they include CNBC, Wall Street Journal, NBC Sports, Insider, The Economist, Gannett, Le Parisien, Nielsen, MIT Technology Review, The Telegraph, South China Morning Post and (disclaimer) TechCrunch; and it has seen revenues grow 400% since 2019.

Piano has an interesting new backer in this round that might point to what form those newer areas of development might take. LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned social networking site aimed at the working world, is participating in this Series B, which is being led by previous backer Updata Partners. Rittenhouse Ventures, which is based in Piano’s hometown of Philadelphia, is also participating.

(Piano is not disclosing valuation with this round but I understand it’s operating on a $75 million annual run rate currently. It has now raised just over $241 million.)

Trevor Kaufman, Piano’s CEO, would not be drawn out on how it specifically will be working with LinkedIn, but it’s notable that the latter company has long held back from leveraging the profiles it holds on its 740 million users to do much outside of the core LinkedIn experience.

That could be applied in a number of ways, for example similar to Facebook and Google logins to third-party sites; or for providing an identity layer to comment on stories; or even building a way to manage logins via a LinkedIn profile, which could then potentially be used to help people manage and read/consume all the content they subscribe to. Or something totally different: LinkedIn has a lot of unrealised potential that Piano could help tap.

“Members are increasingly turning to LinkedIn to stay informed on the news and views that shape their respective industries – critical to this is the work we do with trusted publishers and journalists,” said Scott Roberts, VP and Head of Business Development at LinkedIn, in a statement. “The opportunity to collaborate with Piano to help unlock more value for publisher content on LinkedIn makes it a natural strategic investment opportunity.”

The last year has seen many of us spending significantly more time indoors, and for a number of us that has also meant more reading, especially of smaller and more digestible formats such as periodicals. In a way, it’s no surprise that models like Substack’s have emerged and apparently thrived in this period, where writers are looking for different approaches and ways of connecting with readers while publishers by and large are conserving costs and strategies to weather out the storm.

Piano’s rise in that context is especially interesting, as in many cases it’s not reinventing the wheel for publishers but providing them with the tools to better leverage the content production that they already have in place. What’s notable is that in the process, it’s been able to capitalize on changing sentiments in the publishing industry. Whereas paywalls and subscriptions have in the past been seen as a drag on traffic (and the ads that get sold against it) and only useful for those in the world of B2B, now they are increasingly becoming more commonplace in a much wider range of settings, Kaufman said.

Piano’s tools are notable not just as basic levers to manage subscriptions (free and paid) but a more sophisticated set of analytics that provide more insight into how content is being read, which can in turn be used to develop those subscription tiers and determine the likelihood of people subscribing (Nieman Lab has good article on how that works here). 

To add to that, now another area where Piano is likely to develop more products is in the area of newsletters. No, not the Substack kind, but building tools for publishers to help them build out newsletter businesses that they can monetize if they choose. Indeed, the other kind of newsletter venture is far from Piano’s agenda.

“I can’t imagine a more damaging entity for journalism than Substack,” Kaufman told me. “I think it’s gotten a tremendous amount of attention from writers because it is a fantasy come true for journalists, this idea that you can make $500k a year for writing on occasion. But nothing can be farther from the truth.” He believes the model is so “pumped up venture funding” that it’s not a viable one for the long haul.

That remains to be seen, I suppose, and of course Piano has a strong vested interest in supporting its publisher customers. What it mainly says to me is that there are still some innings left in this game, and maybe some more games in a longer series.

The company may also be dipping into more M&A, given how fragmented the audience development, analytics and measurement space is. In March of this year, the company acquired AT Internet, a French company, to better manage and crunch analytics from across a number of silos, including traffic, advertising, subscriptions, engagement and more.

“Piano’s recent growth has been outstanding, and we continue to be impressed by the expanding set of capabilities they bring to both media companies and brands looking to drive more revenue from their audiences,” said Jon Seeber, general partner at Updata Partners and a member of Piano’s board, in a statement “They now have a true end-to-end platform that can power all aspects of the customer journey, allowing their clients to incorporate only the highest-quality data from across touchpoints to create the best experiences for users.”

#analytics, #funding, #media, #newsletters, #paywalls, #piano, #publishers, #publishing, #subscriptions

Led by ex-Amazonians, Acquco raises $160M to buy and scale e-commerce businesses

There has been a flurry of investments in startups focused on acquiring third-party sellers on Amazon and helping them build their businesses.

The latest is Acquco, which aims to stand out from the others in that it was formed by a pair of founders — Raunak Nirmal and Wiley Zhang — who actually worked at Amazon, and then built multimillion-dollar businesses on its platform.

The New York City-based startup has raised $160 million in debt and equity in a Series A round that it says will fund its “aggressive growth plans.” CoVenture, Singh Capital Partners, Crossbeam and other notable investors such as GoDaddy CEO Aman Bhutani put money in the equity portion of the round. Acquco would not disclose the valuation at which the money was raised, nor the exact breakdown of debt and equity, other than to say “a significant portion was equity.” But CEO Raunak Nirmal did share a few other notable things. 

For one, the company has already scaled to over $100 million in revenue since its founding (in a year’s time) while deploying less than $2 million of equity capital. Plus, it’s been profitable “since day one,” he said.

Nirmal also claims that Acquco’s proprietary technology and “proven playbooks” give it an edge against competitors such as Thrasio and Perch. Specifically, the company says it helps Amazon sellers exit their business within 30 days and continue to scale their business “to the next level” post-acquisition. It also claims to offer flexible terms and that it does not prevent entrepreneurs from selling again on Amazon.

Acquco says it identifies the best businesses to acquire, and leverages what it describes as “flexible founder-friendly deal structures,” which essentially gives sellers a way to make money from the exit and then still get a cut of revenues down the line. The company claims that it on average achieves over 100% revenue growth after migrating brands onto its platform.

Forming Acquco was not an overnight story, but rather was years in the making.

“My first job out of college was actually at Amazon. I worked as a business analyst on the merchant technologies team there, which was really focused on third-party selling and helping empower third-party sellers to grow on the platform and then just growing that segment of the business,” Nirmal recalls. “At the time, third-party selling was smaller than the retail side for Amazon.”

A lot has changed since then, of course, as that segment of the e-commerce giant’s business has grown dramatically. 

In recent years, most sales on Amazon have come through Amazon Marketplace, where millions of outside sellers compete to find customers. Many pay Amazon to store and ship their goods, making them eligible for Prime shipping through an arrangement known as Fulfillment by Amazon, or FBA. This is where Acquco is focusing. 

While at Amazon years ago, Nirmal was tasked with starting a brand on the site so he could better understand sellers’ pain points, as well as the tools that could be built “to really help them grow.”

Eventually, Nirmal left Amazon to pursue selling on Amazon full time because the brand he’d started ended up selling over $7 million in its first year. After that, he and COO Zhang built and sold multiple brands in the Amazon ecosystem before going on to consult for “some of the largest sellers in the marketplace,” primarily based in China but selling in the U.S. market.

“A lot of these guys are actually public companies now,” Nirmal said. 

The duo went on to co-found a seller outsourcing firm in the Philippines, which helps to minimize the cost of operating the brands for sellers and make it more accessible for sellers that don’t have a huge team to build something on Amazon. 

Then they founded a company called Refund Labs, a seller tool that helps sellers essentially automatically identify issues in the payments that they receive from Amazon as well as recover money on their behalf for things like inventory that gets damaged or lost or the fees that are being charged that might be incorrect. 

Nirmal stepped down as CEO of Refund Labs to form Acquco.

“What we wanted to do is take this knowledge and experience that we really have built up over the last seven years, and apply it in the best way possible,” Nirmal told TechCrunch. “And rather than building brands from the ground up, or consulting for some of these large sellers, we thought, ‘Why not go and buy the best brands, and then help grow them using our expertise?’ ”

The company says its proprietary algorithms analyze thousands of criteria sets and millions of data inputs “to automate and maximize the performance of the core functions within supply chain and brand management” across their portfolio. 

Acquco plans to use its new capital to enter “hypergrowth mode,” according to Chief Strategy Officer Jerel Ho, who most recently led corporate development and strategy at WeWork, where he closed over $40 billion in M&A deals.

The startup has the ambitious goal of scaling its portfolio to over $500 million in revenue by 2022. It plans to put the new money toward continuing to build out its technology platform — including tools that can automate the management of an entire brand on Amazon and across other retail channels — as well as continuing to acquire brands. It’s also, naturally, going to do some hiring.

“We’ve done a lot with very little,” Ho told TechCrunch. “But hyper growth plans require a much larger team across all functions.”

CoVenture founder Ali Hamed says that the Amazon third-party seller ecosystem does $200 billion of revenue and is growing at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 50%. 

“It’s the most attractive market we’ve seen since founding our firm,” he told TechCrunch. “And of all the people we’ve talked to, Raunak is as plugged into the Amazon ecosystem as anyone we could find. In many ways, he taught us how to look, think and deploy capital into the market.”

To say Hamed is bullish on Acquco would be an understatement. Since first investing in the company in 2020, Nirmal “has exceeded” all of CoVenture’s expectations.

“We’ve been begging him to take more money every three months since writing our first check,” Hamed added. “Raunak is able to help buy businesses and make them better than they ever were before. He has a vision of how to operate these assets post-purchase that other operators who are not Amazon-native just don’t have.”

Besides Thrasio, other players in the space that have recently raised funding include Branded, which recently launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding, as well as Berlin Brands Group, SellerXHeydayHeroes and Perch. And, Valoreo, a Mexico City-based acquirer of e-commerce businesses, raised $50 million of equity and debt financing in a seed funding round announced in February.

#acquco, #ali-hamed, #amazon, #berlin-brands-group, #brand-management, #china, #coventure, #crossbeam, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #funding, #fundings-exits, #godaddy, #heroes, #heyday, #mexico-city, #new-york-city, #perch, #philippines, #publishing, #recent-funding, #retailers, #sellerx, #startup, #startups, #supply-chain, #tc, #thrasio, #united-states, #venture-capital, #wework

With new owner Naver, Wattpad looks to supercharge its user-generated IP factory

Toronto-based Wattpad is officially part of South Korean internet giant Naver as of today, with the official close of the $600 million cash and stock acquisition deal. Under the terms of the acquisition, Wattpad will continue to be headquartered in, and operate from Canada, with co-founder and Allen Lau remaining CEO of the social storytelling company and reporting to the CEO of Naver’s Webtoon, Jun Koo Kim.

I spoke to Lau about what will change, and what won’t, now that Wattpad is part of Naver and Webtoon. As mentioned, Wattpad will remain headquartered in Toronto — and in fact, the company will be growing its headcount in Canada under its new owners with significant new hiring.

“For Wattpad itself, last year was one of our fastest growing years in terms of both in terms of revenue and company size,” Lau said. “This year will be even faster; we’re planning to hire over 100 people, primarily in Toronto and Halifax. So in terms of the number of jobs, and the number of opportunities, this puts us on another level.”

While the company is remaining in Canada and expanding its local talent pool, while maintaining its focus on delivering socially collaborative fiction, Lau says that the union with Naver and Webtoon is about more than just increasing the rate at which it can grow. The two companies share unique “synergies,” he says, that can help each better capitalize on their respective opportunities.

“Naver is one of the world’s largest internet companies,” Lau told me. “But the number one reason that this merger is happening is because of Webtoon. Webtoon is the largest digital publisher in the world, and they have over 76 million monthly users. Combined with our 90 million, that adds up to 166 total monthly users — the reach is enormous. We are now by far the leader in this space, in the storytelling space, in both comics and fiction: By far the largest one in the world.”

The other way in which the two companies complement each other is around IP. Wattpad has demonstrated its ability to take its user-generated fiction, and turn that into successful IP upon which original series and movies are based. The company has both a Books and a Studios publishing division, and has generated hits like Netflix’s The Kissing Booth out of the work of the authors on its platform. Increasingly, competing streaming services are looking around for new properties that will resonate with younger audiences, in order to win and maintain subscriptions.

“Wattpad is the IP factory for user generated content,” Lau said. “And Webtoons also have a lot of amazing IP that are proven to build audience, along with all the data and analytics and insight around those. So the combined library of the top IPs that are blockbusters literally double overnight [with the merger]. And not just the size, but the capability. Because before the acquisition, we had our online fiction, we have both publishing business, and we have TV shows and movies, as well; but with the combination, now we also have comics, we also have animation and potentially other capabilities, as well.”

The key to Wattpad’s success with developing IP in partnership with the creators on its platform isn’t just that its’ user-generated and crowd-friendly; Wattpad also has unique insight into the data behind what’s working about successful IP with its fans and readers. The company’s analytics platform can then provide collaborators in TV and movies with unparalleled, data-backed perspective into what should strike a chord with fans when translated into a new medium, and what might not be so important to include in the adaptation. This is what provides Wattpad with a unique edge when going head-to-head with legacy franchises including those from Disney and other megawatt brands.

“No only do we have the fan bases — it’s data driven,” Lau said. “When we adapt from the fiction on our platform to a movie, we can tell the screenwriter, ‘Keep chapter one, chapter five and chapter seven, but in seven only the first two paragraphs,’ because that’s what the 200,000 comments are telling us. That’s what our machine learning story DNA technology can tell you this is the insight; where are they excited? This is something unprecedented.”

With Naver and Webtoon, Wattpad gains the ability to leverage its insight-gathering IP generation in a truly cross-media context, spanning basically every means a fan might choose to engage with a property. For would-be Disney competitors, that’s likely to be an in-demand value proposition.

#animation, #canada, #disney, #internet, #machine-learning, #mass-media, #naver, #netflix, #publishing, #streaming-services, #tc, #toronto, #wattpad, #webtoon

Fewcents raises $1.6M to help publishers take payments for individual articles, videos and podcasts

Fewcents co-founders Dushyant Khare and Abhishek Dadoo

 

Fewcents co-founders Dushyant Khare and Abhishek Dadoo

Many publishers are focused on converting visitors to subscribers, but there’s another important bracket: people who want to view a premium article or video, but not enough to sign up for a subscription. Fewcents, a Singapore-based fintech startup that enables publishers to take “micropayments” for individual pieces of content, announced today it has raised $1.6 million in seed funding.

Fewcents can be used to monetize articles, video and podcasts. It accepts 50 currencies and is meant to serve as a complementary stream of revenue to advertisements and subscriptions. Its current clients include India’s Dainik Jagran, which has a readership of 55 million; Indonesian news site DailySocial; and streaming video site Dailymotion. The company, which monetizes by sharing revenue with digital publishers, also struck a partnership with Jnomics Media to expand in Europe.

Its funding round venture capital funds M Venture Partners and Hustle Fund. Participation also came from angel investors from some of the top fintech, adtech and media companies: Koh Boon Hwee (fomer chairman of DBS Bank); Kenneth Bishop (former managing director of Southeast Asia at Facebook); Jeremy Butteriss (head of partnerships at Stripe); Shiv Choudhury (partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group); Francesco Alberti (former APAC regional sales director for Bloomberg Media Distribution); Lisa Gokongwei-Cheng (Summit Media president); Prantik Mazumdar (Dentsu managing director), Saurabh Mittal (Mission Holdings chairman and founder) and Nitesh Kripalani (former director and country head of Amazon Video India).

Fewcents was launched last year by Abhishek Dadoo and Dushyant Khare. Dadoo’s previous startup Shoffr, an online-to-offline attribution platform, was acquired by Affle in 2019. Khare spent 12 years working at Google, including as director of strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia and India.

In an email, Dadoo and Khare told TechCrunch that only 1% to 5% of publishers’ active users are willing to commit to a monthly subscription. The majority are casual or referred users, and publishers rely on advertising to monetize that traffic.

Content creators are experimenting with micropayments, and other services include Flattr, which allows people to make one-time contributions and Axate’s pay-per-article tools. But publishers still debate how effective the model is and last year, TechCrunch reported that Google decided not to launch a tipping feature for sites.

To successfully implement a pay-per-content model, publishers not only need to produce compelling content, but also make it extremely easy for people to pay for it. For Fewcents, this means solving three key challenges, Dadoo and Khare said. First, they need to create a ubiquitous platform, since casual users won’t want to sign up for a new service every time they visit another site. It also needs to accept cross-border payments in local currency using the most popular payment methods, like digital wallets. And publishers need to be able to manage digital rights, like how long someone has access to content.

Publishers also need to determine price points that won’t turn away buyers, but will generate substantial enough revenue. Fewcents currently uses existing traffic data to manually price each piece of content. “Based on the supply-demand curve within each geography, we retroactively change the price to get the best revenue results,” Dadoo said. “However, as we develop our AI algorithms, the intent is to dynamically suggest the pricing depending on the geography and the semantics of the content.”

Khare said that by unbundling content, Fewcents can also provide deeper data than pageviews, helping them understand the preferences of specific markets and user segments, and develop customized “micro-bundles.” He added that Fewcents’ goal is to be able to automatically recommend customized content bundles for each user.

#content-monetization, #fundings-exits, #micropayments, #publishing, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

How Shopify aims to level the playing field with its machine learning-driven model of lending

Shopify is widely known for giving independent merchants a platform to start, run, market and manage their businesses.

But over the past 5 years, the company has been steadily growing another part of its own business: Shopify Capital. Through this arm, the Canadian commerce giant revealed today that it has provided $2 billion in funding to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs.

Besides being a cool milestone, how it works is interesting. Merchants don’t necessarily have to apply for loans. Shopify’s machine learning models identify eligible merchants based on their previous sales history and store performance, according to Solmaz Shahalizadeh, vice president of data science and engineering, commerce intelligence at Shopify. If a merchant accepts a pre-approved offer, they can generally receive funding in 2 to 5 business days.

While the milestone is significant, I was especially intrigued by the model by which Shopify lends money to its merchants. 

It is intentional about using machine learning and AI “to make sure offers are based on factors different from any other in the financial industry,” Shahalizadeh said. “We don’t ask for a business plan. Our models see the business performance and it’s potential and makes an offer based on that.”

“We use 70 million data points to understand larger trends across the platform for merchants, and can see they are growing before they even can so we can preemptively offer them,” she added.

Kaz Nejatian, vice president of merchant services at Shopify, emphasizes that Shopify Capital does not lend in the manner of traditional banks by charging interest on loans.

“Our funding is designed to work off sales. If you don’t sell anything, we don’t get paid back until you make sales,” Nejatian said. “It’s a highly merchant aligned form of funding designed to fund the type of people banks and VCs won’t fund.”

The company’s model also aims to eliminate any biases that exist in the current financial system, when it comes to educational background, ethnicity, race or gender, he added.

For Nejatian, it’s also personal. His mother is a Shopify merchant who herself struggled with getting capital herself last year.

“Our goal is to reduce barriers to entrepreneurship by offering access to funds,” he said.

As part of that effort, Shopify Capital has increased the maximum amount of funding to $2 million. Previously, it granted funds ranging from $200 to $1 million.

Shopify offers two types of funding – merchant cash advances and loans. Shopify Capital charges a fixed fee (factor rate) on its financings.

On a merchant cash advance for example, it purchases $10,000 of a merchant’s future receivables in exchange for a promise to remit $10,900 of their future sales. The $900 is the amount it charges for the financing, and is repaid by a merchant’s daily remittances on days they make sales.

On its loans, it also applies a similar fixed fee to get a total repayment number, which is repaid via daily payments and milestone payments.

Simply put, the fixed fee that it charges is how Shopify earns money in exchange for funding our merchants. This fee, plus the amount advanced, are returned to the company over the life of a financing via daily remittance payments.

Says the company: “By charging a fixed fee, a merchant is able to understand exactly how much they’ll be expected to repay, before they take financing from Shopify Capital. These amounts don’t change over the life of a financing.”

Over time, Shopify plans to continually improve the machine learning algorithm behind Capital, making its predictive model “even smarter,” Shahalizadeh said. 

“Our model allows us to predict merchants’ minimum sales with 90% accuracy while helping us make more proactive, pre-qualified offers as quickly as possible,” she added.

Shopify merchant Steven Borrelli, Founder of CUTS, says that when he was looking for funding as a newer business, he ran into the challenge of most traditional banks and lenders wanting to see that he had been in business for several years.

CUTS started with getting $2,000 in funding from Shopify Capital. Over the last three years, it has grown into a business with sales “in the tens of millions.”

“We found Shopify Capital to be so valuable that we’ve returned for 10 rounds of funding. Our most recent round of Shopify Capital was $1 million,” he said. “So far we’ve used the funding for expanding our product line and growing our inventory.”

#artificial-intelligence, #bank, #ecommerce, #finance, #machine-learning, #merchant-services, #online-lending, #publishing, #shopify

US indicts California man accused of stealing Shopify customer data

A grand jury has indicted a California resident accused of stealing Shopify customer data on over a hundred merchants, TechCrunch has learned.

The indictment charges Tassilo Heinrich with aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud by allegedly working with two Shopify customer support agents to steal merchant and customer data from Shopify customers to gain a competitive edge and “take business away from those merchants,” the indictment reads. The indictment also accuses Heinrich, believed to be around 18-years-old at the time of the alleged scheme, of selling the data to other co-conspirators to commit fraud.

A person with direct knowledge of the security breach confirmed Shopify was the unnamed victim company referenced in the indictment.

Last September, Shopify, an online e-commerce platform for small businesses, revealed a data breach in which two “rogue members” of its third-party customer support team of “less than 200 merchants.” Shopify said it fired the two contractors for engaging “in a scheme to obtain customer transactional records of certain merchants.”

Shopify said the contractors stole customer data, including names, postal addresses and order details, like which products and services were purchased. One merchant who received the data breach notice from Shopify said the last four digits of affected customers’ payment cards were also taken, which the indictment confirms.

Another one of the victims was Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics and make-up company, Kylie Cosmetics, the BBC reported.

The indictment accuses Heinrich of paying an employee of a third-party customer support company in the Philippines to access parts of Shopify’s internal network by either taking screenshots or uploading the data to Google Drive in exchange for kickbacks. Heinrich paid the employee in thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency, and also fake positive reviews claiming to be from merchants to whom the employee had provided customer service but had not left feedback. The indictment alleges that Heinrich received a year’s worth of some merchants’ data.

Heinrich allegedly spent at least a year siphoning off incrementing amounts of data from Shopify’s internal network, at one point asking if he could “remotely access” the customer support employee’s computer while they were asleep.

Heinrich was arrested by the FBI at Los Angeles International Airport in February,and is currently detained in federal custody pending trial, set to begin on September 7. Heinrich has pleaded not guilty.

A Shopify spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

#california, #companies, #data-breach, #ecommerce, #federal-bureau-of-investigation, #kylie-jenner, #philippines, #publishing, #security, #shopify, #spokesperson

Nuvemshop, LatAm’s answer to Shopify, raises $90M in Accel-led Series D

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to people everywhere shopping more online and Latin America is no exception.

São Paulo-based Nuvemshop has developed an e-commerce platform that aims to allow SMBs and merchants to connect more directly with their consumers. With more people in Latin America getting used to making purchases digitally, the company has experienced a major surge in business over the past year.

Demand for Nuvemshop’s offering was already heating up prior to the pandemic. But over the past 12 months, that demand has skyrocketed as more merchants have been seeking greater control over their brands.

Rather than selling their goods on existing marketplaces (such as Mercado Libre, the Brazilian equivalent of Amazon), many merchants and entrepreneurs are opting to start and grow their own online businesses, according to Nuvemshop co-founder and CEO Santiago Sosa.

“Most merchants have entered the internet by selling on marketplaces but we are hearing from newer generations of merchants and SMBs that they don’t want to be intermediated anymore,” he said. “They want to connect more directly with consumers and convey their own brand, image and voice.”

The proof is in the numbers.

Nuvemshop has seen the number of merchants on its platform surge to nearly 80,000 across Brazil, Argentina and Mexico compared to 20,000 at the start of 2020. These businesses range from direct-to-consumer (DTC) upstarts to larger brands such as PlayMobil, Billabong and Luigi Bosca. Virtually every KPI tripled in the company in 2020 as the world saw a massive transition to online, and Nuvemshop’s platform was home to 14 million transactions last year, according to Sosa.

“With us, businesses can find a more comprehensive ecosystem around payments, logistics, shipping and catalogue/inventory management,” he said.

Nuvemshop’s rapid growth caught the attention of Silicon Valley-based Accel. Having just raised $30 million in a Series C round in October and achieving profitability in 2020, the Nuvemshop team was not looking for more capital.

But Ethan Choi, a partner at Accel, said his firm saw in Nuvemshop the potential to be the market leader, or the “de facto” e-commerce platform, in Latin America.

“Accel has been investing in e-commerce for a very long time. It’s a very important area for us,” Choi said. “We saw what they were building and all their potential. So we pre-emptively asked them to let us invest.”

Today, Nuvemshop is announcing that it has closed on a $90 million Series D funding led by Accel. ThornTree Capital and returning backers Kaszek, Qualcomm Ventures and others also put money in the round, which brings Nuvemshop’s total funding raised since its 2011 inception to nearly $130 million. The company declined to reveal at what valuation this latest round was raised but it is notable that its Series D is triple the size of its Series C, raised just over six months prior. Sosa said only that there was a “substantial increase” in valuation since its Series C.

Nuvemshop is banking on the fact that the density of SMBs in Latin America is higher in most Latin American countries compared to the U.S. On top of that, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

“In Brazil, it grew 40% last year but is still underpenetrated, representing less than 10% of retail sales. In Latin America as a whole, penetration is somewhere between 5 and 10%,” Sosa said.

Nuvemshop co-founder and CEO Santiago Sosa;
Image courtesy of Nuvemshop

Last year, the company transitioned from a closed product to a platform that is open to everyone from third parties, developers, agencies and other SaaS vendors. Through Nuvemshop’s APIs, all those third parties can connect their apps into Nuvemshop’s platform.

“Our platform becomes much more powerful, vendors are generating more revenue and merchants have more options,” Sosa told TechCrunch. “So everyone wins.” Currently, Nuvemshop has about 150 applications publishing on its ecosystem, which he projects will more than triple over the next 12 to 18 months.

As for comparisons to Shopify, Sosa said the company doesn’t necessarily make them but believes they are “fair.”

To Choi, there are many similarities.

“We saw Amazon get to really big scale in the U.S.. Merchants also found tools to build their own presence. This birthed Shopify, which today is worth $160 billion. Both companies saw their market caps quadruple during the pandemic,” he said. “Now we’re seeing the same dynamics in LatAm…Our bet here is that this company and business has all the same dynamics and the same really powerful tailwinds.”

For Accel partner Andrew Braccia, Nuvemshop has a clear first mover advantage.

Over the past decade, direct-to-consumer has become one of the most important drivers of entrepreneurship globally,” he said. “Latin America is no exception to this trend, and we believe that Nuvemshop has the level of sophistication and ability to understand all that change and fuel the continued transformation of commerce from offline to online.”

Looking ahead, Sosa expects Nuvemshop will use its new capital to significantly invest in: continuing to open its APIs; payments processing and financial services; “everything related to logistics and logistics management” and attracting smaller merchants. It also plans to expand into other markets such as Colombia, Chile and Peru over the next 18-24 months. Nuvemshop currently operates in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

“While the countries share the same secular trends and product experience, they have very different market dynamics,” Sosa said. “This requires an on the ground local knowledge to make it all work. Separate markets require distinct knowledge. That makes this a more complicated opportunity, but one that enables a long-term competitive advantage.”

#accel, #amazon, #andrew-braccia, #argentina, #brazil, #chile, #colombia, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #fundings-exits, #investment, #latin-america, #market-leader, #mercado-libre, #mexico, #nuvemshop, #payments-processing, #peru, #publishing, #qualcomm-ventures, #recent-funding, #saas, #sao-paulo, #series-c, #silicon-valley, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #venture-capital

Maple launches with $3.5 million in funding to become the SaaS backoffice for the family

Much of our daily lives have been transformed in one way or another by technology – and often through intentional efforts to innovate thanks to the advent of new technology. Now more than ever, we rely on shared collaboration platforms and digital workspaces in our professional lives, and yet most of the changes wrought by tech on our home and family lives seem like the accidental effects of broader trends, rather than intentional shifts. Maple, a new startup launching today, aims to change that.

Founded by former Shopify product director and Kit (which was acquired by Shopify in 2016) co-founder Michael Perry, Maple is billed as “the family tech platform,” and hopes to ease the burden of parenting, freeing up parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and kids to spend more quality time together. The startup, which is launching its app on iPhone and Android for all and onboarding new users from its waitlist over the next few weeks, has raised $3.5 million in seed funding – an impressive round for a company just about seven months into its existence. The round was led by Inspired Capital, and includes participation by Box Group, but is also supported by a number of angels who were Perry’s former colleagues at Shopify, including Shopify President Harley Finkelstein.

Perry and his co-founder Mike Taylor, who also co-founded Kit, decided to leave Shopify in order to pursue Perry’s vision of a platform that can help parents better manage their family lives – a platform made up of a social layer, a task-focused list of shared responsibilities, and a bourgeoning service marketplace that looks and feels a lot like the ecosystem Shopify has built for empowering e-commerce entrepreneurs. That’s by design, Perry says.

“I think you’re gonna see a lot of Shopify inspiration in this product – we think we’re the back office of every family,” Perry told me in an interview. “And we think we’re building the app ecosystem of apps, services, all kinds of things that are going to live on this platform that’s going to revolutionize parenting.”

In its current early incarnation, Maple’s primary interface for parents is a list of various tasks they need to take care of during the day. During onboarding, Maple asks parents what they’re typically responsible for in the household, and then uses some basic machine learning behind the scenes to build a customized schedule for getting those things done. Maple has signed on three initial partners to assist with accomplishing some of these tasks, including Evelyn Rusli’s Yumi food and nutrition brand for infants; Lalo, a DTC baby and toddler furniture and gear brand; and Haus, which will be providing date night packages for parents to enjoy for some getaway time.

Maple co-founder Micheal Perry with his son.

The platform will offer users the ability to tap others for help with tasks – these could be other family members added to the household, or the partners mentioned above (the plan is to bring on more, but to gate admittance initially while developing API endpoints that any company can potentially tap into). When interacting with family members, Maple also encourages smalls social interactions, like thanking someone for their help on a particular task or just showing general appreciation. Perry says this is a key ingredient he prioritized in product design.

“We have this cool thing that every day at eight o’clock, we give you an end of the day recap with your family,” Perry said. “So you click on it, and it will show me that, for example, Alex [Perry’s wife] completed three responsibilities for our family today, and how many I did for my family today, and how much help I received from other people today. And directly in app, you can send these cool little ‘Thank you ‘messages and say, you know, I love you, I appreciate you – we’re a great team. And Alex will get those messages. We believe in a world where this can be incredibly dynamic, in many different ways kto kind of bring some love and appreciation and make parenting feel more rewarding and easier.”

Perry is quick to note that what Maple offers today is only the beginning, and it’s clear he has bold ambitions for the platform. He talked about building “the family graph,” or a trove of data that can be used to not only build intelligent recommendations and develop ever more advanced machine learning to optimize family management, but also to provide partners with the tools they need to build products to best serve families. I asked Perry what that means for privacy, given that people are likely to be far more reluctant to share info around their families than they are about their work lives. He said the they team plans to go slow in terms of what it exposes to partners, when, and how, and that they’ll have user privacy in mind at each step – since, after all, Perry himself is a father and a husband and is wary of any incursions on his own private life.

For now, partners like Yumi only receive what users share with them through their own account creation and login mechanism, and they only pass back a basic attribution token – essentially letting Maple know the task was completed so it can mark it off in a user’s list.

Image Credits: Maple

Maple’s partners today are representative of the kind of businesses that might make use of the platform in future, but Perry has a much broader vision. He hopes that Maple can ultimately help parents handle their responsibilities across a wide range of needs and income levels. Right now, Perry points out, a lot of what’s available to parents in terms of support is only available to higher income brackets – ie., nannies and dedicated caregivers. Perry says that his experience growing up relatively poor with a single mother supporting the entire family led him to want to provide something better.

“You have 125 million households in America, you have 3 million children being born every year, you have 30% of the households in America being single parent-run households,” Perry said. “It’s hard. Some people are working one two jobs, most couples are working couples. Every industry that’s changed has been about making things more accessible. In the case of Shopify, at one point building, an online store required hundreds of thousands of dollars and a bunch of skilled people. Now you can start a store for $20 in five minutes – 20 years ago, that was unfathomable.”

For Perry, Maple represents a path to that kind of shift in the economics of parenting and a network of family services, including goods, care, leisure and more. The startup has plans to eventually enlist other parents to provide services, which Perry says will unlock part-time income generation for full-time parents, allowing parents to help each other at the same time.

I asked him if he thought people would be reluctant to treat their family lives with the same kind of optimization approach favored by enterprise and commercial platform tools, but he suggested that in fact, not taking advantage of those same technologies in our personal lives is a missed opportunity.

“We believe that, uniquely, we’re living through a generation where we can start creating more time for people,” Perry said. “I think what makes Maple so unique is that no company has approached this by asking ‘How do we create more time for you so that you can spend more time with your kids?’ in the consolidated way that we have.”

Disclosure: I worked at Shopify from 2018 to 2019 while Perry was employed there, but we did not work together directly.

#america, #android, #api, #business, #co-founder, #companies, #evelyn-rusli, #family, #food, #inspired-capital, #iphone, #machine-learning, #platform, #president, #publishing, #recent-funding, #shopify, #social, #startup-company, #startups, #tc, #yumi

Facebook to restore news sharing in Australia after government amends proposed law

Facebook said it will begin restoring news sharing to Australian users’ feeds in “the coming days” after reaching an agreement with the country’s government. The social media giant made the drastic move of restricting news content in Australia last Wednesday after a dispute over a proposed media bargaining code that is expected to be voted into law soon. The code would have forced Facebook, and other major tech companies like Google, to make revenue-sharing agreements with publishers for content posted to their social media platforms.

Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg said changes have been made to the code to “provide further clarity to digital platforms and news media businesses about the way the Code is intended to operate and strengthen the framework for ensuring news media businesses are fairly remunerated,” reported Seven News.

The amendments mean the code now includes a two-month mediation period to allow digital platforms like Facebook and publishers to agree on deals before they are forced to enter into arbitration. The Australian government will also consider commercial agreements tech platforms have already made with local publishers before deciding if the code applies to them, and give them one month’s notice before reaching a final decision.

William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said in a statement that the company was “satisfied” with the changes, adding that they addressed Facebook’s “core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

Facebook’s restrictions last week meant Australian publishers were restricted from sharing or posting content from Facebook Pages, and users in Australia were unable to view or share Australian or international news content.

The Australian government announced in April 2020 it would adopt a mandatory code ordering Google, Facebook and other tech giants to pay local media for reusing their content, after an earlier attempt to create a voluntary code with the companies stalled.

As it lobbied against the proposed law, Facebook first threatened to restrict the public sharing of news content in Australia last September. Google also claimed that user experience in Australia would suffer and suggested it may no longer be able to offer free services in the country.

#australia, #facebook, #news, #policy, #publishing, #social-media, #tc

Big Tech opens wallet for publishers as Australian news code looms

Close-up photography

Enlarge / Close-up photography (credit: John Lamb | Getty Images)

Google and Facebook are rushing to agree to deals with Australian publishers, offering them the most generous licensing terms in the world in an attempt to persuade Canberra not to apply rules forcing tech groups to pay for news.

MPs began debating legislation on Wednesday to enact the news media bargaining code, which the EU, UK, and Canada are considering as a model for similar regulations to support publishers in their own jurisdictions.

While Google has multi-million-dollar licensing deals with publishers in almost a dozen countries, people involved in negotiations told the Financial Times the sums now under discussion in Australia were “multiple times” the size of those agreements.

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#big-tech, #facebook, #google, #newspapers, #policy, #publishing

Talking tech’s exodus, Twitter’s labels, and Medium’s next moves with founder Ev Williams

Earlier today, we had the chance to talk with Twitter and Medium cofounder Ev Williams, along with operator-turned investor James Joaquin, who helps oversee the day-to-day of the mission-focused venture firm they separately cofounded six years ago, Obvious Ventures.

We collectively discussed lot of venture-y things, some of which we’ll publish next week, so stayed tuned. In the meantime, we spent some time talking specifically with Williams about both Twitter and Medium and some of the day’s biggest headlines. Following are some excerpts from that chat, lightly edited for length and clarity.

TC: A lot of tech CEOs saying have been saying goodbye to San Francisco in 2020. Do you think the trend is attracting too much attention or perhaps not enough?

EW: I moved away from the Bay Area a little over a year ago, with my family to New York. I’d lived in San Francisco for 20 years, and I had never lived in New York, and thought, ‘Why not go? Now seems like a good time.’ Turns out I was wrong. [Laughs.] It was a very bad time to move to New York. So I was there for for six months, and quickly came back to California, which is a great place to be in a world where you’re not going into bars and restaurants and seeing people.

TC: You moved when COVID took hold?

EW: Yes. In March, Manhattan suddenly seemed not ideal. So now I’m on the peninsula.

I’m from San Francisco. It was really, for me, just honestly looking for a change. But an enabling factor that could be common in many of these cases is the fact that I no longer have to be in the office in San Francisco every day, [whereas] for most of 20 years [beforehand], all my work life was in an office in San Francisco, generally with a company I had started, so I thought it was important to be there.

This was pre COVID and remote work. But remote work was becoming more common. And I noticed in 2018 or so, with this massive number of companies that were in San Francisco —  startups and large public companies and pre IPO companies — the competition for talent had gotten more extreme than it had ever been. So it got me —  along with a lot of founders and CEOs — thinking about maybe the advantage of hiring locally and having everybody in the same office [was a pro] that was starting to get outweighed by the cons. . . And, of course, the tools and technology that make remote work possible were getting better all the time.

TC: Given that you cofounded Twitter, I have to ask about this presidential transition that is maybe, finally happening. In January, Donald Trump will lose the privileges he enjoyed as president. Given the amount of disinformation he has published routinely, do you think Twitter should have cracked down on him sooner? How would you rate its handling of a president who really tested its boundaries in every way?

EW: I think what Twitter has done especially recently is a pretty good solution. I mean, I don’t agree with the the notion or that he should have been removed altogether a long time ago. Having the visibility, literally seeing, what what the President is thinking at any given moment, as ludicrous as it is, is helpful.

What he would be doing if he didn’t have Twitter is unclear, but he’d be doing something to get his message out there. And what the company has done most recently with the warnings on his tweets or blocking them is great. It’s providing more information. It’s kind of ‘buyer beware’ about this information. And it’s a bolder step than any platform had done previously. It’s a good version of an in between where previously [people would] talk about just kicking people off, [and] allowing freedom of speech.

TC: You started Blogger, then Twitter, then Medium. As someone who has spent much of your career  focused on content and distribution, do you have any other thoughts about what more Twitter or other platforms could be doing [to tackle disinformation]? Because there is going to be somebody who comes along again with the same autocratic tendencies.

EW: I think all of society gets more information savvy — that’s one hope over the long term. It wasn’t that long ago that if something was in “media,” it was accepted as true. And now I think everyone’s skeptical. We’ve learned that that’s not necessarily the case and certainly not online.

Unfortunately, we’re now at the point where a lot of people have lost faith in everything published or shared anywhere. But I think that’s a step along the evolution of just getting more media savvy and knowing that sources really matter, and as we build both better tools, things will get better.

TC: Speaking of content platforms, Medium charges $50 per year for users to access an unlimited amount of articles from individual writers and poets. Have you said how many subscribers the platform now has?

EW: We haven’t given a precise number, but I can tell you it’s in the high hundreds of thousands. It’s been a been a couple years now, and I’m a very firm believer in the model — not only that people will pay for quality information, but that it’s just a much healthier model for publishers, be they individuals or companies, because it creates that feedback loop of ‘quality gets rewarded.’

If people aren’t getting value, they unsubscribe, and that isn’t the case with an advertising model. If people click, you keep making money, and you can kind of keep tricking people or keep appealing to lowest-common-denominator impulses. There were a couple of decades where the mantra was ‘No one will pay for content on the internet,’ which obviously seems silly now. But that was that was the established belief for such a long time.

TC: Do you ever think you should have charged from the outset? I  sometimes wonder if it’s harder to throw on the switch afterward.

EW: Yes, and no. When we first switched to this model in 2017, we created a subscription, but the vast majority of content was — and actually still is — outside of the paywall. And our model is different than most because it’s a platform, and we don’t own the content, and we have an agreement with our creators that they can publish behind the paywall if they want, and we will pay them if they do that. But they can also publish outside the paywall if they’re not interested in making money and want maximum reach. And those those models are actually very complimentary because the scale of the platform brings a lot of people in through the top of the funnel.

Scale is really important for most businesses, but for a paywall, it’s especially important because people have to be visiting with enough frequency to actually hit the paywall and be motivated to pay.

TC: Out of curiosity, what do you make of Substack, a startup that invites writers to create their own newsletters using a subscription model and then takes a cut of their revenue in exchange for a host of back end services.

EW: There’s a bit of a creator renaissance going on right now that is part of a bigger wave of a people being willing to pay for quality information, and independent writers and thinkers actually breaking out on their own and building brands and followings. And I think we’re going to see more of that.

TC: Medium has raised $132 million over the years. Will you raise more? Where do you want to take the platform in the next 12 to 24 months?

EW: We’re not yet not yet profitable, so I anticipate that we will raise more money.

There’s a very big business to be built here. While more and more people are willing to pay for content way, I don’t think that means that most people will subscribe to dozens of sources, whether they’re websites with paywalls or newsletters. If you look at how basically every media category has evolved, a lot of them have gone through this shift from free to paid, at least at the higher end of the market. That includes music, television, and even games. And at the high end, there tend to be players who own a large part of the market, and I think that comes down to offering the best consumer value proposition — one that gives people lots of optionality, lots of personalization, and lots of value for one price.

I think that the same thing is going to play out in this area, and for the subscription that’s able to reach critical mass, that’s a multi-billion dollar business. And that’s what we’re aiming to build.

#collaborative-consumption, #ev-williams, #james-joaquin, #medium, #obvious-ventures, #online-content, #publishing, #tc, #twitter, #venture-capital

Amazon launches its first Amazon Air regional hub in Europe

Amazon has officially started operations at its first European Amazon Air hub, based out of the Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany. The new facility spans 20,000 square meters (65,600 square feet) and will host two Amazon-branded Boeing 737-800 aircraft, brining the company’s total operational air fleet to over 70 aircraft.

The retail giants says that the new hub will generate more than 200 jobs locally in the Leipzig area, where it already employs over 1,500 thanks to the presence of a large regional fulfilment center. Amazon also notes that this will help the company continue to offer timely delivery in Europe as the pandemic continues.

Amazon has steadily grown its Air cargo logistics operations since debuting the expansion of its delivery and shipping network in 2016. It has regional air hubs at airports in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida in the U.S., and plans to expand to Sand Bernardino International Airport in California and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2021.

Back in June, it added a dozen new aircraft to its fleet in a move that was said to help it handle extra demand as a result of COVID. The addition of its European hub indicates it’s still prioritizing growing this aspect of its operations, which makes sense given demand for its services are likely spiking amid the current second virus wave in Europe and elsewhere globally.

#aerospace, #amazon, #amazon-air, #california, #cincinnati, #companies, #ecommerce, #europe, #florida, #germany, #leipzig, #publishing, #puerto-rico, #retailers, #tc, #texas, #transportation, #united-states

Shopify stock is up in pre-market trading as earnings blow past estimates

Shopify stock jumped nearly 3% in pre-market trading today after announcing earnings that handily beat the estimates set by Wall Street.

The Ottawa-based provider of e-commerce services for retailers reported earnings of $133.2 million, or $1.13 per-share, for the third quarter after posting a loss of $33.6 million, or 29 cents per-share, in the same period last year. Analysts tracking the company had expected earnings per-share of 52 cents.

Pretty much everything about the company’s business looked good, partly driven by plummeting brick-and-mortar retail sales as health regulations to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus like occupancy constraints have slowed down foot traffic.

Shopify’s $767.4 million in revenue for the quarter was up 96% from a year ago and handily beat the expectations of analysts who were predicting for the company to bring in roughly $658 million. Operating income was also up from the year-ago period with Shopify calling about $50 million, or 7% of revenue, compared to a nearly $36 million loss for the year ago period. Adjusted operating income was nearly $131 million.

“The accelerated shift to digital commerce triggered by COVID-19 is continuing, as more consumers shop online and entrepreneurs step up to meet demand,” said Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s President, in a statement. “Entrepreneurs will be the force in rebuilding economies all over the world, which makes it even more important for Shopify to innovate and build the critical tools that merchants need to succeed in a low-touch retail environment.”

“Shopify’s tremendous third-quarter results reflect the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of our merchants,” said Amy Shapero, Shopify’s CFO . “More entrepreneurs are signing on to Shopify so they can quickly and easily put their ideas into action. We continue to evolve our global commerce operating system to make it easier for merchants to get online and start selling, get discovered, and get their goods to buyers, while providing a delightful shopping experience.”

Shopify is interesting not only for its own revenue, but what its revenues say about the health of direct-to-consumer retail businesses — some of which have raised significant investment from venture capitalists.

Looking at the company’s merchant solutions revenue, which grew by 132% to $522.1 million — the state of these direct-to-consumer companies’ bottom line must be pretty healthy. Gross merchandise volume, the figure from which Shopify derives its merchant solutions gains, was $30 billion. That figure is an increase of $16.1 billion over the year-ago period.

Shopify is sitting on a pretty hefty financial cushion with $6.12 billion in cash and equivalents, up from $2.46 billion at the start of the year.

Outside its financials, Shopify is making moves to expand its footprint in social commerce, through a recent partnership with TikTok, announced yesterday. The deal should enable more Shopify sellers to reach TikTok’s audience by marketing directly on the platform using a toolkit integrated with Shopify’s dashboard, the two companies said.

“More entrepreneurs are signing on to Shopify so they can quickly and easily put their ideas into action,” said Amy Shapero, Shopify’s chief financial officer. “We continue to evolve our global commerce operating system to make it easier for merchants to get online and start selling, get discovered, and get their goods to buyers, while providing a delightful shopping experience.”

#analyst, #business, #cfo, #chief-financial-officer, #e-commerce, #online-shopping, #operating-system, #president, #publishing, #shopify, #tc, #venture-capital

Google to pay out $1B to publishers to license content for new Google News Showcase

Google has long had a frenemy position with regards to the world of news: it can direct a lot of traffic to online publishers, but that’s only if people bother to click on links after getting the gist of the story from Google itself (and that’s before considering Google’s AMP approach on mobile that keeps users on Google URLs after they click). Publications built around advertising have felt beholden to the search and ad giant, leading those that have survived over the years to try to forge alternative revenue models around paid content, events, and more to offset that dependency.

Now Google is offering another, complementary, option to these publishers, or at least some of them.

Today the company unveiled its latest effort to claw back more credibility in the news publishing world, launching the Google News Showcase. Sundar Pichai, CEO of the search giant, said in a blog post that it would collectively pay some $1 billion to news publishers in licensing fees “to create and curate high-quality content” for new story panels that will appear on Google News. Initially, these will appear on Android devices and eventually also on Google News on iOS.

The new initiative is going live today, after it was initially unveiled by Google in broad strokes earlier this summer.

Google News Showcase is rolling out first in Germany and Brazil before expanding to other markets, according to Pichai. The company has already inked deals with 200 publications in Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the U.K. and Australia. The first publications to launch will be Der Spiegel, Stern, Die Zeit, Folha de S.Paulo,BandInfobaeEl Litoral, GZH, WAZ and SooToday. India, Belgium and the Netherlands will be next on the list for expansions after the other countries go live, Pichai said.

As you can see here, Google News Showcase seems primarily to be focused on how news is consumed on mobile devices rather than desktop computers.

Like Apple with its efforts around Apple News, as a major mobile platform operator Google has worked on a number of ways to play nice with publishers and the news publishing industry over the years, some on its own steam and some in response to pressure from outside.

They have included funding local news research initiatives; its $300 million news initiative that includes providing grants to journalists and journals, as well as research; emergency grants to publications in hot water; and building tools to help journalists do their work.

Picking Germany as one of the first markets to roll this out is notable, given that publishers in the country were involved in a years-long lawsuit over copyright fees related to how their content was repurposed in Google.

Google ultimately won that case in court, but arguably, it didn’t win in the court of public opinion. Given that Google continues to face a lot of antitrust scrutiny in Europe and elsewhere, it’s important that it works (or at least appear to work!) on rehabilitating its image as too-powerful and uninterested in the fate of institutions that are central to how democratic society works — like the free press.

As Pichai notes, this latest effort is different from what Google has built before because it’s based on publishers doing the curating and creating themselves.

Google is infamous for starting a lot of projects, rolling them out, and then abandoning them when they fail to get market traction. With that understanding, and knowing that it’s one of the biggest companies in the world (not just in tech) it has in theory committed to the Showcase for three years, but Pichai said the plan is for it to “extend beyond the initial three years”, with the company “focused on contributing to the overall sustainability of our news partners around the world.”

It’s not clear how much money individual publishers will make out of this initiative, now how or if it could be used to drive business models that don’t cut Google in on the action. The latter has been a prime focus for many publishers for the last several years. At best, similar to Apple News, it could help publishers hedge their bets or even bolster them (as in the case of paywalls and driving people to using them), rather than cannibalize those other efforts. Google, at the least, seems aware of the stakes and seems to argue that it’s not the only reason publishers are feeling the heat.

“The business model for newspapers—based on ads and subscription revenue—has been evolving for more than a century as audiences have turned to other sources for news, including radio, television and later, the proliferation of cable television and satellite radio,” wrote Pichai. “The internet has been the latest shift, and it certainly won’t be the last. Alongside other companies, governments and civic societies, we want to play our part by helping journalism in the 21st century not just survive, but thrive.”

#europe, #google, #media, #news, #publishing, #tc

This is how police request customer data from Amazon

Anyone can access portions of a web portal, used by law enforcement to request customer data from Amazon, even though the portal is supposed to require a verified email address and password.

Amazon’s law enforcement request portal allows police and federal agents to submit formal requests for customer data along with a legal order, like a subpoena, a search warrant, or a court order. The portal is publicly accessible from the internet, but law enforcement must register an account with the site in order to allow Amazon to “authenticate” the requesting officer’s credentials before they can make requests.

Only time sensitive emergency requests can be submitted without an account, but this requires the user to “declare and acknowledge” that they are an authorized law enforcement officer before they can submit a request.

The portal does not display customer data or allow access to existing law enforcement requests. But parts of the website still load without needing to log in, including its dashboard and the “standard” request form used by law enforcement to request customer data.

The portal provides a rare glimpse into how Amazon handles law enforcement requests.

This form allows law enforcement to request customer data using a wide variety of data points, including Amazon order numbers, serial numbers of Amazon Echo and Fire devices, credit cards details and bank account numbers, gift cards, delivery and shipping numbers, and even the Social Security number of delivery drivers.

It also allows law enforcement to obtain records related to Amazon Web Services accounts by submitting domain names or IP addresses related to the request.

Assuming this was a bug, we sent Amazon several emails prior to publication but did not hear back.

Amazon is not the only tech company with a portal for law enforcement requests. Many of the bigger tech companies with millions or even billions of users around the world, like Google and Twitter, have built portals to allow law enforcement to request customer and user data.

Motherboard reported a similar issue earlier this month that allowed anyone with an email address to access law enforcement portals set up by Facebook and WhatsApp.

#amazon-web-services, #computing, #law-enforcement, #neighbors, #officer, #privacy, #publishing, #retailers, #security, #web-portal

Ring’s newest security camera is a $249 autonomous indoor drone shipping in 2021

Ring built its entire business on reinventing the doorbell – and now it’s taking a similar approach to the humble home security camera, with the Ring Always Home Cam, set to be available sometime next year. You might not guess from its name, but this security camera is actually mobile: It’s a drone that flies autonomously throughout your home, to provide you with the view you want of whatever room you want, without having to have video cameras installed in multiple locations throughout your house.

The Always Home Cam is a diminutive drone that can be scheduled to fly preset paths, which you lay out as a user. The drone can’t actually be manually flown, and it begins recording only once its in flight (the camera lens is actually physically blocked while it’s docked) – both features the company says will help ensure it operates strictly with privacy in mind. Always Home Cam is also designed intentionally to produce an audible hum while in use, to alert anyone present that it’s actually moving around and recording.

As you’d expect, the Always Home Cam doesn’t have the exposed rotors you’d see on a drone designed for use in outdoor open spaces. It has a plastic border and grills that enclose those for safety. It’s also small, at 5″x 7″x7″, which is useful for safety of both people and household objects.

I spoke to Ring founder and CEO Jamie Siminoff about why they decided to create such an ambitious, unorthodox home security camera – especially given their track record of relatively down-to-Earth, tech-enabled versions of tried-and-tested home hardware like doorbells and floodlights. He said that it actually came out of user feedback – something he still personally pays close attention to, even now that Ring is part of the larger corporate apparatus of Amazon . Siminoff said that a lot of the feedback he was seeing was from customers who wished they’d either been home or been able to see when some specific thing happened at a specific place in their house, or that they wanted a camera for particular room, but only for certain times – and then a different camera in a different room for others.

“It’s not practical to have a camera at every angle in every room of the home,” he said. “Even if you had unlimited resources, I think it’s still not practical. What I love about the Always Home Cam is that it really does solve this problem of being one cam for all – it allows you to now see every angle of the home, in every part of the home.”

Drones are also not Ring’s main business, and yet the Always Home Cam will be available at the relatively low price of $249 when it becomes available, despite the technical challenges of creating a small aircraft able to operate indoors safely, and fully autonomously. I asked Siminoff how Ring was able to achieve that price point in a category that’s outside its core expertise, with a design developed fully in-house.

“As the technology has kind of aged, a lot of these parts come down in price,” he said. “There’s also a lot of price compression happening because auto manufacturers are using a lot of these parts now at higher volumes, because to have an autonomous drone, you need some similar things to autonomous cars. Obviously, it’s not the same exact parts, but so all of those costs have been coming down, and we were able to go with a fresh perspective to it. But I also challenged the team when we came up with this, that this has to be affordable.”

The Ring Always Home Cam will also work with Ring’s existing suite of products, including Ring Alarm, to automatically fly a pre-set path when an alarm is triggered. You’re able then to stream the video live to your mobile device via the Ring app. In many ways, it does seem like a natural extension of the Ring ecosystem of products and services, but at the same time, it also seems like something out of science fiction. I asked Siminoff if he thinks consumers are ready to take this kind of technology seriously as something that’s part of their daily lives.

“I think it is sort of something that is, in some ways, way out there,” he acknowledged. “What I love about it, though, is that it’s what happens when you just take the constraints away of this linear thinking. I love that we are doing stuff from really looking at the need backwards, and then what technology exists, and ask what can we build? It’s really exciting for me to be able to do somethin,g and put our stamp on something that is an industry first.”

#amazon, #camera, #computing, #devices, #gadgets, #hardware, #home-security, #jamie-siminoff, #mobile-device, #publishing, #ring, #tc, #technology

Amazon’s Alexa becomes a better conversationalist and can now ask you questions, too

At its annual hardware event, Amazon today announced new capabilities for its Alexa personal assistant that will allow it to become more personalized as it can now ask clarifying questions and then use this personalized data to interact with the user later on. In addition, Alex can now join a conversation, too, starting a mode where you don’t have to say ‘hey Alexa’ all the time. With that, multiple users can interact with Alexa and the system will chime in when it’s appropriate (or not — since we haven’t tested this yet).

As Amazon VP and head scientist Rohit Prasad noted, the system for asking questions and personalizing responses uses a deep learning-based approach that allows Alexa to acquire new concepts and actions based on what it learns from customers. Whatever it learns is personalized and only applies to this individual customer.

When you ask Alexa to set the temperature to your ‘favorite setting,’ for example, she will now ask what that setting is.

In addition, Alexa can now adapt its speaking style depending on the context, based on the team’s ability to better understand how to generate a natural-sounding voice for Alexa. In an example today, Amazon showed what that means when you ask it to play music for example, with Alex having a bit more pep in its voice compared to its regular, somewhat monotone voice.

The real breakthrough, though, is the conversation mode. In today’s demo, the company showed how Alexa could work when you’re ordering a pizza, for example. One of the actors said she wasn’t that hungry and wanted a smaller pizza. Alexa automatically changed that order for her. The team calls this ‘natural turn taking.’

#alex, #alexa, #amazon, #amazon-alexa, #amazon-echo, #artificial-intelligence, #companies, #computing, #publishing, #rohit-prasad

Shopify says two support staff stole customer data from sellers

Shopify has confirmed a data breach, in which two “rogue members” of its support team stole customer data from at least 100 merchants.

In a blog post, the online shopping site said that its investigation so far showed that the two employees, who have since been fired, were “engaged in a scheme to obtain customer transactional records of certain merchants.”

Shopify said it had referred the matter to the FBI.

The employees allegedly stole customer data, including names, postal addresses, and order details, from “less than 200 merchants,” but financial data was unaffected.

Shopify said that it does not have any evidence to suggest that the data was used, but that it had notified affected merchants of the incident.

One merchant shared a copy of Shopify’s email notification with TechCrunch, which said the company first became aware of the breach on September 15, and that the two employees obtained data that was accessible using Shopify’s Orders API, which lets merchants process orders on behalf of their customers. The email also said that the last four-digits of the customers’ payment card was also taken in the incident.

Shopify did not say how many end customers were affected by the theft of data from merchants, but the email sent by Shopify contained the specific number of customer records taken in the breach. In this merchant’s case, over 1.3 million customer records and over 4,900 were accessed.

A spokesperson for Shopify didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Just last month, Instacart admitted two of its third-party support staff improperly accessed the information for shoppers, who deliver grocery orders to customers.

#data-breach, #marketing, #online-shopping, #publishing, #security, #shopify, #spokesperson

Taboola and Outbrain call off their $850M merger

Online advertising is a game of scale, but one attempt to consolidate two competitors to better take on Google and Facebook has fallen apart. Taboola and Outbrain, startups that each provide publishers with ad-based content recommendation platforms, have called off a planned $850 million merger that would have valued the combined company at over $2 billion. The news of the cancellation had been rumoured in the Israeli press, and TechCrunch has now confirmed it with both companies, too.

“We’ve seen changing conditions in the market due to Covid-19, and we decided to terminate the deal,” said a person close to the merger, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s been such a long road, and it’s not great…but walking away is the right move.” We understand that a formal announcement will be made in the next couple of days.

The deal had been years in the making but was only finally pulled together about 11 months ago, in October 2019. However, in the interim, a combination of factors got in the way of it progressing.

The first of those was the global health pandemic. Both Taboola’s and Outbrain’s businesses are based around widgets that they integrate with publishers’ sites, which provide a way for publishers both to recirculate their own content, as well as share it, alongside sponsored content and ads, on other sites that also run the widgets. But in the last eight months, the world of ad-based media has taken a nosedive as many large brands reined in their ad budgets, and that had a knock-on effect on other players within the ecosystem.

And that has impacted financing prospects. The merger between the two was originally intended to have cash and stock components — specifically 30% of the value of Outbrain for $250 million in cash to be paid to Outbrain’s shareholders and employees — but in the contracting market, the financiers who were providing the capital for the cash component stalled. That deal ultimately expired in August, and it didn’t get extended. And then, attempts to convert the deal into an all-stock transaction were unpalatable to Outbrain, we understand. “The cash was a critical factor in the deal,” said a source.

On top of that was what was described to me as a “challenging cultural fit” between the two companies, something that only became more apparent as the closing of the deal dragged on. That again pointed to the cash element of the deal being important: “If you get the cash, you reduce the risk, so without that we grew even more uncomfortable,” the source said.

The third hurdle was ongoing regulatory issues. While it appeared that the US regulators nominally approved the deal, the merger was still being investigated both in the UK and in Israel, investigations that were due to go on for several more months. In the UK, the companies currently do not have any significant competitors, raising antitrust concerns.

The two companies, both founded out of Israel but headquartered in New York, had described their planned deal as a merger, but the combined entity would have been called Taboola, with Taboola’s founder Adam Singolda taking the CEO slot. Both Taboola and Outbrain were profitable going into the deal, each claiming some $1 billion in annual revenues. Taboola has raised some $160 million from investors that include Comcast, Fidelity and Pitango. Outbrain had raised $194 million, with investors including Index, HarbourVest and Lightspeed.

From what we understand, both companies will continue looking at ways that they can continue to grow, even if it’s not as a team. That will include weighing up other strategic acquisitions and other opportunities, since some truisms remain in the worlds of media and advertising. “Scale and reach are critical to being successful in this market,” said our source.

#advertising, #advertising-tech, #ma, #media, #outbrain, #publishing, #taboola

The journey of a kids book startup that tackles topics like racism, cancer and divorce

Jelani Memory, an entrepreneur and father, had been wanting to write a kids book for years. While in the midst of raising a Series B round for his startup Circle Media, he started to feel burned out and wanted to start doing something more creatively fulfilling, Memory told me. That’s what led Memory to create A Kids Book About, a book publishing platform to help parents tackle tough topics and conversations with their kids. Its first book was A Kids Book About Racism.

“It was really me as a dad trying to keep that conversation going with my kids, and my kids thought the book was cool,” Memory said. “And it caused them to ask all sorts of new questions that I hadn’t heard them ask before around the topic of racism.”

Memory then shared that book with friends and colleagues, who suggested he write more books about other topics.

“So that’s really when the seed was planted,” he said. “When you find yourself waking up in the morning thinking about something and going to bed at night thinking about it, and in the middle of your workday, when you’re supposed to be doing work, sort of obsessing over it, I just sort of intuitively knew that these books needed to exist — at the very least for my own kids — because I knew that some conversations really are too hard to have. And while I consider myself a pretty open dad and talk about a lot with my kids, some of those conversations are just too hard to bring up, or if you’re ready to bring them up, you don’t know what to say.”

That seems to have struck a chord with the masses. The day after George Floyd was killed by police, A Kids Book About did as much in sales at it had the whole previous month. And it didn’t slow down, Memory said. The following day, sales went up 2x and the day after, went up another 2x and held steady. So, within the span of 10 days, A Kids Book About saw north of $1 million in revenue.

“And to be quite honest, we had enough inventory that was supposed to last us the rest of the year,” Memory said. But we sold out of every single one of our titles except for two.”

At a certain point in June, there were abut 50,000 books on backorder.

“Grownups were really stepping up to have these meaningful conversations with their kids,” Memory said. “And while our book on racism did really well, our customers are just remarkable and they were snagging our book on cancer and feminism and empathy and mindfulness. It was really cool to watch.”

A Kids Book About officially launched in 2019 with 12 titles released in October. Today, there are 25 titles available with plans for more on the way. The startup is primarily a direct to consumer business with a “fairly unique and novel publishing model,” Memory said.

A Kids Book About writes all of its books via a workshop in a single day. The company brings in an author, talks through the vision and mission as a company, and then co-writes the book with that author. A Kids Book About intentionally looks for folks who have not yet published books, though, there are authors on the platform who have previously published books.

“It just tends to be that if you’ve already published, you almost always are certainly a straight white male,” Memory said. “So for us, we look for folks with a deep personal story and someone who knows their topic inside and out through their lived experience.”

a kids book about books

Image Credits: A Kids Book About

On the publishing side, A Kids Book About gives authors no less than 10% of the revenue from book sales, while traditional publishers may give around 6%, Memory said. It also takes, on average, 45 days to go to market, as opposed to 18 months in the traditional publishing world, Memory said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, A Kids Book About realized it needed to tackle this topic. So it green-lit and created a book within four days with a social epidemiologist as a free e-book. The physical book is available on pre-order for next month.

Meanwhile, amid the massive social movement sparked by Floyd’s death, the company realized it needed additional books on the topic of race.

“While my book is a great conversation starter on racism, we realized there are a couple of others books we really need to make,” Memory said. “So we’re fast-tracking a book about white privilege that will come out this fall and a book about systemic racism as a way to sort of round out that conversation.”

Another untraditional aspect of the business is A Kids Book About’s approach to fundraising. Part of that process meant choosing his investors as much as they chose him, Memory said.

“That means avoiding a lot of conversations, it meant saying no to some checks,” Memory said. “But it really meant going out and finding more Black and brown investors.”

Memory also sought out investors where this deal would be its first investment in a startup.

“That was really important that I wasn’t just taking accredited investors but making room for unaccredited investors as well, knowing that if the wealth loop just keeps going the way that it is, only people with money get to make more money,” he said.

A Kids Book About raised $1 million from a handful of seed funds, including Cascade Seed Fund, Color Capital and Black Founders Matter.

“And I can tell you, pitching a direct consumer kids book startup that tackles topics like cancer and racism is not super hot in the venture,” Memory said. “And being a founder of color, even as a second-time founder, you know, I can’t tell you how many folks recommended that I should talk to impact investors. And I was like, ‘I don’t think you understand what I’m doing here. This isn’t a charity.’ But it was very easy to avoid and say no to those investors.”

Overall, Memory said his business resonated pretty well with investors with the exception of e-commerce or consumer-focused funds. Sometimes it came down to the investors not having a strong grasp on the publishing industry or to how new the business was, he said.

“I think most investors fancy themselves as risk takers, but I think investors are the most risk-averse on the planet,” Memory said. “And also, the game of fundraising really is about finding those true believers who really get what you’re up to. I am still a little bit amazed we raised $1 million for this business knowing that half of the money was raised right smack dab in the middle of quarantine lockdown in the pandemic. But, you know, I don’t think it hurt that we started to post just remarkable numbers. And a lot of those folks we were already in conversation with at the time. And by the time we were doing half a million every few days, I ended up saying no to quite a few investors who I either thought weren’t a fit for us or simply we didn’t have the allocation for.”

#diversity, #funding, #publishing, #tc, #techcrunch-include

Technologists: Consider Canada

America’s technology industry, radiating brilliance and profitability from its Silicon Valley home base, was until recently a shining beacon of what made America great: Science, progress, entrepreneurship. But public opinion has swung against big tech amazingly fast and far; negative views doubled between 2015 and 2019 from 17% to 34%. The list of concerns is long and includes privacy, treatment of workers, marketplace fairness, the carnage among ad-supported publications and the poisoning of public discourse.

But there’s one big issue behind all of these: An industry ravenous for growth, profit and power, that has failed at treating its employees, its customers and the inhabitants of society at large as human beings. Bear in mind that products, companies and ecosystems are built by people, for people. They reflect the values of the society around them, and right now, America’s values are in a troubled state.

We both have a lot of respect and affection for the United States, birthplace of the microprocessor and the electric guitar. We could have pursued our tech careers there, but we’ve declined repeated invitations and chosen to stay at home here in Canada . If you want to build technology to be harnessed for equity, diversity and social advancement of the many, rather than freedom and inclusion for the few, we think Canada is a good place to do it.

U.S. big tech is correctly seen as having too much money, too much power and too little accountability. Those at the top clearly see the best effects of their innovations, but rarely the social costs. They make great things — but they also disrupt lives, invade privacy and abuse their platforms.

We both came of age at a time when tech aspired to something better, and so did some of today’s tech giants. Four big tech CEOs recently testified in front of Congress. They were grilled about alleged antitrust abuses, although many of us watching were thinking about other ills associated with some of these companies: tax avoidance, privacy breaches, data mining, surveillance, censorship, the spread of false news, toxic byproducts, disregard for employee welfare.

But the industry’s problem isn’t really the products themselves — or the people who build them. Tech workers tend to be dramatically more progressive than the companies they work for, as Facebook staff showed in their recent walkout over President Donald Trump’s posts.

Big tech’s problem is that it amplifies the issues Americans are struggling with more broadly. That includes economic polarization, which is echoed in big-tech financial statements, and the race politics that prevent tech (among other industries) from being more inclusive to minorities and talented immigrants.

We’re particularly struck by the Trump administration’s recent moves to deny opportunities to H-1B visa holders. Coming after several years of family separations, visa bans and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it seems almost calculated to send IT experts, engineers, programmers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and future leaders from around the world — the kind of talented newcomers who built America’s current prosperity — fleeing to more receptive shores.

One of those shores is Canada’s; that’s where we live and work. Our country has long courted immigration, but it’s turned around its longstanding brain-drain problem in recent years with policies designed to scoop up talented people who feel uncomfortable or unwanted in America. We have an immigration program, the Global Talent Stream, that helps innovative companies fast-track foreign workers with specialized skills. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Vancouver have been leading North America in tech job creation during the Trump years, fuelled by outposts of the big international tech companies but also by scaled-up domestic firms that do things the Canadian way, such as enterprise software developer OpenText (one of us is a co-founder) and e-commerce giant Shopify.

“Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke told disaffected U.S. tech workers on Twitter recently.

But it’s not just about policy; it’s about underlying values. Canada is exceptionally comfortable with diversity, in theory (as expressed in immigration policy) and practice (just walk down a street in Vancouver or Toronto). We’re not perfect, but we have been competently led and reasonably successful in recognizing the issues we need to deal with. And our social contract is more cooperative and inclusive.

Yes, that means public health care with no copays, but it also means more emphasis on sustainability, corporate responsibility and a more collaborative strain of capitalism. Our federal and provincial governments have mostly been applauded for their gusher of stimulative wage subsidies and grants meant to sustain small businesses and tech talent during the pandemic, whereas Washington’s response now appears to have been formulated in part to funnel public money to elites.

American big tech today feels morally adrift, which leads to losing out on talented people who want to live the values Silicon Valley used to stand for — not just wealth, freedom and the few, but inclusivity, diversity and the many. Canada is just one alternative to the U.S. model, but it’s the alternative we know best and the one just across the border, with loads of technology job openings.

It wouldn’t surprise us if more tech refugees find themselves voting with their feet.

#big-tech, #canada, #column, #data-mining, #donald-trump, #government, #opentext, #opinion, #policy, #publishing, #shopify, #silicon-valley, #startups, #tc, #toronto, #trump-administration, #washington

Amazon says police demands for customer data have gone up

Amazon has said the number of demands for user data made by U.S. federal and local law enforcement have increased during the first half of 2020 than during the same period a year earlier.

The disclosure came in the company’s latest transparency report, published Thursday.

The figures show that Amazon received 23% more subpoenas and search warrants, and a 29% increase in court orders compared to the first half of 2019. That includes data collected from its Amazon.com retail storefront, Amazon Echo devices and its Kindle and Fire tablets.

Breaking those figures down, Amazon said it received:

  • 2,416 subpoenas, turning over all of partial user data in 70% of cases;
  • 543 search warrants, turning over all of partial user data in 79% of cases;
  • 146 court orders, turning over all of partial user data in 74% of cases.

The number of requests to the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services, also went up compared to a year earlier.

But it’s not clear what caused the rise in U.S. government demands for user data. A spokesperson for Amazon did respond to a request for comment.

But the company saw the number of overseas requests drop by about one-third compared to the same period a year earlier. Amazon rejected 92% of the 177 overseas requests it received, turning over partial user data in 10 cases and all requested data in four cases.

Amazon also said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests, flat from previous reports. Justice Department rules on disclosing classified requests only allow companies to respond in numerical ranges.

Amazon was one of the last major tech companies to issue a transparency report, despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates. But its report remains far lighter on details compared to its Silicon Valley rivals.

The company’s Ring smart camera division, despite facing criticism for its poor security practices and its close relationships with law enforcement, has yet to release any data related to police requests for user data.

#amazon-alexa, #amazon-echo, #articles, #assistant, #business, #cloud-services, #department-of-justice, #hardware, #kindle, #law-enforcement, #publishing, #security, #transparency-report, #u-s-government, #united-states, #web-services

Taiwan-based TNL Media Group raises $8 million to build its publishing and data analytics businesses

Since launching in 2013, Taipei-based TNL Media Group has grown from an independent news site to a media company with several online publishing verticals and a data analytics business. The company, formerly known as The News Lens, announced today that it has raised $8 million from New York-based investment firm Palm Drive Capital, as part of its Series D round.

TNL Media Group’s last funding announcement was a Series C round announced two years ago. Co-founder and chief executive officer Joey Chung told TechCrunch that its latest infusion of funding will be used to add more media verticals, continue TNL Media Group’s international expansion and finish its current pipeline of data analytics and tech service products.

TNL Media Group’s previous investors include North Base Media, the firm co-founded by Washington Post and Wall Street Journal veteran Marcus Brauchli (who is also a member of the startup’s board). The News Lens launched seven years ago as a bilingual site to give millennial readers an alternative to traditional media outlets in Taiwan, where coverage is often sharply divided along political lines and traffic is driven by celebrity gossip and other tabloid fodder.

Since then, it has grown through a series of launches and acquisitions. In addition to its main news site, it also operates separate sites for tech, sports, lifestyle, gadgets and entertainment content. Earlier this year, TNL Media Group acquired Taiwanese mobile ad technology startup Ad2iction, a cloud-based platform for brands to manage and create digital ads.

Since TNL Media Group already has offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and also has a media vertical dedicated to covering Southeast Asia, Chung said the company is now looking for opportunities to expand there. At the same time, he added that TNL Media Group has “had numerous very late-stage conversations” about partnerships to launch in Japan.

The company’s media verticals complement its data analytics business because it is able to draw on TNL Media Group’s user base for data, which Chung said is “one of the largest readership pools for digital audiences in the greater China market.”

On average, TNL Media Group’s sites have around 14 million monthly unique users. Its data analytics business, which launched within the past year, currently has about three to five clients per month. “But of course, we are planning for that to be ramped up substantially in the coming months and years and that will gradually grow to become a very important part of our entire business portfolio,” Chung said.

TNL Media Group’s other products include mobile ad tech, digital ticketing services, online events and online classes, and a content management system (CMS) it will start licensing to other companies.

Chung said that by the end of this year, many of these products will be integrated with its readership and data to develop a demand side platform (DSP, a tool that connects ad buyers with publishers) and a data management platform that are already in production.

In a press statement about its investment in TNL Media Group, Palm Drive Capital managing partner Nick Hsu said, “Palm Drive Capital focuses on investing in global technology startups using software to transform traditional industries. This is evident in the media industry, particularly as Taiwan’s online ad expenditure has already reached over one billion U.S. dollars and is estimated to grow to 1.65 billion U.S. dollars by 2021. Having known the TNL Media Group team for years, we see massive potential to leverage data to drive growth, consolidation, and international expansion in the media industry.”

#ad-tech, #asia, #data-analytics, #media, #publishing, #taiwan, #tc, #the-news-lens, #tnl-media-group

Empirical analysis tells Reviewer 2: “Go F‘ Yourself”

Empirical analysis tells Reviewer 2: “Go F‘ Yourself”

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Peer review is often the key hurdle between obtaining some data and getting it published in the scientific literature. As such, it’s often essential to keeping questionable results out of the scientific literature. But for vast numbers of scientists with solid-but-unexciting results, it can be a hurdle that raises frustrations to thermonuclear levels. So it’s no surprise that many scientists privately wish that certain reviewers would end up engaged in activities that aren’t mentionable in a largely family-friendly publication like Ars.

What was a surprise was to see a peer-reviewed publication make this wish public. Very public. As in entitling the paper “Dear Reviewer 2: Go F’ Yourself” levels of public.

Naturally, we read the paper and got in touch with its author, Iowa State’s David Peterson, to find out the details of the study. The key detail is that the title’s somewhat misleading: it’s actually Reviewer 3 who’s the heartless bastard that keeps trying to torpedo the careers of other academics. For the rest, well, read on.

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#peer-review, #publishing, #science

Amazon won’t say if its facial recognition moratorium applies to the feds

In a surprise blog post, Amazon said it will put the brakes on providing its facial recognition technology to police for one year, but refuses to say if the move applies to federal law enforcement agencies.

The moratorium comes two days after IBM said in a letter it was leaving the facial recognition market altogether. Arvind Krishna, IBM’s chief executive, cited a “pursuit of justice and racial equity” in light of the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month.

Amazon’s statement — just 102 words in length — did not say why it was putting the moratorium in place, but noted that Congress “appears ready” to work on stronger regulations governing the use of facial recognition — again without providing any details. It’s likely in response to the Justice in Policing Act, a bill that would, if passed, restrict how police can use facial recognition technology.

“We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested,” said Amazon in the unbylined blog post.

But the statement did not say if the moratorium would apply to the federal government, the source of most of the criticism against Amazon’s facial recognition technology. Amazon also did not say in the statement what action it would take after the yearlong moratorium expires.

Amazon is known to have pitched its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, to federal agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last year, Amazon’s cloud chief Andy Jassy said in an interview the company would provide Rekognition to “any” government department.

Amazon spokesperson Kristin Brown declined to comment further or say if the moratorium applies to federal law enforcement.

There are dozens of companies providing facial recognition technology to police, but Amazon is by far the biggest. Amazon has come under the most scrutiny after its Rekognition face-scanning technology showed bias against people of color.

In 2018, the ACLU found that Rekognition falsely matched 28 members of Congress as criminals in a mugshot database. Amazon criticized the results, claiming the ACLU had lowered the facial recognition system’s confidence threshold. But a year later, the ACLU of Massachusetts found that Rekognition had falsely matched 27 New England professional athletes against a mugshot database. Both tests disproportionately mismatched Black people, the ACLU found.

Investors brought a proposal to Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting almost exactly a year ago that would have forcibly banned Amazon from selling its facial recognition technology to the government or law enforcement. Amazon defeated the vote with a wide margin.

The ACLU acknowledged Amazon’s move to pause sales of Rekognition, which it called a “threat to our civil rights and liberties,” but called on the company and other firms to do more.

#amazon, #american-civil-liberties-union, #andy-jassy, #computing, #congress, #face-id, #facial-recognition, #facial-recognition-software, #federal-government, #george-floyd, #massachusetts, #minneapolis, #privacy, #publishing, #security