Twitter’s acquisition strategy: eat the public conversation

The last few months have been interesting for Twitter.

After years of no innovation at all, Twitter is making big product changes. It has acquired Breaker and Revue, and presumably has more M&A coming. It’s coming out with Spaces. The only thing it clearly isn’t working on is an edit button.

The core idea is that Twitter is doubling down on multichannel engagement for creators so that they never have to leave for anywhere else.

Strategically, though, what is a microblogging service doing buying a social podcasting company and a newsletter tool while also building a live broadcasting sub-app? Is there even a strategy at all?

I humbly propose this: There is a strategy. Twitter is trying to revitalize itself by adding more contexts for discourse to its repertoire. The result, if everything goes right, will be an influence superapp that hasn’t existed anywhere before. The alternative is nothing less than the destruction of Twitter into a link-forwarding service.

Let’s talk about how Twitter is trying to eat the public conversation.

Why now?

Twitter’s problem is pretty simple. It’s this.

Twitter revenue quarterly growth 2013-21

Twitter revenue quarterly growth 2013-21. Image Credits: Macrotrends

Another way of putting it is: Twitter is not generating as much money from ads as it used to. Ad revenue has failed to grow because Twitter is generally considered to have a poorly performing product for marketers. As a result, its stock price has been flat for years.

The irony, though, is that Twitter became more socially important during this period of financial stagnation to the point that the president of the United States nearly launched several wars on the platform!

The core reason is that since becoming a public company, Twitter has been considered by most to be one of the most boring tech companies productwise. Yes, people joke about the lack of an edit button, but the platform really has been slow to innovate in any real way.

Twitter was one of the most dynamic companies around, going from the fail whale company to being the company that invented the hashtag and acquiring some of the hottest companies, from Periscope to Vine.

But it all failed. Twitter rarely used acquisitions successfully. It stopped putting out new features and barely even managed simple improvements. Despite describing itself as “what’s happening now,” it missed every boat. Until this year.

What changed?

  1. Twitter started to face its first real competition in years due to the social media renaissance. Twitter’s strength has always come from being where the news happens. Podcasts, Clubhouse, newsletters and other new channels are true competitive threats.

    #clubhouse, #column, #ec-column, #ec-media, #ec-news-analysis, #eventbrite, #kayvon-beykpour, #periscope, #revue, #snap, #social, #social-media, #spotify, #substack, #twitter

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A16z bets millions on Maven, a platform for cohort-based courses

Maven, a startup that helps professionals teach cohort-based classes, has raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The round places A16z general partner Andrew Chen on Maven’s board – and is his latest lead check in a creator-focused company, similarly pouring millions into recent rounds for Clubhouse and Substack.

The investment comes seven months after Maven, then nameless, left stealth alongside a $4.3 million round led by First Round Capital, and three months after it raised a $750,000 equity crowdfunding round. While the company declined to disclose valuation, we do know that it’s a lot of fast cash earmarked toward fueling the same bet: that the future of cohort-based learning is the future of education.

And if you’re wondering why, I’d tell you it’s two-fold. First, the startup has an impressive founding team: Udemy co-founder Gagan Biyani, altMBA co-founder Wes Kao, and early Venmo employee and Socratic co-founder Shreyans Bhansali.

Second, Maven has some impressive growth to tout, showing its potential. Maven’s core product right now is a suite of services that makes it easier to run a cohort-based course, while taking a 10% fee – similar to Substack – from a professional’s revenue. In three months after its January launch, four Maven courses earned over $100,000. To date, over $1 million worth of courses has been sold on Maven.

With the new capital, Kao tells me that her team is focused on getting instructors to see the value of CBCs. The startup has had over 2,000 people apply to become instructors, and expects to grow from 7 to 100 instructors by end of the year. Some of Maven’s investors, including Sahil Lavingia and Li Jin, are instructors on its platform. Long-term, the startup sees its competitive differentiation as helping experts who aren’t “conventional instructors” start sharing their knowledge.

The co-founder teaches a course to all incoming Maven instructors – meta, I know – from deciding to put in a curriculum to understanding course-market fit and building buzz for the course.

While Kao explained that instructors like the idea of turning free advice in modular, revenue-generating classes, she said “monetizing that expertise is often really hard.”

“Traditional platforms—Instagram, TikTok, Twitter—create a division between activities intended to monetize and those meant for community building,” she said. “Meaning, creators give away valuable content, and then monetize via brand partnerships or low-margin merchandise—activities that often detract from community-building.”

The biggest challenge ahead, she thinks, is expanding the mindshare about CBCs for creators. It needs to show the importance of signal in the cacophony of air horns that want creator’s attention.

It’s a problem that Maven is all too familiar with it.

“One of the biggest things we had to untangle early on was the difference between “content” and the Maven offering,” Kao explained. “There’s no shortage of content in our world.” The startup had to spend a good chunk of time figuring out how to create a cohort-based class experience that pairs community and accountability with that content. And it still has ways to go.”

“At the end of the day, it ended up being quite simple. In our view, we’ve reached the Post Content Age,” she said. “In other words: Content is no longer scarce in education. It’s either free or low cost, and it’s abundant.”

#a16z, #andreessen-horowitz, #clubhouse, #maven, #substack, #tc

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Substack acquires team from community consulting startup People & Company

New media poster child Substack announced today that they’ve added a small community-building consultancy team to its ranks, acquiring the Brooklyn-based startup People & Company.

The small firm has been working with clients to build up their community efforts and its team will now be tasked with building up some of the newsletter company’s upstart efforts for writers in its network.

In a blog post, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie said that the company had previously used the People & Co. team to consult on their fellowship and mentorship programs and that members of the team would now be working on a variety of new efforts from scaling programs to help writers with legal support and health insurance to community-guided projects like workshops and meetups to help crowdsource insights.

“These people are the best in the world at what they do, and now they’re not only working for Substack, but they’re also working for you,” McKenzie wrote.

Beyond Substack, previous partners with People & Company include Porsche AG, Nike and Surfrider.

Substack has been blazing ahead in recent months, adding new partners and raising cash as it aims to bring on more and more subscribers to its network. The firm shared back in late March that it had raised a $65 million round at a reported valuation around $650 million according earlier reporting by Axios.

#axios, #brooklyn, #co-founder, #crowdsource, #digital-media, #hamish-mckenzie, #health-insurance, #nike, #porsche-ag, #substack, #tc, #websites, #world-wide-web

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Substack announces a $1M initiative to fund local journalists

While the seemingly unending debate around Substack has focused on well-known writers with a national profile, the newsletter platform just announced that it will be supporting local (presumably non-famous) journalists through a new program.

The startup described Substack Local as a $1 million initiative that will fund independent writers creating local news publications. Similar to the Substack Pro program, the company will offer cash advances of up to $100,000, as well as mentorship and “subsidized access” to health insurance and design services. In exchange, Substack will take 85% of subscription revenue for a year (its cut goes back to the standard 10% after that).

Applications are due by April 29, with participants selected by a panel of judges with their own Substack publications — Zeynep Tufekci of Insight, Anne Helen Petersen of Culture Study, Dick Tofel of Second Rough Draft and Rachel Larimore, managing editor of The Dispatch.

Substack said that through this initiative, it’s also partnering with New Zealand-based Stuff to launch two new publications covering under-served regions in the country.

A Substack skeptic might suggest that programs like this are an easy way to drum up positive publicity. (Facebook and Google have also announced programs to support local news.) In Substack’s case, this comes after the platform has been criticized for bankrolling transphobic writers with big advances — just a few days ago, the company revealed that it has recently signed lucrative contracts with transgender writers including Daniel Lavery.

Regardless of motivation, the need for more local journalism is real, with news deserts created by the shutdowns and struggles of many local newspapers. If there’s going to be any hope, it seems more likely to come from new, digitally-focused publications and independent journalists.

“This is not a grants program, nor is it inspired by philanthropic intent,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Our goal is to foster an effective business model for independent local news that provides ample room for growth.”

#media, #startups, #substack

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Extra Crunch roundup: Tonal EC-1, Deliveroo’s rocky IPO, is Substack really worth $650M?

For this morning’s column, Alex Wilhelm looked back on the last few months, “a busy season for technology exits” that followed a hot Q4 2020.

We’re seeing signs of an IPO market that may be cooling, but even so, “there are sufficient SPACs to take the entire recent Y Combinator class public,” he notes.

Once we factor in private equity firms with pockets full of money, it’s evident that late-stage companies have three solid choices for leveling up.

Seeking more insight into these liquidity options, Alex interviewed:

  • DigitalOcean CEO Yancey Spruill, whose company went public via IPO;
  • Latch CFO Garth Mitchell, who discussed his startup’s merger with real estate SPAC $TSIA;
  • Brian Cruver, founder and CEO of AlertMedia, which recently sold to a private equity firm.

After recapping their deals, each executive explains how their company determined which flashing red “EXIT” sign to follow. As Alex observed, “choosing which option is best from a buffet’s worth of possibilities is an interesting task.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch! Have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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The Tonal EC-1

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

On Tuesday, we published a four-part series on Tonal, a home fitness startup that has raised $200 million since it launched in 2018. The company’s patented hardware combines digital weights, coaching and AI in a wall-mounted system that sells for $2,995.

By any measure, it is poised for success — sales increased 800% between December 2019 and 2020, and by the end of this year, the company will have 60 retail locations. On Wednesday, Tonal reported a $250 million Series E that valued the company at $1.6 billion.

Our deep dive examines Tonal’s origins, product development timeline, its go-to-market strategy and other aspects that combined to spark investor interest and customer delight.

We call this format the “EC-1,” since these stories are as comprehensive and illuminating as the S-1 forms startups must file with the SEC before going public.

Here’s how the Tonal EC-1 breaks down:

We have more EC-1s in the works about other late-stage startups that are doing big things well and making news in the process.

What to make of Deliveroo’s rough IPO debut

Why did Deliveroo struggle when it began to trade? Is it suffering from cultural dissonance between its high-growth model and more conservative European investors?

Let’s peek at the numbers and find out.

Kaltura puts debut on hold. Is the tech IPO window closing?

The Exchange doubts many folks expected the IPO climate to get so chilly without warning. But we could be in for a Q2 pause in the formerly scorching climate for tech debuts.

Is Substack really worth $650M?

A $65 million Series B is remarkable, even by 2021 standards. But the fact that a16z is pouring more capital into the alt-media space is not a surprise.

Substack is a place where publications have bled some well-known talent, shifting the center of gravity in media. Let’s take a look at Substack’s historical growth.

RPA market surges as investors, vendors capitalize on pandemic-driven tech shift

Business process organization and analytics. Business process visualization and representation, automated workflow system concept. Vector concept creative illustration

Image Credits: Visual Generation / Getty Images

Robotic process automation came to the fore during the pandemic as companies took steps to digitally transform. When employees couldn’t be in the same office together, it became crucial to cobble together more automated workflows that required fewer people in the loop.

RPA has enabled executives to provide a level of automation that essentially buys them time to update systems to more modern approaches while reducing the large number of mundane manual tasks that are part of every industry’s workflow.

E-commerce roll-ups are the next wave of disruption in consumer packaged goods

This year is all about the roll-ups, the aggregation of smaller companies into larger firms, creating a potentially compelling path for equity value. The interest in creating value through e-commerce brands is particularly striking.

Just a year ago, digitally native brands had fallen out of favor with venture capitalists after so many failed to create venture-scale returns. So what’s the roll-up hype about?

Hack takes: A CISO and a hacker detail how they’d respond to the Exchange breach

3d Flat isometric vector concept of data breach, confidential data stealing, cyber attack.

Image Credits: TarikVision (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The cyber world has entered a new era in which attacks are becoming more frequent and happening on a larger scale than ever before. Massive hacks affecting thousands of high-level American companies and agencies have dominated the news recently. Chief among these are the December SolarWinds/FireEye breach and the more recent Microsoft Exchange server breach.

Everyone wants to know: If you’ve been hit with the Exchange breach, what should you do?

5 machine learning essentials nontechnical leaders need to understand

Jumble of multicoloured wires untangling into straight lines over a white background. Cape Town, South Africa. Feb 2019.

Image Credits: David Malan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Machine learning has become the foundation of business and growth acceleration because of the incredible pace of change and development in this space.

But for engineering and team leaders without an ML background, this can also feel overwhelming and intimidating.

Here are best practices and must-know components broken down into five practical and easily applicable lessons.

Embedded procurement will make every company its own marketplace

Businesswomen using mobile phone analyzing data and economic growth graph chart. Technology digital marketing and network connection.

Image Credits: Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images

Embedded procurement is the natural evolution of embedded fintech.

In this next wave, businesses will buy things they need through vertical B2B apps, rather than through sales reps, distributors or an individual merchant’s website.

Knowing when your startup should go all-in on business development

One red line with arrow head breaking out from a business or finance growth chart canvas.

Image Credits: twomeows / Getty Images

There’s a persistent fallacy swirling around that any startup growing pain or scaling problem can be solved with business development.

That’s frankly not true.

Dear Sophie: What should I know about prenups and getting a green card through marriage?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I’m a founder of a startup on an E-2 investor visa and just got engaged! My soon-to-be spouse will sponsor me for a green card.

Are there any minimum salary requirements for her to sponsor me? Is there anything I should keep in mind before starting the green card process?

— Betrothed in Belmont

Startups must curb bureaucracy to ensure agile data governance

Image of a computer, phone and clock on a desk tied in red tape.

Image Credits: RichVintage / Getty Images

Many organizations perceive data management as being akin to data governance, where responsibilities are centered around establishing controls and audit procedures, and things are viewed from a defensive lens.

That defensiveness is admittedly justified, particularly given the potential financial and reputational damages caused by data mismanagement and leakage.

Nonetheless, there’s an element of myopia here, and being excessively cautious can prevent organizations from realizing the benefits of data-driven collaboration, particularly when it comes to software and product development.

Bring CISOs into the C-suite to bake cybersecurity into company culture

Mixed race businesswoman using tablet computer in server room

Image Credits: Jetta Productions Inc (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Cyber strategy and company strategy are inextricably linked. Consequently, chief information security officers in the C-Suite will be just as common and influential as CFOs in maximizing shareholder value.

How is edtech spending its extra capital?

Money tree: an adult hand reaches for dollar bills growing on a leafless tree

Image Credits: Tetra Images (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Edtech unicorns have boatloads of cash to spend following the capital boost to the sector in 2020. As a result, edtech M&A activity has continued to swell.

The idea of a well-capitalized startup buying competitors to complement its core business is nothing new, but exits in this sector are notable because the money used to buy startups can be seen as an effect of the pandemic’s impact on remote education.

But in the past week, the consolidation environment made a clear statement: Pandemic-proven startups are scooping up talent — and fast.

Tech in Mexico: A confluence of Latin America, the US and Asia

Aerial view of crowd connected by lines

Image Credits: Orbon Alija (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

Because of similar market conditions, Asian tech giants are directly expanding into Mexico and other LatAm countries.

 

How we improved net retention by 30+ points in 2 quarters

Sparks coming off US dollar bill attached to jumper cables

Image Credits: Steven Puetzer (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s certainly no shortage of SaaS performance metrics leaders focus on, but NRR (net revenue retention) is without question the most underrated metric out there.

NRR is simply total revenue minus any revenue churn plus any revenue expansion from upgrades, cross-sells or upsells. The greater the NRR, the quicker companies can scale.

5 mistakes creators make building new games on Roblox

BRAZIL - 2021/03/24: In this photo illustration a Roblox logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Image Credits: SOPA Images (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Even the most experienced and talented game designers from the mobile F2P business usually fail to understand what features matter to Robloxians.

For those just starting their journey in Roblox game development, these are the most common mistakes gaming professionals make on Roblox.

 

CEO Manish Chandra, investor Navin Chaddha explain why Poshmark’s Series A deck sings

CEO Manish Chandra, investor Navin Chaddha explain why Poshmark’s Series A deck sings image

“Lead with love, and the money comes.” It’s one of the cornerstone values at Poshmark. On the latest episode of Extra Crunch Live, Chandra and Chaddha sat down with us and walked us through their original Series A pitch deck.

 

Will the pandemic spur a smart rebirth for cities?

New versus old - an old brick building reflected in windows of modern new facade

Image Credits: hopsalka (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Cities are bustling hubs where people live, work and play. When the pandemic hit, some people fled major metropolitan markets for smaller towns — raising questions about the future validity of cities.

But those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.

 

The NFT craze will be a boon for lawyers

3d rendering of pink piggy bank standing on sounding block with gavel lying beside on light-blue background with copy space. Money matters. Lawsuit for money. Auction bids.

Image Credits: Gearstd (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding copyright issues, fraud and adult content, and legal implications are the crux of the NFT trend.

Whether a court would protect the receipt-holder’s ownership over a given file depends on a variety of factors. All of these concerns mean artists may need to lawyer up.

Viewing Cazoo’s proposed SPAC debut through Carvana’s windshield

It’s a reasonable question: Why would anyone pay that much for Cazoo today if Carvana is more profitable and whatnot? Well, growth. That’s the argument anyway.

#artificial-intelligence, #corporate-finance, #deliveroo, #ec-1, #entrepreneurship, #extra-crunch-roundup, #kaltura, #latin-america, #machine-learning, #roblox, #startups, #substack, #tc, #tonal, #venture-capital

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Clubhouse will create billions in value and capture none of it

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. It was a busy week on the IPO front, Danny was buried in getting the Tonal EC-1 out, and Natasha took some time off. But the host trio managed to prep and record a show that was honestly a kick to record, and we think, a pleasure to listen to!

So, for your morning walk, here’s what we have for you:

It was a mix of laughs, ‘aha’ moments, and honest conversations about how complex ambition in startups should be. One listener the other day mentioned to us that the pandemic made it harder to carve out time for podcasts, since listening was often reserved for commutes. We get it, and in true scrappy fashion, we’re curious how you’ve adapted to remote work and podcasts. Let us know how you tune into Equity via Twitter and remember that we’re thankful for your ears!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#cameo, #clubhouse, #discord, #equity, #equity-podcast, #funding, #fundings-exits, #harlem-capital, #linkedin, #mac-venture-capital, #media, #miami, #microsoft-excel, #pipe, #podcasts, #spotify, #startups, #substack

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Substack confirms $65M raise, promises to ‘rapidly’ expand its financial backing of newly independent writers

This afternoon Substack, a paid-newsletter startup, confirmed that it has raised $65 million, as initially reported by Axios. TechCrunch dug into the math behind the financing here. As anticipated, a16z led the new financing.

What’s in store from the now Series B-backed company? Product work. The company wrote that intends to “rapidly” expand its Substack Pro program, which pays writers for a year to assist them in launching their own mini-publication; Substack takes a larger cut of Pro user earnings during their first year, reverting to its usual split the next.

The Substack Pro model has attracted controversy in recent days, with some writers — both on Substack and not — criticizing the startup for opacity in whom it pays via its Pro program; some have argued that Substack is subsidizing anti-trans writers in particular.

The company is motoring ahead on building out its infrastructure regardless, stating in its note that it intends to spend some of its new capital on creating “increasingly powerful subscription-publishing tools,” and “a support infrastructure for independent writers.” More tooling, and more assistance could prove key to enticing more writers from their current employers — or Substack rivals — to its platform.

The company also wrote that it plans to boost its community-building and local news efforts.

Substack did not provide material new growth metrics, instead saying that it has “more than half a million people” paying for writers on its network; that figure is unchanged from a January figure that Bloomberg reported.

As Facebook and Twitter build out their own newsletter efforts, and rival startups like Pico and Ghost offer related services, the paid-media space is a hot market today. At issue is more than the future homes for a handful of well-known writers with large audiences. The various tech companies competing in the space are each wagering that the long tail for paid writing is long, and that individuals of many profile sizes will be able to attract and hold a paid audience.

After what feels like decades in which online writing was devalued to commodity prices, it’s startling to find ourselves in a world where various well-financed companies are competing for our pens.

#facebook, #substack, #tc, #twitter

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Substack faces backlash over the writers it supports with big advances

Substack has attracted a number of high-profile writers to its newsletter platform — and it hasn’t been a secret that the venture-backed startup has lured some of them with sizable payments.

For example, a New Yorker article late last year identified several writers (Anne Helen Petersen, Matthew Yglesias)  who’d accepted “substantial” advances and others (Robert Christgau, Alison Roman) who’d started Substack newsletters without striking deals with the company.

However, a number of writers publishing via Substack have begun pointing out that this strategy makes the company seem less like a technology platform and more like a media company (a familiar debate around Facebook and other online giants) — or at the very least, like a technology platform that also makes editorial decisions which are subject to scrutiny and criticism.

Last week, the writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle pointed to writers like Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald and Freddie de Boer (several of whom departed larger publications, supposedly turning to Substack for greater editorial independence) and suggested that the platform has become “famous for giving massive advances […] to people who actively hate trans people and women, argue ceaselessly against our civil rights, and in many cases, have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and/or cis women in their industry.”

Doyle initially said that they would continue publishing via Substack but would not charge a subscription fee to any readers who (like Doyle) identify as trans. Later, they added an update saying they’d be moving to a different platform called Ghost.

Similarly, science journalist and science fiction writer Annalee Newitz wrote yesterday that they would be leaving the platform as well. And as part of their farewell, they described Substack as a “scam”: “For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted.”

Substack has responded in with two posts of its own. In the first, published last week, co-founder Hamish McKenzie outlines the details of what the company calls its Substack Pro program — it offers select writers an advance payment for their first year on the platform, then keeps 85% of the writers’ subscription revenue. After that, there’s no guaranteed payment, but writers get to keep 90% of their revenue. (The company also offers legal support and healthcare stipends.)

“We see these deals as business decisions, not editorial ones,” McKenzie wrote. “We don’t commission or edit stories. We don’t hire writers, or manage them. The writers, not Substack, are the owners. No-one writes for Substack – they write for their own publications.”

The second post (bylined by McKenzie and his co-founders Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi) provides additional details about who’s in the program — more than half women, more than one-third people of color, diverse viewpoints but “none that can be reasonably construed as anti-trans” —without actually naming names.

“So far, the small number of writers who have chosen to share their deals – coupled with some wrong assumptions about who might be part of the program – has created a distorted perception of the overall makeup of the group, leading to incorrect inferences about Substack’s business strategy,” the Substack founders wrote.

As for whether those writers are being held to any standards, the founders said, “We will continue to require all writers to abide by Substack’s content guidelines, which guard against harassment and threats. But we will also stick to a hands-off approach to censorship, as laid out in our statement about our content moderation philosophy.”

Greenwald, for his part, dismissed the criticism as “petty Substack censors” whose position boils down to, “because you refuse to remove from your platform the writers I hate who have built a very large readership of their own, I’m taking myself & my couple of dozen readers elsewhere in protest.”

But when I reached out to Newitz (a friend of mine) via email, they told me that the key issue is transparency.

“If Substack won’t tell us who they are paying, we can’t figure out who on the site has grown their audience organically, and who is getting juiced,” Newitz said. “It’s blatantly misleading for people who are trying to figure out whether they can make money on the platform. Plus, keeping their Pro list secret means we can’t verify Substack’s claims about how its staff writers are on ‘all sides’ of the political spectrum.”

#media, #startups, #substack, #tc

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Can data fix healthcare?

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Can data fix healthcare?

Not alone, but you might be able to make a lot of progress with the right data in the right hands. And that’s precisely what the startup we’re talking about today is up to.

The Exchange caught up with Terry Myerson and Lisa Gurry this week, the CEO and CMO of Truveta, a young company that wants to collect oodles of data from healthcare providers, anonymize it, aggregate it and make it available to third parties for research.

It’s a big task, but the team behind Truveta has experience with big projects. Myerson is best known for his time one-rung below the top of the Microsoft org chart, where he ran things you might have heard of, like Windows. Gurry was a leader inside that org, most recently working on strategy for the Microsoft Store product.

But now they are at a healthtech data company. How did that come to be? After Myerson left Microsoft he worked with Madrona, the Seattle-area venture capital firm, and the Carlyle Group, a huge investing group with a taste for private equity. A few years later, several former Microsoft co-workers of Myerson had wound up at Providence, a healthcare giant. They reached out to Myerson around when COVID-19 was first locking down the United States. The former Microsoft exec agreed to take part in a few calls, but didn’t formally join them as he was stuck at home.

During that time he learned that Providence had put together a white paper concerning the idea that Truveta would become, that by collecting data from healthcare providers a dataset of sufficient size and diversity could be compiled to allow research of all sorts to leverage it. Myerson got stuck on the concept, later founding the company. Then he called up some former colleagues, including Gurry, to help him build it.

Truveta has around 50 people today and will scale to around 100 this year, Myerson said.

Questions abound in your head, I’m sure. Things are still early at Truveta, but the company announced last week that it has signed up 14 healthcare providers to help with its data goals. Those firms are also investors in the company (Myerson put in capital in as well).

I was curious about the company’s business plan. Per Myerson, Truveta will charge different rates depending on who wants to access its data. As you can imagine, commercial entities will pay a different price than an independent researcher.

Next for Truveta is getting more data, locking down its internal data schema, collecting feedback from researchers and, later, approaching commercial access.

Healthcare in America is inequitable — something that the pair of Truveta executives stressed during our call — thus giving the company a huge market to improve and make less racist and sexist.

It was a bit odd to talk to Myerson and Gurry about their startup. In the past I’d chatted with them about some of Microsoft’s largest platforms. Let’s see how fast they can transform Truveta from an idea I can’t help but dig, to a company that is a viable commercial concern. And then how big they can grow it.

Market Notes

A lot has happened in the past few days that we couldn’t get to. Adyen’s earnings, for example. The European payments platform reported H2 revenues of €379.4 million, up 28% compared to the year ago half-year. And from that it reported EBITDA of €236.8 million. Who said fintech can’t be profitable? (Note: Adyen’s results are required reading if you care about Stripe’s valuation and future public offering.)

And there were some rounds that also fell through our fingers. Investments like CloudTalk’s recent $7.3 million Series A. The Slovakia-based startup previously raised a $1.6 million seed round in 2019. The startup, as its name suggests, offers cloud telephony services to call centers.

We suspected that CloudTalk probably had a pretty good year in 2020 thanks to global growth in remote work. It did. In an email, CloudTalk said that it has not seen “Zoom-like [growth] figures” but that in 2020 demand for its services “exceeded [its] expectations.” That helps explain its latest round.

The Exchange was also curious if the company had a perspective on subscription pricing versus consumption pricing, a rising topic amongst software dorks such as myself (more to come on this next week with notes from Appian, Fastly and others). Per the company, CloudTalk charges “for both seats and for usage,” making it a hybrid company from a pricing perspective. CloudTalk called its pricing setup “a good balance for both parties because customers like to know what they are going to be paying ahead of time.”

It’s a startup to keep in mind. As is Zolve, a globally themed neobank with a focus on helping expats have a working financial world. I couldn’t get to it, but TechCrunch wrote it up. More here.

And in case you didn’t have time to watch television during work the last few days let’s talk about Robinhood. Which enjoyed a Congressional hearing this week that was mostly dull apart from some notes on the fintech giant’s business model.

Finally, it was a busy week for crowded startup niches. There was more money for OKR startups, leading to our question about VCs putting capital into related companies in the future. Public also raised several hundred million dollars. Because why not. And low-code player OutSystems raised $150 million to round out the group. It was one hell of a week.

Various and Sundry

I will leave you with a few data points. First, that Clubhouse’s metrics are finally starting to match the hype around the product. People are showing up in droves, pushing its total download figures over the 10 million mark.

And in news that I missed, Substack crossed the 500,000 subscriber mark. That’s impressive!

And to close, a Chicago-based, home-focused insurtech startup called Kin crossed the $10 billion “total insured property value” mark this week. The Exchange reached out, asking the company about its economics. After all it’s not hard to run up premium volume if you are selling dollars for 50-cent pieces.

Ruth Awad from the company responded that her company’s “ loss rate is 53% and our gross margins are 32%.” Not bad at all. Given how quickly insurtech has gone from experiment to public-success, Kin is a company to keep tabs on.

Wrapping, please make sure to support your local heavy metal band this weekend,

Alex

#fundings-exits, #robinhood, #startups, #substack, #the-exhange, #the-techcrunch-exchange

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Startup cynicism and Substack, or Clubhouse, or Miami, or …

If you build it, they will come, but they sure as hell are going to complain about everything until they do.

There were millions of bets made in the tech industry last year. Some of those bets involved actual venture capital dollars. Others involved individual decisions on where to live: do you bet on the future of San Francisco or do you want to partake in the growth of some other startup hub? Are you going to launch this new feature in your product or improve one of your existing ones? Do you switch jobs or stay and double down?

Yet, for all those bets, just three seem to have achieved a collective and hysterical frenzy in the industry as we close out this year: a bet on the future of media, a bet on the future of (audio) media, and a bet on the future of one of America’s greatest cities.

Substack, Clubhouse, and Miami as a major tech hub are compelling bets. They are early bets, in the sense that most of the work to actually realize each of their dreams remains to be done. All three are bets of optimism: Substack believes it can rebuild journalism. Clubhouse believes it can reinvent radio with the right interactivity and build a unique social platform. And Miami is a bet that you can take a top global city without a massive startup ecosystem and agglomerate the talent necessary to compete with San Francisco, New York and Boston.

Yet, that optimism is not broadly endorsed by the tech commentariat, who see threats, failures, and barriers from every angle.

I wish I could say it’s just the ennui of an industry in flux given the pandemic and constant cavalcade of chaos and bad news that’s hit us this year. That cynicism, though, has gotten deeper and more entrenched over the past few years even before coronavirus was a trending topic, even as more startups than ever are getting funding (and at better valuations!), even as more startups than ever are exiting, and those exits are collectively larger than ever as we saw earlier this month.

Insecurity is the fabric that runs through most of these bleak analyses. That’s particularly prominent with Substack, which sits at the nexus of insecurity in tech and insecurity in media. The criticism from tech folks seems to basically boil down to “it’s just an email service!” Its simplicity is threatening, since it seems to intimate that anyone could have built a Substack, really anytime in the last decade.

Indeed, they could. Substack is simple in its original product conception, which is a DNA it happens to share with a lot of other successful consumer startups. It is (or perhaps better to say now, was) just email. It’s Stripe + a CMS editor + an email delivery service. A janky version could be written in a day by most competent engineers. And yet. No one else built Substack, and that’s where the insecurity starts in the startup world.

From the media perspective, it’s of course been brutal the last few years in newsrooms and across publishing, so understandably, the level of cynicism in the press is already high (and journalists aren’t exactly optimistic types to begin with). Yet, most of the criticism here basically boils down to “why hasn’t Substack completely stopped the bloodletting of my industry in the short few years it’s been around?”

Maybe they will, but give the folks some god damn time to build. The fact that a young startup is even considered to have the potential to completely rebuild an industry is precisely what makes Substack (and other adjacent startups in its space) such a compelling bet. Substack, today, cannot re-employ tens of thousands of laid-off journalists, or fix the inequality in news coverage or industry demographics, or end the plight of “fake news.” But what about a decade from now if they keep growing on this trajectory and stay focused on building?

The cynicism of immediate perfection is one of the strange dynamics of startups in 2020. There is this expectation that a startup, with one or a few founders and a couple of employees, is somehow going to build a perfect product on day one that mitigates any potential problem even before it becomes one. Maybe these startups are just getting popularized too early, and the people who understand early product are getting subsumed by the wider masses who don’t understand the evolution of products?

This pattern is obvious in the case of Clubhouse, the drama aspects we have mostly managed to avoid at TechCrunch. It’s a new social platform, with new social dynamics. No one understands what it’s going to become in the next few years. Not Paul Davison (who might, even so, have a dream of where he wants to take it), not Clubhouse’s investors, and certainly not its users. This past week, Clubhouse hosted a live Lion King musical event with thousands of participants. Who had that on their bingo board?

Are there problems with Substack and Clubhouse? For sure. But as early companies, they have the obligation to explore the terrain of what they are building, find the key features that compel users to these platforms, and ultimately find their growth formula. There will be problems — trust and safety chief among them, particularly given the nature of user-contributed content. No startup has ever been founded, however, that didn’t uncover problems along its journey. The key question we must ask is whether these companies have the leadership to fix them as they continue building. My sense — and hypothetical bet — is yes.

Talking about leadership, that leads us to Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami, whose single tweet offering to help has sparked the most absurd kerfuffle of San Francisco lovers and vitriolic pessimists the world over right now.

Keith Rabois and a few other VCs and founders are trailblazing a trail from San Francisco to Miami, linking up with the local industry to try to build something new and better than what existed before. It’s a bet on a place — an optimistic one — that the power of startups and tech can migrate outside of its central hubs.

What’s strange is that the cynicism around Miami here seems even less warranted than it did a decade ago. While San Francisco and distantly New York and Boston remain the clear hubs of tech startups in the U.S., cities like Salt Lake, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Austin, Denver, Philadelphia and more have started to score some serious points. Is it really so hard to believe that Miami, a metro region of 5.5 million and one of the largest regional economies in the United States, might actually succeed as well? Maybe it literally just required a few major VCs to show up to catalyze the revolution.

Nothing got built by cynicism. “You can’t do it!” has never created a company, except perhaps to trigger a founder to start something in revolt at the fusillade of negativity.

It takes time though to build. It takes time to take an early product and grow it. It takes time to build a startup ecosystem and expand it into something self-sustaining. Perhaps most importantly, it takes extraordinary effort and hard work, and not just from singular individuals but a whole team and community of people to succeed. The future is malleable — and bets do pay off. So we all need to stop asking what’s the problem and pointing out flaws, and perhaps ask, what future are we building toward? What’s the bet I’m willing to back?

#clubhouse, #keith-rabois, #miami, #startups, #substack, #tc, #venture-capital

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Substack explains its ‘hands-off’ approach to content moderation

Content moderation has been a thorny topic in 2020. And when I say “thorny,” I mean in the sense of having multiple congressional hearings on the subject. Twitter and Facebook in particular have been mired in concerns around the subject, fielding complaints that they both haven’t done enough to weed out problematic content and suggestions that they’re a censorship-happy, shadow-banning enemy of the First Amendment.

The latter appears to be the sole reason for the existence of the right wing-focused Twitter competitor, Parler.

As Substack grows in popularity, the newsletter platform is going to face some tremendously difficult questions around content moderation. Today it published a lengthy blog post hoping to nip some of those concerns in the bud. The write-up offers some caveats, but largely espouses the platform’s commitment to free speech, noting:

In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.

The stance reflects Substack’s commitment to a subscription-based model, rather than the ads that currently keep the lights on for services like Twitter and Facebook. Instead, it takes a 10% cut of writers’ subscription revenue. Certainly that frees it up from sponsorship boycotts to some degree. The subscription model also means that users have to opt into specific content more so than on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where content boundaries are far more fluid.

“We are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with more controls on speech’ just as we are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with advertising,’ ” the company writes.

Of course, there are financial considerations — there always are. Substack has a vested interest in supporting right-wing and conservative voices who have decried Facebook and Twitter’s practices. Notably, The Dispatch is at the top of the service’s politics leaderboard. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, editor Stephen Hayes called the service, “unapologetically center-right,” while its current blurb refers to it as “conservative.”

“None of these views are neutral,” Substack writes. “Many Silicon Valley technology companies strive to make their platforms apolitical, but we think such a goal is impossible to achieve.” There’s no doubt some truth in that. Any position on content moderation can be viewed as a political one to some degree. And equally, none will make everyone — or even most people — completely happy.

But it’s also easy to see the service facing some major tests of its current hands-off approach as the service continues to grow in popularity. The service’s approach has involved putting its name out there in front of consumers, meaning it won’t be viewed as a kind of invisible publishing platform.

Substack is quick to add that there is, naturally, content that crosses the line in spite of this. “Of course, there are limits,” it writes. “We do not allow porn on Substack, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment.”

#apps, #censorship, #content-moderation, #substack

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Media roundup: Google to cut big checks for news publishers, Substack continues to draw top creators, more

Welcome back to Extra Crunch’s Media Roundup, where I round up the stories that entrepreneurs in the content and advertising business should be thinking about — trends, larger platform shifts, as well as noteworthy funding rounds.

This time, we’ve got some bad news for movie theaters, the specter of antitrust regulation and a new career path for journalists. Let’s get started!

Movie studios and theaters face a bleak fall

In the last roundup, I pointed to “Tenet”’s global opening weekend as a sign that the theatrical movie business might be coming back to life — but I may have spoken too soon.

While the latest Christopher Nolan film has continued to do reasonably well outside the United States, it’s only grossed $20 million domestically for Warner Brothers. The film’s underwhelming performance could be blamed on U.S. audiences being afraid to return to theaters — but it might simply be a reflection of the fact that theaters in major moviegoing markets like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco remain closed.

Either way, Warner Brothers and other studios are clearly spooked by the results and have pushed nearly all of their theatrical releases until next year, with knock-on effects for the movies that were already scheduled for 2021. For example, Warner’s “Dune” is being delayed until October 2021, and Daniel Craig’s final Bond entry, “No Time To Die,” was pushed back from November until April. Meanwhile, “The Batman” has been delayed from 2021 to 2022.

At this point, there are few Hollywood blockbusters on the calendar until Christmas, when “Wonder Woman 1984” is due for release. To be honest, I’d be surprised if it actually hits that date. (Video-game comedy “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds, is scheduled for December 11, but the cast has already created a tongue-in-cheek video acknowledging that release dates aren’t exactly set in stone right now.)

In the meantime, at least one major theater chain said it can’t justify keeping its doors open. The United Kingdom’s Cineworld, which also operates Regal Cinemas in the U.S., announced that it’s closing its theaters indefinitely. For now, AMC and Cinemark said they aren’t going to to follow suit. (AMC noted that it’s bringing in additional revenue through a deal with Universal where the theatre chain gets a cut when Universal films are released early via video-on-demand.)

#entertainment, #facebook, #google, #justin-waldron, #media, #media-roundup, #playco, #substack

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Substack launches Defender, a program offering legal support to independent writers

In the worlds of journalism and publishing, it’s fairly common for the wealthy to attempt to shut down reporting with legal threats. For those publishing on large platforms with plenty of resources, such challenges can be a massive headache. For independent writers and publishers, on the other hand, the consequences can be far more dire.

Citing an example wherein a politician’s lawyers recently went after a Substack writer over reports of business ties, the popular newsletter platform is announcing the launch of Defender. After some months in a closed pilot with a “handful” of writers, Substack is extending the service to interested parties.

There’s a form now on Substack’s site. To qualify, users must be based in the U.S. and use Substack for professional work. Co-founder/COO Hamish McKenzie says the company has no current commitment to extending the program to free users (though that could certainly change), but it’s using the U.S. program to determine when and where to more broadly expand Defender.

Writers also need to publish work “that may attract unreasonable legal pressure, such as abuses of copyright laws, assaults on first amendment rights, and spurious defamation claims.” Once approved, they’ll need to fill out a second form detailing the specific case for which they need support. Substack will approve users on a case by case basis, as well as which cases it ultimately supports.

The company says it’s willing to cover fees of up to $1 million, though “in exceptional cases, we may cover even more.” Such cases will continue to be fascinating tests of the First Amendment, particularly in an era when Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under strong fire from the president of the United States.

“Important writing holds the powerful to account – and quite often, that’s an arrangement that the powerful would rather not support,” Substack writes. “In some cases, antagonists use threats of legal action in an attempt to stop the work that makes them uncomfortable.”

As de-platforming has increasingly become a part of the social media landscape, eyes will no doubt be on Substack as the service decides which cases it ultimately chooses to cover. From the sound of its description, Defender will largely focus on reportage — though in such a fragmented media landscape, even that can be in the eye of the beholder.

The launch of Defender follows a few months after Substack introduced a $100,000 grant to support independent writers.

#journalism, #lawsuit, #media, #policy, #substack

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As media revenue struggles, subscription startups see growth

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been a friend to the media business. Its economic impacts slashed advertising budgets, diminishing a key revenue plank for many publications. The results of falling ad spend have been felt across the industry, with a wave of layoffs hitting publications large and small, niche and general.


The Exchange explores startups, markets, and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, and now you can receive it in your inbox. Sign up for The Exchange newsletter, which drops every Friday starting July 24.


Other forms of publisher income, like events, have also been reduced. But the pain of 2020’s media downturn hasn’t been felt equally in the industry. Publications that had built subscription revenue bases were in a better position to weather declines in other media incomes than peers who hadn’t; revenue diversification can provide real shelter when the economy rapidly shifts.

Subscription incomes are not enough for publications to avoid all pain; The Atlantic’s subscription base famously surged during the early months of COVID-19, but the company still saw layoffs. The Athletic’s subscription business was predicated on sports events taking place — it too underwent cuts despite a membership-first model.

In this era, the healthiest publications tend to have a subscription component. The paywalled New York Times and Wall Street Journal are hiring, as is Business Insider, which launched a membership service in 2017. But not all subscription publications that are succeeding are large. Indeed, thanks to a growing set of publisher-friendly subscription services, there are a number of options in the market for supporting publications as small as a single author.

Perhaps most famously, Substack has seen good growth in the last year. The venture-backed newsletter-and-blogging service provides authors with the ability to charge for their writing. But other startups are competing in the space, helping publications derive more income directly from readers.

Pico, which provides paid-subscription tooling for publishers, has seen strong growth in the COVID-19 era. TechCrunch caught up with its co-founder Jason Bade to chat about what his company has seen in recent months. And a few months ahead of COVID-19’s arrival, publishing platform Ghost launched its paid subscription product into beta. TechCrunch asked Ghost about the reception, and growth of the membership portion of its business to better understand today’s media market.

What emerges from data and conversations concerning the startup-supported media membership landscape is something hopeful. Some writers are going to build micro-pubs that can finance their existence. And larger publications have never had more available help to wean their businesses off of ads, pageviews, and Google’s favor.

#extra-crunch, #fundings-exits, #ghost, #market-analysis, #media, #pico, #precursor-ventures, #startups, #substack, #tc, #the-exchange

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The Dispatch, a news organization built on Substack, passes $1M in annual revenue

Is there an audience for a center-right news publication focused on original reporting and analysis? That’s the proposition that The Dispatch set out to test when it launched last October, and the early results are promising. The startup says it’s now approaching 10,000 paying subscribers, adding up to more than $1 million in annualized revenue.

Editor and CEO Stephen Hayes (former editor in chief of the now-defunct Weekly Standard) told me that his vision for The Dispatch was to “slow down the news cycle.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the day’s headlines. But rather than just recycling the same stories about, say, Bernie Sanders or the COVID-19 pandemic, The Dispatch aims to “take a breath” and try to approach important news in a fresh way.

In order to do that, Hayes said that building a subscription business with newsletter-focused digital media platform Substack (the Substack team also handles all of The Dispatch’s technical and product needs) was key.

“We’re not trying to monetize eyeballs,” he said. “What Substack was doing fit pretty much exactly with what we wanted to build — a company with an editorial-first philosophy.”

As part of that strategy, The Dispatch has gradually been rolling out its membership program and paywall. At launch, it offered a lifetime membership ($1,500), then added an annual membership ($100) when it launched its full site in January, and finally introduced a paywall and a monthly membership ($10) less than a month ago.

Hayes said it’s been largely “an ad hoc process” of figuring what should and shouldn’t go behind the paywall. Apparently, one piece of advice that has been helpful is, “Don’t hide your good stuff behind the paywall. You need to be serving some of your best, most substantive work in front of the paywall, so that you get people into the top of the funnel.”

On top of its paying subscribers, Hayes said The Dispatch is reaching about 60,000 people with its newsletters. And it’s partnering with podcast company Sounder, with plans to participate in Google’s Play Me The News program for Google Home, where it will offer short-form audio news stories.

The startup has also raised $6 million in funding from individual investors (none of it comes from venture capital firms).

Hayes acknowledged that one of the constant questions he had to answer during the fundraising process was whether he was aiming for too narrow an audience — namely, the #NeverTrump slice of the political right.

It might look that way on “the traditional political spectrum,” but in Hayes’ view, it’s more accurate to see the spectrum as a “hardcore 15 percent” on the left and another 15 percent on the right that’s “more partisan than ideological” and will root for their party no more what. And while The Dispatch is “unapologetically center-right,” he’s hoping to appeal to the remaining 70 percent, who are looking for a publication that can “help you make sense of all this stuff that doesn’t make sense,” regardless of political leanings.

The Dispatch is in many ways the flagship among full-fledged news organizations built on Substack, but the list of publications now includes Asia Sentinel, Let’s Go Warriors and Write for California. The startup is also announcing that it’s now reaching more than 100,000 paying subscribers across its platform.

Substack CEO Chris Best said that The Dispatch’s success so far shows that there’s “a hunger out there.”

He added, “Are readers willing to pay for something that helps them make sense of the world and adds value to their lives? I think the answer is unequivocally yes.”

#media, #startups, #substack

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