Apollo completes its $5B acquisition of Verizon Media, now known as Yahoo

Private equity firm Apollo Global Management this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of Yahoo (formerly known as Verizon Media Group, itself formerly known as Oath) from Verizon. The deal is worth $5 billion, with $4.25 billion in cash, plus preferred interests of $750 million. Verizon will be retaining 10% of the newly rebranded company.

“This is a new era for Yahoo,” Yahoo CEO (and former VZM head) Guru Gowrappan said in a release tied to the news. “The close of the deal heralds an exciting time of renewed opportunity for us as a standalone entity. We anticipate that the coming months and years will bring fresh growth and innovation for Yahoo as a business and a brand, and we look forward to creating that future with our new partners.”

There have been reports that Gowrappan might not stay on as CEO of Yahoo for the long term now that the deal has closed; for now he’s still at the helm.

In addition to its titular Yahoo properties (Mail, Sports, Finance, et al.), the group includes us, TechCrunch; AOL; Engadget and interactive media brand, RYOT. All told, the umbrella brand encompasses around 900 million monthly active users globally and is currently the third-largest internet property, per Apollo’s figures.

 

The deal puts to a close a years-long effort by Verizon to make a comprehensive move into online media, specifically around adtech, which ultimately proved to be too costly, mostly unprofitable, and finally not core enough to the telco’s bigger growth strategy.

The news comes during a tumultuous time for online media, amid increasing industry-wide consolidation, many felt within Verizon Media. Verizon acquired AOL in 2015 for $4.4 billion, followed by buying Yahoo for $4.5 billion two years later, combining the two legacy media properties into a combined group named Oath. At the end of 2018, Oath wrote down $4.6 billion, following the merger.

It’s not clear how a new owner will steer that large ship differently, but one strategy — standard practice for PE firms — could involve Apollo selling off parts of the business or rationalizing it in other ways.

However, for its part, Apollo has promised to continue investing in the newly acquired proprieties, and it has secured all jobs at the time of handover for at least an initial period. The bigger firm of Apollo has a massive set of TMT holdings so it will be interesting to see how and if it leverages that, too.

“We look forward to partnering with Yahoo’s talented employee base to build on the company’s strong momentum and position the new Yahoo for long-term success as a standalone consumer internet and digital media leader,” Apollo Partner Reed Rayman said in the release. “We couldn’t be more excited about this next chapter for Yahoo as we look to invest in growth across the business, including accelerating its customer-first offerings and commerce capabilities, expanding its reach and enhancing the daily user experience.”

#aol, #apollo, #entertainment, #ma, #media, #tc, #verizon, #yahoo

Creators can now monetize their expertise on Quora

In May, Yahoo! Answers shut down after helping the internet answer its most burning questions since 2005. But now, Quora, which began as a question-and-answer site but expanded to incorporate blogging, is making its platform more appealing to creators.

Quora says it’s “on track to be cash flow positive from ads alone,” implying that the platform isn’t currently in the black. But Quora sees tapping into the creator economy and subscriptions as a way to turn a profit.

“We want to make sharing knowledge more financially sustainable for creators,” Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo wrote in a blog post. “Even though many people are motivated and able to spend their time writing on Quora just to share their knowledge, many others could share much more with financial justification to do so.”

Quora’s first new product is Quora+ — subscribers will pay a $5 monthly fee or a $50 yearly fee to access content that any creator chooses to put behind a paywall. These are the same rates that Medium, which has no ads, charges for its membership program.

Rather than paying select creators, subscribers will pay Quora. Then, each subscriber’s payment will be distributed to creators “in proportion to the amount each subscriber is consuming their content, with more of a subscriber’s contribution going to writers and spaces the subscriber follows.” Creators have the option to enable a dynamic paywall on Quora+ content, which would give free users access to certain posts if Quora thinks they’re likely to convert to paid membership; there’s also an “adaptive” paywall option, which uses an algorithm to decide whether to paywall content for a specific user on a case-by-case basis. This is supposed to help creators strike a balance between monetizing their content and growing their audience to find new potential subscribers.

Quora told TechCrunch that it is still experimenting with Quora+ and can’t yet say what percentage it will take from subscriptions.

The other option is for creators to write paywalled posts on Spaces, which are like user-created publications on Quora. Quora will take 5% of the subscription fee, which the creator can choose at their own discretion — comparatively, the direct-to-consumer blogging platform Substack takes 10% of writers’ profits, which makes Quora a competitive alternative. Other platforms like Ghost ask for a $9 monthly fee, but let writers retain their revenue — for writers making at least $180 per month, Ghost would be more profitable than Quora.

“We’re able to sustainably commit to taking only a minimal fee without needing to increase it in the future because we make enough revenue from ads to fund most of the platform’s development and operations,” D’Angelo wrote. Substack, meanwhile, doesn’t have ads.

Quora reached a $1.8 billion valuation in 2017 after raising $85 million, and at the time, the platform had 190 million monthly users. Now, according to D’Angelo’s blog post, over 300 million people use Quora each month. Despite this user growth, Quora laid off an undisclosed amount of staff in its Bay Area and New York City offices in January 2020.

Space subscriptions will launch today for English language users in 25 countries, including the U.S. The rollout of Quora+ will be less immediate as Quora invites select writers to test the platform and determine what works best for subscribers and creators.

#adam-dangelo, #apps, #california, #ceo, #new-york-city, #peer-to-peer, #question-and-answer-site, #quora, #substack, #website, #websites, #yahoo, #yahoo-answers

Robinhood is now a stonk

Update: Trading of Robinhood shares has been halted due to volatility. The company’s stock paused at $65.60 on Robinhood itself. Yahoo Finance has a higher $77.03 price on the company’s equity, up a stunning 64.59% today. Things are fluid, but Robinhood may have been halted and then rose again when it resumed trading. Stonks indeed.

Shares of Robinhood, an investing-focused consumer fintech company, soared this morning in pre-market trading. The stonk phenomenon, which helped propel minor companies like GameStop and AMC earlier this year, appears to be impacting Robinhood’s own stock; that much GameStop and AMC trading took place on Robinhood’s platform during stonk-fever is irony not lost on this publication.

Here’s what things look like this morning, per Yahoo Finance:

Recall that Robinhood went public at $38 per share, the low end of its range, and sank in its early trading sessions to below its IPO price. Now, it’s worth $54 per share.

Cool.

Normally we’d crack a joke and close this small news item here, but with Robinhood’s IPO featuring a unique twist on the traditional public offering, we have to do a bit more work. When it went public, Robinhood reserved a chunk of its equity for purchase by its own users. The impact of this was that more retail investors likely owned Robinhood equity at the start of its trading life than would be normal with a traditional IPO.

One hypothesis regarding Robinhood’s somewhat slack early trading performance was that early retail demand for its shares was sated by its effort to allow its users to buy stock in its shares, leading to a less-skewed supply/demand curve when it debuted.

Things have changed. What’s going on? Last week, an analyst put a $65 per share price target on the stock. And there are a handful of other ratings to chew on. But the wild swing in the price of Robinhood today appears from our vantage point to be another stonk moment. The stock is being traded like a short-squeeze, even if some market participants are skeptical of the idea due to what they view as a limited short interest in the company.

Checking the Robinhood IR page, there’s no news. Robinhood did not recently report earnings. And the company’s recent 606 filings that deal with PFOF incomes seemed to match up with expectations in revenue terms regarding what the company detailed in its Q2 2021 flash numbers. Perhaps there was more crypto in there than expected, but nothing truly wild.

It appears that Robinhood is simply going up because it is. This happens in 2021; we just have to get used to it.

But what matters most for our purposes is that Robinhood’s decision to sell some IPO stock to its users did not manage to create so much float for the now-public unicorn to diminish weird trading. You can go public in an unusual manner and still catch a stonk wave. Now we know.

#fundings-exits, #gamestop, #initial-public-offering, #pfof, #robinhood, #startups, #stock-market, #yahoo

Big tech companies are at war with employees over remote work

A tree-lined campus surrounds a multistory glass and steel building.

Enlarge / Apple offices in northern California. (credit: Apple)

All across the United States, the leaders at large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are engaged in a delicate dance with thousands of employees who have recently become convinced that physically commuting to an office every day is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced these companies to operate with mostly remote workforces for months straight. And since many of them are based in areas with relatively high vaccination rates, the calls to return to the physical office began to sound over the summer.

But thousands of high-paid workers at these companies aren’t having it. Many of them don’t want to go back to the office full-time, even if they’re willing to do so a few days a week. Workers are even pointing to how effective they were when fully remote and using that to question why they have to keep living in the expensive cities where these offices are located.

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#apple, #covid-19, #facebook, #google, #jack-dorsey, #lyft, #marissa-mayer, #microsoft, #remote-work, #tech, #tim-cook, #twitter, #yahoo

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals 2021 starts tomorrow

Get ready for a startup throwdown of global proportions (literally). We’re the proud hosts of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals, and the pitch competition action starts tomorrow, July 22 at 9:00 am (PT).

Pro housekeeping tip: Attending this virtual pitch fest is 100 percent free, but you need to register here first.

Not familiar with XTC? It’s the world’s largest pitch competition focused on solving humanity’s most vexing challenges. You gotta love a competition that serves the greater good — and a startup ecosystem for purpose-driven companies determined to build a more sustainable, equitable, healthy, inclusive and prosperous world.

The road to the XTC finals was crowded to say the least. More than 3,700 startups from 92 countries applied to compete in one of these categories: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities.

Talk about a daunting endeavor. Team XTC, which consisted of deeply experienced investors, entrepreneurs and executives, winnowed down that field to these seven competing finalists: Wasteless, Mining and Process Solutions, Testmaster, Dot Inc., Hillridge Technology, Genetika+ and Fotokite.

Tomorrow’s competition takes place in two rounds, and each startup team will have to bring its best if they hope to impress this panel of judges — all leaders in sustainability and social-impact.

Young Sohn, co-founder, XTC and chairman at Harmann International; Bill Tai, co-founder, XTC and Partner Emeritus, Charles River Ventures; Regina Dugan, president and CEO of Wellcome Leap; Jerry Yang, founder/partner of AME Cloud Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!; Lars Reger, CTO and EVP at NXP Semiconductors; and Michael Zeisser, managing partner at FMZ Ventures.

In a classic, “but wait, there’s more” moment, the day also features several presentations from some of the leading voices in sustainability. Take a look at the two examples below, and check out the complete XTC finals agenda and the roster of speakers.

The Keynote Address: Tune in as Beth Bechdol, the deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, provides an update on the latest from her agency.

Waste Matters: According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces 292.4 million tons of waste a year. Can technology help this massive – and growing – issue? Leon Farrant (Green Li-Ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics), and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) will discuss their companies’ unique approaches to dealing with the problem.

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals starts tomorrow, July 22. Join us and thousands of people around the world for this free, virtual pitch competition. Register here for your free ticket.

#agtech, #ame-cloud-ventures, #bill-tai, #charles-river-ventures, #co-founder, #environmental-protection-agency, #extreme-tech-challenge-global-finals, #healthtech, #jerry-yang, #managing-partner, #nxp-semiconductors, #partner, #regina-dugan, #tc, #united-nations, #united-states, #wellcome, #yahoo, #young-sohn

Tumblr debuts Post+, a subscription service for Gen Z creators

As Twitter launches Super Follows, YouTube adds new monetization tools and Instagram embraces e-commerce, the social media sphere is heating up with new ways for creators to make a living. Now, Tumblr is joining the fray with Post+, the platform’s first attempt at allowing users to monetize their content. Post+ is debuting today in limited beta for an exclusive selection of creators in the U.S., who were hand-picked by Tumblr.

Like Twitter’s Super Follows, Tumblr’s Post+ lets creators choose which content they want to put behind a paywall, whether that’s original artwork, personal blog posts or Destiel fanfic. Creators can set the price for their subscriber-only content starting at $3.99 per month, with additional tiers at $5.99 and $9.99. The process of making content under Post+ is the same as any other Tumblr post — all creators will have to do is check a box to indicate that the post is for paying subscribers only, whether that’s a video, audio clip, text post, image, etc.

Image Credits: Tumblr

“Not reserved only for professionals, or those with 10K followers or higher, Tumblr’s Post+ will push the boundaries of what’s considered money-making content on the internet: Shitposters, memelords, artists, fan fiction writers, all of the above and everyone in between will be able to create content while building their community of supporters, and getting paid with Post+,” a Tumblr spokesperson told TechCrunch.

For millennials who live-blogged their reading of the last Hunger Games” book on its release day in 2010, Tumblr might seem like a relic of the past. Founded in 2007, the platform has gone through plenty of change over the years. In 2013, Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo for $1.1 billion, and then Yahoo was later acquired by Verizon.

Image Credits: SimilarWeb

But a massive shift came for Tumblr in December 2018, when the platform banned all sexually explicit content and pornography. A month prior, the Tumblr app had been removed from the iOS App Store after child pornography passed through the app’s filtering technology, which led the platform to ban pornography entirely. Four months after the ban, Tumblr’s monthly page views had declined by 151 million, or 29%. Since then, the platform has retained a core userbase, hovering between about 310 million and 377 million page views per month, according to SimilarWeb, though the analytics still indicate a slight downward trend. Tumblr declined to provide its monthly active user numbers, but shared that the platform has more than 11 million posts per day and 500 million blogs.

In 2019, the platform was sold to Automattic, the company that owns WordPress. Though Tumblr hasn’t exhibited significant growth since the fateful porn ban, under its new ownership, it’s exploring new ways to generate profit by creating features that appeal to its now younger demographic. According to Tumblr, over 48% of users are Gen Z. These Gen Z users spend 26% more time on the platform than older bloggers, and their average daily usage time is increasing over 100% from year to year.

#apps, #automattic, #creator-economy, #monetization, #tumblr, #verizon, #yahoo

Evernote quietly disappeared from an anti-surveillance lobbying group’s website

In 2013, eight tech companies were accused of funneling their users’ data to the U.S. National Security Agency under the so-called PRISM program, according to highly classified government documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Six months later, the tech companies formed a coalition under the name Reform Government Surveillance, which as the name would suggest was to lobby lawmakers for reforms to government surveillance laws.

The idea was simple enough: to call on lawmakers to limit surveillance to targeted threats rather than conduct a dragnet collection of Americans’ private data, provide greater oversight and allow companies to be more transparent about the kinds of secret orders for user data that they receive.

Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo and AOL (to later become Verizon Media, which owns TechCrunch — for now) were the founding members of Reform Government Surveillance, or RGS, and over the years added Amazon, Dropbox, Evernote, Snap and Zoom as members.

But then sometime in June 2019, Evernote quietly disappeared from the RGS website without warning. What’s even more strange is that nobody noticed for two years, not even Evernote.

“We hadn’t realized our logo had been removed from the Reform Government Surveillance website,” said an Evernote spokesperson, when reached for comment by TechCrunch. “We are still members.”

Evernote joined the coalition in October 2014, a year and a half after PRISM first came to public light, even though the company was never named in the leaked Snowden documents. Still, Evernote was a powerful ally to have onboard, and showed RGS that its support for reforming government surveillance laws was gaining traction outside of the companies named in the leaked NSA files. Evernote cites its membership of RGS in its most recent transparency report and that it supports efforts to “reform practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information” — which makes its disappearance from the RGS website all the more bizarre.

TechCrunch also asked the other companies in the RGS coalition if they knew why Evernote was removed and all either didn’t respond, wouldn’t comment or had no idea. A spokesperson for one of the RGS companies said they weren’t all that surprised since companies “drop in and out of trade associations.”

The website of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, which features Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote, which is also a member. Image Credits: TechCrunch

While that may be true — companies often sign on to lobbying efforts that ultimately help their businesses; government surveillance is one of those rare thorny issues that got some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley rallying behind the cause. After all, few tech companies have openly and actively advocated for an increase in government surveillance of their users, since it’s the users themselves who are asking for more privacy baked into the services they use.

In the end, the reason for Evernote’s removal seems remarkably benign.

“Evernote has been a longtime member — but they were less active over the last couple of years, so we removed them from the website,” said an email from Monument Advocacy, a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm that represents RGS. “Your inquiry has helped to prompt new conversations between our organizations and we’re looking forward to working together more in the future.”

Monument has been involved with RGS since near the beginning after it was hired by the RGS coalition of companies to lobby for changes to surveillance laws in Congress. Monument has spent $2.2 million in lobbying to date since it began work with RGS in 2014, according to OpenSecrets, specifically on lobbying lawmakers to push for changes to bills under congressional consideration, such as changes to the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, albeit with mixed success. RGS supported the USA Freedom Act, a bill designed to curtail some of the NSA’s collection under the Patriot Act, but was unsuccessful in its opposition to the reauthorization of Section 702 of FISA, the powers that allow the NSA to collect intelligence on foreigners living outside the United States, which was reauthorized for six years in 2018.

RGS has been largely quiet for the past year — issuing just one statement on the importance of transatlantic data flows, the most recent hot-button issue to concern tech companies, fearing that anything other than the legal status quo could see vast swaths of their users in Europe cut off from their services.

“RGS companies are committed to protecting the privacy of those who use our services, and to safeguard personal data,” said the statement, which included the logos of Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Verizon Media and Zoom, but not Evernote.

In a coalition that’s only as strong as its members, the decision to remove Evernote from the website while it’s still a member hardly sends a resounding message of collective corporate unity — which these days isn’t something Big Tech can find much of.

#amazon, #apple, #articles, #cloud-storage, #computing, #congress, #edward-snowden, #europe, #evernote, #facebook, #government, #linkedin, #mass-surveillance, #microsoft, #national-security-agency, #prism, #security, #software, #spokesperson, #techcrunch, #transparency-report, #twitter, #united-states, #usa-freedom-act, #verizon, #washington-d-c, #yahoo

Hear top VCs Albert Wegner, Jenny Rooke, and Shilpi Kumar talk green bets at the Extreme Tech Challenge finals

This year, TechCrunch is proudly hosting the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22. The event is among the world’s largest purpose-driven startup competitions that are aiming to solve global challenges based on the United Nations’ 17 sustainability goals.

If you want to catch an array of innovative startups across a range of categories, all of them showcasing what they’re building, you won’t want to miss our must-see pitch-off competition.

You can also catch feature panels hosted by TechCrunch editors, including one of the most highly anticipated discussions of the event, a talk on “going green” with guest speakers Shilpi Kumar, Jenny Rooke, and Albert Wenger, all of whom are actively investing in climate startups that are targeting big opportunities

Shilpi Kumar is a partner with Urban Us, an investment platform focused on urban tech and climate solutions. She previously led go-to-market and early sales efforts at Filament, a startup focused on deploying secure wireless networks for connected physical assets. As an investor, Shilpi has also focused on hardware, mobility, energy, IoT, and robotics, having worked previously for VTF Capital, First Round Capital, and Village Global.

Jenny Rooke is the founder and managing director of Genoa Ventures, but Rooke has been deploying capital into innovative life sciences opportunities for years, including at Fidelity Biosciences and later the Gates Foundation, where she helped managed more than $250 million in funding, funneling some of that capital into genetic engineering, diagnostics, and synthetic biology startups. Rooke began independently investing under the brand 5 Prime Ventures, ultimately establishing among the largest life sciences syndicates on AngelList before launching Genoa.

Last but not least, Albert Wenger, has been a managing partner at Union Square Ventures for more than 13 years. Before joining USV, Albert was the president of del.icio.us through the company’s sale to Yahoo and an angel investor, including writing early checks to Etsy and Tumblr. He previously founded or co-founded several companies, including a management consulting firm and an early hosted data analytics company. Among his investments today is goTenna, a company trying to advance universal access to connectivity by building a scalable mobile mesh network.

Sustainability is the key to our planet’s future and our survival, but it’s also going to be incredibly lucrative and a major piece of our world economy. Hear from these seasoned investors about how VCs and startups alike are thinking about Greentech and how that will evolve in the coming years.

Join us on July 22 to find out how the most innovative startups are working to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. And best of all, tickets are free — book yours today!

#albert-wenger, #angel-investor, #angellist, #energy, #etsy, #fidelity-biosciences, #filament, #finance, #first-round-capital, #gates-foundation, #genetic-engineering, #gotenna, #investment, #managing-partner, #money, #president, #prime-ventures, #startup-company, #tc, #techcrunch, #tumblr, #union-square-ventures, #united-nations, #village-global, #yahoo

SoftBank buys perpetual Yahoo trademark license for $1.6 billion

As firework volleys launched out of New York City harbor last night, a very different celebration was likely taking place just a few blocks down the street at Verizon’s official headquarters in Midtown.

The telco, which owns TechCrunch for hopefully just a few more weeks pending the close of the Apollo acquisition of our parent company Verizon Media, announced overnight that it had signed an agreement with Z Holdings, a division of Japan’s SoftBank Group, to sell trademarks within the Japan market around the Yahoo brand and related tech infrastructure for approximately $1.6 billion.

The extremely descriptive Z Holdings owns SoftBank’s internet businesses in Japan, most notably Yahoo Japan, whose web portal remains the country’s most trafficked news website. Under its most current agreement with Verizon Media (formerly Oath, formerly AOL + Yahoo), Yahoo Japan paid a regular royalty for the rights to use the Yahoo brand name in Japan and associated technologies. Those royalties will now stop in lieu of a one-time upfront payment.

The resolution of the agreement was one of the key nuances left to figure out in Apollo’s $5 billion buyout of Verizon Media. The deal will give Verizon significant additional consideration as it works to pare down its debt load acquired from a spending spree on wireless spectrum auctions, such as its $52.9 billion acquisition of C-band spectrum earlier this year.

In a press statement from Z Holdings, the company said that “Although the Yahoo Japan License Agreement will be terminated, Yahoo Japan and Verizon Media will retain their cooperative business and technology relationship. Yahoo Japan will continue to deliver more convenient and innovative services under the ‘Yahoo! JAPAN’ brand, based on its mission statement: ‘UPDATE JAPAN.’” Expect further patches to Japan to be delivered shortly, I guess.

#asia, #ma, #verizon, #verizon-media, #yahoo, #yahoo-japan

Android announces six new features, emphasizing safety and accessibility

Android shared information today about six features that will roll out this summer. Some of these are just quality of life upgrades, like starring text messages to easily find them later, or getting contextual Emoji Kitchen suggestions depending on what you’re typing. But other aspects of this update emphasize security, safety, and accessibility.

Last summer, Google added a feature on Android that basically uses your phone as a seismometer to create “the world’s largest earthquake detection network.” The system is free, and since testing in California, it’s also launched in New Zealand and Greece. Now, Google will introduce this feature in Turkey, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The company says that they’ll continue expanding the feature this year, prioritizing countries with the highest earthquake risk.

Image Credits: Google

Google is also expanding on another feature released last year, which made Google Assistant compatible with Android apps. In the initial update, apps were supported like Spotify, Snapchat, Twitter, Walmart, Discord, Etsy, MyFitnessPal, Mint, Nike Adapt, Nike Run Club, eBay, Kroger, Postmates, and Wayfair. Today’s update mentioned apps like eBay, Yahoo! Finance, Strava, and Capital One. These features are comparable to Apple’s support of Siri with iOS apps, which includes the ability to open apps, perform tasks, and record a custom command.

When it comes to accessibility, Google is ramping up its gaze detection feature, which is now in beta. Gaze detection allows people to ask Voice Access to only respond when they’re looking at their screen, allowing people to naturally move between talking with friends and using their phone. Now, Voice Access will also have enhanced password input — when it detects a password field, it will allow you to input letters, numbers, and symbols by saying “capital P” or “dollar sign,” for example, making it easier for users to more quickly enter this sensitive information. In October, Google Assistant became available on gaze-powered accessible devices, and in the same month, Google researchers debuted a demo that made it so people using sign language could be identified as the “active speaker” in video calls. Apple doesn’t have a comparable gaze detection feature yet that’s widely available, though they acquired SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI), an eye-tracking firm, in 2017. So, hopefully similar accessibility features will be in the works at Apple, especially as Google continues to build out theirs.

Today’s Android update also lets Android Auto users customize more of their experience. Now, you can set your launcher screen from your phone, set dark mode manually, and more easily browse content on media apps with an A-Z scroll bar and “back to top” button. Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messages will now be compatible on the launch screen – proceed with caution and don’t drive distracted – and EV charging, parking, and navigation apps will now be available for use.

#android, #apps, #assistant, #california, #computing, #ebay, #etsy, #google, #google-assistant, #google-now, #google-play, #greece, #kazakhstan, #kroger, #mobile-linux, #myfitnesspal, #new-zealand, #nike, #operating-systems, #philippines, #postmates, #siri, #smartphones, #snapchat, #software, #spotify, #turkey, #walmart, #wayfair, #whatsapp, #yahoo

Skiff, an end-to-end encrypted alternative to Google Docs, raises $3.7M seed

Imagine if Google Docs was end-to-end encrypted so that not even Google could access your documents. That’s Skiff, in a nutshell.

Skiff is a document editor with a similar look and feel to Google Docs, allowing you to write, edit and collaborate in real-time with colleagues with privacy baked in. Because the document editor is built on a foundation of end-to-end encryption, Skiff doesn’t have access to anyone’s documents — only users, and those who are invited to collaborate, do.

It’s an idea that has already attracted the attention of investors. Skiff’s co-founders Andrew Milich (CEO) and Jason Ginsberg (CTO) announced today that the startup has raised $3.7 million in seed funding from venture firm Sequoia Capital, just over a year since Skiff was founded in March 2020. Alphabet chairman John Hennessy, former Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz also participated in the round.

Milich and Ginsberg told TechCrunch that the company will use the seed funding to grow the team and build out the platform.

Skiff isn’t that much different from WhatsApp or Signal, which are also end-to-end encrypted, underneath its document editor. “Instead of using it to send messages to a bunch of people, we’re using it to send little pieces of documents and then piecing those together into a collaborative workspace,” said Milich.

But the co-founders acknowledged that putting your sensitive documents in the cloud requires users to put a lot of trust into the startup, particularly one that hasn’t been around for long. That’s why Skiff published a whitepaper with technical details of how its technology works, and has begun to open source parts of its code, allowing anyone to see how the platform works. Milich said Skiff has also gone through at least one comprehensive security audit, and the company counts advisors from the Signal Foundation to Trail of Bits.

It seems to be working. In the months since Skiff soft-launched through an invite-only program, thousands of users — including journalists, research scientists and human rights lawyers — use Skiff every day, with another 8,000 users on a waitlist.

“The group of users that we’re most excited about are just regular people that care about privacy,” said Ginsberg. “There are just so many privacy communities and people that are advocates for these types of products that really care about how they’re built and have sort of lost trust in big companies.”

“They’re using us because they’re really excited about the vision and the future of end-to-end encryption,” he said.

#advisors, #alphabet, #ceo, #cryptography, #cto, #encryption, #end-to-end-encryption, #eventbrite, #google, #google-allo, #google-docs, #jerry-yang, #john-hennessy, #kevin-hartz, #operating-systems, #security, #sequoia-capital, #signal-foundation, #skiff, #software, #startups, #technology, #yahoo

Verizon agrees to sell Yahoo and AOL to private-equity firm for $5 billion

A Yahoo sign in front of the Verizon division's headquarters.

Enlarge / Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

Verizon announced on Monday that it is selling Yahoo and AOL for $5 billion to private-equity firm Apollo Global Management. Verizon made the deal official just a few days after news reports said that Verizon had put Yahoo and AOL up for sale. The media division will be known just as “Yahoo” after the sale is completed later this year.

Verizon purchased AOL in 2015 for $4.4 billion and Yahoo in 2017 for $4.5 billion, even though the once-dominant Internet brands had fallen from prominence years before. Verizon’s attempt to compete against Google and Facebook in the online advertising market didn’t work out, leading to a series of layoffs and a goodwill impairment charge of about $4.6 billion.

Verizon tried to put a positive spin on the sale in today’s press release, saying that the Yahoo/AOL division known as Verizon Media is “one of the world’s premier global technology and media companies.” Besides Yahoo and AOL, Verizon Media includes “leading ad tech and media platform businesses,” Verizon said.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#aol, #apollo-global-management, #biz-it, #verizon, #yahoo

Equity Monday: TechCrunch goes Yahoo while welding robots raise $56M

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

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

This morning was a notable one in the life of TechCrunch the publication, as our parent company’s parent company decided to sell our parent company to a different parent company. And now we’re to have to get new corporate IDs, again, as it appears that our new parent company’s parent company wants to rebrand our parent company. As Yahoo.

Cool.

Anyway, a bunch of other stuff happened as well:

We’re back Wednesday with something special. Chat then!

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!

#apollo, #china, #cloud, #dell, #earnings, #equity-podcast, #flywire, #fundings-exits, #lyft, #path-robotics, #paypal, #square, #startups, #uber, #verizon, #wealthsimple, #yahoo

Verizon tries to sell Yahoo and AOL after spending $9 billion on fallen giants

A Yahoo logo.

Enlarge / Yahoo logo at the 2014 International CES conference in Las Vegas. (credit: Getty Images | Ethan Miller )

Verizon is reportedly ready to give up on Yahoo and AOL after spending a combined $9 billion on the once-dominant Internet brands that fell from prominence years before Verizon bought them.

“Verizon is exploring a sale of assets including Yahoo and AOL, as the telecommunications giant looks to exit an expensive and unsuccessful bet on digital media,” The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. The sale process involves private-equity firm Apollo Global Management and “could lead to a deal worth $4 billion to $5 billion,” the Journal wrote, citing “people familiar with the matter.”

We asked Verizon if it has a response to the WSJ report today, and a spokesperson told us the company has “nothing to add.”

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#aol, #biz-it, #verizon, #yahoo

Alchemy raises $80M at a $505M valuation to be the ‘AWS for blockchain’

Blockchain developer platform Alchemy announced today it has raised $80 million in a Series B round of funding led by Coatue and Addition, Lee Fixel’s new fund. The company previously raised a total of $15.5 million, so the latest financing brings its total raised to $95.5 million since it launched in 2017.

The latest round caught our attention for a few reasons.

First, the company, which describes itself as the backend technology behind the blockchain industry, went from public launch to a $505 million valuation in a matter of just eight months. During that time, Alchemy says it powered over $30 billion in transactions for tens of millions of users all over the world. Second, the startup says it also already powering the majority of the NFT industry.

And finally, its investors in the round include a high-profile mix of institutions and individuals such as DFJ Growth, K5 Global, the Chainsmokers, actor Jared Leto and the Glazer family (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United). They joined existing backers including Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, Pantera Capital, Coinbase, SignalFire, Samsung, Stanford University, Google chairman and Stanford University President John L. Hennessy, Charles Schwab, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and others.

Sources with inside knowledge of Alchemy’s operations tell TechCrunch that the company has already grown its business more than eightfold since it signed the Series B term sheet. They also said Alchemy had over $300 million of investor demand wanting to enter the round and is being inbounded to do another financing at “many times” the current valuation.

TechCrunch talked with Alchemy co-founders Nikil Viswanathan (CEO) and Joe Lau (CTO) about the raise and their passion for the startup’s mission was clear. As is its explosive growth.

“We realized that in order for space to thrive and build to its full potential, we needed to build a developer platform layer for blockchain,” Viswanathan told TechCrunch.

Alchemy’s goal is to be the starting place for developers considering to build a product on top of a blockchain or mainstream blockchain applications. Its developer platform aims to remove the complexity and costs of building infrastructure while improving applications through “necessary” developer tools.

The startup powers a range of transactions across nearly every blockchain vertical, including financial institutions, exchanges, billion-dollar decentralized finance projects and multinational organizations such as UNICEF. It has also quickly become the technology behind every major NFT platform, including Makersplace, OpenSea, Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and CryptoPunks.  

“Every time you open DoorDash, you’re using Amazon’s infrastructure,” Lau said. “Every time you interact with an NFT, you’re using Alchemy. It’s being powered by Alchemy underneath the hood.”

While the pair would not provide hard revenue figures, the company – which operates as a SaaS business – says it increased its revenue by 600% in 2020.

For inside players, Alchemy’s efforts are paving the way for the whole industry. 

“The cryptoeconomy is innovating faster than any technological movement that came before it, and Alchemy has been a key driver of that,” said Coinbase President and COO Emilie Choi. “Alchemy enables developers to build the rich ecosystem of applications necessary for mainstream blockchain adoption.”

Pantera Capital’s Paul Veradittakit describes Alchemy as “the Amazon Web Services (AWS) of the blockchain industry” that is “enabling the vision of a decentralized web.”

“While in Web 2.0, Microsoft, Apple and AWS are three of the most valuable companies in the world because they are the developer platform powering the computer and internet industries, Alchemy is primed to do the same for the blockchain,” he said.

The company believes the comparison to AWS is fair, noting that: “Just as AWS provides the platform that powers Uber, Netflix and much of the technology industry, Alchemy powers infrastructure for many large players in the blockchain industry.”

Alchemy plans to use its new capital to expand its developer platform to new blockchains, fuel global expansion and to open new offices in the U.S. and globally. The startup is based in San Francisco and is planning to open an office in New York.  

“We are going to use the funds to support new chains with our developer platform,” Viswanathan said. “We also expect to 5x the team this year.”

But to be clear, Alchemy prides itself on being lean and mean.

“We just went from 14 to 22 employees,” Lau said. “We have intentionally wanted to keep the team as small as possible.”

The blockchain space has been the subject of increased investor interest as of late.

In March, BlockFi, which describes itself a financial services company for crypto market investors, announced it had closed on a massive $350 million Series D funding that valued it at $3 billion. Also last month, Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis company, revealed the close of $100 million in Series D financing, which doubled its valuation to over $2 billion.

#alchemy, #amazon, #amazon-web-services, #apple, #articles, #bank, #bitcoin, #blockchain, #ceo, #chairman, #charles-schwab, #co-founder, #coinbase, #computing, #cryptocurrencies, #cryptocurrency, #cto, #decentralization, #dfj-growth, #doordash, #driver, #emilie-choi, #funding, #fundings-exits, #google, #jared-leto, #jerry-yang, #linkedin, #manchester-united, #microsoft, #netflix, #new-york, #nikil-viswanathan, #pantera-capital, #president, #recent-funding, #reid-hoffman, #saas, #samsung, #san-francisco, #stanford-university, #startup, #startups, #tc, #technology, #uber, #united-states, #venture-capital, #yahoo

TechCrunch, still not dead

You may have seen an article over at Axios today about the rebrand of many of the Verizon Media products under a new Yahoo+ banner. I would like to congratulate all of the teams that have worked hard to build a cohesive brand identity and a new plan for a bunch of great properties with fine individuals at the helm.

Unfortunately, some of the wording in the article, and a subsequent Techmeme headline on the old twitter dot com have led some people to believe that TechCrunch would now be YahooCrunch or some such situation. That is not correct. TechCrunch is a brand that, against all odds, has stood the test of time in a radically changing and challenging landscape. That’s thanks to the bold idea of its founder as well as the tireless efforts of every member of the TC staff past and present who are all immensely talented, generous, multi-hyphenates that I have taken intense satisfaction from working with every day.

Since we’ve been around a while we have had the pleasure of being called dead a bunch of times by critics, owners, cynics and fans. But I just checked, and we’re still here.

See you tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. I leave you with our motto of this day:

#axios, #companies, #tc, #techcrunch, #techmeme, #verizon, #verizon-communications, #verizon-media, #yahoo

Webull, M1 and Public remove restrictions on ‘meme stocks’ after citing trade settlement firm as the cause

Three of the popular retail stock market trading apps that have hosted much of the activity related to the Wall Street Bets subreddit-spurred run on stocks including GameStop (GME) and AMC, among others, have removed all restrictions on their exchange by their users. M1, Webull and Public had restricted transactions for the affected stocks earlier in the day, along with Robinhood.

M1, Webull and Public all attributed the restrictions placed on these volatile stocks not to any effort to curb their purchase or sale, but instead cited the costs associated with settling the trades on the part of their clearing firm, Apex. All three platforms employ Apex to clear trades made by users via their platform. In an interview with Webull CEO Anthony Denier, Yahoo Finance confirmed that the restriction was not something the company had any hand in deciding.

Public confirmed via Twitter that users can now buy and sell GME and AMC and KOSS on the platform, thanks to the resolution of the Apex blocker. Meanwhile Webull noted that all three stocks are now also available for exchange via their app, as did M1 shortly after. Other platforms like SoFi so far haven’t restricted the stocks, CEO Anthony Noto confirmed on Twitter.

Robinhood earlier issued a blog post noting that it is restricting a number of stocks tied to the r/WallStreetBets action to counter short-seller hedge funds, arguing that it’s doing so in the best interest of users. This has not seemed to have been much appreciated by most users, based on the reaction on social media to that action thus far. Robinhood at no time references any technical barriers imposed by any clearing house.

#anthony-noto, #apex, #california, #ceo, #finance, #gamestop, #reddit, #robinhood, #social, #social-media, #sofi, #stock-market, #tc, #yahoo

Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

#alibaba, #anthony-levandowski, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #ar, #arkansas, #asia, #augmented-reality, #ceo, #computing, #engineer, #europe, #facebook, #google, #head, #high-speed-internet, #instagram, #itunes, #jack-ma, #lucas-matney, #microsoft, #mobile-computing, #mobile-developers, #oculus, #oversight-board, #poshmark, #president, #siri, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #tc, #technology, #trump, #twitter, #virtual-reality, #vr, #xprize, #yahoo

African fintech startup Chipper Cash raises $30M backed by Jeff Bezos

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .

As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.

“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.

“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.

On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.

Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.

Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.

In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.

This year, Network International purchased East African payments startup DPO for $288 million and in August WorldRemit acquired Africa focused remittance company Sendwave for $500 million.

One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.

In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.

For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi (R) and Maijid Moujaled; Image Credits: Chipper Cash

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.

Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.

“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”

#500-startups, #africa, #amazon, #america, #apple, #banking, #bezos-expeditions, #chipper-cash, #e-commerce, #facebook, #financial-services, #ghana, #goldman-sachs, #ham-serunjogi, #hsbc, #interswitch, #iowa, #jeff-bezos, #joe-montana, #kenya, #liquid-2-ventures, #maijid-moujaled, #mastercard, #mobile-payments, #nigeria, #online-payments, #p2p, #paystack, #ribbit, #ribbit-capital, #rwanda, #san-francisco, #series-b, #south-africa, #stripe, #tanzania, #tc, #tesla, #uganda, #united-states, #venture-capital, #visa, #worldremit, #yahoo

Marissa Mayer’s startup launches its first official product, Sunshine Contacts

Former Yahoo CEO and early Google employee Marissa Mayer’s startup Lumi Labs is today rebranding to Sunshine and releasing its first official product. Its new app, Sunshine Contacts, aims to be a better tool for organizing, updating and sharing contact information with others. In time, the company envisions a portfolio of consumer-facing applications that simplify common tasks in areas like events, organization, family sharing, scheduling and more.

Founded in 2018 by Mayer and fellow Yahoo and Google vet Enrique Muñoz Torres, Lumi Labs has been focused on using sophisticated technologies, like A.I., to improve the common applications people use every day.

Or, as Mayer puts it, “if technology can drive a car, how come it can’t just organize my contacts, make scheduling easier or do some things that seem a lot more straightforward?” She says the goal with Lumi Labs — or now Sunshine, as it’s called — is to make those everyday apps better and more frictionless.

The company last year released a small experiment that hinted at what was to come with Holiday Helper, a desktop app that helped users more easily put together their holiday mailing list.

That product was not fully fleshed out, however, and Mayer today characterizes it as more of an exercise or a warm up for the Sunshine team.

Image Credits: Sunshine

With the launch of Sunshine Contacts, the company is moving closer towards its goal of using modern technologies to improve mundane tasks.

The new app, at first glance, seems not unlike those introduced in years past with the similar goal of better organizing and updating a user’s contacts, like Mingle, Vignette, Humin, FullContact, Bump, CardFlick, Hashable, My Name is E, CardMunch, Brewster, or any of dozens of startups that once aimed to kill the business card or auto-update your address book.

While most of those early efforts are no more, alternative apps like Cardhop from Flexibits, for example, are still able to attract a loyal user base looking for an expanded feature and more improvements over built-in solutions, like Apple or Google’s own address books, for instance.

Sunshine Contacts’ approach to the market, meanwhile, isn’t just to attract users interested in improved functionality, but to eventually offer a suite of consumer services under the Sunshine brand.

Image Credits: Sunshine

The app itself seems a little underwhelming in terms of its design, a callback perhaps to the Google aesthetic of things that work, but aren’t very pretty.

Sunshine Contacts works by pulling in data, with permission, from your iPhone contacts and from Google Contacts. In then tries to expand upon the basic information these imports offer by identifying your contact’s place of business, if not available, finding their LinkedIn profile, autocompleting missing information, looking up addresses, adding profile pictures, analyzing phone numbers to label them as work or cell, for example, and more. The app can also help to deduplicate address with merges.

Image Credits: Sunshine

If you additionally give Sunshine Contacts access to your Gmail, it can scan the email signature lines in your inbox to further complete the address fields.

This, of course, isn’t a new concept. FullContact did this in years past, as did smaller startups. Services like Evercontact or SigParser offer similar solutions today. Meanwhile, apps like Rapportive popularized the idea of pulling in external data found on the web to present a more detailed view of your email contacts. (The founder has since moved on to expand upon that original concept with Superhuman, a full email client with tons of other bells and whistles.)

When reaching out to a contact, Sunshine Contacts works a little like a personal CRM, by offering you useful context about your relationship, including your most recent email correspondence. You can also share your contact information easily with other Sunshine users by way of its proximity detection data, but this would only be useful if the app got critical mass.

Image Credits: Sunshine

Given that Sunshine Contact’s feature set is not exactly breaking new ground, Sunshine Contacts will need to try to impress on how well it’s able to perform the tasks at hand.

“I think that the artificial intelligence that we’ve deployed in the app really comes through when you look at the quality,” explains Mayer. For example, she says, other apps’ approach to deduplicating contacts is often fairly basic — only recognizing that there were two “Adam Smiths,” but not digging into the details to realize they were different people.

“They don’t take a confidence interval and signal and evidence-based approach,” Mayer says. “So I think you’ll see the A.I. in the in the quality of the merges, the quality of things like name completion, and nickname identification. We’ve done a bunch of things that I think are quite smart and are better than some of the other things that we’ve seen. I also think that our integration with location is particularly innovative,” she adds.

That is, Sunshine Contacts can access a user’s location — again, with permission — to make further inferences about who a user is spending time with more frequently or to make exchanging contacts between two Sunshine Contacts users easier when they’re meeting in person.

Image Credits: Sunshine

But with all the app’s requests for user data — address books, email integration, location data — Sunshine has an uphill battle in terms of gaining user trust after years of being burned by tech companies that promised conveniences only to gather large data stores of personal data for more nefarious purposes than just making life easier.

To address this issue, Sunshine is offering a privacy pledge where it commits to data security practices and promises to never sell user data.

“We take a very strong stance that this data is not and will never be for sale in any shape or form, says Torres. “So, you’re giving us the data for the purpose of making your product experience essentially better and that is the only purpose that we’re going to be using it for,” he continues. “We don’t sell it in aggregate form and individual forum we don’t target advertising based on it. In fact we don’t have any advertising as part of the app,” Torres notes.

Users can also opt in only to the features they want to use. If they don’t want to share location, for instance, they can simply deny the permission.

Instead, Sunshine’s business model will be a direct-to-consumer freemium model, though for now the Sunshine Contacts app is fully free. As the company rolls out additional offerings in the suite, it will opt to monetize each app in the way that’s most suitable — for instance, by making some basic functionality free, then offering paid upgrades to a larger set of features.

The startup raised a $20M seed round in May 2020 from inside and outside investors, including Felicis Ventures, Unusual Ventures, WIN Ventures, as well as numerous angel investors.

The app is launching first on iOS (iOS 11 or higher) on an invite-only basis in the U.S. A web version will later follow as will support for international markets.

#apps, #artificial-intelligence, #contacts, #crm, #gmail, #google, #ios-apps, #lumi-labs, #marissa-mayer, #mobile, #mobile-app, #startups, #sunshine, #yahoo

Sunrun’s $3.2 billion Vivint Solar bid challenges Tesla’s energy ambitions

Tesla’s 2014 acquisition of SolarCity turned the electric vehicle manufacturer into the undisputed largest player in residential solar, but that lead has steadily eroded as its major competitor, Sunrun, surged ahead with more aggressive plans. Now with the $3.2 billion dollar acquisition of the residential solar installation company, Vivint Solar, Sunrun looks to solidify its place in the top spot.

From Tesla’s very early days Elon Musk has tried to define the company as an energy company rather than just a manufacturer of electric vehicles. When Tesla made its $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity the move was viewed as the culmination of the first phase of its “master plan,” which called for Tesla to “provide zero emission electric power generation options.”

Now that plan faces a major test from a publicly traded competitor that’s focused solely on providing residential solar power and the ability to lower costs for its panels through greater efficiencies of scale, according to analysts who track the solar energy sector.

Sunrun will be freaking big,” Joe Osha, an analyst at JMP Securities, told Bloomberg News. “They are clearly looking for ways to get scale and efficiency.”

Indeed, the combined companies will save roughy $90 million per year thanks to operational efficiencies, according to a statement from Sunrun. And the economies of scale will give the companies even more leverage when they contract with utilities on feeding power into the electric grid.

As Sunrun acknowledged in the announcement of its acquisition of the Blackstone-backed Vivint, the combined customer base of 500,000 homes represents over 3 gigawatts of solar assets. That figure still is only 3% penetration of the total market for residential solar in the United States.

Sunrun had already edged out Tesla for the top spot in residential solar installations and together the two companies account for 75% of new residential solar leases each quarter, according to data from Bloomberg NEF.

“Americans want clean and resilient energy. Vivint Solar adds an important and high-quality sales channel that enables our combined company to reach more households and raise awareness about the benefits of home solar and batteries,” Sunrun CEO and co-founder Lynn Jurich said in a statement. “This transaction will increase our scale and grow our energy services network to help replace centralized, polluting power plants and accelerate the transition to a 100% clean energy future.”

Even as Sunrun’s $1.46 billion stock (and the assumption of about $1.8 billion in debt) creates a massive competitor to Tesla’s solar business, there’s an opportunity for Tesla to sell more batteries through its residential solar competitor.

Sunrun and Vivint will likely be pushing their customers to add energy storage to their solar installations and that means using either Tesla’s Powerwall batteries or its own Brightbox batteries manufactured in partnership with LG Chem .

Investors have responded to Sunrun’s latest maneuver by pouring money into the stock. Sunrun’s shares were up over $5 in midday trading.

Image Courtesy: Yahoo Finance

“Vivint Solar and Sunrun have long shared a common goal of bringing clean, affordable, resilient energy to homeowners,” said David Bywater, Chief Executive Officer of Vivint Solar, in a statement. “Joining forces with Sunrun will allow us to reach a broader set of customers and accelerate the pace of clean energy adoption and grid modernization. We believe this transaction will create value for our customers, our shareholders, and our partners.”

#alternative-energy, #analyst, #articles, #blackstone, #chief-executive-officer, #elon-musk, #energy, #energy-storage, #lg-chem, #player, #solar-power, #solarcity, #sunrun, #tc, #tesla, #united-states, #vivint, #yahoo

African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has closed a $13.8 million Series A funding round led by Deciens Capital and plans to hire 30 new staff globally.

The raise caps an event filled run for the San Francisco based payments company, founded two years ago by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled.

The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds.

Two years and $22 million in total capital raised later, Chipper Cash offers its mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

“We’re now at over one and a half million users and doing over a $100 million dollars a month in volume,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Chipper Cash does not release audited financial data, but does share internal performance accounting with investors. Deciens Capital and Raptor Group co-led the startup’s Series A financing, with repeat support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures .

Deciens Capital founder Dan Kimmerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the investment and review of Chipper Cash’s payment value and volume metrics.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The company will use its latest round to hire up to 30 people across operations in San Francisco, Lagos, London, Nairobi and New York — according to Serunjogi.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has already brought on a new compliance officer, Lisa Dawson, whose background includes stints with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Citigroup’s anti-money laundering department.

“You know in the world we live in the AML side is very important so it’s an area that we want to invest in from the get go,” said Serunjogi.

He confirmed Dawson’s role aligned with getting Chipper Cash ready to meet regulatory requirements for new markets, but declined to name specific countries.

With the round announcement, Chipper Cash also revealed a corporate social responsibility component to its business. Related to current U.S. events, the startup has formed the Chipper Fund for Black Lives.

“We’ve been huge beneficiaries of the generosity and openness of this country and its entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Serunjogi. “But growing up in Africa, we’ve were able to navigate [the U.S.] without the traumas and baggage our African American friends have gone through living in America.”

The Chipper Fund for Black Lives will give 5 to 10 grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “The plan is to give that to…people or causes who are furthering social justice reforms,” said Serunjogi.

In Africa, Chipper Cash has placed itself in the continent’s major digital payments markets. As a sector, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the most significant fintech market in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

Chipper Cash expanded there in 2019 and faces competition from a number of players, including local payments venture Paga. More recently, outside entrants have jumped into Nigeria’s fintech scene.

In 2019, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay (owned by Opera) and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale first in West Africa and then the broader continent.

Over the next several years, expect to see market events — such as fails, acquisitions, or IPOs — determine how well funded fintech startups, including Chipper Cash, fare in Africa’s fintech arena.

#africa, #african-tech, #america, #chipper-cash, #citigroup, #deciens-capital, #entrepreneurship, #ghana, #ham-serunjogi, #iowa, #joe-montana, #kenya, #lagos, #liquid-2-ventures, #london, #nairobi, #new-york, #nigeria, #p2p, #paga, #private-equity, #rwanda, #san-francisco, #south-africa, #startup-company, #tanzania, #tc, #tech-in-africa, #uganda, #united-states, #west-africa, #yahoo

Zoom faces criticism for denying free users e2e encryption

What price privacy? Zoom is facing a fresh security storm after CEO Eric Yuan confirmed that a plan to reboot its battered security cred by (actually) implementing end-to-end encryption does not in fact extend to providing this level of security to non-paying users.

This Zoom ‘premium on privacy’ is necessary so it can provide law enforcement with access to call content, per Bloomberg, which reported on security-related remarks made by Yuan during an earnings call yesterday, when the company reported big gains thanks to the coronavirus pandemic accelerating uptake of remote working tools.

“Free users for sure we don’t want to give [e2e encryption] because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” Yuan said on the call.

Security experts took swiftly to Twitter to condemn Zoom’s ‘pay us or no e2e’ policy.

EFF associate research director, Gennie Gebhart, also critically discussed Zoom’s decision to withhold e2e encryption for free users in a Twitter thread late last month, following a feedback call with the company — criticizing it for spinning what she characterized as pure upsell as a safety consideration.

It’s a nuance-free cop-out to blanket-argue that ‘bad things happen on free accounts’, she suggested.

Fast forward to today and a tweet about the report of Yuan’s comments written by Bloomberg technology reporter, Nico Grant, triggered an intervention by none other than Alex Stamos — the former Facebook and Yahoo! security executive who signed up by as a consultant on Zoom’s security strategy back in April days after the company had been served with a class action lawsuit from shareholders for overstating security claims.

Stamos — who was CSO at Yahoo! during a period when the NSA was using a backdoor to scan user email and also headed up security at Facebook at a time when Russia implemented a massive disinformation campaign targeting the 2016 US presidential election — weighed in via Twitter to claim there’s a “difficult balancing act between different kinds of harms” which he said justifies Zoom’s decision to deny e2e encryption for all users.

Curiously, Stamos was also CSO at Facebook when the tech giant completed the roll out of e2e encryption on WhatsApp — providing this level of security to the then billion+ users of its free-to-use mobile messaging and video chat app.

Which might suggest that Stamos’ conception of online “harms” has evolved considerably since 2016 — after all, he’s since landed at Stanford as an adjunct professor (where he researches “safe tech”).

Although, in the same year (2016), Stamos defended his employer’s decision not to make e2e encryption the default on Facebook Messenger. So his unifying thread appears to be being paid to defend corporate decision-making while applying a gloss of ‘security expertise’.

Stamos’ latest Twit(n)ter-vention runs to type, with the security consultant now defending Zoom’s management’s decision not to extend e2e encryption to free users of the product.

But his tweeted defence of AES encryption as a valid alternative to e2e encryption has attracted some pointed criticism from the crypto community — as an attack on established standards.

Nadim Kobeissi, a Paris-based applied cryptography researcher — who told us that his protocol modelling and analysis software was used by the Zoom team during development of its proposed e2e encrypted system for (paid product) meetings — called out Stamos for “insisting that AES encryption, which can be bypassed by Zoom Inc. at will, qualifies as real encryption”.

That’s “what’s truly misleading here”, Kobeissi tweeted.

In a phone call with TechCrunch, Kobeissi fleshed out his critique, saying he’s concerned, more broadly, that a current and (he said) much needed “Internet zeitgeist” focus on online safety is being hijacked by certain vested interests to push their own agenda in a way that could roll back major online security gains — such as the expansion of e2e encryption to free messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal — and lead to a general deterioration of security ideals and standards.

Kobeissi pointed out that AES encryption — which Stamos defended — does not prevent server intercepts and snooping on calls. Nor does it offer a way for Zoom users to detect such an attack, with the crypto expert emphasizing it’s “fundamentally different from snooping-resistant encryption”.

Hence he characterized Stamos’ defence of AES as “misleading and manipulative” — saying it blurs a clearly established dividing line between e2e encryption and non-e2e.

“There are two problems [with the Zoom situation]: 1) There’s no e2e encryption for free users; and 2) there’s intentional deception,” Kobeissi told TechCrunch.

He also questioned why Stamos has not publicly pushed for Zoom to find ways to safely implement e2e encryption for free users — pointing, by way of example, to the franking ‘abuse report’ mechanism that Facebook recently applied to e2e encrypted “Secret Conversations” on Messenger.

“Why not improve on Facebook Messenger franking,” he suggested, calling for Zoom to use its acquisition of Keybase’s security team to invest and do research that would raise security standards for all users.

Such a mechanism could “absolutely” be applied to video and voice calls, he argued.

“I think [Stamos] has a deleterious effect on the kind of truth that ends up being communicated about these services,” he added in further critical remarks about the former Facebook CSO, who he said comes across as akin to a “fixer” who gets called in “to render a company as acceptable as possible to the security community while letting it do what it wants”.

We’ve reached out to Zoom and Stamos for comment.

#aes, #alex-stamos, #cryptography, #e2e-encryption, #encryption, #eric-yuan, #keybase, #messenger, #online-safety, #privacy, #security, #stanford, #united-states, #yahoo, #zoom

Meet News Break, the news app trending in America founded by a Chinese media veteran

TikTok isn’t the only new media app with Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. News Break, a news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng with teams in Beijing, Shanghai, Seattle and Mountain View, has been sitting among the top three news apps in the U.S. App Store since March, according to third-party data from Sensor Tower.

Positioned as a news aggregator focused on local reporting, the platform surged to be the third-most downloaded U.S. iOS app across the board in mid-March.

The fledgling news app announced this week a substantial boost as it onboards Harry Shum as its board chairman. Shum is the former president of Microsoft AI and Research Group and played a key role in establishing the Microsoft Research Asia lab, which has trained a raft of China’s top AI talents including the founder of autonomous driving unicorn Momenta.

Former Microsoft executive Harry Shum joins News Break, a local news aggregator founded in the U.S. by a Chinese media veteran (Photo source: News Break)

News Break is staffed with other storied overseas Chinese tech bosses. Jeff Zheng, the founding chief executive, headed up Yahoo Labs in Beijing where he oversaw algorithm improvements in search, media, advertising and mobile. In 2011, he left Yahoo to launch Yidian Zixun, the Beijing-based startup seen early on as the main rival of Toutiao, the hit news app that made ByteDance a household name in China before Douyin emerged. Together with other algorithm-driven news apps, the duo changed the habits of hundreds of millions in China from consuming human-curated news to machine-recommended content with minimal human oversight.

News Break is Zheng’s effort to replicate Yidian Zixun’s success in foreign markets with his co-founder Ren Xuyang, a former Baidu executive. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2015, News Break now boasts 23 million monthly users with a growing network of over 10,000 content providers.

Screenshots of the News Break app (Source: News Break)

The type of personalized reading experience pioneered by Toutiao is now a default feature across media apps in the U.S., said (in Chinese) Vincent Wu, chief operating officer of News Break, at an event in Silicon Valley. To stand out from the crowd, the company serves up local news and happenings for readers, for Wu observed that America’s mainstream media focus overwhelmingly on national affairs and celebrity gossip, “news that’s irrelevant to my day-to-day.”

“Only high-quality, hyper-relevant local news can provide valuable information to readers,” he added.

ByteDance has tried exporting the Toutiao model through TopBuzz, but the overseas edition never achieved mainstream success and is reportedly looking for a buyer.

Other big names involved in News Break range from Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang who joined as the chief advisor as well as Wu, HuffPost’s former operations head.

Particle Media, the Delaware-registered operating entity of News Break, has raised over $20 million to date from investors including IDG Capital, ZhenFund and Ding Lei, the founder of Chinese online media and gaming giant NetEase.

#artificial-intelligence, #asia, #beijing, #bytedance, #china, #harry-shum, #idg-capital, #jeff-zheng, #jerry-yang, #media, #microsoft, #microsoft-research, #netease, #tiktok, #yahoo