Onin is trying to fix event planning by combining calendar and chat

What would happened if your go-to calendar and messaging apps were in fact one and the same thing? That’s the thinking behind Onin — a UK startup that wants to simplify event planning by, well, making a more organized app for organizing stuff.

If that sounds a little niche, it pays to remember that calendars have been having a bit of a moment (ha!) of late (ho!) — what with the pandemic parceling our work lives into endless virtual meeting slots. Aka: How many Zoom calls can one human survive in a single day?

Certainly the limitations of digital calendars, these rather unlovely (yet ever more essential) time-management tools, have had faced closer scrutiny since COVID-19 popped up on the scene. Flaws? Yes they have a few.

And so we’ve seen a burst of startup attention to the space in recent years. Think stuff like Calendly and Reclaim.ai for more efficiently managing meeting scheduling (aka ‘smart calendar assistants’) — or, more recently, Magical — which is trying to push the (invite) envelope a little further by trying to make calendars more collaborative.

Onin is taking a similarly collaborative tack — but with, initially, more of a consumer focus: It wants to be your new go-to app to arrange stuff like drinks or trips with your friends. (If it can take off with twentysomething socialites and worm its way from B2C into work settings via a consumerization backdoor then great, is the founder’s thinking there.)

But why do you need a whole new app for organizing birthday drinks, I hear you cry!?

Because the experience of using a digital tool to arrange multi-person events is frustratingly un-social and friction-filled is Onin’s argument.

With a typical calendar, an event creator owns the event (and therefore the planning process) so only they can make changes that sync to all participants. Hence those endless emails discussion threads that spring up around nascent group events as people try to hash out the details of a plan — who’s free when and which location works for everyone and so on — and then nag the self appointed organizer to update the invite so everyone stays on the same page.

Onin’s alternative approach avoids this planning asymmetry by collapsing and combining chat and calendar into a one-stop scheduling dream: “One place to find time and plan events without leaving the chat.” Or, well, that’s the promise.

(And — yes — it will still integrate with your existing calendar software so that events planned in Onin get synced back there.)

Here’s founder Ryan Brodie laying it out: “We want to be the aggregation layer for events, contextualising the process & third party integrations so there’s zero fragmentation between them and the discussion that forms them (right now the event in our diaries is always one step behind the convo and every step is duplicated)

“To do this we want to replace your calendar app/web app and act as a client for whatever calendar provider you use (‘bring your own calendar’).”

“We’re starting from the consumer and consumer meet-up side however we strongly believe (and have already proven) Onin’s usefulness across sectors,” he also argues. “The key thing is we’re chat first not event first; 95% of the planning is happening by chat and not by editing the event’s details, thus our hard work on bringing the event into the conversation itself (you can @mention the group in any of its sub-groups too making referring to an upcoming event delightful).”

Per Brodie, the problem Onin is focused on stems from fragmentation related to the long-standing iCalendar standard —  aka the Internet Calendaring and Scheduling Core Object Specification format (RFC 5545), which allows different scheduling services to understand and process calendaring items (and was first created in 1998) — which is really why, as he tells it, trying to do group scheduling with existing calendar apps is such a frustrating mess.

Onin’s answer to this legacy fragmentation takes the form of a patent-pending “architectural solution” — which means the software always ‘organizes’ the event “from a calendaring perspective, not a specific user”, as Brodie puts it. (Or, more simply: “The organiser is the group email address and we control its sync.”)

The effect of that is to circumvent the fragmentation between an event and its communication channels — thereby removing unnecessary friction from the event planning process by letting groups plan stuff together more spontaneously.

“No one has solved this problem before,” claims Brodie (who’s name may be familiar as he co-founded YC-backed Muslim dating app Muzmatch, before moving on to his next app challenge).

“It’s incredibly hard to as the calendaring standards are decentralised and non-canonical (our tech made our events centralised and canonical). Everything you can do in our native apps you can do with very low friction web experience first (every Onin group is a rapidly shareable link).”

Asked about other software solutions, he suggests Onin is shooting to be “Microsoft Teams, just done right”. So, er, touché. (“An easy to use product and one that’s simple to understand, isn’t locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, and yet is incredibly powerful and versatile, scaling from 1:1 conversations to groups of hundreds of people, all the time seamlessly syncing event information into participant’s diaries,” is the ambition.)

“We send the invites to all users vs using their own calendar like say Calendly does,” Brodie also tells us, going into more detail on how exactly Onin does things differently vs rivals. “Therefore events are fully collaborative and provide a history of changes inside Onin but in your external calendar all you can do is change your attending status as a regular participant. This makes Onin very sticky!”

For now, it’s still super early for the product — which bagged some attention after launching on Product Hunt in August — and is just now launching as an MVP. But Onin has already turned investor heads, raising a $1M pre-seed round (“with just the idea”) last summer — which looks like a notable vote of confidence at such an early stage.

Backers in the pre-seed include Entrepreneur First’s Matt Clifford and Hambro Perks (on angel terms), plus a number of others who aren’t up for going public just yet.

“We’ve had over 400 people join the early access program in 48 hours which involved an 8-step form detailing their calendar woes, I’m very confident there is serious demand simply in combining chat and calendar,” adds Brodie, before segueing into reeling off a list of integrations and features the team is working on adding.

“We already have an official Zoom integration and are working on Typeform & Calendly integrations (Notion, Google Workspace, etc. all targeted). We then want to take over the event based discussions you have in other apps as a result, with you thinking of the event as living in Onin (‘zero switching cost’). For example, when you join the Zoom call a contextual message is sent into the group — “[Ryan] joined Zoom” — no one has done this before!

“We own the event that is synced to everyone’s diaries, it all links back to Onin. We have a unique, patent pending Talk around time chat UI that makes all of this possible. We have a very Notion-y style group/sub-group system, it’s a) extremely easy to create follow up events and b) easy to create sub-plans too (e.g. a holiday with lots of activities or a product launch with TechCrunch interviews…).”

#apps, #calendar, #calendar-apps, #calendly, #europe, #hambro-perks, #matt-clifford, #onin, #product-hunt, #ryan-brodie, #tc, #time-management-tools, #united-kingdom, #yc

Fintech startup Jeeves raises $57M, goes from YC to $500M valuation in one year

Last summer, Jeeves was participating in Y Combinator’s summer batch as a fledgling fintech.

This June, the startup emerged from stealth with $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

Today, the company, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is announcing that it has raised a $57 million Series B at a $500 million valuation. That’s up from a valuation of just north of $100 million at the time of Jeeves’ Series A, which closed in May and was announced in early June.

While the pace of funding these days is unlike most of us have ever seen before, it’s pretty remarkable that Jeeves essentially signed the term sheet for its Series B just two months after closing on its Series A. It’s also notable that just one year ago, it was wrapping up a YC cohort.

Jeeves was not necessarily looking to raise so soon, but fueled by its growth in revenue and spend after its Series A, which was led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), the company was approached by dozens of potential investors and offered multiple term sheets, according to CEO and co-founder Dileep Thazhmon. Jeeves moved forward with CRV, which had been interested since the A and built a relationship with Thazhmon, so it could further accelerate growth and launch in more countries, he said.

CRV led the Series B round, which also included participation from Tencent, Silicon Valley Bank, Alkeon Capital Management, Soros Fund Management and a high-profile group of angel investors including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, Odell Beckham Jr. and The Chainsmokers. Notably, the founders of a dozen unicorn companies also put money in the Series B including (but not limited to) Clip CEO Adolfo Babatz; QuintoAndar CEO Gabriel Braga; Uala CEO Pierpaolo Barbieri, BlockFi CEO Zac Prince; Mercury CEO Immad Akhund; Bitso founder Pablo Gonzalez; Monzo Bank’s Tom Blomfield; Intercom founder Des Traynor; Lithic CEO Bo Jiang as well as founders from UiPath, Auth0, GoCardless, Nubank, Rappi, Kavak and others.

Whew.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering was live in Mexico and Canada and today launched in Colombia, the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. 

Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Jeeves claims that by using its platform’s proprietary Banking-as-a-Service infrastructure, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card (with 4% cash back), non card payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

For example, a growing business can use a Jeeves card in Barcelona and pay it back in euros and use the same card in Mexico and pay it back in pesos, reducing any FX fees and providing instant spend reconciliation across currencies. 

Thazhmon believes that the “biggest thing” the company is building out is its own global BaaS layer, that sits across different banking entities in each country, and onto which the end user customer-facing Jeeves app plugs into.

Put simply, he said, “think of it as a BaaS platform, but with only one app — the Jeeves app — plugged into it.”

Image Credits: Jeeves

The startup has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by more than 5,000% since January, and both revenue and spend volume has increased more than 1,100% (11x) since its Series A earlier this year, according to Thazhmon.

Jeeves now covers more than 12 currencies and 10 countries across three continents. Mexico is its largest market. Jeeves is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile and Thazhmon expects that by year’s end, it will be live in all of North America and Europe. Next year, it’s eyeing the Asian market, and Tencent should be able to help with that strategically, he said.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon told TechCrunch. “Our model is very similar to that of Uber’s launch model where we can launch very quickly because we don’t have to rebuild an entire infrastructure. When we launch in countries, we actually don’t have to rebuild a stack.”

Jeeves’ user base has been doubling every 60 days and now powers more than 1,000 companies across LatAm, Canada and Europe, including Bitso, Kavak, RappiPay, Belvo, Runa, Moons, Convictional, Muncher, Juniper, Trienta, Platzi, Worky and others, according to Thazhmon. The company says it has a current waitlist of over 15,000.

Jeeves plans to use its new capital toward its launch in Colombia, the U.K. and Europe. And, of course, toward more hiring. It’s already doubled its number of employees to 55 over the past month.

Former a16z partner Matt Hafemeister was so impressed with what Jeeves is building that in August he left the venture capital firm to join the startup as its head of growth. In working with the founders as an investor, he concluded that they ranked “among the best founders in fintech” he’d ever interacted with.

The decision to leave a16z also related to Jeeves’ inflection point, Hafemeister said. The startup is nearly doubling every month, and had already eclipsed year-end goals on revenue by mid-year.

It is evident Jeeves has found early product market fit and, given the speed of execution, I see Jeeves establishing itself as one of the most important fintech companies in the next few years,” Hafemeister told TechCrunch. “The company is transitioning from a seed company to a Series B company very quickly, and being able to help operationalize processes and play a role in their growth and maturity is an incredible opportunity for me.”

CRV General Partner Saar Gur (who is also an early investor in DoorDash, Patreon and Mercury) said he was blown away by Jeeves’ growth and how it has been “consistently hitting and exceeding targets month over month.” Plus, early feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, Gur said.

“Jeeves is building products and infrastructure that are very difficult to execute but by doing the ‘hard things’ they offer incredible value to their customers,” he told TechCrunch. “We haven’t seen anyone build from the ground up with global operations in mind on day one.”

#a16z, #apps, #baas, #crv, #dileep-thazhmon, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #jeeves, #payments, #recent-funding, #saar-gur, #sherwin-gandhi, #startup, #startups, #venture-capital, #y-combinator, #yc

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 2

From beaming actors into the class room to plucking things out of space, the second day of Y Combinator’s S21 Demo Day was a fresh snapshot of what nearly 200 startup teams believe is the future of innovation.

Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go “oh wait, what’s this?”

Spark Studio

My experience with Indian culture is that it has a long history of valuing math and science over any other subject, which is why Spark Studio’s twist on online enrichment was refreshing. The YC company offers live, extracurricular learning classes for kids in Indian households — with a twist: The classes are about music, art and communication. As seen by the success of Outschool, small-group classes for school-going children can be a scalable way to supplement traditional education. Spark Studio is selling to kids between the ages of 5 to 15, which are highly impressionable, exploratory years.

Growing up, I was the only kid in my predominantly Indian family friend group who didn’t gravitate toward STEM. There were no services, other than the local library, to quench my interest in writing and reading. A service like Spark, if it gains the trust of parents, has the potential to make currently unconventional interests more conventional. And with over 400 students, and less than 2% churn, Spark Studio has early inklings it may be onto something. — Natasha

Litnerd

Image Credits: Litnerd

The best books don’t feel like homework, they feel like trips into another universe and hangouts with characters that could be friends. Litnerd is trying to scale the feeling of immersive, engaging text to millions of students, while also encouraging better literacy and habit-forming skills. The startup has works read and enacted by actors, making classroom reading into a more entertaining experience for school-age children.

#accelerator, #early-stage, #early-stage-startup, #edtech, #fintech, #litnerd, #pre-seed, #seed, #tc, #y-combinator, #yc

Reframe your Metaphors, and other lessons from Y Combinator S21 Day 1

After a 17-hour marathon through nearly 200 startup pitches, the Equity team was fired up to get back on Twitter and chat through some early trends and favorites from the first day of Y Combinator’s demo party. We’ll be back on the air tomorrow, so make sure you’re following the show on Twitter so you don’t miss out.

What did Natasha and Alex chat about? The following:

  • First Impressions: We started by going through top-line numbers, geographic breakdown, and how the accelerator is doing when it comes to the representation of diverse founders. The last bit had a tiny bit of progress, but diversity continues to be an issue in YC’s batches – even as cohort size grows. We also chatted about what startups pitching can work on: like better mics, which are cheap and good.
  • Our early favorites: Metaphor, Lumify, Alex’s favorite duo Indian real estate plays, Akudo, Reframe, and Playhouse.
  • And some hmmm moments, including our thoughts on Writesonic, which Natasha has a potentially paranoid theory on.

TechCrunch has extensive coverage of the day on the site, so there’s lots to dig into if you are in the mood. More tomorrow!

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

#akudo, #demo-day, #early-stage, #fundings-exits, #google, #india, #lumify, #metaphor, #playhouse, #reframe, #startups, #tiktok, #writesonic, #y-combinator, #yc

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first-half of its nearly 400 company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators.

The TechCrunch team stuck to its tradition of covering every single company live (but, you know, from home,) so you’ll find all of the Day 1 companies here. For those who want a sampling of standouts, however, we’re also bringing you a host of our favorites from today’s 1-minute pitch off extravaganza.

As reporters, we’re constantly inundated with hundreds of pitches on a daily basis. The startups below caught our picky attention for a whole host of reasons, but that doesn’t mean other startups weren’t compelling or potential unicorns as well. Instead, consider below as a data point on which startups made us do a double take, be it due to the size of the market opportunity, the ambition exhibited by the founding team, or an idea that was just too clever to pass up.

Genei

Genei is, dare I say, a refreshing mix up between robots and writers. The startup has a simple goal: automatically summarize background reading so content creators can grab the top facts, attribute, and move onto the next graf. Writing is innately an art, so I find Genei’s positioning as a tool for writers instead of a replacement out to take their jobs as smart. Better yet, it’s launching by targeting some of the hardest workers in our industry: freelance writers. These folks often have to balance consistent pitches, diverse assignments and tight deadlines for their livelihood, so I’d presume a sidekick doesn’t hurt. Down the road, I could totally see this startup playing the same role as a Grammarly: a helpful extension of workflows that optimizes the way people who write for a living, write. — Natasha

#accelerator, #akudo, #digital-health, #early-stage, #fintech, #metaphor, #playhouse, #reframe, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator, #yc

You can’t hack your YC application, but here’s what to avoid

The Y Combinator application season is upon us. I have been through YC a couple of times and have reviewed thousands of applications as a volunteer in later years.

Typically, you hear advice focused on ways to improve your YC application so it gets accepted. Here are some tips on what not to do and why so many YC applications get rejected. I’ve also put down some advice about what else to anticipate and take into consideration as you navigate the application process.

In short, don’t overthink your application, and keep it simple and straightforward.

When should I submit my YC application?

When in doubt, read YC’s instructions and answer the question literally. Avoid verbose marketing lingo and keep answers short and concise.

The best applications are often those made at the last minute, because applicants do not overthink their responses and toil over details they think need to be shoved into a question. While I do not recommend submitting applications at the deadline because the system has had issues receiving submissions, you can capture the essence of last-minute submissions by being clear and concise.

Remember that your application should be good enough to get an interview, not win a prize. Go back to work instead of spending more time perfecting an application.

YC experiments frequently. For this batch and the last, there was an early deadline that would give accepted teams access to YC before the batch officially began. Applying early gives you an opportunity to land an interview in the early round and to update your application to be considered in the standard round.

Is it OK to submit my YC application late?

#accelerator, #column, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #facebook, #funding, #san-francisco, #startup-accelerator, #startups, #venture-capital, #y-combinator, #yc

BoldVoice wants to help nonnative English speakers find (and flaunt) their voices

When Anada Lakra and Ilya Usorov first moved to the United States, they struggled to find their voices. They both knew and understood English, but when it came time to speak up, their accents became a hurdle. Usorov, for example, watched his Russian-born parents struggle to advocate for themselves, which limited work opportunities. While Lakra, who just started college at Yale University, was constantly asked to repeat herself.

“Will I be able to express myself clearly enough? Will I be understood? Will I be as impactful?” Lakra remembers questioning herself. “My accent pronunciation made me feel like I really wasn’t my full self — and I lost a little of my personality.”

It’s an issue experienced, to varying degrees, by many of the roughly 65 million nonnative English speakers in the United States. Viewing accent as a hurdle in jobs, confidence and relationship-building, the duo teamed up as co-founders to build a solution.

Now, Lakra and Usorov are launching BoldVoice, an accent coaching app that helps users refine their pronunciation of the English language. The New York-based startup, currently going through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 batch, raised a pre-seed round of about $605,000 from the accelerator and XFund.

Hollywood, meet edtech

BoldVoice has a very specific user in mind: nonnative English speakers who learned the language on paper but now need help speaking and interacting with people.

The startup uses short-form videos, taught by Hollywood accent coaches who traditionally help actors, to deliver content. The curriculum is built around three Ps: posture, to help with the physical feel of using an English R versus a Spanish R; phonology, the vowels and consonants; and porosity, which is the musicality of an accent. So far, there are two Hollywood accent and dialect coaches on the platform: Ron Carlos and Eliza Simpson.

“We’re really thinking about this in the same way that an actor will learn an accent for a new role,” where they have to pick it up very quickly, Lakra said. “We want to bring the same discipline and process to everyone at home, so we have Hollywood accent coaches who are trained voice speech and dialect coaches” as well as advisers who have degrees in linguistics.

Beyond its short-form videos, the company plans to integrate artificial intelligence into its product. When a user practices a speech, BoldVoice records the speech sample, feeds it into an algorithm and, over time, will be able to recommend more tailored exercises to their weak areas. It is using open-source software currently but is developing its own AI algorithm for the future. Real-time feedback would be a feat.

BoldVoice

Image Credits: BoldVoice product screen

The sign-in process is pretty simple. Users are asked to set goals around accent confidence, explain English proficiency and identify native language, as well as the situation in which they want to improve, which can range from in the workplace to social settings. Users are also asked to commit pronunciation practice for 10 minutes a day, with the option to say no.

Image Credits: BoldVoice/TechCrunch screenshot

They are then given a lesson plan, which is only accessible through a subscription. The company charges $10 a month or $70 a year, which is meant to be more accessible than private accent coach tutoring, which can hit $200 per hour. There is currently no free experience for BoldVoice beyond a one-week free trial.

After launching a little over a month ago, BoldVoice has attracted 1,000 users, most of whom come from India, China, or are Spanish speakers. The company is focusing on creating “hyper-personalized” content around these core users, and will have its work cut out for it: There are 121 languages spoken by more than 10,000 people in India, with the Indian constitution officially recognizing 22 languages.

The owl is watching

BoldVoice is looking to dig into the crowded market of language learning startups at a key time for the edtech subsector. Language learning unicorn Duolingo is set to go public this week, which could cast a golden halo on other consumer edtech businesses. The company has already raised its expected price range ahead of its public offering, a confident move. Other companies such as Busuu and Babbel have also made progress in carving out spheres of language learning.

But Lakra doesn’t think any existing language learning apps have won over the accent market yet. She explained how learning a language is about memorization of vocabulary and grammar, while learning an accent is about working out your mouth through tongue exercises. The latter, which BoldVoice focuses on, doesn’t yet seem to be a priority for other businesses.

She’s not wrong. Duolingo excels at reading and writing literacy, but it has not yet shared any known efficacy studies about its pronunciation efforts. The company tried launching a chatbot in its early days to help users practice conversations. The highly requested feature flopped, though, as 80% of users didn’t use it — a reaction that CEO Luis von Ahn thinks underscores how difficult it is to get consumers to practice speaking.

Duolingo is now building investment in a team around speech recognition technology, as well as eyeing M&A opportunities. BoldVoice, which similarly uses bite-sized content and streaks, could bring its product of confidence to Duolingo’s mission of motivation.

Beyond the complementary yet competitive landscape, BoldVoice’s challenge ahead may just be that it is playing in a sensitive area. Someone’s voice is an integral part of their identity. BoldVoice will need to balance helping people, while also not erasing what makes them them.

Lakra thinks that they can strike the balance. Her perception of the user is constantly evolving.

“Users are already telling us that it would be awesome to get more tips around public speaking or how to interject in a meeting or how to give feedback politely,” she said. The requests are all about how to culturally and linguistically use English in a professional English-speaking environment, and BoldVoice is working with coaches to create content beyond pronunciation and into cadence, projection and intonation.

“We definitely want to move and make this a tool that helps people not just say the word the right way, but just feel confident in everything they say.”

boldvoice-co-founder

Image Credits: BoldVoice. Co-founders Ilya Usorov and Anada Lakra.

#early-stage, #edtech, #education, #english, #language, #language-learning, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator, #yc

The huge TAM of fake breaded chicken bits

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

We’re closing our survey soon, so this is your last chance (probably) to get your voice heard!

Despite it being a short week, as always, it was a busy, busy time. We had Grace on the dials today, and Danny, Natasha, and Alex making chit-chat about the tech world. As with every week this year, we had to cut and cut and cut to get the show down to size. Here’s what made it in in the end:

Thanks for hopping along with us this week and every week. Quick programming note: Natasha will take Alex’s spot on the Monday show for next week since he’s out, so be nice, and send her stuff to mention.

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

#blendoor, #charthop, #equity, #equity-podcast, #ev-williams, #extrahop, #faculty, #fundings-exits, #healthtech, #lifted, #medium, #nuggs, #startups, #vault-platform, #workplace-culture, #y-combinator, #yc

Cataclysms are a growth industry

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

For this week’s deep dive, Alex and Natasha dug into Danny’s latest mega-project: A long, fascinating, and deeply-reported series into the world of disaster tech. It’s all about the market, startups, and their backers, so it was perfect fare for our Wednesday episode, in which we dive deep into a single topic.

Part 1: The most disastrous sales cycle in the world

Part 2: Data was the new oil, until the oil caught fire

Part 3: When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working

Part 4: The human-focused startups of the hellfire

We were super curious why Danny had picked disaster tech to niche into, as we hadn’t heard that much about it, frankly. But past the fact that it’s a world where sales cycles can last as long as House Congressional tenures, there was quite a lot to get into:

The series was fun to mine through, and expect Danny’s byline to be all over the topic in the coming weeks. Talk soon, unless – actually especially, if – all of hell breaks loose!

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

#911, #consumer, #cornea, #disaster-tech, #equity, #equity-podcast, #fire, #fundings-exits, #gridware, #mental-health, #perimeter, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator, #yc

How one founder made the most of Y Combinator in a pandemic year

This week, we welcome guest Hana Mohan to our podcast Found. Hana is the co-founder and CEO of MagicBell, a new startup she created with Josue Montano that just recently graduated from Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 cohort. MagicBell is a full-featured, plug-and-play notifications inbox aimed at developers who want to build one into their own product, but don’t want to have to build one themselves from scratch.

Hana’s experience as an entrepreneur spans multiple companies, including her last one which she grew to significant success in terms of annual revenue. She’s also a proud transgender woman, who underwent her transition mid-way through her existing history as a founder and entrepreneur. Hana talks to us about the challenges she faced taking on her transition in an industry where the focus is often exclusively on how hard you’re hustling and what you’re building next, and about her origin story as a founder coming from an environment where there weren’t necessarily many examples with similar life experience to look to for inspiration.

During our chat, Hana also shared lots of insight into YC, and what it provides founders, as well as perspective on what it was like going through the program during a global pandemic in a remote context. Finally, she offers some great context on finding your first investors and customers as a distributed team.

We loved talking to Hana, and we hope you love the episode. You can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Definitely leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us direct feedback either on Twitter or via email. Come back next week for yet another great conversation with a founder all about their own one-of-a-kind startup journey.

#articles, #entrepreneur, #found, #google, #magicbell, #podcast, #spotify, #startup-company, #tc, #technology, #y-combinator, #yc

MagicBell raises $1.9M to build a plug-and-play notification platform for product teams

One of the key ingredients in effective product development is receiving timely and relevant notifications about customer use, engagement, potential issues and more. Engineers, developers and product managers rely on that flow of information, but it’s typically delivered either via legacy email tools, or through notification systems built into product management dashboards that devs have to hand-code themselves. MagicBell, a startup that just went through Y Combinator’s most recent Winter cohort, has raised a $1.9 million seed round to deliver a rich notification platform for product teams that’s easy to integrate and use.

The round was led by Cherry Ventures, and includes participation by a number of angel investors including Algolia co-founder Nicolas Dessaigne, Twitter Director of Product Management Marie Outtier, and Wunderlist and Pitch co-founder Christian Reber. This list itself is a great endorsement of the need for what MagicBell’s building, since it’s a storied collection of veteran experts who have ample experience actually building some of the world’s most engaging software products.

“Sofia [Bendz], Partner at Cherry Ventures], of course, worked at Spotify,” explained MagicBell CEO and co-founder Hana Mohan in an interview. “She has built a consumer product, and she has invested in a lot of startups […] we followed YC’s advice in this batch, which was to definitely leave some room in the round for strategic angels.”

MagicBell's Notification inbox

An example of MagicBell’s Notification inbox.

That deep product experience on the cap table should serve MagicBell well as it seeks to grow the team, which currently consists of Mohan and co-founder Josue Montano. She and Montano previously worked on customer support ticketing system startup SupportBee, but found they were spending a lot of their time and effort on just building a notifications system for the platform. The greater opportunity, they realized, was in making that process plug-and-play, and scalable, since it’s something that can be intensely cost- and effort-intensive in setting up a new product, even though it’s also not anyone’s primary focus when building their software.

Basically everyone today is familiar and comfortable with a robust notification system — we use them constantly on our Android and iOS devices. Bu product teams use them, too, and the experience of doing so can add quite a bit of complexity and anxiety if they’re not handled well. MagicBell offers a notification inbox that’s embeddable into existing software via React, Javascript and REST (with additional frameworks in the pipeline), which provides real-time notification delivery, syncing of delivery and read status, individual user preference settings, and delivery across web, email and mobile clients.

Long term, the plan is to build MagicBell into a full-featured notification platform that offers a highly-customizable means of keeping your product team informed and in sync. Accordingly, the startup’s first priority with this initial funding is to hire engineers to help it build, says Mohan, and it’s also being driven by the product roadmaps of some of its initial customers — which coincidentally, includes a number of its investors.

“One of the cool things for us was definitely that three or four of our customers ended up investing,” Mohan said, noting that Reber’s startup Pitch was actually a customer before he decided to invest. “The other great thing about [Pitch] is that they have a pretty extensive roadmap themselves of launching a mobile offering, both on iOS and Android. So they’re really pushing the product forward, which is great for us.”

Mohan is also one of the inaugural guests on our new podcast Found, and you can subscribe now to get our episode with her when it becomes available on Friday. She goes into a lot more detail about YC, and the process of identifying the need for MagicBell in the market, plus plenty more, so be sure to tune in.

#cherry-ventures, #christian-reber, #funding, #recent-funding, #seed-funding, #startup, #startups, #tc, #yc, #yc-w21

Chorus brings a social layer to meditation

Chorus launched its online experience on March 16 of last year. It was fairly auspicious timing, as those things go, falling the same day seven public health departments launched a joint shelter-in-place order in its native California.

Like countless other companies, 2020 didn’t go according to plan for the meditation app. But the site scrambled to pivot the company’s “experiential” hybrid of in-person classes to a fully virtual interface, and ultimately it may be all the better for it.

Certainly there’s no shortage of meditation apps from which to choose. Calm and Headspace top the list, but the mindfulness category has proven to be an extremely popular one, as users look to technology to help alleviate some of the stresses for which it has been directly responsible.

But meditation is hard. It’s hard to start and it’s hard to maintain. Some apps do a better job than others of guiding a user through that process, but it can still feel like a solitary experience — one of many reasons people abandon practices before they’re able to start seeing the benefits.

Chorus was already seeing success with its early in-person events. “We thought that had to be the on-ramp for most users because it provided the most immersive first experience,” co-founder and CEO Ali Abramovitz tells TechCrunch. “We ran in-person pop-ups in San Francisco.”

The company also managed to raise a pre-seed round of around $1 million. More recently, the company has received additional funding as part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 batch of startups.

An official app is still forthcoming. For now, the experience uses a web portal for signups, while the actual classes are conducted live over Zoom and archived for on-demand viewing. It’s similar to the setup many gyms and personal trainers have utilized during the pandemic. And while it’s not the most sophisticated, Abramovitz says Chorus currently has user numbers in the “hundreds,” largely by word of mouth, while not disclosing the actual figure.

Among those, around two-thirds are classified as “highly engaged,” which means they attend an average of a class every other day. The service draws people in with breathing exercises based on popular songs and keeps users engaged by offering a more communal experience than most meditation apps.

“The problem we’re solving is two parts,” says Abramovitz. “Originally we thought we were designing a new meditation experience specifically for people who found meditation challenging. What we’ve learned, after seeing our customers stay after class and talk to each other, is what keeps people coming back is a new way to connect with themselves and each other.”

The experience is kind of a virtual approximation of the experience you would get in an in-person class — namely the sorts of engagements you would get with fellow attendees after the class. In an era of social isolation, it’s clear why users would be particularly engaged with that aspect.

As for what that experience will look like in a post-pandemic world, the company plans to continue to adapt to meet users’ needs.

“We’re fundamentally an experience company,” says Abramovitz. “We’re a meditation experience company for people who found traditional meditation challenging. That is our core. We will deliver that over whatever platform or channel provides the best experience for our community. Right now that’s an app. In the future, it could be hardware devices like VR or strategic studios like Peloton has for the community. But right now, we’re focused on the digital experience.”

#apps, #chorus, #meditation, #y-combinator, #yc

Pivoting to home fitness, Aviron offers gamified rowing machines

Few tech sectors had more to gain from the events of 2020 than home fitness. Interest in the category was swift, as gyms were declared one of the bigger problem areas amid the worldwide spread of Covid-19. Suddenly home workouts were more than just luxury.

For YC-backed Aviron, it was the ideal time to pivot. The Toronto-based startup had been providing gamified rowing machines for the B2B market – specifically for use in high traffic settings like hotels and apartment buildings. It’s still a small operation with 10 employees and around $750,000 raised to date.

Suddenly the company found itself in attempting to compete for market share against tech giants like Peloton.

Of course, thus far Aviron’s own sales are considerably more humble than the cycling giant. Until now, the company has largely relied on word of mouth sales, having sold in the neighborhood of 1,000 rowing machines since launching for the consumer market in July. The equipment retails for $2,299 a piece – though you can find it online for less.

The company works with an ODM to create the machine. And while it touts some nice touches like a quiet nylon belt and 100-pounds of automatic electronic resistance, Aivron’s main differentiator is the software – specially a connected gaming experience via the built-in display. The monthly subscription runs $20-$30 and the company is quick to note that you can cancel at any time.

“Rowing engages 85% of your muscles,” founder and CEO Andy Hoang tells TechCrunch. “It’s low impact. There are a ton of benefits, but it’s super boring and super tough. When you combine it with high-intensity training, you have a death machine that pretty much no’s gonna want to do. What better way to make it fun and exciting than by putting video games on there?”

The system sports six different workout categories, including real time competition with other rowers. There are a few introductory workouts, to ensure that first-timers don’t injure themselves by just jumping directly into competitive rowing, but on the whole, the system avoids Peloton-style classes.

“Our workouts are short,” says Hoang. “They’re like 10-15 minutes. You do maybe one or two of them, and by the end of it, you feel like you’re going to die because it’s so tough. Peloton is typically 40-60 minutes, a little bit lower intensity and with less resistance. And obviously it’s a class led by an instructor, rather than getting chased by zombies.”

#fitness, #hardware, #health, #yc, #ycombinator

YC-backed Blabla raises $1.5M to teach English through short videos

Short, snappy, entertaining videos have become an increasingly common way for young people to receive information. Why not learn English through TikTok-like videos too? That was what prompted Angelo Huang to launch Blabla.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang relocated to Shanghai in 2019 to start Blabla after working in Silicon Valley for over a decade. A year later, Blabla was chosen as part of Y Combinator’s 2020 summer cohort. The coronavirus had begun to spread in the U.S. at the time, keeping millions at home, and interest in remote learning was reviving.

“It was my eighth time applying to YC,” Huang, who founded two companies before Blabla, told TechCrunch during an interview.

This week, Blabla announced it has raised $1.54 million in a seed round led by Amino Capital, Starling Ventures, Y Combinator, and Wayra X, the innovation arm of the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. While Y Combinator wasn’t particularly instrumental in Blabla’s expansion in China — one of the biggest English-learning markets — the famed accelerator was of great help introducing investors to the young company, said the founder.

The Blabla app pays native English speakers by the hour to create short, engaging videos tailored to English-learning students around the world. The content creators are aided by Blabla’s proprietary software that can recognize and tag their scenes, as well as third-party translation tools that can subtitle their videos. The students, in turn, pay a subscription fee to receive personalized video recommendations based on their level of proficiency. They can practice through the app’s built-in speech recognition, among other features like speaking contests and pop quizzes.

The startup is in a highly crowded space. In China, the online English-learning market is occupied by established companies like VIPKID, which is backed by Tencent and Sequoia Capital. Compared to VIPKID’s one-on-one tutoring model, Blabla is more affordable with its starting price of 39 yuan ($6) a month, Huang noted.

“The students [on mainstream English learning apps] might have to spend several thousands of RMB before they can have a meaningful conversation with their teachers. We instead recycle our videos and are able to offer lessons at much cheaper prices.”

The app has about 11,000 weekly users and 300-400 paid users at the moment, with 80-90% of its total users coming from China; the goal for this year is to reach 300,000 students. The funding will allow Blabla to expand in Southeast Asia and Latin America while Wayra X can potentially help it scale to Telefónica’s 340 million global users. It will be seeking brand deals with influencers on the likes of TikTok and Youtube. The new capital will also enable BlaBla to add new features, such as pairing up language learners based on their interests and profiles.

Blabla doesn’t limit itself to teaching English and has ambitions to bring in teachers of other languages. “We want to be a global online pay-for-knowledge platform,” said Huang.

#asia, #china, #education, #funding, #latin-america, #shanghai, #taiwan, #tc, #telefonica, #y-combinator, #yc

Reddit names YC’s Michael Seibel to board, following co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s exit

On June 5, Alexis Ohanian announced he was stepping down from Reddit’s board of directors. “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” the site’s founder and former CEO announced. “To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop.”

The move came as communities across the United States marched for social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In his letter, Ohanian asked Reddit to replace his role with a black board member. Today, the site announced the appointment of Y Combinator CEO, Michael Seibel. The executive became Y Combinator’s first black partner in 2014, before ascending to chief executive. Today he becomes Reddit’s new board member. 

“I want to thank Steve, Alexis, and the entire Reddit board for this opportunity. I’ve known Steve and Alexis since 2007 and have been a Reddit user ever since,” Seibel said in a statement. “Over this period of time I’ve watched Reddit become part of the core fabric of the internet and I’m excited to help provide advice and guidance as Reddit continues to grow and tackle the challenges of bringing community and belonging to a broader audience.”

Seibel’s long list of startup bona fides also include founding Socialcam and YC-supported Justin.TV. He served as the CEO of the latter, which later rebranded as the more familiar Twitch. During his time at YC, Seibel has funded and advised north of 1,800 startups, according to a release. He’s got a long list of angel investments, as well, including Reddit and has been a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion. More recently, he helped YC transition to an online-only demo day as the world grappled COVID-19-related restrictions. 

Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman added, “Few people have Michael’s deep background in tech and know the challenges and opportunities we face as well as he does,” said Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman, “so we are honored he is joining us. Not to mention, he is one of the smartest and kindest people in tech.”

Both Huffman and Reddit have been criticized for the site’s content policies, a fact which the executive noted in an open letter last week, writing, “There is an unacceptable gap between our beliefs as people and a company, and what you see in our content policy.”

#hiring, #michael-seibel, #reddit, #y-combinator, #yc