It's been decades since NASA and its government contractors handled everything in-house, but the recent push by the agency to bring private companies into the fold is truly unprecedented. NASA's agreements with companies like SpaceX make it clear that the group is ready and willing to pay others to develop its hardware, and a new announcement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helps to hammer that point home.
NASA and JPL revealed today that they'll be accepting applications to be part of a group of 10 startups that will work with NASA to develop new space technologies. This "aerospace accelerator program," as NASA calls it, covers a wide range of potential applications, and NASA is very clearly open to partnering with companies that can prove they can aid future missions.
A Kit Harington profile earlier this week seemed to indicate that Jon Snow will survive until the final episode of Game of Thrones' upcoming season 8. The actor implied during the interview that he was on location for the entire duration of the shoot, while others came and went.
But Jon Snow wasn’t the only one to talk to the press about what happens next in Game of Thrones, as actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau suggested that he is satisfied with his last scene as Jaime Lannister.
It's somewhat difficult to square the hand-drawn animation that dominated the box office for decades with the almost hyper-realistic CGI that we see today, but as technology continues to advance, both art and animation will continue to change. To that point, Nvidia appears to be on the verge of changing the game once again with a new deep learning model capable of transforming the most basic of sketches into photo-realistic images.
The AI leverages generative adversarial networks (GANs), which you can read about here, to convert the maps you see in the video below into beautiful landscapes. In a nod to French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, Nvidia decided to name the interactive app which uses the model "GauGAN."
If you find yourself constantly tweaking your home's thermostat in search of the perfect temperature, you might save some time by just moving to eastern Africa. That might sound drastic, but a new study reveals that you'd probably be a whole lot more comfortable than you are right now.
The research, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, reveals that the temperatures Americans typically gravitate towards when adjusting their thermostats closely match the conditions in Kenya and other regions in eastern Africa. This probably isn't just a coincidence.
Dyson has led the charge in the evolution of the cordless vacuum for years, but this week, the company is unveiling the most futuristic stick vac to date. Meet the V11, which Dyson says is the result of more than ten years of cord-free vacuum and digital motor development. At a glance, it looks incredibly similar to the Cyclone V10, which arrived last April, but there are a variety of notable upgrades on board, some more obvious than others.
The advancement that Dyson's representatives were most eager to show off during our meeting was the intelligent Dynamic Load Sensor (DLS) system. This system is capable of detecting the resistance of the brush bar on the new High Torque cleaner head, and then communicating with the motor and the battery in order to increase or decrease the suction power depending on whether the vacuum is being used on a carpet or a hard surface.
Well, that didn't take long. We told you on Monday about some of the novel promotions HBO is using to keep excitement high for the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones, which premieres on April 14. Those promotions include encouraging fans to go on a quest #ForTheThrone by searching for six of the series' signature Iron Thrones that HBO has hidden in far-flung locations around the world.
It's now been several months since Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed that he had successfully edited the genes of human embryos, which were then carried to term, resulting in the first genetically modified humans. His work was quickly shunned by all corners of the scientific community, and his fate remains unknown.
Last week, a large group of geneticists and researchers called for a moratorium on genetic editing until a robust regulatory framework could be established. Now, the World Health Organization is weighing in, and while it stops short of suggesting a prohibition on current genetics work, the group makes it clear that it supports regulations and oversight in genome editing.
It's been said that war makes strange bedfellows, and now we can say the same thing about the out-of-control problem of robocalls and spam calls that bombard all of our phones day-in, day-out. Normally, AT&T and Comcast are competing telecommunications giants, but in the case of the anti-robocall fight, they've come together to announce what may be a first-of-its-kind triumph -- the ability to authenticate calls made across both companies' networks.
That paves the way for both AT&T and Comcast to start offering call authentication between the two networks to customers later this year. Letting customers, in other words, see verified calls not only when they originate from within their network but also from outside it.
Google has pulled the wraps off Stadia, a new cloud-based gaming platform. Using the power of Google's global information infrastructure, Stadia can stream the highest-quality games to any screen, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in announcing the platform, which is expected to come online later this year. Stadia represents Google's vision for the future of gaming, "where the worlds of watching and playing games converge into a new generation game platform, perfectly built for the 21st century," added Google General Manager Phil Harrison.
Apple has announced a new 10.5-inch iPad and a refresh of the iPad mini. The 10.5-inch iPad Air, which will sell for $499, provides 64 gigabytes of solid state storage and WiFi support. It has Apple's latest mobile processor, the A12 Bionic chip, and supports Apple Pencil and the company's smart keyboard. "The Bionic A12 is a cut above the processors used in all other tablets on the market," Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. The new 7.9-inch iPad mini, which will sell at a base price of $399 with WiFi support also has an A12 chip.
MORE Technologies last week launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 for development of its open source robot ecosystem. The company will fund the project if it reaches its goal by April 21. As of this writing, $6,485 of that $20,000 goal has been pledged. It teaches real tech skills to the next generation of innovators and problem solvers using MOREbot -- a series of open source, customizable robotics kits designed for classroom or home use. MOREbot is an expandable modular STEM learning robotic ecosystem.
Instagram has introduced Checkout on Instagram -- an in-app purchasing tool -- as a closed beta for consumers in the United States. Among the 20 participating brands are Adidas, Nike, Burberry, Dior, Huda Beauty, Prada and Michael Kors. "Users in the U.S. can buy from a majority of these brands starting today, with all of them coming on board over the coming weeks," said Instagram spokesperson Paige Cohen. Instagram will continue adding brands to the closed beta, and it plans to expand Checkout beyond the U.S. in the future, she added.
Storytelling is a central part of e-commerce marketing, and it's vital that brands both know their own stories and understand how to tell them. Everything from brand loyalty to purchasing decisions relies on a company having an engaging and well-told story. "Facts tell, but stories sell," remarked Samantha Reynolds, president of Echo Storytelling Agency. "We decide what to buy based on emotion, and then we use logic and data to reassure ourselves that we made the 'right' decision." A good story can distinguish one company from another, particularly in a crowded field.
Customer relationship management is a term you've likely heard if you have ever worked in the tech space. CRM software solutions have not always been as far-reaching as they are today. Over the last 40 years, CRM has evolved from a range of disparate business solutions developed for various customer needs. The earliest CRM tools were devices like Rolodexes. True CRM didn't exist in earnest until the '90s when innovators like Brock Control Systems began to explore the automation possibilities of new database systems.
Amid shifting consumer habits and the digitization of everything, the retail landscape has undergone significant transformations over the past decade, and it continues to evolve as quickly as ever. These transformations bring about a slew of challenges and opportunities for retailers to improve the overall shopping experience. With traditional retail strategies gradually losing their efficacy in reaching their intended target audience, more innovative alternatives have entered the market. One such technique is gamification.
CES 2018 had more than its fair share of wacky items and compelling gadgets, but one of the biggest trends to emerge, once again, from the popular tech expo was voice-enabled devices. And, of course, it was all about Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Kaia Health caught our attention last year with an app that tracks your motion using your phone's camera in a bid to help you achieve perfect squat form, though we found it didn't quite hit the mark. Still, Kaia is elevating the concept with an updat...
The final season of Telltale's The Walking Dead series will come to an end next week, when the fourth and last episode is released by TWD creator Robert Kirkman's Skybound Games. When Telltale Games virtually shut down and laid off everyone working o...
Apple has revealed new Watch bands and iPhone cases for spring, and they sure look like an explosion of colorful pastel hues to fit the season. You can now get an iPhone XS or XS Max silicone case ($39) in Spearmint, Papaya and Delft Blue, and the XS...
Remember how shampoo magnate John Paul DeJoria threw himself into the mobile world five years ago? He's now offering smartphones -- and they might be appealing if you find most budget phones a little boring. Rokit's newly launched Io 3D and Io Pro...
Nanoloop has been a cornerstone of chiptune music for years, but using one has meant either owning a Game Boy or making do with a mobile app. You won't have to make those compromises for much longer. Developer Oliver Wittchow and crew are crowdfund...
A new feature from Postmates lets people who live close to each other score free food delivery. The popular food delivery app's new "Party" feature groups together restaurant orders from customers who live in the same neighborhood. Hungry patrons can...
Microsoft really, really wants you to know that Windows 7's security updates will end soon. A newly deployed update will warn users that Microsoft will stop providing security updates for the operating system after January 14th, 2020, with a not-so-...
Whatever trouble Apple has had recruiting publishers for its paid news service, it appears to have scored at least one big coup. New York Times tipsters claim the Wall Street Journal has agreed to join the service mere days ahead of Apple's March 25...
A new-generation SpaceX capsule autonomously docked with the international space station on Sunday, in a successful test of computers and maneuvering systems deemed essential to carry U.S. astronauts on future missions.
Humans Might Be Able To Sense Earth's Magnetic Field A new study from researchers at the California Institute of Technology suggests that humans can sense the Earth's magnetic field. "We have not as a species lost the magnetic sensory system that our ancestors [millions of years ago
Volvo To Add In-Car Sensors To Prevent Drunk Driving Volvo is installing cameras and sensors in its cars from the early 2020s, monitoring drivers for signs of being drunk or distracted and intervening to prevent accidents. These new safety features come a couple weeks after the auto
A new-generation SpaceX capsule autonomously docked with the international space station on Sunday, in a successful test of computers and maneuvering systems deemed essential to carry U.S. astronauts on future missions.
The growth of Airbnb — and likewise other platforms like Booking.com, VRBO and Homeaway for listing and renting short-term accommodation in private homes — has spawned an ecosystem of other businesses and services, from those who make money renting their homes, to cleaning companies that make properties “Airbnb-ready”, to those who help design listings that will get more clicks. Airbnb has seen some wild success so far, but it turns out that being a part of that ecosystem can be a lucrative business, too.
Today, Guesty — a Israeli startup that provides a suite of tools aimed at property managers that list on these platforms — is announcing that it has raised $35 million, money that it will use to fuel its growth, after seeing the number of properties managed in some 70 countries through its tech double to over 100,000 in the last year.
The company is not disclosing valuation with this round, which was led Viola Growth with participation also from Vertex Ventures, Journey Ventures, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, La Maison Compagnie d’Investissement, TLV Partners and Magma Ventures. But Amiad Soto, the CEO and co-founder, noted that it too has “more than doubled” since its last funding almost a year ago. PitchBook notes that round was around $90 million post-money, so this would put the current valuation at at least $180 million, likely more.
The idea for Guesty came about like many of the best startup ideas do: out of a personal need. In 2013, twin brothers Amiad and Koby were renting out their own apartments on Airbnb, and found themselves spending a lot of time doing the work needed to list and manage those properties.
Their first stab at a business was an all-in-one service to help hosts get their properties ready and subsequently tidied up for listings. “I was cleaning apartments, Koby was doing the business development, and my girlfriend was doing the laundry,” Soto told me in an interview. They quickly realised that this was never going to scale, “and also that our competitive advantage was building software. We are computer geeks.”
So the company quickly pivoted to building a platform that could provide all the tools that property managers — who work with individual property hosts/owners and had started emerging as key players as Airbnb itself scaled out — needed to juggle multiple listings. (That girlfriend is now his wife, so seems like they may have pivoted just in time.)
Guesty started as SuperHost and, like Airbnb, went through the Y-Combinator accelerator. It eventually rebranded to Guesty, and it now provides tools in a dozen areas that touch property managers and the job they do: Channel Manager (“channel” being the platform where the property is being listed), Multi-Calendar, Unified Inbox, Automation Tools, Mobile Management App, Branded Website Task Management, Reporting Tools, Owners Portal, Payment Processing, Analytics, Open API, 24/7 Guest Communication.
The plan is to complement that in coming years with more “smart” tools: the company is introducing AI and machine learning elements that will help it suggest more services to users, and for managers to use to do their jobs better. (One example of how this might work: if you have a property manager in New York City, and the city regulator changes something in the tax code for properties in Brooklyn, this will now be suggested through to managers whose properties are affected, and this can help with pricing modelling down the line if the manager, say, wanted to keep a specific margin on rentals.)
Perhaps because short-term property renting is a relatively new area of the accommodation and residential market, it’s fairly fragmented, and so Guesty is providing a clear move to consolidate and simplify some of that work.
“There are about 700 different services and other things that go into short-term property rentals,” Soto noted when I asked him about this. “It would take me hours to go through it all with you.”
And indeed, the market itself is much bigger than what Guesty is currently working with. Soto estimates that there are around 7 million properties now collectively getting listed on these short-term letting platforms, speaking to the opportunity ahead.
Guesty very much got its start with Airbnb and that helped it not only establish what property managers needed, but also to forge a close relationship with Airbnb at a time when it wasn’t yet building many bridges to third-party services. Soto said Guesty built its own private API to use with Airbnb, and subsequently helped inform how Airbnb eventually built an API that others could use.
It’s still a trusted partner in that regard. Now that Airbnb is moving into multi-dwelling arrangements — that is, rooms in hotels (which will now expand with its HotelTonight acquisition), plus multiple apartments in single buildings for big groups that might want to secure bookings at several places at once — it will very soon be launching a tool for these kinds of listings. Guesty has helped in the building of that, too.
Still, the opportunity for short-term lettings is bigger than Airbnb itself these days. Booking.com and its many subsidiary businesses have made a big move into this area, as have many other companies, and Guesty now handles bookings on a number of “channels”. Soto said on average, the number of bookings on its platform that are listing on Airbnb is 60 percent, with some vacation spots seeing the percentage much lower, and some urban markets seeing a much higher penetration.
Equally, there are a ton of companies that have been building technology to ease the process of listing and managing properties on all these platforms that include Vacasa, Turnkey, Airsorted, Kigo and many more.
This might be one of those cases where being an early mover in identifying a market opportunity has worked in a startup’s favor. Guesty’s strong work with Airbnb has helped the startup build stronger ties with those companies that hope to compete with it and give Airbnb a run for its money: Booking.com, Soto notes, is a premier partner these days.
“Guesty was the first to recognize the potential of the property management market and has quickly become a category leader with its vertical-oriented, end-to-end approach,” said Natalie Refuah, partner at Viola Growth, in a statement. “Technology and AI continue to disrupt the innovation stack, acting as a catalyst to the digitization of “traditional” areas such as real estate and travel. Guesty is leading the charge, fostering a more seamless experience for property managers while providing clear advantages to customers and ultimately, their guests. We believe that with its experienced and elite executive team, Guesty is fully equipped to modernize and revolutionize the property management ecosystem.” Refuah is joining Guesty’s Board of Directors.
Razer is summoning a big gun as it bids to develop its mobile gaming strategy. The Hong Kong-listed company — which sells laptops, smartphones and gaming peripherals — said today it is working with Tencent on a raft of initiatives related to smartphone-based games.
The collaboration will cover hardware, software and services. Some of the objectives include optimizing Tencent games — which include megahit PUBG and Fortnite — for Razer’s smartphones, mobile controllers and its Cortex Android launcher app. The duo also said they may “explore additional monetization opportunities for mobile gaming” which could see Tencent integrate Razer’s services, which include a rewards/loyalty program, in some areas.
The news comes on the same day as Razer’s latest earnings, which saw annual revenue grow 38 percent to reach $712.4 million. Razer recorded a net loss of $97 million for the year, up from $164 million in 2017.
Nabbing Tencent, which is one of (if not the) biggest games companies in the world, is a PR coup, but it remains to be seen just what impact the relationship will have at this stage. Subsequent tie-ins, and potentially an investor, would be notable developments and perhaps positive signals that the market is seeking.
Still, Razer CEO Min Liang Tan is bullish about the company’s prospects on mobile.
The company’s Razer smartphones were never designed to be ‘iPhone-killers’ that sold on volume, but there’s still uncertainty around the unit with recent reports suggesting the third-generation phone may have been canceled following some layoffs. (Tan declined to comment on that.)
Mobile is tough — just ask past giants like LG and HTC about that… — and Razer’s phone and gaming-focus was quickly copied by others, including a fairly brazen clone effort from Xiaomi, to make sales particularly challenging. But Liang maintains that, in doing so, Razer created a mobile gaming phone market that didn’t exist before, and ultimately that is more important than shifting its own smartphones.
“Nobody was talking about gaming smartphones [before the Razer phone], without us doing that, the genre would still be perceived as casual gaming,” Tan told TechCrunch in an interview. “Even from day one, it was about creating this new category… we don’t see others as competition.”
With that in mind, he said that this year is about focusing on the software side of Razer’s mobile gaming business.
Tan said Razer “will never” publish games as Tencent and others do, instead, he said that the focus on helping discovery, creating a more immersive experience and tying in other services, which include its Razer Gold loyalty points.
Outside of gaming, Razer is also making a push into payments through a service that operates in Southeast Asia. Fuelled by the acquisition of MOL one year ago, Razer has moved from allowing people to buy credit over-the-counter to launch an e-wallet in two countries, Malaysia and Singapore, as it goes after a slice Southeast Asia’s fintech boom which has attracted non-traditional players that include AirAsia, Grab and Go-Jek among others.
Lagos based online lending startup OneFi is buying Nigerian payment solutions company Amplify for an undisclosed amount.
OneFi will take over Amplify’s IP, team, and client network of over 1000 merchants to which Amplify provides payment processing services, OneFi CEO Chijioke Dozie told TechCrunch.
The move comes as fintech has become one of Africa’s most active investment sectors and startup acquisitions—which have been rare—are picking up across the continent.
The purchase of Amplify caps off a busy period for OneFi. Over the last seven months the Nigerian venture secured a $5 million lending facility from Lendable, announced a payment partnership with Visa, and became one of first (known) African startups to receive a global credit rating. OneFi is also dropping the name of its signature product, Paylater, and will simply go by OneFi (for now).
Collectively, these moves represent a pivot for OneFi away from operating primarily as a digital lender, toward becoming an online consumer finance platform.
“We’re not a bank but we’re offering more banking services…Customers are now coming to us not just for loans but for cheaper funds transfer, more convenient bill payment, and to know their credit scores,” said Dozie.
OneFi will add payment options for clients on social media apps including WhatsApp this quarter—something in which Amplify already holds a specialization and client base. Through its Visa partnership, OneFi will also offer clients virtual Visa wallets on mobile phones and start providing QR code payment options at supermarkets, on public transit, and across other POS points in Nigeria.
Founded in 2016 by Segun Adeyemi and Maxwell Obi, Amplify secured its first seed investment the same year from Pan-African incubator MEST Africa. The startup went on to scale as a payments gateway company for merchants and has partnered with banks, who offer its white label mTransfers social payment product.
Amplify has differentiated itself from Nigerian competitors Paystack and Flutterwave, by committing to payments on social media platforms, according to OneFi CEO Dozie. “We liked that and thought payments on social was something we wanted to offer to our customers,” he said.
With the acquisition, Amplify co-founder Maxwell Obi and the Amplify team will stay on under OneFi. Co-founder Segun Adeyemi won’t, however, and told TechCrunch he’s taking a break and will “likely start another company.”
OneFi’s purchase of Amplify adds to the tally of exits and acquisitions in African tech, which are less common than in other regional startup scenes. TechCrunch has covered several of recent, including Nigerian data-analytics company Terragon’s buy of Asian mobile ad firm Bizsense and Kenyan connectivity startup BRCK’s recent purchase of ISP Everylayer and its Nairobi subsidiary Surf.
These acquisition events, including OneFi’s purchase, bump up performance metrics around African tech startups. Though amounts aren’t undisclosed, the Amplify buy creates exits for MEST, Amplify’s founders, and its other investors. “I believe all the stakeholders, including MEST, are comfortable with the deal. Exits aren’t that commonplace in Africa, so this one feels like a standout moment for all involved,”
With the Amplify acquisition and pivot to broad-based online banking services in Nigeria, OneFi sets itself up to maneuver competitively across Africa’s massive fintech space—which has become infinitely more complex (and crowded) since the rise of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product.
By a number of estimates, the continent’s 1.2 billion people include the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population. An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns that problem into an opportunity for mobile based financial solutions. Hundreds of startups are descending on this space, looking to offer scaleable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered by Briter Bridges and a 2018 WeeTracker survey, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital to African startups,
OneFi is looking to expand in Africa’s fintech markets and is considering Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Ghana and Egypt and Europe for Diaspora markets, Dozie said.
The startup is currently fundraising and looks to close a round by the second half of 2019. OnfeFi’s transparency with performance and financials through its credit rating is supporting that, according to Dozie.
There’s been sparse official or audited financial information to review from African startups—with the exception of e-commerce unicorn Jumia, whose numbers were previewed when lead investor Rocket Internet went public and in Jumia’s recent S-1, IPO filing (covered here).
OneFi gained a BB Stable rating from Global Credit Rating Co. and showed positive operating income before taxes of $5.1 million in 2017, according to GCR’s report. Though the startup is still a private company, OneFi looks to issue a 2018 financial report in the second half of 2019, according to Dozie.
Last year, Microsoft announced the launch of its Windows Virtual Desktop service. At the time, this was a private preview, but starting today, any enterprise user who wants to try out what using a virtual Windows 10 desktop that’s hosted in the Azure cloud looks like will be able to give it a try.
It’s worth noting that this is very much a product for businesses. You’re not going to use this to play Apex Legends on a virtual machine somewhere in the cloud. The idea here is that a service like this, which also includes access to Office 365 ProPlus, makes managing machines and the software that runs on them easier for enterprises. It also allows employers in regulated industries to provide their mobile workers with a virtual desktop that ensures that all of their precious data remains secure.
One stand-out feature here is that businesses can run multiple Windows 10 sessions on a single virtual machine.
It’s also worth noting that many of the features of this service are powered by technology from FSLogix, which Microsoft acquired last year. Specifically, these technologies allow Microsoft to give the non-persistent users relatively fast access to applications like their Outlook and OneDrive applications, for example.
For most Microsoft 365 enterprise customers, access to this service is simply part of the subscription cost they already pay — though they will need an Azure subscription and pay for the virtual machines that run in the cloud.
Right now, the service is only available in the US East 2 and US Central Azure regions. Over time, and once the preview is over, Microsoft will expand it to all of its cloud regions.
Microsoft today announced that it is bringing its Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) to the Mac. Previously, this was a Windows solution for protecting the machines of Microsoft 365 subscribers and assets the IT admins that try to keep them safe. It was also previously called Windows Defender ATP, but given that it is now on the Mac, too, Microsoft decided to drop the ‘Windows Defender’ moniker in favor or ‘Microsoft Defender.’
“For us, it’s all about experiences that follow the person and help the individual be more productive,” Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Office and Windows, told me. “Just like we did with Office back in the day — that was a big move for us to move it off of Windows-only — but it was absolutely the right thing. So that’s where we’re headed.”
He stressed that this means that Microsoft is moving off its “Windows-centric approach to life.” He likened it to bringing the Office apps to the iPad and Android. “We’re just headed in that same direction of saying that it’s our intent that we can secure every endpoint so that this Microsoft 365 experience is not just Windows-centric,” Spataro said. Indeed, he argued that the news here isn’t even so much the launch of this service for the Mac but that Microsoft is reorienting the way it thinks about how it can deliver value for Microsoft 365 clients.
Given that Microsoft Defender is part of the Microsoft 365 package, you may wonder why those users would even care about the Mac, but there are plenty of enterprises that use a mix of Windows machines and Mac, and which provide all of their employees with Office already. Having a security solution that spans both systems can greatly reduce complexity for IT departments — and keeping up with security vulnerabilities on one system is hard enough to begin with.
In addition to the launch of the Mac version of Microsoft Defender ATP, the company also today announced the launch of new threat and vulnerability management capabilities for the service. Over the last few months, Microsoft had already launched a number of new features that help businesses proactively monitor and identify security threats.
“What we’re hearing from customers now, is that the landscape is getting increasingly sophisticated, the volume of alerts that we’re starting to get is pretty overwhelming,” Spataro said. “We really don’t have the budget to hire the thousands of people required to sort through all this and figure out what to do.”
So with this new tool, Microsoft uses its machine learning smarts to prioritize threads and present them to its customers for remediation.
To Spataro, these announcements come down to the fact that Microsoft is slowly morphing into more of a security company than ever before. “I think we’ve made a lot more progress than people realize,” he said. “And it’s been driven by the market.” He noted that its customers have long asked Microsoft to help them protect their endpoints. Now, he argues, customers have realized that Microsoft is now moving to this person-centric approach (instead of a Windows-centric one) and that the company may now be able to help them protect large parts of their systems. At the same time, Microsoft realized that it could use all of the billions of signals it gets from its users to better help its customers proactively.
Fancy knowing how ‘the other half’ lives? Well, part of it is down to tools which have been built specifically for them. Michelin Guide will tell you about the best restaurants on the planet. Similarly the The Plum Guide bills itself as the “Michelin Guide for Homes” as it picks the world’s best vacation rentals, holiday homes, short term lets and Airbnbs from over 25 different sites, then puts them into one. It does this using a combination of data and human curation.
It’s now raised £14m ($18.5m) from some of Europe’s leading early-stage investors to support its rollout to 12 new cities this year.
The Plum Guide differs from mass market booking platforms by selecting only the top 1% of properties in any city to feature on its site. By the end of 2019 that will mean almost 12,000 verified homes in the most sought-after cities for holiday rentals.
The latest funding round is led by Talis Capital, with participation from Latitude and Hearst Ventures, as well as Octopus Ventures – who led the Series A funding round.
It needs all this money because as well as using a data approach, it also sends actual human beings to vet every property in person and apply a “scientific Plum Guide test” which covers 150 points from proximity to cafes and transport, to speed of WiFi.
Since launching in London in 2015, the company claims to have achieved year-on-year growth of three times revenues, for three years’ running, adding homes in five new cities to the platform and saw repeat bookings jump 27% after it opened in Paris, its second location after London. It says customer referrals drive a quarter of all bookings.
In a statement Doron Meyassed, Founder and CEO, said: “We are on a mission to build a marketplace of the world’s most beautiful holiday homes. This isn’t some vague qualitative ambition. We mean it. We are taking a systematic and obsessive approach to vetting every single home on the planet and accepting only the top 1%.”
“We are clearly targeting a highly discerning group of affluent professionals that live in global megacities, love to travel and value great design, quality and locations,” says Meyassed. “Previously they have stayed away from the open marketplace booking platforms, which they consider too risky compared with the reassurance that a hotel provides.”
In other words, the startup is eating away at the luxury hotel market.
Matus Maar, Managing Partner and Co Founder at Talis Capital, said: “The consumer market has entered into an age of curation where data, ratings and reviews need to be carved into useful information to support buying decisions. We see huge value in businesses and teams that create a competitive advantage by being strategically data driven.”
George Henry, partner at LocalGlobe, commented: “Travel and accommodation continues to be a fast-growing market but the supply has become incredibly fragmented, especially in the p2p market. As consumer travel has always suffered from a very low NPS, we believe that a differentiated brand offering a more hands-on service powered by expert curation and data is going to continue to deliver a very unique experience.
The Plum Guide is in direct competition with the big home booking platforms (Airbnb, Booking.com, Home Away etc.) but claims it competes by using its algorithm to build a database of all the homes available in the city, then systematically putting it through five rounds of filtration to come up with the top homes. It also competes by ‘matchmaking’ people with the best homes.
If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.
The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.
Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.
“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.
PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”
PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo
The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.
What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.
“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”
Trending in China
Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.
“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.
Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library
When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.
Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos
A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.
Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.
Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.
PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo
“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.
And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”
Small businesses have a complicated relationship with Amazon . While they fear the company because they have no control over it, Amazon’s platform is also a great way to reach shoppers, particularly small businesses that rise to the top of its results pages.
Amify, a nine-year-old, Alexandria, Va.-based company, says it can get them there, and investors are buying its pitch. As founder and CEO Ethan McAfee tells us, the 60-person company just raised $5.8 million in Series A funding — its first outside round — led by Mercury Fund, with participation from Dundee Venture Capital, CincyTech, SaaS Venture Capital and Capital One cofounder Nigel Morris.
It all started, McAfee says, with a shoestring operation run out of his suburban townhouse.
As a T. Rowe Price analyst straight out of college, McAfee went on to spend 11 years “doing the investment thing” before deciding that instead of investing in companies, he wanted to start his own. It was 2010 at the time, and Amazon was just beginning its evolution from a place to buy books and CDs into the everything store that it has become. At first, McAfee started selling pickleball paddles at the site from his home, before eventually adding various other items. When he’d established that “we’d gotten really good at it,” it occurred to him that he should sell what he’d learned about how to connect with shoppers on the platform, which was growing more crowded by the day.
Fast forward to today, and McAfee says Amify now works with a long line of customers, from brands you might not recognize to household names like Fender guitars and Brooks, the century-old maker of running shoes, all of which pay Amify a percentage of their revenue in exchange for its services.
What these include, says McAfee, is help with product pages (“10 great pictures versus one can increase sales”), advice on what not to sell (“drones are the worst”), management of sponsored ad campaigns, and a big assist with inventory. To wit, customers of Amify send their goods to the startup when they arrive by container ship from China, for example. Amify — which uses warehouses in Las Vegas and Cincinnati — then sends the the goods on to one of Amazon’s warehouses so that if there is a return, Amazon sends the item back to Amify to deal with it and not the customer. (McAfee says most returns are donated or destroyed.)
It would seemingly get expensive for the companies, which already pay Amazon a 15 percent commission on their sales and up to 30 percent when orders are shipped through its Fulfilled by Amazon program. McAfee says the increase in sales that Amify is able to generate more than helps defray the cost.
Certainly, it’s an interesting proposition, which explains why Amify is hardly alone in chasing it. In addition to many small players trying to insert themselves into the big business of working with third party sellers – – more than one million of which now make up more than 50 percent of Amazon’s total sales — Amify’s more established competitors include Netrush and etailz.
McAfee doesn’t mind the other players, though. “It’s a $500 billion market,” he offers. In short, there’s enough to go around.
At least, there’s enough to go around for now. According to a new CNBC report, Amazon is aggressively blocking money-losing products from advertising on its site and telling brand owners that if Amazon can’t sell their products to customers at a profit, it won’t allow them to pay to promote the items.
Asked if he worries about Amazon banishing companies like his or otherwise putting pressure on them, McAfee say he doesn’t. Though he admits to having “had problems with Amazon” owing in part to its “many moving pieces,” he notes the company’s overarching objective is to make customers happy, an objective the two companies share and that Amify proves every day, he insists. Consider, he says, “With Amazon, you have to speak their lingo. You can spend hours on the phone with them to correct mistakes. But we can do it better than someone trying to figure it out for the first time,” which can presumably save both Amazon, and Amify’s customers, time and money.
Amify can also provide something to its stable of clients that Amazon does not, which is customer data and insights. Though Amify doesn’t offer the service today, McAfee says there may well come a time when it helps customers understand in a granular way what’s selling, what’s not, and why.
The new funding should help. On Amify’s own shopping list, says McAfee: a CTO.
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