As nostalgia goes, the Fisher-Price Chatter phone doesn’t disappoint. The classic retro kids toy was given a modern revamp for the holiday season with the new release for adults which, unlike the original toy designed for kids, can make and receive calls over Bluetooth using a nearby smartphone.
The Chatter — despite a working rotary dial and its trademark wobbly eyes that bob up and down when the wheels turn — is less a phone and more like a novelty Bluetooth speaker with a microphone, which activates when the handset is lifted.
The Chatter didn’t spend long on sale; the phone sold out quickly as the waitlists piled up. But security researchers in the U.K. immediately spotted a potential problem. With just the online instruction manual to go on, the researchers feared that a design flaw could allow someone to use the Chatter to eavesdrop.
Ken Munro, founder of the cybersecurity company Pen Test Partners, told TechCrunch that chief among the concerns are that the Chatter does not have a secure pairing process to stop unauthorized phones in Bluetooth range from connecting to it.
Munro outlined a series of tests that would confirm or allay his concerns. Since the Chatter is only available in the U.S. and was persistently sold out, TechCrunch set a page monitor to tell us when it was back in stock, bought one, and started testing.
First, we switched on the Chatter phone, which activates its Bluetooth connection, paired a phone over Bluetooth, then switched off Bluetooth to simulate someone walking the phone out of range. We then paired another phone with the Chatter without hindrance, allowing us to remotely control the Chatter’s audio.
Mattel, which makes the Chatter phone, said the phone “will time out if no connection is made or once the pairing occurs — it is only discoverable within a narrow window of time and requires physical access to the device.” We left the Chatter on and found the Bluetooth pairing process did not time out after more than an hour.
Then, Munro asked what would happen if we called the phone connected to the Chatter. Sure enough, the Chatter rang — loudly — as expected. Then we called the Chatter again, this time without properly replacing its receiver. With the handset off the hook, the Chatter automatically answered the call, immediately activating the handset’s microphone and allowing us to hear ambient background audio.
Several years ago, Pen Test Partners found a similar Bluetooth vulnerability in a child’s toy doll called My Friend Cayla, which the researchers found could be paired with another person’s phone if the parent’s phone goes out of range. The toy was eventually pulled from shelves after it was found the doll, when connected to its app, was recording what children were saying.
The Chatter doesn’t have an app, and Mattel said the Chatter phone was released as “a limited promotional item and a playful spin on a classic toy for adults.” But Munro said he’s concerned the Chatter’s lack of secure pairing could be exploited by a nearby neighbor or a determined attacker, or that the Chatter could be handed down to kids, who could then unknowingly trigger the bug.
“It doesn’t need kids to interact with it in order for it to become an audio bug. Just leaving the handset off is enough,” said Munro.
When reached about the findings, Mattel spokesperson Kelly Powers said the company is “committed to security and we will be investigating these claims.”
- A pair of new Bluetooth security flaws expose wireless access points to attack
- A Bluetooth bug in a popular at-home COVID-19 test could falsify results
- Google discloses security bug in its Bluetooth Titan Security Keys, offers free replacement
This Week in Apps: Commission battles, Twitter NFTs and Epic’s appeal begins
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. App Annie says global spending across iOS, Google Play and third-party Android app stores in China grew 19% in 2021 to reach $170 billion. Downloads of apps also grew by 5%, reaching 230 billion in 2021, and mobile ad spend grew 23% year-over-year to reach $295 billion.
In addition, consumers are spending more time in apps than ever before — even topping the time they spend watching TV, in some cases. The average American watches 3.1 hours of TV per day, for example, but in 2021, they spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device. And they’re not even the world’s heaviest mobile users. In markets like Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea, users surpassed five hours per day in mobile apps in 2021.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours, either. They can grow to become huge businesses. In 2021, 233 apps and games generated over $100 million in consumer spend, and 13 topped $1 billion in revenue, App Annie noted. This was up 20% from 2020, when 193 apps and games topped $100 million in annual consumer spend, and just eight apps topped $1 billion.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Epic Games kicks off its appeal
Both Epic Games and Apple appealed the original ruling of the lawsuit where Epic had sought to prove Apple was behaving in an anti-competitive manner by not allowing alternative payments or other means of distributing apps outside the App Store. Although Apple largely won that case, as the judge ruled it was not a monopolist, it was instructed to stop preventing app developers from adding links to third-party purchasing mechanisms — a decision it didn’t agree with, prompting its appeal. Apple was also given permission to hold off on the App Store changes until the appeal’s ruling, in another blow to Epic. Meanwhile, Epic appealed the case since it wanted another shot at making its arguments before the court.
This week, Epic Games filed its opening brief appealing the District Court’s decision in the Epic v. Apple case. In it, the company attempts to lay out why it thinks the District Court erred in its original decision, noting again how Apple reduces innovation, prevents alternative app stores from competing with its own, extracts “supracompetitive” commissions while making minimal investments in the App Store, and more. It also wants the appeals court to reconsider the market definitions for deciding the case. The lower court determined the case was about the “digital mobile game transactions” market, but Epic’s brief points out that Apple’s restrictions apply to both game and non-game developers alike. And it argues the court based its market definition on a misreading of Amex, by treating two separate transactions — consumers’ app downloads on the App Store and the in-app purchase itself — as a single transaction.
OK, we’ll just call it a “platform fee” then
When the Netherlands’ regulator ordered Apple to allow dating apps on the App Store to be able to process third-party payments, it looked like it might be a small win for a more open ecosystem that would allow alternatives to Apple’s own payment systems and its commissions. But anyone celebrating this did so too soon. Apple has now clarified that while it will adhere to the letter of the law, by offering entitlements to the dating apps looking to process payments on their own, it won’t adhere to the spirit. Not only will the developers have to publish a separate binary for their app they want it distributed to the Netherlands App Store, they’ll still have to pay Apple a commission on those third-party payments. And yet developers won’t be able to take advantage of any platform advantages, like getting Apple to assist with refunds, payment history, subscription management or other issues related to the purchases — as those will now take place outside its App Store. So what’s the platform fee for? I guess access to users?
Wrote Apple on its developer documentation page: “Consistent with the ACM’s order, dating apps that are granted an entitlement to link out or use a third-party in-app payment provider will pay Apple a commission on transactions.” But Apple didn’t say how much that commission will be. Likely, Apple will take the course that Google did in South Korea, where it dropped the commission rate for external payments by a mere 4%.
Twitter gets into NFTs
It’s official, Twitter has embraced NFTs. Users on Twitter’s iOS app who also subscribe to Twitter Blue will be the first to take advantage of a new feature that lets them authenticate with their crypto wallet to use an NFT as their profile pic on the service. The new NFT hexagon-shaped pics will help to differentiate the crypto-enthusiasts from the rest of Twitter.
To use the feature as a Twitter Blue subscriber, you’ll go to your profile to change your profile photo as you would normally. Here, you’ll be presented with the new option to choose an NFT instead. You then connect with your crypto wallet.
At launch, Coinbase Wallet, Rainbow, MetaMask, Ledger Live, Argent and Trust Wallet are supported. After authenticating, you’ll select the NFT you want to showcase. Twitter says that, currently, JPEG and PNG NFTs minted on the Ethereum (ERC-721 or ERC-1155 tokens) can be used as NFT Profile Pictures. In a later update, Twitter said it was looking into adding support for SVGs, but can’t render them right now.
It’s worth noting the Twitter Blue subscription service is not yet globally available, which will limit the adoption of NFT Profile Pictures to the early markets where the offering is now live — the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Not everyone is happy with the update, which is receiving mixed reactions. Some people are trolling the hexa-profiles, others are blocking people and some artists claim the feature has encouraged more people to steal their art and mint it as an NFT (which to be fair, could have happened before).
- Apple developers can now create custom codes for subscriptions in App Store Connect, each with a unique name you choose (like SPRINGPROMO, for example). The codes can be redeemed through a direct URL or with the app.
- Apple released iOS 15.3 RC to developers and beta testers on Thursday, which includes a fix for a Safari bug that could have led to the leaking of users’ browsing history and Google ID. It has also now stopped signing iOS 15.2, preventing further downgrades. And it’s begun pushing iOS 14 users to upgrade to iOS 15.
- Apple announced it’s expanding its App Store Foundation program to 29 countries in Europe. Already available in select European markets including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden, the program offers developers support on app development, marketing and monetization with help from Apple employees.
- Apple says it’s updating the App Store submission experience starting January 25, 2022. The new App Store Connect experience will allow developers to submit multiple items, submit without needing a new app version, view past submissions and more.
Image Credits: Google
- Google Play Games for PC enters beta testing. The downloadable app, which brings Android games to Windows PC users, is launching to beta testers in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Among the more than 25 titles available at launch are “Mobile Legends: Bang Bang,” “Summoners War,” “State of Survival: The Joker Collaboration” and “Three Kingdoms Tactic.”
- TikTok kids are boosting toy retailer Learning Express’ sales. The company’s online sales increased 25% in 2021, compared with massive 233% growth in 2020, amid the pandemic. Interestingly, the retailer hasn’t spent money on TikTok marketing and advertising, noting that kids are starting to find them on their own. Over the past years, the TikTok toy trends have turned toys into viral hits like Pop Its, Squishmallow, fidget spinners and more, thanks to kids sharing videos on the social app. The retailer, where individual stores are franchises, is also benefitting from some of its owners’ own TikTok presence — like the Birmingham location, which has 2.3 million followers and its most popular video received 62 million views.
- Consumers may be swapping food delivery apps for grocery delivery, Apptopia research shows. Food delivery apps in Q2 2021 saw total sessions fall 10% from March, and the rest of the year showed no real gains. Meanwhile, in December, grocery delivery apps posted a 20% increase in downloads from the month prior. And DoorDash and Uber Eats adapted, the former by adding grocery and convenience stores to its app, and the latter by removing the word “restaurant” from its app’s title.
- British digital banking app Revolut expanded into U.S. stock trading. The company already let British users buy and sell shares, but is now licensed as a U.S. broker-dealer. Users will be able to trade 1,100 securities, including shares on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, as well as gain access to 200 ETFs.
- Investing app Acorns scrapped its $2.2 billion merger agreement with SPAC Pioneer Merger Corp. The deal, announced last May, would have allowed Acorns to list on the Nasdaq, and the merger was valued at $1.5 billion pre-money. Acorns will pay $17.5 million in termination fees through December 15. The company said that “given market conditions,” it was pivoting to a private capital raise at a higher pre-money valuation instead.
- TikTok fired its marketing chief, Nick Tran, a former Hulu exec, after kicking off a series of marketing stunts without approval. These included the TikTok Kitchen service, which would use ghost kitchens to promote popular TikTok creators’ recipes in partnership with Virtual Dining Concepts; as well as new business lines involving NFTs and TikTok Resumes.
- Instagram and TikTok have begun testing support for paid creator subscriptions. Instagram officially announced its alpha test of subscriptions, offering creators eight price points between 99 cents and $99.99 which they can charge users. Subscribers gain access to exclusive live videos and stories, and receive a special badge elevating them in the comments section and the DM inbox. Meanwhile, TikTok also confirmed it has begun testing subscriptions, but wouldn’t share details.
- Instagram also launched an expanded version of “remix,” which now allows anyone to remix any public video on the platform going forward, unless the creators opt out.
- Snapchat is trying to make it harder for kids to buy drugs on the app after an NBC News investigation found the app was linked to the sale of fentanyl-laced pills that led to the deaths of teenagers and young adults in over a dozen states. The app now prevents 13 to 17-year-old users from showing up in Quick Add search results, unless they have friends in common with the person searching — a feature aimed at preventing users from adding people they don’t know to deter drug transactions.
- Facebook and Instagram are working on NFT features that will allow users to display their NFTs on their social profiles. Instagram head Adam Mosseri had previously said the company was looking into NFT support. This week, a report from The FT added Meta is considering its own NFT marketplace, but noted the efforts were in early stages. This is not entirely new information, as Mosseri had said the company was considering a marketplace. It has also invited NFT artists to offer feedback through panel discussions, which was discussed in the press last year when some artists were upset about being asked to advise the social giant on the matter without compensation. But the report indicates the investment may extend to Facebook as well.
- WhatsApp is rolling out in-app chat support as an alternative to email. The feature had previously been available in beta testing, but has begun showing up for non-beta users.
- Meta’s Workplace service for businesses will integrate with WhatsApp later this year. The service, which now has more than 7 million users, will integrate with the messaging app so Workplace customers can share announcements with front-line employees, including deskless workers.
- Messenger Kids introduced new “internet safety” activities to teach young children how to use Messenger and be safe online. In each episode of “Pledge Planets,” kids learn to make healthy decisions, stay safe online, learn to use blocking and reporting tools, and build resilience.
Streaming & Entertainment
- Spotify is still the top streaming music service but its market share has slipped a bit, according to new research from MIDiA, as the streaming market has grown. In Q2 2021, 523.9 million people subscribed to a music streaming service globally, up 26.4% from the same time last year. Spotify’s market share, meanwhile, dropped from 34% in 2019 to 31% today, followed by Apple, then Amazon Music. YouTube Music grew by more than 50% year-over-year, making it the only Western streamer to have increased market share.
- YouTube’s app is testing “smart downloads,” a feature that automatically downloads videos when an Android device is connected to Wi-Fi, in order to be ready when there’s either weak coverage or no signal at a later point. The feature is already supported in YouTube Music.
- Netflix expanded its growing gaming lineup this week with the launch of two more games: Arcanium: Rise of Akhan, an open-world single-player card strategy game developed by Rogue Games; and puzzle game Krispee Street developed by Frosty Pop. The additions bring Netflix’s gaming catalog to 12 titles, including Bowling Ballers, Shooting Hoops, Teeter Up, Asphalt Xtreme, Stranger Things 1984, Stranger Things 3, Card Blast, Dominos Cafe, Wonderputt Forever and Knittens.
- During its less-than-stellar earnings, Netflix’s COO Greg Peters also said the company is open to licensing “large game IP” that people would recognize as it expands its gaming business. “I think you will [see] some of that happen over the year to come,” Peters noted.
- In addition to the major news of Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard deal, the company also announced this week that its Xbox Game Pass service has grown to 25 million subscribers, up from 18 million in January 2021.
- Wordle!, an iOS game that existed before the rise of the popular web-based game by the same name, has benefitted from the latter’s popularity leading to a surge in downloads. The developer, Steven Cravotta, hadn’t been updating the game, which first launched in 2017 but never really took off, until it jumped to 200,000 downloads per week from those likely looking for the other Wordle game. So Cravotta reached out to Wordle’s developer (Josh Wardle) to note he was donating the proceeds to charity, which has totaled $2,000+ so far.
- U.S. consumer spending in mobile action games jumped up 68.9% in 2021, driven by almost entirely Genshin Impact, reported Sensor Tower. Spending for the year reached $966.8 million, making Action the fastest-rising gaming genre and Open World Adventure the largest Action subgenre. MiHoYo’s Genshin Impact earned $406.3 million in the U.S. in 2021, followed by Marvel Contest of Champions by Kabam and Dragon Ball Legends from Bandai Namco.
- Mobile gamers who use TikTok play for longer, play more genres and spend more money, according to a new report from NewZoo. TikTok gamers are 66% more likely to pay for games, and are 40% more likely to pay for add-ons. They’re also more likely to watch gaming content, often on TikTok. The group also tends to use social platforms to find new games (45% versus 32% for those who don’t use TikTok). They play on average 7.1 genres versus 4.2 genres for non-TikTok users, and are more likely to notice ad types.
- Read-it-later app Instapaper on iOS introduced new features, including public folders, which allow users to share their saved reading lists with others via web or mobile. The app also added custom app icons in a variety of neutral tones for its premium users, and a “read now” feature for web users that lets you click the Instapaper logo immediately after saving an article to read it immediately. The company said it can’t offer the feature on iOS due to technical limitations.
Health & Fitness
- MY2022, an app mandated for use by all attendees of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, was found to have technical flaws allowing encryption to be sidestepped, according to The Citizen Lab’s research. The flaw means users’ voice audio and file transfers could be accessed and health forms containing passport details, demographic info, and medical and travel history, are also vulnerable.
Government & Policy
- Another bill in the works, this time in Illinois, wants to force Apple and Google to allow alternative payments in apps distributed in their app stores. Senators in the state have filed the “Freedom to Subscribe Directly Act” which is being supported by Illinois-based Apple critic Basecamp, which faced a number of issues getting its subscription email app HEY into the App Store. The Senators support the bill because they see it as a way for the state to tap into lost tax revenues that are redirected to California today.
Funding and M&A
Data wants to disrupt your deal flow (again)
Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.
AngelList’s recently closed early-stage venture fund brings back one of my favorite conversations within the world of early-stage startup fundraising: to data, or not to data. The $25 million fund bases all of its investments off of one key metric that AngelList has been tracking for years: a startup’s ability to hire.
When I spoke to Abraham Othman, head of the investment committee and of data science at AngelList Venture, he told me they win deals because they are less adversarial to portfolio companies than other firms. “Our approach? This is our data set, let’s see if we can put money into them,” he said. No further due diligence? No problem.
Of course, there are some challenges with leaning on such signals to make investments. As history often reminds us, due diligence matters from a human perspective — and vetting a founder beyond their ability to attract talent can save firms from headaches or legal woes. Additionally, a startup could get a ton of applicants due to pay, location or even recent coverage in a Well Known Tech Blog — which can bode well for success, but could also just be a result of great marketing. In AngelList’s case, they believe that hiring demand’s fluidity adds to its importance.
As you can probably tell, I think the future of data-driven investments will bring a double-edged sword into our Zoom rooms (or lack thereof, perhaps). Traditional investment that prioritizes pedigree and culture, or the “art” of a founder, has left out an entire class of historically overlooked individuals. But that same process, in which you spend five hours in conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur, brings a layer of humanity to decision-makers before they get millions to execute on a vision.
I don’t want to get into the due diligence conversation yet again, and investors leaning on data to dictate their investment decisions is anything but a new strategy. This is the song of late-stage investors, of private equity analysts and your brilliant aunt who loves a good earnings report. Early-stage startups and investors, from ClearCo to SignalFire, have spent years building up advice atop algorithms atop assumed returns.
However, in a bull market for even the most bullish among us, the premise of an unbiased, data-based check feels somewhat more hopeful than before. Money certainly doesn’t solve all woes — the top reason startups fail today is still due to failure to raise new capital. Add in the gender fundraising gap and a more automated decision-making process suddenly doesn’t sound unromantic, it sounds inevitable.
For my full take on this topic, check out my TechCrunch+ column: Is algorithmic VC investment compatible with due diligence?
In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about a new graduate-friendly fund, lawyer tech and Plaid’s growing patchwork of startups. As always, you can follow my thoughts on Twitter @nmasc_ or listen to me on Equity, a podcast about the business of startups, where we unpack the numbers and nuance behind the headlines.
$1 million lasts a million times longer than before
Led by Flybridge founding partner Jeff Bussgang, Harvard Business School professors put together a $7 million fund to invest in recently graduated students from the university. This is the third installment of the Graduate Syndicate, which officially closed this week per SEC filings.
Here’s what to know: The syndicate started a few years ago when business school professors realized that young talent within their classes was looking for activation capital. To limit conflict of interest, such as favoritism or power imbalance, Bussgang said that the syndicate only invests in founders after they graduate from school. So far, the syndicate has invested in 60 companies, with 41% of them being led or co-led by a female founder.
Bussgang on what changed in pre-seed:
A pre-seed round, which is typically around a million dollars, is happening in a moment in time where you can make a ton of progress with just a million dollars, given the no-code, low code platforms, the cloud and reduction in costs for starting things up. The biggest trend I’ve seen is that these companies can just do so much with so little [and] because of these no code platforms…business founders can be builders, they don’t have to be software developers and that’s a great tailwind for the HBS community.
Advice and other bits:
- 500 Global’s Christine Tsai shares her 2022 VC predictions
- When will VCs hit the brakes?
- VCs approached Facebook to fund a spinout of Workplace valued at over $1B, but Facebook declined
And the startup of the week is…
Lawtrades. When it comes to our newly distributed world of work, flexibility is a key but elusive term. Lucky for Raad Ahmed and Ashish Walia, the co-founders of Lawtrades, defining the term has been a conversation that’s been in the works since 2016. Lawtrades wants to change how enterprise companies utilize legal resources,and give lawyers a chance at more flexible, remote work.
Here’s what to know: The startup raised a $6 million Series A round, led by Four Cities Capital, with participation from Draper Associates and 500 Startups. More than $11 million was earned on the platform to date by the lawyer network and over 60,000 hours of work was logged on the platform in 2021, a 200% boost from 2020, our own Christine Hall reports.
Ahmed on the moonshot:
As a company, you’re basically meeting internet strangers and hiring them for hundreds of thousands of dollars and trusting that they’re going to do a good job. So there’s a solid amount of betting that happens on the supply side. We let about 5% to 6% of [lawyers into the platform] – but the actual hard part is how does this day look operationally? Other platforms…there isn’t a lot of work transparency, so that’s what we’re trying to work on.
We have this simple tool, a time tracking app, once you get hired for an engagement, you’re basically logging in every hour of work. We basically make this transparent to clients so they see what’s the equivalent of a Facebook newsfeed but it’s a work feed. So it updates on who’s working on what or how long, what project and you can react to that, comment on it and we’re coming up with more and more clever ways for us to sort of capture the data with minimal work from like our network of lawyers.
It actually allows you to gain even more transparency and even more detail into someone’s productivity than you would if you were side by side right.
- How Mayht, a small startup, is taking on the world of speaker goliaths
- Web3 ‘Proof of attendance’ startup raises $10M to mint shared memories as NFTs
- Former SpaceX engineers bring autonomous, electric rail vehicle startup out of stealth
- Roll is a new app letting you subscribe to paywalled creator content
- Rebundle raises $1.4M for plant-based hair extensions
Plaid went in on Cognito
Fintech giant Plaid acquired verification platform Cognito for around $250 million, TC’s Alex Wilhelm reported this week. Plaid has been actively growing from the fabric that helps fintechs communicate, to a patchwork of services built atop those key connections.
Here’s what to know: The deal comes months after Plaid’s own acquisition, which would have seen it be owned by Visa, fell apart and landed it a lofty new valuation. As we spoke about on the latest Equity, Plaid has matured to host a growing startup accelerator, acquire companies and clearly expand its strategic ambitions.
- Microsoft to buy Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion
- Why Microsoft’s $2T+ market cap makes its $68B Activision buy a cheap bet
- Tesla shareholders urge judge to find Musk coerced board to buy SolarCity
- Francisco Partners scoops up bulk of IBM’s Watson Health unit
- 4 ways to navigate a post-acquisition partnership
- Equity, the tech news podcast I co-host alongside Alex Wilhelm and Mary Ann Azevedo, is going live! Join us for a virtual, live recording of our show on February 10th — tickets are free, puns will come at the cost of our producers’ sanity.
Across the week
Seen on TechCrunch
Seen on TechCrunch+
Until next time,
Get in, nerds, we’re going to the metaverse
Hello friends, I hope you are well and warm and healthy and happy and good. If not, some of those things. If you are none, well there’s a reason we invented ice cream.
In good news I have a few tasty nuggets for you this fine Saturday. We’re talking the metaverse, a venture capital story that I’ve watched from its genesis, and a funding round for a very cool startup that I accidentally blanked this week, so we’re talking about it here. Ready? Let’s have some fun.
The most fun that I had this week was a visit to Decentraland. In short, I was in edit and trying to distract myself so that I wouldn’t bother the editing team while they worked, so I fired up the social-crypto environment – metaverse, in other words – and went for a tour. Rocking a mohawk and some pretty cool pants I managed to get lost, visit an NFT gallery, and fail to gain access to an arena.
Look, the metaverse as it exists today looks a lot like Runescape. That’s not that big a diss, given the sheer historical footprint that the online RPG has built for itself. But what I don’t really need is a less featured MMORPG that includes, oddly, a more financial angle than I tend to like in my games.
I am neutral at the moment, and open to the metaverse becoming sufficiently cool that I log in daily. But today it seems that some Web 2.0 properties that include community creation and social interaction are superior to what we’ve yet seen from the crypto team.
Amplify’s newest general partner
Roughly 1,000 years ago, a startup named Mattermark hired me to build an independent news room for their company. It was a great learning experience, frankly, and had the added edge of introducing me to some lifetime friends. Kevin Liu now of TechStars, for example.
Sarah Catanzaro was another standout from the Mattermark team. Her work on the company’s data team was later translated into work in venture, first at Canvas Ventures, and later Amplify Partners. Amplify, for reference, last announced a fund in late 2020 worth $275 million. Given that timeframe, I expect the group to announce a new capital vehicle in short order.
At Amplify, Catanzaro went from principal, to partner, to, most recently, general partner. Her journey from the lowest ranks of the VC world to its top-tier has been enjoyable to watch. And, she told TechCrunch during a call the other week, she’s the first woman to reach her level at Amplify. I highlight that to remind myself that promotions in the yet-cottage industry of venture capital are unlike startup level gains in their pace.
Regardless, Catanzaro told us something that I wanted to write down here, so that we can circle back to it later on. We discussed her firm’s investment approach, check size targets, and how often they enter companies at seed versus Series A maturity levels. Per the newly minted GP, Series A rounds have gotten much bigger without a commensurate decrease in risk. This is something that I have had as a hunch for some time, but hadn’t heard someone say out loud before.
This means that Series A risk, from a venture perspective, is going up as more capital is put to work at the startup stage. The math could work out in the end, provided that enough mega-exits are made in the coming years. But with the market in free-fall, and Concern now getting more column inches than Unbridled Enthusiasm, well, I wonder a bit.
The pride of Rhode Island
Living as I do in the Ocean State, I am slightly afield from the best-known technology hubs in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that fascinating tech companies are being built here in my small state. TechCrunch has spilt ink, to pick an example, on Pangea, a startup founded in Providence that is building a freelance labor marketplace for college kids.
Another startup in Lil Rhody is The Wanderlust Group, which has built Dockwa, a software platform for marinas and boaters. In short, the world of managing boat slip reservations was stuck floating in the world of pen and paper, and Wanderlust decided to to modernize it through software.
We last touched on the company in 2020 when it raised $14.2 million. At that time, CEO Mike Melillo told TechCrunch that his company had merely been on the hunt for $7 million, a figure that it doubled.
So I was not surprised to hear from the company recently that it has raised again. This time Wanderlust has raised a $30 million Series C at a $150 million pre-money valuation. The funding event was led by Thursday Ventures.
Happily for you and I, Wanderlust was willing to share ARR growth for 2021, which came in at 71%. More fun, after moving to a four-day workweek, the company saw its ARR expand 100% from June 2020 to June 2021; there’s a real datapoint for one of the more interesting labor experiments I am tracking in startup-land.
But most interesting from the company is that it’s building a fund. Not another corporate venture capital fund, but something else. Called Wanderfund, the company is funding the vehicle with $300,000 this year for what it describes as “environmental causes at the national and local level.” It’s starting, in part, with putting money in its local Boys & Girls Club to help kids get out of the house and into nature.
The company is building a Dockwa-like product for camping, so the “go outside” theme is pretty core to what the aptly named Wanderlust Group is building.
Miscellania and Various
- The Acorns SPAC deal is off, which caught our eye. It’s not a huge shock given how poor some SPACs have performed post-combination, but we had honestly been looking forward to Acorns as a public company.
- Acorns S-1, please.
- And the Robinhood experiment with making the financial market more open to regular folks through IPO access and corporate democracy has good sides, and sharper edges worth keeping in mind.
Ok that’s enough for now. Chat you all next week!
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