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Twig takes $35M to turn stuff you own into a way to pay

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Twig takes $35M to turn stuff you own into a way to pay

Twig, a London-based fintech targeting Gen Z and younger Millennial consumers with an e-money account that gives them instant cash-outs on fashion and electronics they want to sell, has closed a $35 million Series A round of funding.

The investment is led by UK-based fintech specialist, Fasanara Capital, with additional backing from a number of undisclosed strategic investors which Twig says include current and former executives from LVMH, Valentino and Goldman Sachs, among others.

The startup was only founded in mid 2020 — launching its service in the UK last July — but it touts rapid domestic growth (100,000+ monthly downloads of its apps; reaching sixth position in the iOS App Store’s top finance apps); and is already gearing up for international expansion.

The Series A is pegged for launching in the US (slated for Q1 this year) and the EU (Q2; where it’s eyeing Italy, France and Germany for starters), as well as expanding the product’s capabilities and feature-set with a focus on the buzz around Web3 and digital collectables.

For now, Twig accounts are only available in the UK. Founder and CEO Geri Cupi tells TechCrunch it has around 250,000 users at this stage.

He adds that the typical user is a 22-year-old, recently graduated professional female — perhaps with a bunch of stuff in her wardrobe that she’s outgrown and would be happy to resell.

Growth via user referrals looks likely to have helped fuel its early rise, given Twig charges users a £1 transfer fee for users to send money to a third party account but there’s no fee if you transfer from one Twig account to another.

It’s also worth noting that despite having a marketing slogan which paints itself as “your bank of things”, Twig is not actually a bank; rather a Twig account is an “e-money account” — so there are key regulatory differences (such as Twig accounts not being covered by the UK’s deposit guarantee scheme).

Not being a full fat bank means the startup can scale faster into new markets, with lighter regulatory requirements on the service than if it needed to obtain a banking licence. For now it’s not in a hurry to turn into an actual bank, per Cupi.

In earlier decades, long before the Internet- and open banking-fuelled fintech boom, legacy banks would pitch to get a new crop of school leavers signed up by offering freebies — like bags, stationery, music or other offers. Now fintech startups compete to offer the most appealing feature mix to net a target youth demographic.

But it’s fair to say that getting money into accounts remains a key aim.

That said, Twig is applying for B Corp certification which emphasizes social purpose and environmental performance, as well as transparency and accountability — Cupi says it’s in the final stage of the application; it has pending status currently and he anticipates getting full status in Q1 — while its PR pushes claims of sustainability and circularity, given that it’s plugging users into selling (rather than binning) their branded goods.

Its website also talks up its use of carbon offsetting and other initiatives to shrink environmental impact.

Thing is, in order for humanity to avert climate catastrophe, major reductions in global CO2 emissions are required — so, essentially, less consumption overall. Which does call into question the credibility of claims of ‘sustainability’ being made to stretch around a concept of resale that risks fuelling increased consumption via instant valuations and cash outs, as Twig offers.

Selling a currently owned thing to free up cash might encourage the consumer to splash out and buy more new things than they otherwise would if they had held onto the original item for longer. Or, to put it another way, circularity needs to work hand in hand with longevity if it’s to shrink consumption and actually reduce CO2 emissions. And it’s not clear that reducing friction involved in reselling will lead to consumers buying less overall. On the contrary; it may do the opposite.

So that’s one potential wrinkle in Twig’s sustainability pitch.

However when we put this conundrum to Cupi he neatly irons it out — deploying a (somewhat circular) argument which states that Twig’s goal of increasing “liquidity” of secondhand things can work for sustainability and support reduced consumption by making more secondhand stuff available to buy — thereby reducing demand for new stuff to be made as more items (re)circulate through this (more vibrant) secondary economy.

“Essentially our core business is we enable consumers to get paid for their old items and in the process we give a new life to their items — and this increases supply in the secondary market at least,” he says. “The demand in the secondary market has been growing and growing. The reason we can afford just to be on the supply side of the market is there is such a bigger need for extra supply right now in the market. And when consumers get hat extra cash it doesn’t mean they’re going to use it to buy more things.

“This is from what we’ve seen from our users. Typically from the funds that are being transferred to Twig we see that roughly 42% of them get used for new experiences — that might be travelling, it might be… experience-led — so it doesn’t mean that if you increase liquidity you necessarily increase consumerization of things that have a negative impact on the environment. And that’s what we’ve been seeing so far.”

Cupi condenses Twig’s business to a very simple pitch: “We tokenize assets.”

“The way Twig works is you can upload — let’s say a Gucci Marmont handbag — on the platform. And what Twig does is it tokenizes that asset and offers you a price for it,” he explains.

“Our goal is to make this available externally as well. In that scenario blockchain becomes useful… We want to increase the liquidity of this asset and make it very easy for consumers to trade the physical goods for virtual goods and use the virtual goods to buy physical goods or experiences.

“So we just want to make it much easier for them to trade, essentially.”

Cupi has a background in blockchain and the circular economy — which has included, back in 2018, selling a denim upcycling business to Levi’s Albania.

Physical items that resell well include fashion from brands like Nike, Gucci, Chanel, Hermes and other luxury makers, according to a Twig white paper — which talks about “redefining the future of ownership” and “empowering Gen Z to live a circular lifestyle”.

Apple electronics also hold their value well on the secondhand market, per Cupi — who notes that after Twig added electronics to the secondhand items it’ll buy, expanding out from buying fashion cast offs, its demographic shifted from over 90% female to around 70:30 female to male.

Twig takes care of the resale of pre-owned items for its users — providing them with an instant valuation and (potentially) instant cash to spend on whatever they like if it’s happy to buy the stuff they’re selling. (It has a pretty specific list of what it will and won’t buy.)

Shipping the goods to Twig is free for the user — so by using its service they essentially skip the hassle and risk associated with manually selling their stuff on a second hand marketplace like Vinted or Depop. (Albeit, they may get less than if they sold the items themselves.)

If an item fails a quality check once it arrives at Twig’s warehouse the user is charged a fee to return it to them (and presumably any instant payment they got for it is also reversed). While if Twig ends up being unable to sell an item it says it donates the goods to charity rather than binning them to avoid sending stuff to landfill because that’s bad for the environment.

Cupi says it’s in a growth-focused phase at present so is not seeking to make chunky margin on resales.

The value it’ll offer for an item varies, depending on various dynamic factors — its white paper notes that it uses a “market-based pricing algorithm” to analyze 100M+ products on the secondary market to provide “representative resale values for brands, item categories and market segments”.

Core to its premise is that factoring in resale value changes the concept of total cost of ownership for the consumer — which may have the power to shift buying patterns (it could, for example, encourage consumers to opt for high end fashion to get value longevity over environmentally ruinous and low resale value fast fashion, say).

Combining bank-like functionality — Twig accounts come with a Twig Visa debit card and include capabilities like the ability to make domestic and international money transfers — with a baked in secondhand goods resale service is a pitch tailor-made for the target Gen Z and younger Millennial demographic which has shown a keen and growing interest in both the thrift and sustainability of secondhand marketplaces.

Twig’s target demographic also explains its marketing being heavy on talk of environmental friendliness via circularity. (“Twig makes it easier and empowers you to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle,” is one claim on its retro-graphic-heavy website.)

Gen Z especially has been dubbed the sustainability generation — with these young consumers prioritizing “usage of goods over ownership”, as Twig’s white paper puts it.

So reimagining the function of a bank as an arbiter and exchange of resale value — enabling consumers to turn all sorts of stuff into, essentially, quasi-currency to pay for other things they want to have or do (a sort of high tech reinvention of barter if you like) — rather than as a literal store of financial value starts to look pretty interesting.

There’s another sustainability wrinkle to tackle, though — given how thoroughly blockchain is baked into what Twig’s doing.

While its tech has been built on blockchain from the start you’d be hard pressed to notice from the user-facing descriptions on its website. But its plan for the Series A risks throwing its Gen Z-friendly eco-sounding marketing right out of whack — as its PR seeks to tap into the raging Web3 hype, with the launch of what it describes as “a first-of-its-kind Web 3.0 green payment infrastructure”.

This forthcoming functionality will enable users to “tokenize” real world assets and “make them tradeable in seconds”, its release goes on, adding that: Twig will enable digital and physical items to be monetized and traded in new ways. Such an approach will allow users to trade-in goods at the checkout page and buy crypto currencies as well as NFTs by trading-in their clothes or electronics.”

Quite how encouraging the trading of crypto and NFTs can be spun as “green” is an interesting question to ponder.

After all the energy costs of crypto can look like an extinction level event, in and of themselves.

For example, a study last year by Cambridge University suggested that just one cryptocurrency — Bitcoin — consumed more energy annually than the entire country of Argentina.

Another piece of research, from March last year, suggested Bitcoin consumed as much energy as Norway — with predictions that its carbon footprint would soon be akin to the emissions generated by the entire metropolitan area of London.

In short, the infamous inefficiency of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies — certainly those that require proof of work to validate transactions — looks anything but sustainable.

There’s even more wasteful energy usage being attached to blockchains too: Aka the rise of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) which involve — and further encourage — the use of energy-intensive transactions by layering the trading of digital collectables atop blockchains.

The current hype around NFTs (as fashion/status symbols) combined with the retail trading of these digital assets — and the suggestion that hyper quick money can be made by burning energy to shift collectable pixels — pours yet more fuel on this energy bonfire.

Last year an analysis by a digital artist suggested that an average NFT could have a carbon footprint equivalent to a month’s worth of electricity usage for a person living in the EU. So, again, it’s hard to conceive of a way to spin features that encourage users to get busy tokenizing and trading their stuff — and/or digital collectables — as, in any shape or form, “green”.

Once again, Cupi is not phased by this counter argument, though.

Firstly he says that the blockchain infrastructure Twig has been built on is more energy efficient than some other blockchains.

“Blockchain itself is not bad for the environment as a technology — there’s different applications of it,” he argues. “In our case the blockchain that we built on top of — it’s Hyperledger Sawtooth — the energy usage is very, very small compared to the other solutions out there.

“So we try to minimize the usage of energy intensive solutions.”

He also specifies that Twig is calculating its internal energy usage to try to quantify its environmental impact and — at a minimum — it’s doing carbon offsetting to counteract this.

He says it is also supporting projects that are seeking to sequester/remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Although how viable/credible the specific projects are is a whole other matter.

While Twig may be seeking to minimize/offset its own energy usage/carbon footprint, the bigger potential environmental impact is likely to be from secondary (for want of a better word) usage — aka, any consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions that Twig’s users and suppliers generate as a result of what its platform enables them to do.

Calculating those linked but indirect impacts — sometimes called ‘Scope 3′ emissions, in sustainability reporting terms — is much harder than doing an internal audit of a business’ direct energy usage. Yet Scope 3 emissions also tend to comprise the biggest chunk of an organization’s carbon footprint. So you can’t just wish all those connected transactions, emissions and effects away.

Twig is clearly trying to tackle some of this — by doing carbon offsetting to cover the shipping of goods, for example. And its ambition to gain B Corp status looks laudable.

But it’s a lot harder to predict what sort of energy costs its platform may ultimately end up generating — based on the consumer demands and trends it might feed and/or drain.

By encouraging users to buy crypto and get into trading NFTs it’s clear there will be associated energy costs. And there is a risk that such intensive energy costs could end up erasing potential environmental gains (if Twig is able to turn increased liquidity of secondhand goods into a net reduction in manufacturing of new items via reduced demand from consumers to buy new).

But it’s also possible that such a radical reimagining of what can be used to make a payment — all sorts of items/things/stuff; in theory a consumer may not need to ever spend actual money in a world of tokenized value — could lead to substantial shifts in consumption that can actually move the needle on circularity. And move our societies away from the vicious circle of throwaway consumption that’s characterized so many decades of capitalism.

Put another way, if the things we have can be relied upon to more predictably sustain their value for resale — thanks to the help of blockchain-based tokenization (which can support authentication to combat fakes) and more stable valuations (based on knowing the full ownership history via a distributed ledger infrastructure) — consumers may be nudged to take better care of the stuff they have in order to preserve its longevity for better resale, meaning the world’s industries won’t need to make half so many things in the first place — lifting crippling systemic pressure on planetary resources.

It’s certainly a thought.

De-emphasizing money by making it much easier to make payments by exchanging all sorts of things might be exactly the kicker we need to rework how we think about value, ownership and wealth. And, indeed, planetary resources.

Here’s Cupi again: “Instead of using your own cash to buy NFTs you can use things that you have at home and don’t use anymore — for instance you might have an old iPhone that you don’t use anymore and you can trade that for an NFT or you can trade that for some cryptocurrency or you can use that to buy an experience — you can use that to buy a trip to New York or you can use that to pay for your next vocational course… So the whole purpose of Twig is to increase liquidity in the market and — essentially — to make it very easy for people to use assets that they don’t use anymore and give them a second life.

“That way our ethos is you can both do good to your wallet and to the Earth.”

The vision for Twig is therefore to turn itself into a payments platform — but one that translates physical goods into payments on behalf of its users/customers.

“At the moment Twig is just a b2c platform — but it’s going to become a b2b2c platform. So it will be connected as a payment gateway of different providers,” he says, noting that it has inked agreements with “a couple of big merchants” to be plugged into its infrastructure (he’s not disclosing which retailers as yet).

“What we’re trying to do — essentially — is to reinvent the definition of wealth,” Cupi adds, discussing how he sees the notion of money evolving. “So if everything that you own can be treated as money your perception of wealth also changes.

“The old definition of wealth is the value of your largest asset — the value of your house, the value of your car… But you don’t see as part of your wealth — typically — the value of your wardrobe, for instance. This is what we’re trying to change. And in that way if everything has instant liquidity you can treat your things as cash. It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s cash — or a Gucci Marmont handbag. If you want to buy something in pounds it’s then the same.”

So if Twig gets its way the future of payments might get a whole lot more visual and physical — maybe you’ll be buying a secondhand iPhone by dragging and dropping an NFT you minted into the ecommerce payment window.

Or posting off a pair of limited edition Nikes to score that sweet Spring city break you’ve been looking forward to.

Or, er, buying a chunk of prime real estate with some prize pieces of diamond-encrusted jewellery…

While younger consumers may already be comfortable with a world of fairly commoditized value tradable stuff, what about older consumers? Does Cupi reckon Boomers or Gen X can be convinced to start making payments by parting with things they’ve ploughed their cash into?

Are first edition signed books and prize vinyl pressings going to end up folded into the future payment mix?

“To be honest I don’t know the answer to that,” he says. “At the moment we’re seeing our product, Gen Z reacts very well to it. And also young Millennials — so twentysomethings… that’s what we’re seeing — and in the UK. It might be a different picture once we go to other markets as well.”

 

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This Week in Apps: Commission battles, Twitter NFTs and Epic’s appeal begins

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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

Top Stories

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.

Epic’s Opening Brief by TechCrunch on Scribd

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

Image Credits: Twitter

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).

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • 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.

Platforms: Google

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.”

E-commerce/Food delivery

  • 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.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Fintech

  • 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.

Social

  • 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.

Image Credits: Instagram

  • 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.

Messaging

  • 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.

Image Credits: Meta

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.

Gaming

Image Credits: Netflix

  • 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.

Productivity/Utilities 

  • 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

Indonesia-based startup BukuKas, which has now rebranded as Lummo, raised $80 million in Series C funding led by Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital India. The company offers two apps, an e-commerce enabler solutions LummoShop (previously Tokko) and bookkeeping app BukuKas. The company has 300 employees and focuses on the SMB market.

African mobile games publisher Carry1st raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). The round marks a16z’s first investment in an African-headquartered company. The three-year-old startup has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st launched in Africa. Other partners include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel.

Indian startup INDmoney raised $75 million in Series D funding for its super finance app that aims to be a one-stop shop for investments and expenses. Tiger Global, Steadview Capital and Dragoneer co-led the round, valuing the startup at $600 million.

InFlow, a science-backed app to address ADHD symptoms using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) raised $2.3 million in seed funding led by Hoxton Ventures. The app offers users short exercises and challenges aimed at helping them create healthy habits, and is being downloaded 15,000 times per month, the company said.

Istanbul-based Spyke Games, a mobile games startup, raised $55 million in a seed round from Griffin Gaming Partners, a VC focused on gaming startups. Spyke aims to combine casual gaming with multiplayer functionality and other social elements. Its first title, Royal Riches, is launching globally this month after a more limited release.

Istanbul-based Dream Games, the casual gaming developer behind top-grossing game Royal Match, raised $255 million in Series C funding led by Index Ventures. The round values the startup at $2.75 billion, up from $1 billion six months ago.

Appcues, a startup developing technology for better user onboarding across platforms, including mobile, raised $32.1 million in Series B funding. The company offers analytics and no-code tools to fix onboarding issues.

Public.com acquired HyperCharts, a data visualization platform that shows financial and biz metrics for publicly traded companies. Deal terms were not disclosed.

Big Health, the maker of cognitive-behavioral therapy apps Sleepio and Daylight, raised $75 million in Series C funding led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 to launch six new digital mental health therapeutics by 2024. To date, the company has more than 10 million users and has raised just under $130 million from investors.

Global spam call blocking platform Truecaller acquired Israeli company CallHero, which had developed a digital assistant, SmartAgent, which helps its users verify and identify calls. Following the close of the $4.5 million deal (cash + stock), Truecaller will integrate CallHero’s technology into its own platform.

Western & Southern Financial Group acquired Fabric Technologies Inc. and its subsidiary, Fabric Insurance Agency LLC, a digital life insurance platform and mobile app that has over 60,000 families as customers, and has placed billions in life insurance coverage.

 

Source: Tech

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Data wants to disrupt your deal flow (again)

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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:

Image Credits: tomertu (opens in a new window) / Shutterstock (opens in a new window) (Image has been modified)

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.

Honorable mentions:

Image Credits: Mawardi Bahar / EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

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.

Cuffing season:

Image Credits: Manuta / Getty Images

Around TechCrunch

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

The first big tech antitrust bill lumbers toward reality

A hard rain is coming for UK’s crypto boom

How many unicorns are just piñatas filled with expired candy?

Open source developers, who work for free, are discovering they have power

Crypto.com CEO admits hundreds of customer accounts were hacked

Peloton CEO acknowledges corrective actions, denies ‘halting all production’ of bikes and treadmills

Seen on TechCrunch+

Will quantum computing remain the domain of the specialist VC?

Dear Sophie: How do I successfully expand my company to the US?

How to build a product advisory council for your startup

5 areas where VCs can play an outsized role in addressing climate change

Until next time,

N

Source: Tech

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Get in, nerds, we’re going to the metaverse

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Welcome to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by the daily TechCrunch+ column where it gets its name. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

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!

Alex

Source: Tech

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