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SF’s Off the Grid food truck festival refocuses on emergency response and services

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Off the Grid is a mainstay of the San Francisco culinary scene. The event company, founded by Matt Cohen in 2010, created neighborhood pop-up festivals centered around entrepreneurial food trucks. It was part of the vanguard in the food truck movement, designed to open a path to restaurants for a new generation of ambitious and diverse chefs with inventive ideas around food and the people who enjoy it.

Off the Grid’s food festival in Fort Mason, San Francisco. Image Credits: Off the Grid

Over the years, the festivals grew to extreme popularity (I remember more than once trying to go and realizing that others have way more patience to wait in line than I do), and Off the Grid itself increasingly expanded into catering for events. “[I] built my career on the idea that food is a source of comfort at all different times,” Cohen said.

Well, we do live in different times, don’t we?

The first inklings of a change for the company started back in 2017, when wildfires like those in Sonoma and Napa swept across California. Frontline firefighters, operating at times in remote areas of the state, were often forced to eat what the military dubs MREs, or Meals Ready-to-Eat.

Cohen and his team saw an opportunity. “For a long time in emergency response, people thought about food as calories, not necessarily about allowing local food businesses to sustain themselves,” he said. He noted that MREs are almost universally bland, and that the meals are typically ordered in bulk from outside the state. Could Off the Grid connect the dots by having local restauranteurs cook meals while Off the Grid supplied the logistics to get them to the frontlines?

Those 2017 fires were the first time the company forayed into helping first responders and victims, and Off the Grid along with its restauranteurs supplied an estimated 20,000 people with meals that year. “[We] got an understanding of the market landscape in emergency response,” he said.

Those first trials were accelerated dramatically in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across California and the rest of the world. Suddenly, delivered meals were the only means for restaurants to connect to their communities, and the frontlines were no longer in the foothills where the fires were, but everywhere all the time.

Off the Grid worked with its restaurant partners to scale up food delivery to frontline workers and victims during the pandemic and wildfire season last year. Image Credits: Off the Grid

Off the Grid doubled down on its pivot, seeing an opportunity to provide solace to people at a time of terrible tragedy. “People don’t think of food being delivered during emergencies as delicious, [since] the reality is that people are happy to just have anything to eat,” Cohen said. “But then, delicious food can be a real comfort when the rest of their lives are disrupted.” Over the course of the pandemic, Off the Grid facilitated the delivery of 1.3 million meals with a “rotating list of options, so people can constantly be delighted,” targeting customers ranging from temporary shelters to immunocompromised consumers residing at home.

In addition to giving customers delectable options, the model also helped sustain the local food scene that Off the Grid had spent years growing through its programs. Cohen said the company sees these links as a key tool for building resilient communities, particularly as climate change continues to ravage California and much of the rest of the world.

Last year’s punctuated growth forced the startup to scale up quickly. Food safety and health regulations vary from county to county, which meant that as it delivered meals throughout the greater Bay Area and the rest of California, Off the Grid had to develop scalable processes to handle the paperwork and logistics. That technology is now forming the basis for the next phase of its business as Off the Grid enters its second decade in operation.

“[There are a lot of] unique aspects of food service, in particular licensing and permitting and insurance, and the less sexy things that allow us to operate,” Cohen said. With those logistics increasingly systematized, 2021 is going to be an even more ambitious year for the company.

Off the Grid CEO and founder Matt Cohen. Image Credits: Off the Grid

“We actually have been working with the state and the Red Cross to identify 39 counties in the state of California that are at relatively high risk for fire danger, and on-board 200 restaurants … so that in the event there is a fire, we can access them and activate them,” he said. Today, roughly half the company is focused on its emergency response programs.

That doesn’t mean its food festivals will go away. It has reopened its smaller venues in places like Levi’s Plaza near SF’s Coit Tower in North Beach, and it intends to restart its larger festivals as safety guidelines allow. But emergency response is a new, enduring mission for this mission-oriented company. “We’re definitely going to continue to do this as long as there is a need,” Cohen said.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/14/off-the-grid-emergency-response/

Startups

Unmuted founder Max van den Ingh on success beyond the metrics

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There is no authoritative playbook for marketing these days. Every company must find its own voice, and as it grows and evolves, its marketing needs to evolve as well.

Relying on proven tactics and measurable metrics isn’t enough — today, the most effective marketers constantly study and learn from innovative approaches while exploring new avenues.

This is where Unmuted comes in. A growth marketing agency based in Amsterdam, this company focuses on LinkedIn marketing, content marketing, marketing automation and email marketing. Before starting Unmuted, Max van den Ingh was head of growth and product at MisterGreen, an electric vehicle leasing company, and he also served as head of growth marketing at ShopPop, a chat-based marketing platform.

Van den Ingh, who also serves as a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University, was recommended to TechCrunch through the TechCrunch Experts project. We’re currently on the lookout for top-tier growth marketers that you can recommend to other startups. If you know of one, let us know by filling out this quick survey.

Van den Ingh spoke with us about his “modern” approach to marketing, setting realistic goals, how startups had to shift during the pandemic and more.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You call Unmuted a “modern” growth marketing agency. What do you do that makes your approach to marketing modern?

The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. At Unmuted, our clients don’t come to us to have their ideas executed; they come to us for our process. In a way, we’ve productized a growth marketing process that generates ideas for our clients. They find immense value in that process.

Depending on the customer’s team size and resources, we either guide them during execution or execute autonomously and report back. This process-based service model is, in our opinion, the only way to grow a business in a sustainable way.

“The way we help our clients is fundamentally different from how most traditional marketing agencies operate. “

In a practical sense, this is what that process boils down to: We take all that we’ve learned from fast-growing companies and apply these principles to our clients’ businesses. Typically we focus on what we call “innovative companies” — whether that’s because they have a SaaS offering or they’re an innovator within a traditional industry doesn’t really matter. The process we’ve designed works for B2B startups, scaleups and SMBs. That last category can benefit greatly from the way we work.

Our role, then, is threefold: We come up with strategies that we carry out by experimenting with several proven marketing tactics based on our extensive in-house knowledge and experience. This relieves our clients’ marketing teams of potentially stifling tunnel vision.

Our growth program typically unfolds in three stages as well, which we call the Foundation, Acceleration and Transformation stages. In the Foundation stage, we set up the fundamentals based on an extensive audit of the client’s business, and start out with our initial experiments. In the Acceleration stage, we scale the experiments that have shown promising early results. Finally, in the Transformation stage, we teach our clients how to continue growing their business themselves. If necessary, we stick around in a consulting role.

Your work at MisterGreen helped it grow about 10x. How much can a client expect to grow when working with you? How do you help clients set realistic goals?

Setting goals is always a challenge, especially when it comes to marketing. Why should you aim for a certain number? Why not aim higher, or lower, for that matter? At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we perform a series of exercises together. This helps us get a clear picture of where the client is now and where they could be when we’ve optimized marketing.

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Next, instead of fixed numbers, like a specific amount of new customers in a given period, we focus on growth levers, like month-over-month growth in certain conversion or activation areas. Focusing on growth levers makes our work more actionable.

We then construct a framework as part of our growth program that also allows room for certain beliefs a company has. I feel this “belief system” is truly essential to any growth marketing strategy. If you don’t allow room for gut feeling activities and only focus on data-driven projects, you will end up only working on things you can measure. We believe that growth marketing will become more effective when you also invest time and effort in channels and spaces you can’t necessarily measure.

When people talk about your solution on WhatsApp or during podcast episodes, that’s amazing and will effectively influence revenue, but sometimes there’s just no way to track these activities.

Finally, we don’t make any guarantees when it comes to growth results. That’s not how it works. We’ll always aim to maximize results as part of the process. Diligent focus on continuous improvement and optimization comes first. Results will automatically follow afterward.

For instance, we recently helped a B2B SaaS platform increase demo requests by 350%. But this wasn’t the goal at all. The process we were following was focused on optimizing every aspect of the demo request journey, from acquiring visitors to optimizing the demo page and more. Every experiment we ran increased the demo request metric to some extent. After six months, you start seeing these compounded results.

You were also the head of growth at ShopPop. How did that experience shape the way you help your clients?

Working for a fast-growing B2B SaaS company with a self-serve product taught me quite a few things. For starters, the importance of getting a really clear understanding of what sustainable growth looks like. Especially in growth marketing, there are a lot of things you can do to gain short-term results. But this doesn’t necessarily help, because you might be acquiring customers that you lose in the long run.

For example, running aggressive advertising campaigns in the early stages to acquire new users in sectors that you know won’t benefit considerably from your product. This type of superficial growth will come back in the form of churn sooner rather than later, and simply isn’t sustainable.

At Unmuted, when we start working with a new client, we put a lot of time and effort into understanding their best type of customers, what their problems are, and why that’s the case. Only then do we start looking at how to solve those problems with our client’s products or services.

You’re a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University and do speaking engagements as well. What do you hope people take away from your talks?

When I stand in front of a crowd during a speaking engagement, I always share stories about times where I took a pragmatic approach and did things differently. Growth can come in different shapes and forms, and although it often seems simple, it’s never easy. People, and especially management, have to understand that growth takes time and that you need failures to learn.

You need to have conversations to be able to learn and iterate. It’s better to have the wrong type of conversations than not having any at all. Without feedback, there’s no way to grow. And while an eagerness to learn comes naturally to most marketers, this isn’t necessarily the case for your average business person. If I can inspire audiences with my approach to growing by learning, I think that’s a great takeaway.

How have you seen startups change during the pandemic?

A lot of startups have been forced to change their approaches during the pandemic. Some have adapted successfully, while others are now stuck. I experienced it personally when I was still working at ShopPop, where we were focused on the music industry when the pandemic hit.

Music industry clients weren’t buying, for obvious reasons, so we had to pivot somehow. We ended up moving into e-commerce, which was, and still is, booming.

As the pandemic continues, what trends are you seeing in growth marketing?

The biggest trend I’m currently seeing is in the role marketing departments play. These have never been as important as they are now. Digital marketers, especially, are often the ones that come up with new ideas as to how a company can grow online. Nobody will know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, but in the meantime, every company is trying to adapt and find new ways to connect with their customers in unique, meaningful ways.

Logically, we’re seeing a surge in demand for online events like webinars and virtual summits. But everybody is doing those. So where can you carve out your own thing that becomes recognizable for your brand? Discovering these new channels and approaches — I think that should be the role of marketing.

How have you seen the startup market develop while working in growth?

The development of the startup market has been most noticeable in how new standards are being set. For example, startups have always been characterized as fast movers, but remote working and the rise of highly collaborative tools have further increased the speed at which startups operate. The whole industry transformed from speedboats into rocket ships. Talent became much more accessible, and through that internal cultures became more diverse and more resilient.

You can always depend on startups adopting new ways of working early on. They need to differentiate in order to survive, and a novel approach can be the one thing that makes them stand out from the crowd.

You have to understand that working at a startup often feels like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. And that’s also the moment you’re at your most creative. I think this is also how growth marketing as a whole came about. In competitive markets, people have to fight for their right to exist. Marketing is often a way to radically differentiate. When people become really good at that, set new standards and raise the bar, the market develops as a whole.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

It’s been said many times before, but even today, most startups don’t learn quickly and deeply enough. Founders often have an amazing idea and vision of how things will play out. But how much field experience does this person really have? Enough to be able to foresee the future?

Usually, for startups, short-term growth goes well — they get some initial traction from their network, but then the next phase kicks in. Especially when there’s an investment involved, putting more pressure on the commercial side of things, this next phase will mean encountering a lot of hurdles.

When a company doesn’t find a strong enough product-market fit and doesn’t apply what its learned early on, things will get extremely tough. In this phase, a lot of research and experimentation is necessary. If the founding team isn’t up for this and they put their heads in the sand, the startup will deteriorate quickly.

On the other side: What are startups doing better now than ever before?

The best thing a startup can do, and I’m seeing it happen more and more, is investing in community early on. When I was leading growth at MisterGreen, we created a community for the first thousand Tesla Model 3 owners in the Netherlands. Everyone wanted to be a part of this founding tribe, learn from each other, get insights and so on.

This group turned out to be our most effective marketing tool. Word-of-mouth went through the roof. We had all of these people talking about our community at birthday parties, in their office, you name it. This is a great example of investing in marketing you can’t really measure, but which you do strongly believe in.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/unmuted-founder-max-van-den-ingh-on-success-beyond-the-metrics/

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Startups

Japanese sneaker platform SODA raises $56.4M, accquires rival Monokabu

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Just half a year after leading SODA’s Series B, SoftBank Ventures Asia is raising its bet on the Tokyo-based sneaker resell platform. The early-stage venture capital arm of SoftBank Group announced today it has returned to lead SODA’s Series C, which currently totals $56.4 million.

Other investors include South Korean sneaker reselling platform KREAM (another SoftBank Ventures Asia portfolio company), Altos Ventures and JAFCO.

Launched in 2018, SODA runs SNKRDUNK, one of Japan’s largest sneaker reselling platforms with about 2.5 million monthly users. Along with its new funding, SODA announced it has acquired rival Monokabu. SODA said that the deal means its share of Japan’s sneaker resale industry is now 80%, making it the market leader by far.

A SoftBank Ventures Asia spokesperson told TechCrunch the fund decided to invest in SODA again because the company’s growth has increased rapidly since its previous funding. SODA’s post-money valuation is now about 24 billion JPY, or about $218 million USD.

Part of SODA’s Series C funding will also be used to expand into other Asian markets, starting with Indonesia and the Philippines next year because both countries have growing e-commerce markets and a large percentage of Generation Zs, an ideal combination for SNKRDUNK.  

The company’s previous funding, its $22 million Series B, was announced in January. At the time, Uchiyama told TechCrunch demand for sneakers remained high despite the pandemic’s economic impact and increased adoption of online shopping also helped drive sales.

SODA claims it hit record sales of $34.7 million in May 2021, growing 900% year-over-year. Despite COVID-19, many sneaker C2C marketplaces, like StockX, have also seen their sales increase.

SNKRDUNK will work closely with KREAM to share knowledge about sneaker authentication, inventory management, logistics and other operations-related areas, with the goal of increasing their share of the Asian sneaker resell market.

In addition to KREAM and SODA, SoftBank Ventures Asia is also an investor in China-based sneaker trading platform Nice.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/japanese-sneaker-platform-soda-raises-56-4m-accquires-rival-monokabu/

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Techcrunch

Twitter shuttering NY, SF offices in response to new CDC guidelines

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Just two weeks after reopening its New York and San Francisco offices, social media giant Twitter said Wednesday that it will be closing those offices “immediately.”

The decision came “after careful consideration of the CDC’s updated guidelines, and in light of current conditions,” a spokesperson said.

“Twitter has made the decision to close our opened offices in New York and San Francisco as well as pause future office reopenings, effective immediately. We’re continuing to closely monitor local conditions and make necessary changes that prioritize the health and safety of our Tweeps,” the spokesperson added.

The company initially just reopened those offices on July 12. It declined to reveal headcount per office.

The CDC this week recommended that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high Covid transmission rates amid concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant.

Earlier today, TechCrunch’s Brian Heater reported that Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the company will require employees to be vaccinated before returning to work on-site. It was part of a larger letter sent to Google/Alphabet staff that also noted the company will be extending its work-from-home policy through October 18, as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to sweep through the global population.

In a message to TechCrunch, Facebook’s VP of People, Lori Goler, confirmed a similar policy for the social media behemoth.

Amazon also responded to TechCrunch’s inquiry on the matter, noting, “We strongly encourage Amazon employees and contractors to be vaccinated as soon as COVID-19 vaccines are available to them.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/twitter-shuttering-ny-sf-offices-in-response-to-new-cdc-guidelines/

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Gaming

Zuckerberg is turning trillion-dollar Facebook into a ‘metaverse’ company, he tells investors

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“I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiative across the company are going to map to that,” Zuckerberg said on the call. “What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”

These comments echoed an interview he gave to The Verge last week, detailing some of the company’s future goals.

The metaverse offers Facebook an opportunity to draw a line between its moonshot efforts and its core business, building a wide-reaching hub that shines on augmented reality and virtual reality platforms but feels just as friendly on mobile and desktop. Zuckerberg’s definition of metaverse is more broad than some others, but comes down to building a version of the web that feels more like an MMO than a collection of web pages.

Facebook Horizon World Builder

Early renders of Facebook’s Horizon platform. Image via Facebook.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Facebook was late to mobile. A decade ago, Facebook’s apps were buggy, crash-prone HTML5 experiences, even as smooth native mobile apps were quickly becoming the standard for major software makers. By 2012, Zuckerberg realized that apps were the future — quickly becoming the present — and the Facebook founder scrambled to turn the company’s attention toward mobile at every level. Facebook doesn’t intend to make the same mistake twice. That philosophy first became abundantly clear when the company bought the industry-leading VR hardware maker Oculus in 2014.

“Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” Zuckerberg said around the time of the two billion dollar acquisition. “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”

Becoming “a metaverse company” is a further evolution of this thinking. For many, Roblox has seemed to be the clearest embodiment of the metaverse today —  a social world where users can jump between virtual experiences while creating their own experiences inside it. It’s notably not a virtual reality experience instead thriving largely on mobile and desktop. Roblox’s vision has resonated with investors, the now-public company is worth more than $45 billion — a fraction of Facebook’s value but more than almost any other games company in the West.

Facebook has been signaling its continued interest in this space. In June they bought a Roblox-like platform called Crayta for an undisclosed sum, and they’ve spent much of the last several years buying up a host of VR-focused game studios.

The company has tried to build its own VR-centric social hubs but most have fallen flat. Facebook’s metaverse-like Horizon platform garnered major headlines when it was announced nearly two years ago, but the company has had little to say during its exceedingly quiet beta period. This week, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth detailed that Gaming VP Vivek Sharma would be taking over the effort under a new metaverse-centric product group led by Instagram’s Vishal Shah.

There’s a very particular distinction in Facebook’s choice of rebranding itself as a “metaverse” company as opposed to an AR/VR one. While some might have seen specialized hardware as essential to a spatial internet, it’s become increasingly clear that users aren’t clamoring to embrace early headsets even as other new gaming platforms greatly accelerate their growth. While the company’s Quest 2 headset has sold much better than its previous devices — according to Facebook which has yet to release any hard sales numbers — it’s unclear whether they truly need a world full of users with Facebook glasses and headsets strapped to their faces in order to embrace this metaverse ideal — or whether that would just be the cherry on top.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/zuckerberg-is-turning-trillion-dollar-facebook-into-a-metaverse-company-he-tells-investors/

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