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This Week in Apps: Apple’s iPhone event, App Annie hit with securities fraud, OpenSea goes mobile

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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 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

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

Apple Event wrap-up

It’s official, new iPhones are here. But everyone is talking about the iPad mini instead.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.)

Apple this week introduced its updated iPhone 13 lineup, which includes iPhone 13 in pretty new shades, an iPhone mini, and the more powerful iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. Consumers may care most about the battery life improvements — 1.5 hours longer on iPhone 13 mini and iPhone 13 Pro; 2.5 hours more on iPhone 13 and Pro Max, compared with their respective iPhone 12 models. Cameras got a decent upgrade, powered by the A15 Bionic, which enables additions like “Cinematic Mode” (a mode that allows you to change focus between subjects). Plus, Pro models can do macro photography and now include support for ProRes video recording at 1080p 30 fps with the 128GB storage option and up to 4K 30 fps with 256GB, 512GB and 1TB storage options. (Yes, there’s a 1TB iPhone now, and no more 64GB models. Hooray!)

Image Credits: Apple

The bigger news in terms of hardware, however, was the iPad mini ($499+), aka the BIG iPhone, which got a significant update. The new device has an 8.3-inch display, front and rear-facing 12-megapixel cameras, 80% faster performance with the A15 Bionic, 40% faster CPU, support for 5G, and it adds a USB-C port and a relocated Touch ID that’s now on the top button. It also now supports Center Stage and Apple Pencil (2nd generation.) It’s also available in new finishes: space gray, pink, purple and starlight.

Apple noted there are more than 1 million apps designed specifically for iPad devices. The full App Store has 2.22 million or more, according to various estimates. A popular and affordable iPad mini could encourage more development beyond the iPhone.

Other announcements included a new standard iPad with spec bumps, a new Apple Watch Series 7 with a slightly bigger screen and fall detection for cyclists, an updated Fitness+ with Pilates and meditation, and a nifty MagSafe Wallet that will track the location where it was separated from your iPhone.

Apple sherlocks Watch keyboard apps

Image Credits: FlickType

Frustrated iOS developer Kosta Eleftheriou, who is already engaging in a legal battle with Apple over money lost to App Store scams and other matters, couldn’t hold back his frustration when he saw Apple announce its new Apple Watch Series 7 would now sport a familiar-looking keyboard. Eleftheriou’s own FlickType keyboard app for Apple Watch was repeatedly rejected from the App Store for months on end, causing a lengthy delay in getting his app to market. The developer also claims to have had conversations with Apple execs about his keyboard app, which he says was once even considered an acquisition target.

Apple’s position on the matter is that it had to remove Eleftheriou’s app due to guidelines it had at the time prohibiting keyboard extensions, which the company had on the books due to what it believed would offer a poor consumer experience on earlier versions of Apple Watch, which had a smaller screen. These guidelines were later dropped once Apple learned of the app’s accessibility functions, which allowed the app to be published.

One question — which would have to either be worked out through the discovery process in court or through some sort of congressional investigation — is how long Apple had a Watch keyboard design on its product roadmap? Was Apple rejecting a third-party Watch keyboard app (and others like it, to be clear) over this purported “poor experience” at a time when Apple was actively designing its own keyboard UI? And how could there be a corporate firewall in place between App Store review activity and the company’s own plans, if Apple was considering an acquisition of FlickType at the time, as the lawsuit alleges?

Eleftheriou has a difficult path ahead of him going up against Apple’s legal team, but he’s more motivated than ever now. “See you in court, @Apple” he tweeted after the Watch reveal.

App Annie charged with securities fraud

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged App Annie, as well as its co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Bertrand Schmitt, with securities fraud. App Annie and Schmitt have agreed to pay over $10 million to settle the fraud charges which are related to “deceptive practices and making material misrepresentations about how App Annie’s alternative data was derived,” the SEC said. The charges have to do with how App Annie used non-aggregated and non-anonymized data to alter its model-generated estimates to be more accurate, while telling trading firms that protections were in place against the misuse of confidential data. (More details and the full complaint can be read here on TechCrunch.)

In response to the bombshell news, one competitor has spoken up. Apptopia co-founder and CEO Jonathan Kay wrote about how his firm took the time to build the company and data estimates “the right way,” which is why some of its estimates in the past hadn’t been accurate. (It wasn’t cheating the system.) This proved to be the better strategy. “We did not take shortcuts to spur breakneck scale; oftentimes founders feel the pressure to do so to meet unrealistic Board, VC or Market expectations. We haven’t and we don’t,” he said.

Meanwhile, Appfigures shared a similar sentiment, adding they were disappointed to hear the news and hoped the actions didn’t erode trust in the industry. “Strict privacy has been one of our founding principles and has served our users and us well for 12 years. We believe the trust of our users is our most valuable asset,” their statement read.

Platforms: Apple

  • The Epic Games/Apple lawsuit will drag on. After last week’s ruling, which will now allow developers to add to iOS apps links to their website and other ways to pay, Epic said it would appeal. The Fortnite maker wanted Apple to be dubbed a monopolist, which would force iOS to be opened up to alternative app stores, like its own, or at least allow side-loading. But the judge said Apple’s success was “not illegal.”
  • Developers were invited to submit their iOS 15, iPadOS 15, tvOS 15 and watchOS 8 apps to the App Store, ahead of the public launch on Monday.
  • Apple introduced new marketing tools for app developers. Developers can now create custom marketing assets, including banners and images, to promote apps across social media and elsewhere. To get started, you select an app and a template, then customize the design and add present messages. The assets will be immediately available in the right sizes and can be shared with short links or codes that direct users to the App Store product page.

Image Credits: Apple

Android Updates

  • A leaked document points toward an Android 12 release date of October 4th. The document informs OEM partners when to stop approving builds for prior versions of Android.
  • Meanwhile, Samsung released an Android 12 beta to Galaxy S21 owners. The beta is for Samsung’s One UI 4, its version of Android, and arrives on September 14 — the same day Apple announced the iPhone 13.
  • Google announced it would port a privacy-focused feature from Android 11 to older phones running Android 6 and higher. The feature automatically restricts apps’ permissions to sensitive phone features, like the storage or camera, if the app hasn’t been used for several months.
  • Google delivered the first five stable Jetpack Wear OS libraries (wear, wear-input, wear-ongoing, wear-phone-interactions and wear-remote-interaction), to help developers build high-quality Wear OS apps. The company recently updated the Android Jetpack Wear OS libraries as well.
  • Google invited users to join its Pixel Superfans group, which was previously kept under wraps. The pilot program provides insider access and a VIP experience, including access to a private Facebook Group, and perks like private Q&As and events, opportunities to share ideas with the Google team, limited-edition swag and more to come.

Augmented Reality

Image Credits: Snap

  • Snapchat launched a new global portal Lens in partnership with Sotheby’s and the Estate of Christo. The Lens, “The Last Christo: Original Works for The Arc de Triomphe,” overlays Snap’s AR onto Christo’s work to give viewers an entirely new experience of the installation. The experience will also come to Snap’s main Camera and the Snap Map early next week.

Fintech

MassMutual will have to pay a $4 million fine as part of a settlement with Massachusetts regulators involving the conduct of former employee Keith Gill, also an online trader who goes by “Roaring Kitty.” Gill was heavily involved with the GameStop meme-stock drama from earlier this year. The stock was a favorite with day traders on Reddit’s WallStreetBets message board. Trading app Robinhood had restricted the trading of this and other meme stocks, leading to a congressional investigation.

Social

Image Credits: Twitter

  • Twitter Super Follows have only generated around $6,000 in the U.S. in the first two weeks the feature has been live across the U.S. and Canada. Canadian in-app revenue was around $600. Some small portion may be attributed to Ticketed Space, so true adoption figures may be even lower. Fewer than 100 creators in the U.S. have been offered access to Super Follows, which is impacting these figures. But all iOS users in these markets are able to subscribe to the participating creators.
  • A Dept. of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement agencies that domestic extremists had used TikTok to recruit people to their causes and share tactical guidance in the lead up the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
  • TikTok blocked content related to the “devious licks” viral challenge which was encouraging students to create havoc at schools by stealing things, including soap dispensers, hand sanitizer, COVID test kits, bathroom sinks and doors, classroom tech and more. As a result, schools across the U.S. have locked down access to bathroom facilities.
  • A Facebook whistleblower has shared a damning set of internal docs with The Wall Street Journal, including how Instagram’s own internal research indicated how the app impacted teenage girls’ mental health over body image, leading them to have, in some cases higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Following the news, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around its internal research.
  • As news of Instagram’s impact on teens leaked, TikTok added more mental health resources of its own, including a “well-being guide” in its Safety Center, a primer on eating disorders, expanded search interventions and opt-in viewing screens on potentially triggering searches.
  • LinkedIn announced a $25 million creator fund ahead of its plans to test a Clubhouse-style audio feature.
  • Snap hired Jacqueline Beauchere, the chief online safety officer at Microsoft, to be its first-ever global head of platform safety. In her role, Beauchere will advise the company’s decisions on policies, guidelines, features and tools focused on safety and well-being.

Messaging

  • The beta version of the Signal for Android app expanded its privacy-focused crypto payments feature first introduced in April. The feature, MobileCoin, was previously only available in the U.K. It’s now offered in Switzerland, France and Germany. The app saw a few other design tweaks as well.
  • WhatsApp launched the first test of a public directory for businesses within its app, starting in São Paulo, Brazil. The feature allows users to find shops and services through a directory in the app, which could then kick off their mobile commerce transactions.
  • A report from The Financial Times (non-paywalled summary here) details how the Telegram app has exploded as a hub for cybercriminals who buy and sell stolen data and hacking tools. One channel featuring data dumps had more than 47,000 subscribers before being shut down.
  • Emarketer reports the number of monthly messaging app users worldwide will rise 6.1%, to 3.09 billion, in 2021. This is a deceleration of growth from 2020, when the number grew nearly 14%, but an increase from a pre-pandemic estimate of 5.5% growth. By 2024, the firm predicts more than three-fourths of internet users will use a mobile messaging app.

Image Credits: eMarketer

Dating

  • Tinder announced it’s rolling out video profiles to more markets across Europe, Asia and Latin America. The feature was first introduced to a handful of countries earlier this year, allowing users to express themselves using video instead of just photos.

Image Credits: Tinder

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Jeffrey Katzenberg’s failed streaming app Quibi settled its lawsuit with interactive video firm Eko, which alleged Quibi had infringed on its patents. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their legal claims, and QBI Holdings LLC, which holds the remaining Quibi assets, will transfer the intellectual property and technology for its “Turnstyle” mobile-video viewing feature to Eko.
  • Clubhouse hired a head of News from NPR, Nina Gregory, to help it build out publisher relationships. Gregory led NPR’s Arts Desk for the last seven years.
  • Apple announced new streaming partners for its upcoming iOS 15 SharePlay feature that allows for co-watching content through FaceTime. At WWDC, Apple said the feature would work with video apps Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max+, ESPN+ Paramount+, Pluto TV, NBA App, Twitch and TikTok. This week Apple said it was adding STARZ, BET+, TV Everywhere Apps from ViacomCBS (MTV, Paramount Network, & Comedy Comedy Central), and Chinese streaming service Youku. On the music side, it’s adding Spotify, TuneIn and SoundCloud, which join Apple Music.
  • Apple’s Shazam app announced it has been used in the iOS Control Center over 1 billion times. The company previously noted it had passed one billion songs being recognized every month in June 2021. Both metrics paint a picture of the massive traction Apple’s first-party apps can gain based on their platform advantage.
  • Celeb-to-fan connections app Cameo adds a new feature, Cameo Calls, that aims to digitize the fan “meet-and-greet” experience. At launch, fans can now connect with over 500 celebs for one-on-one, face-to-face calls by buying a ticket from their phone. The talent sets the pricing, which averages up to $31 minutes per call.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • U.S. mobile casino game spending grew by 16.4% to $4.8 billion during the last 12 months, according to a new Sensor Tower report. The No. 1 title from September 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021 was Coin Master from Moon Active, which generated $650.5 million. This was followed by Bingo Blitz from Playtika, then Slotomania from Playtika.
  • Zynga announced ReVamp, the first “social deception” gaming title on Snapchat. The vampire-themed, multiplayer game is a spin on “Among Us,” as players work to unveil the imposter. The game takes place inside an old mansion where players have to complete renovation tasks, while the vampire players must avoid suspicion.

Productivity

Image Credits: Google

Health & Fitness

  • The FTC warned health apps, like those tracking fitness or menstrual cycles, to notify consumers impacted by data breaches. The Commission voted 3-2 to clarify that health apps were included in the agency’s 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule, which required vendors to notify customers of data breaches.

Travel

  • Downloads of top Travel apps in the U.S. reached 61.4 million on Apple’s App Store and 23.8 million on Google Play in Q2 2021, according to a new report by Sensor Tower. This represented the highest number of quarterly downloads since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Government & Policy

  • Russia was considering fining Google and Apple over their hosting of a tactical voting app from opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but the “Smart Voting” app was removed by both stores. The companies had previously been warned to remove the app over claims of “election interference.” Apple’s upcoming iCloud Private Relay privacy feature also won’t be available in Russia, a support document recently noted in an update.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) said it has opened two investigations into the video-sharing platform TikTok. The first covers how TikTok handles children’s data and whether it complies with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. The DPC will also examine TikTok’s transfers of personal data to China.
  • South Korea fined Google $177 million for blocking Android customization by device makers, saying this was an abuse of its dominant position in the market.
  • Chinese police are using a new fraud prevention app installed on more than 200 million mobile phones to identify and question people who have browsed foreign financial news sites, The FT reported. The police claimed they were working to combat the surge in fraud often carried out by foreign businesses controlled by Chinese and Taiwanese.
  • Tencent and Alibaba said they will open up their apps to competitors, following a meeting with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last week. For eight years, the two companies have split China’s internet in two, The FT reported, replicating each other’s services and even blocking the posting of links in each other’s apps. That will now change in the weeks ahead.

Security & Privacy

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

  • Apple patched a zero-day flaw that was impacting its top devices, including iPhone, iPad, Mac and Watches. Citizen Lab discovered the vulnerability and was credited with the find. The iMessage flaw was actively exploited by Pegasus, a spyware app developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, which gives government customers complete access to a target device, including data, photos, messages and location. The vulnerability was used to hack the iPhones belonging to at least one Bahraini activist.
  • A new Android app, Nahoft, allows Iranians to speak freely by turning up to 1,000 characters of Farsi text into a jumble of random words. The text can then be sent to anyone over other messaging apps, but the recipient has to use Nahoft on their own device to read it. 
  • Apple reportedly threatened to remove Facebook from the App Store over human trafficking concerns following a 2019 BBC report about the matter, The WSJ reported.
  • An untethered iOS 14.5.1 jailbreak was demoed working on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, in the days ahead of the iOS 15 release.
smartnews

Image Credits: SmartNews

💰 Tokyo-based news aggregator SmartNews raised $230 million in Series F funding, valuing its business at $2 billion. The funding included U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan.

💰 Venice, California-based Elodie Games raised $32.5 million for its cross-play, co-op games that run on PCs, consoles and mobile devices. The round was led by Galaxy Interactive and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). The company, founded by mobile gaming vets Christina Norman and David Banks, two veterans of Riot Games, had previously raised $5 million in 2020.

💰 Livestream shopping platform Whatnot, which focuses on collectibles like Pokémon cards and Funko Pops, confirmed the close of its $150 million Series C, valuing its business at $1.5 billion. Returning investors a16z and Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund joined new investor CapitalG (Google Capital) in the round. The Information previously reported the fundraise.

💰 Bangalore-based Byju’s acquired California-headquartered coding platform Tynker for $200 million. The platform, which is available across platforms, including mobile, counts BBC Learning, Google, Microsoft, Mattel and NASA among its partners.

💰 San Francisco-based fantasy sports startup Sleeper is now valued at $400 million after raising $40 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The company has over 3 million users, most of whom are aged between 18 and 35. It has expanded into esports during the pandemic, after initially focusing on the NFL and the NBA.

💰 India-based networking app Apna, which helps blue-collar workers upskill and find jobs, raised a $100 million Series C led by Tiger Global. The round values the business at $1.1 billion and makes the company India’s youngest unicorn.

💰 Chat app Discord raised $500 million in a new round of funding led by Dragoneer Investment Group, valuing the business at $15 billion — more than double the valuation it was given at its last round of funding in 2020. The platform, which is particularly popular with gamers, has over 150 million monthly active users.

💰 India’s Mobile Premier League (MPL) raised $150 million in a round of funding led by Legatum Capital, valuing its business at $2.3 billion. The three-year-old company connects game publishers with players on its app platform, allowing users to access a range of free gaming titles.

💰 Streetwear resale platform Grailed raised $60 million in Series B funding in a round led by competitor Goat Group, which also included Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri, Groupe Artémis, Thrive Capital and Index Ventures. The company had 7 million users and 3 million listings at the time of the deal, but only 20% of users are female.

💰 Indonesian investment app for retailer investors Pluang announced $55 million in new funding led by Square Peg, with participation from SIG, UOB Venture Management, Go-Ventures and Openspace Ventures. The app has 3 million users.

💰 Indian investment app Groww is in advanced talks to raise $250 million in new funding in a round that would value the business at $3 billion. Deal terms may still change. Tiger Global, Coatue and TCV have held conversations to lead or co-lead the round. The app is on track for around $35 million in ARR.

OpenSea: NFT Marketplace

Image Credits: OpeaSea on App Store

Amid an insider trading controversy, in which OpenSea’s Chief Product Officer Nate Chastain was caught buying NFT artwork shortly before they hit the site’s front page, then fired, the NFT marketplace company launched its first mobile app. The app, which is available as of Thursday on both the iOS App Store and Google Play, certainly arrives at a questionable time — why not wait for the dust to settle on the scandal, before moving forward with a mobile experience, sans CPO?

In any event, the new app allows users to connect their current profile, then search, filter, discover and save favorite NFTs, as well as view collections and item stats. The app will also link to blog posts about OpenSea developments and the NFT ecosystem as a whole. And it will link to exclusive releases. What you can’t do with OpenSea’s app, at least not yet, is actually purchase NFTs.

Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls

Image Credits: Konami

The latest reboot of the classic title is an Apple Arcade exclusive. Launched on Friday, September 17, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls offers a new take on the popular side-scrolling action game — but one that’s free from in-app purchases or ads. The game features character designs and music from series creators Ayami Kojima and Michiru Yamane, and will see players embark on a new adventure where they “hack, slash, whip and blast their way through Dracula’s army using a variety of attacks, weapons, and unique character moves.” Characters available to play include Alucard, Simon Belmont, Charlotte, Shanoa and Maria, with more to come. An Apple Arcade subscription is $4.99 per month or can be purchased with an Apple One subscription plan.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/18/this-week-in-apps-apples-iphone-event-app-annie-hit-with-securities-fraud-opensea-goes-mobile/

Finance

Tiger Global in talks to lead over $100M investment in India’s Slice

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A number of high-profile investors are chasing to invest in Slice, a fintech startup that is attempting to expand the market for credit cards in India.

Tiger Global is in advanced stages of talks to lead a round of over $100 million in the Bangalore-based startup, sources familiar with the matter told me.

A number of other firms, including Insight Partners, Ribbit Capital and Greenoaks, are also engaging with the startup, sources said, requesting anonymity as the matter is private.

Deliberations are ongoing and the terms can change, sources added.

Slice, which has raised around $30 million in its previous equity financing rounds and was valued at under $200 million in a round earlier this year, declined to comment. Slice counts Blume Ventures, Gunosy Capital and Better Capital among its investors.

Tiger Global declined to comment.

Even as hundreds of millions of Indians today have a bank account, only about 30 million have a credit card. Most people in the South Asian market are not eligible to get a credit card, and even many of those who are don’t bother to get one because the experience of signing up is too clumsy, time consuming and the rewards don’t make up for it.

Slice has made it easier for far more people — even those without a traditional full-time job — to get a card, and the signup process is swift. In the past two years, Slice has emerged as one of India’s largest card-issuing firms.

It has also become aggressive to reach potential customers. Last month, the startup launched a card with 2,000 Indian rupees ($27) as the default limit to tap the nation’s potential addressable market of 200 million individuals.

In a separate announcement earlier this week, Slice said it issued 110,000 cards last month. The startup, founded by Flipkart alum Rajan Bajaj, says it has more than 3 million registered members, whose average age is 23.

It is also exploring applications atop of blockchain, according to Bajaj’s LinkedIn and the startup’s recruitment posts. Last week, the firm announced that it is offering new hires a three-day week with steady pay and benefits to attract talent that wishes to work on other opportunities — or do whatever else they like — at the same time.

Tiger Global has emerged as the most aggressive growth-stage investor in India in recent quarters. It has backed over two dozen startups in India this year, propelling many of them to the covet unicorn club.

Image Credits: CB Insights

India’s startup ecosystem witnessed a record 519 deals in the quarter that ended in September this year, research firm CB Insights said in a report on Thursday. During the same quarter, the startups raised $9.9 billion, compared to $10.3 billion in all of last year, the report said. Sequoia Capital India was the most prolific investor in the world’s second largest internet market during the quarter with 33 deals.

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/tiger-global-slice-india-fintech/

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Startups

Upmesh wants to build a community-driven discovery app for Southeast Asian live commerce

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The founders of Upmesh were building a game on top of Twitch’s API when they realized something about another group of livestreamers. Even though selling through Facebook Live has been gaining popularity in Southeast Asia for years, many vendors are still going through their comments afterward and using pen-and-paper to collect orders. Upmesh was created to automate the checkout process and ultimately wants to create a platform similar to Whatnot where people can discover new live commerce sellers across different social media platforms.

Upmesh announced today it has closed a seed round of $3 million, led by Leo Capital, with participation from Beenext, iSeed, Goto Financial head of merchant financial services Jonathan Barki, BukuWarung founders Abhinay Peddisetty and Chinmay Chauhan, and Zopim founders Royston Tay and Kwok Yangbin.

Upmesh was launched nine months ago by Wong Zi Yang, Soh Jan, Nhat Vu and Shawn Teow, and is now used by almost 300 live commerce merchants in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. The startup says it processes annualized gross merchandise value of $40 million.

The platform’s tools provide e-commerce functions that automatically capture orders made in livestream comments (for example “white top +1”), matches it to the right item in a seller’s inventory and sends a checkout link to the customer. Upmesh currently works with Facebook Live, but will add other platforms, too, with the goal of becoming platform-agnostic.

Other companies that provide order-capturing tools for live commerce include CommentSold, Dibsly, Soldie and Buy It Live, but Upmesh’s founders say one of its most important differentiators is tailoring its platform to meet the expectations of sellers and customers in different Southeast Asian countries.

“If you look at the live selling climate in Southeast Asia, the way people are collecting orders between each country is very different,” said chief executive officer Wong. “Between Singapore and the Philippines, whether you key-in your inventory before or after your live really different, even whether people maintain stock counts is really different.”

Upmesh's tool for collecting orders through Facebook Live comments

Upmesh’s tool for collecting orders through Facebook Live comments

For example, he said in Singapore, inventory turnaround is usually very fast, which means even sellers who offer 1,000s of items only keep stock on the shelf for short periods of time. In the Philippines, however, many vendors do live commerce to supplement their brick-and-mortar shops. Inventory is often taken from their stores and they sell what they have on hand. “The way the software is structured has to be very customized to the individual markets,” Wong said.

Upmesh will use part of its new funding to double down on the Philippines and Malaysia for at least another six months, but it also wants to enter Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The company plans to increase its headcount, launch marketing campaigns and create educational content for sellers.

Wong notes that even though COVID-19 drove adoption of e-commerce, it isn’t what created interest in live commerce. Many of its clients have been livestreaming for about three years. “The way that people interact with e-commerce is changing. It’s becoming more relationship driven. In fact, our sellers actually know their buyers on a first name basis, so they can call them out by name when they join their livestream,” said Wong. “It’s actually replacing advertising for small business.”

Most of Upmesh’s user acquisition so far has been through word-of-mouth, and it serves a lot of fashion live sellers, since they are a closely-knit community, said Wong.

Upmesh’s future plans revolve around turning those communities into new ways of making money, creating a platform that will let sellers and buyers interact with each other and discover live commerce videos on different social media platforms.

“If we look at an interesting comparison to the U.S., the U.S. has live commerce platforms like Whatnot, but Whatnot is focused on collectibles and vintage items, things that have a very strong secondary reseller market,” said Wong. “In the U.S., those verticals have the most amount of community, people who are talking to each other on eBay, on YouTube or offline, and they look those communities and gave them a home to be in.”

Upmesh's dashboard for live commerce sellers

Upmesh’s dashboard for live commerce sellers

Southeast Asia, on the other hand, does not have a similar collectibles market, but communities spring up around different types of goods, like fashion or fresh foods. Those are the kinds of verticals that Upmesh wants to add to its platform.

“That’s the end game for live commerce, that you can discover and interact with different sellers and then once you find a seller you like, you can go deeper,” said Wong. “We direct users’ attention to where they goods are, and since we have the inventory of all our sellers, if you want a red dress, we can tell you which sellers have a red dress.”

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/upmesh-wants-to-build-a-community-driven-discovery-app-for-southeast-asian-live-commerce/

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Artificial Intelligence

SoftBank-backed Korean edtech startup Riiid acquires Langoo, expands in Japan  

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Riiid, a South Korea-headquartered AI-powered edtech company, acquired its Japanese distribution partner Langoo to expand its Japan footprint. 

The acquisition comes after the company’s latest $175 million Series D round from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 in May. Riiid has said it will continue to fuel its global expansion with the funding. 

Langoo, Riiid’s partner in Japan, offers Riiid Tutor, formerly known as Santa, a test prep app for the English-language proficiency test TOEIC in the region. Riiid claims that more than 2.5 million users downloaded the Riiid Tutor app in South Korea and Japan. When it launched in April 2019 in Japan, the Riiid Tutor app took the top ranking in sales among education applications in Android within the first week of its release. 

“The exceptional capacity of Langoo in its local business with Riiid Tutor was the main reason for this acquisition,” said co-founder and CEO of Riiid YJ Jang. “Riiid’s strength is our scalability and ability to apply our technology anywhere, regardless of regions, languages and domains. By leveraging this investment, we will capture broader Japanese market opportunities. This acquisition is the first step in an inorganic strategy to ultimately apply Riiid’s AI technology to the global market and help more learners around the world.” 

Japan is one of the largest education markets and has enormous potential to grow in the Japanese edtech industry that still relies on the conventional in-person education system, a spokesperson at Riiid told TechCrunch. After penetrating the Japanese market, Riiid will gear up to enter other international regions, including Central and East Asia, the spokesperson added. 

The Japanese remote learning industry was estimated at $2.6 billion in 2020, increasing 22.4% year on year, based on a report by Yano Research Institute. 

Riiid plans to shore up marketing, sales and B2B business development in Japan by setting up a Japanese unit via the acquisition. The company expects to address local remote learning and education in the market.

In Japan, Riiid will offer its services, ranging from the TOEIC to English speaking and tutoring services, to broaden its customer base.  

Riiid has been actively penetrating the global market since 2020 after it opened the U.S. arm, Riiid Labs, in Silicon Valley. Riiid also has users in Vietnam and Taiwan, and recently sealed a partnership deal with an India-based AI edtech company, the spokesperson said. It is set to open an R&D center in Canada, the spokesperson added. 

Beyond the TOEIC mobile app, the company launched an ACT prep mobile app with ConnectMe Education in early 2021 in Egypt, Turkey, UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It also unveiled the GMAT beta version, in partnership with Kaplan, in 2021, aiming at the Korean market first. In the first quarter of 2022, Riiid is scheduled to launch Riiid Classroom, an AI-based solution that offers teachers a formative assessment and learning program. Its key features include individual performance analysis, lecture recommendations based on individual students’ weaknesses, dropout analysis and task management.  

Riiid provides AI-based online education solutions for K-12, post-secondary and corporate training. Founded in 2014, it has approximately 210 employees globally, including South Korea, the U.S, the U.K., Canada, Brazil, and Vietnam. 

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/softbank-backed-korean-edtech-startup-riiid-acquires-langoo-to-expand-further-to-japan/

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8-Bit Capital, co-led by Jonathan Abrams, has closed its first fund with $40 million

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Jonathan Abrams and Kent Lindstrom have partnered on a lot of things over the years. Lindstrom was an advisor and investor at the early social networking service Friendster, founded by Abrams. He was also the COO of social news aggregator Nuzzel, which was founded by Abrams and that sold to a subscription startup called Scroll in 2019. (Scroll later sold to Twitter, which shut down Nuzzel in May).

Because both have been angel investing all the while, and because there’s still a lot of money looking to find its way into startups, it isn’t surprising that they decided more recently to raise an actual seed-stage fund from outside investors, or that they decided to invest it together.

Thus was born 8-Bit Capital, a brand that refers to a time when computers were only able to store a maximum of 8 bits per data block, resulting in the blocky graphics that people who grew up on Atari remember well. Now, the duo is taking the wraps off 8-Bit’s first fund, a $40 million vehicle that they raised from a wide number of well-known VCs, as well as several institutional investors. We talked with Abrams earlier about some of those backers, who he asked we not name publicly (to shield them from more capital requests). We also talked about how he and Lindstrom are thinking about competing in the frothiest venture market ever and how focused (or not) the duo will be on social platforms, given their history. Our chat, below, has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Why jump into VC full time right now?

JA: We’ve been helping other entrepreneurs for a long time, and the feedback from a lot of entrepreneurs over the years is that they really appreciated he advice that we’ve given them. Part of that may be because the venture capital “value add” may may be a little overhyped in the industry, and part may be that Kent and I are just good at it. So even though there’s a lot of investors out there, we thought it did make sense for us to do this.

TC: What are your most successful “exits” as an angel investor?

JA:, I would say that the best companies, or the most successful ones, still haven’t exited. That’s the crazy thing about about doing angel investing or venture capital — the early exits can be good but the the real winners take a long time. I was an investor in [the e-signature company] Hello Sign, which was acquired by Dropbox [in 2019 for $230 million in cash]. I was invested in [the content sharing platform] SlideShare, which was acquired by LinkedIn [in 2012 for $119 million in cash and stock], and those were very profitable exits. But some of the companies I invested in, like Instacart or Front or AngelList, are still not exited, and they’re doing extremely well and will be extremely profitable investments,. But it does require patience. There are companies that are worth tens of billions [of dollars], but oftentimes, the entrepreneurs have been working on those companies for a long time.

TC: You’re obviously a pioneer in social media, having started Friendster more recently started Nuzzle. Meanwhile, social media is hot again. How interested are you in social as an area of investment?

JA: We’re open to it, but it’s not the area we’re most focused on right now, and I think that’s because of opportunity. Every week, somebody sends us some new social media pitch, but I’m still waiting to see something that’s crazy and innovative. Usually we just see things like, ‘We don’t like Facebook; we’ll somehow be better. ‘

What we invest in is software. We’re not investing in biotech or mattresses or coffee or spaceships. Software that connects people or businesses in new ways is what Kent and I are really passionate about.

TC: How can founders reach you? Do they need a warm introduction?

JA: introductions are great. We like to see an entrepreneur who can network. If nobody on the founding team of a company has the ability to get introductions to investors, then how are you going to get introductions to customers and build your team and all those kinds of things?

On the other hand, I’m on the board of Girls in Tech, and Kent and I really care about diversity and we know that requiring an intro can be an impediment to improving the diversity numbers in an industry that really needs improvement. Soif somebody sends me a cold email, I’m going to look at it.

The problem is, I get a lot of cold emails, and they’re all terrible. They’re generally really long and don’t contain any of the information you need. So If [we’re sent] a cold email, we would probably read it, but in general, the cold emails we get are just not compelling. Most of the companies that we’ve invested in, some of them have been entrepreneurs that we already know, and many of them have been referrals. Generally, we like to get deal flow directly from entrepreneurs, and when other VCs send us deals, we usually don’t do them for various reasons.

TC: Wait, why not? Because they are probably sending the same deal to everyone at once?

JA: One issue is adverse selection where, if this is something that a VC is sharing around and didn’t gobble up that allocation themselves, there may be an issue there. Another issue is timing. We like to know a company super early — ideally before other VCs really know about it.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/04/8-bit-capital-co-led-by-jonathan-abrams-has-closed-its-first-fund-with-40-million/

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