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Why my new NFT is worth nearly $400 and other observations from a fascinating week in tech

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by what the weekday Exchange column digs into, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here

Hello everyone! Disrupt was this week, which meant that I spent more time than usual with my feet up, watching panels and startup pitches. It was good fun, but also meant that I had fewer calls than I might in a more regular week. So, what follows is an abbreviated newsletter that is a touch more observational than reported, if you follow. Let’s have some fun!

Observation one: NFT speculation is good fun

I recently dipped a single toe into the world of NFTs. After covering the space, it was time to participate in a very minor fashion as you can learn a lot more by doing than merely reading. Of course I try to avoid any and all possible ethical quandaries, but I don’t think that my owning two-figures’ worth of crypto so that I could attempt to purchase a low-cost JPEG will really upset the apple cart.

It all went to hell, but an NFT that a kind Twitter user sent me is racking up bids. While I have not derived much pleasure from the particular image that I now own the digital signature to on a particular blockchain more than, say, most other online images, it has been sporting to watch folks try to buy it off me.

Several bids worth hundreds of dollars have cropped up (the latest sitting at $382.94), which made me sit back and wonder who really wants my image. I presume that I’m seeing speculation over value collection in the offers, but I do now better understand why NFT fans are stoked by their cottage industry. After all, who doesn’t want to magically generate real-world value from an image that, until recently, would have had essentially zero value? It feels like cheating. (To be clear, I am not selling my NFT as I don’t want to bother with the taxes, and it does seem like selling it for profit would generate some sort of ethics issue. So I guess I will hodl? Forever?)

Observation two: This is a great moment for fintech IPOs

The scalding public-market reception for Boston-based fintech unicorn Toast this week showed the world that it is possible to get software-like valuations for payments revenues, provided a sufficiently quick growth rate. Our read was that the warmth with which Toast was welcomed to the stock market indicated that it’s a great time for fintech unicorns to get off their collective duffs and go public.

I stand by that. But what I had perhaps missed was just how much value is sitting by the sidelines. Not in terms of valuation — we already know those numbers — but in terms of user numbers. Observe the following tweet:

I wouldn’t have guessed that Chime was in fifth place, but those figures imply simply huge payment flows which, as we have recently seen, are currently valued like rivers of gold. So NuBank and Chime and Dave and others, let’s do this thing? Please?

Observation three: Chinese tech is increasingly toxic

News this week broke that the Zoom-Five9 deal could be in for regulatory issues over the acquiring company’s Chinese roots. If Zoom having R&D operations in China means that it’s megabuy of Five9 goes poof, it would be an indicator not only of increasing distance between the two globally leading economies, but also a door-closing moment on a possible source of tech liquidity.

Also this week Lithuania warned that hardware from Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi is able to detect and block certain terms that China’s government likes to censor. Now, maybe that’s just how Xiaomi makes all its phones, but it’s not a great look. The country has “told its civil servants to jettison their Chinese-made smartphones after experts found they contained automatic censorship software and other security flaws,” The Times reported.

Again, toxic.

Alex

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/25/2208197/

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.

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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.”

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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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Techcrunch

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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