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Is your time worth more than $0.30 an hour?

Most of us believe our time is extremely valuable, certainly worth more than 30 cents. But then you read about human decision-making, and you have to wonder what goes through people’s heads.
This time it is Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a review of Amazon Publishing, the printing house (if you will) of the e-commerce giant. Amazon published more than one thousand titles in 2017, and now commands roughly a majority of all book purchases made in the U.S., online or offline.
But what really surprised me about the article was this paragraph:
Under the arrangement, these titles are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors based on how many pages of an e-book are read. The payouts are usually around $0.004 to $0.005 a page. Authors would receive $1.20 to $1.50 on 300-page e-book priced at $10, less if readers don’t finish.
If you read an average of say 60 pages an hour, that equates to about 30 cents of royalties per hour of entertainment. Amazon’s revenues are higher given that Kindle Unlimited is a subscription, but still. We can argue that the titles on Kindle Unlimited are pulp fiction, or that the users of Kindle Unlimited lack taste, or whatever.
The reality, though, is that people (i.e. the reading public) are remarkably parsimonious when it comes to filling up their heads with words. Wired writer Antonio García Martínez tweeted out a question last week:

Most books could be reduced to a 30-page ultra-long magazine piece (whose audio version would be an hour-long podcast). But there's no channel for the format. Why is that? Is it historical legacy, or something else?
— Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) January 11, 2019

The obvious answer is that there is literally no market for people to pay $10-20 for 30 pages of content, outside of case studies at Harvard Business School. I chatted with some authors and publishing execs about this, and the answer was two-fold. One is that consumers really have a knack for only paying for thicker books rather than shorter ones. And two, books have enormous fixed costs that make short works infeasible given that consumer market (for instance, the cost of a cover design is the same regardless of length of a book).
And so publishers junk up their books with extras to make them seem thicker than they really are.
Take The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which I just finished reading this morning (it’s a fine book). The paperback version is listed on Amazon as “368 pages.” That’s a substantial book! But it isn’t that long at all. The actual core text of the book, including the epilogue, is 217 pages, with 26 photos strewn about along with fairly heavy amounts of page gaps between chapters. So the core text is maybe around 190 pages. The book then adds a frequently asked questions section (22 pages), an acknowledgements section (12 pages!), notes (40 pages), bibliography (28 pages), an index (18 pages) and a reading group guide (three pages). Indeed, 190 pages of 368 is 51.6 percent.
I am not saying that notes or a bibliography are optional in a political argumentative text, but merely that the publisher, which lists the paperback at $17.95, felt compelled to add all these photos and a FAQ to make the book feel substantial for consumers to get them to pay $18.
In “Brainjunk and the killing of the internet mind,” I argued that we need to start paying more for less in the context of media subscriptions:
It is the deep irony of our times that readers, often deeply educated, will shell out $30 for a meal in New York or San Francisco while paying thousands in rent, only to avoid paying a few bucks a month for a publication, let alone ten. The monthly price for the New York Times is the price of a single cocktail these days in Manhattan.
The bulk of my friends don’t pay for subscriptions. The bulk of the internet doesn’t pay for subscriptions. People will gladly spend hours a day reading brainjunk, to avoid even the slightest expense that might improve the quality of what they are reading. And so, even storied publications are going to fall by the wayside so we can read about “7 Tips on How To Improve Media.”
I think it is well past time to extend that thinking to all forms of content that we consume.
That’s why I have started to calculate the price per page of my books as a way to adjust for quality, and also to match how I value my time. Sitting on my desk right now are three slim books:

Networks of New York by Ingrid Burrington (112 pages, $15.96)
The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant (128 pages, $15.00)
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (128 pages, $14.95)

There is nothing wrong with paying $18 for a 160-page book. Much like fast food is cheap but perhaps not positively filling, an underpriced book is likely to similarly nourish our brains.
Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney
My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey, and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.
Stray thoughts (aka, what I am reading)
Short summaries and analysis of important news stories
Media investing is still tough
Nieman Lab interviews Corey Ford, who founded Matter.vc, one of the few venture firms that was willing to invest in media. Ford is taking time away from Matter to consider his next steps after seven years at the helm. Ford on opportunities in investing: “However, I wish that we could have figured out a model that was a mix of companies that are on the venture capital journey — I feel like there’s an opportunity in the middle, in between nonprofits and venture capital. I think especially this space is one where I call it, to use a baseball analogy, instead of looking for only grand slams, what are the good doubles?”
U.S. and China seem to be heading toward a deal
Pressure is growing on both governments to try to calm their trade spat. Meanwhile, in Europe, trade ministers and heads of competition policy are openly debating how best to make Europe competitive with Chinese state-run conglomerates, who are gobbling up market share in strategic industries. Meanwhile, in Huawei news, Oxford University has suspended ties to the embattled company, while Germany considers banning it entirely (which is hard to believe given the number of Huawei ads I saw in Berlin two months ago).
What’s next & obsessions

I have a lot of short books on my desk to read.
Arman is reading Never Lost Again by Bill Kilday, a history of mapping at Google and beyond.
Arman and I are interested in societal resilience startups that are targeting areas like water security, housing, infrastructure, climate change, disaster response, etc. Reach out if you have ideas or companies here <danny@techcrunch.com>

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Go-Jek buys fintech startup Coins.ph for $72M ahead of Philippines expansion

Ride-hailing startup Go-Jek’s expansion into the Philippines ran into problems earlier this month over its ownership structure, but that isn’t deterring the Indonesian company from investing into the market.
Today, Go-Jek announced it has acquired local fintech company Coins.ph through “substantial investment,” which gives it a majority stake in the business. The deal is officially undisclosed, but TechCrunch understands from two industry sources that Go-Jek paid $72 million. That price would make it Go-Jek’s biggest outlay on an acquisition to date, although most of its past deals are also undisclosed.
The startup claims five million registered users in the Philippines, where it offers a mobile wallet that covers payments, phone top-up, bill payment, public transport rides and more. Post-deal the company will continue to run as usual, but while tapping into Go-Jek’s resources and experience.
Ron Hose, CEO and co-founder, told TechCrunch that Coins.ph was in the process of raising a new round of funding when the Go-Jek opportunity presented itself.
“We had to make a decision on how we want to continue growing our business, and we felt like ultimately together with Go-Jek we could build something that is overall bigger and better for our customers,” he said in a phone interview.
Coins.ph started out offering crypto exchange services, but it pivoted to a broader focus on fintech, including mobile payments and financial services in recent times. The company has raised $10 million from two investments; it counts Naspers, Global Brain, Wavemaker, Beenext and Pantera Capital among its backers.
The Coins.ph team
The acquisition is clearly a strategic one for Go-Jek, which is reportedly valued at around the $9 billion mark.
Last year, it expanded beyond Indonesia — where it claims to be the dominant player — for the first time. Its overseas moves saw it enter Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, with the Philippines named as another proposed destination, although it has taken longer than planned, with no launch yet.
Fintech doesn’t sound like an obvious point of entry for a ride-hailing company, but, in Southeast Asia, ride-hailing and fintech are peas in a pod. Part of Go-Jek’s success in Indonesia was the rise of its GoPay service, which enables money transfers, offline payment and even insurance and micro-loans. The company said half of the transactions on its network in Indonesia are made via the payment service.
That approach has been copied by Grab, Go-Jek’s arch-rival, which is rolling out its Grab Pay service across Southeast Asia’s biggest six countries with plans to enter areas like loans, remittance and insurance with partners such as Chinese digital insurer ZhongAn.
In that spirit, Go-Jek said today that Coins.ph will work closely with GoPay to “to encourage a cashlesssociety and enhance access to financial services in the Philippines.”
Coins.th is likely to continue to operate as it currently is now, Hose said. That Thai entity has fewer locations than the Philippines business, so it is likely less appealing to Go-Jek, despite its expansion to Thailand.
The GoPay collaboration is likely to mean the rollout of services such as insurance, loans and other financial services, as well as, of course, deepening Coin.ph’s user base in the Philippines, a country with a population of more than 105 million people.
“With the second largest population and a strong domestic economy, the Philippines is one of the most exciting markets in Southeast Asia and through this partnership with Coins.ph, we are humbled to take part in the country’s digital payments transformation,” Go-Jek CEO Nadiem Makarim said in a statement.
“Today’s announcement marks the start of our long-term commitment to the Philippines and a continuation of our mission to use technology to improve everyday lives and create a positive social impact,” he added.
There’s plenty of competition on that front, though.
Grab is readying its GrabPay entry and well-funded Oriente is present, but already Alibaba has invested in payment and fintech company Mynt while Tencent, China’s other internet superpower and a Go-Jek investor, backed rival service Voyager through a $215 million deal. Now Go-Jek, which is readying a $2 billion investment round of its own, is entering the fray. This year promises to be an interesting one for fintech in the Philippines.
Past Go-Jek acquisitions have included offline payment firm Kartuku, payment gateway Midtrans and payment and lending network Mapan — announced all in one go. In India, it has gone after engineering talent with acqui-hire deals for startups C42, CodeIgnition and Piant, which have helped create its Bangalore-based tech hub.

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Netflix thinks ‘Fortnite’ is a bigger threat than HBO

Netflix thinks “Fortnite” is a bigger threat to its business than HBO. The company in its latest quarterly earnings report released on Thursday said that while its streaming service now accounts for around 10 percent of TV screen time in the U.S., it no longer views its competition only as those services also providing TV content and streaming video.
“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”
In other words, Netflix today sees its competition as anyone in the business of entertaining their customers, and eating up their hours of free time in the process. That includes breakout gaming hits like “Fortnite.”
Netflix’s statement comes at a time when the internet, mobile and gaming have been shifting consumer’s focus and attention away from watching TV.
In fact, all the way back in 2012, mobile industry experts were warning that time spent in mobile apps was beginning to challenge television. And a few years ago, apps finally came out on top. For the first time ever, time spent inside apps exceeded that of TV.
Fortnite, in particular, has capitalized on this change in consumer behavior and has now grown to more than 200 million players. (Netflix just reached 139 million, for comparison’s sake.)
In 2018, Fortnite — along with other multiplayer games like PUBG — pushed forward a trend toward cross-platform gaming that’s capable of reaching consumers wherever they are, similar to streaming apps like Netflix. According to a recent report from App Annie, this is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Cross-platform gaming, including not only Fortnite and PUBG, but also whatever comes next, is poised to grow even further in 2019.
Notably, Fortnite, too, has become a place where you don’t just go to play — but rather “hang out.” For kids and young adults, the game has replaced the mall or other parts of the city where kids and teens just go to be around friends and socialize, wrote tech writer Owen Williams on his blog Charged.
“Not only is Fortnite the new hangout spot, replacing the mall, Starbucks or just loitering in the city, it’s become the coveted ‘third place’ for millions of people around the world,” he said.
Roblox, with it over 70 million players, serves a similar purpose.
That means it’s also a real threat to Netflix’s time. If gamers are hanging around a virtual space with friends, they have less time to stream TV. (And perhaps — given that many of the youngest Netflix never got cable to begin with — less desire to watch TV to begin with.)
“I think about it really is as winning time away, entertainment time from other activities,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Thursday, discussing the threat from those competing for users’ time. “So, instead of doing Xbox or Fortnite or YouTube or HBO or a long list, we want to win and provide a better experience. No advertising on demand. Incredible content,” he said.

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Amazon built an electronic vest to improve worker/robot interactions

Over the course of the last year, Amazon began rolling out a new worker safety wearable to 25+ sites. From the looks of it, the Robotic Tech Vest is really more like a pair of suspenders attached to an electronic utility belt. The Amazon Robotics-designed product was created to keep workers safe when they need to enter a space in order to fix a robotic system or retrieve fallen items. Built-in sensors alert Amazon’s robotic systems to the wearer’s presence, and they slow down to avoid collision.
The vest is designed to work in tandem with the robots’ existing obstacle avoidance detection.
“All of our robotic systems employ multiple safety systems ranging from training materials, to physical barriers to entry, to process controls, to on-board,” Amazon Robotics VP Brad Porter told TechCrunch. “In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region. What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear without the need for the associate to explicitly mark out those zones.”
Safety has, of course, become a major concern when it comes to dealing with human/robotic interactions at the work place. As OSHA notes, “Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment. During many of these operations the worker may temporarily be within the robot’s working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries.”
In December, two dozen Amazon warehouse employees were sent to the hospital in a bear repellent-related incident in which a robot may have been involved. As robot and human collaborations become increasingly commonplace, it’s a good idea to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach to working alongside these big metal machines.
Porter notes that tests with the vest have a “huge success,” with “more than one million unique activations” having been recorded with the systems it’s deployed thus far.

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University of Virginia announces $120M gift to fund new data science school

One of America’s oldest universities is launching a school for one of the world’s youngest disciplines.
The University of Virginia announced today that it has received a $120 million private donation to endow a new School of Data Science. The donation is the largest in the university’s history, and will create the twelfth school at the university.
The donation was offered by the Quantitative Foundation, which is based in UVA’s hometown of Charlottesville. Jaffray Woodriff, the founder and CEO of Quantitative Investment Management, is the trustee of the foundation, where his wife Merrill is a director. QIM is one of the hedge fund leaders in quantitative trading, and Bloomberg noted that the fund saw investment returns of 55 percent in the first few months of 2017.
UVA’s administration said that the School of Data Science intends to offer a range of degree programs, from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level, as well as to be a center for research on data science. It massively expands UVA’s current Data Science Institute, which was opened in 2013 and also was funded by a $10 million grant from the Quantitative Foundation. The school is pending approval from internal UVA governance committees as well as the state of Virginia before launching.
In its release, UVA explained the unique design of the school:
The school will have satellites and centers instead of departments. The satellites will be embedded in other schools to facilitate collaborative data science work in those disciplines, and the centers will be theme-based with focus areas to include data acquisition; engineering; analytics; visualization and dissemination; and ethics, policy and law.
UVA is not the first university to offer a dedicated (or rebranded) school of data science, but it is certainly among the most prominent.
Large donations to universities have been trickling in the past year, with many of the donations focused on generating interest in technical fields, as well as medicine. Facebook’s first full-time employee Taner Halicioglu donated $75 million to the University of California San Diego, focused on data science, in early 2017.
Late last year, MIT announced that it had received $350 million for a new computing-focused school from investment manager Stephen A. Schwarzman, while Harvard received $100 million for mathematics and the sciences from an anonymous donor.
UVA’s announcement is the first large university donation announced in 2019.

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Whyd now helps companies create their custom voice assistant

Y Combinator-backed startup Whyd is pivoting from hardware to software. The startup had been working on a connected speaker with a voice-control interface specifically designed for music. But a couple of years later, it’s clear that subsidized voice assistant devices from Google and Amazon have taken over the market.

Whyd is only keeping its own software platform and partnering with other companies. In other words, if you’re working on an app, a website or a skill for the Amazon Echo or Google Home, you can create your own voice assistant to interact with your content.
This way, your users get the same experience across all platforms and you don’t have to rely on Amazon’s or Google’s services.
“We let you integrate with a database of millions of items, create a custom agent and release it,” Whyd co-founder and CEO Gilles Poupardin told me. You can think about it as a sort of Algolia for voice queries. Instead of limiting yourself to basic queries (“play my favorite playlist”), you can handle complicated queries (“I want to dance to electronic music”).
In particular, Whyd focuses on the cloud infrastructure behind your voice assistant. The company doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and lets you use any speech-to-text SDK. But Whyd can then interpret your query and give you results in little time.
The startup has already worked with 8tracks on its voice assistant. You can now search for music playlists in the mobile app using a voice assistant. Whyd has developed different models for other verticals. You can imagine a voice assistant for video on demand, e-commerce and other services.
This is what happens between your database and your front end when users interact with their voice:

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More scooter dollars, Slack’s revenue projections and the IPO traffic jam

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
We’re back! After what I think was our first-ever break, Kate Clark and I sat down to dig into the latest startup venture news. There was a lot. We had to skip a few rounds to squeeze the show down to size, but we still hit the biggest stories.
First, Lime and Bird are raising again. In Bird’s case, the company is sticking around its last valuation, adding a few hundred million to its coffers. Lime is said to be raising a hundred million more, bringing its valuation in line with Bird’s own. When all this is said and done, and what’s expected to happen actually does, Bird and Lime could add $700 million to their bank accounts, making both scooter shops double unicorns.
Next we tucked into the Chariot shutdown. Ford’s decision to shutter its bus-van-techie-transport startup that it bought back in 2016 was surprising news. (Chariot vehicles have become a regular part of the San Francisco cityscape over the years.) The company is shuttering its U.K. operations first, followed by its U.S.-based routes.
Pivoting back to our regular fare, Slack’s financials partially leaked. Early-2018-era projections aren’t the best tool for figuring out how a company is performing today, but it’s better than nothing. Slack has lots of cash, is growing very quickly and is climbing toward the $500 million mark this year, if its old growth expectations hold up. (I tacked on Palantir’s latest into this segment as well.)
Finally, the government is partially shut down as you’ve heard. It’s blocking IPO progress for a host of companies, many of whom come from tech. How long this pileup builds will determine how soon any tech shop can debut.
It’s good to be back, and I promise to never mention Peloton again. If for no other reason than making our beloved producer laugh is verboten. Stay cool!

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

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More scooter dollars, Slack’s revenue projections, and the IPO traffic jam

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
We’re back! After what I think was our first-ever break, Kate Clark and I sat down to dig into the latest startup venture news. There was a lot. We had to skip a few rounds to squeeze the show down to size, but we still hit the biggest stories.
First, Lime and Bird are raising again. In Bird’s case, the company is sticking around its last valuation, adding a few hundred million to its coffers. Lime is said to be raising a hundred million more, bringing its valuation in line with Bird’s own. When all this is said and done, and what’s expected to happen actually does, Bird and Lime could add $700 million to their bank accounts, making both scooter shops double unicorns.
Next we tucked into the Chariot shutdown. Ford’s decision to shutter its bus-van-techie-transport startup that it bought back in 2016 was surprising news. (Chariot vehicles have become a regular part of the San Francisco cityscape over the years.) The company is shuttering its UK operations first, followed by its U.S.-based routes.
Pivoting back to our regular fare, Slack’s financials partially leaked. Early-2018 era projections aren’t the best tool for figuring out how a company is performing today, but it’s better than nothing. Slack has lots of cash, is growing very quickly, and is climbing toward the $500 million mark this year, if it’s old growth expectations hold up. (I tacked on Palantir’s latest into this segment as well.)
Finally, the government is partially shut down as you’ve heard. It’s blocking IPO progress for a host of companies, many of whom come from tech. How long this pileup builds will determine how soon any tech shop can debut.
It’s good to be back, and I promise to never mention Peloton again. If for no other reason than making our beloved producer laugh is verboten. Stay cool!

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

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The ‘Stuff You Should Know’ podcast has been downloaded 1 billion times

Stuff You Should Know, the explainer podcast hosted by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant (pictured on the left above), has now surpassed one billion total downloads.
The podcast is published by How Stuff Works/Stuff Media, which was acquired by iHeartMedia last fall. The company says this is the first podcast to cross the billion-download threshold. (Publishers, including Stuff Media, have previously hit that number across all their titles — but if any individual podcast reached that milestone before, they’ve kept quiet about it.)
How big an achievement is this in the broader podcast landscape? Well, Apple announced last year that all the podcast content in iTunes and the Podcasts app had been downloaded and streamed a total of 50 billion times.
While Stuff You Should Know remains one of the most popular podcasts around — iHeartMedia declined to provide download numbers for individual episodes, but said the show has been averaging 30 million downloads per month — it also has the advantage of a deep archive and a head start over many other high-profile series. In fact, it first launched back in April 2008 and has subsequently published more than 1,000 episodes, with recent segments covering everything from air bags to the Spanish flu to assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler.
The podcast was also adapted into a TV show that aired for one season on the Science Channel.
In a statement, Clark said:
“Stuff You Should Know” was born out of a curiosity that Chuck and I both have about everything. We aren’t experts on any of the topics we discuss on the show, we just happen to be good at talking together about what we’ve dug up and I think that makes the podcast accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Reaching one billion downloads has really validated what we’ve built over the past 10 years and it makes us excited about the next 10 too. It’s an amazing milestone for us and we’re grateful to all the listeners around the world who helped grow that number.

What’s next for podcasting?

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Zipwhip raises $51.5M for businesses to text customers from any kind of phone line

A surge of audio services using AI are giving voice a boost in customer service, but when it comes to communications in the age of mobile, messaging continues to be a critical platform. Now, a startup called Zipwhip, which provides a platform for businesses to interact with customers by text messages from any business line — landline, VoIP, or toll-free — is announcing funding of $51.5 million to capitalise on that push to bring more text-based messaging into customer service.
This round, a Series D, is being led by Goldman Sachs, with participation from previous investors OpenView, M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures) and Voyager Capital, and it brings the total raised by the startup to $92.5 million. John Lauer, co-founder and CEO of the Seattle-based company, said in an interview that it’s not disclosing valuation with this round but the figure is “absolutely higher than before.”
This is a growth round, and that’s what Zipwhip has mainly been doing since it last raised money, $22.5 million in September 2017.
Its revenues have grown by 80 percent in the last year as its customer base has hit 3.3 million phone numbers across 20,000 businesses (compared to 6,500 in 2017), including 100 large enterprises, and it’s inked deals with all the major carriers in the US in order to be able to interconnect business landlines to answer questions, sell things, and take complaints, all by text.
With the rest of the world’s carriers and business users still to tackle, there is a lot of growth at home left for the startup: it estimates that there are about 200 million business phone numbers in North America alone.
The opportunity and gap in the market that Zipwhip and companies like it — and there are others like OpenMarket (Lauer’s former company), MessageBird, Twilio to an extent and more — are attempting to tackle is that while a lot of businesses have set up the infrastructure to communicate with customers by phone, email and websites to sell them things, to receive complaints, to solve technical problems and other scenarios that require interactions, a lot of those customers are using text messaging in the rest of their lives, and ideally would prefer to have it as an option for all of those business interactions too.
In fact, Lauer notes that there is already a big swathe of missed contacts as a result of people who unwittingly try to send text messages to numbers that are in no way capable of receiving them, or are sending text replies to organizations that have texted them. But those messages are not going through because those numbers that do not take replies.
In other words, many assume that a Zipwhip style service already exists in more places than it does.
(Anecdotally, this has happened to me a number of times, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.)
Zipwhip aims to solve that problem by letting an organization to use its platform to activate whatever telephone numbers they’re using for customer service.
Then, when a text comes through on that number — this is where the carrier integration is essential — it gets routed it through the Zipwhip platform so that it appears on an agent’s or sales person’s or tech support dashboard in order for the latter group to read and respond.
Typical use cases are for basic customer service and support, but he notes sports teams have signed on as customers have started using the platform for ticket sales and other use cases as well.
For now, all of these are routing back to humans with only the smallest amount of bot-ification (or using automated responses often based around some loose natural language-based machine learning) thrown in. For example: if a text is sent out of office hours, you might get a response saying someone will get in touch when the office opens again, or get given the option to get basic information through the text platform, if that’s all that’s needed.
“It’s still early innings, but the current feedback is that businesses and customers hate chatbots,” he said. “Yes, it’s a mixed bag, and the future will be exciting, but I do not think there is much that can replace humans today.”
(Pricing for Zipwhip is based on volume and ranges in monthly tiers of $35 for one line, $100 for multiple lines and priced to order for high volume enterprise services.)
Of course, when we talk about messaging in the modern phone, we’re often talking about smartphones and the use of apps like Faebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, Instagram and more. Many of these have started to realise the opportunity of tapping into the B2B2C opportunity. WhatsApp has started to roll out its WhatsApp for Business API, for example, to companies to help them answer queries, send them information they’ve requested and so on; and Messenger has dabbled in letting businesses interact around simple Q&A or purchases by way of bots, and more.
Interestingly, Zipwhip is taking a very different approach in that it has not integrated yet with any of these apps. Instead, it focuses on whatever the native texting app happens to be for a phone. Lauer said that this is partly the result of research that the company has conducted to help with product development.
Despite the efforts from messaging apps to make business messaging in their apps a thing, he said, “What we have found is that users are not instinctively using Messenger or WhatsApp when they think of texting a business. It’s so easy to use text messaging — and this is where a business would contact a user — that it becomes the default.”
It’s had a nudge to do that from the big platform players, too. Zipwhip was one of the first partners for Business Chat, the new service from Apple to let businesses communicate with customers and make purchases via iMessage, although that initiative hasn’t really seen much activity in recent times.
“Apple is dong a great job and we’re excited to get more involved,” Lauer said diplomatically when I asked him about it.
More substantial has been Zipwhip’s work with Google, which has been pushing its RCS standard for years now, to promote the idea of bringing more app-like interactivity and experience to basic text messaging, first on Android devices, as a way of helping Google and carriers better combat the rise of messaging apps — another reason why Zipwhip may be less inclined to integrate with them as well.
“Google is a customer and partner of ours. RCS was really the thing we needed, and the reason it’s happening is because of Google,” Lauer said. While there are not that many handsets out there yet that have been activated to work with RCS, this is coming, he added. “What we’re hearing is that more carriers will deploy more updates over the air to turn it on.”
As a customer, he notes that Google does a lot of text messaging to enable things like AdWords and all that runs through Zipwhip’s platform.
Lauer said that fundraising has gotten “a lot easier” as the company has grown and shown investors that despite the huge surge of popularity of apps, there’s still life an opportunity left in humble text messaging.
“Zipwhip sits at the powerful intersection of a huge addressable market, a proven history in industry innovation and an agile SaaS-based approach that will allow the company to grow and evolve for the foreseeable future,” said Dorr. Hillel Moerman, Head of Goldman Sachs’ Private Capital Investing group, said in a statement. “The product, team and corporate vision behind Zipwhip position the company to continue its successful trajectory. We look forward to working with Zipwhip’s leadership team as they meet the growing demand for a better way for businesses and consumers to communicate.”
Still, there will be more convincing to do beyond VCs. “For us the challenge going forward is getting businesses to be more aware that they can actually do this, add texting into their solutions,” he said. “It’s still early days.”

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This $350,000 Swiss watch looks like an Apple Watch, chimes to tell the time

H. Moser & Cie. Swiss Alp is back with another Apple Watch lookalike. The $350,000 Watch Concept Black is a ludicrous take on the classic minute repeater design. And on this version, the wearer can only tell the time by chiming the watch.
These sort of watches have a storied history that predate wristwatches by hundreds of years. Called minute repeaters, they allow the wearer to hit a button and the watch will respond with chimes indicating the time of the day. The movements were developed before artificial illumination made it possible for watchmakers to add glow-in-the-dark markings. But this is far from a working man’s watch. H. Moser worked with Manufactures Hautes Complications SA to develop the custom movement for this watch.

Flip the watch over, and the watch’s cost is explained in the custom movement. This minute repeater has a rectangular-shaped movement. It’s special. To chime, two small hammers strike a gong that runs around the outline of the rectangle casing. Despite the odd shape, the watch is capable of producing a chime Hodinkee calls “crisp, clear, and resonant, with none of the dampening you’d expect from a heavy precious metal case.”
To set the time, the wear chimes the watch using the slide on the side of the casing. Then the wearer adjusts the time using markers on the crown. I like it. It’s a simple and clever way to set a watch without hands.
This watchmaker started using the Apple Watch design in 2016 and now has a range of timepieces that mimic the rounded square look in its Swiss Alp Watch line.
H. Moser is known for its concept watches. Don’t expect this watch to be in your local Tourneau. It’s a publicity stunt for H. Moser’s custom watch business that lets the ultra-rich develop one-off timepieces. As for this concept, I’m a fan. The watch demonstrates everything special about the watch industry right now. After years of getting beat up from the Apple Watch, it’s finding its groove in producing both beautiful and affordable mechanical watches and wonderful unattainable timepieces. To be justified, watches do not have to have apps; they just have to delight the wearer — and this $350,000 watch does just that.

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Momo, Vietnam’s top payment app, lands big Series C investment led by Warburg Pincus

Fintech in Southeast Asia continues to pique the attention of global investors. Alibaba, Tencent and others have jumped into the region and deployed hundreds of millions of dollars, and now Warburg Pincus is joining them. The U.S.-headquartered PE firm has led a Series C investment in Vietnam’s Momo, which claims to be the country’s largest mobile wallet company with 10 million downloads.
Momo already has some big-name investors; Standard Chartered led a $28 million round in 2016 while Goldman Sachs invested $5.8 million back in 2013.
The size of this new round isn’t being disclosed, but Pham Thanh Duc, CEO of M-Service — the parent company of Momo — said it is a record deal for an e-commerce or fintech startup in Vietnam. A lot of the biggest deals in Vietnam have been undisclosed, but one of the largest from last year was a $50 million-odd investment in e-commerce company Tiki from China’s JD.com, which gives an indication of the size. The deal might even be as high as $100 million, according to a Deal Street Asia report, although Pham declined to comment on the figure.
M-Service was founded over a decade ago; Momo is its take on digital payments in Vietnam, a market of nearly 100 million people, one-quarter of whom are aged under 25.
Momo started out offering digital payment via an e-wallet app. It has since expanded into utility bill payments and mobile top-up, as well as areas like movie tickets, airline flights and payment for goods and services at 100,000 payment points nationwide, including popular chains. The service recently began offering bill payment for loans, and Pham said it is developing a credit scoring system that will allow it to introduce financial services to users in partnership with financial institutions.
The playbook, he said, is very much based upon the success of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay services in China, which went from payments to loans and investing and more.
While both of those Chinese internet giants have stepped into Southeast Asia with fintech investments in markets like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, neither has entered Vietnam at this point. Pham said Momo has an ongoing dialogue with Alibaba, but there’s been no investment. Since neither Alibaba nor its fintech affiliate Ant Financial has an operating presence in Vietnam, he said the relationship is “just conversations” at this point. That’s certainly a pairing that is worth keeping an eye on as Alibaba aims to enlarge its presence in Southeast Asia, which — with a cumulative population of 600 million people, growing middle classes and rising internet access — is seen as a growth opportunity by Chinese tech companies.
Partner-wise, Momo works with the likes of Facebook and Google to provide payment for their services, and it will soon begin working with Apple, Pham revealed.
While other businesses may be looking region-wide, Momo is not entertaining new market expansions at this point.
“For the next two to three years, we are still very focused on the domestic market,” Pham told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s no short-term plan to expand to other countries [and] our main effort is focused on user base expansion in Vietnam.”
But, Pham said, he does expect that overseas players will enter Vietnam.
“Grab Pay and GoPay (from ride-hailing duo Grab and Go-Jek) will come soon and even Alipay, but I think that for the last five years we have been the number one e-wallet provider,” he said. “We care much about competitors because we are leading the market… other players have had to imitate our model.”
Estimating that nearest-competitor ZaloPay, from Vietnam’s top chat app Zalo, may have around “one-tenth” of the user base of Momo, Pham explained that he believes his company is around 12-18 months ahead of the competitor.
This new investment — which was led by a Warburg Pincus affiliate in Vietnam and closed last year — is aimed at fortifying that lead and grabbing a much larger slice of the Vietnamese population, which is tipped to rocket past 100 million by 2025.

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