TCL just dropped the sequel to the KeyOne, the company’s surprisingly good keyboard-sporting BlackBerry handset. We reviewed it roughly this time last year, and it was almost enough to restore our faith in the possibilities of BlackBerry as a brand. Almost. Of course, that had much more to do with TCL’s ability to create solid hardware than any residual BB legacy.
The Key2 builds on the promise of its predecessor, bringing back the physical keyboard and familiar BlackBerry-styled design, constructed around a 4.5-inch touchscreen and aluminum frame. The phone, naturally, runs Android (8.1 to start), loaded up with your standard suite of BlackBerry software, including DTEK. The security app has been updated with a new Proactive Health feature, which offers a full system scan.
As TCL proudly notes, this is the first BlackBerry/BlackBerry-branded device to feature dual rear-facing cameras, so that’s something. The pair of 12-megapixel cameras help deliver the device into 2018 with features like Portrait Mode, Optical Super Zoom and Google Lens.
There’s a chunky 3,500mAH battery and a middling Snapdragon 660, coupled with a generous 6GB of RAM and either 64- or 128GB of storage. Not too shabby, but all of that comes with a $649 price tag, which marks a $100 premium over the KeyOne, which should make this a bit of a tougher pill to swallow for what to many no doubt still feels like a bit of a novelty in the smartphone category.
The Key2 starts shipping this month, and TCL tells me that it plans to keep selling the KeyOne as well, for the time being.
Some Samsung users are complaining that their smartphones randomly sent photos and scheduled texts to contacts. According to posts on Reddit and Samsung’s official support boards first spotted by Gizmodo, the devices affected include the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 8. Their owners say that Samsung Messages, the default texting app for Galaxy devices, pushed photos and scheduled texts to random contacts, but left no record of the messages being sent.
One Reddit user says his Galaxy S9+ sent his entire photo library to a contact in the middle of the night while he was asleep (fortunately, that contact was his partner). The poster says that even though there was no evidence of the mass photo sharing in Samsung Messages, it showed up on his T-Mobile logs. He also added that he has never used the Shared tab in Samsung Gallery app, which lets users send photos through messaging apps, email or social media without leaving their photo gallery.
The issue also appears to be affecting some text messages. On Samsung’s Galaxy S9 support board, a user said Samsung Messages became buggy after a T-Mobile RCS/advanced messaging update on his phone. Errors included scheduled text messages ending up in the wrong threads.
Many complaints posted online are from people who said they are T-Mobile customers and recently updated Samsung Messages, leading to a theory that the issue may have been triggered by the carrier’s recent RCS (Rich Communication Services) updates. RCS is supposed to improve texting by adding features like group chat, video and GIF support, and file and location sharing. Since several accounts said photos had been randomly sent to partners or family members, there is also speculation that the problem affects shared plans.
In a statement, a Samsung spokesperson said “We are aware of the reports regarding this matter and our technical teams are looking into it. Concerned customers are encouraged to contact us directly at 1-800-SAMSUNG.” TechCrunch has also reached out to T-Mobile for comment. The carrier told Gizmodo that “it’s not a T-mobile issues” and asked users to contact Samsung.
There are currently two fixes if you are worried about the issue affecting your device. First, you can go into its app settings and revoke Samsung Message’s ability to access your storage, which means it won’t be able to send anything stored on your phone, including photos. This may be a pain, however, because it means if you do want to send photos or files through the app, you need to restore permission in Settings again. The second fix is to stop using Samsung Messages until the company says the issue has been resolved and switch to a third-party messaging app instead.
Uber has hired its first chief privacy officer, as well as a former TomTom executive in charge, ensuring the ride-hailing company complies with the EU’s data protection laws. The new hires, which were announced to Uber employees in an internal email, aim to help the company strengthen its privacy standards and data protections.
Ruby Zefo, who was hired as chief privacy officer, will be based in San Francisco and is expected to start August 6, according to an email sent to Uber employees Wednesday. Zefo led Intel’s global privacy and security legal team. She also serves on the board of directors for the International Association of Privacy Professionals.
Zefo’s appointment is part of the company’s recent mission to move past an embarrassing data breach, as well as other weak privacy practices employed by former CEO Travis Kalanick, who resigned last year after a string of scandals. In April, Uber expanded a proposed settlement made with the Federal Trade Commission pertaining to data mishandling, privacy and security complaints that date back to 2014 and 2015. That proposed settlement happened prior to Uber’s disclosure of the massive 2016 data breach that affected some 57 million riders and drivers.
Uber has been working toward the CPO role for some time. The company has had privacy experts working in various departments, such as engineering and legal. These folks were responsible for a variety of protections, such as privacy settings available to riders in its app and a platform to protect big data analysis.
Now Uber has brought on an executive to pull together privacy standards, procedures and processes in every market where it operates.
Uber has also hired Simon Hania as its data protection officer, as mandated under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Hania, who will report directly to Uber’s chief legal officer Tony West, is there to make sure Uber complies with EU privacy laws. The company previously used an outside firm in the Netherlands to handle this job. Hania is Uber’s first DPO hire.
Hania previously worked at TomTom, where he was vice president of privacy and security and focused on connected and autonomous vehicles, and wearable technologies.
Fortnite’s journey to Android has been a complicated one. A few months back, Epic Games promised to bring the wildly popular survival sandbox title to the mobile OS, but only after sidestepping the traditional process for doing so. Fittingly, while it now appears to be live for Android, the process of actually getting the game is, well, complicated.
If you want to get started, you’ll need to sign up for a beta of the game. That’s right, while the title has been up and running on any number of other platforms (including its three-day head start on Samsung devices), it’s still in beta on Android. Give Epic your email address, and they’ll send you an invite…”as soon as you can play.”
How soon is that? Well, there appears to be a waiting list at the moment. How long all of this will take is anyone’s guess, though the company says it can take “a few days” for all of it to go through. Since the whole thing is bypassing the Google Play store (much to Google’s chagrin), you’ll need to install the Fortnite Installer APK to install Fortnite the game.
I went through a similar process to get the game on the Note 9. It’s weird and kind of annoying, but when it’s done, it’s done.
Oh, and you’ll want to make sure your phone is compatible. Epic’s got the full list here, which seems to include a pretty broad range, including Pixel devices and handsets from Huawei, LG, Nokia, OnePlus, Xiaomi, ZTE and Razer.
Square is announcing a new debit card, called the Square Card, which will allow businesses to withdraw and spend the money they’re bringing in through Square payments.
In a conference call with reporters, the company laid out a number of benefits that the card should offer to Square sellers. The big one: It could help with cashflow, eliminating any delay between making a sale and having that money available to spend.
To be clear, businesses aren’t creating a new bank account. Instead, the card — a free debit card from Mastercard — allows them to tap into the funds that are already in their Square account, without having to transfer the money to a separate bank account first.
In addition, Square said that for 40 percent of beta testers, the Square Card is their very first business debit card, making it easier for them to track their businesses expenses, which can be crucial come tax time. And the company is also trying to encourage spending within the Square ecosystem, offering a 2.75 percent discount (2.75 percent is the company’s standard processing fee) on purchases that Square Card holders make from other Square sellers.
C.C. Nedrow, owner of Payton’s Photography in Montgomery, Illinois, has been testing out the card, and she said it’s already been useful: “As soon as I get a payment, if I need to go buy props … I don’t have to wait. The funds are available immediately.”
Nedrow admitted that even with the Square Card, it’s not always possible to keep business and personal expenses separate. But if she makes a personal purchase with the card, it’s easy to go into her account and mark it as a personal expense. And she said she even took advantage of the discount to buy some coffee right before the call.
Square Seller Lead Alyssa Henry noted that this is one of several Square cashflow products —including Square Capital, which offers cash advances to small businesses. The Square Card currently works separately, but she said, “You can imagine, at some point in the future, that there could be further ecosystem integration.”
Microsoft Cognitive Services is home to the company’s hosted artificial intelligence algorithms. Today, the company announced advances to several Cognitive Services tools including Microsoft Custom Vision Service, the Face API and Bing Entity Search . Joseph Sirosh, who leads the Microsoft’s cloud AI efforts, defined Microsoft Cognitive Services in a company blog post announcing… Read More
Twitter, Vine, Voxer, MessageMe. Facebook has repeatedly cut off competitors from its feature for finding your Facebook friends on their apps… after jumpstarting its own social graph by convincing people to upload their Gmail contacts. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Download Your Information tool merely exports a text list of friends’ names you can’t use elsewhere.
As Congress considers potential regulation following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies, it should prioritize leveling the playing field for aspiring alternatives to Facebook and letting consumers choose where to social network. And as a show of good faith and argument against it abusing its monopoly, Facebook should make our friend list truly portable.
It’s time to free the social graph — to treat it as a fundamental digital possession, the way the Telecommunications Act of 1996 protects your right to bring your phone number with you to a new network.
The two most powerful ways to do this would be for Facebook to stop, or Congress to stop it from, blocking friend finding on competitors like it’s done in the past to Twitter and more. And Facebook should change its Download Your Information tool to export our friend list in a truly interoperable format. When you friend someone on Facebook, they’re not just a name. They’re someone specific amongst often many with the same name, and Facebook should be open to us getting connected with them elsewhere.
Facebook takes data it won’t give
While it continues til this day, back in 2010 Facebook goaded users to import their Gmail address books so they could add them as Facebook friends. But it refused to let users export the email addresses of their friends to use elsewhere. That led Google to change its policy and require data portability reciprocity from any app using its Contacts API.
So did Facebook back off? No. It built a workaround, giving users a deep link to download their Gmail contacts from Google’s honorable export tool. Facebook then painstakingly explained to users how to upload that file so it could suggest they friend all those contacts.
Google didn’t want to stop users from legitimately exporting their contacts, so it just put up a strongly worded warning to Gmail users: “Trap my contacts now:Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out? . . . Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data.” And Google offered to let you “Register a complaint over data protectionism.”
Eight years later, Facebook has grown from a scrappy upstart chasing Google to become one of the biggest, most powerful players on the internet. And it’s still teaching users how to snatch their Gmail contacts’ email addresses while only letting you export the names of your friends — unless they opt-in through an obscure setting, because it considers contact info they’ve shared as their data, not yours. Whether you should be allowed to upload other people’s contact info to a social network is a bigger question. But it is blatant data portability hypocrisy for Facebook to encourage users to import that data from other apps but not export it.
In some respects, it’s good that you can’t mass-export the email addresses of all your Facebook friends. That could enable spamming, which probably isn’t what someone had in mind when they added you as friend on Facebook. They could always block, unfriend or mute you, but they can’t get their email address back. Facebook is already enduring criticism about how it handled data privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Yet the idea that you could find your Facebook friends on other apps is a legitimate reason for the platform to exist. It’s one of the things that’s made Facebook Login so useful and popular. Facebook’s API lets certain apps check to see if your Facebook friends have already signed up, so you can easily follow them or send them a connection request. But Facebook has rescinded that option when it senses true competition.
Twitter is the biggest example. Facebook didn’t and still doesn’t let you see which of your Facebook friends are on Twitter, even though it has seven times as many users. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, frustrated in 2010, said that “They see their social graph as their core asset, and they want to make sure there’s a win-win relationship with anybody who accesses it.”
Facebook went on to establish a formal policy that said that apps that wanted to use its Find Friends tool had to abide by these rules:
If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook.
You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.
Essentially, apps that piggybacked on Facebook’s social graph had to let you share back to Facebook, and couldn’t compete with it. It’s a bit ironic, given Facebook’s overarching strategy for years has been “replicate core functionality.” From cloning Twitter’s asymmetrical follow and Trending Topics to Snapchat’s Stories and augmented reality filters, all the way back to cribbing FriendFeed’s News Feed and Facebook’s start as a rip-off of the Winklevii’s HarvardConnection.
Restrictions against replicating core functionality aren’t unheard of in tech. Apple’s iOS won’t let you run an App Store from inside an app, for example. But Facebook’s selective enforcement of the policy is troubling. It simply ignores competing apps that never get popular. Yet if they start to grow into potential rivals, Facebook has swiftly enforced this policy and removed their Find Friends access, often inhibiting further growth and engagement.
Here are few of examples of times Facebook has cut off competitors from its graph:
Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie-style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he thought that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted toward business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its six-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.
As I wrote in 2013, “Enforcement of these policies could create a moat around Facebook. It creates a barrier to engagement, retention, and growth for competing companies.” But in 2018, amongst whispers of anti-trust action, Facebook restricting access to its social graph to protect the dominance of its News Feed seems egregiously anti-competitive.
That’s why Facebook should pledge to stop banning competitors from using its Find Friends tool. If not, congress should tell Facebook that this kind of behavior could lead to more stringent regulation.
Friends aren’t just names
When Senator John Neely Kennedy asked Zuckerberg this week, “are you willing to give me the right to take my data on Facebook and move it to another social media platform?”, Zuckerberg claimed that “Senator, you can already do that. We have a Download Your Information tool where you can go get a file of all the content there, and then do whatever you want with it.”
But that’s not exactly true. You can export your photos that can be easily uploaded elsewhere. But your social graph — all those confirmed friend requests — gets reduced to a useless string of text. Download Your Information spits out merely a list of your friends’ names and the dates on which you got connected. There’s no unique username. No link to their Facebook profile. Nothing you can use to find them on another social network beyond manually typing in their names.
That’s especially problematic if your friends have common names. There are tons of John Smiths on Facebook, so finding him on another social network with just a name will require a lot of sleuthing, or guess-work. Depending on where you live, locating a particular Garcia, Smirnov or Lee could be quite difficult. Facebook even built a short-lived feature called Friendshake to help you friend someone nearby amongst everyone in their overlapping name space.
When I asked about this, Facebook told me that users can opt-in to having their email or phone number included in the Download Your Information export. But this privacy setting is buried and little-known. Just 4 percent of my friends, centered around tech savvy San Francisco, had enabled it.
As I criticized way back in 2010 when Download Your Information launched, “The data can be used as a diary, or to replace other information from a hard drive crash or stolen computer — but not necessarily to switch to a different social network.”
Given Facebook’s iron grip on the Find Friends API, users deserve decentralized data portability — a way to take their friends with them that Facebook can’t take back. That’s what Download Your Information should offer, but doesn’t.
Social graph portability
This is why I’m calling on Facebook to improve the data portability of your friend connections. Give us the same consumer protections that make phone numbers portable.
At the very least Facebook should include your friends’ unique Facebook username and URL. But true portability would mean you could upload the list to another social network to find your friends there.
One option would be for Facebook’s export to include a privacy-safe, hashed version of your friends’ email address that they signed up with and share with you. Facebook could build a hashed email lookup tool so that if you uploaded these nonsensical strings of characters to another app, they could cross-reference them against Facebook’s database of your friends. If there’s a match, the app could surface that person as someone with whom you might want to reconnect. Effectively, this would let you find friends elsewhere via email address without Facebook ever giving you or other apps a human-readable list of their contact info.
If you can’t take your social graph with you, there’s little chance for a viable alternative to Facebook to arise. It doesn’t matter if a better social network emerges, or if Facebook disrespects your privacy, because there’s nowhere to go. Opening up the social graph would require Facebook to compete on the merit of its product and policies. Trying to force the company’s hand with a variety of privacy regulations won’t solve the core issue. But the prospect of users actually being able to leave would let the market compel Facebook to treat us better.
For more on Facebook’s challenges with data privacy, check out TechCrunch’s feature stories:
Zuckerberg’s boring testimony is a big win for Facebook
Highlights and audio from Zuckerberg’s emotional Q&A on scandals
The real threat to Facebook is the Kool-Aid turning sour
If content creators want to sell pricier monthly content subscriptions, offering stickers, pins, signed photos or t-shirts can convince fans to pay a higher fee and keep them loyal with a physical connection. That’s why patronage platform Patreon just acquired Kit, a startup building a merchandise logistics backend so creators don’t have to fiddle with spreadsheets and stuff envelopes themselves.
“Over 60 percent of today’s Patreon creators either want to or are already delivering some kind of physical merchandise,” says Patreon’s VP of Product, Wyatt Jenkins. Together, the startups could help Patreon creators develop merch items that fans subscribe to get ahold of, potentially shelling out for $10 or $20 per month tiers rather than basic $1 or $5 online content-only tiers.
The deal also could help Patreon stay ahead of YouTube and Facebook, which are encroaching on its subscription patronage model. Patreon now has 2 million patrons backing 100,000 creators. It paid out $350 million over its first five years through 2017, and expects to send creators another $300 million in 2018, while taking a 5 percent cut.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Ninety percent of Kit’s team, mostly product and engineering talent, will join San Francisco-based Patreon, though they’ll stay put in NYC as a satellite office the rest of the year. Kit had raised $2.5 million from Social Capital, Expa, #Angels, Precursor and Stanford’s StartX, as well as angels like Ellen Pao and Slack’s April Underwood.
“When we think about merch, it’s never been fully about the thing — the sticker or the t-shirt — there’s this relationship. This human-to-human connection,” says Kit co-founder and CEO Camille Hearst.
Kit was in the process of pivoting toward merchandise logistics and raising a Series A when it began talks with Patreon, leading to the acquisition. The startup was originally built as a way for social media stars and online celebrities to earn affiliate marketing fees by recommending products to fans through Kit, which took a cut of the referral dollars. Some creators showing off their “Kit” of camera equipment, sportswear or caffeination supplies were earning tens of thousands of dollars.
“We were at a stage where everything was going in the right direction. We had seen strong growth in monthly active users and how much creators were making,” Hearst says, noting Kit had reached $15 million in gross merchandise value. For what it’s worth, we hadn’t heard the startup was #crushingit and Patreon repeatedly refused to give even a ballpark figure for the price, so this might have been more of a soft landing.
“It just seemed like we would be able to accelerate what we were doing by joining with Patreon. Merch is very transaction-focused compared with a subscription,” Hearst explains, touting the high lifetime value of recurring payments over one-off purchases. “You can help creators earn a lot more money if you use merch to sell subscriptions.”
The pre-Kit Patreon team
The plan at Patreon is to build out a new open merchandise provider platform. Creators will be able to choose between a variety of merch partners ranging from those that turn their existing logo into physical goods to those that will design items based on merely vague ideas from the star. But in the meantime, Kit won’t be shutting down or ditching its affiliate program because “we don’t want to turn off any revenue streams” that creators depend on, Hearst promises.
“Right now creators have to choose between different merch partners,” without collective bargaining power or enough data to know what works, says Jenkins. “We can have set pricing for all those merch partners that will be lower than they can get on their own,” while alleviating creators from having to juggle spreadsheets of who gets what and mailing it all themselves.
The plan for Patreon to monetize merch is a little less clear, though Jenkins says, “We’re going to grow the pie and we want a piece of the growth.” The idea is that using Patreon’s merchandise platform will incur extra fees beyond the skimpy 5 percent it earns on subscriptions. If adding a merch item significantly boosts the subscriber number for a certain tier, Patreon will take a TBD cut. For comparison, YouTube takes a much more hands-off approach, merely listing suggested merchandise partners with whom to work.
“We want creators to make a living. That’s not a side hustle. You have to make more money year over year, You have to be able to do things like buy a house or get healthcare,” Jenkins concludes. “All the other platforms are ‘give us your content and we’ll give you a little side change.’ That kind of led us down the merch path. Creators are were begging for merch.”
Kit, the Expa-backed social network for product reccos, lands $2.5 million in seed
Subscription art crowdfunder Patreon confirms $60M fundraise
At Amazon’s event in September, the company announced the Echo Auto, an aftermarket product designed to bring Alexa to cars. But the device has remained in pre-order status, even as other products also unveiled at the same event — like the Fire TV Recast, AmazonBasics microwave and various Echo devices for the home — went on sale and shipped to customers. The Echo Auto, meanwhile, is still only available on an invite-only basis. But Amazon confirmed to TechCrunch that it has begun to ship the device to pre-order customers.
In fact, some Echo Auto customers received their new device in time for Christmas, according to Steve Rabuchin, VP, Alexa.
Apparently, the Echo Auto was in demand, too.
“We had over a million [pre-order] requests,” Rabuchin told us. “Now, we’re just starting to ship.”
Amazon says the device began to ship to the first set of customers in December, and pre-orders continue to be fulfilled.
What Amazon didn’t explain is why the device has remained in pre-order status for so long, why it largely missed the holiday season with this ideal stocking stuffer-type of product or when it would finally exit “invite only” status for good. (That’s right — you still can’t just buy one!)
The Echo Auto isn’t the only Echo product that ran in short supply in recent days.
According to Bloomberg, Amazon’s online retail store in North America and Europe had some issues keeping some of its Echo devices in stock in time for Christmas delivery, too.
It’s not all bad news, however. Despite the shortages, the retailer reported a record-breaking holiday season, including “millions more Amazon devices” sold compared the 2017 holidays. Over the course of the year, Amazon says it sold “tens of millions” of Echo products, and it just announced a milestone of 100 million Alexa devices sold to date.
What if you could peek behind what’s in your photos, like you’re moving your head to see what’s inside a window? That’s the futuristic promise of Facebook 3D photos. After announcing the feature at F8 in May, Facebook is now rolling out 3D photos to add make-believe depth to your iPhone portrait mode shots. Shoot one, tap the new 3D photos option in the status update composer, select a portrait mode photo and users on the desktop or mobile News Feed as well as in VR through Oculus Go’s browser or Firefox on Oculus Rift can tap/click and drag or move their head to see the photo’s depth. Everyone can now view 3D photos and the ability to create them will open to everyone in the coming weeks.
Facebook is constantly in search of ways to keep the News Feed interesting. What started with text and photos eventually expanded into videos and live broadcasts, and now to 360 photos and 3D photos. Facebook hopes if it’s the exclusive social media home for these new kinds of content, you’ll come back to explore and rack up some ad views in the meantime. Sometimes that means embracing mind-bending new formats like VR memories that recreate a scene in digital pointillism based on a photo.
So how exactly do 3D photos work? Our writer Devin Coldewey did a deep-dive earlier this year into how Facebook uses AI to stitch together real layers of the photo with what it infers should be there if you tilted your perspective. Since portrait mode fires off both of a phone’s cameras simultaneously, parallax differences can be used to recreate what’s behind the subject.
How Facebook’s new 3D photos work
To create the best 3D photos with your iPhone 7+, 8+, X or XS (more phones will work with the feature in the future), Facebook recommends you keep your subject three to four feet away, and have things in the foreground and background. Distinct colors will make the layers separate better, and transparent or shiny objects like glass or plastic can throw off the AI.
Originally, the idea was to democratize the creation of VR content. But with headset penetration still relatively low, it’s the ability to display depth in the News Feed that will have the greatest impact for Facebook. In an era where Facebook’s cool is waning, hosting next-generation art forms could make it a must-visit property even as more of our socializing moves to Instagram.
A fintech whale quietly going about its business in Southeast Asia has come out from under the radar after Oriente, a Hong Kong-based business headed by Skype’s first employee, announced that it has raised a whopping $105 million.
It may not be well known at this point, but the company has some serious street cred.
Oriente was started in 2017 by Geoff Prentice, a Skype co-founder and ex-Chief Strategy Officer, Hubert Tai, a founder of Ping An’s Lufax and Chinese unicorn dangdang.com, and investor Lawrence Chu. The trio came together when Prentice moved on to Atomico — the VC firm started by Skype’s founders after they sold to eBay — and Chu, then with investment firm BlackPine, invited him to invest in Lufax where he bumped into Tai.
“I was going to start this fund with Lawrence to focus on old and new economy stuff together. We went to look at Southeast Asia financial services [businesses] and we were like ‘there’s nothing here.’ So I literally begged Hubert out of retirement and said ‘you’ve got to do this,'” Prentice, very much a straight shooter, told TechCrunch in an interview.
“Silicon Valley isn’t my cup of tea,” he added.
The project is definitely a far cry from the latest buzz in The Valley.
Oriente is aimed at providing digital credit and financial products in Southeast Asia, a region of 650 million people where the digital economy is predicted to triple over the next six years. Right now, it operates in the Philippines and Indonesia where its two services — Cashalo and Finmas, respectively — offer credit services for consumers using a mixture of online and offline. It is taking steps to launch in Vietnam but Prentice told TechCrunch that there is no other expansion plan at this point.
The goal is to digitizing financial services and help more people in Southeast Asia get access to banking services. While Southeast Asia is often reported to have a booming middle class, many are out of reach of that.
For example, in the Philippines — Oriente’s debut market — some 77 percent of the 105 million population is unbanked, according to a recent report. Of those unbanked, some 60 percent said that they do not operate an account due to a lack of money. The numbers are similar across other parts of Southeast Asia, yet mobile access is surging — Southeast Asia has more internet users than the entire U.S. population — offer a potential bridge to improve the situation.
Oriente’s first product was Cashalo which launched in the Philippines in June 2018
The services are digital but they use offline touch points to reach new customers. In the latter case, Oriente’s local businesses deploy salespeople in major malls and stores to help customers learn about the services themselves and the concept of payback schemes. Oriente takes a slight twist on the take. Instead of offering payback on single items, the services cover a basket of items to allow customers to pay a series of items on credit.
To help that offline push, Oriente has recruited top name investors that include a group of family offices that span members of the Berjaya Group, JG Summit Holdings and Sinar Mas. Though that is not the entities themselves, they have the potential to be highly strategic. Malaysia’s Berjaya is in property, consumer marketing and more; JG Summit operates retail, banking and even aviation in the Philippines; while Indonesia’s Sinar Mas covers financial services, telecom and more.
“If you want to build the financial services behemoth of Southeast Asia in the next 10 years how do you do that? Well, it’s going to be on a digital platform obviously but then, of course, we also have to have KYC people, you need your own collections people, you need offline sales… you need to take the best of the best technology part and then you merge it with the best of the other things,” Prentice said of the offline-online focus.
The business itself already has some 1,200 employees spread across seven offices in Asia — including a 200-person engineering team in Shanghai, composed of many former Lufax workers — with 60,000 borrowers in the Philippines alone. The Indonesian business is newer, having launched only in August and in beta, but the company expects to reach “millions” of lenders across its three markets next year.
One big challenge from an engineering perspective is constructing basic infrastructure, such as credit scoring, KYC and assessment. Existing credit bureau systems don’t cover many of the population, so Oriente is investing heavily in data-based systems to develop signals for credit assessment and, importantly, to combat fraud.
There are plenty of others battling the same fight in the region, with Ant Financial — Alibaba’s fintech affiliate — in particular setting up businesses across the region with a focus on payments and digital financial services. Grab, the ride-hailing firm that purchased Uber’s local business earlier this year, has also ventured into payments with plans for financial services as its nemesis Go-Jek has done already. That’s quite the backdrop for a battle with Oriente and its unique blend of experienced founders from the East and West and strategic corporate backers.
Update: The original version of this post has been updated to correct the investors.
Financial advisors aren’t cheap to use. They aren’t always seen as trustworthy, either, with many advisors receiving — or perceived as receiving — incentives for recommending certain products over others.
Grove, a two-year-old, San Francisco-based startup, is taking on both of these issues through software that makes it easier for its own financial advisors — who are paid a straight salary — to help greater numbers of people, and more cost-effectively.
Specifically, for $600 a year, a customer can talk with or email his or her financial advisor about all kinds of decisions, from which index funds are worth considering, to whether a particular house is within reach given that person’s retirement goals.
So far, the company has just 12 employees, half of whom are financial advisors and the other half of whom are working on the product itself.
Co-founder and CEO Chris Hutchins won’t reveal how many people each financial advisor is working with currently out of fear that it might give away too much about the young company’s revenue. But generally speaking, the number of clients with whom advisors work can vary widely, from tens to many hundreds. (In a 2016 Barron’s article about the “best” 1,200 financial advisors in the U.S., the advisors worked on average with a stunning 520 families.)
Either way, Grove’s investors — many of whom are athletes — think the company is on to something. Just five months after announcing $2.1 million in seed funding (money that Hutchins says was raised a bit earlier, in 2017), Grove has closed on $8 million in fresh funding.
Defy Ventures, launched last year by veteran VCs Trae Vassallo and Neil Sequeira, led the financing, with participation from Tusk Ventures, Bullish and Winklevoss Capital. The round also included, among others, NBA star Kevin Durant; former football player Patrick Kearny; and former football player Ryan Nece, who today runs the venture firm NextPlay Capital.
Asked about Grove’s connection to star athletes, Hutchins — who’d earlier spent several years as an investor with GV — says Grove “struck a chord with them. Many know people who had a lot of money and worked with financial advisors but who didn’t always get the best advice or worked with people who didn’t have their best interests in mind.”
They like the idea of unbiased advice, suggests Hutchins. They also like that one needn’t be a professional athlete to afford it.