French startup Qarnot unveiled a new computing heater specifically made for cryptocurrency mining. You’ve read that right, the QC1 is a heater for your home that features a passive computer inside. And this computer is optimized for mining. While most people use laptops, back in the golden days of computer towers, you could heat a room with a couple of desktop computers. And heat is… Read More
Resy launched in the summer of 2014 with a simple premise: If you want a premium reservation at a restaurant on short notice, you should be able to pay for it. Four years and 160 markets later, Resy has changed a lot since then.
But today, the company is about to change things up even more.
This morning, Resy has announced a brand new suite of tools for restaurants, including a new inventory management system called ResyFly.
As it stands now, restaurants have two options when it comes to inventory management for their reservations. They can choose a slot system, where diners are seated at 6pm, 8pm and 10pm, or they can opt for a flex system, where they take reservations as they’re called in and build the night’s reservations based off what comes in first.
Unfortunately, most restaurants have to choose between these two systems, as there are no inventory management systems that offer the ability to do both, according to Resy.
ResyFly uses Resy’s troves of data to determine the best way for restaurants to eliminate gaps in their inventory throughout a given night, taking into account things like date, time, weather and even the average time spent eating at a given restaurant. The tool gives restaurants the ability to schedule different floor plans, reservation grids and hours of operation for special days like Valentine’s Day.
Alongside ResyFly, the company is also introducing Business Intelligence, a window into important information like KPIs, revenue and ratings with third-party information from platforms like Foursquare layered in and integrated with POS software providers to offer real-time revenue reporting.
But sometimes you want direct feedback from the customer. To that end, Resy is launching Resy Surveys, which gives a restaurant the opportunity to send a custom survey to customers about their experience. Resy is also integrating with Upserve, giving Resy’s restaurant partners insights into their guests’ preferences and favorite dishes, as well as info on dining companions, frequency of bookings and historical spend.
And while Resy is focused on refining the product, the company is also focused on growth. That’s why Resy has announced the launch of Resy Global Service, which lets Resy distribute inventory to partners like Airbnb. (It’s worth noting that Airbnb led Resy’s $13 million funding round in 2017.)
Finally, Resy is working on a new membership loyalty program called Resy Select, which will launch at the end of the month. Resy Select is an invite-only program that gives restaurants insights into Resy’s hungriest users, and gives those users benefits such as exclusive booking windows, priority waitlist, early access tickets to events and other exclusive experiences like meeting the chef or touring the kitchen.
Resy books more than 1 million reservations on the platform each week. The company no longer charges users for reservations, but rather charges restaurants by feature, instead of cover, with three tiers ranging from $189/month to $899/month. That said, the company is not yet self-serve on the restaurant side, but founder and CEO Ben Leventhal said the team is thinking about introducing it in the future.
“The key challenge and key opportunity is to do everything we can to make the right choices about what we build and the order we build it in,” said Leventhal. “Our goal is to stay focused on restaurants, as a significant amount of the tech we build is built in conjunction with our restaurant partners.”
Y Combinator, the popular startup accelerator program, has never been shy about experimenting. Now, in its latest trial, the outfit is launching what it’s calling a Series A program. The idea is to help alums that maybe picked up seed funding after one of YC’s famous Demo Day presentations but that could use some help thinking through how much to raise in Series A funding, and from whom.
We talked Friday with the YC partner who is leading the program, Aaron Harris, about how it will work, why YC deems it necessary and what it signals about the 15 companies that will be accepted into each of these batches, where they will meet every other week over a two-month period to discuss (in part) business models, forecasts, pitch decks and how to approach meeting with different types of investors.
TC: For readers who don’t know you, how did you wind up at YC and how long have you been involved with the organization?
AH: I’ve been a partner for five years. I co-founded a [since shuttered] company, TutorSpree, which went through YC in 2011 and was funded by Sequoia Capital. Before that, I worked at a hedge fund in New York.
TC: Why create programming around Series A rounds?
AH: As YC has gotten bigger, we’ve had more companies reaching Series A-level funding, and what I noticed was that we didn’t have great advice to give them. The advice was sort of scaled up from seed [round discussions] and while that works for some, it doesn’t work for others. It became apparent that founders don’t have a great sense of who they should be talking with and about what.
In 2017, 62 of our alums raised $550 million across their Series A rounds. That’s more than in any other portfolio in the world as far as I’m aware, so we should know more than others. But we hadn’t established best practices around this, so I started advising companies on a one-off basis about six months ago; now, we’re formalizing the process.
TC: How long after companies graduate from YC and close their seed rounds do they raise Series A rounds typically? And what are some of the things you learned by looking across your portfolio?
AH: It’s often between 14 and 18 months afterward, and what we’ve seen is a cadence to Series A funding. You see a lot of rounds [being sewn up] in September and October and November and then they kind of stop until late January, then you start to see [most of them again] in March and April and May.
If companies plan far enough ahead — assuming they hit their milestones — they can raise with more control if they’re aware of these cycles.
TC: Beyond that VCs generally slow down in the summer and over the winter holidays, what have been some of your other observations?
AH: A lot of it boils down to the process and the way they work on raising. The thing that founders screw up the most in raising a Series A is they let it get away from them, and they let it fall into a serial process, talking with investors with half a story over many months. When when it comes to this kind of round, you want to make a clear delineation. You might meet investors to start a relationship, but you don’t want to pitch them in an active sense. Instead, when the time is right, you move, saying, “Can I come in and pitch you?”
You want to have those pitch meetings in a tight window so that investors are meeting with you at the same time and there’s little information [leakage] in the ecosystem.
TC: Do you feel like YC — or its portfolio companies — need to be more strategic because the bar for Series A funding has grown higher?
AH: Naturally, there’s fallout from seed to A, and that’s good; that means risk is being taken at the seed stage.
[A bigger impetus are the] greater and more diverse groups doing Series A investing than in the past. You’re seeing rounds being led by firms that aren’t the top-tier Silicon Valley names but smaller, newer funds, including funds abroad that invest internationally. I think it just reflects the increasingly global nature of VC now that more capital is looking for yield, whether from sovereign wealth funds or pension funds or other outlets. But founders have no idea how to access those sources of capital. So we’ll have an application for investors to learn which companies are raising Series A rounds. We’re building software around that information to better match founders with the right investors.
TC: Does YC have concerns about how many outfits are now offering startups seed funding and how many colors of “seed” have emerged, from pre-seed to seed to post-seed, and how that impacts A rounds?
AH: Dilution is an important aspect of this. One thing we’re doing is using the Series A program to point all the way back to Demo Day to inform companies on how much they should raise in order to hit milestones that will be relevant to A. It’s not just a YC problem. A lot of founders raise money at seed without thinking about what dilution means. They’ll take money at good terms, but they don’t think about how much money they need. Ideally, you raise the least amount possible to hit your milestones and you don’t over-maximize the price of the seed round; it makes it harder to raise [again later].
TC: You’ll begin working with your first batch of companies this summer. What can they expect?
AH: We’ll have 10 to 15 companies which, over two months, will be meeting roughly every other week with each other and myself and the rest of the Series A team, kind of like the office hours that we do now.
What’s a bit different from YC’s core program is there’s a clearer set of tactical objectives for each meeting. It might be about how you build a financial model for when your investor does diligence, or how you should think about who the right investor is, or how you have the right conversations with investors. It sounds basic, but founders don’t know how to talk with VCs unless they’ve done it before. It’s a very different conversation than with an angel investor. There’s a lot more to talk about and things you can predict ahead of time that will concern [Series A] investors. There should be more of a story because there’s more of a business.
TC: Are you worried about what this program signals to investors? You can imagine they will either see these as your most prized Series A-stage companies or your most troubled.
AH: We’ve definitely thought about this. Anything we do needs to contribute to network, and signaling risk can damage that.
The way we’re structuring this program gets to the heart of what’s so great about the YC network. It acts as a point at which you pull together a group of companies that are at similar stages and allows us to reforge a batch in cool ways. Early on, there’s tons of bonding and peer support at YC, but afterward, everyone tends to go in different directions. Having a new batch where everyone is at the Series A stage and who can talk about the GPs they’ve met with and what they’ve learned, or about the particular issues they’ve confronted when it comes to scaling, is [a lot of why we are doing this].
When it comes to the companies we work with, some will continue to raise As without us. There are always going to be founders with good VCs in their round who [help with Series A fundraising] and that’s great. They can still ask for our advice about term sheets and how to negotiate specific points. The ad hoc piece will never go away, just as it never goes away for any YC companies.
TC: How often will you “batch” these companies and who, other than your peers at YC, will be talking with these founders? Will you have outside speakers or mentors involved, too?
AH: We’ll bring in alums for their advice and for panel discussions and pitch practice — both alums who raised years ago and can share their good and bad stories, and people who’ve raised recently for some perspective on the market.
As for these batches, if it winds up being 12 batches a year, we’ll figure out how to do that.
Instagram is preparing to let you add music to your Stories, judging by code found inside its Android app. “music stickers” could let you search for and add a song to your posts, thanks to licensing deals with the major record labels recently struck by Facebook. Instagram is also testing a way to automatically detect a song you’re listening to and display the artist and song title as just a visual label.
Listenable music stickers would make Instagram Stories much more interesting to watch. Amateur video footage suddenly looks like DIY MTV when you add the right score. The feature could also steal thunder from teen lip syncing app sensation Musically, and stumbling rival Snapchat that planned but scrapped a big foray into music. And alongside Instagram Stories’ new platform for sharing posts directly from third-party apps, including Spotify and SoundCloud, these stickers could make Instagram a powerful driver of music discovery.
TechCrunch was first tipped off to the hidden music icons and code from reader Ishan Agarwal. Instagram declined to comment. But Instagram later confirmed three other big features first reported by TechCrunch and spotted by Agarwal that it initially refused to discuss: Focus mode for shooting portraits, QR-scannable Nametags for following people and video calling, which got an official debut at F8.
[Update: Jane Manchun Wong tells TechCrunch she was briefly able to test the feature, as seen in the screenshot above. The prototype design looks a bit janky, and Instagram crashed when she tried to post anything using the music stickers. Beyond the music sticker search interface seen on the right, Wong tells us Instagram automatically detected a song she was currently playing on her phone and created a sticker for it (not using audio recognition like Shazam).]
Facebook and Instagram’s video editing features have been in a sad state for a long time. I wrote about the big opportunity back in 2013, and in 2016 called on both Facebook and Instagram to add more editing features, including soundtracks. Finally in late 2017, Facebook started testing Sound Collection, which lets you add to your videos sound effects and a very limited range of not-popular artists’ songs. But since then, Facebook has secured licensing deals with Sony, Warner, Universal and European labels.
For years, people thought Facebook’s ongoing negotiations with record labels would power some Spotify competitor. But streaming is a crowded market with strong solutions already. The bigger problem for Facebook was that if users added soundtracks themselves using editing software, or a song playing in the background got caught in the recording, those videos could be removed due to copyright complaints from the labels. Facebook’s intention was the opposite — to make it easier to add popular music to your posts so they’d be more fun to consume.
Instagram’s music stickers could be the culmination of all those deals.
How Instagram music stickers work
The code shows that Instagram’s app has an unreleased “Search Music” feature built-in beside its location and friend-mention sticker search options inside Instagram Stories. These “music overlay stickers” can be searched using tabs for “Genres,” “Moods,” and “Trending.” Instagram could certainly change the feature before it’s launched, or scrap it all together. But the clear value of music stickers and the fact that Instagram owned up to the Focus, Nametags and Video Calling features all within three months of us reporting their appearance in the code lends weight to an upcoming launch.
It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that once you’ve picked a song and added it as a music sticker to your Story, a clip of that song will play while people watch. It’s possible that the initial version of the stickers will only display the artist and title of the song similar to Facebook’s activity status updates, rather than actually adding it as a listenable soundtrack.
These stickers will almost surely be addable to videos, but maybe Instagram will let you include them on photos too. It would be great if viewers could tap through the sticker to hear the song or check it out on their preferred streaming service. That could make Instagram the new Myspace, where you fall in love with new music through you friends; there are no indicators in the code about that.
Perhaps Instagram will be working with a particular partner on the feature, like it did with Giphy for its GIF stickers. Spotify, with its free tier and long-running integrations with Facebook dating back to the 2011 Open Graph ticker, would make an obvious choice. But Facebook might play it more neutral, powering the feature another way, or working with a range of providers, potentially including Apple, YouTube, SoundCloud and Amazon.
Several apps like Sounds and Soundtracking have tried to be the “Instagram for music.” But none have gained mass traction because it’s hard to tell if you like a song quickly enough to pause your scrolling, staring at album art isn’t fun, users don’t want a whole separate app for this and Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms can bury cross-posts of this content. But Stories — with original visuals that are easily skippable, natively created and consumed in your default social app — could succeed.
Getting more users wearing headphones or turning the sound on while using Instagram could be a boon to the app’s business, as advertisers all want to be heard, as well as seen. The stickers could also get young Instagrammers singing along to their favorite songs the way 60 million Musically users do. In that sense, music could spice up the lives of people who otherwise might not appear glamorous through Stories.
Music stickers could let Instagram beat Snapchat to the punch. Leaked emails from the 2014 Sony hack showed Snap CEO Evan Spiegel was intent on launching a music video streaming feature or even creating Snapchat’s own record label. But complications around revenue-sharing negotiations and the potential to distract the team and product from Snapchat’s core use case derailed the project. Instead, Snap has worked with record labels on Discover channels and augmented reality lenses to promote new songs. But Snapchat still has no sound board or soundtrack features, leaving some content silent or drowned in random noise.
With the right soaring strings, the everyday becomes epic. With the perfect hip-hop beat, a standard scene gains swagger. And with the hottest new dance hook, anywhere can be a party. Instagram has spent the past few years building all conceivable forms of visual flair to embellish your photos and videos. But it’s audio that could be the next dimension of Stories.
For more on the future of Stories, read our feature pieces:
Stories are about to surpass feed sharing. Now what?
Facebook and Instagram Stories open to sharing from other apps
Evernote, the productivity app with 225 million users that lets people take notes and organise other files from their working and non-work life, has been on a mission to reset its image as the go-to service for those seeking tools to help themselves be more efficient, years after losing its place as one of the most popular apps in the app store. But those changes have not come without their own challenges.
TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that in the last month, Evernote lost several of its most senior executives, including its CTO Anirban Kundu, CFO Vincent Toolan, CPO Erik Wrobel and head of HR Michelle Wagner beyond the usual attrition of engineers and designers.
The departures are coming at a key time: we have also heard that Evernote is fundraising, potentially in a down-round from its most recent (but now several years-old) valuation of $1.2 billion.
The company would not comment on the funding but confirmed the staff departures. It has not provided an over-arching reason for these latest personnel changes, but notably, rather than re-hiring from outside for the vacated roles, Evernote is shifting existing, in some cases recently joined employees to take on different responsibilities.
Ranjit Prabhu, who joined the company in May 2018 as SVP of engineering, will partner with Andrew Malcolm — who had been the CMO but as of August has taken on a new title as SVP of product, growth and marketing — to work on how tech and product will fit together (he’s not taking a formal CTO title, though). Susan Stick, another recent hire (June 2018) who is the company’s general counsel — a role that appeared to be vacant for two years before she joined — is expanding her role to include people operations as well. Lastly, Francie Strong, who had been VP of communications, is taking on an expanded role as SVP of brand and communications.
This is the second major revamp of the startup’s leadership team in a little over two years. In March 2016, the company lost its founding CTO and made a number of other appointments amid a wave of departures and other big changes.
Chris O’Neill, who joined as CEO after long-time leader Phil Libin stepped away from the role, had already shuttered a number of unprofitable operations that Evernote had launched in an attempt to grow the company, including the closure of its accessories business, and several other app efforts such as some versions of Skitch and its Food app. (Today, it has three smartphone apps, its flagship Evernote app, Skitch and Scannable for digitising business cards, receipts and other paper-based items; plus handwriting recognition app Penultimate for tablets.)
Evernote has certainly witnessed a lot of shifts in its business over the years.
Originally founded in 2004 by engineer Stepan Pachikov as a piece of software for Windows, it was an early mover in apps for smartphones. Evernote was one of the first to gain critical mass for a service that tapped into the idea of using the cloud to store data to create a handy way of recording and organizing notes on a phone, computer or tablet, which you could then access on whatever device you happened to use next. Libin — who was not the founder but took on the CEO role early in its development — is often credited as a founder because of his instrumental involvement in the expansion to apps, and because of his eloquent vision of the role Evernote could and does play for people, both of which helped Evernote really take off.
In its heyday, the company consistently ranked as one of the most popular apps in the app store, and the top-ranking productivity app. But its place at the top, and its virtually uncontested hold on the device-agnostic note-taking use case, was not to last.
The companies that make operating systems themselves all provide their own note-taking apps (Apple has Notes, Google has Keep, for example), and in some cases they are making tools to help users make the switch to their own products. And if you think those platform-owned apps are not functional enough, there are startups out there also building competing alternatives.
Once holding the number-one ranking, the flagship Evernote app today ranks at 55 in productivity, according to App Annie, and its downloads are not high enough for it to register with a ranking among overall apps.
The company currently has three different pricing tiers for its service (free, $7.99 per user/month for Premium and $14.99 per user/month for Business, which has extra tools for teams), and in 2017 the company said it was cash-flow positive. But it’s not clear how well much its paid tiers are bringing in alongside free users now.
“In the past three months (June, July, August), Evernote has been downloaded 2.5 million times worldwide,” a spokesperson for analytics firm Apptopia said. “After store fees, the app has brought in revenues of $2.9 million through in-app purchases.” (Those estimates do not include third party Android stores from China or other region, he added.)
A person who tipped TechCrunch off to the executive departures gave a slightly more blunt and uncharitable spin on the state of affairs. “Evernote is in a death spiral,” the tipster claimed. “Paid user growth and active users have been flat for the last six years and their enterprise product offering has not caught on.”
If this is an accurate description, it would pose a tough challenge for the company as it eyes up another round of funding.
To date, Evernote has raised nearly $300 million, with its long list investors including Sequoia, NEA, Harbor Capital, T. Rowe Price, and many individuals.
The former CEO (who moved on to investing and a startup studio called All Turtles) was known for attracting a large number of fans who were happy to give his company money. “The thing about Phil is that he could raise money from all over the world,” another source tells us.
O’Neill’s mission, on the other hand, was to make the company more self-sufficient and focused, and this seems to be what he has done. But it also means that he and the team under him have not had to test the waters for raising money in the post-Libin era. (Only $6 million, in mezzanine funding, has been raised since 2013, according to PitchBook.)
Getting more money on board could be crucial if Evernote decides that it wants to tackle any big future initiatives, whether that would be to boost growth of the products it already has, or to build and market new features.
For example, there are strong hints that the company wants to transform the app that helps you remember things, into an app that helps you work smarter and ever more efficiently by shortening meeting times and more. Even if biggies like Cisco or a plethora of smaller startups are already trying to solve those use cases, the forever-moving tectonic plates of technology mean that there is always something to play for.
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David Gorn is a contributing writer for CALMatters and formerly was an editor and reporter for public media, including NPR and its California stations.
Karen Lewis knows about water problems. The 67-year-old lives in Compton, where the water coming out of her tap is tinged brown by manganese, a metal similar to iron, from old pipes.
The water is supplied by the troubled Sativa Los Angeles County Water District. The district has been plagued by administrative scandal and charges of mismanagement, and it hasn’t been able to generate the money needed to fix the brown water.
Lewis has sat through innumerable community meetings and heard years’ worth of explanations, and she’s had enough. “Nothing’s been changed,” she said. “They’re not going to change.”
Lewis is one of an estimated 360,000 Californians who can’t safely drink the water that flows to their homes. It’s not a new issue. In the Central Valley, in particular, excess amounts of arsenic, nitrates and other substances that can cause cancers and birth defects have tainted drinking water. In Compton, residents have been living with foul-smelling brown water because the cost of fixing the pipes is high, and many can’t afford to buy a constant supply of bottled water.
Now, in the wake of the state’s prolonged drought and the notorious water crisis in Flint, Mich., a number of new solutions have been proposed in California.
On Friday, lawmakers shelved two bills that supporters said would have helped. Under one voluntary measure, nearly all water districts in the state would have charged customers an additional 95 cents a month, unless the customers opted out of paying it. First proposed by Democratic state Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel as a mandatory tax, it didn’t muster the necessary two-thirds vote for passage, and Monning scaled it back.
Monning also advanced a tax on dairies and fertilizer makers, industries that are heavy contributors to the nitrates found in some of the state’s groundwater. Associations representing those industries endorsed the bill, in part because the paying companies would have been protected from having to clean tainted water of nitrates. Legislators estimated that together the two bills could have raised more than $100 million a year. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Paramount, declined Friday to put the two measures to a vote.
In November, California voters will decide on Proposition 3, which would permit the state to borrow almost $9 billion to help fund all kinds of water infrastructure projects: storage, dam repairs, watershed improvements and restoration of fisheries and other habitat. Voters in June approved a bond measure for more than $4 billion, some of it for waterway cleanup.
In this summer’s state budget agreement, more than $23 million was set aside for safer drinking water, with another $5 million to address lead in water at child-care centers.
This week, activists rallied outside California’s Capitol, trying to build support for the two Monning bills. The measures wouldn’t have solved all the state’s drinking-water problems, but money from both could have been used for operations, not just infrastructure projects, said Phoebe Seaton, co-director of the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, based in Fresno .
“The reason they’re so important is they provide the revenue necessary for operations maintenance,” Seaton said. The ballot measure bond money could be spent only on infrastructure improvements.
“That means helping … some districts get solvent so they can apply for grants,” she said. “They complement the bond funds.”
That was music to the ears of Compton residents. Their water district was the poster child for Monning’s bills. One crucial step for that district, Seaton said, is to get financially straight so it can secure the grants necessary to make improvements. Without the operational funding from the bills, she said, the Sativa district will continue to founder.
Cindy Tuck, deputy executive director of the Association of Water Agencies, a statewide trade group, said another tax is not the way to go and might cause more problems than it would solve.
“This is a social issue for the state of California, and the state should do something about it,” Tuck said.
The opt-out provision of the voluntary fee, she said, could have caused chaos in water companies’ billing systems.
“Water agencies have automated electronic systems,” Tuck said, and giving people a choice about paying one part of their bill runs counter to that. “I had one city tell me it would be over a million dollars just to change their system.”
Many customers might not even have known they’d paid an additional fee, she said, particularly if they used an auto-pay feature.
And if customers paid the voluntary charge without meaning to, they could have had their money refunded, setting off another complicated accounting procedure, Tuck said.
“It’s just a logistical nightmare,” she said.
Seaton had a different view: “There has been a lot of thinking on this. That’s why (there would have been) a notification period beforehand to include people.”
And the bill wouldn’t have gone into effect until 2020, she noted—enough time for some of those logistical details to be ironed out.
Lewis just wants relief from the brown stuff dribbling from her faucet.
“It’s not safe,” she said. “It can’t be safe.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
Themed collections of user generated content chosen by news publishers for viewing on and off Snapchat are the teen social network’s next great hope for relevance. Today Snap launches Curated Our Stories with the help of 20 partners like CNN, Cosmopolitan, Lad Bible, and NowThis. Instead of sifting through and selecting submissions to Our Story all by itself around events, holidays, and fads, these publishers can create slideshows of Snaps about whatever they want. They’ll both be featured in Snapchat Discover that sees 75 million Our Stories viewers per month, but also on the publishers’ own properties thanks to Snap’s embeds that have been underused since their January launch.
To entice partners, Snap has built in monetization from day one, splitting revenue with publishers from ads run in the Our Stories they curate. That’s in sharp contrast to Snap’s work with independent creators, where it still won’t split revenue with them directly, though at least it’s finally connecting them with brand sponsors.
Snap’s head of Stories everywhere Rahul Chopra tells me that in exchange for its cut, Snap provides a content management system that publishers can use to search through submitted Snaps using a variety of filters like keywords in captions and locations. A human at Snap will also moderate Curated Our Stories to ensure nothing objectionable slips through.
Snapchat shares hit all-time low as search acquisition Vurb’s CEO bails
The new revenue stream could help Snap offset its declining user count by squeezing more cash out of each user by exposing them to more content and ads, or score it new users through embedded Curated Our Stories on its partners’ apps and sites. Snap beat revenue expectations last quarter but it still lost $353 million, contributing to a share price decline that hit an all-time low yesterday.
Snap first created Our Stories in 2014 to let people get the perspectives of tons of different attendees to music festivals and sporting matches. With time it expanded to creating college-specific Our Stories and ones of more relatable activities like enjoying Fridays. Snapchat also lets users search its publicly submitted content, but seems to have found people are too lazy or unimaginative to do it, or the uncurated content isn’t high quality enough to be worth watching.
The full list of publisher partners is: Brut, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Daily Mail, Daquan, Dodo, Harper’s Bazaar, iHeart, The Infatuation, Jukin, Lad Bible, Love Stories TV, Mic, NBC News, NBC Sports, NBC, Today Show, New York Post, NowThis, Overtime, Refinery 29, Telemundo, The Tab, Viacom, Wave.TV, and Whalar. They run the gambit from traditional publishers to online news sources, and includes Snapchat’s Yellow startup accelerator portfolio company Love Stories TV, plus CNN’s return to Discover after cancelling its daily anchored news show there.
The curation possibilities are infinite. Partners could create reels of reactions to major news stories or shots from people with eyes on the ground at the scene of the action. They could highlight how people use a certain product, experience a particular place, or use a certain Snapchat creative feature. The publishers might produce daily or weekly collections around a topic or try a wide range of one-offs to surprise their viewers. You could think of it as a little bit like YouTube playlists, but cobbled together from real-time short-form submissions that might be too brief to make an impact on their own.
This is the start of Snapchat crowdsourcing not only content but curation to dig out the best citizen journalism, comedy, and beauty shot on its app and turn it into easily consumable compendiums. Given that Snapchat lost three million users last quarter, it could use the help keeping viewers coming back. But like most everything it launches, if Curated Our Stories blows up, you can bet Facebook and Instagram will turn on their copying machines.
Snapchat’s “Our Story” Is A Genius, Collaborative Reinvention Of The Livestream
People should get paid for work they have done. It’s a pretty simple principle of capitalism, but a principle that seems increasingly violated in the modern economy. With semi-monthly paychecks, the work an employee does on the first day of the month won’t be paid until the end of the third week — a delay of up to 21 days. That delay is despite the massive digitalization of bank transfers and accounting over the past few decades that should have made paychecks far more regular.
Gusto, a payroll and HR benefits provider focused on small businesses, announced the launch of Flexible Pay today, a new feature that will allow its payroll users to select when they receive their income for work already completed. The feature, which must be switched on by an employer, will cost employers nothing out-of-pocket today. The launch is limited to customers in Texas, but will expand to other states in the coming year.
As Gusto CEO Joshua Reeves explained it to me, a kid mowing lawns in a neighborhood has a much more visceral connection to income than the modern knowledge economy worker. Cut the grass, get cash — it’s that simple. He also pointed out, with irony, that terminated employees experience much better payroll service than regular employees: they have to be paid out on their last day of work outside of the standard paycheck schedule. Reeves and his team wanted to offer that flexibility and convenience to every worker.
Flexible Pay allows users to choose when they get paid, outside of typical paycheck schedules
The key to this new feature has been Gusto’s increasing data about small businesses. Gusto now serves 1 percent of all small businesses in the U.S., and it has comprehensive access to its customers’ financial and payroll data. With integrations to time sheet services and proper risk modeling, Gusto is able to predict exactly what salary a worker has already earned, and can front the money at minimum risk to itself.
One major challenge for Gusto was how to reconcile the books of the employer with the irregular paycheck schedules desired by employees. Gusto handles all the logistics transparently, including tax withholding, so that for employers, the paycheck distribution looks and feels “normal” on its books.
That means that Gusto is effectively loaning money to companies, since it is paying payroll in advance. Gusto is funding those loans off its balance sheet today, but over time, the company expects to create a financial facility to underwrite the product.
For Reeves, Flexible Pay is “the right thing to do.” He believes that this new level of flexibility will empower workers to control their financial lives. In the long run, as more users get habituated to the product and its convenience, he hopes that the feature will draw other employers into using Gusto based on employee demand.
The unfortunate reality in the American workforce is that huge numbers of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, by some counts as many as 80 percent. A bill can come due just a day or two before a paycheck hits, but without cash in a checking account, people often have to resort to predatory financial products like payday loans or high-interest credit cards in order to make ends meet. Flexible Pay is one step in the right direction of fighting for workers to get the money they justly deserve.
Spotify’s got something big up its sleeve, that much we know for sure. The music streaming service has a big event in the works for April 24 in New York — though it hasn’t really offered up anything useful beyond that. A revamped version of the company’s free tier could certainly make sense for the event.
A new report from Bloomberg suggests that such a thing is on the way, as the company looks to make big moves after going public. According to the piece, the new version of the app will make it easier for users to use the ad-supported service on mobile devices. There’s not a lot of information beyond that, however — including how Spotify would continue to differentiate a paid tier in order to keep premium subscribers on-board.
Of course, the free offering is one of the key elements differentiating the service from competition like Apple Music. It hasn’t been the most popular feature among record labels and artists, for obvious reasons, but it’s helped Spotify maintain a healthy lead in the category. Last month, Apple Music announced that it was continuing to grow at a healthy rate, with 38 million subscribers.
That number is dwarfed, however, by Spotify’s 71 million subscribers — and doubly so by its total 159 million users. Clearly the multi-tiered strategy has been a winning one for the Swedish music service, and recommitting to free would demonstrate that the service is still interested in the other 88 million.
We reached out to Spotify, but received a “no comment” on the matter. Same for another recent story suggesting that the company is planning to release a standalone in-car player, which surfaced as users began to receive offers for a new piece of Spotify hardware designed to bring the music service to older model cars.
If you want to subscribe to both Scribd and The New York Times, you can now do it for a combined price of $12.99 per month — particularly impressive when you consider that a standard NYT digital subscription costs $15.99 on its own.
You sign up and pay through Scribd, but once you do, you’ll get separate logins. Those will give you full access to The Times’ website and apps, as well Scribd’s library of ebooks, audiobooks and more. (One caveat: You’ll need to be a new subscriber to both services.)
The two companies have worked together in the past, both on a student subscription and by incorporating selected Times articles into the Scribd service. This, however, looks like their biggest partnership yet.
When asked about the price, The Times’ vice president of customer experience and retention Dork Alahydoian said simply, “We felt the need to be competitive with other major services.”
He added that The Times is hoping use these kinds of bundles to find and retain new subscribers. However, it hasn’t done many of these partnerships in the past — basically, a promotion with Spotify is the only one in the United States.
“We definitely needed to make sure it was the right partner, the right audience, the right model,” Alahydoian said. In his view, Scribd was a good fit because it attracts a similar audience as The Times, namely educated readers who are “willing to pay for content.”
As for whether The Times might do more deals like this in the future, he said, “We’re always looking for the right partnership. It’s about making sure it’s an impactful relationship.”
Scribd, meanwhile, has been experimenting with subscription bundles of its own. In this case, CEO Trip Adler said he’s hoping to provide “everything you could want to read in one subscription.”
“By having such a great offering, we think we can really expand the number of people who pay for news and for books and for written content,” he added.
Agtech startup Ceres Imagine which uses computer vision and spectral imaging tech to deliver insights about crops to farmers has closed a new round of funding.
The Oakland-based company has pulled in a $25 million round led by Insight Venture Partners with participation from Romulus Capital. They have raised around $35 million to date.
Since the company closed their Series A, they’ve continued expanding their efforts beyond vineyards and orchards into “row crops” like corn, soybeans and wheat. While those crops may be lower margin by nature, they offer a big opportunity when it comes to scaling up their operations and tackling problems on a bigger scale.
“Our imagery helps farmers cope with a changing world full of challenges such as climate variability, labor shortages, and depressed markets,” said Ceres Imaging CEO Ashwin Madgavkar in a statement.
Unlike many of the other startups looking to provide analysis of farmers’ crops from above, Ceres Imaging isn’t looking to stick their tech onto drones, instead opting for manned airplanes to carry the substantial proprietary equipment and gather the imagery data in a less automated capacity.
This data goes beyond naked eye imagery, gathering spectral data that can deliver insights into the water and nutrient content of the crops. This data ultimately gives customers in the U.S. and Australia insights on how best to fertilize, water and apply pesticides to their crop with data that identifies early warning signs for damage, the company says.
Alice Lloyd George
Alice Lloyd George is an investor at RRE Ventures and the host of Flux, a series of podcast conversations with leaders in frontier technology.
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Last week Sketchfab, the 3D content hub, shared an exciting milestone — the company has just crossed 1 billion cumulative page views. Taken with the community’s growth — they just surpassed 2 million users, as well as the 200 million people that have experienced content via Sketchfab more broadly, this makes it one of the platforms with the largest reaches for interactive 3D content on the web.
With Google’s Poly turning one and Microsoft’s Remix 3D turning two, it’s an interesting moment to reflect where we are in the trajectory of the 3D web.
Alban Denoyel, the CEO of Sketchfab has watched the industry and community evolve in the six years since he founded the company. In an interview for Flu I sat with Alban and we got into the history of the business and how he’s built a team between Europe and the U.S., what the company has learned from YouTube and why they are pursuing a distributed content strategy. Alban also shared details on how power creators are using the platform to monetize content, the powerful role 3D plays in cultural heritage, and the importance of figuring out standards and formats in 3D. An excerpt of the conversation can be found below and the full transcript is on Medium.
AMLG: Our guest today is Alban Denoyel. He is the founder and CEO of Sketchfab a hub for 3D content on the internet. The company was founded in 2012 and is based between New York and Paris. I haven’t caught up with you for some time, it’s great to see you again. I believe you had a baby girl in the last few months?
AD: Three months ago.
AMLG: Congratulations. Maybe we can start with a bit your history, how you got into graphics, came over from France for Techstars and the origins of the company.
AD: Sure. We started the company back in 2012 in Paris. I actually had a business background so for the first two years of the company I was the only non-developer in the team. I do sculpture as a hobby and was commissioned to make a large piece. I was trying to figure out what was the most efficient way to make it. That’s how I heard about 3D printing. Back in 2011 in France it was very new. I found it fascinating and was telling everybody about it — “3D printing, that’s the future if you haven’t heard about it.”
AMLG: Clay sculptures?
AD: Initially wood sculpture, then for this piece it had to be clay because it was too big for wood and I had to do a mould. A lot of that would have been easier if I had known about 3D scanning and all that stuff. Then in 2012, I left my job because I wanted to start a company. I was trying to meet as many people as possible. I went to a party where I was preaching the 3D printing gospel again. Someone told me, hey you should go talk to this guy back there he’s a 3D guy. So I went to Cedric who is now my co-founder and CTO. He had never heard about 3D printing. But he told me, “I’ve been working on this prototype around 3D. If you are interested I’d be happy to talk more. Let’s have lunch.” So we agreed to have lunch the next day. Then he showed me what was essentially the first web-based 3D player to have ever been built. He had been a 3D programmer in the video game industry for 15 years and was hired by Mozilla to make the first demo of WebGL for the launch of Firefox 4 back in 2011. He built the first WebGL framework — so WebGL is now standard but wasn’t standard back then to display 3D graphics in the browser. He showed me the prototype which was really just an upload button, you uploaded a 3D file and got back a URL and saw the 3D file in your web page. No user interface, no nothing.
AMLG: So he had built the core idea already a bit, tinkered with it.
AD: Yeah. He kind of built it as a tool for himself. He was working with 3D artists in the gaming industry and they were sharing screenshots of their work, which sucked. He said hey maybe I can find something better. So he built it for himself and had told nobody about it.
AMLG: Did you convince him to leave his job?
Sketchfab co-founders Alban Denoyel, Cédric Pinson and Pierre-Antoine Passet
AD: He had already moved to full-time freelancing around WebGL. He was super happy as a freelancer, he had no intention to build a business. And I initially had no sense as to whether this would be a sustainable idea. So I just started helping out on the side. It immediately took off because we were the first platform to do that. Then our third co-founder Pierre-Antoine joined us a few months after. We quickly realized we’re the first mover in the space. And that if we wanted to reach our ambitions and find funding and get partnerships with the big tech guys we had to move to the U.S. fast. If you look at other media platforms — we had DailyMotion for video in France, we had Deezer for music. They both got doubled by U.S. companies because it was harder back then to move to the U.S. So very early on I started applying to the U.S. accelerators. We first got into Web Forward which was Mozilla’s accelerator, so we spent Q4 of 2012 in San Francisco and then back to Paris. We knew we had to go back to the U.S. as fast as possible and we applied and got into Techstars New York in spring 2013. So that’s how we came back.
AMLG: Ok. So to get into what is Sketchfab—it’s essentially a platform for creators to publish and users to consume 3D content. There’s an embeddable player that displays 3D content across the web. So much of the 3D landscape has changed in the six years since you started the company. What is the biggest difference now?
AD: There’s been shifts on the two sides of the platform, both creation and consumption. When we started there were only professional people creating 3D content. You needed advanced professional tools like 3ds Max or SolidWorks and AutoCAD. The crowd of people who could become Sketchfab users was limited to 20 million or so 3D professionals. Then on the consumption side, there was no VR or AR. 3D printing was very early and there were fewer ways to consume the content. Six years later — the iPhone 10 has a depth sensor, which means you can do 3D capture on the spot. That means that anyone with a smartphone will become a 3D creator moving our target user base from 20 million to 2 billion people. Then on the consumption side, 3D used to be meant only for background work, back office stuff like manufacturing. A lot of ads are done with 3D assets but the result is 2D and its the same for movies. Whereas today you can consume stuff that is made in 3D in a 3D form which is VR or AR. So the appetite for 3D content is exploding and there are more and more ways to use and leverage that content. So it’s become increasingly important to be able to share and find that content.
The evolution of capture
AMLG: When it comes to those two sides of the marketplace it feels like on the consumption side we’re at this turning point with VRAR, that we’re about to have all these different ways to consume. But the creation side still feels like a bottleneck. I mean I’m trying to learn Unity so maybe that’s my own personal struggle. But when we talk about how creation has evolved, we started with cave paintings and then went to regular paintings, then photography, then video, and now we’re going to 3D. We’re starting to learn how to capture in 3D.
You mentioned Intel RealSense. Obviously, there was a lot of excitement with Google Project Tango — RIP. I still have my Lenovo Phab. I was very excited to get it, it took such a long time to come. But I was hoping we’d see more uptick in capture and content growth from that. My understanding is that the Tango team rolled into AR Core anyway so that’s been a positive. That’s capture. There’s also Tiltbrush and other tools for creating. But overall, is there still a bottleneck?
AD: It’s definitely true that for the average person there aren’t a lot of seamless ways to create content. But the thing is you don’t need a crazy depth sensor to make 3D capture. Most of our 3D captures on Sketchfab are coming from photogrammetry. It’s an older technique stitching a ton of images together. The downside is that it’s much less seamless than depth sensors because you have to take a lot of pictures. But the upside is that the result looks nicer because the tech is more evolved. I would say about half of our uploads are coming from 3D capture. More and more is coming from drones. We see new use cases for 3D captures every day, we see new solutions coming to market every day. I guess for the outside world it may seem like a bottleneck. But for us, because we have become the go-to place to publish that content, we see a lot of volume.
AMLG: In various talks you’ve said that 3D is eating the world. I think that’s true it’s just, along what timeframe? Is it nibbling, is it taking a large chomp, where are we in that… What do you think will be different about 3D and where are we in format standardization?
AD: It’s important to make a differentiation between the formats and the platform to host it. There’s been a lot of technical discussions around which 3D format should be the holy grail of 3D formats. It’s an ecosystem that is much more fragmented than sound or video. But even if we do get to an agreement around the best 3D format you still need a platform to host it, publish it, share it, embed it, display it. That’s where we come in and where YouTube comes in for video. Today you can display a video on a web page without YouTube. It’s part of any normal html5 markup. We’re going to get to the same state for the 3D world.
AMLG: I remember the days of “please make sure you’ve downloaded Adobe Flash plugin” — like, what.
AD: Yeah so YouTube made it easy and then reached critical mass, and at that point there was no reason not to use YouTube because it made it easier. That’s what we want to do.
AMLG: And you’ve done that with the embedded API right? You have that built-in capability now, to view Sketchfab content across the web? Through your partnerships.
AD: Yes. We’ve spent a lot of energy on that. The main difference when it comes to consuming the format is it’s a very different medium. Even if now we’re able to support many volumetric movies which are closer to what a video is, a lot of the content is more like objects or scenes. And while a lot of it makes sense to be consumed as is, there are a number of assets that make more sense combined or reused in a different context. So maybe it’s just because the Web part of the ecosystem is too early to do this efficiently. But what we’ve come to realize is that while YouTube is fully optimized for content being consumed within the YouTube player, we’re just starting to see that there is more value in letting the content go, letting it leave the Sketchfab player to be reused in different contexts.
AMLG: So it’s distributed consumption rather than a destination.
AMLG: Which is why it’s such a feat. I saw pinned to the top of your Twitter that “it took six years but I’m proud to say we’ve been able to partner with Google Apple Facebook Amazon and Microsoft.” Slow but steady. I can’t imagine what kind of work that took. I guess it comes back to what you were saying with WebGL. Curious to get into that — it’s really the first web standard that allows you to display 3D graphics in a browser without a plugin. Mozilla has been driving that and you have DNA from Mozilla in your team. What is it about Mozilla? I mean they’re a free open source browser, but why are they such a critical role in this ecosystem? They seem very forward thinking.
AD: They’ve always been pushing for content openness and distribution. A lot of previous formats were quickly grabbed by large tech companies and then locked into proprietary formats like Flash. So they felt this shouldn’t happen for the 3D world. What’s interesting is that they pioneered WebGL back in 2011 2012 and they did it again with WebVR WebAR webXR. They were actually the first browser — Firefox — to launch with built-in WebVR support out of the box a few months ago, ahead of Google and any other browser which is impressive.
AMLG: So how does this all relate to WebVR?
AD: Well VR is just another screen, another way to consume the content. We are the repository and then you can consume it on mobile on desktop in VR in AR. What I like about WebVR is that instead of having people needing to go to one of the VR destination sites like the Oculus store or the Steam platform — people don’t have the habit to do that. We’ve been betting heavily on the concept of embedding content anywhere on the Web. Our content is traveling across e-commerce websites, news sites and so on. Then you run into the Sketchfab player wherever you are — in your Facebook feed, in a tweet. You can consume it the way you want. If you have your VR headset plugged in you can just jump into it in VR without having to worry about anything else.
AMLG: So it’s hardware agnostic right? And the API works for this. That API essentially gives developers access to your 150,000 3D models?
AD: So WebVR lets you consume our entire library of 3 million plus assets straight from our player. Our player is VR enabled for the web. And then our download API is a pipeline to get the content outside of our player to be used natively inside any other — well it can then re-end into WebVR but in another platform —
AMLG: I may have to draw a diagram for listeners. But what you’re saying is you’ve made it really easy for people to access.
AD: Yeah to search — the concept is a search bar for the 3D world. Just like when you are in Photoshop or even Google Slides, if you want to get content, they have integrations with guys like Shutterstock or Getty or Fotolia . It’s just a library of 2D stuff. We want to do the same thing for the 3D world.
November 13th 2018 announcement
AMLG: To get into the numbers and give listeners a sense, as of July you have a community of over a million and a half users who’ve published close to 3 million 3D models, which I believe makes Sketchfab the largest library of 3D volumetric content online?
AD: We’re close to 2 million users now and we just passed 3 million assets.
AMLG: Can you get into uniques per month — you said a few months ago maybe five million. I’m guessing it’s somewhere near 10 million now?
AD: Yeah we’re in between that.
AMLG: OK. I want to get a bit more concrete around the types of content. Initially you were targeting 3D artists, animation, gaming studios — it seems like over time use cases and content types are much broader than you thought?
AD: We’ve had this kind of tension, in terms of market and even in terms of co-founders. I wanted to get traction and critical mass and volume and go for like YouTube model. My co-founders were more like, we need to serve the artists and make a solution for the best content, and having the best content will reflect positively on our platform. So do we go after less great content? We quickly became the market leader and so we decided we might as well go for every type of 3D content. So today we managed to grab the high end of the market. If you go to Sketchfab, the curated part is really high-end stuff that takes a month or six months to build. Then we have the long tail of things that are drawn by kids in Tiltbrush or 3D capture. Like I make portraits of my son, it’s not great content but it’s great content for me.
It seems like shoes come up a lot. I saw your Balenciaga partnership for their trainers, it’s high-quality stuff. You’re into shoes and have uploaded shoes. What is it with 3D shoes and e-commerce, and when is e-commerce 3D going to start penetrating for the average person?
Brands Sketchfab has worked with
AD: It always sounded crazy to me that when you buy your product you go to the product page and then you have 10 pictures of 10 angles of the product. We can do better than that. Then, of course, you think about AR and VR and the day that we will have Apple AR glasses on our head. Every brand will need a virtual version of their products. The good news is that most brands manufacture physical products, and they start with a 3D design because they need to manufacture it. So a lot of them already have 3D files of what they sell. But most of this content doesn’t look good and isn’t meant to be consumed that way.
Sketchfab collaboration with Balenciaga
We want to help 3D get into e-commerce and we’re starting with verticals where 3D is the most relevant and already present and accessible. Those categories are typically things like furniture. We work with brands like made.com. Shoes is an area where 3D is very present in innovation, just to design a shoe, and it’s also easy to 3D scan a shoe and has a great result. Often we combine both. I guess I also have a bias because I’m a shoe person —
AMLG: A sneakerhead.
AD: Yeah. I really want to get all the, well we actually already work with Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Crocs — I want to work with the shoe brands. It also seems like the type of product like you care more about seeing in 3D than a T-shirt. It’s more expensive. And then there are so many differences from one shoe to another. So many components and technical features.
AMLG: Do you think any businesses are proving out an ROI with 3D yet when it comes to e-commerce?
AD: Well we’ve started experimenting with free advertising, partnering with Google and programmatic networks to get our player to run 3D ads. We’ve seen a much better ROI than 2D ads. Like for a jewelry brand we did a case study. But to be honest, when I pitch an e-commerce brand I’m not pitching the ROI angle first. It’s a byproduct and I expect it to be ROI positive. But 10 years from now you will need to be ready for when virtual content is seamlessly shared with physical content. So what do you do today to be ready for that?
AMLG: Get ahead of the curve.
AD: Yes and today it starts with a web-based player of your products on an e-commerce site, and then tomorrow, I don’t know what the user interface is going to be for AR VR —
AMLG: Why am I not seeing more 3D on Amazon . Are they going to do it?
AD: That’s a long conversation but yes they’re working on it.
AMLG: I would think so. They’re usually ahead of these things. I guess to get more into a random question for you— if you could go back in history and 3D capture any human or any place, what would it be?
AD: Well my last grandmother just passed away. She is the only one I was able to capture in 3D four years ago because she came to visit me in New York. It sounds silly but I would love to have 3D portraits of all my grandparents. It’s as close to who they were and who they are.
AMLG: Yeah it’s powerful stuff.
AD: I take 3D portraits of my kids. It sounds silly —
8i’s “mom-and-baby” hologram
AMLG: No not at all. We have a company called 8i and one of the first things they did was capture a mother holding a baby. It’s been one of the most popular assets. She came back a year later and stepped into herself again to hold the baby. She couldn’t believe how much her child had grown, stepping back into her own hologram and holding the baby. It was an interesting moment. That’s what they’ve found in capturing these human moments. I’d be curious to hear what was the first thing you ever uploaded or sold on Sketchfab?
AD: The first asset I sold was a 3D capture of a chocolate croissant. It sold for $4.99. What’s interesting is that first, we had no idea if 3D captures would sell on our store because traditionally it’s an industry driven by high-end computer graphics and 3D captures are usually not optimized, the content doesn’t always look as good. So I was not expecting to sell it. Also, I had no idea who would have use of a virtual version of a croissant that costs more than the actual thing. Then I did a bit of research. It turns out it was an entrepreneur building an AR app to give nutritional advice on food. He’s doing machine learning on virtual versions of foods, so he is able to look at any actual food piece and say, hey —
AMLG: I think I’ve come across this guy. I remember someone doing this.
AD: There are probably several people doing that. But what’s interesting is, don’t assume that things won’t sell. Because you never know how they are going to be used. It was just a great surprise for me and for Sketchfab as a platform.