Welcome back to This Week in Apps, href=”https://techcrunch.com/tag/this-week-in-apps/”>the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including third-party Chinese app stores, iOS and Android users downloaded 130 billion apps in 2020. Consumer spend also hit a record $112 billion across iOS and Android alone. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
Apple launches App Store privacy labels
Apple this week launched its promised App Store privacy labels across all its App Stores, including iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS. The labels aim to give Apple customers an easier way to understand what sort of information an app collects across three categories: data used to track you, data linked to you and data not linked to you. Tracking, Apple explains, refers to the act of linking either user or device data collected from an app with user or device data collected from other apps, websites or even offline properties (like data aggregated from retail receipts) that’s used for targeted advertising or advertisement measurement. It can also include sharing user or device data with data brokers.
This aspect alone will expose the industry of third-party adtech and analytics SDKs (software development kits) — basically code from external vendors that developers add to their apps to boost their revenues.
Meanwhile, “data linked to you” is the personal information tied to your identity through your user account on the app, your device or other details. (You can read more about the program here.)
Axios compared how various social media and messaging apps compare as determined by the labels. Not surprisingly, it found that Facebook-owned apps collected more data than apps like Telegram, Signal and Apple’s Messages. It also found that Snap collected less data than the other major social networks.
Apple and Facebook fight over privacy changes
Also this week, Facebook took out full-page newspaper ads to attack Apple’s upcoming privacy-centered changes, alleging that the decision will have negative impacts on small businesses. With a forthcoming update to iOS 14, developers will have to ask users permission to use their IDFA identifiers for ad targeting purposes, and they’ll have very few characters to explain why it’s necessary. Most users, who are sick of having their data taken and resold without any personal control over that process, will likely just say “No.”
On the one hand, Facebook has much to lose as it already warned that without targeting and personalization, mobile app install campaigns brought in 50% less revenue for publishers. And the impacts to Facebook Audience Network on iOS will be even worse. But Facebook says it’s well-diversified enough so this one change won’t hurt its business as much as it will smaller ones run by “aspiring entrepreneurs.”
It also pointed out that Apple’s interests aren’t only about consumer choice. When developers make less money from the traditional targeted ads, they’ll turn to other means of generating revenues — like in-app purchases and subscriptions, benefiting Apple.
We should also point out that Apple does a lot of data gathering and targeting of its own. In your iOS Privacy Settings, when you scroll way down to the bottom of the page, then click on Apple Advertising followed by View Ad Targeting Information, you’ll find Apple’s own admissions of how it tracks you across its platform, including data from your account info (age, gender, location), and by what content you’ve downloaded on Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Books and the App Store. It uses this data to target you with personalized ads on the App Store, in Apple News and in Stocks.
Apple, meanwhile, has presented Facebook’s tracking business as one that aims to “collect as much data as possible,” in order to “develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users,” in a “disregard to user privacy.” And while it’s true that Facebook’s network spans apps and websites, Apple is doing the same thing within its own ecosystem…of a billion iPhones and other devices. Devices where Apple’s own apps are often pre-installed and compete with third-party services in areas like books, music, TV, fitness, news and more.
Plus, Apple told developers when it launched the new App Store privacy labels this week, that developers don’t have to disclose the data collected by Apple itself. Uh, wonder why that is?
Instead, developers have to come clean about all the other ways they collect and use customer data, including if data brokers are involved.
The move of course is a big gain for consumer privacy, as it establishes a new baseline for the industry, lays bare the amount to which users are tracked and forces companies to re-establishment trust with their customers instead of sneaking behind their back to gather and sell their data. But it’s simultaneously an easy smokescreen for Apple’s own interests, and Apple should not get a pass on that aspect just because it’s also “a very good thing.” Apple wanted a bigger portion of the adtech market and to grow its subscription business and it wants to fight for consumer privacy. But it largely only highlights the latter when speaking to reporters or making public statements.
The risk of criticizing Apple for such a pro-consumer move is that it looks like a defense of Facebook. But this issue is too complex to require that you simply choose sides. There are ways that Apple can both tackle consumer privacy issues and be more upfront about its own ongoing data collection practices — and burying its data collection/ad targeting info at the very bottom of the iOS Privacy settings page is not it.
Twitter kills Periscope
Twitter this week announced it’s shutting down its standalone livestreaming app Periscope, which it acquired in 2015. The company said the app had been “an unsustainable maintenance-mode state” for some time, and Twitter has seen its usage decline as costs went up. The app will no longer function by March 2021, but Twitter says it’s not giving up on live video. It notes that it brought most of Periscope’s core capabilities to Twitter over the years.
Users will be able to download an archive of their Periscope broadcasts and data before the app is removed and those that have been published to Twitter will continue to live on as replays.
Twitter has a history of making bad calls on its standalone apps that seemed like smart decisions at the time. The company was early to the idea that music and social could work well when tied together when it launched a standalone Twitter Music app in 2013. Years later, other companies have proven that to be true — TikTok said this week its app is driving hits, and got 70-some artists major label record deals. In 2020, over 176 songs passed 1 billion views as TikTok sounds.
Another idea Twitter killed, of course, was Vine, the app that could have been TikTok, had it lasted.
Now Twitter is killing its live video app, a project it abandoned, as everyone else is figuring out how to turn live video streams into e-commerce transactions. Today, Facebook and Instagram offer live video shopping, including in Instagram Reels, its TikTok rival. And TikTok itself launched its first big test of livestreamed video shopping in partnership with Walmart. Other big names who are investing in live video shopping include Amazon through its QVC-like Amazon Live, Alibaba through AliExpress, JD.com, Pinduoduo, WeChat and TikTok’s Chinese sister app, Douyin.
One could argue that Twitter just wants to stake out its own place and not follow the crowd, but its latest big feature was Stories, er, Fleets, a format that’s just about everywhere. And its current test product is Spaces, a rival to Clubhouse and a handful of other audio-networking startups.
- Apple launches App Store privacy labels.
- Apple releases macOS Big Sur version 11.1, which allows iPhone and iPad apps without resizable windows to enter into full-screen mode on Macs with the M1 chip. HBO Max will benefit from this, as well as some mobile games.
- The Mac App Store publishes a list of apps that take advantage of the new M1 chip.
- Apple talks about how to design an App Clip URL more efficiently in new blog post. It also announced that App Clip Codes — the visual image that encodes a URL and can incorporate an NFC tag — are also now available for creation in App Store Connect or with the new command line App Clip Code Generator.
- Apple launched iOS 12.5 for older phones that don’t support iOS 14. The update brings the COVID-19 exposure notification support to these older devices and other security fixes.
- Apple releases iPadOS 14.4 public beta.
- Apple publishes a guide to locking down your Apple devices, which could be particularly useful for domestic abuse survivors.
- Google announced the Play Store is now open to more car apps, including navigation, parking and charging apps for Android Auto.
- Google Play Store opens up to 22 new countries in Africa, Oceania and elsewhere.
- Google announces Android Things platform shutdown is January 5, 2021.
- Amazon’s AWS announced the preview of Amazon Location, a service that will allow developers to add location-based features to their web-based and mobile applications. Amazon Location is based on mapping data from Esri and HERE Technologies, and includes built-in tracking and geofencing, but not routing.
- Game engine maker Unity teamed up with Snap to bring its Unity Ads supply to Snap Audience Network and bring Snap Kit to game developers. From the Unity Asset Store, game developers can use Snap Kit’s Login Kit and Creative Kit, the latter which allows users to decorate their videos with stickers or ad AR lenses. Bitmoji avatars will be integrated with Unity in early 2021.
- PUBG Mobile tops the list of billion-dollar mobile games in 2020, reports Sensor Tower. Five games topped $1 billion this year, including also Honor of Kings, Pokémon GO, Coin Master and Roblox.
- Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service arrives on Android. Like the iOS version, the service works through the web browser in the U.S. It supports some Pixel, Samsung and OnePlus devices for now, with expanded device support arriving in time.
- Roblox delays IPO to 2021. The company said the IPO performance of Airbnb and DoorDash, which soared on their debut leaving money on the table, made it too difficult to price shares.
- A judge orders Apple to produce documentation from Tim Cook and Craig Federighi in the Epic Games/Fortnite lawsuit. The execs may also be called to testify, along with Eddy Cue, if Epic gets its way. Facebook also said this week it would aid Epic in its legal battle by providing supporting materials and documents, as a part of the discovery process.
- Google’s cloud gaming service, Google Stadia, arrives on iOS. The service bypasses the App Store to instead use a web app. It works on both iPhone and iPad (iOS 14.3 is required). Most games will need a gamepad to work.
- The Unity/Snap deal, mentioned above, includes an AR component. Snap’s Creative Kits allows users to share their gameplay, decorating still shots or 15-second videos with branded stickers, or attaching an AR lens that has been created with game branding to share with their Snapchat friends. These shares work to acquire new users as well, as they include referral links back to the game.
- Facebook’s Messenger Kids app updates with seasonal AR effects, as well as a way for parents to play Santa to kids.
- Google adds an AR Baby Yoda in its Google Search app.
Social & Photos
- Facebook launches a TikTok-like app, Collab, that focuses on collaborative music making. TechCrunch had the exclusive interview.
- Twitter launches its voice-based Spaces social networking feature, a Clubhouse rival, into beta testing. The feature lets select Twitter testers for the time being gather in audio-only chat rooms on Twitter’s platform.
- Discord rolls out mobile screen sharing, allowing users to “hang out” and watch videos or anything else on their phone.
- Facebook relaunches Instagram Lite app, starting with a test in India before a global rollout. The app is under 2MB in size and is faster and more responsive. But it also lacks features like Reels, Shopping and IGTV.
- Dating and friend-making app Bumble confidentially files for a February 2021 IPO.
- Google Photos adds 3D “Cinematic” photos feature that uses machine learning to turn 2D photos into 3D — even if the original didn’t include depth information from the camera. A virtual camera then animates a smooth panning effect for a more vivid experience.
- TikTok’s new guidelines strengthen policies on harassment, self-harm, violence and dangerous acts. The social app also rolled out new well-being features, like opt-in viewing screens that hide distressing content, a text-to-voice feature to make TikTok more accessible and COVID-19 vaccine info.
- Halide’s developer offers a deep dive on Apple’s new ProRAW image format, which it describes as not just making RAW more powerful, but also more approachable. “ProRAW could very well change how everyone shoots and edits photos, beginners and experts alike,” a Halide blog post says. They’re not the only one singing ProRAW’s praises — Halide pointed to photographer Austin Mann’s blog post as well.
Streaming and entertainment
- Netflix added a new audio-only mode on Android that allows users to save bandwidth and instead only listen to their program. The feature aims appeal to emerging markets users but could also serve as a way to turn Netflix into an alternative to listening to podcasts, at times.
- Spotify launched on the Epic Games Store — a marketplace that’s shaping up to become a third-party app store. The two companies are both engaged with fighting Apple over its commission structure and rules on purchases.
- TikTok released its first-ever U.S. music report which revealed the social app’s outsized influence on the music industry. According to the report, more than 176 different songs surpassed 1 billion video views as TikTok sounds, over 70 artists that have broken on TikTok’s platform have received major label deals, including Claire Rosinkranz, Dixie D’Amelio, Powfu, Priscilla Block and Tai Verdes, and others.
- TikTok launches on TVs. The app is first available on Samsung smart TV models in Europe, but the Samsung partnership will allow it to be pre-installed going forward. The TV experience will be curated for family-friendly videos only.
- Apple redesigns Shazam for iOS so it better fits with Apple Music’s design language. The app is also now available on the web. Apple recently said Shazam had over 200M MAUs across iOS and Android.
- Walmart partners with TikTok on a test of a new shoppable product that will allow TikTok users to transact within the app. The retailer will run a holiday shopping event inside TikTok, where users can shop from influencer videos. After the event, users can continue to shop from Walmart’s TikTok profile.
- Shoploop, an app founded within Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, has graduated to Google Search. The app competes with efforts in video-based shopping from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and others. Google has now brought Shoploop’s short-form influencer videos to Google Shopping.
- Discount e-commerce marketplace app Wish dropped below IPO price in its market debut. Wish opened at $22.75, below its $24 per share IPO pricing. Investors may be responding to the fact that Wish is growing slower and has a much smaller user base than top retailers, like Amazon and Walmart.
- App Annie predicts U.S. users on Android will spend more than 1 billion hours in shopping apps in Q4 2020, a 50% YoY increase. Mobile sales are expected to reach $314 billion by year-end.
Security and Privacy
- New mobile malware Goontact is targeting iOS and Android users in Chinese language-speaking countries, Korea and Japan. The spyware can steal contacts, SMS messages, photos and location information after a user is lured to a website hosting the spyware, which convinces them to sideload it on Android devices. On iOS, it primarily steals a phone number and contact list.
- Secure messaging app Signal launches encrypted group calls on iOS and Android. The feature allows for up to five participants to chat.
Government and Policy
Health & Fitness
- Reddit acquires TikTok rival Dubsmash to aid with Reddit’s video push. The company says it will integrate Dubsmash’s video creation tools into Reddit directly. Reddit had raised $20 million+ in venture funding.
- MessageBird acquires real-time notifications and in-app messaging platform Pusher, based in London, for $35 million.
- IntellectoKids raises $3 million from Allrise Capital and others for its edtech apps for kids aged 3 to 7 years old.
- Mobile edtech startup Aceable raises $50 million to accelerate the expansion of its service for state-accredited classes.
- Brainly raises $80 million for its crowdsourced homework help app now used by 350 million users.
- Tap Network, a customizable rewards program used by app makers like Uber, raises $4 million.
- Canadian challenger banking app Neo Financial raises $50 million CAD and expands into savings accounts.
Canvas is a new iPhone app from Occipital, the company behind RedLaster and 360 Panorama — apps that were ahead of the curve on the next frontier for iPhones. Canvas leverages the lidar scanner in the iPhone 12 Pro to create 3D scans of your home. 9to5Mac reviewed the app this week, describing the process of using Canvas as “pretty simple.” You just stand in the center of the room, then moved the photo up and down as you turn as the app overlays an AR grid on your room. The app did have some glitches with smaller rooms and alcoves. When the scan is done, you can pay a fee to have it turned into a professional CAD model for using in remodeling plans.
Gawq’s newly launched news aggregator app aims to tackle the problem of fake news and the “echo chamber” problem created by social media, where our view of the world is shaped by manipulative algorithms and personalized feeds. The app aims to present news from a range of sources, while allowing users to filter between news, opinion, paid content and more, as well as compare sources, check facts and even review the publication’s content for accuracy.
TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet looked this week at PhotoRoom, a new Android photography app that can automatically remove the background from your photo and swap it with another. The app, a YC alum, had previously been available on iOS where it competes with a variety of photo editing apps offering similar functionality.
Soosee already operates a clever app that uses your iPhone camera to scan food labels for things you want to avoid — like dietary constraints, allergens, microplastics or antibiotics, for example. But we have to get this company a shoutout for having one of the cleanest App Store privacy labels around.
The company tweeted this in November (see below), but at the time of publication the label had been updated with exactly one item. It now collects Purchase data, under the “Data Not Linked to You” section. Good job, Soosee! Support apps like this.
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24 hours left to apply to volunteer at TechCrunch Disrupt and attend for free • TechCrunch
It takes a veritable army to make TechCrunch Disrupt — which takes place October 18–20 in San Francisco — the well-oiled experience that savvy startuppers have come to know and love. And we couldn’t do it nearly as well without our incredible volunteers.
If you’re looking for a no-budget way to experience Disrupt up close and personal, sign up to volunteer for work exchange. Not only will you get a behind-the-scenes look at how to produce events, but you’ll also earn a free pass ($1,995 value) to experience the event. The deadline to apply is tomorrow, October 3 at 11:59 p.m. PDT.
You’ll work hard, play hard and get free access to all three days of Disrupt. Whether you dream of becoming a startup founder, marketer or event coordinator, this is a great way to see what it takes to produce a world-renowned tech startup conference.
Plus, your free pass gives you access to the full Disrupt experience — the main stage, the TechCrunch+ stage, the expo floor — where you’ll find the Startup Battlefield 200 — and the Startup Battlefield competition.
Volunteers handle a variety of tasks to help make this startup conference an epic experience for everyone. At any given time, you might help with registration, wrangle speakers, direct attendees, stuff goodie bags, place signage, scan tickets or help with pre-marketing activities.
We need volunteers on October 17–20. If you can meet the following criteria, we want to hear from you:
- Attend a mandatory orientation on Monday, October 17 at Moscone Center.
- Work a minimum of 10 hours during the entire conference, starting from October 17 (the day before the conference starts) to October 20. You’ll find volunteer shift availability in the application. We might select you for some pre-event opportunities, which would count toward your hours.
- You may be scheduled for an 8- to 9-hour shift or you may be scheduled with two separate shifts of 4 to 5 hours each. Shifts can start as early as 6:30 a.m. PDT or end as late as 8:30 p.m. PDT.
- You must provide your own housing and transportation.
- Due to the high volume of applications, we will notify only the selected applicants.
Read the volunteer FAQ for more information.
Lend us a helping hand, and we’ll hand you a free pass. Save money, gain valuable experience and still have plenty of time to take in all the startup goodness that TechCrunch Disrupt has to offer. Apply to volunteer by October 3 to get your free pass, and we’ll see you in October!
Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch
Hi all! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we quickly sum up some of the most read TechCrunch stories from the past seven days. The goal? Even when you’re swamped, a quick skim of WiR on Saturday morning should give you a pretty good understanding of what happened in tech this week.
Want it in your inbox? Get it here.
- Elon’s texts: As part of the ongoing Musk vs. Twitter trial, a big ol’ trove of Twitter-related texts between Elon and various key figures/executives/celebrities has been made public. Amanda and Taylor look at some of the most interesting bits, with appearances from people like Gayle King, Joe Rogan, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (or, as he seems to be named in Elon’s contacts, “jack jack”.)
- Instagram bans PornHub’s account: “After a weeks-long suspension,” writes Amanda, “Pornhub’s account has been permanently removed from Instagram.” Why? PH says they don’t know, as they insist everything they put on Instagram was totally “PG” while calling for “full transparency and clear explanations.”
- Interpol issues a red notice for Terra’s founder: “Interpol has issued a red notice for Do Kwon,” write Manish and Kate, “requesting law enforcement agencies worldwide to search for and arrest the Terraform Labs founder whose blockchain startup collapsed earlier this year.”
- Google Maps’ new features: A bunch of new stuff is coming to Google Maps, and Aisha has the roundup. There’s a new view style meant to help you “immerse” yourself in a city before you visit, a “Neighborhood vibe” feature that aims to capture an area’s highlights, and augmented reality features that use the view from your camera to show exactly where ATMs and coffee shops are.
- Meta’s hiring freeze: The era of explosive hiring at Meta/Facebook is over, it seems. The company will freeze hiring and “restructure some groups” internally, Zuckerberg reportedly announced during an internal all-hands this week.
- Hacker hits Fast Company, sends awful push notifications: If you got a particularly vulgar push notification from Fast Company by way of Apple News this week, it’s because a hacker managed to breach the outlet’s content management system. The hacker also apparently published a (now pulled) post on Fast Company outlining how they got in.
- NASA hits an asteroid: If we needed to hit an asteroid from millions of miles away — to, say, change its course and steer it away from Earth — could we do it? NASA proved they could do just that this week, smashing a purpose-built spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,700 mph. The asteroid in question was never believed to be a threat to Earth, but these are the kinds of things you want tested before they’re necessary.
- Microsoft confirms Exchange vulnerabilities: “Microsoft has confirmed two unpatched Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities are being exploited by cybercriminals in real-world attacks,” writes Carly. Even worse? There’s no patch yet, though MSFT says one has been put on an “accelerated timeline” and offers temporary mitigation measures in the meantime.
Didn’t have time to tune in to all of TechCrunch’s podcasts this week? Here’s what you might’ve missed:
- Evernote and mmhmm co-founder Phil Libin joined us on Found to share what he’s learned about remote work and why he’ll “never go to work in the metaverse.”
- The Chain Reaction crew went deep on why crypto exchange FTX bid billions on a bankrupt company’s assets.
- Amanda joined Darrell on the TechCrunch Podcast to explore whether Tumblr was reversing its controversial porn ban (spoiler: no), and Devin hopped on to talk all about NASA’s wild anti-asteroid test mission.
What hides behind the TechCrunch+ paywall? Lots of really great stuff! It’s where we get to step away from the unrelenting news cycle and go a bit deeper on the stuff you tell us you like most. The most-read TC+ stuff this week?
- Is Silicon Valley really losing its crown?: A provocative question, one asked all the more after COVID flipped the switch on widespread remote work pretty much overnight. Alex dives into the investor data to see where the money is going, and whether or not that’s changed.
- Investors hit the brakes on productivity software: It’s an Alex Wilhelm double feature this week! After a few quarters of consistent investment growth, it seems investor interest in productivity tools might be waning. Why? Alex looks at why/how investment in the vertical has shifted.
Telegram cuts subscription cost by more than half in India • TechCrunch
Telegram has cut the monthly subscription fee for its premium tier by more than half in India, just months after introducing the offering as it attempts to aggressively cash in on a large user base in one of its biggest markets.
In a message to users in India on Saturday, Telegram said it was making the subscription available in the country at a discount. The monthly subscription now costs customers 179 Indian rupees ($2.2), down from 469 Indian rupees ($5.74) earlier. The app’s monthly subscription, called Telegram Premium, costs between $4.99 to $6 in every other market.
Users who have not received the message are also seeing the new price in the settings section of the app, they said and TechCrunch independently verified.
India is one of the largest markets for Telegram. The instant messaging app has amassed over 120 million monthly active users in the country, according to analytics firm data.ai. (An industry executive shared the figures with TechCrunch.) That figure makes the app the second most popular in its category in the country, only second to WhatsApp, which has courted over half a billion users in the South Asian market.
Telegram, which claims to have amassed over 700 million monthly active users globally, introduced the optional subscription offering in June this year in a move it hopes will improve its finances and continuing to support a free tier. Premium customers gain access to a wide-range of additional features such as the ability to follow up to 1,000 channels, send larger files (4GB) and faster download speeds.
The Dubai-headquartered firm joins a list of global tech firms that offer their services for lower cost in India. Apple’s music app charges $1.2 for the individual monthly plan in the country, whereas Netflix’s offerings starts at as low as $1.83 in the country.
Welcome to spooky season in startups • TechCrunch
Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.
It would be unfair to say that this week in tech and startups felt like 2021’s boom cycle; especially when you look at layoffs coming from Truepill, its fourth this year, and Meta announcing that it will freeze hiring. At the same time, it does feel like there’s a new feeling in the air. Heck, NFT marketplaces are still raising money.
The market is not dull, but it’s not loud; and the mood among my sources is certainly closer to spooky than it is to savage. Besides the fact that, yes, I did grow up writing poetry about fall foliage before deciding that I wanted to be a journalist, I’m saying all this to validate the nuance of this moment.
The ideas that I’m looking toward throughout the end of the year are as follows:
- What happened to the black swan memos? In the early innings of the economic downturn, investors turned to portfolio companies to warn of an increasingly volatile environment. That conversation hasn’t disappeared, but it has certainly gotten quieter, with many investors now telling me that there’s a super surge of financing on the way. So, what’s the new guidance that is being sent to portfolio companies?
- What’s the human side of the layoff story? My colleagues Mary Ann and Christine gave us all an important lesson this week, which is that stories about workforce reductions should not revolve around the employer. The duo wrote about the human cost of Better.com’s layoff spree — full story here — and I’m not-so-subtly going to steal this idea. I want to talk to people impacted by tech’s 2022 layoff wave and hear what next steps look like. I hear it’s a lot more complicated than “you should’ve known your company was overhyped to begin with.”
- Finally, what are startups preparing to actually do differently? I’m guilty of this, but we often speak about startups and tech with generalizations, slightly hedged by explaining that it’s useful for directional purposes. I want to know what startups learned this year and are tactically doing differently. Spending with more discipline or focusing on the product doesn’t count; give me specifics, and better yet, tell me what you are disagreeing with your investors on.
Do let me know what yours are by tweeting at me or responding to this post. If you missed last week’s newsletter, read it here: “Tiger Global, fickle checks and the difficulty of acceleration.” We also recorded a companion podcast, here: “Building startups in public has an end date.”
In today’s newsletter, we’ll talk about the beauty of pivots, a creative way to prove that your startup hires entrepreneurial people and the latest from 500 global.
If you like this newsletter, do me a quick favor? Forward it to a friend, share it on Twitter and tag me so I can thank you for reading myself!
A reminder that pivots work
TC’s Rebecca Szkutak wrote about how a pivot helped HopSkipDrive win a difficult pitch to parents: Trust your kids with our ride-sharing services.
Here’s why it’s important: As we discussed in our latest Equity podcast, sometimes we’re all just a Hop, Skip and a Drive away from success. The “Uber for X” model has been MIA for a few years now, so the story behind HopSkipDrive and its trusty partner stands out to me. Who said schools weren’t experimental!
A different version of CVC, I guess
News broke this week that Cloudflare gathered $1.25 billion in financing for startups that use its own platform. Well, kind of.
Here’s why it’s important: The security, performance and reliability company didn’t raise a corporate venture fund, typical of other companies looking to breed entrepreneur attention. Instead, Cloudflare just got dozens of venture firms to offer to invest up to $1.25 billion to companies in their existing funds. It’s a little softer than a traditional investment vehicle, given that we don’t know how formal those offers of support are, and the fact that Cloudflare is not providing any funding or making any funding decisions.
To me, the commitment just tells us that Cloudflare wants to show startups that it doesn’t just make sense to use their software, it makes cents.
I’m experimenting with a new section in Startups Weekly, where each week we follow up with an old story or trend to see what’s changed since our first look. This week, we’re following up on our conversation about accelerator and demo days with a look at how 500 Global, formerly 500 Startups, thinks about it.
Here’s what’s new: It’s been a little over a year since accelerator 500 Startups rebranded to 500 Global in an attempt to reposition itself as a venture firm. In my latest for TechCrunch+, I spoke to Clayton Bryan, partner and head of 500 Global’s accelerator program, about how they keep up with competition. Excerpt down below!
The investor highlighted the effectiveness of rolling admissions, which its two main accelerator competitors, Y Combinator and Techstars, don’t do. Three years ago, 500 Global said it would decide on investments all year instead of just twice yearly. Demo days will still happen biannually, but startups can choose which demo day they want to be a part of.
“That change has really resonated with founders,” Bryan said. He compared the previous version of 500 Global to a school with an annual schedule: There are times when you’re doing homework, times when you sit back and recruit, and summer vacation. Now, it’s year-round, and he admits it’s more challenging to manage, “but at the same time, much more appreciated by the founders.”
“I do think it makes us more competitive,” he said. “We can more frequently talk to founders and they can start our program at different points in time. They don’t have to wait for that application to open or that deadline. Whereas [with] some other programs, they might say, ‘Hey, wait for a couple more months so we’re accepting applications again.’ I think that openness and flexibility gives us a bit of an advantage.”
A few notes
We’re less than one month away from TechCrunch Disrupt, and I’m already emotional. It’s going to be a blast, a pep talk, a realization and a week not to miss. Here’s the full agenda, and here’s where you can get your tickets.
- First up, use code “STARTUPS” for a special reader discount for Disrupt tickets. We’re less than one month away!
- We also have a special for those impacted by layoffs. If you were laid off, go here to get a free ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt’s Expo.
While I have you, let’s talk some more. As you know, I co-host Equity, which goes out thrice a week and is TC’s longest-running podcast. We have some besties to listen to, too, including our crypto-focused show that goes by Chain Reaction and founder-focused show that goes by Found. The TechCrunch Podcast is also a can’t miss, so pay attention to all the good shows that they’re putting out.
Seen on TechCrunch
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Same time, same web page, next week?
Tesla’s robot strategy is inextricably tied to its Autopilot strategy, for better or for worse • TechCrunch
Tesla unveiled its first prototype of its Optimus humanoid robot on Friday — an actual robot this time, by the strictest definition, instead of a flesh and blood human clad in a weird suit. The robot performed some basic functions, including walking a little bit and then raising its hands — all for the first time without supports or a crane, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
The company may be taking its first early steps into humanoid robotics, but it has a lot riding on the business. Musk has said that the Optimus bot will eventually be more valuable “than the car business, worth more than FSD (Tesla’s add-on ‘Full Self-Driving” feature, which is not self driving.)
What was apparent at the event Friday night is that Tesla is making the economically wise, but strategically questionable decision to yoke together the destinies of both Optimus and its Autopilot (and by extension, FSD) ambitions.
Tesla suggested that the reason it’s been able to move so quickly in the robotics world is that it has already laid a lot of the groundwork in its work attempting to develop automated driving for vehicles.
“Think about it. We’re just moving from wheels to our legs,” explained one of the company’s engineers. “So some of the components are pretty similar […] It’s exactly the same occupancy network. Now we’ll talk a little bit more details later with Autopilot team […] The only thing that changed really is the training data.”
It was a recurring theme throughout the presentation, with various presenters from Tesla (the company trotted out many, as is maybe to be expected for an event billed primarily as a recruiting exercise) bringing up how closely tied the two realms of research and development actually are.
In truth, what Tesla showed with its robot on stage at the event was a very brief demo that barely matched and definitely didn’t exceed a large number of humanoid robot demonstrations from other companies over the years, including most famously Boston Dynamics. And the linkage between FSD and Optimus is a tenuous one, at best.
The domain expertise, while reduced to a simple translation by Tesla’s presentation, is actually quite a complex one. Bipedal robots navigating pedestrian routes is a very different beast from autonomous vehicle routes, and oversimplifying the connection does a disservice to the immense existing body of research and development work on the subject.
Tesla’s presenters consistently transitioned relatively seamlessly between Optimus and its vehicles’ autonomous navigation capabilities. One of the key presenters for Optimus was Milan Kovac, the company’s director of Autopilot Software Engineering, who handed off to fellow Autopilot director Ashok Elluswamy to dive further into Tesla vehicular Autopilot concerns.
It’s very clear that Tesla believes this is a linked challenge that will result in efficiencies the market will appreciate as it pursues both problems. The reality is that there remains a lot of convincing to do to actually articulate that the linkages are more than surface-deep.
Not to mention, Autopilot (and more specifically, FSD) faces its own challenges in terms of public and regulatory skepticism and scrutiny. A robot you live with daily in close proximity doesn’t need that kind of potential risk.
Tesla may have turned its man-in-a-suite into a real robot with actual actuators and processors, but it still has a ways to go to make good on the promise that it’s a viable product with a sub-$20,000 price tag any of us will ever be able to purchase.
It’s AI day for Tesla, but we’re here for the cringey texts • TechCrunch
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Happy Friday! We don’t know about you, but we are both ready for some R&R after ploughing through a wall of deep-cringe texts from the Musk/Twitter trial. We hope you get some, too, this weekend.
This afternoon, Tesla is running its second AI day. Last year’s was a hoot, and we have some predictions for what’s coming down the pipe today, too. — Christine and Haje
The TechCrunch Top 3
- Under attack: Microsoft confirmed that it “is aware” of some attacks to its Exchange server. Carly is staying on top of the story and reports that there is “no immediate fix.”
- Eyeing that sweet capital: Manish has a scoop that Uniswap Labs, a decentralized exchange, is going after over $100 million in new funding.
- Stream on: YouTube TV is offering a new à la carte option that enables subscribers to purchase stand-alone networks without subscribing to the full channel lineup in its Base plan, Lauren reports.
Startups and VC
When insurtech company Metromile went public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in February last year, it was valued at over $1 billion. A year and five months later, Lemonade acquired the company for less than $145 million. And yet, things aren’t as bleak as they might seem, Anna reports.
This year, 40% of the world’s population will play games, with total spending nearing $200 billion. The purveyors of web3 want a slice of this gargantuan market, Rita reports. She writes that criticisms of the first generation of crypto games have been well documented, so the question for developers now is what decentralized games should look like.
Let’s do a few more, shall we? Go on, then:
8 investors weigh in on the state of insurtech in Q3 2022
Some services are in such demand, it can insulate their providers against the vagaries of the market. During an economic downturn, consumers don’t cut back on pet food or toilet paper. Similarly, everyone needs some form of insurance.
Between 2016 and 2022, insurtech startups received around $43 billion in funding, and despite the downturn, most of the investors that reporter Anna Heim recently surveyed are still positive about the sector’s prospects:
- Martha Notaras, general partner, Brewer Lane Ventures
- David Wechsler, principal, OMERS Ventures
- Stephen Brittain and Rob Lumley, directors and co-founders, Insurtech Gateway
- Florian Graillot, founding partner, Astorya.vc
- Clarisse Lam, associate, NewAlpha Asset Management
- Hélène Falchier, partner, Portage Ventures
- Adam Blumencranz, partner, Distributed Ventures
“We are simply seeing a reality check happen,” said Wechsler. “Unfortunately, there are many companies that should not have raised as much as they did, or perhaps don’t have sustainable business models. These companies will struggle to survive.”
Three more from the TC+ team:
Big Tech Inc.
SoftBank has been doing some readjusting to company valuations lately, but the latest adjusting is happening with its own company. Kate reports that SoftBank’s Vision Fund is reportedly laying off 30% of its workforce even as it considers a third fund.
Here are five more for you:
Astra brings on new CFO as it looks to scale launch and propulsion businesses • TechCrunch
Astra is bringing on Silicon Valley veteran Axel Martinez as its new Chief Financial Officer, a C-suite change that in many ways demarcates a new chapter for the space company.
Martinez’s career includes a decade tenure at Google, where he held multiple roles including head of capital markets; VP of treasury at Uber; and CFO at Virgin’s Hyperloop One. Most recently, he was CFO at home building startup Veev. Current Astra CFO Kelyn Brannon will finish out this financial quarter before Martinez takes up the position at the start of Q4.
A person with knowledge of the change told TechCrunch that hiring Martinez, who has deep experience with capital markets, is a strategic move for Astra as it navigates capital management and scaling its launch, propulsion and space products businesses.
In many ways, Brannon seemed tailor-made for Astra as it shifted from a startup to a public company; according to her LinkedIn, she’s assisted multiple companies navigate their entrance to the public markets. Indeed, she guided Astra through its merger with blank-check firm Holicity in 2021, in a deal that injected the company with around $500 million. The SPAC deal also had a notably small number of redemptions, which totaled just a little over $100,000, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Astra is firmly in a new stage – and the markets are, too. Capital has become very expensive; there’s now a more high-pressure and risk-averse equity environment, where raising cash may not be as easy as it was even at the beginning of this year. Meanwhile, many space investors and private companies have cooled on SPAC deals, with Italian company D-Orbit and weather satellite analytics company Tomorrow.io reversing their merger plans this year (though it should be noted that Intuitive Machines will be moving forward with its SPAC).
Much of this cooling is due to plummeting stock prices and valuations for companies that went public through SPAC mergers. That includes Astra, whose shares have steeply fallen since its debut on the Nasdaq last July. At the end of the company’s first day on the market, stock was trading at $12.90 per share; by close of market Thursday, it had fallen to just $0.62 per share. Market confidence in Astra has been further shaken by a handful of launch failures, most recently a mission in June to launch two Earth science CubeSats for NASA under the agency’s TROPICS program.
All told, Astra ended last quarter with around $200 million on hand and no debt. The company has been investing a lot of capital over the last few quarters, expanding its 25,000 square foot rocket factory in Alameda, California, building a dedicated 60,000-foot rocket engine factory and growing its workforce by 300. The task now before it is figuring out how to best position itself amid an increasingly crowded field of players, both on the launch services and rocket engine sides, and how to deploy that existing capital to bring the company real revenue growth. Astra’s hoping Martinez will be the right talent to navigate these choppy waters.
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