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February 24, 2019
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Rakuten’s Viber chat app plans to charge to operate chatbots in controversial move

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Viber, the messaging app down by Japanese e-commerce firm Rakuten, is poised to implement a controversial new strategy that will see it charge companies that run chatbots on its platform.

The conventional wisdom is to work with content companies to help bring users to messaging platforms and keep them engaged but Viber, which has struggled to keep up with rivals like WhatsApp and Line, is turning that on its head.

Starting April 1, Viber will charge chatbot operators $4,500 per month for the ability to send up to 500,000 messages to users. Those who exceed that range will be eligible to send up to one million messages per month for $6,500. The new fees are being communicated to companies that operate Viber chatbots, but Viber hinted at its new monetization plans in an email to TechCrunch.

“Bots can be published for free; however, to ensure the highest discoverability and quality of content for bots, we will be introducing a commercial commitment in the coming months. A key aim with this move is to ensure that users are presented with a steady stream of highly relevant and relatable content and a commercial commitment is one key tool for ensuring a quality experience for users,” Debbi Dougherty, head of B2B Marketing & Communications for Viber, explained.

This is a risky strategy that is likely alienate companies that operate chatbots on Viber as well a brands who bought into a bot strategy.

These costs have come out of the blue, much to the surprise of startups that spent time developing chatbots for the Viber platform.

“For an early stage startup, this isn’t going to work,” Edmundas Balčikonis, co-founder of Eddy Travels — a travel concierge service that took part in Techstars’ Toronto program — told TechCrunch by phone.

Balčikonis said his startup was attracted to the Viber platform because it provided all the necessary documentation and APIs to build a chatbot up front and in public. Having spent eight months developing its Viber bot, Eddy Travels plans to double down on its efforts with Facebook Messenger and Telegram where its bot-based service runs without charge and has seen multiples more users and engagement.

“Viber encouraged us to built the bot, but never discussed the price and there’s no price in the website documentation,” he said. “Messenger is showing way more traction for us… we didn’t get any significant engagement on Viber.”

Indeed, the strategy seems to be quite the opposite that Viber needs to take if it is to gain marketshare from the chat app leaders. WhatsApp — the world’s largest messaging service with over 1.6 billion monthly active users — doesn’t currently support chatbots, but instead of playing to its strengths, Viber is trying to squeeze additional revenue here under the cloak of “a quality user experience.”

Times are already hard though at Viber. TechCrunch spoke to six chatbot startups who develop a range of services for customers, including banks, insurance companies and media, but we found that none run any projects on Viber. Each said their desire to work on the Viber platform would diminish further if they were forced to pay for the privilege.

The Viber service is popular in pockets of the world, including the Philippines, Myanmar and some Eastern European markets. Current CEO Djamel Agaoua, a seasoned advertising executive, promised to work on the revenue and business model when he took the helm in 2017. Under his leadership, Viber has pushed its communities chat feature for brands and tried to tap into e-commerce, but little is known of how that has progressed.

Rakuten’s recent 2018 financial report was released this month and it made scant reference to Viber, other than to note that the service and Rakuten Mobile, the company’s MVNO offering in Japan, had “substantially increased revenue thanks to their full-scale aggressive sales activities.”

No raw figures were provided but Rakuten’s ‘Internet Services’ division, which houses Viber and Rakuten Mobile, saw its annual revenue increase by 15.9 percent to 788.4 billion JPY. That’s around $7.1 billion and it sounds impressive, but the bulk of that revenue is from Rakuten Mobile, which has teamed up with traditional operator KDDI to take a crack at Japan’s mobile market.

What we know about Viber is that it has increased its content monetization — which included advertising, sponsored stickers and more — and that now accounts for the bulk of its revenue having surpassing income from Viber VoIP calling packages.

But, again, there’s no raw revenue data here. Rakuten also no longer provides active user information for Viber, which it said said has registered over one billion users since its creation in 2011. That’s not an informative statistic.

Things seem to be so bad that Viber doesn’t even provide an active user number to advertisers, according to a pitch deck seen by TechCrunch. The data shown includes a selection of actions that Viber claims happen per minute, including 1.2 million logins, but there’s no headline monthly active user statistic. Barcelona, which counts Rakuten as a sponsor, and Coke are among the brands that use Viber.

Now the service’s content monetization push has extended into chatbots, but the obvious risk is that companies and brands will simply go elsewhere where, frankly, they already have a larger and more captive audience.

Rakuten bought Viber for $900 million in January 2014, just one month before Facebook forked out $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp. The Viber deal seemed prescient. Sure it didn’t have the same scale as WhatsApp but it was comparable — 300 million registered compared to WhatsApp’s 450 million active — and teaming with a major internet company would bring a larger budget and opportunities.

The sad reality of today, however, is WhatsApp has grown into one of the world’s most important social services but Viber has floundered. Policies that are as short-sighted as monetizing chatbots will ensure Viber continues to be an also-ran. That surely wasn’t how Rakuten envisaged its acquisition progressing.

News Source = techcrunch.com

JD.com’s drones take flight to Japan in partnership with Rakuten

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Chinese e-commerce company JD.com is taking its drone delivery system to Japan.

Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant, just announced a partnership with JD that will see its drones and unmanned vehicles become a part of Rakuten’s own unmanned delivery service efforts.

JD has been operating drones in its native China for a number of years, and it has wider expansion plans having recently gained a regional-level operating license. Its other human-less tech includes self-operating trucks, automated warehouses and unmanned stores, and it recently picked Indonesia for its first overseas drone pilot.

Rakuten has been offering drone delivery in Japan since 2016 and unmanned vehicle trials since 2018. It said that working with JD — which claims to have racked up 400,000 minutes of delivery flight time — will “accelerate the development and commercialization” of its human-free last mile delivery efforts.

News Source = techcrunch.com

GoTrendier raises $3.5 million to take on Spanish-language fashion marketplaces

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Thanks to environmentally conscious young buyers, throwaway culture is dying not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America — and startups are poised to jump in with services to help people recycle used clothing.

GoTrendier, a peer-to-peer fashion marketplace operative in Mexico and Colombia, has raised $3.5 million USD to do just that. And investors are eyeing the startup as the digital fashion marketplace growth leader in Spanish-speaking countries. 

GoTrendier, founded by Belén Cabido, is a platform that lets users buy and sell secondhand clothing. Cabido tells me that the new capital will enable GoTrendier to expand deeper into Mexico and Colombia, and launch in a new country: Chile. 

GoTrendier enables users to buy and sell used items through the GoTrendier site and app. The platform categorizes users as either salespeople or buyers. Salespeople create their own stores by uploading photos of garments along with a description and sale price. Buyers browse the platform for deals and once a buyer bites, the seller is given a prepaid shipping label. 

Sound familiar? Businesses like Poshmark and GoTrendier have no actual inventory, which allows the companies to take on less of a risk by having smaller overhead costs. In turn, the company acts as more of a social community for fashion exchanges.

In order to make money, Poshmark takes a flat commission of $2.95 for sales under $15. For anything more than that, the seller keeps 80 percent of their sale and Poshmark takes a 20 percent commission. Poshmark also owes its success to the socially connected shopping experience it created and the audience building features available to sellers — as detailed in this Harvard Business School study. GoTrendier has a similar commission pricing strategy, taking 20 percent off plus an additional nine pesos (about 48 cents in U.S. currency) for all purchases. The service also takes advantage of social media and sharing features to help connect and engage its fashion-loving community. 

But these companies are also largely venture-backed. In the case of GoTrendier, the round gave shareholder entry to Ataria, a Peruvian fund that invests in early-stage tech companies with high earning potential. Existing investors Banco Sabadell and IGNIA reinforced their position, along with Barcelona-based investors Antai Venture Builder, Bonsai Venture Capital and Pedralbes Partners.

GoTrendier amassed a user base of 1.3 million buyers and sellers throughout its four years of existence. The service operates in Mexico and Colombia, and will use its newest capital to launch in Chile — another market Cabido says is experiencing high demand for a secondhand fashion buying and selling service.

Online marketplace companies are growing in Latin America as smartphone adoption and digital banking services multiply in the region. But international expansion has proven to be an issue. Enjoei, a similar fashion marketplace that owns the market share in Brazil, had a botched attempt at expanding to Argentina due to Portugese-Spanish language barriers and eventually determined that Brazil was a large enough market in which to build its business — thus carving out an opportunity for companies like GoTrendier that offer the same services to dominate the surrounding Spanish-speaking markets in Latin America.

Many have remarked that Latin America’s tech scene is filled with copycats — or companies that emulate the business models of American or European startups and bring the same service to their home market. In order to secure bigger foreign investment checks, founders from growing tech regions like Latin America certainly must invent proprietary technologies. Yet there’s still value — and capital — in so-called copycat businesses. Why? Because the users are there and in some cases it’s just easier to start up.

According to investor Sergio Pérez of Sabadell Venture Capital, “The volume of the market for buying and selling second-hand clothes in the world was 360 million transactions in 2017 and is expected to reach 400 million in 2022.” A 2018 report from ThredUp also claimed that the size of the global secondhand market is set to hit $41 billion by 2022. The “throwaway” culture is disappearing thanks to environmentally conscious millennial buyers. As designer Stella McCartney famously said, “The future of fashion is circular – it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love never end up as waste.” By buying on GoTrendier, the company claims its users have been able to save USD $12 million and have avoided more than 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

Founders building companies in Latin America aren’t necessarily as capital-hungry as Silicon Valley-based founders, (where a Series A can now equate to $68 million, apparently). Cabido tells me her company is able to fulfill operations and marketing needs with a lean staff of 30, noting that there’s a lot of natural demand for buying and selling used clothing in these regions, thus creating organic growth for her business. She wasn’t looking to raise capital, but investors had their eye on her. “[Investors] saw the tension of the marketplace, and we demonstrated that GoTrendier’s user base could be bigger and bigger,” she says. With sights set on new markets like Chile and Peru, Cabido decided to move forward and close the round.  

Poshmark, which benefits from indirect and same-side network effects, has raised $153 million to date from investors like Temasek Holdings, GGV and Menlo Ventures. Just like GoTrendier, Poshmark’s Series A was also a $3.5 million round.

Who’s to say that that amount of capital can’t boost a network effects growth model in Latin America too? The users are certainly waiting. 

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alibaba takes an 8% stake in Tencent-backed anime streaming site Bilibili

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Ecommerce giant Alibaba is continuing its push into the world of youth culture after it scooped up an 8 percent stake in anime streaming and game publishing company Bilibili.

According to a securities filing on Thursday, Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace has acquired about 24 million shares in Bilibili, the Shanghai-based firm that has captured 93 million monthly users from hosting licensed anime titles, video games and user-generated content.

The financial gesture is hot on the heels of a partnership announced in December that saw the pair working to monetize Bilibili’s content assets. For one, Alibaba can help Bilibili creators sell merchandise like cosplay costumes and anime toys through Taobao’s online bazaar. Bilibili itself owns an e-store, but Taobao’s command of 700 million monthly users dwarfs its reach. 

“The partnership is great news for ACG content creators,” a Shanghai-based merchant that sells Lolita costumes on Taobao told TechCrunch, referring to the acrynom for “anime, comic and games.” The owner sells through both Taobao and Bilibili, though most sales have come from Taobao.

“We can now leverage Taobao’s gigantic platform and seasoned ecommerce operating capabilities to further help our content creators realize and improve their commercial values, thereby building a more virtuous content community and commercialization-focused ecosystem,” says Bilibili chief executive and chairman Chen Rui in a statement.

Screenshot: Taobao has a dedicated channel for anime, comic and gaming (ACG) items.

What Alibaba gets in return is access to China’s Generation Z. Bilibili claims that 82 percent of its users were born between 1990 and 2009. In a savvy move, Alibaba hooked up its food delivery unit Ele.me with Bilibili in December to tap a demographic of anime-watching and game-playing young people reliant on delivered meals.

Over 1.6 million content creators, including anime, comic and games (ACG) experts, were actively supporting the Taobao app and helping brands on our platform engage with consumers,” said Fan Jiang, vice president of Alibaba and president of Taobao, back in December. “Through deep cooperation with intellectual property holders and content creators, Taobao has experienced the great potential of ACG.”

Investors’ darling

Tencent and Baidu’s iQiyi have also spent big bucks to beef up their respective anime offering, but Bilibili’s flourishing youth community gives it an edge over these deep-pocketed video-streaming heavyweights and to an extent makes it an investors’ darling. The eight-year-old company is notable for being one of the rare companies that count both Alibaba and Tencent — which compete on multiple fronts spanning ecommerce to cloud computing — as their investors. Other companies that won backings from the duo include China’s largest ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing.

Last October, social media and gaming juggernaut Tencent poured nearly $320 million into Bilibili in exchange for a 12.3 percent stake. While Alibaba helps drive revenues to Bilibili’s community of creators and potentially boost their loyalty to the site, Tencent could help it save on licensing fees for games and animes.

“Tencent and Bilibili are two of the major players in the animation industry. By working with Tencent, this will intensively expand our content offering and effectively decrease our content investment in the animation copyright procurement,” Chen of Bilibili said during the company’s Q3 earnings call.

“The agreement will enable us to leverage Tencent’s primary content, particularly in licensing, co-producing and investment in anime as well as publish Tencent’s large portfolio of high-quality mobile games,” Bilibili’s chief financial officer Sam Fan added.

News Source = techcrunch.com

PayPal shutters Malaysia office as part of customer service reorg

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Payment giant PayPal has closed its office in Malaysia as part of a restructuring of its customer support teams.

The office, located in capital city Kuala Lumpur, was home to a team of customer service agents that catered to PayPal users across Asian region and beyond. Now, its responsibility will be assumed by other offices, which include locations in the Philippines, China and India.

A PayPal spokesperson explained to TechCrunch that the move is aimed at consolidating a range of different employees at PayPal offices to help blend a range of employees under the same roof. The closure of the office doesn’t impact the PayPal service in Malaysia.

PayPal confirmed the office will close this year in a statement. The company emphasized its efforts to transition affected staff into new jobs both inside PayPal and with other companies:

We have made the difficult decision to close PayPal’s Operations Centre in Malaysia by the end of this year. The work currently being delivered at our Operations Centre in Malaysia will gradually move to other locations. This internal reorganization does not affect our customers in Malaysia, who can continue to use our products and services as normal.

We regularly review our global site structure and staffing to ensure the support and services we provide at each site best meet the evolving demands of our customers. Our Operations Centre in Malaysia has done a remarkable job serving our customers since the site opened in 2011. However, this decision was made to align our investment in sites that are better equipped to support the future needs of our customers and our company.

Our priority now is to do everything we can to set up our employees for future success and we are fully committed to helping them as they transition to the next step in their careers. As well as offering comprehensive separation packages, we have built an on-site careers center to promote job opportunities and provide immediate assistance to employees.

PayPal was the first company to pioneer digital payments but it has fallen behind in Asia and other emerging markets as mobile payment players and messaging apps have stepped up.

WeChat, which offers integrated QR code payments, dominates China, while WhatsApp is experimenting with payments in India, its largest market with 200 million active users, in a move that may well expand to other markets including Southeast Asia, where it is widely used. Other challengers with digital payments include Line, which offers payments in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, and Alibaba’s Ant Financial, a major player in China that is making aggressive moves in Korea and Southeast Asia.

News of the Kuala Lumpur office closure was first reported by Malaysian media.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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