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April 21, 2019
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HipChat founders launch Swoot, a social podcast app

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Pete Curley and Garret Heaton, who previously co-founded team chat app HipChat and sold it to Atlassian, are officially launching their new product Swoot today. The app makes it easy for users to recommend podcasts and see what their friends are listening to.

This might seem like a big leap from selling enterprise software — and indeed, Curley said the company was initially focused on creating another set of team collaboration tools.

What they realized, however, was that HipChat is “actually a consumer product that the company just happens to pay for, because the employees demand it” — and he said they weren’t terribly interested in trying to build a business around a more traditional “top-down sales process.”

Meanwhile, Curley said he’d injured his back while lowering one of his children into a crib, which meant that for months, his only form of exercise was walking. He recalled walking around for hours each day and, for the first time, keeping himself entertained by listening to podcasts.

“I was actually way behind the times,” he said. “I didn’t know this, that everyone else was listening to them … This is like the dark web of content.”

The startup has already raised a $3 million seed funding round led by True Ventures .

“Pete and Garret both have incredible product and entrepreneurial experience, plus they have built successful businesses together in the past,” said True Ventures co-founder Jon Callaghan in a statement. “Their focus of solving the disjointed podcast listening experience through Swoot’s elegant design fills a clear gap in media discovery.”

Discovery — namely, finding new podcasts beyond the handful that you already subscribe to — is one of the biggest issues in podcasting right now. It’s something a number of companies are trying to solve, but in Curley’s view, the key is to make the listening experience more social.

He noted that social sharing features are getting added to “literally everything,” including your bathroom scale, except “the one thing that I actually wanted it for.”

Curley also contrasted the podcast listening experience with YouTube: “We don’t realize how big [podcasting] is because there is no social thing where you see that Gangnam Style has 8 billion views, and you realize that the entire world is watching. There’s no view count, no anything that tells you what’s popular.”

So he’s trying to provide that view with Swoot. Instead of focusing on overall listen counts (which might not be that impressive in a new app), Swoot gives you two main ways to track what’s popular among your friends.

Swoot Screenshot 2

There’s a feed that shows you everything that your friends are listening to or recommending, plus a list of episodes that are currently trending, with little icons showing you the friends who have listened to at least 20 percent of an episode.

Curley said the team has been beta testing the app by simply releasing it on the App Store and telling friends about it, then letting it spread by word of mouth until it was in the hands of around 1,000 users. During that test, it found that 25 percent of the podcasts that users listened to were coming from friends.

Curley also noted that this approach is “episode-centric” and rather than “show-centric.” In other words, it’s not just helping you find the next podcast that you want to subscribe to and listen to for years — it also helps surface the specific episode that everyone’s listening to right now.

“In the 700,000 shows that exist, if you’re the 690,000 worst-ranked show, but you have one great episode that should be able to go viral, that’s basically impossible to do right now, because audio is crazy hard to share,” Curley said.

In the course of our conversation, I brought up my experience with Spotify — I like knowing what’s popular, but when a friend recently mentioned specific songs that they could see I’d been listening to on the service, I was a bit creeped out.

“It’s funny, I actually thought, how ironic that Spotify is getting into podcasting now [through the acquisitions of Gimlet and Anchor],” Curley replied. “They actually had this correct mechanism applied to the wrong thing. Music is a deeply personal thing.”

Which isn’t to say that podcast listening isn’t personal, but there’s more of an opportunity to discover overlapping interests, say the fact that you and your friends all listen to true crime podcasts.

Curley also said that the app is deliberately designed to ensure that “the service does not get worse because a ton of people follow you” — so they see what you are listen to, but they can’t comment on it or tell you that you’re an idiot for listening.

At the same time, he also said the team will be adding a mode to only share podcasts you actively recommend, rather than posting everything you listen to.

As for making money, Curley suggested that he’s interested in exploring a variety of possibilities, whether that’s integrating with other subscription or tipping services, or in creating ad opportunities around promoting podcasts.

“My actual answer is, there are a bunch of people trying to monetize right now, but I don’t think there’s a platform even close to mature enough to even try to monetize podcasting yet, other than podcasters doing their own advertising,” he said. “I think the endgame, where the real money is made in podcasting, actually hasn’t been come up with yet.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Co-Star raises $5 million to bring its astrology app to Android

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Nothing scales like a horoscope.

If you haven’t heard of Co-Star, you might just be in the wrong circles. In some social scenes it’s pretty much ubiquitous. Wherever conversations regularly kick off by comparing astrological charts, it’s useful to have that info at hand. The trend is so notable that the app even got a shout out in a New York Times piece on VCs flocking to astrology startups.

This week, the company behind probably the hottest iOS astrology app announced that it has raised a $5.2 million seed round. Maveron, Aspect, 14w and Female Founder Fund all participated in the round, which follows $750,000 in prior pre-seed funding. The company plans to use the funding to craft an Android companion to its iOS-only app, grow its team and “build features that encourage new ways get closer, new ways to take care of ourselves, and new ways to grow.”

TechCrunch spoke with Banu Guler, the CEO and co-founder of Co-Star about what it was like talking to potential investors to drum up money for an idea that Silicon Valley’s elite echo chambers might find unconventional.

“We certainly talked to some who were dismissive,” Guler told TechCrunch in an email. “But the reality is that interest in astrology is skyrocketing… It was all about finding the right investors who see the value in astrology and the potential for growth.”

“There are people out there who think astrology is silly or unserious. But in our experience, the number of people who find value and meaning in astrology is far greater than the number of people who are turned off by it.”

If you’ve ever used a traditional astrology app or website to look up your birth chart — that is, to determine the positions of the planets on the day and time you were born — then you’ve probably noticed how most of those services share more in common with ancient Geocities sites than they do with bright, modern apps. In contrast, Co-Star’s app is clean and artful, with encyclopedia-like illustrations and a simple layout. It’s not something with an infinite scroll you’ll get lost in, but it’s pleasant to dip into Co-Star, check your algorithmically-generated horoscope and see what your passive aggressive ex’s rising sign is.

In a world still obsessed with the long-debunked Meyers-Briggs test, you can think of astrology as a kind of cosmic organizational psychology, but one more interested in peoples’ emotional realities than their modus operandi in the workplace. For many young people — and queer people, from personal experience — astrology is a thoroughly playful way to take stock of life. Instead of directly predicting future events (good luck with that), it’s is more commonly used as a way to evaluate relationships, events and anything else. If astrology memes on Instagram are any indication, there’s a whole cohort of people using astrology as a framework for talking about their emotional lives. That search for authenticity — and no doubt the proliferation of truly inspired viral content — is likely fueling the astrology boom. 

“By positioning human experience against a backdrop of a vast universe, Co–Star creates a shortcut to real talk in a sea of small talk: a way to talk about who we are and how we relate to each other,” the company wrote in its funding announcement. “It doesn’t reduce complexity. It doesn’t judge. It understands.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Proof of Capital is a new $50M blockchain fund that’s backed by HTC

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It’s often said that the dramatic fall of crypto prices last year ushered in a new era for technology-focused startups in the blockchain space, and the same argument can be made for the venture capitalists who fund them. Proof of Capital is the latest fund to emerge after it officially announced a maiden $50 million fund today.

The fund is led by trio Phil Chen, who created HTC’s Vive VR headset and is currently developing its Exodus blockchain phone (he spent time as a VC with Horizons Ventures in between), Edith Yeung, who previously headed up mobile for 500 Startups, and Chris McCann, a Thiel Fellow whose last role was head of community for U.S. VC firm Greylock Partners.

The firm — and you have to give them credit for the name — has an LP base that is anchored by HTC — no big surprise there given the connections — alongside YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics, Ripple’s former chief risk officer Greg Kidd (who is also a prolific crypto investor) and a number of undisclosed family offices.

“For HTC, it’s obvious, they already have a product to go with it,” Yeung told TechCrunch in an interview, referencing the fact that HTC is keen to invest in blockchain services and startups to build an ecosystem for its play.

The fund also includes a partnership with HTC which, slightly hazy on paper, will essentially open the possibility for Proof of Capital portfolio companies to work with HTC directly to develop services or products for Exodus and potentially other HTC blockchain ventures. But other LPs are also keen to dip their toes in the water in different ways.

“Some of these backers are curious at the possibilities of blockchain,” continued Yeung. “For example, they’re giving us some ideas on how tokenization and gamification could be applied on different platforms.”

Proof of Capital founding partners (left to right) Edith Yeung, Chris McCann and Phil Chen

The fund itself is broadly targeted at early stage blockchain companies in fintech, infrastructure, hardware and the “consumer layers of the blockchain ecosystem.” Its remit is worldwide. Although Chen and Yeung have strong networks in Asia, the fund’s first deal is an investment in Latin America-based blockchain fintech startup Ubanx.

Yeung clarified that the fund is held in fiat currency and that it is focused on regular VC deals, as opposed to token-based investments.

“It’s a VC fund so the setup is traditional,” she explained. “There’s been a lot of interesting movements in the last two years, [but] we come from a more traditional VC background and are excited about the technology.”

“It’s still really early [for blockchain] and a lot of the hype — the boom and bust — is down to the crypto market and ICOs, but the reality is that a lot of these technologies are really nascent. Now, projects are raising equity, even if they have a token,” Yeung added.

Indeed, last year we wrote about the rise of private sales and that even the biggest blockchain companies took on VC fundingcrypto didn’t kill VCs despite the hype — and Yeung said that blockchain startup founders in 2019 are “taking a more concerted approach” to raising money beyond simply issuing tokens.

“Many projects that raised ICO really smelt like equity,” said Yeung. “We are seeing companies today delaying token issuance as much as possible; the whole thing has gone a little more back to earth.”

HTC is an anchor LP in Proof of Capital, and it is working with the fund to help its portfolio companies develop services for its Exodus blockchain phone, pictured above

News Source = techcrunch.com

Airbase launches with $7M Series A to simplify spending control systems

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Airbase is a startup with a plan to change the way you think about accounting around spending. Instead of multiple workflows, it wants to create a simpler one involving, well, Airbase. It’s a bold move for any startup to take on something as entrenched as financials, but it’s giving it a shot, and today the company launched with a $7 million Series A investment.

First Round Capital was lead investor. Maynard Webb, Village Global, BoxGroup and Quiet Capital also participated. The deal closed at the end of November last year. This is the first external funding for the company, which company founder and CEO, Thejo Kote had bootstrapped previously with $300,000 of his own money.

“At a high level, Airbase is the first all-in-one spend management system. It replaces a number of different systems that companies use to manage how they spend money,” Kote told TechCrunch.

He knows of what he speaks. Prior to starting this company, Kote co-founded Automatic, a startup that he sold to SiriusXM for more than $100 million in 2017. As a founder, he saw just how difficult it was to track the vast variety of spending inside a company from supplies to subscriptions to food and drink.

“Think about the hundreds of things that companies spend money on, and the way in which the management of that happens is a pretty broken process today,” he said. For starters, it usually involves some sort of approval request in a tool like Slack, Jira or Google forms.

Once approved, the person requesting the expense will put that on a company credit card, then have to submit expense reports at the end of each month using a tool like Expensify. If you purchase from vendor, then that involves an invoice and that has to be processed and paid. Finally it would need to be reconciled and accounted for in accounting software. Each step of this process ends up being time-consuming and costly for an organization.

Kote’s idea was to take this process and streamline it by removing the friction, which he saw as being related to the disparate systems in place to get the work done. He believed by creating a single workflow on a unified, single platform he could create a smoother system for everyone involved.

He is putting that single system in between the bank and the accounting system including a virtual Airbase Visa card to take the place of physical cards. Request for spending happens inside Airbase instead of an external tool. When the virtual card gets charged, bookkeeping and reconciliation gets handled in Airbase and pushed to your accounting package of choice.

Airbase workflow. Diagram: Airbase

This could be a difficult proposition for companies with existing systems in place, but could be attractive to startups and small companies whose accounting systems have not yet hardened. Perhaps that’s why most of Airbase’s customers are startups or SMBs with between 500 and 5000 employees, such as Gusto, Netlify and Segment.

Bill Trenchard, General Partner at lead investor First Round Capital says he has seen very little innovation in this space and that’s what drew him to Airbase. “Airbase has taken a bold step forward to create an entirely new paradigm. It delivers a real solution to the biggest problems finance teams face as their companies grow,” Trenchard said in a statement.

The company was founded in 2017 and has 22 employees today. It has a sales office in San Francisco, but other employees are spread across four countries.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Ro, a direct-to-consumer online pharmacy, reaches $500M valuation

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Venture capitalists have valued direct-to-consumer telehealth business Ro at $500 million with an $85 million Series B financing, sources confirm to TechCrunch.

The fresh round of funding comes seven months after Ro — widely known for its men’s health brand Roman, a cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction — made headlines with an $88 million Series A. 

Ro didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company’s outsized Series A, led by FirstMark Capital, was used to launch and scale its second digital health brand, “Zero,” a treatment plan meant to help men and women quit smoking. Zero sells a $129 kit complete with a month’s worth of prescription cessation medication Bupropion, nicotine gum and access to an app used to track progress.

Its latest infusion of capital will likely be used in part to support its third personalized health brand, Rory, a purveyor of women’s health products the business unveiled last month. Targeting menopausal women, Rory offers six products treating four conditions — including prescription medication and supplements for hot flashes, over-the-counter treatments for insomnia, prescription vaginal estrogen cream and an all-natural water-based lubricant for vaginal dryness and Latisse, which helps grow eyelashes — which are available for purchase and direct-to-consumer delivery.

“Right now, we have [millions] of women experiencing menopause,” Rory co-founder Rachel Blank told TechCrunch last month. “They are walking around and frankly, their vagina hurts and they are uncomfortable. Really, what we are building at Rory is a lot of the educational content around this to let women know they have choices and they can take control during this phase of life where they feel like their bodies are rebelling against them.”

When asked whether Ro was fundraising to bolster the new effort, Blank, a former investor at Ro-backer General Catalyst, declined to comment. Curiously, a source with knowledge of Ro’s fundraising said there was no mention of the imminent launch of its women’s brand, Rory, in its pitch to VCs earlier this year.

Ro was started by a trio of entrepreneurs: Rob Schutz, Saman Rahmanian and chief executive officer Zachariah Reitano in 2017. Reitano had previously co-founded a Y Combinator -backed startup called Shout, Rahmanian is a co-founder of the WeWork-acquired business Managed by Q, and Schutz worked as the vice president of growth for Bark&Co before building Ro.

The startup initially launched under the name Roman, which became its flagship brand when the business adopted the umbrella name Ro last year. Roman offers men a $15 online doctor’s consultation, which, if they are an appropriate candidate, gives them access to an instant prescription for Viagra, Cialis or generic drugs that can be filled at Roman’s in-house cloud pharmacy.

In a 2017 interview with TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, Reitano said he began experiencing ED at 17-years-old: “I think in a good way I’ve become numb to the embarrassment,” he said. “I remember the embarrassment of having the condition with no solution, and that’s much worse than sharing the fact that I had it and was able to fix it myself.”

Ro has previously raised $91.1 million in venture capital funding, hitting a valuation of $154 million with its Series A, according to PitchBook. Its investors include Initialized Capital, Box Group and Slow Ventures, as well as angels like Y Combinator partner Aaron Harris, Benchmark’s Scott Belsky and the chief executives of Casper, Code Academy and Pill Pack.

Founded just two years ago, Ro was amongst the first of a new cohort of men’s health businesses supported by VCs. Hims, one of the leading brands in the space, has similarly landed big rounds of capital from top-tier investors. Most recently, Hims brought in $100 million at a $1 billion valuation from an undisclosed growth-stage fund.

Several other companies, including Numan, Manual and Thirty Madison, have raised capital to support men with hair loss treatments and ED medications delivered to discreetly their doorsteps, among other products.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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