Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

Apple pushes Find My support for AirPods Pro to after iOS 15 launch

AirPods Pro and AirPods Max will not now get Find My support until an iOS 15 update “later this fall.”

“Use the Find My network to get an approximate location of your missing AirPods Pro or AirPods Max,” Apple continues to say on its iOS 15 feature page. “This will help you get within Bluetooth range so you can play a sound and locate them.”

However, the description now has a footnote, which says, “Coming later this fall.”

There are no further details, but it means that Find My AirPods Pro, AirPods Max support will not be included in the initial release of iOS 15.

'Ted Lasso' makes Emmy history with Outstanding Comedy Series win

Apple TV+ hit “Ted Lasso” has taken four Emmy Awards, and its best comedy series win is a first for a streaming service.

Following its previous 4 Creative Emmy wins, and “Ted Lasso” has won 4 of its record-breaking 20 nominations at the 73rd Television Academy Emmy Awards. They included Outstanding Comedy Series, which is a first for a show on any streaming service in only its second year of award eligibility.

Alongside the Outstanding Comedy Series win, Jason Sudeikis took the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein won Outstanding Supporting Actress and Actor in a comedy, respectively.

“I want to thank our incredible writing staff,” said star and co-writer Jason Sudeikis in his acceptance speech. ” I want to thank our incredible directors I want to thank my incredible cast, you know, that look, I’m only as good as you guys make me look and I you know and so really it means the world to me to be up here and just be a mirror of what you guys give to me and we reflect back and forth on each other.”

“Ted Lasso” co-creator Bill Laurence accepted the Outstanding Comedy Series award on behalf of the cast and crew.

“We’d like to thank Apple,” he said, “which is Zack, Jamie, Matt, Edie, T-Dog which is my new nickname for Tim Cook, he does not know that yet.”

During the after-show interviews, Jason Sudeikis was asked about a third season for “Ted Lasso,” and confirmed that Apple has now asked for an extended 12-episode series.

Amazon starts probe over bribe to gov’t officials by its lawyers in India, report says

Amazon has launched an investigation into the conduct of its legal representatives in India following a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged that one or more of the company’s reps had bribed government officials, Indian news and analysis outlet the Morning Context reported on Monday.

The company is investigating whether legal fees financed by it was used for bribing government officials, the report said, which cited unnamed sources and didn’t identify government officials. Amazon has placed Rahul Sundaram, a senior corporate counsel, on leave, the report (paywalled) added.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said the company has “zero tolerance” for corruption.

“We take allegations of improper actions seriously, investigate them fully, and take appropriate action. We are not commenting on specific allegations or the status of any investigation at this time,” the spokesperson added.

India is one of the key overseas markets for Amazon. The American e-commerce firm has invested over $6.5 billion in its South Asian nation’s operations and aggressively expanded to multiple categories in recent years.

The new development comes months after Reuters reported that Amazon had secretly favored big sellers, misrepresented its ties with those firms, and used such arrangements to circumvent the South Asian nation’s foreign investment rules.

Amazon is also subject of an ongoing antitrust investigation in India. The company made an unsuccessful attempt to appeal against the investigation.

FloBiz raises $31 million to scale its neobank for small businesses in India

FloBiz, an Indian startup that is building a neobank for small- and medium-sized businesses in the South Asian market, said on Monday it has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it works to broaden its product offerings.

Sequoia Capital India and Think Investments co-led the 18-month-old startup’s Series B financing round. Existing investors Elevation Capital and Beenext also participated in the round, which brings FloBiz‘s all-time raise to over $41 million.

The startup’s marquee offering — called myBillBook — helps small- and medium-sized businesses digitize their invoicing, streamline business accounting, and automate workflows of their enterprises.

India, the world’s second largest internet market, is home to millions of small- and medium-sized businesses. Scores of startups have launched neobanks in the country in recent years to focus on serve millennials or businesses.

“SME-focussed neobanks are building engagement with business- clients through their ability to provide solutions like automated invoicing, collections/payments, accounting, inventory and sales management, taxes and in some cases interest on current deposits as well (banks can’t pay interest). This may help to ramp- up and upfront their monetisation prospects,” analysts at Jefferies wrote in a report to clients last week.

myBillBook, which supports Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil as well as English, will add support for “at least” five more regional languages within the next six months, the startup said, adding that the app has been downloaded over 5 million times.

“The product will also see deeper use of technologies like AI & image processing to make the onboarding process for the less tech-savvy SMB owners in tier 2 and tier 3 cities of India a delightful first step to digital accounting,” the startup said.

Scores of high-profile entrepreneurs — including Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Kunal Shah of CRED, Jiten Gupta of Jupiter, Amrish Rau of Pine Labs, Krishnan Menon of BukuKas, and Nitin Gupta of Uni Cards — have also backed FloBiz in the new financing round.

“Small businesses are the real heroes of our economy. In order to power the SMB economy with technology, one needs deep understanding, instinct and empathy for this audience,” said Tejeshwi Sharma, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

“We are really impressed by the user centricity, product focus and experimentative approach of the FloBiz founders. There is almost a perfect founder market fit. The team is stoked to partner with FloBiz on their mission of building a neobank for the growing SMBs of India.”

Rahul Raj, co-founder and chief executive of FloBiz, said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to “accelerate projects which have been in the works up till now – building personalisable modules & features into myBillBook, diversifying core product offerings and preparing to roll out financial services. We have a slew of developments in the pipeline to further delight our SMB partners in the next 12 months.”

Xata is a database service for serverless apps

Meet Xata, a startup with a new take on managed databases. The company runs your database for you and turns it into an API so that you can query and update it from your serverless app. Xata has raised a $5 million funding round. Its product is not yet ready for prime time but the company is sharing details.

Xata seems particularly well suited for Jamstack websites. Jamstack has been a popular way of developing and deploying websites at scale. Popular Jamstack hosting platforms include Netlify, Vercel and Cloudflare Pages.

Applications are deployed on a global edge network and most of the logic is handled by API calls. The result is a website or an application that loads quickly and can handle a lot of traffic.

Deploying a Jamstack website is quite easy as it often integrates tightly with your Git repository. When you commit code changes, serverless platforms take care of deploying your application. Integrating with API-based developer tools is relatively effortless as well as you don’t manage the logic yourself.

For instance, deploying a website with static content and a Stripe checkout module doesn’t require a ton of effort — Stripe manages the payment servers for you. It gets a bit more complicated if you want to use a live database and interact with it. Traditional database software doesn’t rely on API calls across the internet to add a row, search through multiple rows and find data.

Xata is focusing on databases and want to make it easier to integrate a database with your serverless app. You don’t have to take care of the underlying infrastructure as Xata can scale the database for you. You don’t have to update software, move data to a new server, etc.

Your database is distributed across multiple data centers to improve response times and redundancy. It supports many data types including images. After that, interacting with the database works like any RESTful API out there.

The startup is also drawing some inspiration from popular no-code startups, such as Airtable. You can open your database in a web browser and interact with your data directly from there. For instance, you can filter the current view, sort data using a specific criteria and get the API query that you can use in your code.

If you store a lot of data in your database, you can search through your data using a free-text search feature. You can also leverage Xata for analytics by creating charts and visualizations.

The ability to interact with your data from a web browser is Xata’s competitive advantage. Many companies rely on Airtable as their first backend to prototype a new project. Xata could become a production-ready version of this Airtable-as-a-backend data management model.

The $5 million round was led by Index Ventures. Operator Collective, SV Angel, X-Factor and firstminute capital also participated. Some business angels, such as Shay Banon and Uri Boness from Elastic, Neha Narkhede from Confluent, Guillermo Rauch from Vercel, Elad Gil from Color Genomics and Christian Bach and Mathias Biilmann from Netlify also invested.

The startup was founded by Monica Sarbu, who used to be the Director of Engineering at Elastic. So she probably knows a thing or two about scaling databases.

Image Credits: Xata

India’s Cars24, a used-vehicle marketplace, raises $450M at a $1.84B valuation

The used car market is getting another major infusion of venture capital today, with one of the faster scaling startups out of India picking up a major round of financing to double down on growth: Cars24 — a site and app that sells users cars and used two-wheeled motorbikes — has raised $450 million, a Series F of $340 million and $110 million in debt. The investment values Cars24 at $1.84 billion post-money, the company said, making it one of the more valuable privately-held used car startups globally.

DST Global, Falcon Edge and SoftBank Vision Fund 2 co-led the Series F, with Tencent and existing investors Moore Strategic Ventures and Exor Seeds also participating. The debt round came from a mix of financial institutions. This fundraise, now confirmed and official, was rumored in past weeks, although at a smaller amount: it didn’t include the debt portion, and some reports were based on regulatory filings for less than the sum ultimately raised.

Vikram Chopra, the CEO who co-founded the company in Gurugram with Mehul Agrawal, Ruchit Agarwal and Gajendra Jangid, said that the plan will be to use the funds across a range of areas.

They include national and international expansion (it’s already operating in India, Australia and UAE, and has its eyes on more markets); technology (specifically areas like further expanding its virtual appraisal process, as well as more data science around pricing and other details related to sales and after-sales); and financing both to buy in vehicles, as well as to help consumers make purchasing a vehicle a viable economic option.

Cars24 is active in 130 cities in India, and it has sold 400,000 vehicles to date (both cars and motorbikes) with upwards of 13 million monthly visitors on its site. All this gives it claim to being the largest platform of its kind in India. But its ambition is to improve the inefficiencies of selling a car, or buying a used car, in many parts of the globe, not just its home market.

“Buying or selling a car is hard anywhere in the world,” Chopra said in an interview. “It’s just a broken experience everywhere, so we are trying to solve for this.”

This is also where the financing and technology figure significantly. When Cars24 first started out in 2015 in India, Chopra said, it faced the added issue (or opportunity?) of a tricky economic landscape with very low car ownership penetration overall — just 2%, or 2 cars per 100 people, compared to typically between 50 and 80 cars per 100 people in Europe.

“But buying a used car in India is a way for a person to own any car,” Chopra said. In a country like India, “we want to take the penetration to 10 or 15.” He added that the car resale market today in India is around $25 billion, but is on track to soon get to $100 billion.

Cars24 has been built around a “buying-in, fixing up, and then reselling” model similar to that of the real-estate juggernaut Opendoor: it appraises vehicles from individuals looking to sell them; buys them up if an agreed price can be reached; reconditions them; and then re-sells and delivers them to new owners. This model, Chopra said, gives Cars24 an edge over some of the shortcomings that exist with traditional players (both on and offline).

First, it provides a centralized platform, cars24.com and its corresponding app, where users can browse a one-stop-shop inventory that goes beyond their local areas (and local dealers). That inventory is curated and made discoverable using a number of algorithms, and pricing is also determined by Cars24’s technology.

“CARS24 is building a data-enabled tech platform that is organizing the fragmented used car market in India,” said Munish Varma, managing partner, SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We have been closely tracking its approach and efforts that have disrupted the used car retailing in India.”

“We believe CARS24 is enhancing the customer experience in the used car industry with its sharp focus on technology,” said Sumer Juneja, partner, SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We will continue to support this growth given our expertise in e-commerce businesses across markets”.

Second, when consumers do make a purchase, they can keep and try out a vehicle for up to seven days “and return it if you don’t like it.”

This, Chopra continued, is in contrast to other used-car sales sites, as well as physical dealers: either they don’t offer trial runs, or (in the case of physical dealers or individual offline sellers), they might give a driver 10 or 15 minutes tops, with someone attending you as you drive the vehicle around: not a great way to discover what you like or don’t like about a vehicle.

It’s also a model that investors believe will give Cars24 an edge over competitors.

“We have studied used car platforms globally and are struck by the similarities we see between CARS24 and analogous businesses that have scaled successfully,” said Navroz D. Udwadia, co-founder of Falcon Edge Capital, in a statement. “CARS24 has cemented its first-mover advantage by building wide-ranging supply side moats, which in turn drive demand liquidity on the platform. In positioning itself as a buying and selling solution for consumers, CARS24 drives immense top-of-mind recall. It is rare to find a business as focused on the consumer experience and as driven to ensure it is outstanding via the use of data science and technology. Finally, we are deeply impressed by the founders’ leadership, and are thrilled to back them as they transform the used car industry in India and scale internationally across MENA and SE Asia.”

A used-vehicle marketplace raising a huge amount of money is somewhat ironic given some of the bigger trends in the world of transportation.

Some have theorized that a wave of factors — they include the rise of ubiquitous e-hailing apps like Uber; on-demand car-sharing services like Getaround or Zipcar; a push in urban centers encouraging people to use a wider array of transportation options to offset traffic; and bigger environmental trends that are leading some to eschew gas guzzling autos — would push the world away from car ownership. Yet essentially, Cars24 (and others like it) are extending the life of a lot of older models to keep more vehicles in circulation and private hands.

But using Uber can get pricey and is not the same as having your own wheels, and the desire to have your own vehicle is perhaps at a high-point right now because of Covid-19 and people concerned about spreading or catching the virus, Chopra said.

“It’s definitely not the case in India that less people want to own cars,” he said. “During the pandemic, we have seen a lot of demand, in India specifically.” On new, greener vehicle technology, this is also interesting and will simply present another class of vehicles on Cars24 as adoption of electric vehicles increases, he added. But it’s not all quite there, yet.

The strength of the current opportunity is partly why it seems that we’ve found ourselves crowded with startups and scale-ups hoping to define the new generation of used-car-sale platforms.

Others in the same space that have recently raised money include close competitors like Spinny, also out of India; Cazoo in the UK, which has now gone public; InstaCarro out of Brazil; Kavak out of Mexico; and Carsome from Malaysia, among many others. Carvana, one of the biggest used-car platforms, is also publicly listed and is now valued at nearly $28 billion.

What has been interesting is that each of these big players have up to now carved out very strong markets for themselves in their home countries, and they are only more recently moving to expand internationally. Cars24 has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding (it also raised $200 million less than a year ago) in part because its investors think it has what it takes to export, and thus scale, its model beyond the huge market of India.

“CARS24 is at the forefront of transforming the way consumers buy and sell cars by providing a unique end-to-end digital shopping and transaction experience,” said Rahul Mehta, managing partner at DST Global, in a statement. “They have emerged as the undisputed leader in the used car space in India and early traction in international markets is exceeding expectations. We love backing founders who are bold and ambitious thinkers and couldn’t be more excited to enter the second innings of our long-lasting partnership with CARS24.”

Pakistan edtech startup Maqsad gets $2.1M pre-seed to make education more accessible

Taha Ahmed and Rooshan Aziz left their jobs in strategy consulting and investment banking in London earlier this year in order to found a mobile-only education platform startup, Maqsad, in Pakistan, with a goal “to make education more accessible to 100 million Pakistani students.”

Having grown up in Karachi, childhood friends Ahmed and Aziz are aware of the challenges about the Pakistani education system, which is notably worse for those not living in large urban areas (the nation’s student-teacher ratio is 44:1). Pakistani children are less likely to go to school for each kilometer of distance between school and their home — with girls being four times affected, Maqsad co-founder Aziz said.

Maqsad announced today its $2.1 million pre-seed round to enhance its content platform growth and invest in R&D.

The pre-seed round, which was completed in just three weeks via virtual meetings, was led by Indus Valley Capital, with participation from Alter Global, Fatima Gobi Ventures and several angel investors from Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe.

Maqsad will use the proceeds for developing in-house content, such as production studio, academics and animators, as well as bolstering R&D and engineering, Aziz told TechCrunch. The company will focus on the K-12 education in Pakistan, including 11th and 12th grade math, with plans to expand into other STEM subjects for the next one-two years, Aziz said.

Maqsad’s platform, which provides a one-stop shop for after-school academic content in a mix of English and Urdu, will be supplemented by quizzes and other gamified features that will come together to offer a personalized education to individuals. Its platform features include adaptive testing that alter a question’s level of difficulty depending on users’ responses, Aziz explained.

The word “maqsad” means purpose in Urdu.

“We believe everyone has a purpose. Maqsad’s mission is to enable Pakistani students to realize this purpose; whether you are a student from an urban centre, such as Lahore, or from a remote village in Sindh: Maqsad believes in equal opportunity for all,” Aziz said.

“We are building a mobile-first platform, given that 95% of broadband users in Pakistan are via mobile. Most other platforms are not mobile optimized,” Aziz added.

“It’s about more than just getting students to pass their exams. We want to start a revolution in the way Pakistani students learn, moving beyond rote memorization to a place of real comprehension,” said co-founder Taha Ahmed, who was a former strategy consultant at LEK.

The company ran small pilots in April and May and started full-scale operations on 26 July, Aziz said, adding that Maqsad will launch its mobile app, currently under development, in the coming months in Q4 2021 and has a waitlist for early access.

“Struggles of students during the early days of the pandemic motivated us to run a pilot. With promising initial traction and user feedback, the size of the opportunity to digitize the education sector became very clear,” Aziz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the education industry, heating up the global edtech startups that made online education more accessible for a wider population, for example in countries like India and Indonesia, Aziz mentioned.

The education market size in Pakistan is estimated at $12 billion and is projected to increase to $30 billion by 2030, according to Aziz.

It plans to build the company as a hybrid center offering online and offline courses like Byju’s and Aakash, and expand classes for adults such as MasterClass, the U.S.-based online classes for adults, as its long-term plans, Aziz said.

“Maqsad founders’ deep understanding of the problem, unique approach to solving it and passion for impact persuaded us quickly,” the founder and managing partner of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan, said.

“Pakistan’s edtech opportunity is one of the largest in the world and we are excited to back Maqsad in delivering tech-powered education that levels access, quality and across Pakistan’s youth and creates lasting social change,” Ali Mukhtar, general partner of Fatima Gobi Ventures said.

Get a refurbished Apple TV 4K for just $87.99

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iPhone 13 orders start shipping, but you probably won't get it until Friday

Some early pre-orders of the iPhone 13 range are being dispatched by Apple, but while the notifications that orders are on their way are being received by some customers, it doesn’t mean the iPhone will turn up before its September 24 street date.

Following after Friday’s opening of pre-orders for the iPhone 13, iPhone 13 mini, iPhone 13 Pro, and the iPhone 13 Pro Max, Apple has been inundated with orders for its newest smartphone line. Customers keen to get their hands on the new models are now starting to see notifications that their order has “shipped” to them.

Customers checking the status of their order through the App Store app may see that the iPhone has gone past Processing and Preparing to Ship, and is now residing at the stage of Shipped. In some cases, customers have posted to social media about their orders being on the way.

For some users, they may see their iPhone is set to arrive on September 23, one day before the official date of availability for the iPhone 13 collection.

Despite indications of getting the iPhone early according to Apple’s own tracking, the vast majority of users will not get their orders until Friday.

As seen in previous product launches, Apple works with delivery partners to try and maintain the set release date for its hardware. As such, the deliveries seemingly arriving on September 23 will turn up on September 24, as Apple intends.

Despite such efforts, occasionally some orders will slip through and be delivered early, but such situations are quite rare.

As for customers placing orders later in the weekend, the chance of their iPhone turning up on time is starting to get smaller. On Friday, just an hour after beginning, preorders in the United States started to see the iPhone 13 Pro Max shipping into October.

An AppleInsider check of the U.S. online Apple Store on Sunday shows many model and color combinations have similarly seen deliveries heading into October.